A Peek Into Ahmedabad's Soul – A Female Perspective

A look at contemporary Ahmedabad's cultural fabric, its violence, its poets, its food culture, its queer movement and the usage of religiosity by women to resist marginalisation.

The first part of this series dealt with broad movements in Ahmedabad’s history until India’s independence in 1947 keeping in mind and reviewing Saroop Dhruv’s recent work in Gujarati, Shahernama (Darshan, 2018). The second article outlined the post-colonial journey of Ahmedabad while continuing to examine Shahernama. This article reviews selected themes covered in Seminar magazine’s July 2018 issue titled ‘Ahmedabad: the city & her soul’.

How do women imagine a city? What are the ways in which they can claim its public spaces? Seminar magazine’s July 2018 issue titled ‘Ahmedabad: The city & her soul’ is rooted in addressing these concerns by placing perspectives by women at the centre-stage of scholarly discourse of visualising Ahmedabad, as its editor Harmony Siganporia proposes. In this piece, I review themes covered in a selected set of articles from this issue by all-women writers who have spent (at least) some period of their lives in the city.

Searching for meat in Ahmedabad

Gujarat’s chief minister Vijay Rupani expressed a bizarre desire in April 2017: to turn Gujarat into a ‘vegetarian’ society. When he made this statement in Gujarat’s legislative assembly, hundreds of Hindu priests were present to witness the passing of a law that prescribes life sentence as maximum punishment for cow slaughter. The intent of the Gujarat CM was clear: to pamper the sentiments of Hindus and Jains in an election-bound state.

Avni Sethi, an interdisciplinary artist, in her piece, staunchly contends this morality of imposed vegetarianism by narrating her personal tale of defying majoritarian norms of food culture in Ahmedabad. As a child, Sethi’s rebellious habit of taking sumptuous mutton cooked by her grandmother in school lunchbox gained her a few school friends. Simultaneously, this deviant food choice exposed Sethi to the risk of being treated as a lesser Gujarati while unsurprisingly becoming a subject of condemnatory looks when enjoying chicken in trains departing from or arriving in Ahmedabad.    

Her search for meat took her to the old city of Ahmedabad. Sethi’s regular excursions to the lanes and the by-lanes of the old city have her swearing by the rich chicken and mutton delicacies available on its streets which she daringly terms as ‘essentially Gujarati food preparations’.

Something disturbing is at play in Sethi’s description of the old Ahmedabad as a ‘meat-eater’s delight’. Availability of local non-vegetarian food in the old city is a tiny feature among several ingredients which go into the making of the old city’s culture. This distorted representation of the old city which divulges little about the day to day life of its residents has become commonplace among the city’s liberal elites. These elites’ once in a while appearance in the old city from their lavish western Ahmedabad lifestyle to relish meat, or to participate in an exclusive group for heritage tour, or to celebrate the kite-flying festival of Uttarayan, has produced a ‘feel good’ cottage industry disconnected from the walled city’s culture.

Also read: Tracing the History of Ahmedabad, a City of Limited Emancipation Sethi’s write-up only reinforces this problematic ‘fetishisation’ of the old city accompanied with an incorrect and simplistic geographical segregation of Ahmedabad by the Sabarmati river into the eastern side (which she equates with the old city) and the western Ahmedabad. This separation, she claims, is further ‘accompanied by […] binaries such as minority-majority, poor-rich, etc’ assuming that the eastern side houses the marginalised communities. This is a reasoning not rooted in reality and carries the threat of treating the old city residents as a needy class requiring constant outside support.

A view of Ahmedabad. Credit: Chris Martino/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

A view of Ahmedabad. Credit: Chris Martino/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

In fact, eastern Ahmedabad has a substantial upwardly mobile population living outside its walled boundaries in Shahibaugh and Maninagar coupled with a working-class population in industrial areas such as Naroda, Rakhial, Vatva, to name a few. Inside the walled city, Hindus and Muslims live in next-door enclaves with a wealthy Parsi, and Dawoodi Bohra population in some parts of Khanpur area.

Vegetarianism of Gujarati society is a myth popularised by the ruling government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Sample Registration System (SRS) survey in 2014 revealed that close to 40% of the population in Gujarat state eats non-vegetarian food. Many vegetarian eaters make clandestine ventures to non-vegetarian restaurants to test a rather funny hypothesis that even a child Mohandas Gandhi believed in: that eating meat provides instant masculinity.

Of late, some openness in the food culture is visible. Sethi concurs. Ahmedabad has ‘proliferating egg laris by the hundreds’ apart from luxurious hotels serving exotic dishes such as ‘sushi and sashimi, she notes. In 2011, KFC – an international fast-food chain – was steadfastly opposed when it tried to open its first branch in an upscale locality of Ahmedabad; the scale of this resistance has somewhat reduced in the recent past discernible in the numerous new restaurants and cafés that serve meat in western Ahmedabad localities such as Prahlad Nagar, S.G. Highway, Bopal, Thaltej and Vastrapur.

