“Do you want to come get a drink with the edit and design teams?” someone asked a bunch of surprised interns, of whom I was one. This was many summers ago, in a period of dogsbodying at a now-defunct music magazine based in Bangalore. It wasn’t the getting-the-drink part that was exciting. I had grown up in a mellow Catholic family in the nation’s pub capital, and had long graduated from tiny toddler sips to a teenager’s tumbler at clan gatherings. No, it was the thrill of being called to hang out at all.
Until then, I’d mostly tagged along with my grandparents to the storied barrooms of the old hotels and clubs, where all I was allowed to do was “to sit still and be quiet.” Only recently I had found my voice at one of the city’s few family-bar-&-restaurant establishments with friends from college. But it wasn’t until I ducked into a neighbourhood bar for the first time during that internship that I learned their real place in our city’s fabric.
Far from the cosy exclusivity of the club and the raucous bonhomie of the “restobar,” these neighbourhood dives were featureless grey canvases one could colour with any crayon from the box. They had regulars, so you didn’t always have to be accompanied by your gang, but could go alone and still have company. (In time, one wanted to be a regular oneself.) You could sit down and simply by the aspiration of your sigh or the closeness of your companion, the bearer (always called Raju) would bring you a cold beer or a tetra-pak of Old Monk and a glass bottle of Thumbs Up.
You didn’t order from a menu but told him the things you wanted to eat, and Raju made it happen depending on whether you were liked or not. Sometimes, items would be promised, written down and forgotten - but never billed. You didn’t complain because you were happy to be left alone. In time, I located such a bar in my neighbourhood in East Bangalore, which served me well for a decade until a calamity that – wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.
That day as an intern, I marched along with my co-workers. We stopped at the store-front of a booze shop in the corner. “What do you want to drink?” “Where’s the bar?” “Quick!” “Beer!” “Beer??? You’ll drink Old Monk!” “Okay”. On the right-hand side of the shop was a squatted bhajji-aunty and her stove. “Everyone will eat bhajjis, right?” Where the hell was this bar? Just walk towards the left-side of the shop, came the order. Someone corralled the interns into a room behind rolling shutters.
I know, I’m suppose to romanticise this reveal but honestly, it stank. Someone had managed to secure us a corner on the chest-high steel-shelf that ran around the room. Soon, I could see in the dark and through the heavy smoke, I’d acclimatised to the smell in the air.
“Are we drinking in someone’s garage?” “Yes”.
Everyone seemed to know of the existence of this grubby, glorious gash in this quiet, decorous neighbourhood. Around it mushroomed other things that became fuel for its belly. There came and went kabab carts, Shanti-aunty with a momo-steamer but the bhajjis and the booze shop didn’t budge. Over time, age and relative wealth weighed me down; I wanted to sit down while drinking. Imagine: that used to count as posh.
Looking for seating opened up many more options. Some local dives had atmosphere, others were known for their Mangalorean munchies. The best ones served pork. (If you’re new to Bangalore, listen: a full plate of chicken ghee roast and a couple plates of neer dosa cures any hangover. It’s the ghee. I know, crazy to consume something murderously tasty that’s good for you.)
I must admit, that we – my friends and I – were the first line of offense in the invisible battle brewing over these establishments even then. While people like us weren't their real clientele, they opened out to us, giving us two spoons when we asked for a fork; producing cut-up squares of newspaper when we asked for tissue paper; and even cleaning and then standing guard while our girlfriends used the only loo.
Soon, we wanted cocktails and chart-toppers. We wanted our bars to make us oooh-and-aaah. We wanted them to pay homage to the cultural capital and look like places we’d seen on our vacations. This month, I got what I deserved. It makes me sad. My neighbourhood bar has transformed itself into just such a perky anywhere-in-the-world watering hole. The walls are Mediterranean-style white and blue, the sofas are stools now, the tiles have been turfed.
On this same rooftop of a decrepit building sat my previous magnificent hidey-hole. Lionel Ritchie’s Bangalore brother welcomed patrons in the elevator; the owner-DJs were two Anglo-Indian aunties, and the cocktails, “too sweet,” were named after islands in the Pacific. You could get measures and bottles of beer if you didn’t want the tiki specials. The posters on the wall weren’t trying to be cool or motivate you. They must have been lying around in these ladies’ kids rooms: Michael Jackson, Olivia Newton-John and Madonna. But there was also Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin and their peers. Why not? The passage of time meant nothing here. At the weekly karaoke night, grey-haired gentlemen would dedicate Neil Diamond’s “Forever in Bluejeans” to their Barbaras; mothers and sons would do a duets of Creed’s “Six Feet From The Edge;” and the night would always end with the taller of the Anglo aunties singing Connie Francis’ “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool”.
Okay, I know, this sounds major. (Fine, maybe not for you, ingrate. Go back to party city where you belong.) I’m not mad about Bangalore levelling up to global hipsterdom; I’m really glad that I can get a great gin cocktail, a charcuterie platter and brewed beers in my city. But it would be nice if they didn’t decimate their predecessors. When they came for my previous haunts, I cried privately but now I just can’t hold in my tears any longer.
Can we please stop making these Siamese-twin salons across the city with the same settings? Can we stop spending all our time thinking up new names for cocktails and actually make them good? At my neighbourhood bar, I just had to say, “go easy on the sugar” and not give up the whole thing and call for gin neat. Can we just have one tight menu that serves up the chef’s greatest hits? Heartbroken, I went to look for the shuttered garage bar of my incipient adulthood and found it. I didn’t go in, but the booze shop and bhajjis are still right there. I feel as anxious as I do happy. “Where is it?,” you ask. “I’ll never tell”.
Joshua Muyiwa is Bangalore-based poet and writer.
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