A story of Meenal, the burger, and Shahrukh Khan.
It was the 90s Hindi cinema that introduced young Meenal to the modest burger. In 2022, approaching her late-twenties, she still remembers the way Shah Rukh Khan’s Raj encouraged Kajol’s Simran to eat a takeaway McDonald’s bun on a cold Swiss night in the iconic Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.
Meenal, who was ten years old when I first met her in 2006, became a woman as I repeatedly interviewed her mother, Zahira, for more than a decade. Throughout the years, her enthusiasm for burgers grew unabated. Since I have no interest in boring you with my amateurish hot take on food culture, allow me to simply narrate how Meenal met and fell in love with the burger.I met Zahira and Meenal in Bapunagar, a neighbourhood in Ahmedabad, one of the poorest parts of the city. In the early 60s, the neighbourhood served as a residential area for low-income mill workers who came to Ahmedabad to work during the textile mill boom. Many of these mills closed in the late 90s, displacing factory workers and forcing them to turn to casual labour, home-based businesses, or migrant work outside Ahmedabad. Like Zahira, most women in Bapunagar today work as home-based garment workers, or are involved in the manufacturing of garments, tobacco products, boxes, incense sticks, and kites.
Through the first week of my stay, I met the daughters of many of the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) members who were participating in my research. They were mostly painfully shy, silently gripping their mothers’ hands. One of these mothers was Zahira and one of these daughters was Meenal. When I asked them about their future plans, nearly all of them said they hoped to become teachers. Except Meenal, who said she wanted a job that would enable her to travel.
Two weeks into my visit, Meenal would join me as I waited for her mother at the SEWA office. A ten-year-old with responsibilities, she walked back from school to collect money from her mother to go shopping for vegetables for dinner. She enjoyed telling me about how skillfully she selected cauliflowers and potatoes, testing the sabziwallah’s patience as she felt the texture and freshness of the goods. Zahira had promised to make their favourite aloo tikki for dinner, and the potatoes had to be just right.
Zahira had also requested her daughter to pick up a small sachet of tomato ketchup from a food stand near her school to accompany the fried potatoes. They needed condiments, but Zahira did not have the time to prepare any accompaniments beyond roti. Besides, the tomatoes were not as fresh as they needed them to be.
I often noticed how sauces from the local chaat-wallahs or small-scale street vendors would find their way into the plates of food and snacks the women in Bapunagar ate. Lentils and other protein was a luxury. Hesitant to stand in line with male labourers to buy affordable precooked meals, the working mothers surrounding Meenal embellished their home-cooked ones with a variety of local sauces during tough financial times.
Meenal ate her first burger at a SEWA meeting she attended with her mother. Snacks were usually served for meetings with donor agencies or development partners. But this time, instead of the usual mayo sandwich, Gujarati snacks or samosas, she was served a vegetarian burger with lettuce, tomato, and a fried potato filling. To her, this was different from the tikki served by grumpy uncles on the streets. The patty was more compact and held together. The bun was far more delicious. She learned about the different varieties of burgers through school friends. Her classmates insisted that a chicken burger was far superior to the potato variant she had tried.
When I returned to Meenal’s neighbourhood in Bapunagar in 2014, the area was far more concretised. Middle class residential complexes were being planned, and discussions of evictions and construction dominated the landscape. By then, Zahira was 35 and obsessed with Meenal’s marital prospects. She had also fought hard to gain independence from her violent marriage, and had eventually taken up a well-paid short contract job for a donor project at SEWA.
I also noted that their financial situation had improved. They ate better, bought a new transistor, a new bed, and two mobile phones. Meenal was 18 years old and earning independently through part-time garment work and supporting various NGO projects nearby. Lentils were no longer a luxury.
Sadly, the burger remained out of easy reach for Meenal. The ”good burgers”were egregiously expensive and would require her to pay for local transport. This also meant that McDonald’s or any fast-food chain only existed as fantasies in the films, or in advertisements she watched occasionally on her friend’s TV. Real life, with its unequal distribution of purchasing power, seemed to mock her enthusiasm to become a young, burger-munching yuppie.
But even so, by curating the menu at SEWA meetings and our interviews, she satisfied her craving to try different types of burgers. Afraid that I would spoil her daughter, Zahira refused to let me take Meenal to the local McDonald’s in Ahmedabad. Instead, I was allowed to treat her to the same old aloo tikki burger from the local market. “Even this is far better than if we try to make it at home because the bread is better,” she once said between big bites of her favourite meal.
And as Meenal became an adult, her favourite food gained a sexier connotation. More than a decade after its release in 1998, in 2012, Meenal had managed to watch Dil Se on TV at a friend’s home. As we ate a few burgers together in the summer of 2014 – and talked about our mutual favourite actor Shah Rukh Khan – she giggled as she described watching Preity Zinta and Shah Rukh Khan’s characters discuss their sexual history over a burger in the film. The scene is draped in Delhi’s winter sunlight, shot in Hauz Khas, with intoxicating charm. Zinta plays a spunky young woman who is exploring the possibility of an arranged marriage with the character portrayed by Khan. They are encouraged by their families to meet a few times to gauge compatibility. The audience is shown one such date, where they share an orange on a DTC bus. For lunch, they eat burgers with salad and fries.
Meenal told me how anytime she saw a burger, she would remember that particular exchange. As Zinta’s character, called Preeti Nair in the film, eats her chips and bun, she asks Khan’s Amar if he is a virgin. He looks shocked and they laugh. Preeti mentions the growing prevalence of premarital sex, expressing how paavam she is by clearly telling Amar that she is not one of those “shaadi-ke-pehle” girls. Unable to use the term ‘sex’, Zinta’s Preeti says, “you know…honk-a-bonk-a-bonk.” Till date, Meenal laughs about the first time she saw two unmarried adults discussing sex was over a burger, in a film.By 2016, the home-based manufacturing of garments or incense sticks were no longer a means for a sustainable livelihood in Bapunagar. Demand for garments from the local markets and tailors declined as well. A lot of apparel and textile work had also shifted to factories in Bangalore, Coimbatore, and Surat.
Meenal had finished her board exams in 2015 with strong scores. She knew her mother could not support her plans to go to college, so she learned basic computer competencies by working ad hoc jobs for a local NGO. And after a long, difficult year of searching, she found work as a surveyor in a large market research firm based in Mumbai. The pay was flexible, depending on the number of surveys she completed accurately, and the job sometimes included travel. Meenal was quick on her feet, an articulate Hindi speaker, and she was excited about asking questions for a living.
Zahira was uncomfortable with the idea of Meenal leaving for Mumbai. “I had hoped she would find a good job nearby,” Zahira said to me on the phone. “But, these days, finding a job is harder than finding a husband. In the end, her uncle brokered a compromise, they agreed that Meenal would travel for assignments based on how comfortable Zahira felt. Each offer would involve hours of negotiation between mother, uncle, and daughter.
By 2019, Meenal was in high demand at work, often spending half the year away from her family on assignments. Much like her mother, she was charming, hardworking, and able to elicit responses from survey respondents. She went frequently to Mumbai, as her firm found it cheaper to pay migrants a piece rate than hire local staff in the city. With her first income, she bought a McDonald’s Chicken McGrill burger and ate it all by herself. Seated alone in a fast-food store in the heart of India, diving into her favourite food, she had arrived.
Life was thrilling when you could afford the pleasure of a burger in Mumbai with your own money. Soon, perhaps, she would honk-a-bonk-a-bonk.