Thursday, April 23, 2009

"Trees are the earth's endless effort to speak to the listening heaven." - Kabiguru Rabindranath Tagore.

Yesterday (22nd April, 2009) was "Earth Day" or so I was told. Let me begin this post by quoting my favourite poet, Kabiguru Rabindranath Tagore, "Trees are the earth's endless effort to speak to the listening heaven."

I wonder what would be his thoughts were he to live to see what the world has come to... where headlines scream, "Harvest water or no water line," "Contamination is a growing concern," "Water scarcity hits the city," and more, everyday... all common news... they do not evoke surprise anymore, no eyebrows are raised... sadly!

I will look at the situation confronting the whole nation (and indeed the world at large) through the prism of the happenings in the city that I live in.

A couple of days ago the "Times of India" newspaper reported that between the years 2002-2008, 14 water bodies (lakes) have 'disappeared' in Bangalore... casualty of urbanization and the Frankenstein monster called 'development'. Only last month, they had reported that the once pristine Varthur lake will 'die' in 3 years. Add to this the indiscriminate chopping of trees... including the ones inside parks... in the name of road-widening, metro rail, and what have you! There is a greek proverb which says, "A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in." I wonder.....

The M.G. Road boulevard - quite a landmark in itself - is history... I remember spending many a weekend afternoon and evening sitting inside the "Coffee House" (the India Coffee House, right opposite the road across the boulevard) sipping coffee and having scrambled eggs (a specialty of the Coffee House) - watching the rain or just observing the people passing by. Sadly, now even the Coffee House (established in January, 1958, the building in which it was housed in is even older, having been built in 1936) is no longer around... another victim of the unplanned and chaotic path of urban 'development'..... two landmarks, both a part of the culture of this city and by extension of this country do not exist any more. And nobody seems to notice... sadly! Now, everytime I pass by the M.G. Road, I cannot help reminscing... and it brings to my mind the words of James G. Watt, "They kill good trees to put out bad newspapers."

Other landmarks - again a part of our precious and priceless "culture" - have disappeared as well. Tiffany's Restaurant: this popular eating place which served great steaks, biriyani, kebabs and sizzlers - apart from an economy lunch boufeut and continental cuisine - was a fixture on the Vittal Mallya Road. Tiffany's was THE place to go for a relaxed afternoon drink and meal. Even for a leisurely breakfast or brunch. No loud music. No over 13 somethings competing for acoustic and physical space... the restaurant resembled a majestic ship anchored at the port. The place where it stood is still referred to as the "Tiffany's Square" - even though the restaurant itself has been razed to the ground - what an irony! The Victoria Hotel: this quaint, old world, charming restaurant serving authentic english breakfast, where one could have their meals in peace and truely enjoy it, without having to worry about other people waiting in the line and waiters breathing down your neck and hurrying you up..... had, ages ago, made way for a glass and mortar structure called "The Central" - a shopping mall. The Coffee House on the M.G. Road along with the Victoria Hotel and Tiffany's gave Central Bangalore its identity, its old world colonial hangover. The turbaned waiters in their faded red and white uniform were probably as old as the Coffee House itself. They knew most of their customers and stopped by for a chat. The cost of the coffee was only Rs 5 (even until a few years ago; in the late '50's it costed just two annas or 12 paisa), then became Rs 9 and the masala dosa, like the way mom makes at home, but served with a fork and knife was only Rs 13 (until recently that is, but even with the hike in price was under Rs 20). There are several Coffee House outlets (besides the one on Bangalore's ever-evolving showpiece street, the M.G. Road) - there is one in the Coffee Board premises (on the Queen's Road, near the Infantry Road) and another on the Avenue Road (this is the first branch - of the Indian Coffee Workers Co-Operative Society, headquartered at Bangalore - and established on Aug. 17/19, 1957). All the Coffee House outlets serve(d) crunchy onion pakodas, along with the usual sandwiches, the masala dosas, the cutlets, the fried eggs and toast, the scrambled eggs and of course the piping hot coffee - all signature Coffee House food. I am told that Pure Coffee sans chicory (that most brands of Indian coffee contain) from the Coffee Board is the only coffee powder that is used in the brew and that charcoal ovens were used for all the cooking! Many an afternoon... after college hours and on weekends, usually friday afternoons I, along with my friends, have spent many an hour chatting away over a cup of coffee and masala dosa or scrambled eggs and all the three outlets. Now, only two remain... but for how long... ? On many weekdays, we have rushed to the one in the Coffee Board premises to grab a quick bite before resuming work....

