Edited By: Pragyna Divakar
A snack synonymous with the Maharashtrian Mumbaikar milieu, the vada pav is a ubiquitously enjoyed snack and a sine qua non of street food in India. The vada pav is multifaceted, not only in terms of its textural gradations but also because of its socio-political and cultural nuances.
Food is a concept that goes beyond taste, it is also an effective means of power and a medium to propagate political agendas. Tracing the history of the vada pav reveals a political narrative hidden in its spongy folds. It is the Shiv Sena, known for their far right and pro-Marathi tactics, that appears on a plate of the spicy and delectable vada pav. The party weaponized Mumbai’s favourite street snack by using it as a symbol to imperiously establish Marathi ethnicity and Marathi pride. This politicising of the vada pav has obscured the very essence of the dish, its taste and the meaning it has acquired in people’s lives.
The vada pav is an embodiment of artistry, its flavour dependent upon the creativity of the cook. Every vendor claims to have a secret recipe or a special ingredient that makes his vada pav unique: a pinch of ground masala, or a topping of choora (the crispy crumbs left at the bottom of the frying pan) along with the vada. Reasonable and wallet friendly, the vada pav cuts across social strata and is a great leveler of different classes. It is ironic that the dish propagated as Maharashtrian pride has its roots in Portugal. Both of vada pav’s main components – the potato and the bun – are European imports, brought into India by the Portuguese around the 17th Century. Even though hostile towards immigrants and the ‘other’, the Shiv Sena adopted and appropriated the dish as Mumbai’s very own. The reason for this can be attributed to the fact that the Portuguese imports were given a new Indian identity by Ashok Vaidya who opened the first vada pav stall opposite the Dadar train station, through which hundreds of workers – in need of a quick, inexpensive snack – passed every day on their way to the textile mills. The Shiv Sena tapped into this opportunity of using the Vada pav to build political clout and garner a “taste” among the local working-class Marathi populace who formed the majority vote bank.
Despite using the vada pav to further political interests, the dish’s historical origins are not obscured, and it still embodies important meanings in people’s lives. The 1980s were a turbulent time for the Bombay textile workers. Innumerable strikes and an unsuccessful compromise with the government led to closure of mills across the city and rendered numerous unemployed. The workers in the mills started to follow Vaidya’s example and set up vada pav stalls to make up for loss in income. The Shiv Sena used this as an opportunity to curry favour with the local populace by providing the unlicensed vendors protection from the authorities, guaranteeing them an employment. It became a win-win situation — the entrenched mill-workers gained a livelihood, the local populace could continue to pay their homage to the vada pav stalls and the Shiv Sena was able to further its political interests. The European origins were in no means cast aside by the party — the very term “pav” is reminiscent of the cultural influence of the “other” and retaining the term signifies an inbuilt respect for its historical origins.
There is no doubt that the vada pav as a political tool has had a positive impact on the lives of people, becoming an indispensable part of their Maharashtrian identity. Yet, these strategies overshadow the larger implications of the politicisation. Apart from masking the origins and culinary minutiae, the party also propagated a highly polarised dish in the name of nationalism. Around the same time in the 1980’s, the South Indian community in Mumbai began to make its way towards the center stage in the financial and culinary sphere with Idli and Dosa climbing up the popularity charts. The vada pav for the Shiv Sena served as the perfect means to accomplish their anti-“other” politics, to reclaim the space from the alien immigrants and to provide financial solace to the local Maharashtrian populace. Moreover, their larger political aim of amassing power and authority was paraded as an altruistic gesture of providing employment to the “Marathi manoos” (sons of the soil) and the vada pav, from being a common man’s staple, to representing a confluence of cultures became shrouded in the politics of parochial nationalism.
Food is a thread that weaves itself through the lives of people, cutting across classes, castes and every social stratification in society. Perhaps this is the reason it gets displaced from its culinary essences of taste and gastronomic nature and migrates to a land of politics, used for furthering the interests of authority wielding bodies. The Shiv Sena charted the same life plan for the vada pav, using it to establish the “Mumbaikar” pride among the local populace and for propagating their political manifesto. With every bite of the delicate pav paired with the feisty vada, Shiv Sena’s politics is palpable — the party’s partisanship and authority an inseparable part of Mumbai’s street food soul.