If there is one state in India that has the most polarised opinions, it is Gujarat.
There are primarily two opinions of Gujarat. One is of development – swanky roads and flyovers and drones delivering khandwa at 4.30 in the morning. The other is of a state where Hindu bigots have terrorised Muslims into submission by force, and there is actually poverty and fear that is being masked by a gigantic advertising campaign.
I have been to Gujarat earlier, but it wasn’t as hotly contested back then. Also, high school romance and general worldisrosiness. But my visits were restricted to Ahmedabad only, and that is hardly enough to get a fair picture.
So when I got an opportunity to visit Gujarat for the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas event, I jumped at it. This time, I had planned to visit the interiors too, to speak to people, and try to get a better picture for myself.
Gandhinagar and Ahmedabad as cities are impeccable. The roads are wide, the streets are clean. Public transport is abundant and safe. Gujarat must also have among the friendliest cops I have seen. They speak politely (unlike the ones in Hyderabad, who constantly confuse you for the son of the bonded labour who spent thirty years at his ancestral home), and you actually feel like asking for their help.
Autorickshaws still have posters of film stars inside the vehicle, are surprisingly educated and comfortable with technology, and do not look to eat into your fixed deposits. A 23 kms journey cost us 200 rupees; in Hyderabad, it would have been a kidney, and some change.
And yet, in spite of everything, the place is a little stifling. Like the distant, moralistic aunt who frowns when you don’t toe the line.
If you’re a teetotaler Shakahari Shambu, Gandhinagar is the place for you. However, if you have any bad habits, Gujarat is a pain in the chhaas. I did not find a single shop that served non-vegetarian food, alcohol is banned, cigarette shops are few and far between Ramdev Ice Cream and Sri Krishna Photo Studio. In what would certainly draw the wrath of the erstwhile Nizam, Hyderabadi biriyani is vegetarian, sweet, and sprinkled with raisins.
You’ll find women comfortably using public transport late in the night, and yet not a single couple so much as holding hands. In the three university hostels I came across, there are strict timings to return (some as early as 9.30), and the hostels are locked up. If you are a woman and wish to smoke, you suddenly transform into the 8th wonder of the world.
If the adage ‘You are what you eat’ is true, nobody epitomises it like Gujaratis do. All the ghee, sweet, and dhokla has resulted in a people who are sweet to a fault. Every single person I came across was polite, friendly, and helpful.
The whole place seemed to work in a corporate-like precision. You pay a price, and are offered a certain efficient service for it. If an auto-driver doesn’t know your destination, he’ll look it up on Google maps for you and drop you safely. However, there is no bargaining involved.
A standard bargaining experience with a Gujarati auto goes like this –
‘Bhaiyya, Mahatma Mandir. Kitna?’
I found one guy with a poster of Anil Kapoor inside his auto. I told him I was a fan too, upon which his heart melted, and he gave me a discount of ten rupees. 190 de dena.
At one place, I had chai on the roads for 15 rupees. To put that in perspective, you can get chai on Baga beach on New Years Eve for ten bucks. As an outsider, one gets a feeling that everyone you meet is intent on making money. And yet, not in a nasty, surreptitious manner.
There couldn’t be a greater example of this than a Baba I met near the Somnath temple. Now, near any famous Shiva temple in India, you’ll find a few Baba Marleys doing their thing. If you speak to them, and ask politely, they’ll give you some of their pot, and throw in some blessings for free. The dude I met near Somnath confirmed that some prashad was available, and promptly asked for hundred rupees. He was an ascetic and all – living in the lap of nature, but Gujarat.
The entire trip was a series of contrasts. On one hand, the swanky event with NRI businessmen rubbing shoulders (not literally – PDA is frowned upon). And on the other hand, a visit to Jhunagad, Gir, and Somnath showed a picture of Gujarat that doesn’t feature in the Amitabh Bachchan 1080p ads.
The NRIs were all jingoistic, often bursting into a ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ in the middle of an address. They were all mostly middle-aged, dressed in blazers, and wielding strange borrowed accents that suffered from an identity crisis.
And yet, the one striking image of them was the manner in which they lech. Our group had a few girls, and almost every single male subjected them to the Indian Body Scan (Face-Boobs-Ass-Face-Creepy Smile). It’s probably something that comes naturally to us Indians. You can take the guy out of India, but you can’t take the ………
Gujarat, in many ways, is just like any other Indian state.
There are the very rich, and the poor. A glitzy apartment complex is quickly followed by a shanty slum that has been nicknamed ‘Hollywood’ by the richsters of the city. There are poor, brown-haired kids taking a dump on the road, watching Audis zip by. There are Adani skyscrapers among lush green fields.
In many ways, Gujarat is just like any other Indian state.
Only, no daaru, no non-veg. Which kind of sucks.