Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Breakfast at Koshy's

The atmosphere is the same, mostly the easy negligence of old money. Silver sugar bowls flung casually together with cheap steel ashtrays that even truck-stops would disdain now that they drive Volvos rather than Ashok Leyland lorries. Some tables have neat tablecloths, others are weird Formica. The coffee pots are polished to perfection, the coffee cups are indifferent china. The coffee as always is the best I've ever had.

The same waiters as well, looking exactly the same though years have passed, and consistently of the old school – they do not ask how you're doing, whether you'd like the specials or if you're enjoying the food, they just give you what you need quietly, courteously and without fuss.

The mince on toast – in fact, the whole eccentric menu – is wonderfully unchanged. The legend on their napkins says that their business is food but Koshy's is and has always been a hub, a facilitator. Decades of serving artists, journalists, theatre groups, writers, new love, break-ups, teachers, students and angst-ridden Marxist believers have accustomed the staff to all sorts of special requests. So when I asked a busboy if he would buy me a pen and notepad from the newsstand across the street, he didn't even blink. It may be the only restaurant in the world where the smoking section is larger than the non-smoking. It's certainly the only one I've seen where the swank part has a notice on the door saying "Use of laptops prohibited here".

I got a coveted window table by dint of watching it like a hawk from an inferior one close by and leaping like a salmon as soon as it was vacated. I was actually surprised when someone left. They tended to squat for weeks.

As usual it was full of familiar faces but none of them resolved into names. I know that my brother or friend would have recognised and been recognised by at least half the lunch clientele. They would have had to make a sort of victory lap before they got to their table, if they ever did. Momentarily I had the old familiar feeling of being just a spectator on the sidelines of Bangalore's interesting life. But then I noted with the pettiest pride and pleasure that while I am still the girl in the corner with a book, I am no longer invisible. People turn to look. Certain male people were clearly wondering what life was like for the sort of guys who could go up and talk to a girl just like that. Age is a wonderful thing. Or maybe it was the grey contact lenses. Whatever. I'll take all the help I can get.

Finally the thing about Koshy's is that the first time I came here I was a toddler who needed the high chair stacked in the corner. I have vague memories from the monkey years of my brother and I ruining my parents' leisurely Sunday mornings here, of scrambled eggs and sausages, appam and stew. Neither they nor Koshy's have changed since. The bad paintings though have been replaced by framed photographs of old Bangalore, which I guess is in keeping with the prevailing mood among old Bangaloreans. Koshy's today is a fall-out shelter in a time when very little is left of the city we grew up in, and the rest belongs to America.

Breakfast at Tiffany's, Deep Blue Something, Album: Home, 1994

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Karma chameleon

From all the Hindu myths we've absorbed over the years, we know that seekers of enlightenment tend to find it in moments of self-inflicted pain at high altitudes. That's why mine came when I was perched on six tortuous inches of extremely fashionable mock-snakeskin. From this pinnacle of achievement, I saw many things, eternal truths, the essential continuity of even the most overgrown paths and the fundamental stupidity of most things.

It was sparked by running into a college classmate. I haven't seen her since we moved on to different majors after two years in the same class. She belonged to a scary snob school circle that I wouldn't even consider breaching. Now she's just a person, while I... I was the intimidating one. I saw that in her eyes, recognised it because I know the feeling well. And I see clearly all the time wasted feeling inadequate, fat or defensive when I could have been making friends.

I see also that one of the reasons I left was to find out whether, in a place where I was not one rock star's sister and another's friend, I would still be invited to parties. I was. And they came in droves to my own, too. More time wasted on the wrong side of imaginary fences.

Best of all, I see that Bangalore was never really my city in that sense. I was on the fringe. So I'm not re-starting anything, merely starting something. That I can do. And since I spotted it early no time will be wasted trying to pick up the threads of a teenage life I thought I should have had. I am free.

Karma Chameleon, Culture Club, Album: Colour by Numbers, 1983

Monday, July 14, 2008

Caution: Wire crossing

You know you're in Bangalore when the telephone department makes careful distinctions between dead and half-dead. When you call the "telephone faults" number, these are your options:
Dial 1 if your phone is completely dead
Dial 2 if you have partial service
Dial 3 for instrument fault
Dial 4 for something else
Dial 5 for broadband fault

If you can diagnose it, they will treat it. There is no option to transfer to a call centre agent.

