Vol X Koshys, Pictures of Paris, Kings and Queens, and A Picnic in Kabul

There is something to cafes that make me think of it as the gangly, loose limbed cousin of a restaurant. Someone who is all style rather than chic; someone who never did the right things but made just as good without the stars, grades or official recognitions. Someone you can count on any time of the day to be there….and won’t turn his nose down at you if you prefer to shred your lettuce rather than eat it.

I think it perhaps is the reason why I have always preferred cafes to restaurants. And it is a café, I usually identify a city with. So there is the historic Café Pedrocchi in Padua , the Pascal de la paix, a converted railway station in Oslo, and my all time favourite the Czuly Barbarzynca in Warsaw, part book store, part art gallery, part cultural meeting ground and mostly café.

In the environs of a café, you may never see the who’s who of the city but you will not miss its pulse. If you are an inveterate people watcher as I am, then only a café can satiate that compulsion and so it is with Koshys.

I come to Koshys often. Not as often as I would have liked. But each time the soul yearns for a whiff of time as it once were; of a city that perhaps exists only in the memories of its long time residents now, untouched by all that has come to pass, then I seek it.

It’s been only twenty-two years but I have already appropriated the Old Bangalorean’s chant : Really, Bangalore is not what it used to be…

For once upon a time, Bangalore still had several of its sprawling bungalows with monkey tops, a profusion of silver oaks, and a nip in the breeze…there were not as many jobs, people or cars. St Marks Road was a thoroughfare you thought nothing of sauntering across and Koshys had two entrances.

But within Koshys time stands still. Push its door open and saunter in. The darkness of its interiors will curl its tongue out and lick at your feet. No matter what secret fears bubble within you, it doesn’t matter. Your date may not turn up. Your meeting may get cancelled. Your life could fall apart. But you won’t encounter speculation or pity in a pair of eyes.

For Koshys hums. The buzz of a hive where the everyday business of eating and drinking, talking and laughing, arguing and even loaded silences all mesh and fall apart to form a single drone that encapsulates even the lonely and the alone.

A friend Chetan Krishnaswamy and I find ourselves there again and again. We talk of meeting else where for lunch; of discovering new menus and another point of view. But Chetan and I find ourselves inevitably back in the restaurant section of Koshys. It is as much a ritual  as the beer, chilli chicken and the many laughs that punctuate our afternoon. And then, post lunch, when the section is ready to be shut, we move into the cafe side for coffee and people watching.

Let your eyes sweep the room. They are all here. A crowd of lawyers with the shut-in demeanour of Emperor Penguins on an ice floe; men with a stolen hour sipping at a stealthy beer; a lone blue-eyed shaggy haired tourist sprawled on a chair nursing an omelette, reading a book; another group of student tourists comparing notes in loud raucous caws ; a bunch of ferocious-faced women in khadi kurtas and terra-cotta earrings holding court; a young couple brushing shoulders, entwining fingers; academics, writers, actors, film makers, artists, photographers and somewhere amidst such a cornucopia of the intellectual and the artistically inclined an old man in a tweed coat quietly stirring sugar into his cup of south Indian coffee….

Waiters who like silverfish scurrying through the pages of an old book, dart between tables. Bottles glint from the bar at the farther end. Walls the colour of watered down chicken curry. Fans mounted high whir their heads this way and that. Laughter, the clink of cutlery, the scraping of a chair leg and stray words will rise to greet you.

If you are fortunate, the brown rexine sofa of the corner table by the window will beckon inviting you to pause there awhile. For in the early evening, Koshys pauses briefly. And this is my favorite hour. I ask myself: what tea time treats shall it be this evening? Egg sandwiches, mutton cutlets, patties, apple pie. fruit salad with ice cream…

You may be on first name basis with the staff at the most happening places in Bangalore but unless the waiters here recognize you and Prem Koshy, the charming and ebullient owner stops by at your table for a few words,  understand and heed this : In the city of Bangalore, you are still a mushroom come lately….

That then is the power of Koshys. Cousin to a restaurant and the most happening place in Bangalore since circa 1940

[A version of this essay first appeared in Talk of the Town Stories of Twelve Indian Cities edited by Jerry Pinto and Rahul Srivastava, Puffin Books]

Anita Nair is the bestselling author of The Better Man, Ladies Coupe, Mistress and Lessons in Forgetting. Her books have been translated into over 30 languages around the world. Her new novel Cut Like Wound will be published in September 2012.

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