Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Bengaluru Days – The Idea of Eating Out in ‘Them Days’

The idea of eating out is probably as old as time itself. Man as a hunter – gatherer was always eating out. Those days there was no eating in. Today it’s a different ball game all together. There are a number of reasons why people eat out. My dear colleague Doc Ramesh used to say that he ate at home to survive and went out to enjoy. One of my father’s friends had made ‘eating out’ a habit, every evening he would be at our palace to partake the excellent dishes which my mother offered. Much later we came to know that, the friend’s wife and Nalapaka the Hindu mythological culinary expert were not on speaking terms. Dore and Lalitha, our close friends, used to eat out very frequently when they were newly married, as both used to work. Whatever may be the reason, eating out always offers you a change from the regular fare and change is always for the better – however fleeting it may be.

Today, the opportunities to eat out are many and the places to visit are even more. Whenever I ask my son Vivek, where we should go out to eat – he has a plethora of questions which are required to be answered before he decides for you – who’s going, is it a treat, who is paying, whether you chaps are going to have drinks and so on; if you think the restaurant has been selected after you have answered all the Q’s, you are mistaken. Then comes the next volley – Chinese, Italian, Moghulai, Thai, Afghan, Continental, Sushi, Chettinad and the options are mind boggling. At the end of the meal, the situation gets even more serious, the guests generally become silent after a good meal and the person who has to pay the bill becomes even more silent and withdrawn – the silence turns to suspense and finally to shock as the bill arrives - the astronomical cost that one has to pay to ‘eat out’ in today’s Bangalore.

When we were young I mean the fifties and the sixties, eating out was never so complicated. The two most important factors for eating out namely – availability of money and restaurants were both absent. As a result ‘eating out’ actually meant ‘whatever you ate outside of your house’ not necessarily in a restaurant. Having defined eating out, it becomes easier and far simpler to recall how we ate out those days.

My earliest memory of eating out was in the canteen of Mahila Seva Samaj. Actually it was not a canteen in a traditional sense but an enclosure specially carved out for Mr Anthony. Mr A was a very short statured man with a goti beard who kept his Tuck Shop in the space below the stairs leading to the first floor of the school. Apart from many useful school related items, he also kept Pea Nut Toffee, Buns, Biscuits, Chocolates, Halcova, Acid Balls, Lemon Drops, Bulls Eye and Bananas. During class breaks one could visit Mr A and partake the goodies, provided you had the money. But M was always in short supply and therefore my visits to the tuck shop were - I would say infrequent if not rare.

Outside the school compound the availability of food and their variety increased manifold. Probably the concept of mall may have originated here. In this free retail zone, Mr John the Ice Candy man stood out. He had three varieties of ice candies, the water based ice candy being the cheapest, and then there was grated ice with coloured syrup and finally the milk candy. To eat the last one, you had to be either rich or know a friend who was rich. Shantaram was one such customer of John. In the overall scheme of things it was good to cultivate Shantu.

As we progressed to National High School, Kaka became the centre of attraction. Not to be confused with the Brazilian footballer but a simple mallu, who sold mouth watering raw mango masala, tomato slices with puri, cucumber slices with green chutney, pineapple slices with salt and red chili powder and bhel puri. All of us strongly believed that he was the best in Bengaluru. Nobody like Kaka. The Kaka craze did not end there. Many years later, I took my wife to Kaka’s place during the holidays and both gorged as if there was no tomorrow. The after effect was loud and clear as our son who was only three months old developed bad loosies.

There were other outdoor attractions, but the best, was a chap who came with sweet candy paste in a multitude of colours. The paste was carried at the end of a wooden stick and covered with plastic. He would draw the paste and make almost anything, such as a watch, car, motorcycle etc. We stood and watched him with admiration as he dished out each individual requirement. After a lapse of almost 45 years I had it once again in Disney Land in Orlando.

There was yet another chap, who came selling dried figs and dates. In addition to accepting money like all other vendors, he also bartered his figs and dates for old bronze and copper utensils. He usually came around 2 PM when all the hard working mothers went to rest for a while. Seeing this window of opportunity I would stealthily smuggle out a vessel or two and barter.

We did have our occasional trips with parents to the old MTR and Lalbagh restaurant. Once my aunt took three of her children and me to Kwality Restaurant on Brigade Road. She ordered pastries for us and went out for some shopping. To our astonishment the waiter brought a plate full of assorted pastries and kept it in front of us. Nobody knew what to do or how to proceed. After much consultation with Radha and Pammi, Prakash and I decided that all the 12 pastries had to be eaten. When aunty was presented with the bill, her face changed colour several times in a matter of minutes and finally settled down to a mix of battleship grey and stormy green. In the confines of their house the three siblings plotted against me and to this day people still believe that I was the instigator.

Keshava was academically very bright and became the head boy of his class. The duties and responsibilities of the head boy were many, but one stood out. He was required to spot the trouble makers and write their names on the black board. Satya was mortally scared of Keshava and dreaded the sight of his name on the board. Satya was down but not out. He had other trump cards up his sleeve. He was ‘Jiddi Hotlu’ owner’s son. Very soon a deal was carved out between the two. Keshava should not write the name of Satya and in return Keshava would be allowed to eat free in the hotel. Later on the rule was slightly amended to include one good friend of Keshava – yours truly. The condition being we could make use of the hotel only when Satya sat on the cash counter. In one master stroke Keshava brought a totally new meaning to “Eating Out’. In fact life itself changed for the better.

Every year my uncle from Bombay drove down with his family to spend time with our grandparents. Bombai Mama was a voracious eater who strongly believed that God had erred in giving two hands but only one mouth. An out and out gourmet who loved eating out. I looked forward to his annual visits with great anticipation. Visits to Venkateshwara Fruit Stall the only joint serving ice cream in Gandhi Bazar were very common. Visiting Vidyarthi Bhavan was a daily ritual. Parade Cafe was also his favourite haunt.

College days were spent in ’Anadhi Restaurant’ (orphan) (how it got its name still remains a mystery) on Hardinge Road now known as Pampa Maha Kavi Rasta. In our days it was owned by Mr Mani from Kerala. The USP of the hotel was, it allowed the customers to spend any amount of time and order one by two coffee or even six by twelve all on credit. Mani had only one helper by the name of Pichaiyya who also left the hotel due to some small financial misunderstanding with the owner. He had not been paid his monthly wages for over six months. Mani thereafter became owner, waiter, cook cum cleaner, creating a totally new concept in hotelliering. A unique feature of the hotel was that Mani took the order and shouted in the direction of the kitchen ‘randu’ (two) dosa and went inside to make the dosa himself and finally served it to the customer. To our friends circle Anadhi was ‘Coffee Day’ of Shankarpuram

These experiences of ‘eating out’ from the pre historic days are a far cry from what happens today. The idea of pocket money was yet to take root and making programmes with buddies was a tough task without cell phones, chatting and face book. Private transport was nonexistent and above all there was a perpetual shortage of moolah. I sometimes suspect that the RBI did not mint enough coins to go around those days.

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