The Koshy’s Parade Café has the distinction of serving eminent personalities like Queen Elizabeth II and our first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.
‘There’s a natural mystic blowing through the air
Cant keep them down
If you listen carefully now you will hear.’
-Bob Marley, The Natural Mystic
At a recent Indo-Anglian poetry event I reminisced about the dreamy-eyed, youthful, indulgent days sauntered away at a Bangalore landmark café, The Parade Café or the Koshy’s where started my serious dabbling with Indo-Anglian poetry of the Dom Moraes, Nissim Ezekiel variety. The café is known in its original form, ‘The Parade Café’ for most old-timers of Bangalore (old name now changed to Bengaluru) and as The Koshy’s for the wider populace. For the purposes of this article, I will refer to it as the Koshy’s Parade Café to symbolize the juxtaposition of the old, genteel and the new high-rise ‘Silicon Valley’ Bengaluru! My initiation rites into the precincts of this Koshy’s Parade café was a ‘chance’ encounter and it was on one late summer afternoon I walked into Koshy’s Parade through its glass door awaiting to meet one particular gentleman Mr. P.K. Srinivasan who will be described later in the article. The buzz and the ambiance of the café was just electric and mystifying for an impressionable young man who was in his 20s. The customers were deeply engrossed in their conversations over their cups of tea or coffee or drinks completely oblivious of their externalities. The ‘humming’ noise was reverberating through the entire café while tall fans whirred away. Let’s say there was a ‘natural mystic blowing through the air..’ to quote Bob Marley in the Koshys Parade Café. Hence started my journey with the mystic café of Bengaluru, the Koshy’s Parade café and its heady world of intellectual discourse and animated conversations. I must hasten to add here prior to taking the plunge into the article that many a wonderful afternoon were spent with the Sunday Guardian Editorial Director, Professor Madhav Nalapat at this café over vegetable burgers along with steaming cups of tea of coffee filled with intellectually stimulating conversations. Needless to add that Professor Nalapat enjoyed a ‘celebrity’ status here with the young writers and artists listening intently to his ideas and opinions.
LOCATION: BIBLIOPHILE WORLD OF BRITISH COUNCIL
Koshy’s Parade Café is located right in the heart of the city on a busy thoroughfare in the ground floor of a two-storied building with an imposing exterior of large bay windows with blinds and paneled glass door. In the early 90s the British Council Library was located right on the top on the first floor which has since then moved to a different location which was an added attraction for bibliophile young students like myself. The café traces its origins to the entrepreneurial acumen and drive of a gentleman by the name of Mr. P.O. Koshy who hailed from the Southern state of Kerala and founded the place in 1952. The café has the distinction of serving eminent personalities like the Queen Elizabeth II and our first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. The ambiance of the café is of a rather Parisian Bohemian one with formica-topped tables covered with gingham table-cloth, wooden chairs and rows of good old sturdy leather-upholstered sofa lining along the walls with liveried no-nonsense dedicated waiters. The walls are adorned with black-and-white photographs of Bangalore’s landmarks from a bygone era along with the portrait of the founders. The lighting is that fluorescent lamps drawn from the ceiling with rods. The tea and coffee is served in porcelain cups and saucer and the most attractive element are the monogrammed silver sugar bowls laid on the tables with neat paper napkins on plates and starched cloth napkins for meals offered to customers. While discussing the ambiance of the Koshy’s Parade café it would be imprudent not to mention the most ornamental being the charming, ubiquitous, affable and great raconteur owner, Prem Koshy. One is hard pressed to miss his presence as regular, is of muscular build with an eternal smile and smartly dressed in sportive outfits on most occasions. Apart from being a first-class restauranteur, one of the best globally I have encountered Prem is a wildlife enthusiast, theater personality, green environmentalist and patron of arts and culture. You know when you are on his ‘favourite list’ when a plate of ‘Potato Smileys’ or puffy small poppadams arrive on your table which is totally ‘on the house’. The big draw of the Koshy’s Parade café is the love and affection it generated amongst bright and distinguished writers, artists, journalists and scholars for its congenial ambiance for an intellectual discourse serving fine tea and coffee and scrumptious hearty fare for dining. Ramachandra Guha, the eminent historian is one of the ardent patrons who claims that the ‘only establishment that I count myself close to is that which runs Koshy’s Parade Café in Bangalore’ and written widely about his experiences at the café. The idea of browsing through the vast compendium of books at the British Council library and then borrowing a few followed by a cuppa and chat downstairs is what drew so many of us to the café. Hence the Koshy’s Parade café was part of the bibliophilic British Council world of old Bengaluru!
