In her nine-yard orange sari, hands on hips, Navina Gholap strikes a combative pose. Then, the “chairman” of the 81-year-old Lalbaug fish Mumbai market, talks. “My great-grandfather did business here, so did my father, my mother and now me. We are Kolis and the fish market is much older than any of these tall towers that you see around you. Women from these rich houses crinkle their noses and press their dupattas to their face when they pass our fish market. It is insulting. This is, after all, our food, our livelihood. Anyone who wishes any ill to our fish market will be cursed forever,” says Gholap, 50.
The recent outrage over the ban on sale of meat in Mumbai for four days during the Jain festival of Paryushan (the High Court later stayed it, and on Thursday, the Supreme Court refused to quash the stay) has exposed a faultline that goes to the gut of the matter — the vegetarian versus non-vegetarian divide in the city and how politicians have made a meal of it. In several parts of cosmopolitan Mumbai, this divide has been the cause of simmering tension for years, an undercurrent that runs through areas such as this part of Lalbaug.
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On one side of the fish market is a cluster of high-rises, inhabited mostly by Gujaratis and the trading community of Marwaris, a majority of them followers of Jainism and strictly vegetarian. Shailesh Jain, who lives in Vijay Residency, one of the residential towers that overlooks the fish market, says, “We usually don’t mind the market. We have even got used to it. We just want to co-exist in peace. But on certain days of the week, when the garbage truck comes to clear the refuse from the market, the entire place stinks. It is unbearable.
We are not unreasonable. But everyone will say they want the fish market to shut down. It is only practical,” says Jain, who has a real estate office in the same building. He thinks the fish market, with its 112 licensed fish sellers, should make way for a mall and the fisherwomen can be given some “space in one corner”.
The Lalbaug-Parel belt was a predominantly Marathi heartland till the late ’90s but that’s changing, like several other areas of Mumbai where old industrial estates and vast defunct mill lands have given way to luxury houses and skyscrapers. With the prices of these houses running into crores, it is mostly Mumbai’s rich — the diamond brokers, stock traders and established entrepreneurs, most of them traditionally vegetarian Gujarati and Marwari families — who have moved in.
Mohsina Mukadam, food historian and head of the history department at Ramnarain Ruia College, says it’s only over the past decade that food has emerged as a polarising factor in certain parts of Mumbai. She says that when the city’s chawls — where people shared walls, and food, with neighbours — made way at some places for high-rises, something snapped. “In the chawls, people would live right next to each other and never have a problem with each others’ eating habits. Even if they did, they didn’t comment. But that’s changed over the last 10 years and certain areas have become homogenous spaces. The population of Gujarati and Marwari Jains in areas that were earlier predominantly non-vegetarian has gone up. They have the numbers and money power and have become more vocal about their opposition. It becomes a bigger problem when they think they’ll find political support.”
It is politics that makes the debate somewhat less palatable, even feeding into the larger regional insecurities of Maharashtrians versus Gujaratis. Even within the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance, the two parties have taken diametrically opposite stands, each with an eye on its votebank. In the recent meat ban case, the BJP, which draws its support from the trading community in the city, largely Gujaratis and Jains, supported the ban. The Sena opposed the ban since it would have affected the Marathi population, which eats largely fish and poultry. Last year, political parties fought the elections to the state Assembly in Mumbai by pitting the Marathi and Gujarati communities against each other. In its campaigns, the Shiv Sena, which split with its old-time alliance partner before the polls only to join the government later, highlighted how traditional Marathi bastions in Mumbai were no longer dominated by people from the state and how Marathi food and culture were under threat.
“I am going to demand the closure of abattoirs even on festivals like Ram Navmi, Krishna Janmashtami and Diwali. No one is asking anyone to change their eating habits. Yeh bas bhavna ka sawaal hai (It is a question of faith),” says Raj Purohit, BJP MLA from south Mumbai who was among the party leaders who had been vocal about a cow slaughter ban in Maharashtra.
