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The (late) great outdoors

Have you, of late, seen Udupi-style food being served in a garden under a tree or a striped awning or a creeper-covered iron trellis?

I HAVE a dog-eared bill with me from Hotel Victoria. It was issued the day before the hotel closed for "renovation", a word that effectively means "kiss it goodbye". New incarnations seldom satisfy old customers, and this one promises to be no exception. For me, the place was defined as much by the outdoor expanse as by the latticed veranda or the cosy interior. I'm sure the enormous tree that covered half the compound will vanish, if it hasn't done so already. It will be a miracle if the garden survives, with the tables and chairs dotting it and the waiters bringing around smoking sambrani in the evenings to separate hungry pests from hungry diners.

Outdoor restaurants have been well and truly driven out of town. The guilty parties? Time and Space. They sound like a couple of hoodlums from a cowboy western. It almost makes me want to put up a poster announcing a price on their heads. "Wanted: Time and Space. Last seen 15 years ago in Bangalore. Handsome reward offered." Fifteen years ago was the beginning of the end of the affordable outdoor restaurant - and I underscore "affordable". Today, it is possible to dine out of doors on a lawn or by a poolside or under a leafy canopy in some exclusive, expensive hangout. But I refer here to Udupi-style food that suits the common man's purse, served in a garden under a tree or a striped awning or a creeper-covered iron trellis. Seen any of those lately?

Sreeraj, Udyavan, Breeze, Shyamprakash... one by one they bit the dust. The economics didn't work out, I suppose. Remember, those were not like today's pathetic excuses for outdoors eateries that suffer from what I call the spillover effect: the restaurant owner says to himself, oh what the heck why not, and throws a couple of his tables out onto the concrete strip adjoining his building. The Great Outdoor Restaurant, on the other hand, looked something like this: you had maybe 15 tables crammed into a 300-square-foot hall, and just 20 tables lolling about in 1,000 square feet of verdant open space. Start doing the math. When land prices go through the roof, wouldn't you begin to mentally convert garden into hall? Then you'd start wondering, why have only one floor? Think multi-storey, and the property is worth crores instead of lakhs. Tan-ta-daaang! Commercial complex! When I see the grey twin towers where Udyavan once stood, I can almost taste the channa-batura. I would polish them off two at a time, sitting protected from the midday sun in one of the fragrant bowers that branched off the winding pathway. When I walk down Lavelle Road I see the ghosts of the grave and courteous Sreeraj waiters serving hot gulab jamuns in the shade of a mighty ficus. I often wonder what the big attraction was, about those places. Can't quite put my finger on it. Ambience is too fancy a word for what was ultimately a combination of a few unobtrusive elements: fresh air, some plants, the open sky, a tree or two. And somehow, these possessed the mysterious property of slowing down time. The very waiter who would bustle about indoors would break his stride the moment he stepped into the garden. Blinking and yawning, he would languidly amble towards your table as if to say, I know you have all the time in the world. And so you did. You took a 90-minute lunch break, not to mention mid-morning tea breaks and afternoon coffee breaks. Sometimes, one break sort of slid into the other.

I spent most of the first five years of my working life at Shyamprakash. Daily lunches, extended coffee sessions, even the occasional breakfast. On mornings when hostel fare turned to ashes in my mouth I would walk in at 8 a.m. to hear Carnatic music softly playing and the scratching of brooms on wet floors. Even the potted plants, the flowering creepers, and the leaves on the badam trees would have been freshly bathed with the gardening hose. No wonder the kesari bath would taste so heavenly. At lunchtime there would be the regulars - cops, lawyers, government office babus - and a tourist bus would occasionally disgorge a crowd of Hindi-speakers. Evening tea could go on until nightfall, friends willing.

During the next eight years of my career my visits were infrequent since my workplace was no longer around the corner, but each time I entered my old haunt the waiters would hail me like a long-lost sister. A change of job brought me right back to the vicinity of Shyamprakash, but I couldn't rejoice for long. Two years later, Money held Time and Space to ransom. That was seven years ago and I'm still bitter as hell about it.

If you took out a petition to stop the destruction of an outdoor restaurant, people would laugh. But tell me, do only heritage sites deserve to be protected? If you saved a restaurant you might be saving a precious bit of history. Your own. Not much value attached to that, I'm afraid. A restaurant could store memories of countless meetings with lovers, teachers, colleagues, friends. It could echo bygone experiences - of hope, death, discovery, separation. It could mark a moment when your heart stopped beating.

Those mean old rapscallions, Time and Space — I can never forgive the pair of them.

C.K. MEENA

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