My neck of the concrete woods of Bangalore has changed a lot in the past 20 years. New residential buildings have come up, office buildings are e.v.e.r.y.w.h.e.r.e, the roads are wider but no less dusty, malls have opened and shut down (although the two most prominent weddings halls are still going strong as is the Indian Institute of Management’s gorgeous campus). It’s a balmy 33 degree celcius this morning and I’m headed to a nearby Starbucks where I usually sitdown to work when I come to visit but first, I’ll make a detour to go get some breakfast.
For over two years, I’ve been craving idli and vada dipped in that unmistakably Bengaluru Sambar at SLV. The Saravana Bhavan in Manhattan serves the same thing but when I walk out of there, something always feels a little lacking and I can never quite tell what it is. Maybe SLV is just better?
As I weave through the 9AM Bannerghatta road traffic, I’m slowy beginning to remember how much I loved living in this city. The traffic is insane. There are buses, rickshaws, trucks, bikes and even cranes jostling for space on the single lane of the road that is motorable and not occupied by metro construction debris. At this time of the day, it’ll probably take me half an hour to cover the 4.5kms to SLV but I’ve always loved to drive here. Roll up the windows, turn up the music and switch on the AC at which time my poor little Chevy Spark lets out a heavy sigh and strenously revs its tiny engine a wee bit more. Its taught me the value in simply letting go of things you can’t control (like Bangalore traffic) and focus on whats in front of you (and in this case, around you). I’m at my zen best when I drive in Bangalore.
But the anti-environment, private-car-driving version of me is fairly new because perhaps what I remember most fondly about this route is when I used to take the bus to school. Here, right in front of the Casa Ansals apartments complex is where I’d fight and shove and squeeze my way out of an over-crowded city bus and jump off, school bag in tow. I’d trot along slowly in the general direction of school, kicking stones across the road, trampling the yellow and purple flowers that line these streets and shadow bat like Dravid and Tendulkar while I was at it.
Today, I drive past my school’s compound slowly. The walls are freshly painted and much taller. The flimsy metal fence we’d jumped over on numerous occasions has now been replaced. The security guards are new as are the school van drivers none of whom I recognize. I park my car under a tree across the street, just by the school for the visually impaired and walk towards SLV. Across the street in the stationery shop, I see Pradeep – the man from whose shop I’ve bought innumerable record books, pens, ink bottles, lays chips, dairy milk chocolates, coke bottles and cornetto ice creams over the years. “Ey Anirudh!” He exclaimed just as I was taking my mask off to say hello. Finally, I thought to myself, this is exactly what I wanted – a hint of familiarity.
My order at SLV is almost always the same. “One plate Idli vada. One coffee”. “Sambar dip ah, saar?” asks a voice from across the counter to which I respond in the affirmative. For the uninitiated, “dip” in this parlance refers to whether the idli is drowned in sambar or served separately. (Expert tip: Dip is always better). Instinctively I pick up two spoons from the steaming hot sterilizer and dig into my breakfast. It’s a meal one can enjoy at leisure ofcourse but by force of habit, I devour it in under 4 minutes. When that first morsel of food touches the tongue, anyone who has eaten at these fast food places often enough, hits a little rhythm not unlike short distance sprinters. Once you lock into that groove, its hard to slow yourself down even intentionally! I took a quick glance at my watch like I used to all the years ago wondering if I’m late for class and need to dash across the road to make it in time. I didn’t but that memory makes me smile.
That’s when it hit me. This is neither Bangalore’s best coffee nor breakfast and it doesn’t have to be. When I’m sitting in Brooklyn craving idlis, it’s not just the food that I’m craving. It’s this feeling. It’s what it means to be here in-person with the cacophony of traffic, the loud post-morning-walk conversations of older men and women, the ladies selling marigold and jasmine, groundnuts and mangoes on the sidewalk and the smell of freshly brewed coffee, boiling sambar and ghee-roasted dosas. It’s the memories of standing outside Pradeep’s shop and MAR Chats and the house belonging to that crazy old man who didn’t like any of us. It’s the exhaustion and elation of playing football and cricket like crazy people in the dust and heat of the summer in that barren playground. It’s the relief at the end of the day of packing up your stuff and getting on that bus again, school bag in tow. It’s the nostalgia in this city that I thought I’ve outgrown but that chases behind me every time I set foot on that street.
A lot has changed in my neck of the concrete woods of Bangalore but right now, I’ve found the old in the new because I know exactly where to look each time.