P.K. SRINIVASAN: SOCRATIAN DISCOURSE AT THE KOSHY’S PARADE
Personally my sojourn with the Koshy’s Parade is intimately intertwined with the legendary journalist, columnist, writer and humourist P.K. Srinivasan universally known as ‘PK’. My impressions of PK remain that of an extremely affectionate, generous, kind, patient and brilliant tutor to a raw ‘rookie’ mind like mine. PK was tolerant of my fallacious, exuberant, impassioned arguments and ideas which he corrected or dispelled painstakingly with intellectual arguments after listening rather intently thus ‘helping his followers work out of their out of darkness into enlightenment’ to cite Ram Guha from his very beautiful moving tribute to PK in his book titled ‘An Anthropologist Amongst the Marxists and Other Essays’. In the book there is a chapter dedicated to PK, ‘The Buddha of the Parade’s: P.K. Srinivasan’ where PK has been dubbed as the ‘Buddha of the Parade Café’ and describes him as a ‘gentle colossus, broad of build, placid in countenance, wise but not judgmental’ which I think is the best and most poignant definition of the personae of PK I can imagine. It would be befitting to acknowledge the patient hearing and tedious explanations extended by Professor Madhav Nalapat to my petulant outburst during my distracted youth. Looking back I am thankful to all the courtesy extended along with knowledge by individual minds like Professor Nalapat and PK which have shaped my mind and offered me an advantage in my journey as a reflexive writer. Apart from PK there were several distinguished intelligent journalists who would congregate at the café and this is the crowd I found most illuminating since they explained the world in very plain, simple and practical terms bereft of the academic verbosity. However the most enjoyable and entertaining and memorable part of the conversation with PK for me were his anecdotes, sharp and witty about celebrities and personalities who strode tall in the public domain in the post-independence period. P.K. Srinivasan was a distinguished English-language journalist, wrote regular columns for the top Indian financial daily, The Economic Times and had spent 3 decades with the premier English publication of Bangalore, Deccan Herald. PK held regular court at the Koshy’s Parade or as one of his old friends described ‘Socratian discourses’ where he held forth with all humility and humour on English literature, history, poetry and yes life, life as it unfolded and experienced by us. There was an assemblage of motley crowd around PK which included a very diverse group of journalists, lawyers, economists, poets, teachers, real-estate dealers, writers, artists and plain simple ‘vagabonds’ drifting away happily through life which I would rather term as ‘drifters’.
POST-WAR WORLD OF INDIA & BRITAIN
The intellectual landscape or the thinking world of that café milieu were dominated by the post-war novelists of Britain like Kingsley Amis, Malcolm Muggeridge, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene. The landscape of post-war British novelists were shared amicably with the earlier guard of Indo-Anglian writers mostly belonging to the post-Independence India like that R.K. Narayan, Raja Rao, Vikram Seth, Kiran Desai, Khushwant Singh and Amit Chaudhuri. In an intriguing way both the Indian and British writers were seeking new meanings and identity for a world which was in the throes of change and emerging from the devastation of the War and Partition along with end of Empire. Apart from this stellar cast there was the constant lingering of PG Wodehouse generating lots of chuckles in a mundane world of human existence. In light of the penchant for humour and satire it would be worth mentioning that both the post-war British writers and post-Independence Indian writers dealt with this end of Colonialism and Empire with satire and wit which took out the sharp rancour from discourse. In post-war British writing we find the leitmotif of the end of an ‘ancient regime’ established ruling class, and in the Indian context it was the formation of new indigenous ruling class which would be inclusive of all caste, creed, class and community, thus having a quest for a fair and equitable society.
The magazines which were devoured at the British Library were literary and liberal like that of ‘New Statesman’, ‘London Review of Books’, ‘The Guardian’ and I would drift stealthily towards the ‘The Spectator’ and ‘The Times’ along with Literary Supplement which would betray my ‘ticking’ Anglophile Conservatism.
The most delightful moment for me was to descend after an exhaustive reading session at the British Library of the Book Review and Literary supplements, carrying few borrowed books of Somerset Maugham, Philip Larkin and A.S. Byatt and then join the ‘chattering table’ and then exchange notes, discuss at length the authors and the contours of literary trends.
KOSHY’S PARADE CAFÉ TODAY: EVER ALLURING MYSTIC
Today when I do drop in for a visit to the café the remnants of my past sojourn which remain intact are the mystic charm and the warmth and smiles of the owner Prem Koshy. What has changed? The idyllic idiosyncratic world of ‘drifters’ and ‘Bohemians’ have changed enormously across the globe and not just in Bengaluru. The incessant penchant for trumpeting material success is just bewildering along with the disappearance of the relaxed pace of life. Journalists are way too busy to walk into cafés and engage with random strangers for a chat since the discourse is acerbic and pugnacious fueled by a virulent social media network. The rampant philistinism has made it completely acceptable for a modestly read person to debunk Proust without inviting scorn since anti-elitism in the intellectual sphere is the new credo. As I conclude my nostalgic trip down the memory lane I feel blessed to have been a young and a ‘regular’ at the Koshy’s Parade café in the early 90s and to quote Wordsworth, ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!’.