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The joy of small stories

Revisiting and recalling the pleasures of the Bangalore that was

Bookstores stoke the imagination, feed our curiosity, and facilitate journeys across the world with the turn of a page. Some of them are like no other, for they hold the stories of my childhood, rich with toe-tingling adventure and clean-cut heroes.  

On a recent visit from the United States to my childhood hometown, Bangalore, or Bengaluru now, I popped into “India’s oldest bookstore” to browse, but mostly to reminisce. Established in Madras in 1844, Higginbothams opened a branch on Bangalore’s tony South Parade in 1905. After nearly two years of being shuttered for restoration, the Victorian façade of the Higginbothams building beckoned me once again to explore the authors who influenced my childhood. 

The adventures of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five — four school-age cousins and their dog — are flanked by Agatha Christie’s sleuths, the dandy Hercule Poirot, and the matronly Miss Marple. Stacks of P.G. Wodehouse’s iconic butler, Jeeves, sit alongside the Anglo-Indian authors. Jim Corbett stalked the man eaters in the Kumaon. Ruskin Bond still creates beautiful yarns about characters from the Himalayan hill towns he has lived in. 

I ask a store assistant where I can find the “Biggles” series and she looks muddled. Coming up empty handed, I realise wistfully that several of my childhood chums must be extinct. James Bigglesworth, the fictional pilot who was born in India in 1849 and fought in both World Wars; the rotund, conceited, stammering schoolboy Billy Bunter at the Greyfriars School; and Sudden, the gunfighter with a lightning fast draw, seemed to have gone AWOL. The colonial shadow even extended to “Picadilly Western” heroes such as Sudden, written by English authors who had never been within a stagecoach ride of the Wild West. 

With an armful of books and a bout of nostalgia, I head down Mahatma Gandhi Road in search of a café. South Parade during my school days in the 1970s was a broad esplanade anchored by a statue of the Empress of India, Queen Victoria; she still stands stoically with scepter and orb, swathed in pigeon poo, in Cubbon Park. Opposite an embankment ablaze with orange and scarlet bougainvillea, British-era establishments paraded like convivial grandees – Bartons, Higginbothams, Spencers; the cinemas, Liberty and Plaza; and The Ham Shop, which still retains its Harry Potteresque location under a stairwell since it first opened in 1930. Well-mannered patrons queued up like their British overseers once did, said “please” and “thank you,” and their collective sense of civic responsibility kept ‘MGs’ clean as a naval deck. The peace was broken only by an occasional, almost apologetic, car horn alerting turbaned waiters from the Lakeview café ferrying trays of cold coffee and pastries to cars parked across the street. 

But the view from over my cappuccino froth today is different. A grey, concrete elevated train track has replaced the vibrant bougainvillea, the pavement is strewn with litter from street food vendors, the architecture is chaotic, and the air is filled with raucous car horns and sputtering autorickshaws. The orderly British queue has morphed into a disorganised Indian crush. 

I sipped my coffee and eagerly browsed Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five go to Billycock Hill, which felt reassuringly familiar after a hiatus of nearly four decades. In a flashback to my youth, as a boarder at Bishop Cotton Boy’s School in Bangalore, I remembered the ersatz fort we built with fallen tree branches behind the school chapel. Our famous-five gang, sans dog, solved many mysteries, mostly made up by imaginative schoolboys.  

Biggles was my hero, partly because my dad was a pilot in the Royal Indian Air Force flying sorties over Burma. Jim Corbett inspired some tall tales of our own. Back from school holidays we swapped stories about our summer exploits. One chap told a nail-biting story of his open-top Jeep being chased down a narrow jungle track by a tiger. As it closed distance, our friend made a clever decision. Approaching a fork in the trail he turned on the right indicator and at the very last moment veered sharply left. The tiger bounded off to the right and our chap saved the day. To this day, he has carried the honorific, “Tiger”, for his plucky wit. 

An hour later and on my second cappuccino, I turn the pages of Paul Fernandes’ illustrated coffee table book, Bangalore: Swinging in the 70s. It has turned my bout of nostalgia into a caffeinated, weepy display of pining for the good old days. I chuckle at a double-spread caricature of a politician, with Gandhi-topi, delivering a speech to an upper class, Anglicised audience. “I promise to make our city not like Singapore, not like New York, not like Paris but like Bangalore of the 1970s ...” 

My vote is for Biggles and Bunter at Higginbothams, cold coffee at Lakeview, The Trojans performing at 3 Aces, and a silver salver from Bartons for the Queen on South Parade ... minus the pigeon poo.


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Printable version | May 31, 2020 4:32:04 AM |

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