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Majestic encounters: guzzling through Bengaluru’s iconic dive bars

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

A new book looks at a writer’s adventures through the culinary underbelly of India

According to a 2011 census there were 1,330 sit-down bars (out of which 300 were what one might call, strictly speaking, pubs proper) and 830 stand-up-drinking-dens in town, yet very few genuinely prehistoric—‘first-generation pubs’ in businesspeak—remain. The Pub, which by when I drunk there had turned into the city’s earliest theme-pub, NASA, designed to feel like being inside a space shuttle, has been replaced by a Mumbai-ishtyle cocktail disco. Who even remembers Underground, once an M.G. Road institution made to look like a tube station and thus a precursor to Namma Metro, the city’s rapid transit network? And did you ever go to Black Cadillac where the johns were named, respectively, Olivia Newton-John and Elton John? I miss them all. In my quest to live in the past, I never ever go to the microbreweries of Indiranagar and Koramangala—no matter how hip they are, even if there were (prior to the pandemic) over sixty to choose between, all cooking beers on site. I prefer the traditional entertainment district of Majestic any day.

The area is rather congested nowadays but nicely compact, so it’s better to ditch one’s rickshaw and enter on foot. I habitually get off outside Janatha Bazaar, once the flagship department store in town, now looming forlornly, vacant and fenced-in as if it too will be demolished notwithstanding being a most astonishing heritage building—it effortlessly blends royal Mysuru dignity with colonial architectural details such as Tudor arches. Apparently, the complex with its lavish teakwood and wrought iron staircases was known as the Asiatic Building back in the 1940s. In due time, it was taken over by the Public Works Department and turned into a shopping complex in the mid1960s. At the time of writing, the demolition has been stayed as the conservation organization INTACH is trying to rescue it

Out of the aforementioned bars, a majority are concentrated in Majestic where the lion’s share of the city’s annual consumption of 455 million beers takes place and which seems to have put India—on the #23 spot globally when it comes to beering. In dicier dives, corks are popped as early as 8 a.m. in order to fulfill the day’s quota. Bills are usually settled in advance, perhaps the bartenders still recall Winston Churchill famously skipping a bar bill of Rs13, approximately the cost of fifty-two pegs at the time, as he hastily decamped at the end of the nineteenth century—lugging only his ‘campaigning kit I sped to the Bangalore railway station and bought a ticket for Nowshera.’ Wherever that is and what he drank there isn’t known, though at that time he despised whiskey, ‘the main basic standing refreshment of the white officer in the East’, but regarding brandy and soda ‘there was much respectable warrant’. So presumably it was fifty-two brandies that he never paid for.

Bills are usually settled in advance, perhaps the bartenders still recall Winston Churchill famously skipping a bar bill of Rs13, approximately the cost of fifty-two pegs at the time.

More significantly, while living in a rented bungalow which stood near Trinity Metro station (on the north side of M.G. Road) he picked up his reading habit that eventually resulted in a Nobel Prize-winning writerly career, self-educating for up to five hours a day to make up for being ‘an uneducated man’ as he himself put it: ‘So I resolved to read history, philosophy, economics, and things like that; and I wrote to my mother asking for such books as I had heard of on these topics. She responded with alacrity, and every month the mail brought me a substantial package of what I thought were standard works.’ He was awarded the Nobel for Literature in 1953, the only Bangalore-inhabitant to ever receive that particular honour (although the IISc professor C.V. Raman won a Nobel in Physics in 1930), and it is believed that Churchill spent the prize money mostly on booze.

Most bars in Majestic are invariably of the ‘stand and tank up’ variety where patrons aren’t encouraged to linger if they can no longer stand on their feet, but there are also several decent sit-down joints for a more meditative mug. Life here is still very be-who-you-are and no bouncer will look twice at your bathroom slippers. Bars match this blatant lack of dress-code with a limited menu, sometimes the chef stands in the street frying the preferred bar nibble of heavily marinated cauliflower (a vegetable introduced by those colonials) in the‘manchurian’ manner (a dish so essential to bar culture here that criminals have committed murders because of it), but most serve nothing more elaborate than ‘congress’—the quintessential Bengaluruan roasted split peanuts spiced up with curry leaves, chopped onion, cut chillies, shredded carrot, tangy masalas and a squeeze of lime. This was apparently invented by the Iyengar community, which consists largely of teetotallers but operate many of the city’s bakery counters and condiment vends. Ah, the name? Well, it was invented in 1969 when the Congress party split, which makes sense in the Bengaluru kind of way.

Talk of the Town (2nd Cross) may to the uninitiated look like an average fast-food counter, but open the discreet door behind the open-air grill section and you will find yourself in a rather gorgeous if shabby, dimly-lit bar that dates back to the 1970s and is decorated with replicas of the jovial Paul Fernandes’s drawings of vintage Bengaluru. I habitually line my tummy with piquant chicken and too much beer, before exploring other backstreet drinking options.

I’ve heard from friends in the film industry that the best-selling whiskey in Majestic is Director’s Special, usually to be followed by a spot of casting-couch-surfing. A well-known filmy bar is the cavernous Green Hotel in a quiet B.B. Naidu Road backyard. It was inaugurated by a superstar in 1990 and its board is still adorned by the motto: ‘Film Industry’s Favorite Place.’ I doubt the celluloid stars drop by for afterwork pegs anymore because they’ve moved on to five-stars with plush lounges, yet the cobwebby heritage décor and cheap drinks make one feel like the good old days aren’t over yet.

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