“Sorry madam, I can listen but my English speaking is not very good,” the stout man in a cream-colored pantsuit greets me in a singsong voice as I enter the cab that’s going to take me for a spin around Bangalore today.
An unexpected meeting had turned up for my boss, who was supposed to take me out for a city tour. He would not accept any nonsense about roughing it out (read: brave the town bus or autorickshaw) and against my protestations, chartered a taxi from Meru Cabs.
This is in 2009 (way before the age of UBER for the record) so I’m not sure what to expect. Fifteen minutes before the appointed time, an sms pipes into my phone: “Thank you for choosing MERU. Cab: KAO3D4222. Subscriber: Rajaguru.” Not bad!
I know that Bangalore is the technological hub of India and has become a cosmopolitan city, so honestly, I’m not expecting much history or atmosphere. To my surprise, the city preserves much of its original charm in a plethora of old buildings, atmospheric markets, and tranquil parks.
Our first stop is Viddhana Soudha, the seat of the state legislature of Karnataka. Incorporating Indo-Saracenic and Dravidian architectural styles, the sprawling complex is the largest legislature-cum-secretariat building in the country and the brainchild of the then chief minister Kengal Hanumanthaiah, who wanted a building to depict the dignity of the people.
Across the road is another stunning building, Attara Kacheri or the state of Karnataka’s High Court building, which is constructed out of red brick and boasts a majestic Corinthian column façade.
In spite of the hurly burly of modern life, Bangalore is deeply rooted in a strong religious tradition. Before I came to Bangalore, I already knew of the Hare Krishnas, so I jump at the opportunity to visit a temple of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (Iskcon). This sanctuary of peace, a dazzling white complex lavishly decorated in a mix of ultra-contemporary and traditional styles, is a sight to behold.
For my next stop, Mr Ramesh suggests that I visit the 16th century Bull temple, dedicated to Nandi Bull, the vehicle of Lord Shiva.
Inside is a huge idol of Nandi Bull which is said to have been carved out of a single rock. Bangalore was a major cultivator of peanuts and according to legend, the temple was built to appease a bull that used to consume and destroy all the groundnuts in the area. After the temple was built, the bull stopped damaging the crops.
Piqued by the lore, I’m certainly curious to check out the temple, but I’m also absolutely ravenous. As Mr Ramesh is walking me to the bottom of the stairs leading up to the temple, he says casually, “Madam, I see you in half an hour ok? I am going for snack.”
My ears cock up. “Where?”
“A place for lunch, madam.”
“Can I go with you?”
The thindi is just across the temple entrance, a corner stall selling Indian snacks prepared on the spot by an open kitchen no bigger than 2 x 5 ft at most. The air is pungent with the aromas of freshly prepared coffee and bread.
Two chaps are flipping breads on a hot griddle while two others are ladling them on deep metal trays on a counter. Extraordinary as it sounds, there must be dozens of people crammed into that tiny space: working men, ladies, housewives, waiting impatiently for their food. There are tall steel tables where people stand and eat – and no chairs in sight.
Motorcycles, auto-rickshaws and cars roar past, flavouring the food with a generous sprinkle of dust and dirt, but the patrons continue munching merrily on, impervious and unperturbed.
I notice that everybody is gripping a thumb-height tumbler of hot liquid.
“Is that bru coffee?” I ask eagerly, referring to my favourite beverage at Indian curry houses back in Malaysia.
“No, this is filter coffee.”
“Very good.” Mr Ramesh punctuates this with an enthusiastic head waggle that reminds me of a dancer. “You try. I get one for you.”
Before I can utter a word, my taxi driver – whom I had not even paid a cent – dashes off to order a coffee for his eccentric foreign charge.
It would be the height of rudeness to refuse. “National service,” I tell myself as I take a tentative sip, ignoring all the warnings I’d heard about Indian food and Delhi.
Holy Mother India.
Rich, luscious and aromatic – “filter coffee” is such a poor name to describe its awesomeness.
As the warm liquid slips down my throat, I smile back at other locals who share our steel table, grinning at me with open amusement. In that brief exchange, I sense some kind of shift has taken place. Delhi belly or otherwise, this feeling of solidarity is worth it.
I’ve had enough of history for the day, so I ask Mr Ramesh to take me for a spin around the city, stopping every now and then to take photos of mundane stuff (to him anyway), except they were anything but mundane to me. Everywhere I turn, something reminds me of the over-the-topness that defines Bollywood.
Laundromats whose signboards sing gaily, “Fresh as a flower in just an hour”. Indian copywriting is so chirpy AND melodramatic – I love it!
This sense of melodrama pervades even my conversation with Mr Ramesh. For example, he keeps telling me to leave my bag in the taxi and I steadfastly refuse. “In most cities I know, somebody will break your window and steal your bag,” I explain.
He gasps audibly and shakes his head with emphatic certainty. “This is not possible in India. One hundred percent.”
At the end of an eventful day, he drops me back at the Residency, tired but bursting with stories to tell my boss, who is meeting me for dinner.
I suspect that I should dress up – and I’m right. He whisks me to Samarkand restaurant, a classy establishment with high ceilings, ornate décor that includes huge paintings of desert scenes, waiters wearing regal turbans standing like Buckingham sentries, bread sticks that come with FIVE dips served in little pots perched on “branches” in a tree-shaped vessel. Is this how the maharajahs of Samarkand used to dine?
The chicken and lamb shank is fit for kings. We are stuffed to the gills, but the night is still young.
We decide to head for dessert at Sidewalk Ice-Cream Parlour, which is just outside my Residency. Happily eating my Death by Chocolate ice-cream, I ask the boss, “What else should I try here?”
“You must try chat.” At my quizzical expression, he continues, “It’s hard to describe. It has ingredients that you might not be so familiar with, like puffed rice… you must try it.”
“Is it sweet, savoury, spicy …?”
“It’s both. And sour. And spicy. It’s everything. An explosion of flavours on your tongue. Talking about it is making my mouth water actually! Oh and you must try the Chinese food here.”
I roll my eyes in disgust. “Why would I want to come all the way here and try Chinese food?”
He laughs. “The food here is nothing like what you have back in Malaysia, yar? It’s so Indianized you won’t believe it!”
Hmm, ok maybe I won’t rule Chinese food out yet. Since India has been nothing and everything I expected, maybe I should experiment, just for the heck of it?