Ahmedabad’s favourite eateries are one kilometre apart from each other: the House of MG, a complex known for its vegetarian restaurants, and Relief Road, where New Irani Café serves non-vegetarian food like anda-keema and mutton sup. While both places are among the city’s popular haunts, they might as well exist in different nations.

Gujarat has long been divided on the issue of meat. The division is felt first in childhood when Muslim children are instructed not to bring tiffin that has non-vegetarian food to school. It deepens further in adulthood, in areas like Ahmedabad that are carved up on lines of food and religion. Non-vegetarian food is served only in localities where there is a Muslim majority. In any place with a Hindu majority population, eating non-vegetarian is frowned upon to the extent that “people worry that their children won’t find a rishta if society finds out they eat non-veg,” said Mukhtar, a 46-year-old survivor of the 2002 riots who works at present as a shoe salesman.

While it is frequently referred to as a vegetarian state, Gujarat actually has a larger meat-eating population than Punjab, Rajasthan and Haryana. Including the coastal population (which eats seafood), Dalits and Muslims, at least 40% of Gujaratis eat meat.

According to the last Indian Census in 2011, the staunchest vegetarians in the region, the Jains, make up less than 1% of Gujarat’s population. But as Mukhtar pointed out, the Jains are financially sound, well-educated, wealthy and entrepreneurial, and this offers them pride of place in Gujarat’s traditions. As a result, Jain food is often referred to as Gujarati food, and non-Jain food is often referred to as Muslim, coastal, or Dalit food. In a district that was constructed by the Jains, known as Pali Tala, vegetarianism is strictly enforced. No one who lives there, not even Muslims, is allowed to eat meat.

Worlds apart

Thus, Ahmedabad’s Jain population visits The House of MG secure in the knowledge that the food is Jain – vegetarian and with various other restrictions. The clientele is well-to-do, the minimum one spends on a meal is approximately Rs 1,900. The House of MG sits in a refurbished house of Mangaldas, its restaurant Agashiye is famed for its Gujarati thaali and was established in 2006.

The Mangaldas family is one of Gujarat’s most well-known businessmen. The family owned cotton mills set up in Ahmedabad. The current heir and owner of The House of MG, Abhay Mangaldas, has been interviewed many times about his fantastic heritage hotel and how he restored the place to its “old world charm”.

In comparison, the people who eat at The New Irani Café are a varied mix of Muslims, Hindus and anyone else who wants to eat meat. A plate of food rarely costs more than Rs 400, even though the actual eating is surreptitious – families of most customers, for instance, rarely know that someone in the house eats meat on the sly. On one table at New Irani Café, a group of customers ordered dal fry and chicken. Every face turned to the man who had asked for the chicken. “Ghar pe pata hai kya?” Does anyone at your home know? his friend asked, elbowing him in the ribs. The men laughed at the impossibility of the notion. “No one can eat non-veg openly because he will be looked upon in a bad way,” a man who refused to identify himself said, as he tucked into his chicken curry.

Yusuf Patel, the owner of New Irani Café, is known to Ahmedabad natives as the man with the best maska-bun and chicken curry rice in town. The Patel family has lived in Gujarat for seven generations, first in the district of Dhandhuka, and then in Ahmedabad since the 1940s. They have been running the café for over 60 years. The spices used by them are sourced from Gujarat and they make dishes that are different from other states in both taste and texture. New Irani Café’s famous maska-bun used to come with a layer of egg, until Patel observed his customers asking for “Hindu-buns”.

“We removed the layer of egg because it’s everyone’s responsibility to take care not to offend the person next to you,” he said. “This rigidity of non-vegetarian food being seen as bad is there... but people have to eat meat – even if they have to hide and eat, they’ll still eat.” Even today, if you ask Patel what kind of food he serves, he will call it Muslim, instead of simply Gujarati, or Gujarati non-vegetarian.

“I had never thought about it because this is the tendency here... Gujarati generally means Hindu here,” he said with a laugh. “Oh Allah! Why, we are purely Gujarati.”

Sharing space

In his book Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursions into Eating, Culture, and The Past, anthropologist Sydney Mintz noted that “food habits can serve as vehicles of deep emotion. They are normally learned early and well and are mostly inculcated by affectively significant adults; hence they can acquire enduring sentimental power. One does not become an adult in the abstract; it must happen in terms of some particular, substantive body of cultural material”.

In Gujarat, the divide between the Hindu and Muslim areas is such that Umar, Mukhtar’s 21-year-old son, has been told that he comes from mini-Pakistan when people learn he hails from the Muslim-majority area of Juhapura. “Whoever says that to me, I tell them: do not make me a foreigner in my own country,” he said.

Even Patel remembered different times. When he was young he recalled that priests would come to New Irani Café to eat. “They would even eat the mutton,” he said. But this “has all changed now. Fewer of them come,” he added. He remembered trips to the family lawyer’s office with his father, where people would debate and discuss the Hindu idea of sacred cows and the actual inhumane treatment of the animal and eating non-vegetarian food. Of present times, he said, “I have some friends who have a broad mentality, and we offer them food at our homes. Those are people who do not see the difference between one set of men and the other, but this is a very rare thing.”

When you live in a mixed fashion, Mukhtar said, you share each other’s culture. “Right now, even areas in Gujarat are divided. Where the Muslims and Hindus live are different and the space in between them is called the Line of Control.”

Eating mutton sup in his living room in Juhapura, Mukhtar added that this careful labelling was a part of a careful Gujarati calculation: “If there’s a Muslim who’s not too smart or too political, he’ll call himself a Muslim, but he’ll call a Hindu a Gujarati,” he said. “This was a thought-out strategy of the Sangh Parivar, that in whatever way Hindu and Muslim can’t be together... If we were allowed to mix, how would they spread their propaganda of painting Muslims as villains? When there’s no dialogue, there’s no meeting, then whatever identity the Sangh Parivar gives to the Hindus and Muslims, they will accept.”

Umar remembered that before 2002, “if the Hindus were celebrating a festival, I’d spend the whole day with my Hindu friends helping them prepare. Now, it’s totally different. Everything has changed, my friends call and ask to come over in secret on the days that they craving mutton and biryani.”

“We have never and would never cook beef,” Mukhtar added. He insists this was the case even before the Gujarat government amended state laws on March 31, to make cow slaughter punishable with a life sentence.

For the love of food

Across the city, opposite Ahmedabad’s posh Karnavati Club, a group of food trucks gather every night in a field. Some of the trucks serve non-vegetarian food while others are so vegetarian, they only serve fruit. This is the only place in the city where middle-class Hindus and Muslim youth interact freely: each interested only in a meal and a good time. American pop music blares from speakers and the smell of mutton burgers is mixed up with the smell of paranthas and gulab jamun.

To put together Ahmedabad’s food truck-festival, a truck owner alleges that each truck pays a weekly bribe to the police and the local leaders of a Hindutva nationalist group. “It is Rs 600 per truck per week,” he said, under condition of anonymity.

In the food truck community, there is still respect for customers’ food preferences, based on religion. Muslims are told when the meat is halal, pork hot dogs are not stored at all in some vans, so as not to offend anyone.

“That respect is all that keeps us together,” Patel mused. “Without it, we are nothing at all.”