Monday, April 28, 2008

The mountain cake-shop

It was 5 in the evening. Our grandfather had left us at the cake shop while he went to get tickets for The 36th Chamber of Shaolin at Rex, next door. My brother and I were ravenous. Cakes of every shape and colour beckoned at us from glass cabinets all around. Goodie shelves were stacked sky-high with pastries, patties, puffs and pies. Our only hope of getting anywhere close to the counters was to crawl under the legs of the crowds that thronged them. After a couple of slithers, twists and crawls, we finally managed. We stood on tiptoe and reached as high up as we could, waving wildly to attract the attention of the surly attendant. She paid us no heed, choosing instead to scowl at all the others that had managed to reach the front of the counter.

In sheer desperation, my brother yanked at the hem of a skirt near his head. A chalky voice neighed down at us from above: "Eh, look two littl'uns. What y'all want my darlings?" it said. "D..d..danish pastry."said my brother. "Two", I added, holding my fingers up at a smiling, heavily made up face. "'Ere, give dese two sweet'earts danish pastry neh." said the large woman to the surly attendant. The attendant reluctantly slapped two drippy, treacly treats on the counter and returned our change. "Go siddown dere 'n' eat." she said, pointing to an unoccupied table. "Y'all came 'lone eh?" "No, our grandfather's gone to the theatre to buy tickets." we chimed in chorus. "Ooh, holidayzuh?" she said, and turned back to continue haggling with the attendant, while my brother and I ran to the table slavering over our spoils.

This is my earliest memory of Nilgiri's - the most celebrated cake shop in South India. They'd been around over seventy five years before I arrived on the scene, and still stand strong and proud today. New cakeshops have come and gone, some with arguably better fare than their old world competitor. None, however, have been able to replicate their unbeatable always-been-there flavour, that seems to have ingrained itself irreversibly into our palates.

By the 1940s, Nilgiri's had moved down from their mountain abode into a little shop on Brigade Road stocked with homemade English goods. When they started their booming fancy cakes business in the '50s, everybody in Bangalore ordered from them. For every function, a cake more special than the previous one would be delivered fresh from Nilgiri's. For a wedding reception, my grandparents ordered a cake shaped in the form of an entire stage. For Pongal (yes we are incurably cantonment), they ordered a sugarcane shaped one. My mother's birthday cake was in the shape of a house, my uncle's was like an aeroplane, and the crowning glory was a rich Vat 69 bottle cake specially ordered for my great grandfather's birthday.

Nilgiri's, though hugely popular by the '60s, was still a friendly little shop. My mother remembers an incident from back then, when she arrived by auto on Brigade Road and realized she'd left her purse back home as usual. She hesitated only for a moment before deciding what to do. After admonishing the auto driver for not bowing low enough, she adjusted pin no. 112 in her bouffant hairstyle, batted her mascara'ed eyes and told him to wait by the side of the road, so as not to inconvenience the 8 vehicles that plied on it daily. Looking steadfastly away from the risqué poster at the Opera theatre, she took 347 mini-steps across the pavement (on account of her double wrapped saree), and stood at the Nilgiri's counter, knotting and unknotting her pallu worriedly. "What happened ma?" asked Mr Chenniappan, the kindly proprietor. The young mutter, amidst heaving bosoms, fluttering eyelids, and helpless looks cast hither and thither, explained her predicament. Without a moment's hesitation, Mr Chenniyappan emptied a bag full of 1 paisa coins onto the counter and said, "Take as much as you want ma". She counted out 100 coins, the staggering fare from Malleswaram to Brigade road, and gave them to the waiting driver, who was standing with his palms folded over his head and one leg crossed over the other, waiting for his fare in a meditative trance. He accepted the money with another low stately bow and sputtered away, humming the latest Sivaji hit.

