Mumbai, as we know, is a cosmopolitan city. Gujaratis comprise a rather large section, with some pockets of Mumbai characterised by a sizeable presence of Gujaratis. A major part of my childhood was spent in a locality with many Gujarati families.
I continue to be amazed by their entrepreneurial spirit and a strong value system. Many people consider Gujaratis to be shrewd in their approach but one thing that cannot be denied is that the Gujaratis are a very cohesive community. They have the ability to endear themselves to others and have superlative persuasion skills.
My home was close to a Jain temple and it was remarkable to see many of our neighbours visiting the temple early in the morning in traditional clothes, carrying a a small metal box. In the evenings, women would spend time telling stories to children or playing indoor games. As an outsider, I never ever had an opportunity to enter the precincts of the Jain temple, though it was a landmark to find our house. Whenever a relative got lost we just had to rattle off the directions, adding, “It is the fourth building from the Jain temple”. Occasionally the aroma of puris and shrikhand would waft in the air when I rushed to college in the morning.
I am extremely fond of Gujarati dishes like thepla, papdi, dhokla, and undhiyo and I attribute this to the inherent bond that I developed with the Gujarati community right from my childhood. Some of the Gujarati dishes are calorie rich and I feel that when it comes to matters of food, the Gujaratis are the gourmets of Western India, like Punjabis in the North.
I think one has to appreciate the way Gujaratis maintain their home. I have visited the homes of a few people in the neighbourhood – though with different purposes though. A cup of adrak (ginger) tea was almost guaranteed in every home. Their hospitality is legendary. Many families lived in one-room tenements, but the way they maintained their homes was amazing. Everything would be so neatly stacked and arranged.
My mother used to send me for errands like buying homemade pickle or papads from a woman in our neighbourhood. Whenever I visited the house of the woman who used to sell them, I was dumbstruck with the impeccable manner in which things were laid out even though the area was so small.
Let me add here that I was often pained by the lower prices shopkeepers paid to these women who supplied them with snacks like dhokla, kachori, and thepla while charging a premium from consumers for selling the same items.
Many of the lower middle class Gujarati women supplemented their family income by making homemade pickles, theplas and papads and their hard work is worthy of emulation. Some of these women sold milk in the mornings while some assisted their husbands who were tailors.
Some of these women also sold sarees at reasonable prices. There were women who used to fill in for their baniya husbands when the latter had to go sourcing merchandise for the kirana store. It is admirable that despite having minimal education, these women realised the need to be financially independent.
The mention of Lijjat Papad evokes memories of many empowered Gujarati women. Movies like Shyam Benegal’s Manthan (1976) and Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala (1987) portrayed Gujarati women who were strong and independent – intrepid and rich in character.
Today many of these women from the middle class also double up as beauticians. Come summer and these women were always busy drying papads, preparing mango pickles and homemade masalas. Navratri festival was celebrated with gusto in our locality and the garba dance was a treat to watch.
Now it is a different story. There was a time when the songs that played out during garba were immortal songs like – “Main toh arti utaroon re santoshi mata ki” (Jai Santoshi Maa, 1975) or “Main toh bhool gayi babul ka des” (Saraswatichandra, 1968). In fact, Saraswatichandra was based on a Gujarati novel and was regularly telecast in Mumbai Doordarshan.
Once things like ‘disco dandiya’ started gaining attention and traction, melody took a back seat. Today the less said about the songs played out during garba or dandiya the better. Readers may recall that the movie “Kai Po Che” (2013) (based on a novel by the prolific Chetan Bhagat) revealed the dark side of the Navratri festival.
Two qualities of Gujaratis deserve mention here. If you develop a bond with them, they will respect the bond all their lives. Secondly, Gujaratis are persevering and demonstrate a never-say-die attitude and undying optimism. Let me recount a real life instance from the mid-70s.
in those days, we lived in a one-room tenement that faced an industrial colony. As a child, I was a keen observer. There were railings in the balcony. It is funny to recount how my father installed a grill on the balcony.
One morning my father was leaving for his office, located in Apeejay House. This meant an arduous train journey lasting more than an hour, followed by a walk of close to 20 minutes to reach office. He saw me waving to him from the balcony. The balcony had no grill. My father was alarmed. He returned home immediately and applied for half-day’s leave so that he could contact the fabricator. By evening, the grill was fixed.
