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Unflinching Faith in Tradition

How would we describe the people of Gujarat who exhibit such adaptability and energy, such unbounded enthusiasm for material progress without sacrificing their traditional identity or essential simplicity? Wherever you find one, a Gujarati adheres to certain principles and practices and the traits which characterizes the community reveal a deep-rooted sense of belonging.

Through conversations with Gujaratis, one was able to sketch a portrait of the typical person from this thriving province.

“Being situated on the west coast of India, Gujaratis have been trading with prosperous nations like Egypt and Mesopotamia since centuries,” said Vibhuti Behn, who spoke to us in her elegant home, furnished entirely in carved Gujarati furniture with brass inlay work. “The Gujarati is a born traveler. Even in the remotest corner of the Amazon forests in Brazil, we found our brethren” she said with a glimmer of amusement.

“I am certain Gujarat is the largest earner of foreign exchange from expatriates” says Chandralekha, whose husband has settled down in Baroda (now Vadodara) after living in major cities of India, in order to start his own concern. An entrepreneur above all, the Gujarati merchant’s word can always be trusted, a sterling quality which has assured him with status and wealth.

“How do they choose to invest?” I wonder aloud, and soon comes the answer, “Diamonds”. While gold ornaments are the traditional favourite in India, here the women find that diamonds are their best friends.

“Do women enjoy a position of authority in the average home?”

“Certainly”, assures Vibhuti Behn. “They are very good managers of their homes and meticulous housekeepers. The women are outwardly mostly traditional in their outlook, wearing Indian clothes, keeping their hair long, and maintaining the age-old customs which are handed down from one generation to the next. A few modern young girls may have gone out and done their M.B.A.s and set up their own companies, but for the most part, homemaking occupies them fully.

Chandralekha, who is herself not a Gujarati, tells one that an unusual practise is for the housewife to purchase a whole year’s supply of food grain, oil and spices soon after the harvest, to ensure an entire year’s supply. The days succeeding this are devoted to the cleaning and sunning of the grains and spices, storage and preservation. The last year’s rice is consumed first, so that the Basmati rice just bought has time to ‘age’, as old rice has a better fragrance than the newly-harvested one. Later in the year, best quality products might no longer be readily available, so it is best to store away when Mother Nature has just been so generous, which seems like an eminently sound policy for home management.

Conservative by nature, the Gujarati family unit is held together by prayer and religious practices. This is very noticeable when a visitor spends any length of time in a Gujarati home. Apart from the Hindus, Gujarat is home to a large Muslim community and also to the Jains. Regular prayers and fasts on auspicious days by both men and women is practised till today. The working people adhere to a rule of taking a break from work on the ‘Amavasya’ or no moon day, when special prayers are performed. Chandralekha notes that even fresh vegetables can be hard to procure on such a day, so strictly is custom maintained.

Faith in the practice of their forefathers and faith in the values of the soil: These sustain the common man in Gujarat.

“While we were constructing our house in Baroda, we noticed how different the workers were”, remarked chandralekha. “Once the rains came, they all headed home for their villages, to complete their agricultural obligations, and nothing could persuade them to stay.”

“The farming community possesses self-esteem in Gujarat as there has never been a zamindari or feudal system here,” Vibhuti Behn informs me. The fact of himself owning his and makes it possible to have a sense of equality with the highest bureaucrat. Hence the all-pervasive address one hears in Gujarat of “Bhai” or brother, and “Behn” or sister, while addressing each other, which is a sign of deference as well as close informality. The late Mr. B.K. Nehru, when he was Governor of Gujarat, was pleasantly surprised on his first visit there to be addressed simply as “Vijju Bhai” by his staff members. He then realized that subservience is not a trait he would meet in this state. Soft-spoken and modest, the typical resident of Gujarat is reinforced with steel.

The unique influence of Mahatma Gandhi cannot be fully evaluated although he has doubtless left his mark on his fellow Gujaratis. Thanks to his example, women achieved equal status with men here. Their preferences have great importance and impact on society. The fact of prohibition in the State of Gujarat is, on the whole, acclaimed by the women, who were the worst sufferers of the abuse of alcohol.

In a Gujarati home, alcohol and non-vegetarian food are taboo, pulses, vegetables, fruit and spices are the only food items consumed at any meal. Ice-cream is a great favourite amongst milk-products, although the exceedingly popular drink, chass or lassi (liquidized you hurt) accompanies every meal and replaces water. The Jain community adhere to very strict rules about food, avoiding, in addition, all vegetables grown underground, such as potatoes, onions, ginger, garlic, carrots, beets and so on. However, a traditional Gujarati thali meal is so temptingly prepared and presented, that a visitor opts for this choice, over and over again, putting aside his everyday diet for once.

The fragrance of hing (asafetida) and metha (fenugreek) delight the palate beyond measure. Farsan, the name for the innumerable snacks, conjures up visions of patrel, dhokla and khandvi, all finger-foods with a difference, patra or patrel (from patta or leaf of the arbi plant) is the vegetarian answer to the Western salami, in my opinion, as it looks and tastes meaty, and can be preserved for weeks. Our deep freeze in Tokyo was never without a supply of this delectable roll, thoughtfully brought over from Bombay by Parsi friends, who, over the centuries, have adopted many of the ways of the Gujaratis who they live amongst. One notices specially the way of wearing a sari, with the pallu or decorative end portion draped over the left shoulder and falling in fronts, as well as the Gujarati language which they share with Gujaratis.

Gujarati cuisine is indeed special. One cannot help befriending the family who still has a Maharaj or Brahmin cook in their home – a species getting rarer by the day. Their magic presence in the kitchen is worth all the diamonds the housewife possesses. He is the true V.I.P. of the home and when a Gujarati travels to other states of India or even abroad, it is not surprising to find a cook amongst his party. Vibhuti Behn quotes a famous saying which extols the special culinary preparations from the Southern city of Surat. Surat nu jaanam un Kashi nu mara – Life’s ultimate reward is to enjoy a feast in Surat and to die blissfully in Kashi Varanasi’!

As we leave her home, I stop at the threshold to admire an alpana or red painted decoration on the floor, freshly applied each day as a talisman against harm. The symbols are those of the goddess’s footprints as she enters this house. This is a custom for the housewife to fulfill, for her home should be a haven of tradition and harmony, a tiny microcosm of her home state of Gujarat.

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