The Koshy’s Parade – The Mystic Café

BY DR KAUSTAV BHATTACHARYYA

‘There’s a natural mystic blowing through the air
Cant keep them down
If you listen carefully now you will hear.’
Bob Marley, The Natural Mystic

At a recent Indo-Anglian poetry event I reminisced about the dreamy-eyed, youthful, indulgent days sauntered away at a Bangalore lanmark café, The Parade Café or the Koshy’s. My serious dabbling with Indo-Anglian poetry of the Dom Moraes, Nissim Ezekiel variety and broader world of English literature traces its origin to those hours spent in enlivened dialogue and reflection in this particular café. The café is known in its original form, ‘The Parade Café’ for most old-timers of Bangalore (old name and now changed to Bengaluru) and as the Koshy’s for the wider populace. For the purposes of this article, I will refer to it as the Koshy’s Parade Café to symbolize the true spirit of the café which is a juxtaposition of the old, genteel, Cantonment, ‘Little England’ charm Bangalore and the new vibrant, dynamic, high-tech, high-rise ‘Silicon Valley’ Bengaluru and where the two worlds meet and chat!! My initiation rites into the precincts of this Koshy’s Parade café was a ‘chance’ encounter since I happened to drift into the café and then was drawn into this vortex world of heady intellectual charm, eccentricity and animated conversations. It was on one late summer afternoon of the old Salubrious Bengaluru weather variety that I walked into Koshy’s Parade through its panelled glass door awaiting to meet one particular gentleman, Mr. P.K. Srinivasan who would be described later in the article. The buzz and the ambiance of the café was just electric and mystifying for an impressionable young man who was in his 20s. Customers were deeply engrossed in their conversations over their cups of tea or coffee or drinks served in simple sturdy tall glasses. Liveried waiters in their expressionless serious visages scurrying around with their trays. The ‘humming’ noise was reverberating through the entire café while tall fans whirred away.  Most of the customers were nonchalant about their surroundings or to put it in abstract ‘café philosopher’ lingo, the ‘externalities of their existence’, where it seemed that an alien from Mars with horns could have walked in without perturbing anyone present. I tried to catch bits and pieces of topics being spoken about and it ranged from occult mysticism, travels in the Far-East, literary novels, schooldays reflections to rising stock prices. This was unlike any of the other conventional eateries or restaurants I had encountered in my life until that point in time. Lets say there was a ‘natural mystic blowing through the air..’ to quote Bob Marley in the Koshy’s Parade Café.  Hence started by journey with the mystic café of Bengaluru, the Koshy’s Parade café.

