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Sunday, 13 May 2012


I first visited Bangalore in southern India in January 1994. Much of the first week of my stay was taken up with preparations for the very colourful and quite complicated Hindu wedding ceremony, in which I was to play a starring role. After the three days of proceedings were over, my wife and I spent a fortnight away from the city on our honeymoon, visiting Ootacamund and then Kerala. When we returned from this enjoyable trip, my first in India, we spent a few weeks in Bangalore, during which I was introduced to some of its attractions.

The Bangalore Club was one of these. In the days when the British controlled India, this was known as the ‘Bangalore United Services Club’ and its members were selected from the higher ranks of the armed forces. Today, it is still considered to be highly distinguished amongst the many social clubs of India, and its members, including myself, are very much aware of being considered by others, maybe without much justification, as being privileged people. In any case, the Club is located in its own delightful park-like grounds, an oasis in the heart of the ever increasing mayhem of everyday life in the city.

One of the Club’s two main entrances is located on Lavelle Road, which was named after Michael Lavelle who made his fortune in the 1870s by selling his mining concession in the Kolar Gold Fields. In 1994, most of the buildings along Lavelle Road were old bungalows, private residences set well back from the leafy street and surrounded by luxuriant gardens. Today, few of these remain, many of them having been replaced by modern blocks conceived by architects who appear to have little or no aesthetic sense. The road winds northwards from the Club until it reaches the grounds of St Mark’s Church, an elegant structure containing many memorials to Britons who fell during some of the many military campaigns, which they undertook to control their unruly subjects, such as, for example, the suppression of the Mopla Rebellion in Malabar in 1921. Before Lavelle Road reaches this point, it meets the eastern end of Madras Bank Road. In 1994, the southern corner plot where the two roads met was occupied by the open air café of the Airlines Hotel (‘Airlines’).

I don’t know exactly when Airlines first opened, but my wife, who lived as a small child in Bangalore the middle of the 1950s, has vague recollections of visiting it then. Other people, with whom I have spoken, feel that it first opened later, in the early 1960s. The exact date is unimportant, but it was during an era when air travel was considered new and exciting, and was definitely something that the vast majority of Indians would have never even dreamt of experiencing. The closest that even most relatively affluent Indians would ever get to flying was by driving out to an airport, and having a tea or coffee at its café. My wife remembers this is as being one of the treats she enjoyed during her schooldays in Calcutta, where her family moved to in 1958 from Bangalore. So, ‘Airlines’ - a name that suggested exoticism, modernity, and the latest mode of transport - was a clever choice for a new establishment opening in the late 1950s or the early 1960s. Furthermore, it had a drive-in, just like something that  Bangaloreans would only have seen in American films. One could, and still can, sit in the car park and have refreshments served on a stainless steel tray that clips on to the window of the car door.

Arborial embrace
Squirrels mating high above Airlines Café

My wife introduced me to Airlines for several reasons. Firstly, it is full of good memories of her childhood. It was a place that her parents visited as a treat. Secondly, it is a place that one can sit peacefully in the open-air, shaded from the sun by umbrellas of fern-like foliage growing from the branches of the huge trees that surround the open-air café. Thirdly, the coffee served there is good. Waiters dressed in stained white uniforms deliver large glasses of good quality milky south Indian filter coffee from the main building of the hotel. The coffee at Airlines may not be the best available in a city overflowing with coffee outlets, but it is way above average, and few places can compete with the café’s leafy ambience.

No smoking

A few years ago, long after my first visit to Bangalore, we arrived at Airlines and were shocked to see that it had shrunk in size. No longer did the open-air café extend as far as Lavelle Road. A high, unadorned, breezeblock wall had bisected not only the open air section of Airlines, but also the main building of the hotel. The eastern half the building still functioned, but its western half had been demolished. This section of the hotel ended abruptly at the new wall.  Beyond this wall, which made me recall the Berlin Wall that fell more or less the same time as this one was erected, there was a building site. Today, this is occupied by another tasteless modern office block.

