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.