But that was then. By the time I was tall enough to reach the top of the pastry counter, things had changed. The sweet little mountain-bakery had been replaced by Nilgiri's Supermarket, the biggest shop I had ever seen. You could get everything you'd ever read in an Enid Blyton there. Marzipans, gingerbread, licorice, cheeses, marshmallows, jellybeans, asparagus, easter eggs- everything. And at the cake shop below: pastries, puffs, pies, minces, pizzas, tarts, eclairs, macaroons- and of course, those slurpily delicious Danish pastries. The counters were operated by a bevy of Tamil women, all equally surly, and if my grandmother was to be believed, "hired directly from Nimhans, I tell you." They looked straight through you, said "No" just on a whim, and in the unlikelihood of their taking mercy on you, made you acutely aware of how privileged you were to be getting something from them. Nevertheless, the crowds surged on through the '90s and midway through my college years. Nilgiri's cakes were, after all, the cheapest and loveliest to be found.

Upper Crust, the restaurant started by the Nilgiri's heir-apparent, did roaring business, especially with the college crowd. People from my college, strategically situated in the heart of the city, would be the first to bunk class and appear there for a quick bite (and sometimes a long drawn out date) before a movie. The cafe-restaurant was also the perfect place to meet after a long day at work. When they started serving Chettinad cuisine, our joy knew no bounds. Unfortunately, the cafe went into decline in the 2000s thanks to family feud, and closed down a couple of years ago. Die hard Nilgiri's buffs like me grew sadder as the stacked shelves in the bakery grew lighter and lighter with every passing year.

Last week, an enthusiastic classmate and I decided to organize a college reunion at the Nilgiri's cake shop. We felt it was the perfect place to renew old aquaintances, and perhaps bid fond farewell to our old favourite hang out. As we waked down the stairs to the basement cake shop, a pleasant oniony aroma hit us. It was the all-too-familiar smell of Nilgiri's baking. The cake shop under its new management had been given a face lift. There was air conditioning, modern furniture, elegant lighting and even a children's play area. Nilgiri's' slightly anachronistic trademark pastries and cakes stood proudly in their shelves once again. The surly staff now smiled waterily at the customers, as they laboriously keyed bills into their new cash machines. The food, in true Nilgiri's style, was cheap, pleasant and satisfying.

As for the reunion, the less said about being the only singleton among 10 ageing classmates - spouses and children in tow, the better.

Monday, April 21, 2008

There, there. It'll be all better soon.

Do you know what Bangalore's biggest problem is? It's the weather. We're spoilt brats. If the thermometer registers a 5 day blip of 2 degrees above normal, we think we're dying. When it rains for 45 minutes instead of 30, we go to pieces over it. When the winter's nice and chill, we cringe at the thought of how hot the summer could be. And then there are those memory trips that everybody goes on in April, the moment the mercury hits 35 degrees for 2 hours: "Nimgenri gothu Bengloor chali bagge! 20 varsha hinde Malleswaradal Shivrathri maLege badlu manju bilthaa ithu gothaa?" ("Whaat all you maadran peepals know I say. 20 years ago, the dosa batter at CTR would freeze saalid before hitting the tava even in midsummer. You fallow?") Has our weather really suffered such a dramatic change over the past 50 years or so?

Thankfully, it hasn't. We have.

Does anybody know which year Bangalore recorded its highest temperature (39 deg)? It was in 1931! While the met department agrees it was probably a freak occurrence, it also says that Bangalore's average summer temperatures have only gone up by a degree or so in the past 30 years. They seem unsure that it's a long lasting phenomenon, or if it is cause for real concern. But while the global picture is definitely cause for worry, can one measly degree cause this kind of mass weather hysteria among Bangaloreans today? I'm sure there's more to it. Here are my theories:

(e) Bangaloreans are incredibly paranoid about the weather. While we love bragging about it and smirking down at the sweltering plains below us, we're also the first to panic when it isn't significantly cooler than the rest of India at any given point of time. We need to be a good 8 degrees below Chennai, for example, to feel completely satisfied. Even the slightest rise in temperature makes us worry about losing our USP, and we hate that.
(n) Bangalore weather is always on the edge. Our clockwork weather pattern is worrisome. The balance between heat and rain is so delicate that we're convinced its going to go awry some day. If it doesn't rain and bring the mercury down exactly when it should, we immediately assume that the end has finally come, and run around in circles, moaning.
(o) We live in matchboxes that don't breathe naturally. The simple beat-the-heat measures like high roofs, red oxide floors, large verandahs and ventillators that our older buildings used, were excellent temperature control mechanisms.
(u) With modern conveniences at our disposal, we are willing to tolerate fewer and fewer weather eccentricities. We'd rather turn on our airconditioners at full blast, or flock into malls and theatres the moment we feel even slightly uncomfortable. We'd probably not feel this bad if we allowed our bodies to adjust to temperature changes gradually like the previous generation did, instead of confusing them by plunging in and out of supercooled zones every few hours.
(g) There's too much weather information going around. Heat related anxiety is particularly prevalent in Bangalore. We worry ourselves sick after reading the weather columns in the papers and watching the rest of the country swelter on tv, instead of facing our relatively milder summers calmly.

But since we are such a bunch of moaners, here are some simple tricks to keep cool for the next few days until the rains come:

(h) Don't forget to drink as much water as you can. Try and get used to drinking room temperature water, to help acclimatize your body to the ambient temperature.
(a) If you live on the top floor, sprinkle a bucket of water on your roof in the mornings and evenings. Makes a dramatic difference.
(l) Wear cotton. We are used to dressing up in Bangalore, because the weather normally allows us to. But for now, put your fancy numbers away. People are too exhausted to notice anyway.
(r) When you wash your face, wet the back of your neck, your ears and your inner arms. Helps you cool down dramatically.
(e) Cut out the sunlight with curtains or chiks (roll-down blinds) during the day. You could wet them too, if your home is sufficiently ventillated. Remember to roll them up at night though, or your rooms will get incredibly stuffy.
(a) Eat simple food. Rice, salads, juices, greens, yoghurt, fruits - you know, that sort of thing.
(d) Look around you and see where you can plant trees. Select spots that are likely to remain undisturbed for the next 30 years. You will never regret the small effort you took now, 10 years later. If you are not upto the task, call these people. They will do it for free.
(y) And most importantly, relax. It isn't so bad. Yet. Old Bangytown's clockwork rain usually kicks around the end of April and brings things back to normal. Until then, drink majjige and stay cool, but also think about what you can do to keep it in good ticking order.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Radio Ga Ga

They're everywhere. You can't escape them. Their incessant screaming seeps through your skull and messes with your brains. They gibber at you excitedly while you're at restaurants, malls and on your way to work. Their non-stop banter bounces off your eyeballs and lodges itself irretrievably in your psyche. Their ghoulish laughter rings in your ears hours after they've gone. They shriek in amusement as they watch you grow more and more dependent on their histrionics to tide you through your day.

What is most alarming, however, is that their numbers are swelling rapidly. The handful of RJs at Bangalore's solitary FM radio station in the early 2000s has now self-replicated to form a whole tribe of hysterical, airheaded babblers, chattering across 30 stations today. Unfortunately, I have never been able to catch a live specimen so far, to ask it the questions that I've always been dying to:

Are you sure you haven't been genetically altered? What do you have for breakfast before you let fly on the world like that? Do you sound like CDs on fast forward even when you're off work?
Will you ever have spouses? who aren't deaf-mute? Or children? How are those gonna work out if your spouses have permanent headaches from your incessant chattering? Ok I don't want to know the answer to the last one.

I must admit though, that there are a few chatterers that stand out from the maddening clamour. They gibber a little less, and make just a teeny bit more sense than the rest. This is my tribute to them. You kinda sorta make-ish my day, so, ummwell thanks.

Malavika (Radio Indigo): What! You lefta? Just like that! Why?? How can you do this to me, Bikerdude, your most adoring (and regretfully silent) fan? My mornings to work were made so much more bearable by the cheeriness of your happaladha-hittu voice. Your good humour and understated wit, especially when those obnoxious schoolkids called in and asked you to "playya song f'my muddher", were so charming. I will miss you I say. Come back! Wail!