Once India’s only vegetarian Subway outlet with Jain food options, the outlet in Paldi area of Ahmedabad has begun to serve meaty sandwiches. A key reason why they made this shift was reduced profitability and demand due to a limited menu. After all, the logic of capital trumps the logic of forced moral habits.

Middle-class and Ahmedabad

The beautification project of the Sabarmati riverbank that passes through Ahmedabad, known as the Riverfront, boasts an impressive flower park, a wide track for cycling and jogging, a state-of-the-art event centre with plans to privatise the vacant land to build offices, hotels, and malls. It was once a sight of slums in which Hindus (mostly Dalits) and Muslims lived side by side. When they were removed from the city’s centre and resettled to its periphery, the slum-dwellers were divided into communal lines by the state although there was a demand for self-segregation too. Despite these glaring inequities, it is not an aberration to hear lavish praises in Ahmedabad for the Riverfront.

Mona Mehta, an academic at IIT Gandhinagar, in her article recording the middle-class dominance calls the Riverfront ‘a source of unbridled Gujarati pride for the quintessential Ahmedabadi middle class person’.

Mehta examines the event of Happy Streets held every Sunday mostly at the Riverfront to gratify the middle-class sensibilities with activities like dance, yoga, Zumba amidst talks of community building and reducing environmental pollution by declaring the Riverfront as a vehicle-free zone (which it otherwise already is). She opines that the event offers nothing more than ‘tokenistic solutions to urban problems’. Instead of showing concerns for the rehabilitated slum-dwellers, she perceptively adds, Happy Streets presents the urban middle-class as the ‘victims of urbanisation’ without any concrete plan ‘to forge a genuinely inclusive community’.

At other times, Happy Streets event has been organised at the posh commercial locality of C.G. Road and the Adani Shantigram township on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. Already a private space meant for the affluent, Mehta explains that when Happy Streets is held at the Shantigram, ‘it loses all pretense of addressing the problems of urbanization’ and shifts its focus to enjoying the restricted ‘public space’ apart from, of course, marketing the real estate.

She is clear as to the cause that has solidified the middle-class hold over Ahmedabad: the neo-liberal economic arrangement arguing that the ‘Ahmedabad’s contemporary middle class has shown an acute willingness to fall in line with’ the ‘neoliberal vision’. It is unclear why she chooses not to elucidate her assertion with a discussion on the state government’s policies and programmes such as Vibrant Gujarat Summits, Special Economic Zones (SEZs), and Narendra Modi’s unique re-definition of the petite bourgeoisie as the ‘neo-middle class’. 

Also read: The Rise of Hindutva Destroyed Ahmedabad’s Indigenous Capitalist TraditionsGujarat is one of the most urbanised states of India. As of 2011, roughly 43% of the state’s population is concentrated in urban areas vis-à-vis the national average of 31%. The party in power, BJP garners most votes from the urban zones – in the 2017 state elections, the urban constituencies of Ahmedabad, Surat, and Vadodara saved the BJP from a defeat. Class, reflected through deep divisions on rural-urban lines and through the movement for reservations by the powerful agrarian caste of Patel, has become central to Gujarat’s politics over caste in the few last decades. In that respect, Mehta’s thesis adds a fresh perspective – inside Ahmedabad, a quintessential urban space, class divisions, although not so visible on electoral lines, are as much relevant as they are to the state’s rural-urban divide.    

Faithful and secular

The frequent incidents of large-scale communal violence in Ahmedabad beginning in the year 1969 reaching its gruesome climax with the 2002 riots has crippled the Muslims. In the absence of state-support and societal prejudice, Muslims became ghettoised and adopted conservative religious traditions seeking refuge in the divine – a phenomenon that quickened its pace from the mid-1980s. Yet, contrary to popular perceptions, Muslims did not turn towards extremism nor did they resort to violence. Heba Ahmed’s article voices this paradox central to the Gujarati Muslims adding substance to the existing researches on Islamic activism in post-2002 Ahmedabad conducted by Dipankar Gupta, T.K. Oommen, Rubina Jasani, and Raphael Susewind.

Indeed, as Ahmed writes, ‘Muslims began to make efforts at re-establishing communal harmony’ and sought justice relying on constitutional remedies after the 2002 riots. She explicates this by tracing the journey of Jameela Khan, an Islamic activist associated with Jamaat-e-Islami-Hind (JIH), who ‘dovetails both deen (religious creed) and duniya (the temporal world)’.

A practising Muslim, Jameela has a penchant for initiating religious and educational reforms among Muslims. She refuses to wear a burqa and also rejects being tagged as a feminist. Such practices, Jameela thinks, are possible because Islam talks about justice based on which Ahmed makes an atypical but accurate claim: Jameela’s agency to fight for justice is directly linked to her religious beliefs.

A general view of the Muslim dominated Juhapura area is pictured in Ahmedabad. Credit: Reuters/Ahmad Masood/Files

Jameela actively uses piety in two ways – firstly, as a personal and societal means of moral (re)awakening and secondly, to justify her fight for justice among Muslims by aiding the women victims of 2002 riots and through ‘intervene in local incidents of marital violence against women’.