LOCATION: BIBLIOPHILE WORLD OF BRITISH COUNCIL

Koshy’s Parade Café is located right in the heart of the city on a busy thoroughfare in the ground floor of a two-storied building with a wide striking exterior of row of large bay windows with blinds, one imposing door and nameboards with the logo signifying tradition and heritage. Until the 90s the British Council Library was located right on the top on the first floor which has since then moved to a different location. The café traces its origins to the entrepreneurial acumen and drive of a gentleman by the name of Mr. P.O. Koshy who hailed from the Southern state of Kerala and founded the place in 1952.  The café has the distinction of serving eminent personalities like the Queen Elizabeth II and our first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Over the decades the café has acquired a reputation of being an excellent spot cerebral interactions along with fine tea and coffee and scrumptious hearty food.  Koshy’s Parade café launched the first Air-Conditioned Restaurant in South India with a live band and dance floor which we students with frugal means and leftist ideals derisively termed as the ‘Right Bank’ being located on the right side of the restaurant.  Although on a hot scorching summer day gulping down the Indian cola drink ‘Thums Up’ or lemonade ‘Limca’ was an absolute delight. The ambiance of the café is of a rather Viennese or Parisian Bohemian one with formica-topped tables covered with gingham table-cloth, wooden chairs and rows of good old sturdy leather-upholstered sofa lining along the walls with liveried no-nonsense dedicated waiters.  The walls are adorned with black-and-white photographs of Bangalores landmarks from a bygone era along with the portrait of the founders. The lighting is that fluorescent lamps drawn from the ceiling with rods. The tea and coffee is served in porcelain cups and saucer and the most attractive element are the monogrammed silver sugar bowls laid on the tables, a rarity these days in India.  Amidst the laidback easygoing spirit there is propriety of service with neat paper napkins on plates and starched cloth napkins for meals offered to customers.  While discussing the ambiance of the Koshy’s Parade café it would be imprudent not to mention the most ornamental being the charming, ubiquitous, affable and great raconteur owner, Prem Koshy.  One is hard pressed to miss his presence as regular, is of muscular build with an eternal smile and smartly dressed in sportive outfits on most occasions.  Apart from being a first-class restauranteur, one of the best globally I have encountered Prem is a wildlife enthusiast, theater personality, green environmentalist and patron of arts and culture.  Having known Prem for over 3 decades I truly admire his ability to hold smooth relaxed conversations on any topic under the sun.  You know when you are on his ‘favourite list’ when a plate of ‘Potato Smileys’ or puffy small poppadams arrive on your table which is totally ‘on the house’.  The big draw of the Koshy’s Parade café is the love and affection it generated amongst bright and distinguished writers, artists, journalists and scholars for its congenial ambiance for an intellectual discourse serving fine tea and coffee and scrumptious hearty fare for dining. The presence of the British Council on the top floor surely added to the cultural and intellectual charm of the café attracting regular readers for a cuppa and chat downstairs.  Hence the Koshy’s Parade café was part of the bibliophilic British Council world of old Bengaluru!!  Ramachandra Guha, the eminent historian is one of the ardent patrons who claims that the ‘only establishment that I count myself close to is that which runs Koshy’s Parade Café in Bangalore’ and written widely about his experiences at the café.

P K SRINIVASAN – SOCRATES OF THE KOSHY’S PARADE

Personally my sojourn with the Koshy’s Parade is intimately intertwined with the legendary journalist, columnist, writer and humourist PK Srinivasan universally known as ‘PK’.  My impressions of PK remain that of an extremely affectionate, generous, kind, patient and brilliant tutor to a raw ‘rookie’ mind like mine.  PK was tolerant of my fallacious, exuberant, impassioned arguments and ideas which he corrected or dispelled painstakingly with intellectual arguments after listening rather intently ‘helping his followers work out of their out of darkness into enlightenment’, as Ram Guha worded very beautifully in his tribute to PK in his book titled ‘An Anthropologist Amongst the Marxists and Other Essays’, where there is a chapter dedicated to PK, ‘The Buddha of the Parade’s : PK Srinivasan’ as ‘Buddha of the Parade Café’    However for me most enjoyable and entertaining and memorable for me were his anecdotes, sharp and witty about celebrities and personalities who strode tall in the public domain in the post-independence period like that of Dr.BC Roy, General Maneckshaw, Rajaji or Sarojini Naidu drawing upon his personal experiences as a journalist and drawing room chatter. His recounting of milestone events which he covered like the visit of Queen Elizabeth II or the trip to Colombo to interview the Sri Lankan Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike. One of his favourite reminiscences were that of Potham Joseph, his first Editor/Mentor at Deccan Herald.  At this stage an introduction to PK Srinivasan is called for; PK Srinivasan was the most distinguished English-language journalist, wrote regular columns for the top Indian financial daily, The Economic Times and had spent 3 decades with the premier English publication of Bangalore, Deccan Herald apart from holding the post of Press Secretary to the Chief Minister of the state.  PK was an absolute treasure trove of insight and information into the first few momentous decades of post-Independence in India’s history. In the article referred to above by Ram Guha PK had been defined as the “Buddha of the Parade Café” where he aptly describes him as a ‘gentle colossus, broad of build, placid in countenance, wise but not judgmental’ which I think is the best and apt definition of the personae of PK I can imagine. PK held regular court at the Koshy’s Parade or as one of his old friends described ‘Socratian discourses’ where he held forth with all humility and humour on English literature, politics, history, art, culture, poetry and yes life, life as it unfolded and experienced by us sans any theoretical abstractions but as visceral truths.

