Indian Society/Culture, Writing

The Revenge of the Vegetarian!

The image of the Gujarati within the country has undergone a sea change

As a Gujarati growing up in Delhi, one didn’t really feel any weight that an outsider usually feels in a setting removed from home. For being a Gujarati was seen to be a harmless affectation; a declaration that one was not from North India, but was also not from anywhere else, in a manner of speaking. No definite image or stereotype came to mind when it came to the Gujarati; barring some occasional jokes about Morarji Desai’s choice of beverage and the odd ditty like soochhe-saru-chhe-dandale-ke-maru-chhe, the origins of which are shrouded in mystery, coming from Gujarat did not mean too much. Unlike, say, coming from the South, whereupon one immediately became a Madrasi or coming from Bengal, which had its own share of familiar cultural artefacts (rosogulla, fish and the local Durga puja, which was a tourist attraction of sorts). Even Navaratri was a quiet huddle of music and dance, watched with bemusement by locals, its timid alienness forgiven without too much thought. Being Gujarati was a passport to anonymity; one didn’t look too different nor spoke Hindi badly enough to be marked out as a complete outsider, nor did one impose oneself on one’s surroundings with any discernible force. While my own experience came from being in Delhi, relatives spread across the country had similar things to report; a Gujarati might belong only to Gujarat but did not seem either stand out or appear out of place anywhere in the world.

In some respects, things certainly have changed in the last few decades. While the Gujarati ability to become comfortable in any context while retaining an unmistakable connection with its cultural roots remains intact, the image of the Gujarati within the country has undergone a sea change. From being seen as a somewhat self-effacing, gentle lot, charming but without too much personality, the Gujarati is now imbued with a vivid personality, its own stereotype that gets peddled in popular culture. From a time when Gujarati characters were extremely rare in films or on television, we now find it difficult to escape them, with television in particular having almost created a Gujarati-soap/sit-com sub-genre, full of loud laughter and formidable matriarchs. Navratri too has become something of a national spectacle with psychedelic costumes and amped-up dandiya beats, inundating all who wish to participate with a sense of drenching oneness.

The imagined Gujarati is also becoming a stock character on our screens, something which was the domain of the imagined Punjabi so far. The Punjabi on screen was all about openhearted masculine energy, manifest in both physical aggression and emotional melodrama. A pronounced physicality, exaggerated masculine enactment, shirts with buttons open, puffed hair, ‘heroic’ posturing while singing songs or fighting villains, someone quick with both fists and tear ducts. The imagined Gujarati of today bears on the face of it, striking similarities to this depiction of his North Indian counterpart but there is a significant difference. The Gujarati on screen engages with the world not through the body but through the senses. The Gujarati focuses on the sensorial enjoyment of life — that is, to use the word in its colloquial sense, vegetarian in character. The idea of sensual vegetarianism, that full-throated extraction of pleasure from what is immediately available in one’s surroundings, without seeing the world as a zero-sum game, is perhaps a defining characteristic of the Gujarati today. If conceptually, the idea of vegetarianism in its earlier avatar represented qualities of meekness and self-restraint, this re-invention modifies the image very substantially. The violence inherent in the idea of the non-vegetarian, both in terms of how it is made and how it is consumed, is traded for savouring the best part of what life has to offer. The focus is on taste rather than strength, the pleasure comes not from abrasion or hierarchy, but from juicing the present of all its savoury fullness. Sensual vegetarianism makes consumption legitimate and having done so, engages in it with gusto. This is of course combined with the great need to find value in everything, including the highest form of pleasure.

In some ways, the Gujarati of today reconciles many themes that run through the India of today-a great comfort with one’s way of life, an ability to extract pleasure from all aspects of life, both big and small, locating these pleasures in the site of a close-knit but large family, enjoying material pleasures with heartiness without putting them above human relationships, and working hard when required without letting work define the individual and her life. The willingness to live in the present, while enjoying the fruits of one’s industriousness and without excessive greed or complaint, makes the Gujarati engagement with the material a positive one; money acts as a spur but its absence does not automatically translate into unhappiness. The absence of visible social hierarchy makes the pursuit of ‘more’ free of that added edge of competitiveness and lends an air of easy pragmatism that thinks of development as a natural human condition.

If there’s a cloud on the horizon, it is in an emerging sense of smugness that threatens to place the Gujarati in opposition to the rest of the country. The ‘Gujarat is special’ litany strikes at the heart of the easy acceptance of the world that has been a hallmark of being Gujarati. The Gujarati’s great gift has been to find a way to move purposefully ahead while eschewing overt aggression. By seeing the world not as a threat to be overcome but as an ally that can be cajoled into partnership, conflicts have been evaded rather than won. This has always been the Gujarati’s great strength; one hopes that in all the progress that is made, this characteristic is not lost.



TOI Ahmedabad, August 15, 2012