The last sip of coffee for nostalgia hunters (on the M.G. Road outlet) was taken on a Sunday evening (5th of April, 2009) with students from an Arts School even trying to sketch the closing moments of the historical Coffee House. Patrons drove down all the way from Jayanagar, J.P. Nagar, Vijayanagar and Bannerghatta Road to have their last cup of coffee here and to walk down memory lane... some missing out on the brew but happily settling for a glass of lime juice (with the floating seeds) instead. As the Sun set on the 5th of April, 2009... it took with it another of Bangalore's icons... the Coffee House on Bangalore's most prominent thoroughfare downed its shutters after 51 charming years, leaving behind a 51-year-old legacy of playing host to personalities like former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, painter M.F. Husain, former Chief Minister S.M. Krishna, popular actor and director of Kannada cinema, (the late) Shankar Nag, Malayalam cinema's superstar Mohanlal, Jnanpith awardees U.R. Anantha Murthy and Girish Karnad as well as commoners, including yours truly. The doors were locked for the last time at 8.45 PM. "Save Indian Coffee House," a Facebook group, consisting of around 570 members, made attempts to retain their favourite hangout. But their efforts came to naught. The Coffee House management could not match the owners appetite to convert the place into something more commercially viable. With the economic meltdown and liquidity crunch, most owners are not interested in brewing history or sipping over nostalgia. It is commerce that has an upper hand over history. When will people realise that old is worth more than gold and that nostalgia is priceless... ? Short term thinking will cost more than history. I cannot help but recollect the cult song, "Coffee House er shei adda ta aaj aar nei... " rendered by the living legend, Padma Bhushan Manna Dey - many summers ago - on this sad occasion... when I actually realise that I am writing a requiem for not just the Coffee House but for all the vanishing icons of Bangalore. The lyrics go like this, "Coffee House er shei adda ta aaj aar nei, aaj aar nei, Kothay hariye gelo shonali bikel gulo shei, aaj aar nei" (translated: The adda and the good times spent at the Coffee House is lost forever, Where have all the golden afternoons gone... they have been lost forever). Even though this song refers to the most famous Coffee House branch in Kolkata - the one at College Street - also known as the "Coffee House at College Street," it very aptly sums up our thoughts on the demise of the one on the M.G. Road in Bangal-ore/Bengal-uru. The "Coffee House at College Street" is situated opposite to the Presidency College, Kolkata and has been a regular haunt for students, editors, budding poets, painters, artists, literati... as well as such leading lights as, Satyajit Ray, Manna Dey, Amartya Sen, Mrinal Sen and Aparna Sen. In the past, notable citizens, including Kabiguru Rabindranath Tagore, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose, Ritwik Ghatak, Narayan Gangopadhyay, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Sanjeev Chattopadhyay, Samaresh Majumdar, Subhas Mukhopadhyay, other writers and editors of the magazine, "Krittibas" (like Shakti Chattopadhyay) have been just a few among the patrons of the Coffee House. The history of the "Coffee House at College Street" can be traced to the Albert Hall, which was founded in April 1876. Several literary magazines owe their origin to the inspiration from the adda sessions at this Coffee House. I found the link to this song and feel like sharing it in this post:

There are other such vanishing icons. The Cash Pharmacy on the Residency Road - St. Marks Road junction: this place stocked every kind of medicine that one could think of - people knew where to go to incase they were in urgent need of some medication and were unsure about their availability elsewhere. Several British era bunglows - with beautiful gardens - dotting Bangalore, especially Bangalore North have been demolished to make way for apartments or business centres. The Premier Book Shop at Church Street is gone too: a book-lovers paradise... this treasure trove needs no introduction to Bangalore's book-lovers who have thronged Premier for over 30 years. Book stacks rose from the floor to the ceiling and one marvelled at how Mr. Shanbag - the owner who ran the bookstore for the love of books - effortlessly picked out the book(s) that one wanted. Books on history, philosophy, literature, architecture, art, children's books, fiction, non-fiction, magazines, periodicals, and more jostled for space in this 600 sq ft shop, where even the cash counter hid behind the towering stacks. Even the Lakeview Milk Bar, well known for its Continental Breakfast, ice creams, pizzas, thick milkshakes, juicy burgers, layered sandwiches, omlettes and cakes - this is the first ice-cream parlour in Bangalore and was started in the 1930's - has been forced to move elsewhere. A few months ago the Devappa Nursery located near the main entrance to Lalbagh and one of the last vestiges of the original "Garden City" (being one of the oldest nurseries in Bangalore, started in the 1950s) was forced to close down and move elsewhere making way for yet another glass and concrete monstrosity - yes, yet another shopping mall. The casualties: 80-year old nursery plants as well as silver oak and rain trees. The Devappa nursery is among the last of a chain of nurseries which once occupied an entire stretch of the Lalbagh Road. Over the years, many of them have disappeared in the face of growing urbanization. The list of the vanishing landmarks of Bangalore could be a mile long... I am afraid. An entire generation of Bangaloreans (including my nephews, and one of them is barely 3.5 years old) are growing up - in this very city - unaware of these landmarks, these icons from the past. They have never set their eyes on these places which once defined Bangalore, which were an integral part of the culture of this city, and gave Bangalore its identity. What makes it even more poignant is that, all these places have been around for nearly half a century, and in some cases even close to a century... and all it has taken are a few workers, a few cranes and bulldozers to raze them to mere rubble and in the process to successfully annihilate a part of Bangalore's culture. Nobody cared for the broken hearts of the old-timers... the show ('development') must go on... you see!

