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The egalitarian cult of café communities

The egalitarian cult of café communities
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First Published: Fri, Feb 20 2009. 09 08 PM IST

Makeover: Koshy’s was set up in 1940 as a bakery; by 1952-53, it had become a café. Madhu Kapparath / Mint
Makeover: Koshy’s was set up in 1940 as a bakery; by 1952-53, it had become a café. Madhu Kapparath / Mint
Updated: Fri, Feb 20 2009. 09 08 PM IST
This is why I love Bangalore. I am sitting at Koshy’s—at the older Parade Café, not the fancier, air-conditioned Jewel Box just across the hall. Around me are eight men of indeterminate age, mostly retired, bound by what one of them, Nausher Hameed, an IT consultant, calls “an interest in non-material things”.
Makeover: Koshy’s was set up in 1940 as a bakery; by 1952-53, it had become a café. Madhu Kapparath / Mint
Ha, I think. The rest of India may be preoccupied with greed and governance; GDP and beating China; Charvet ties and Brioni suits; markets and inefficiencies. But here in this little pocket of Bangalore, you can still find people who disdain the material realm for higher planes that—along with ashrams, holy cows and, more recently, call centres—are part of the great Indian stereotype.
Like most stereotypes, this one too originates from a kernel of truth. Unlike the elderly in China and America who engage in mahjong, golf and other pursuits, most older Indians are preoccupied with the non-material, either in the spiritual or religious sense. We go on pilgrimages instead of vacations. We hold satsangs (prayer meetings) instead of seeing a therapist. We exercise by walking to the local temple, mosque or church; and partake of prasad (holy offerings) instead of popping pills. Religion, I would wager, gives our senior citizens a sense of community, companionship and purpose. For those who want the community without overt religion, there are cafés such as Leopold’s, Nirula’s and Koshy’s. Or there should be.
I knew Koshy the man before I knew Koshy’s the restaurant. I had just moved to Bangalore and was taking yoga lessons from a teacher (improbably called Javed) at Smriti Nandan Cultural Centre, a serene place with probably the best red oxide flooring in the city. Javed suddenly left for Iran and Prem Koshy took over as teacher. Koshy, as most people will tell you, is a character. He is snake-catcher, tree-hugger, organic food proponent, healer, mystic and finally, restaurateur. Unlike Arjun Sajnani, owner of the popular Sunny’s restaurant, Koshy doesn’t come across as aloof or elitist; and his restaurant, like the mythical Cheers, is where anyone can go and feel comfortable. This, I think, is why normally cynical journalists write gushing essays about Koshy’s. This, I think, is why hotshot authors choose to be interviewed at Koshy’s. At a time when image is viewed as more important than substance, Koshy’s has built its reputation and ambience through that most difficult and effortless of ways: by doing its thing year after year. At a time when most businesses want to brand themselves as “upmarket”, Koshy’s remains determinedly egalitarian. Like MTR, another beloved Bangalore icon, it has charted its future by preserving its past and—in keeping with the Indian spirit—letting go of the present.
The food at both Koshy’s and MTR is a matter of taste. Some call it middling; others can’t do without it. Being vegetarian, I find little to tempt me at Koshy’s and little to titilliate me at MTR. The food, however, is not the point. Both Koshy’s and MTR are as much about routine and habit as they are about what’s on the menu (MTR doesn’t even have a menu). They are a pleasing afterthought to a morning walk and a convenient spot to meet old friends.
Mostly, I go to Koshy’s to meet people. Today, I am with the Knights of the Square Table. There is Ashok Manchanda, an erstwhile businessman who now is part of the group that discusses alien visitation to our planet, quantum physics, mind-body medicine and magicology. Satish Suri, a retired engineer, is an expert at, among other things, Japanese Jorei healing. Peter Shadrack, a theologian who taught at a seminary, now spends much of his time building a school and an orphanage at his village in Raichur district. Ravi Kanaulkar, a regular since 1972, is a radio jockey playing classic rock and blues for WorldSpace. Maj. Ramachandra is a pranic healer and expert in Chola dynasty temples in and around Bangalore. Hameed, twinkling of eye and radiant of pate, introduces me to this motley group. As I hang out with them, people come and go—photographers, graphic designers, a German visitor and college students. Coffee arrives, then tea, then cutlets and chops, and fresh lime soda. The bespectacled read newspapers; someone strokes his beard and talks about Kant; a spiky-haired model-type parades the room. Koshy arrives and proceeds to talk to a 70-year-old woman about “bioplasma”, cosmic energy, aura and other such out-of-body experiences. His eyes rove the restaurant but mostly he hangs out with this retired group; people who come for coffee and comfort. He should be working the room, I think, and go to the Jewel Box where the big spenders are, rather than sitting with retirees who disdain material things.
My parents recently did a brave and unexpected thing: After 45 years in Chennai, they moved to Bangalore. They are going to try out this city where their children live, they say. My brother and I feel the need to find them a community to replace the one they have left behind. My father is a retiring sort. He is Hindu but not the temple kind. He is intellectual and speaks German but the café at Bangalore’s Goethe-Institut may be a bit too posh for him. He needs a place where he can go in his faded pants and spend an hour in convivial company (or by himself with the newspaper) without blowing up too much money. I think I’ll take him to Koshy’s.
Shoba Narayan spends her time in Koshy’s with the perfect companion: R.K. Narayan’s books. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Feb 20 2009. 09 08 PM IST