The land, on which Airlines stands, is leased from a waqf, a charitable trust maintained by Muslims. When the trust needed to realise more cash, it reclaimed some of the land and built the more profitable office block on it. The division of Airlines resulted. Today, if one sits with one’s back to the ugly wall, the café looks unchanged. In its reduced form it is now bounded at each end by huge banyan trees. 

Basin in the banyan

One of these, the banyan nearest the new wall, grows next to an area where glasses and plates are rinsed before being returned to the indoor kitchen across the car park. A basin with one tap, used for handwashing, is precariously attached to the trunk of this tree. The dangling tendrils of the banyan at the other end of the café gently caress the roof of a dilapidated hut in which fresh jilebis are fried in ghee at certain times of the day. Other equally dilapidated huts, half hidden by unruly vegetation, line the the café along its edge closest to Madras Bank Road. These buildings, which look as if they are about to collapse are used to prepare treats such as delicious fruit juices freshly prepared from pineapples, apples, mosambis, and whatever else is available that day. Although these huts look as though they cannot possibly be hygienic, I have never suffered any problems after drinking juices prepared in them.

The careful observer will notice a children’s slide hidden amongst the jungle growing alongside these huts. This is all that remains of the children’s playground that was demolished when the ‘wall’ went up. Today there is a new playground located near to the main entrance of the grounds of the hotel.

A small humped footbridge leads from the car park across a dried up gully into the café, passing below a faded metal sign on which the word ‘Tivoli’ can just be discerned. Is this a reference to the well-known identically named pleasure park in Copenhagen? If so, the resemblance ends there. Until recently, when a layer of cement was laid down, the floor of the open-air café was bare earth. Uneven, it was difficult to locate the four legs of the plastic chairs and the white marble-topped tables so that they did not wobble continuously, and in the rainy season it was muddy as well. The concrete is equally uneven, but will probably be less messy during the monsoon rains.

Drinking coffee can make one need to visit the toilet. At Airlines, this is an interesting experience. The lavatories are located within the main building of the hotel, a single storied structure, now dissected by the wall erected by the waqf.  To reach them, it is necessary to walk through the indoor café.  At any time of the day, however bright the sun may be, this must be one of the gloomiest places in Bangalore. At first, you will see nothing. When your pupils dilate sufficiently, and your eyes have adapted, you will notice that the long rectangular hall is filled with tables at which people, mostly men, are sitting nursing coffees or eating idlis and dosas. Its grimy walls and ceiling look as if they have remained untouched since the day that the first customer was served in here.  The door leading to the toilets is at the end of this dingy room. Even the extremely basic men’s toilet seems more cheerful than the indoor café.

A stranger to Bangalore might take one quick glimpse at the ancient yellow and blue sign at the entrance to the Airline’s compound, and walk on in search of somewhere that looked more salubrious to take refreshment. And, as I have already mentioned, there is no shortage of these in the city. UB City, the outrageously swanky mall, is not far away, nor is the smart Café Coffee Day opposite Cubbon Park. And, on MG Road, there are a number of coffee joints that make Airlines seem like a poor relative in comparison. Yet, Airlines is frequently overflowing with customers.

At weekends, only the courageous would consider visiting the drive-in. The car park is filled with cars packed so closely that the waiters can barely squeeze between them to deliver their offerings. You may easily hunt in vain for an empty table under the trees. From early morning to late in the evening Airlines is often seething with customers. The place is not much cheaper than other fancier, trendier places. So, it is not parsimony that attracts people there. It is not filled with people, like my wife, who remember it nostalgically. Many of the customers enjoying their beverages and eating vegetarian dishes are young. Many off them look like school kids or college students. Most of them are equipped with the latest mobile telephones and dressed in stylish casual clothes.

No way! ok!

I am often tempted to think of Bangalore as being a yuppie city, where only the newest is acceptable, and the old is rejected as is the case with so many of the city’s older buildings.  The Airlines Hotel, decrepit as it undoubtedly is, makes me resist the temptation, and gives me some hopes for a place, which I love, and which often seems determined to self-destruct.