All these landmarks were a throwback to the laidback Bangalore of the pensioners (yes! Bangalore was once called a "Pensioners paradise") who had made it a home to retire in, when long walks amidst the tree lined boulevards, listening to the birds instead of the noisy traffic was what mornings were made of. This was often followed by a relaxed breakfast at any of the several eateries lining the city or even at home. The waiters took their own time to serve, so one sat there reading the morning newspapers, in no hurry to go anywhere. Nobody asked you to leave and you could sit there until you found something else to do. As old landmarks give way to the new, as a city’s culture evolves and changes to accommodate new ideas and new thinking, it is surprising that a place like Koshy’s is still standing proudly. The waiters here are probably as old as the restaurant and the tables too are old and rickety. Yet, Koshy’s has managed to retain its old world charm, keep its old clientele, while ringing in the new. Generations of Bangaloreans have passed through Koshy’s doors - journalists, actors, directors, musicians, intellectuals, writers, painters and even out-of-work accountants and students - who frequented Koshy’s for its Smileys, its stew and appams, its biriyani and fish curry, its sandwiches and its coffee. Koshy’s is as much an 'adda' for the 70-year-old who sips his coffee, as he reads his morning newspaper at a table tucked away in the corner, as it is a hangout for the 17 or 18-year-old college student SMSing his/her friends at another table nearby. "Let’s meet at Koshy’s over coffee," is a common phrase that I have used over the years... and have spent many an evening here with friends over coffee and plum cakes. Another place that is still going strong is the K.C. Das outlet, on Church Street... (just opposite Koshy's)... famous for its bengali sweets, mishti doi, luchi-aloo dum, samosas and kachoris... delicacies that generations of Bangaloreans have gorged on over the years.

Still holding the fort even after half a century is the Select Book Shop (situated off Brigade Road), this city's only antiquarian book store that is known worldwide. They have been in business for three generations (is perhaps the oldest book shop in Bangalore) and served clients like Ruskin Bond and C.V. Raman. In all my years in Bangalore, I have somehow managed to miss going to this place... and I have been to every other book shop worth its name! I regularly read the column written by Mr. K.K.S. Murthy (the proprietor of the Select Book Shop) that is published in the "Bangalore Mirror"... and they have a Ruskin Bond connection too! Ruskin Bond is one of my favourite authors (please refer to my blog: "The name is Bond. Ruskin Bond!")... yet I have never been there... I am extremely disappointed with myself and am determined to make amends at the earliest. Just a note, even though unrelated to this post... Today (23rd April, 2009) is the "World Book and Copyright Day," and I have just discovered that Mr. Murthy was born on 23rd April, 1930... he also shares his birthday with the greatest English dramatist, William Shakespeare (born on 23rd April, 1564)... no wonder, Mr. Murthy is a fountainhead of knowledge and I am looking forward to meeting him.

Other landmarks, such as the Galaxy Theatre, the Plaza Theatre, the Lido Theatre and the Symphony Theatre are distant memories. They were the "old fashioned" theatres (now referred to as the "single screen theatres," in the multiplex era) where we flocked to catch the latest english and hindi blockbusters.

Pollution, noisy traffic, pollen allergies, lack of or insufficient rainfall, incessant power outrages, frequent breakdown of the water supply... have become an integral part of our lives now... and I fear that it will only become worse. Bangalore has changed... but for the worse. I say so, because I have witnessed the 'growth' of this city... a decade or so ago it was a very different city... with a laid back and leisurely pace of life, pollution levels were down (hugely)... it was more like a hill station... quiet and peaceful. The water and power scenario were much better... infact, Bangalore was a much smaller area so to speak. Places from where people 'travelled' to Bangalore on a visit, etc., now find themselves to be a part of Bangalore... truly this city has grown! And how!! Everyday new apartments/business centres/shopping malls are being built to cater to this phenomenon called 'urbanization'. Not to mention the numerous bill boards dotting the skyline... it reminds me of Ogden Nash's lines from the "Song of the Open Road,"

"I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Perhaps, unless the billboards fall,
I'll never see a tree at all."