Shiv Sena MLC Neelam Gorhe says she knows for certain that food intolerance didn’t belong to the Mumbai she grew up in. “Culturally, Mumbai is changing. People are not as considerate as they were earlier and there is a distinct lack of tolerance for each others’ food habits. The state government has been silent on the entire issue. Everyone knows who is politicising this issue,” she says.
About 200 metres from the Lalbaug fish market, butchers are at work skinning and cleaning broilers. “Yes, this area is changing. But that has not affected us because, so far, only about 30 per cent of the population is vegetarian. The other 70 per cent are still Marathis and some Muslims, who eat non-vegetarian. If tomorrow, vegetarians end up being the majority, then there might be objections to our business,” says Rafeeq Amin, who owns a chicken shop in Lalbaug.
Some would say the distant possibility that Amin voices for Lalbaug is the present reality in one of Mumbai’s priciest and toniest areas, Nepean Sea Road. The locality, which has one of the finest views of the Arabian Sea, is spread across 25 square km in southern Mumbai and is home to a majority Jain population. Nepean Sea Road does not have a single restaurant that serves non-vegetarian food or a shop that sells meat, not even packaged, processed meat. Grocery stores don’t stock eggs, which are available only at roadside paan-beedi shops. Gourmet bakeries that line the uphill streets of Nepean Sea Road too have eggless and “Jain varieties” on their shelves.
“Cooking non-vegetarian here involves elaborate planning,” says a 50-year-old Muslim homemaker who shifted to Nepean Sea Road last year after her husband got a transfer to Mumbai. Speaking strictly on condition of anonymity, she says, “The nearest meat market is about 2.5 km away, at Grant Road. It’s not very hygienic, so we prefer buying our meat or chicken from supermarkets in Churchgate, which is over 6 km away. It costs more than Rs 100 just to get there by taxi. So if we crave for a good meal of chicken one evening for dinner, it won’t happen unless we plan much in advance,” she says.
The only restaurant serving non-vegetarian as well as vegetarian food on Nepean Sea Road closed more than a decade ago, after shrill protests. Residents had staged a demonstration against ‘Roti’, saying the restaurant was breaching the sanctity of the place where mostly Jains live.
Several other food chains, including coffee giant Starbucks, have unquestioningly fallen in line while launching outlets in ‘vegetarian areas’. Last year, the “world’s biggest coffee chain” opened a store at Girgaum Chowpatty, a four-minute drive from Babulnath temple in south Mumbai, becoming Starbucks’s first and only ‘pure veg’ outlet in Mumbai. Similarly, in 2012, Mumbai-based Chinese food chain Five Spice, which is known for its exhaustive menu of chicken and sea food fare, had launched with a “pure vegetarian” menu at two of its outlets —Charni Road in south Mumbai and Kings Circle in Matunga, central Mumbai. While Charni Road has a significant Jain population, Matunga is populated by Gujarati and Marwari Jains as well as Tamil Brahmins, who are strictly vegetarian.
A waiter at Five Spice’s Charni Road restaurant says, “Our restaurant is in a Jain building. Cooking or eating non-vegetarian food is strictly forbidden. Besides, there was no point having chicken and fish on the menu when most of the residents in the area are vegetarian, barring a few. There are some customers who ask for non-veg food. We direct them to our branch in Fort (south Mumbai),” he says.
In 2007, a group of residents in Chembur, northeast Mumbai, filed a PIL in the Bombay High Court against the opening of a kebab outlet on the ground floor of Devkinandan, a residential building with 14 flats. In their petition, they said the non-vegetarian eatery would cause communal problems as 95 per cent of the population in the surrounding area was vegetarian, many of them Gujaratis, Jains and Rajasthanis. The restaurant plan never took off.
The largely vegetarian zones aren’t restricted to any one part of Mumbai. So from Girgaum Chowpatty in the south to Kandivali in the north, and Matunga in central Mumbai to Ghatkopar in the east, the city has these confining pockets that have shut their doors on non-vegetarians.
