The humble vada pav goes political

When McDonald’s first launched in Bombay, I remember, some NGOs took several children from the slums to this chain of restaurants for a treat. When one child was asked to comment how he had felt eating his first McBurger, he said, “I think I love our own vada pav better!”

So it was just a matter of time after that that someone should think of sanitising and standardising this humble Bombay snack, add several variations to this working class staple and set up a chain catering to just vada pav customers. Of course, after that I felt better snacking at Jumbo King vada pav outlets, coincidentally set up by North Indians and later at Goli, another chain, with origins in South India, rater than at way side stalls where hygiene was never anything to write home about.

It stands to reason, then, that although the vada pav was a 1960s invention of a Maharashtrian snack stall owner and became both ubiquitous and synonymous with Bombay, it took years for someone to believe in its sales potential enough to set up a chain of outlets, between a restaurant and a street side stall, that were an instant hit with even the non-humble classes of people who could binge on the snack without fear of falling ill — as only those not used to street food can do.

However, some months before the last elections to the Maharashtra Assembly, the Shiv Sena finally realised the potential of this essentially Maharashtrian snack and decided to set up `Shiv Vada’ stalls of its own. As with its earlier hair-brained scheme of providing jhunka-bhakar (another typically Maharashtrian staple comprising chappatis made of millet and some spiced-up gram flour cooked into a paste), the Shiv Pav hardly took off.

But now, not unlike the jhunka bhakar stalls (see my column anandan ON WEDNESDAY, ‘Cheaper than a cup of tea’, it turns out that every vada pav outlet the Sena has set up is illegal and encroaches upon public property (See Naresh Kamath’s story). Of course, they could get away with it because the authority to give civic permissions vests in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and the Shiv Sena rules the BMC. Obviously no one was checking.

Now Nitesh Rane, son of Maharashtra minister Naraya Rane, has decided to take on the Sena – and, of course, in typical Sena style, perhaps learnt from the years his father spent as a Shiv Sainik, Nitesh says he doesn’t need permissions either – but every one of his stalls, called `Chattrapati Vada Pav’ (yes, once again named after Maharashtra’s warrior king, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj), will come up opposite the Shiv Vada centres. And if his stalls are held illegal, so, then, must be the Shiv Sena’s. Stands to reason, if the BMC pulls down his stalls, so will the demand mount to destroy all the Shiv Vada centres as well.

How far Nitesh goes and how much he succeeds, of course, depends upon how combative or not the Sena gets. But it stands to reason that Rane and his son are increasingly becoming the kind of thorns in the Sena flesh that none of the Thackerays is able to pull out – not to ignore the fact that elections to the BMC are due in February 2012 and the Ranes must not fail this time round.

At the last BMC elections in 2007, the Congress, which had depended largely on Narayan Rane to deliver the city to the party, had to bite the dust as more than 90 per cent of Rane’s candidates, fighting from areas that were synonymous with the Shiv Sena, lost and Uddhav managed to keep his head above water.

When Uddhav had first announced the scheme of setting up his party’s own vada pav stalls, the Nationalist Congress Party went on the back foot and decided to popularise other Maharashtrian snacjks (like kande-pohe) in its name. That did not work. But neither did Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv vada pav scheme – he lost the election anyway, for the first time posting the Sena’s worst results wherein the BJP, which had contested less seats than its ally, raced ahead of Thackeray’s party and caused Uddhav some severe embarrassment.

Now I have heard it said that the way to a man’s heart (somehow women are never mentioned in this context) is through his stomach. But, I suppose, when it comes to elections you need to have something more to show than just a vada pav, whether Shiv or Chhatrapati, though both are named after the same historical figure that draws so much emotion in the state.

As far as I am concerned, give me a Jumbo King or a Goli vada pav any day — given the kind of political battles taking place over the Shiv and the Chhatrapati vada pavs, I would hate my money to go to either of these unlawful enterprises.

Given the moderate success so far of the Shiv vada pav, I believe there might be many others out there like me who prefer their food without any political colour.

I believe the Chhatrapati vada pav will meet the same fate – because this one is more overtly political than the Shiv vada pav was: the latter was at least wrapped in the batter of culture, hygiene and economy.

How galling it must be, then, to Bal Thackeray that the only outlets of vada pav, his favourite snack, that succeed in Bombay belong to a North Indian and a South Indian.

The irony is simply delicious.

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