Straight Oota, Bengaluru: Of Bonda, Bajji & Boti In Basavanagudi
Image Credit: By Preetam Casimir (Instagram/@preetamcasimir) for Slurrp

I KNOW AT LEAST ONE Kannada film where a hapless newbie confuses Banaswadi with Basavangudi and spends an entire day being pitchforked further and further away from home by the eddies and currents of Bengaluru bonhomie, brusqueness and bus-routes labyrinthine. I almost wept when I watched that film because it was a compressed version of the life of the Banaswadi-tragic; you live due north, a polar bear, far, far away from the Southern traffic jam of waddling and squawking penguins that is Basavanagudi, but two out of three people in the city are likely to dissolve your Arctic distinctness into a mere subset.

Nevertheless, over the last forty years, I have let bygones be bygulas, and ventured forth willingly and forgivingly into Basavangudi and Gandhi Bazaar and VV Puram. It is not an easy journey. To continue our polar theme, for a Banaswadian to go so far South is to become an Arctic tern minus the promise of seeing summer or welcome. Basavanagudi is still a Savarna-durga, a tight, sathvik fastness in contrast to our Avarna-mangala, teeming in beef and pork and seafood. And yet, this counter-intuitive journey has happened regularly, an anthropological curiosity being the magnet.

I first clapped eyes on Basavanagudi  some forty years ago, but it wasn’t the pleasures of the table that took me there. I got dragooned from school into a bunch of Vivekananda competitions at the Ramakrishna Ashram, and never went straight home after. I had never seen houses so massive, or streets so pretty, and that is how I soon became master of which road went to Gandhi Bazaar and which one to Gavipuram. 

My first taste of Bangalore-chaat happened on one of these walkabouts. In those days, the Bangalore version was beginning to arrive into its own, and the petromax-illumined carts of Basavanagudi were places where occult variations such as tomato-slice or masala puri rich in coconut shavings and coriander leaf were created.

College days were a time of great slowness and slothing at cultural festivals. For some reason, I seem to have spent a good part of my youth hanging around BMS College of Engineering. They had interminable festivals of their own, and they lent their venues out to various other youth-y activities. After college, another annual event took me to Basvangudi. The Institute of World Culture would sell off discarded books and magazines from their library on 1 November every year. This merited a cross-country trip that began with a quick breakfast and ended in a slow lunch lingering over the day’s finds.  

On one such expedition, driven by extreme hunger, I found at some nameless canteen the thing known as goli bajji or Mangalore bajji. This entirely paradoxical creation is light to the touch and does a gradient of crisp to soft on first bite. After I polished off a whole plate, I felt like an oil slick had overwhelmed me. I still approach these lethal brown orbs with the repulsed fascination from that first time. I order it only if there is company.

Talking of orbs, my first  glimpse of the Bangalore evening snack known as bonda soup also occurred in some similar lightning raid. This was a time when the darshinis with their steel tables and stand-up and go ethic had not yet taken over the city. Instead you had obscure restaurants with long god-names and  formica tables where you could dawdle over your plate. I once saw a little plastic tub with a dome and a kind of moat around it being ferried to another table, and was overcome by the novelty. I suspect that the bonda soup was created as a way of getting rid of extra vada batter or extra rasam from breakfast and lunch. Some part of its appeal is the presentation. There’s no real soup anywhere in the mix, just a peppery liquid, but the win is partly in the name, and partly in the sight of that submerged globe. Nobody in their right minds would order a bonda so big, but emerging from a trough it seems doable. It is also super light, in contrast with the goli bajji, and works in all weather. 

I came across Vidyarthi Bhavan, Brahmin’s Coffee Bar, and New Modern in much the same way. Through friends from college who knew of them, and had stories about them.  When I went to Vidyarthi Bhavan for the first time, it was a much simpler place. The waiters didn’t do gymnastics with plates, and we were seated immediately. I remember wondering what was the reason for the great relish with which my friends Shaktish and Bharat pronounced the name, and the awe with which they spoke of its celebrity patrons. The dosa was crisper, yes, but it was only a dosa. I dared not dissent at that moment. 

All of these joints, and perhaps even the VV Puram thindi beedhi have their origins in simplicity and no-frills, and continue to be celebrated because they represent a kind of high point in the Savarna fantasy of the city. They are living historical documents of a cautious adaptation to modern, democratic values. Nevertheless, these are locations where a certain food ethic which makes limited compromises with traditional norms was fashioned. The ethic that they enforce is a Savarna norm, and it is but a limited register of taste or cuisine. 

For me, the beautiful aberration in Basavanagudi is New Prashant Hotel. I don’t know who the old Prashant is or where he went away, but my veins begin to sing every time I make my way to the galli in Gandhi Bazaar where it is located. There’s food from the other castes: ragi mudde, and biryani/ghee rice, and chapati, and chaaps, keema, boti, thale mamsa, and what they consistently describe as ‘lever fry’. Non-veg restaurants become awful when they avoid offal, and New Prashanth makes no compromises in this regard. Cuisine must make the earth move a little bit; perhaps that is why ‘lever’ must be on the menu.