When a bunch of rowdy Shiv Sena MPs, some with colourful criminal records, attempted to shove a chapati down the throat of a fasting Muslim caterer at the Maharashtra Sadan in New Delhi last week, it suggested many things about a political party that has essentially not been able to grow out of its limited local appeal.
Of course, the Shiv Sena is known to be anti-Muslim and anti-North Indian and this incident brought out both the biases. The party is sore with the BJP and its MPs were protesting against the allotment of a ministerial suite in the Sadan to former Mumbai Police commissioner Satyapal Singh, who is now the BJP’s MP from Bagpat, Uttar Pradesh. The canteen and catering supervisor Arshad Zubair got embroiled in that politics. Besides, the act of trying to shove the chapati into the canteen supervisor’s mouth was a deliberate attempt to hurt his religious sentiments. I see that act as typifying the Shiv Sena mindset — a restricted Maharashtrian one (though not that all Maharashtrian minds are limited) and quite unadventurous to boot.
Also, the episode somewhat has a gender angle to it. I have travelled with loads of male colleagues all over the world and I have discovered that while the women are always game — rather, more than eager – to try out new cuisines, men — most Indian ones and not just Maharashtrian or Shiv Sainik — run away from the unfamiliar ones. Even in Romania or Russia they must look for curry and rice and are quite content with the bland fare at these places (made deliberately bland to suit the Western palate) in their desire to seek a slice of home away from home. Women, on the other hand, are always poking their noses into strange and unfamiliar places willing to try the strange and the new, wishing to take back some memories of things different and unavailable in India.
So I saw the desire of the Sena MPs for some Maharashtrian food at the Maharashtra Sadan as part of this lack of an adventurous spirit, culinary or otherwise. One may still argue that they had a valid point in insisting that the Maharashtra Sadan should indeed offer some Maharashtrian fare on its premises. However, I wonder, in the 50-odd years of its existence, what has the Shiv Sena done to preserve Maharashtrian food and flavours in Bombay? You might still get authentic Maharashtrian cuisine in Nagpur, Pune, Solapur and Kolhapur but my greatest regret in recent years is that the few Maharashtrian restaurants that did exist in the city have shut down. I pine for things like thaali peeth, suranachi wadi, saoji curry, patodi or kharwas (a sweet made out of buffaloes’ colostrum milk) but none of these are readily available even in the canteen of the state headquarters.
What is available and laid claim to as typical Maharashtrian — sabudana wada, puranpoli or pohe — are part of many other regional cuisines as well. Only batata vada and pav bhaaji as street food have managed to break out of obscurity and become popular with all palates. And all the Shiv Sena could do was to play politics with the batata wada by setting up the failed enterprise of ‘Shiv Vada Pav’ to combat the Congress-NCP’s attempts some years ago to popularise poha.
Now, barring some upmarket restaurants, which have made a fad of sea food from the Konkan, most middle-class restaurants offering Maharashtrian fare are a thing of the past and the Shiv Sena has done little to revive the state cuisine in its own capital city. We feast on all sorts of cuisines here, apart from the international flavours and popular Gujarati, Punjabi, Udupi, Goan, Rajasthani, Bengali and Kerala cuisines have done themselves proud in Bombay but I am yet to hear of a state-sponsored (or even private) Maharashtrian food fest in recent years.
Who does one blame for this, if not Maharashtrians themselves? And does the Shiv Sena, then, call itself the custodian of the Maharashtrian ethos?