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.
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 merchants
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
Do women enjoy a
position of authority in the average home?
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 years supply of food grain, oil
and spices soon after the harvest, to ensure an entire years
supply. The days succeeding this are devoted to the cleaning and
sunning of the grains and spices, storage and preservation. The last
years 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.
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
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 Lifes 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 goddesss 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.