Prithvi (Radio One): Boss, you're the man. Aha what a lovely RJ you are I say. I crown you the undisputed King of Kanglish. Your crazy humour and voice impressions are awesome. OK they're also slightly girly, but hey we like that. Oh and guy, could you ask your people to redo that jingle for your show? The one that has "Gooooood morning 'aa-Byengloora'" clunkily dubbed over the earlier 'Bangalore'? Apart from that, very good boss, congrats ok? ok.

Radha Thomas (Radio Indigo) : Sigh. When your deliciously husky voice hits the airwaves every Sunday, I stop wherever I am and listen intently. To the slightly run-of-the-mill but gorgeous jazz that you play with such coolness. Mid-middle full garagase Gayathri voice also. Aha, what a. Thank you for being born ma. Enjoy ok?

Rohit Barker (Radio Indigo) : Ahem, what can I say. You were awesome when you started, until you had that lobotomy a couple of years ago. Seriously boyo, what gives with the hysterical giggles and the brain dead jokes these days? We want the old Bright Barker back. We miss you(ish). Luckily the extra brain space seems to have been substituted with fairly good taste in music. And that Saturday thing you do with the gravelly voiced DJ whatsizname is really quite lovely, so great going!

Darius (Ex Radiocity): Well you're tough to ignore, aren't you. Taking some time off the air after all those death threats from the people you humilated during your call-in shows? Ah ok. Take, take.

Chaitanya Hegde (Ex radio city, now somewhere on a satellite): Putta, I can't say I dig your music, but your voice has a lovely reassuring tone to it that we all really like. So keep talking, but keep that finger off the play button, Ok? Ok bye.

Priya Ganapati (Ex Radiocity, now Mumbai, no?): Hai so nice. Full RJ ki Rani you were. Where you went off I say? And more importantly where did you take your awesome, awesome alter egos: Sister Stella and Lingo Leela? Boss! you guys used to make my day back then, with those slonguaze lessons and gogonut oil melodies for maaaladies. Come off back no, what is there?

Chamrajpet Charles and Prof. Ulfat Sultan (Radio One): Dude, you rock. Even a die-hard cantonment type like me can't get my dinglish to flow as smoothly as you do. 'Ow y'all manije so well I dunno men buggeh. Muss'be all dose quarters and bubba curries y'all eat hevery week, neh? What-tever you say baba, when I meet you I'll take off one xerox of your foot and hang it off on my wall only. Oi teri xerox ka taanga! Much love.

Sheetal Iyer and Vasanthi (Where are you these days ma?): Aiyo, sweeties you are I say. Sweetal and Pleasanty you can change off your names to, no? Nice job OK? Oaakay.

And finally, my all time favourites:
The nameless RJs on All India Radio (AIR) FM:
Dear saars and medams,

Kindly note that I am terribly in love with all of you. I am fascinated by your polished, measured tones, resultant of decades of practice in the dharna tent with an apricot seed in either cheek. I am highly entertained by your tinkly genteel laughter whenever any of your readers from Kaval Byrasandra sends in a joke. The detailed explanations provided after each joke are greatly appreciated by goldfish embryos, rock dwellers, politicians and waiters at Mocha.

Thanks to your intelligent discussions on various fascinating subjects during the Rajkumar favourites hour, my knowledge on piles, streptococcal infections and commercial chakkotha cultivation has advanced immensely.

I realize that you have approximately 88,743 hours of flute recitals in your archives, and am only too happy to listen to them incessantly, at the risk of going slightly mad at 7 every evening. I even approve of your long stoic silences between songs, when I assume you take your well-deserved tea breaks.

Live long and prosper, AIR, I love you. OK? OK.

As for the rest of you:
I'm not saying you aren't good. I'm not saying you are, either.

Friday, April 4, 2008

South Indian Wedding Etiquette

If you're anything like me (and I hope for your own good that you aren't), I'm sure you're fed up to the gills with all the irritating things people do at South Indian weddings. I have decided therefore to publish a "Lets call it like it is" pamphlet on South Indian wedding etiquette, so that all the fools who make them as unpleasant as they are, can mend their errant ways. I have to add here though, that this pamphlet does not apply to Malayalee weddings. For them, a visiting card with the words "Do not blink, or you'll miss the wedding" will suffice.