It only takes a few minutes (once you're done calling the number five times just to laugh) to realise it’s a good method. These options cover the most common problems. And if you have any other sort of complaint, it's probably serious enough for you to storm their offices with a large stick. This way they've ensured that our irate dads only do the stick and storming bit for the big problems instead of twice a week.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Overcoming commitment phobia

I had to wait almost two hours for my parents to pick me up because my flight landed at a small hour that they couldn't quite do. (There's never a question of making my own way, I save my breath for the important battles.)

So I had time to look around me and felt much proprietary pride and pleasure in the shiny new airport until I encountered the petty bureaucracy of the free WiFi. One, it's not really free if you have to send text messages over international roaming for a one-hour password. Two, the password came four hours after I had reached home so it's not only unfree, it's also unusable.

But apart from this weirdness – I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt since it was just the one time for me – it's great. After all these years of no-strings camping in someone else's airfield, saying "but we're doing fine, why change things now", Bangalore has finally taken the plunge.

The airport is... well, a real airport. Swank too. They'd even opened up all the immigration counters instead of just one and a half as per usual government procedure. There are seven baggage carousels in place of the one rugby scrum that collecting luggage used to be. The trolleys work. All wheels. At the same time, in the same direction.

There are shops, cafes, bars, restaurants, a spa, more than one telephone, things to do. (I was once stuck in the old airport for seven hours because of a "suspicious flight" with nothing to eat, drink or do once I'd finished my book. It got so bad I risked arrest – unpleasantness, anyway - to sneak into the domestic terminal where the party was at. I bought a book, a sandwich and a coffee and got busted on the way back. I traded the coffee for my freedom.)

Standing in the immigration queue reading, I was briefly disoriented when I looked up, compounded by the fact that there was a giant ad on one wall for Damac properties, with Dubai phone numbers. For a moment I forgot where I was – Bengaluru International Airport did not know it, but that was a huge compliment.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Pride and prejudice

In the course of my packing I came across the journal I kept through my holiday in the US. The last entry is a list of observations written on the flight back. For some reason I've never put it on the blog and I will proceed to do so now.

Things I learnt (it says),

1. "The American people" considered as a single entity has a low quotient of independent thought. This is not their fault – all official communication goes to painful lengths to talk to the lowest common denominator. Everyone else has no choice but to follow.
2. This entity is also surprisingly chary of having a good time. Nor does it laugh at a joke unless it comes labelled as such.
3. The security measures at the airports are by and large all activity and very little action. I went through "special screening" three times in one day with a rather large lighter left in my bag by accident and nobody found it even after an elaborate search involving tipping the contents on to the counter.
4. In Orange County, people clap when Matt Damon acts the hero (as Jason Bourne, in this case) in much the same way that Rajnikanth is greeted with cheers and whistles in Chennai.
5. People were better dressed and worse behaved in LAX than all the airports I went through.
6. In Philly, they don't go to the beach, they go "down the shore".
7. Here, "think of Europe" is not useful in describing Indian diversity because many say European the same way the ignorant say Indian.
8. They don't know English. They can't speak it. They can't understand it. Only a few can read or write it. The only way to survive is to treat "American" as a different language and, as in any foreign country, learn to communicate in it.
9. They can't make dessert. Even their own apple pie is ruined with whipped cream or caramel (pronounced "carmel").
10. They also can't make cheese, bread or chocolate. Perhaps the collective taste buds have long been deep fried out of commission.
11. Farmers' markets, fair trade shops and organic stores are very big among the socially, politically, environmentally aware. But coming from an amoral industry and a cynical race, I am deeply suspicious of anything that's on such a large scale.
12. Everything, but everything, is hard sold. You are hustled aggressively, constantly by billboards, leaflets, license plates, museums, park notices, everybody – in the same spirit as taxi drivers and souq merchants in the picturesque countries.
13. They don't do customer service. In any form, ever.
14. The relentless cheeriness of strangers seems empty and annoying to begin with, but you slowly realize that they genuinely believe in themselves as a friendly race.
15. They should get out more.

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