Ashok Khamkar, 70, knows what it feels like to be kept out. The proprietor of a spice shop in Lalbaug says it still hurts to think that he was denied a house in the area because of his food preferences. “It happened about 10 years ago. I grew up in Lalbaug and wanted to move out of an old building to Kamal Kunj, the first high-rise in the area. But the builder told me I didn’t qualify since I was non-vegetarian and the other residents were mostly Jains.” Khamkar ultimately bought a house in Mahim, a 20-minute drive from Lalbaug.
Dheeraj Rathod, a real estate broker in Ghatkopar, says, “When people want to put up their homes for sale or rent, they often specifically tell us ‘non-veg party nahin chahiye (we don’t want buyers who eat non-vegetarian)’. This is common in areas such as Ghatkopar, Vile Parle, Sion Jain Society and so on,” says Rathod.
A few years ago, Sohail Chawla, a “hardcore Punjabi from Delhi”, was one such “non-veg party” looking for a house on rent in Mumbai. He was hoping he would find one in Ghatkopar, close to his office in Vikhroli. A real-estate broker in Ghatkopar very helpfully told him which areas and housing societies to keep away from. “My broker told me that a lot of owners in Presidential Towers, a housing society in Ghatkopar, had specified that they only wanted a vegetarian tenant. So I lost out on options,” says Chawla, 29, who ultimately found a house in Powai, 9 km from his workplace.
Political parties such as the Shiv Sena and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), who consider the city’s Marathi-speaking vote bank as their core strength, have been pushing for stringent rules against builders denying houses based on culinary preferences. Corporators, especially from the MNS, have been demanding that the civic body should withhold the Intimation of Disapproval and Commencement Certificate, two crucial clearances required for construction, for developers who deny houses to non-vegetarians.
Sixty-six-year-old Arvind Nerkar, a former Shiv Sena legislator in Girgaum, says, “It is every person’s birthright to eat whatever he or she chooses to.” Nerkar is an old-time resident of the south Mumbai area, where, like Lalbaug, old wadis and chawls are speedily making way for plush high-rises. “In the olden days, everyone lived next to each other in chawls — Gujaratis, Jains and Maharashtrians, both vegetarians and non-vegetarians. They didn’t have a problem then. But these are the same people who now stay in high-rises, who think fish and meat smell. This attitude only disturbs communal harmony,” says Nerkar. “There cannot be separate rules or concessions for different communities. We will never be able to co-exist in Mumbai this way.”
Gopal Shetty, BJP MP from Mumbai North, which has a sizeable Jain population, doesn’t echo his party’s line in favour of the ban. As someone who likes fish on his plate “at least two times a week”, he says, “A ban or any such decision has to happen after a thorough dialogue and discussion so that it doesn’t seem oppressive to a part of the population.”
Making, unmaking of a ban
1. In 1964, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) passed a resolution directing abattoirs to be shut for two days during the eight-day Jain festival of Paryushan. In 2004, the Congress-NCP government passed another resolution endorsing the two-day ban on slaughter houses, and extended it to four days
2. Last year, the resolution was tweaked to ban sale of meat in private as well as corporation markets during the four days, requiring abattoirs to remain shut. The ban covered mutton and chicken, and excluded fish and eggs. Accordingly, for this year, all meat markets and abattoirs in Mumbai were to remain shut on September 10, 13, 17 and 18
3. In the first week of September, the BJP-ruled Mira Bhayander Municipal Corporation (MBMC) decided to impose an eight-day ban on slaughter of animals and sale of meat. The Shiv Sena and MNS protested against the decision
4. The Shiv Sena-led BMC revoked the ban for the two days, September 13 and 18. MBMC too decided to limit the ban to two days, September 10 and 17. Meanwhile, Mumbai had already observed one day of the ban on September 10
5. On September 14, the Bombay High Court stayed the ban on sale of meat in Mumbai on September 17
6. On September 17, the Supreme Court refused to quash the High Court’s stay on the ban and said the case should be decided in the High Court