The balcony had an opening at the floor level with railings on it. For a child of 5-6 years, it was possible to sit on the railings and observe the world outside (in this case, it was the industrial colony opposite our home). I would merrily dangle my legs outside the grill. It was a blessing for my mother as she could concentrate on the kitchen.
I attribute my modest creative abilities to this childhood experience of mine – something that children today are deprived of. There were no gadgets or smart phones or video games then. A swing that my father had purchased was a luxury for us and that was something that I loved as a child.
We lived on the second floor and diagonally opposite our flat was a Gujarati family that lived on the first floor of the industrial colony. The family comprised the husband, wife, two daughters and a son who was polio stricken. It was a perfect family picture - save for the fact that the son (may be 3-4 years) was handicapped.
I have vivid memories of discreetly watching how both the mother and father took turns to caress the child and massage his legs with oil. This was a regular affair for a few years and I remember seeing the couple along with their daughters and son going for an evening walk after the husband returned from office. The couple would carry the son in their arms. The couple made a lovely pair and their images are still etched in my memory. The camaraderie between them was amazing.
After we shifted to a new place in 1976, I lost track of this Gujarati family. I believe that they too shifted to their own pad. The industrial colonies then did not have a toilet within the home. Families had to share common toilets housed on every floor. I did hear from some of my friends who lived in these colonies that families took special efforts to maintain them and keep them spic and span.
I was delighted to get a fleeting appearance of this couple in 1980. The son had grown up and was also able to walk on his own. It was a real miracle and I recall coming home and excitedly telling my mother that I had seen them and that the son had recovered from his ailment. I was so glad that the son had got cured! I can only imagine the anxiety that the parents would have faced; yet it is remarkable that they took some action rather than simply brood over the problem.
Today many of these colonies and older buildings have vanished, thanks to the redevelopment spree that has gripped Mumbai in the last few years. But the memories can never fade away. I visited Ahmedabad for an official visit in 2010 and I could see that the city was no different from Mumbai. It felt like home. The culture was so familiar.
For five years, I lived in Mulund West (the most happening suburb in Mumbai today), a predominantly Gujarati locality, in a building that housed many Gujarati families. The way they celebrated Holi, Diwali, Navratri and New Year together deserves special mention.
Neighbours behaved like one big family. Women used to organise Gayatri mantra chanting sessions. I remember the occasions when the women used to celebrate Jalaram Bappa Day to commemorate the saint’s birthday. My impression about Gujaratis got reinforced during these five years that I lived amidst them. I found them so enterprising on all counts. They are definitely a gregarious lot.
A neighbourhood kirana store that I used to frequent suddenly sold a portion of their shop. This happened in the ‘90’s when I had begun working. When I asked him the reason, the shop owner replied, “My son wanted to pursue further studies in the US. I had to fund his higher education. There was no other option”.
There are several such examples that I can narrate when many of these shopkeepers who were managing the ‘mom-and-pop’ stores or kirana stores were particular about educating their children. Some of them became chartered accountants, engineers and doctors. But there is a distinct change in the trend today.
Earlier – especially during the ‘70s and ‘80s – it was a common practice in Gujarati families to get the daughters married off passing out from school. But today many Gujarati families are realising the need for educating their daughters too and marriage is considered only after the daughters secure a job or after they complete their higher education.
Way back in the ‘80s, when satellite television had not entered our dining rooms and Doordarshan reigned supreme, it was not uncommon to watch Gujarati families going for a leisurely dinner after watching the Sunday evening Hindi movie telecast on Doordarshan. The neighbouring Ratna and Sadguru restaurants served delectable fares that would be lapped by these families.
My father’s friend who ran a ration shop in our neighbourhood used to often remark, “What are we earning for? We need to spend too as we have to enjoy life”. His statement is characteristic of a Gujarati family’s value system and philosophy about living a well lived life.
Even now, if you visit Mumbai and happen to walk on the streets where there are Gujarati households, you cannot miss the energy and enthusiasm with which these women do their chores – whether it is washing clothes and drying them, buying milk in the morning, cooking, haggling with the vegetable sellers or gossiping with neighbours.
What cannot be denied is that business is in their blood.
(Venkatesh Ganapathy is at present pursuing his doctoral research in supply chain management from Alliance University, Bangalore. He is a freelance writer and an avid blogger. In this column, he shares the memories of his childhood in the ‘70s.)