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Cheers to the beery Cant stories!

Even if conservatives deemed the 'Cant' area in Bangalore a den of debauchery, it was seen as a crash course in cosmopolitanism before one’s first foreign trip, writes Zac O' Yeah
Last Updated : 03 June 2023, 19:30 IST

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Zac O’Yeah
Zac O’Yeah
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Going to the ‘Cant’ to drink was something different from hooching on moonshine in a quaint, or creepy — depending on one’s mental makeup — bazaar hut; it was a celebration, limitless fun, a liberal ethos suited for romantic occasions, something that to an extent still holds true except that one needs more cash to satisfy one’s cravings for fun and sin as the price of a beer at Koshy’s is somewhat costlier than the Rs 2 it was back in the mid-1900s. Meals came with knives and forks and one was expected to order beer in English rather than, like I habitually say, Ondu pintu kodi. These were the pub city’s roots, then, growing parallel to the first half of the 20th century’s temperance movements, almost as if synchronised. Mahatma Gandhi recommended in 1946: ‘Every bar or, failing that, a place next door to it, should,
so far as possible, be utilised as a refreshment and recreation room.’ And post-independence, when parts of the country obeyed the Gandhian diktat — for as he pointed out already in 1938, ‘our freedom will be the freedom of slaves if we continue to be victims of the drink and drug habit’ — and went for prohibition, it was never an option in this city where the various brewers and distillers owned schools, hospitals, newspapers, cinemas, cricket teams and, ostensibly to mark the creation of Karnataka state in 1956, one of them patriotically launched what was to become the country’s top beer: Kingfisher.

What we know as today’s archetypal Indian pub was invented as late as the mid-1980s after draught came around and two booze giants faced off. Ramada’s was backed by the Khoday distillers and The Pub, by United Breweries. Draught beer cost Rs 5-7 a mug in 1987, by when another 50 pubs had joined the competition, serving an estimated 35,000 mugs a day. So when I finally set foot in the city just a few years later, there were innumerable dives that called themselves pubs, no matter if they poured from the keg or out of a bottle or just shandied together a concoction of brandy-flavoured soda that looked like beer. Already on the train heading south, in the early 1990s, a Mumbai businessman excitedly enquired what the difference between a pub and a bar was since he was going south for the first time in his life. It took me time to explain but, in the end, he was enlightened when I told him that jolly pubs focused on beer cheer and camaraderie, sleazy bars on getting sloshed and anti-social. It was at that moment I understood how important Bengaluru was to civilisation.

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 drank 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 hep they are, even if there were (prior to the pandemic) over 60 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 mid-1960s. At the time of writing, the demolition has been stayed as the conservation organisation 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 (where hard liquor and hooch are way more popular generally speaking) — on the #23 spot globally when it comes to beering.

(Extracted with permission from Digesting India: A Travel writer’s sub-continental adventures with the Tummy: A memoir À La Carte by Zac O’Yeah and published by Speaking Tiger Books.)

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Published 03 June 2023, 19:15 IST

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