One hundred years ago, a Gujarati man arrived from South Africa to save Indians from the British. Some years after that a Gujarati man arrived from London to save Muslims from Hindus. Some years after that a Gujarati man arrived to save independent India from disintegration. This year a Gujarati man arrived to save India from corruption, underdevelopment, lack of hygiene and other stuff. The question is: Why do you people need so much saving? And why must Gujarati Man always have to do it?

The answer is, of course, that he is the best the subcontinent has to offer. Only 5% of the population, but talk about cream of the crop.

This is written in praise of the Gujarati man, whom I wanted to introduce to you.

The first and most important thing to know about him is that Gujarati Man has not fought a battle in the 700 years since Alauddin Khilji conquered him in 1297. Arun Pai, who conducts a fabulous heritage walk in British Bengaluru, points out that south India is one of the world’s most peaceful places. It hasn’t seen war since Wellington, later of Waterloo fame, knocked over Tipu Sultan in 1799. Gujaratis have been not-warring for much longer, though others battled over them and around them. Useless at fighting, Gujarati Man has forgotten the smell of freedom, so long has he been under the thumb of Afghan, Mughal, Maratha and Englishman. Sometimes he is a victim of the Stockholm Syndrome. Shivaji, whose Marathas repeatedly extorted millions from Surat’s Hindu and Jain merchants, is today a hero to this state. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said earlier this year: “Saying that Shivaji Maharaj looted Surat would be an insult to the Maratha warrior," and that “he looted Aurangzeb’s treasure with help of local people which was used for welfare of the common man". Well, I’m saying it anyway, because so does The New Cambridge History Of India and every other work on the subject, but I must remember to also consult the books our leader does.

Gujarati Man has a Pavlovian response to the word “Muslim", whom he referred to as “Mhomedan". In the 1980s this changed to the word “minorities", which for some reason Gujaratis always use in the plural: “Ae to minorities che (he is a minorities)." The Pavlovian response is only partly because of the incompetence of the later Mughals. Anyway, Gujarati Man was relieved to be handed over, beginning at Surat, to the Englishman and then went wherever the master took him, from Africa to Fiji to Bombay. This last named city was populated by imported Surti merchants after the Tapi silted over and retains the Gujarati spirit in its old parts.

Narendra Modi. Photo: Vipin Kumar/HT
Narendra Modi. Photo: Vipin Kumar/HT

Ahmedabad, called Amdavad by locals who cannot even pronounce their own city’s name, is really a jumped-up village. The manner of its citizenry, to one accustomed to Parisian Surat (no, really, they erected an Eiffel Tower replica too), is coarse. It is difficult to have a proper conversation because few have read anything but balance sheets. The men, it must be sadly accepted, are mostly short and rotund. The girls scoot around on two-wheelers with giant white gloves up to their elbows and face-masks as protection against tanning, which apparently is a bad thing.

They have good roads, yes, but since Amdavadis insist on driving up and down on both sides, this is irrelevant. They are absurdly rigid about being vegetarian.

Amdavadi high cuisine consists of bhajia and pao bhaji (with extra butter) going purely by how much and with what relish these are consumed. You could bring Amdavad to its knees in three days by withholding from its city walls their supply of potatoes (that’s probably how invaders captured it). It is, how to put it mildly, a difficult city to live in.

I once ran a newspaper in Amdavad and suspecting, rightly, that I was collecting my salary while being mostly AWOL, the Marwari proprietor would telephone me weekly to check on my whereabouts.

He would do this, cruelly, every Friday evening when I was at the airport to be off to Mumbai for recuperation and rest.

In time, this fleeing happened every Thursday evening and then Wednesday evening, till I realized I could take Amdavad not even for one day of the week, no matter how much I was paid. Had it not been for the sympathy and unconditional support of my old friends J Daniels and J Walker, I could not have survived that awful time. On an entirely unrelated note, I should mention here that officially dry Gujarat has perhaps the highest per capita consumption of booze in India—a state of hypocrites.

There is alas not much to commend Vadodara for other than the great Maharaja Sayajirao University (where I earned a diploma in how to operate power looms) which was set up by Marathis. Everything else is...actually there’s not much else.

Vadodara is so irrelevant that its citizenry doesn’t even get a demonym from fellow Gujaratis. There is Surti and Amdavadi and Kathiawadi and Kutchchi and...what? Barodite? Barodekar? Baroda-wallah? Nobody knows and you didn’t care till this moment. Moving on.

The most beautiful Gujaratis are Kathiawadis. The men and women are sharp of nose and lean of body and are both dressed in gorgeous manner. They have the best music: that high-pitched and ecstatic singing characteristic of all our desert peoples, linking Gujarat with the mystic cultures of the north (Rajasthan) and west (Sindh). Kathiawadis have their own deities, like Jalaram Bapa, whom relatives on my mother’s side bow to.

Unfortunately, the whole of western Gujarat—Kathiawar—is also a medieval backwater, even if it is the place which provides Gujarat the music for its annual dance, at Navratri.

The Gujarati dances not individually but communally through the dandiya raas. The women dress up and light up the night. This is a relief because the dance itself is mechanical, repetitive and conducted, thank god, without having to touch the stranger. The joyous Gujarati engages his dancing partner at a safe distance and insulated through the medium of sticks.

There is not much else to report culturally though Gujarat regularly exports its eccentrics (Sanjeev Kumar, Ismail Darbar, Manmohan Desai, Himesh Reshammiya) to Bollywood.

The cultural hero of the state is the Jain with his non-violence, and vegetarianism and original mercantile culture, but the Jain is actually imported from Rajasthan. Gujarati Brahmins similarly came from northern India and betray this through north Indian surnames (Trivedi, Joshi, etc). The real native, the best example and in fact the apotheosis of Gujarati Man, is the Patel. He is characterized by his stubbornness and his rigidity. Pravin Togadia and Babu Bajrangi are Patels.

In the US, the Patel interacts with the American safely from behind the motel counter while behind him is kadhi bubbling in the kitchen and Ramayan DVDs on the telly. Most American Patel children have split personalities and who can blame them?

But exactly like the other itinerant merchant, the Jew, the Gujju sallies forth into the world, carrying with him his dietary restrictions, his love of making money and of homeland, and his dislike of Muslims.

You are fortunate to have him always available to swing around and save you.

To read Aakar’s previous columns, click here.

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