Bridal etiquette
(1) Smile, woman. We didn't drive all the way through the maddening traffic to see you look doped-out and weepy. If you're that glum you probably shouldn't be geting married. Go home.
(2) Brown is beautiful. Really. If we wanted to see pancake, we'd go to dosa camp.
(3) If you liked the black saree you saw at the shop, wear it at your wedding. Anyone who says black is taboo has been irreversibly brainwashed by Queen Victoria who's dead anyway.
(4) If you plan to be in bridal makeup 4 hours into the reception that you invited us to attend, either give us the address of your beauty parlour so we can drop by and murder you, or for God's sake allow us to eat and go home.

Groom etiquette
(1) Face it, you can't help looking silly in semi-drag with an umbrella over your head. Just go with the flow.
(2) You can smile reassuringly at the bride, and maybe at your friends. Not at all the pretty young things around.
(3) Do not give your friends a "thumbs up" before, after, or while tying the knot. We shudder to imagine what you're implying by it.
(4) If you're a Greencard/H1 groom, try not to talk much. A Banshankari II Stage accent with a West Virginia overlay cannot be taken seriously when you have kohl in your eyes and a fat black dot on your cheek.
(5) You're going to be half naked at the wedding. Please work out. We wholeheartedly agree that your flab is nobody's business but yours. Seriously fool, hit that treadmill and pump that iron. Your wife will love it, and we will too. Unless you plan on saving on lunch expenses by putting your guests off their food for the next month.
(6) We really don't care if you don't understand what the priest is asking you to say. Google everything later. Do not irritate us by asking the priest to explain every line. Lunch is waiting.

Older guest etiquette
(1) Don't swarm the stage during the mangal sutra ceremony. This is the only part of the ceremony anybody has even the slightest amount of interest in. We do not want to fling our rice at your ample posterior. If you're that keen on establishing your importance in the ceremony, hang a sign around your neck.
(2) If you're too feeble to climb up to the stage, cut the drama and sit tight in your seat. Spare us the agony of watching you painfully hobble up the steps to bless the couple, holding up the rest of the ceremony for interminable periods of time. Just let the bride and groom know that you wish to bless them and if they think you're important enough, they will come down to you.
(3) When your beady eye spies a young guest who seems 'perfect for your third cousin's second daughter', shut the hell up. Do not point, glare, whisper or pounce. These are people, not camels at the Pushkar bazaar.
(4) When you see two young people talking and feel the urge to make an entendre-filled remark, slap yourself and go wash your face. You're proving irrefutably that the only thing that's on your mind, always, is sex.
(5) Before coming to the wedding, sit down and think of things to talk about, that do not involve coupling or reproduction. We realize how hard that can be, considering this is all you have ever thought about during your adult life. Make the effort, it is time you evolved. You'll be pleasantly surprised at the number of young friends you'll make, who won't get up and leave the moment they see you coming.

Younger/single guest etiquette
(1) Listen, if you'd rather stay home and not go to the wedding, we understand. We know you have a life and can do with a little less of the marriage pressure, you poor thing. There, there.
(2) It is acceptable to walk away when old biddies with only sex on their minds ask you your age, height or salary. In fact it is increasingly becoming acceptable etiquette to reach out and slap their faces before walking away.
(3) Flirt, flirt, flirt as much as you can. A wedding is the only place you are officially allowed to. Remember to mentally undress the flirtee though. Think kerosene colour pant shirt, faded green salwar kameez, yellow overgrown nails, bajji-pakoda induced thunder thighs and radish breath on a Thursday evening. See if the flirtee is still worth it. And if an oversexed old biddy swoops in and tries to hook the two of you up while you're still deciding, show them your armpit.
(4) If you can't handle all the irritating people, the smoke and the noise, either skid off with your gang to the kitchen, or hole up at a nearby ice cream shop. Nobody cares, besides if someone wants to reach you, you can always ignore them when they call you on your cell.
(5) If you're NRI or ABCD, wipe that perpetually surprised, open-mouthed leer off your face. We don't get it. Try frowning when you're uncomfortable, or grinning from ear to ear when you're happy, like normal people do. That way, we'll atleast know what's up with you.

