There are no idle hands at Krishnaji Bharit Centre.

Hours before lunch or dinner, and before major long distance trains halt at Jalgaon railway station, roughly 300 kilograms of brinjal or eggplant bharit are cooked, served, packed and despatched everyday. It’s a hole-in-the-wall outlet in Jalgaon city’s old BJ Market area, and customers range from industrialists to labourers, aspiring parliamentarians to weary party workers.

Just before dinnertime on a hot weekday evening, the interiors of Krishnaji Bharit are a blur of cleaning, chopping, crushing, peeling, roasting, frying, stirring, serving and packing. Men queue up outside the restaurant along three steel railings, a lot like the queue management railings that old single-screen cinemas once had outside the box office.

The starring role here belongs to 14 women.

PHOTO • Courtesy: District Information Officer, Jalgaon

Jalgaon District Collector Ayush Prasad shot an election awareness video inside Krishnaji Bharit in the last week of April 2024. The video was downloaded and viewed lakhs of times, according to the district information officer

They are the backbone of the elaborate preparation, cooking three quintals of brinjal every day into brinjal bharit , known elsewhere in the country as baingan ka bharta .  After the Jalgaon district administration shot an election awareness video inside the busy outlet, their faces are now widely recognisable.

The video, aimed at improving women’s voter turnout at the Jalgaon parliamentary constituency polls on 13 May, featured the women of Krishnaji Bharit discussing what they knew about their rights, and what they learnt that day about the process of exercising their franchise.

“I learnt from the District Collector that for that one moment, when we stand before the voting machine, our fingers marked with ink, we are truly free,” says Mirabai Naral Konde, whose family runs a tiny barbershop. Her salary from the restaurant is a critical addition to the household income. “We can make our choice in front of the machine without asking our husband or parent or boss or leader.”

Production in Krishnaji Bharit’s kitchen skyrockets to 500 kilos during peak season, from October through February, when the best winter eggplants flood local markets. The taste of freshly ground and fried chillies, coriander, roasted peanuts, garlic and coconut are one part of the draw, say the women. The other half is the affordability of the fare. For less than Rs. 300, families can take away a kilo of bharit and some add-ons.

The 10 x 15 feet kitchen, a furnace when the four stovetops are busy, produces a total of 34 items, including dal fry, paneer-matar and other vegetarian items. The crown jewel of this product line, however, is the bharit and the shev bhaji , a curried presentation of deep-fried sev made of gram flour.

PHOTO • Kavitha Iyer
PHOTO • Kavitha Iyer

Left: Krishna Bharit buys the best quality brinjals from local farmers and markets to make 3 to 5 quintals of brinjal bharit everyday. Right: Onions waiting to be chopped around 7:30 p.m., for a fresh round of curries and bharit to be made for the dinner rush

PHOTO • Kavitha Iyer
PHOTO • Kavitha Iyer

Left: Peas, spices, a block of cottage cheese and two cans of freshly cooked dal fry sit next to one of four stovetops inside the small kitchen of Krishnaji Bharit. Right: Razia Patel chops dried coconut into small pieces before it is crushed or ground into a paste. She handles up to 40 coconuts a day

As the conversation shifts to affordability and cost of living, the women are suddenly not shy. Pushpa Raosaheb Patil, 46, could not avail the subsidised cooking gas cylinder under the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana for safe cooking fuel. There was a problem with the documents, she says.

Ushabai Rama Sutar, who is over 60 years old, does not have a home. “ Lokanna moolbhoot suvidha milayala havyet, naahi [People should get basic services, right]?” says the widow who returned to her native hometown after losing her husband several years ago. “All citizens should have houses to live in.”

Most of the women live in rented accommodation. Razia Patel, 55, says rent is Rs. 3,500, about a third of her meagre monthly income. “Election after election, we hear the promises about mahangai [inflation],” she says. “After the elections, prices of everything keep rising.”

The women say they do this work in order to remain independent, and because there is no alternative. Many have worked here for many years — Sutar for 21 years, Sangita Narayan Shinde for 20 years, Malubai Devidas Mahale for 17 years and Usha Bhimrao Dhangar for 14 years.

Their day begins with preparing 40 to 50 kilos of brinjals, the first batch of several that they will handle during the day. The brinjals must be steamed, roasted, peeled, the fleshy insides then carefully extracted and pulped by hand. Green chillies, by the kilo, will be handpounded with garlic and peanuts. This thecha (dry chutney of ground green chillies and peanuts) will be added to the hot oil along with finely chopped coriander before the onions and brinjals. The women also chop a few dozen kilos of onion everyday.

PHOTO • Kavitha Iyer
PHOTO • Kavitha Iyer

Left: The women roll out about 2,000 polis or chapatis everyday, and an additional 1,500 bhakris made of bajra . Right: Plastic bags of curry wait outside the ‘parcel delivery’ window of Krishnaji Bharit

Krishnaji Bharit isn't just a local favourite; it is a destination for people from distant towns and tehsils . Some of those eating an early dinner at the nine plastic tables inside have come from as far as Pachora and Bhusawal, located 25 km to 50 km away.

Krishnaji Bharit also sends 1,000 parcels everyday, including to places 450 km away, by train, including Dombivali, Thane, Pune and Nashik.

Founded in 2003 by Ashok Motiram Bhole, Krishnaji Bharit took its name from a local godman who told the owner that a restaurant selling vegetarian food would prove to be profitable. The bharit here is an authentic traditional homemade dish that is cooked best by the Leva Patil community, says Devendra Kishore Bhole, the manager.

The Leva-Patils, a socio-politically prominent community in the Khandesh region of northern Maharashtra, are an agrarian community with their own dialects and culinary and cultural roots.

As the aroma of the brinjal curry proceeds to permeate the restaurant, the women begin to roll out polis and bhakris for the dinner rush. The women make about 2,000 polis (chapatis, flatbread made of wheat) everyday, and about 1,500 bhakris (flatbread, made of millet, most commonly bajra or pearl millet in Krishnaji Bharit).

It will be dinner time soon and the women begin to wind down as the day’s labours come to a close, one bharit parcel at a time.
Kavitha Iyer

Kavitha Iyer has been a journalist for 20 years. She is the author of ‘Landscapes Of Loss: The Story Of An Indian Drought’ (HarperCollins, 2021).

Other stories by Kavitha Iyer
Editor : Priti David

Priti David is the Executive Editor of PARI. She writes on forests, Adivasis and livelihoods. Priti also leads the Education section of PARI and works with schools and colleges to bring rural issues into the classroom and curriculum.

Other stories by Priti David