Man vs Food
Maharashtrian food festival: cancelled. Score another victory against culture for the now officially ubiquitous sport.
First, the disappointing headline: No Marathi Food Festival at Shivaji Park: HC.
The good news was that my itch had already been scratched this week. I had thalipeeth and kothimbir wadi and the original wada (so it’s said) with gunpowder chutney and washed it all down with piyush. But what I rant here, I rant not on my own behalf. It springs not merely from a hunger, only temporarily sated, for Maharashtrian food but from an unquenchable thirst for the idea of Maharashtra.
Maharashtra Day, which falls on May 1, marks the start of the smouldering heat in which I plan on getting very little work done. It’s also a traditional time for oral exercises. This year, the sparring kicked off two weeks early, when on Sunday, April 15, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar decided to celebrate Bihar Day in Mumbai.
“Tell Nitish Kumar to celebrate Bihar Day in Bihar, not in Mumbai,” poked Raj Thackeray, prompted by which Uddhav Thackeray instructed Kumar to “celebrate Maharashtra Day in your state”, after which Raj jacked up his rhetoric to threaten: “He will need a visa from the Marathi manoos to celebrate any programme here.” (Constitutional guarantees to freedom of speech, it should be noted, come with nine strings attached, whereas freedom of movement bears only the proviso of public health. Two if you count the bit about Scheduled Tribes.)
Nitish Kumar promptly called their bluff and played the “Maharashtra geet” at his ceremony.
The whole thing has been instructive. Call me naïve, but I’d never pictured Bihar asking for a Day, let alone getting one. It turns out that being able to call May 1 your Day comes free with the rest of the swag you get upon admission into the Union. (Baroda got a Day, too.)
In all seriousness, the verbal jousting has illustrated the principle that the strident defence of culture usually comes without any actual culture on offer. This won’t be the first time I’ve lamented that, in the capital of Maharashtra, you can’t attend a Marathi lesson to save your life—an oversight Messrs Thackeray might consider getting to work on.
But that’s democracy: one healthy round of ethnic brickbats after the other. Unfortunately, it doesn’t threaten to turn into a food fight anytime soon.
According to the Bombay High Court, this city has more important priorities than staging the Marathi Food Festival proposed by Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. “If permission was granted for the food festival,” it wrote, “then the open ground would not be available for sports activities.”
Yes, once again we have cricket to thank. Score another victory against culture for the now officially ubiquitous sport. If it’s played anywhere, the court has decreed, then it must be played there all the time, until all players have been bowled out or nominated to the Rajya Sabha.
Shivaji Park has long been hallowed ground for sportsmen, laughter yoga enthusiasts, weightlifters and b-boys. It’s the one park in Mumbai that has the distinction of being ringed not by gymkhanas but by actual gyms—though the athleticism quotient may be offset somewhat by the adjacent Bengal Club.
The ruling nonetheless betrays a complete lack of understanding of the purpose of public space. We might first debate whether a park chopped into 22-yard linear segments deserves the name of public space at all. Meanwhile, cultural activities that take place there can be banned on the grounds of…their taking up grounds. If we assent to the principle that the park is there to be enjoyed by all, are we all then obligated to conform to the dominant recreational mode? Or should we, instead, be permitted to enjoy, in that space, the freedoms that are granted to us under law?
Which freedoms, then? And which enjoyment? While the choice of on-side or off has not been explicitly codified in the Constitution, freedom of movement, as noted earlier, has. Freedom of speech, provided it’s not by loudspeaker and before 10pm, is another right.
Freedom of culture is no less fundamental. We can hear the voice of Amartya Sen in a UNDP report that argues for cultural expression as an essential freedom, and in particular the use of culture in “expanding individual choices”. We hear Sen speaking when it notes that “freedom can hardly be invoked when no choice—real or potential—is actually considered”. I’m not sure what choice he had in mind, but I suspect it was something like surmai curry versus kombdi vada. The choice of food is one of our most basic freedoms, our most basic enjoyments, and our most basic cultural identifications. That it is all these at once cannot be an accident.
When people talk about a “right to food”, they’re considering the survival for undernourished millions. But there’s no question that being presented with more interesting options to eat enhances our lives. Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo have observed that enjoyment of food is one of our most basic motivators as economic decision-makers. P. Sainath, author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought, regularly points out that an explosion in the variety of foods available is one of the key markers of widely improving standards of living in Indian metros. His focus is on the disparity between these metros where an unprecedented expansion of credit has fueled consumption, and the rural areas that supply the food consumed, but his point stands at both ends. They even give you a choice before you’re executed—unless the Bombay High Court rules otherwise.
There’s fantastic Maharashtrian food available 366 days a year just outside Shivaji Park, at places like Prakash, Trupti, and Mama Kane. I love the food they serve, and miss no opportunity to celebrate it, appreciate it or share it with friends. But it’s still just food. It’s not culture until we can all do it together.Tags: Cricket, Maharashtra Day, Marathi Food Festival, Raj Thackeray, Shiv Sena, Sports, The Holdout