Parent etiquette
(1) You're allowed to look good. But remember, you are at your most endearing when you look hassled and disheveled. The guests will take pity on you and leave you alone. If you're all primped relaxed, they will assume you haven't done enough for them.
(2) Delegate, delegate, delegate. Or die.
(3) Honestly, all the wild goose chases the priests send you on, are rubbish. You are allowed to tell them to go fish if you can't do something with minimum effort.
(4) Do not usher people secretly into the dressing room and palm them off with a recycled blouse piece. If you don't have anything nice to give them, just grab their hands and say "ate aa?"
(5) Do not get the audience's hopes up by waggling your finger at the nadaswaram players and getting them to play the getti melam every 43 seconds. One pee-pee-dum-dum during the thali ceremony is enough. Nobody cares about the rest.
(6) Tell the cameraman not to moon the audience everytime he wants to get a closeup of the groom picking his nose, or the bride counting her toes for the 600th time. He's going to scrap all the footage and encase their mugshots in purple circling hearts anyway.

Eating etiquette
(1) Try and get to the dining room as early as possible, to avoid the feeding frenzy. It doesnt matter if the cooks sigh and grumble that you're early. It will save you and the hosts needless trauma if the diners are spread out through the day.
(2) If you're the host, please get a grip on the number of guests you'e expecting. Make extra food, and make prior arrangements for the left over food to be transported someplace where it will be appreciated.
(3) We like it when you fuss over your guests. Makes us feel less guilty about stuffing our faces while the world outside starves, because you're the ones forcing us to.
(4) Don't be pathetic and hover over your fellow guests to make them finish fast. Go home and eat if you're that desperate.
(5) If there's something you don't like about the food, shut up. This is a one-off thing and there's nothing anyone can do about it. Remember the starving millions outside your door.
(6) Remember to eat everything on your leaf. It is good manners to ask for only as much food as you need, instead of dramatically folding over a leaf full of uneaten food at the end of the meal. Oh and did anyone tell you that folding a used leaf over after a meal is, in fact, bad manners? Well then.

Dress etiquette - women
(1) If you're under 45, wear anything you want. Really, everything from a 9 yards saree to a strappy number looks great on you.
(2) If you're over 50, do not wear anything you want. Really, sarees look awesome on you.
(3) Try not to wear those rather bizarre duppattas around your waists and over your forearms, that tie your arms back all evening. They're pretty but we feel sorry for you and do not want you to be deformed for life on their account.
(4) Do not wear stilettos. Most people in South Indian weddings run around barefoot. Amputees are significantly lower in the marriage market.
(5) It is now acceptable etiquette to wear fluorescent blue hawaii chappals with elaborate kanjeevaram sarees. You'll need to take your footwear off everywhere anyway, so you may as well wear something that won't be stolen. Besides, if it's men you are aiming to attract by dressing up, you can rest assured they won't be noticing your footwear.

Dress etiquette - men
(1) Dude, dress down. Please. Those jigajiga brocadey kurtas only serve to accentuate your thair sadham features and make you look dorkier than you already are.
(2) Leave those filmy man-dupattas that you wear around your neck, at home. They are 5 minutes ago. I will personally come and blow my nose and wipe my sweaty face with them if you don't.
(3) Give those curly jooties to the poor. Even they will probably hit you with them if you do. Wear sensible stuff like chappals or floaters that you can take off and leave at the door without worrying about them.
(4) If you're in Chennai, do not gel your hair. Even if you are an NRI. The gel will trickle down your face and make you look like The Melting Man. If you're in Bangalore, you may gel your hair in the months of December and January. For the rest of the year you will look like Juggy Dee. Nobody will marry you.
(5) The bare chested look is over. Even if you're 68. Especially if you're from my family. We know exactly where all the puliyogare and and panchamritam goes. Spare us.

Alright, go now. And behave.