March-April meant 'exam time', and we wrote our papers wearing our warm clothers (sweaters, jackets, etc.) and still shivered in the cold! Now, there is a complete reversal of situation... we don't need to bring out our warm clothes at all, let alone wear them even during the winter season!! Infact, it feels as if there is only one season - "Summer" - all throughout the year, and it is only getting hotter by the day. Even the humidity levels are up - its dry heat and extremely energy sapping.

Bangalore is also called the "Garden City" - even now (!) - but I feel that this title was suitable eons ago... now there are hardly any gardens left let alone flowers and trees. To quote Henry Ellacombe, "A garden without trees scarcely deserves to be called a garden." Thanks to the lack of civic amenities, Bangalore is turning out to be a "Garbage City"... what a pity! The less said about the condition of the roads the better... and the proverbial icing on the cake is during the time when it rains... 5 minutes worth of rain in Bangalore will result in a traffic jam for 2 hours (minimum). This, in the so-called "Silicon Valley of India." Once I was caught in the rain around 8 PM and managed to reach home close to midnight, 11.55 PM to be precise... atleast I should be thankful that I reached home the same day! Right?

Just an observation... some years back the US slang term "Bangalored" became a part of the lexicon. It refers to people who have been laid off from a multinational because their job has been moved to India - a business practice designed to save money that is arousing passions in some countries, especially Britain and the United States. I understand that due to the efforts of the government (of Karnataka) a while back, 'Bangalore' has become 'Bangaluru'... I seriously doubt if anyone or anything, even jobs, can be "Bangalurued"... What say!??

A week or so ago, I read in the DNA newspaper that a man had to undergo emergency surgery because he had a fir tree growing in his lungs! The tree was about 6 inches in height already... while the doctors were convinced that he was suffering from cancer! He had apparently inhaled a seed which had lodged itself in his lungs and started growing!! If we do not protect our environment probably thats the only place trees will be found next... our lungs! Not a very nice thought... what??

In great writing that has inspired many to help keep the Earth green with trees, some see only the opportunity to acquire more 'green' (money) for themselves. There is a heartwarming story about the impact of one man, Elzeard Bouffier, who planted trees from 1900-1946, in the area where the Alps thrust down into Provence, France. Jean Giono, The Man Who Planted Trees has said and I quote, "When I reflect that one man, armed only with his own physical and moral resources, was able to cause this land of Canaan to spring from the wasteland, I am convinced that in spite of everything, humanity is admirable. But when I compute the unfailing greatness of spirit and the tenacity of benevolence that it must have taken to achieve this result, I am taken with an immense respect for that old and unlearned peasant who was able to complete a work worthy of God."

I wonder whatever happened to all the sapplings that were planted every other day by some or the other visiting dignitary..... hmmm, food for thought!

I came across the poem, "Trees" by Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918) and feel like sharing it in this post. Here it is:

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree."

Lord Orrery, (in 1749) said and I quote, "Trees are the best monuments that a man can erect to his own memory. They speak his praises without flattery, and they are blessings to children yet unborn." Did we miss something... in our journey into the 21st century??

The great civilizations of the past knew the value of nature and trees... here is the proof... then why don't we? A case of "good question, no answer"... eh?

"Tall thriving Trees confessed the fruitful Mold:
The reddening Apple ripens here to Gold,
Here the blue Fig with luscious Juice overflows,
With deeper Red the full Pomegranate glows,
The Branch here bends beneath the weighty Pear,
and verdant Olives flourish round the Year."

- Homer

"That each day I may walk unceasingly on the banks of my water, that my soul may repose on the branches of the trees which I planted, that I may refresh myself under the shadow of my sycomore." - Egyptian tomb inscription, circa 1400 BCE (Sycomore trees were held to be sacred in ancient Egypt and are the first trees represented in ancient art.)

I will end this post by quoting the great Lebanese-American artist, poet, and writer Kahlil Gibran,

"Trees are poems that earth writes upon the sky,
We fell them down and turn them into paper,
That we may record our emptiness."

How very apt... indeed!

Photographs: (in clockwise order)

1) A beautiful view of nature - "When God paints".......

2) The India Coffee House (M.G. Road, Bangalore) 'Menu Card' - this is slightly dated.

3) A waiter goes about his duty on the last working day (on the 5th of April, 2009) serving the customers at the India Coffee House, M.G. Road, Bangalore.

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