In past, I have argued, based on my dissertation fieldwork conducted in 2017 on two Islamic activist organisations – JIH and Gujarat Sarvajanik Welfare Trust (GSWT) – in Ahmedabad that Muslims now direct their collective energies towards ‘building skills and capacity’ of the community through schools where secular syllabus co-exists with Islamic education. This is the puzzle of Muslims in Ahmedabad, whom the state has failed to take care of, that Ahmed’s work also stresses upon: the discovery of Islam in a post-riot Ahmedabad has not hindered their socio-economic mobility but actually facilitated it through faith-based organisations (FBOs). 

The nationwide rise of Hindutva has necessitated Islamic activists to moderate their emphasis on duties and instead focus on a discourse of rights to develop platforms for communal harmony with secular groups, I had argued. Ahmed in her article supplements this assertion underscoring that, lately, JIH has initiated programmes of inter-faith dialogues with Dalit and Christian groups.

What is it that makes such programmes possible? Perhaps, Islamic activists like Jameela skilfully exploit upon the Indian variant of sui generis secularism, where religion is not reduced to the private sphere, to be faithful and secular at the same time. Ahmed does not explore this point which has major implications for our understanding of secularism – a task that she, perhaps deliberately, leaves to future political theorists using her astute anthropological insights.

Being queer in Ahmedabad

This year, on February 18, QueerAbad, a safe space for Ahmedabad’s LGBTQIA+ community, hosted the city’s first ever pride parade attracting more than 300 people.

The parade was a historical moment for a city often derided in the liberal circles as a conformist, orthodox, and ‘non-happening’ place: In some sense, Ahmedabad unbolted its relatively closed cultural environment through this initiative. Writing in Seminar, Shamini Kothari, co-founder of QueerAbad, insists that the parade made it possible to think that ‘Queer Ahmedabad was no longer an oxymoron’.

QueerAbad celebrating its second year anniversary in August 2018. Credit: Facebook

Her article is a story of Ahmedabad’s LGBTQIA+ community as much as it is her personal narrative. Kothari tells that her non-conformist sexual identity has complicated her bonding with her hometown, Ahmedabad. She tries to imagine that queerness has always existed in the city’s streets, in its now much-celebrated heritage, and in its everyday life. Just that no one bothered to see Ahmedabad through that inventive lens. Perhaps, the much-needed recent reading down of section 377 of Indian Penal Code (IPC) – a colonial vestige of backward Victorian morality – by the Supreme Court, may make sexual minorities more visible in Indian cities.

Kothari’s platform, QueerAbad attempts to dispel misconceptions about the LGBTQIA+ community by regularly holding ‘Ask What You Will’ session where the group takes anonymous questions. At the pride parade, which was a culmination of a two-day conference on issues of queer community, she informs, QueerAbad ‘handed out booklets in Gujarati on the ABCs of LGBTQIA+’ and explained their event to ‘curious onlookers’.

Also read: ‘Heritage City’ Ahmedabad Was Built Through Violence and ExclusionShe showcases remarkable awareness of access restrictions that events such as a pride parade face – the crowd that attended the parade comprised mostly of an entitled group of upper-class, English-educated folk. Before QueerAbad began and Kothari came in contact with several other queer residents of Ahmedabad, she hardly knew about well-known cruising spots of Ahmedabad representing a world of queers outside Grindr (a dating application for LGBTQIA+). This ignorance is possibly due to her own privileged background, she recognises while posing an important question: Why is there no historical memory of the LGBTQIA+ community in Ahmedabad?

It’s a city, a home for her, where the experiences of the LGBTQIA+ community, she reasons, does not have an archive.

Counter-cultural thrust

This issue on Ahmedabad by mostly first-time women contributors to the Seminar belonging to a younger generation of researchers appears as if in an unplanned conversation with Saroop Dhruv’s Shahernama, a book by an erudite woman academic cum activist that I reviewed in the first two parts of this review series. Most write-ups deal with the contemporary themes and still emergent trends fulfilling several interpretative deficiencies of Shahernama about the present-day Ahmedabad.

Though a few commentaries suffer from the academic syndrome of ambiguous writing with unwarranted insertion of obfuscating jargons, the exhaustive list of topics covered in the issue – the city’s cultural fabric, its violence, its poets, its food culture, its queer movement, usage of religiosity by women to resist marginalisation, conservation practices in the city inter alia – takes to a task what Siganporia calls ‘the deeply entrenched masculinist epistemes of mercantile capitalism’ of Ahmedabad. This illustrative counter-cultural thrust of these writings makes them indispensable to the scholar of the city.

The author expresses gratitude to Tridip Suhrud for providing the initial push to write this review. The author’s fieldwork contained in his study titled ‘Faithful and Secular: Islamic Activists in Juhapura, Ahmedabad’ was supported by the Baillie Gifford Research Grant.

Sharik Laliwala, 22, an alumnus of King’s College London and Ahmedabad University, is an independent researcher on Gujarat’s politics and history based in Ahmedabad. He is on Twitter @sharik19.

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