The Bangalore days I’m most fond of lie in the early nineties, during my late teens. My parents lived in Secunderabad, which contributed, in no small way, to the sense of freedom I felt in Bangalore. I had been enrolled by my father into a hostel on Seshadri Road. The hostel warden, a devout septuagenarian with a headmaster’s eye for discipline, held a roll-call each night at 8 pm, before locking the gates. On some nights we would climb over them and slip away in the direction of Majestic, the city’s nerve centre that lay around the corner. Occasionally we watched a movie in one of the dozen or so cinema halls there. (The film I recall most vividly, for obvious reasons, was Jacques Rivette’s Le Belle Noiseuse, miraculously released uncensored under a film festival programme.) Most often we were happy to break curfew and simply roam the streets with abandon, stopping for a snack at a roadside stall. Late in the night, after the restaurants closed, we saw the day’s food waste being collected in open drums on the streetside. Filled with vomit coloured slime, the vessels were eventually picked up by boys and cycled away to an unknown destination.
The college I studied in was in Jayanagar. Each morning I rode a bus — 25 E or J, most often — from Majestic to Jayanagar 4th Block. The walk to Majestic Bus Station led me through Ananda Rao Circle, where I stopped for breakfast in one of the nearby Darshinis — eateries that offered, for five rupees, a plate of Idli-Vada and a granite-topped platform to stand at and eat. Waiting near these platforms were skinny, barefoot boys in shorts and a soiled shirt, holding a wet rag in small hands that moved swiftly to clean a vacated spot, leaving behind a grainy trail on the granite. On a display above the counter backlit by tube lights the menu listed Idly, Vada, Upma, Kesari Bhath, Puri, and Dosa. Masala dosas (eight rupees each) were served fresh, so one had to wait with a coupon for the order to be called out. I finished breakfast with a filter coffee, served in a steel tumbler set inside a flat-bottomed steel cup designed to cool the steaming drink, or mix it. But one could drink, without difficulty, the coffee from the tumbler itself; when others used the cup they did so unconsciously, slowly foaming the drink by pouring it from tumbler to cup and back again, a practice whose allure I grasped only years later when I saw a cappuccino machine.
The Majestic Bus Station — now renamed Kempegowda Bus Station but still known by its original name — was, to me at least, an architectural marvel. Spread over an area covering several football fields, and laid out like an onion slice with concentric semi-circular bays, the station features an overhead walkway that leads pedestrians across these bays and ushers them down to the platforms through exit stairways. Bus timings were arbitrary, announced informally by conductors as they stepped off a returning bus, which meant a passenger in a hurry had to choose carefully between alternatives: the wrong bus could delay you by ten minutes or more. The overhead walkway offered a bird’s-eye view of the station. The buses from here seemed tiny and the people tinier, like figures in a tilt-shift movie, and when a bus reached the platform people converged upon its doors like sheep shuffling into a pen. Down at the platforms it carried the energy and inertia common to bus stations, with the staccato rhythms of conductor whistles rending the air, the dash of people for an empty bus, the interminable waiting when one is time-bound.
The BMTC buses were busy but not packed, and often I managed to sneak into a seat at some point in the forty-five-minute ride to Jayanagar. From Jayanagar 4th block it was another ten minutes to my college, a walk that led me across the wide and vacant Rastriya Vidyalaya Road, flanked by parks on both sides and perpetually in shade under the canopy of lush trees. It was the most beautiful of Bangalore’s roads I knew, one that instantly called to mind the epithet the city was known by: Garden City.
On Saturdays, after classes ended in the early afternoon, I would climb onto 25 J and ride to J.P.Nagar, alighting at the 8th Block bus stop near Dodamma’s house. Dodamma, my mother’s elder sister, shared my mother’s taste for South Indian dishes: saaru, bisibele bhat, aulakki, chitranna, avarekal huli, gojjus of all kinds. Saaru — a soup-like dish prepared with lentils and tomatoes — was Dodamma’s speciality. She added a pinch of jaggery to the preparation, a touch of sweetness that subtly enhanced its flavour. A visit there was like a visit home; I rarely declined an invitation for lunch or dinner.
Returning to the hostel after a weekend at Dodamma’s was a dull affair. It was on one such Sunday afternoon that I spotted, on a bus to 4th Block, the table tennis champion Chetan Baboor. I followed the game closely, and although of my age he was something of an idol to me.
“Are you Chetan Baboor?”
“Yes, that’s me.” He looked amused and pleased. Unlike our cricketers, table tennis players were not stars.
He was on his way to a practice session, dressed in track pants, a kit bag between his legs. I asked him how much he practised each day. Two to three hours, he said; college work — he was an engineering student at R.V. College — kept him busy mostly. I recall feeling sad at hearing this. A national champion already, Baboor had also played for India at the Barcelona Olympics. And yet he had to follow the routine others did, besides riding BMTC buses to practice.
Baboor left the bus at Jayanagar 4th Block. I rode on happily to Majestic, in anticipation of the thrill the news of my serendipitous meeting would bring at the hostel.