There was an assemblage of motley crowd around PK which included a very diverse group of journalists, lawyers, economists, poets, teachers, real-estate dealers, writers, artists and plain simple ‘vagabonds’ drifting away happily through life which I would rather term as ‘drifters’. However, some of these ‘drifters’ were charming eccentrics who had spent years in genteel financial pecuniary as Bohemians in London or Paris who lived up to the ‘starving poet’ dream of the post-war Europe. They would narrate their ‘slumming tales’ of surviving on croissant and ham-cheese sandwiches in the digs of artistic quarters of Soho or Latin Quartier which we found fascinating. 

LITERARY LANDSCAPE – POST-WAR WORLD OF INDIA & BRITAIN

The intellectual landscape or the thinking world of that café milieu were dominated by the post-war novelists of Britain like Kingsley Amis, Malcolm Muggeridge, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene. The landscape of post-war British novelists were shared amicably with the earlier guard of Indo-Anglian writers mostly belonging to the post-Independence India like that R K Narayan, Raja Rao, Vikram Seth, Kiran Desai, Khushwant Singh and Amit Chaudhuri.  In an intriguing way both the Indian and British writers were seeking new meanings and identity for a world which was in the throes of change and emerging from the devastation of the War and Partition along with end of Empire.  Apart from this stellar cast there was the constant lingering of PG Wodehouse generating lots of chuckles in a mundane world of human existence.  In light of the penchant for humour and satire it would be worth mentioning that both the post-war British writers and post-Independence Indian writers dealt with this end of Colonialism and Empire with satire and wit which took out the sharp rancour from discourse. In post-war British writing we find the leitmotif of the end of an ‘ancien regime’ established ruling class, and in the Indian context it was the formation of new indigenous ruling class which would be inclusive of all caste, creed, class and community, thus having a quest for a fair and equitable society.  However it would be noteworthy to reflect that both the British and Indian writers of that era were imagining ‘reformed social order’ while being steeped in their own tradition and heritage.  The civilizational ethos were not discarded unlike the contemporary advocates of reform thus creating a ‘false’ tension between the grassroots and the elites, there was a clear awareness of the civilizational framework within which they lived and wrote.  

The magazines which were devoured at the British Library were literary and liberal like that of ‘New Statesman’, ‘London Review of Books’, ‘The Guardian’ and I would drift stealthily towards the ‘The Spectator’ and ‘The Times’ along with Literary Supplement which would betray my ‘ticking’ Anglophile Conservatism.

The most delightful moment for me was to descend after an exhaustive reading session at the British Library of the Book Review and Literary supplements, carrying few borrowed books of Somerset Maugham, Philip Larkin and AS Byatt and then join the ‘chattering table’ and then exchange notes, discuss at length the authors and the contours of literary trends.

KOSHY’S PARADE CAFÉ TODAY – EVER ALLURING MYSTIC

Today when I do drop in for a visit to the café the remnants of my past sojourn which remain intact are the mystic charm and the warmth and smiles of the owner Prem Koshy. What has changed??  The idyllic idiosyncratic world of ‘drifters’ and ‘Bohemians’ have changed enormously across the globe and not just in Bengaluru.  The incessant penchant for trumpeting material success is just bewildering along with the disappearance of the relaxed pace of life.  Journalists are way too busy to walk into cafés and engage with random strangers for a chat since the discourse is acerbic and pugnacious fuelled by a virulent social media network.  The rampant philistinism has made it completely acceptable for a modestly read person to debunk Proust without inviting scorn since anti-elitism in the intellectual sphere is the new credo. As I conclude my nostalgic trip down the memory lane I feel blessed to have been a young and a ‘regular’ at the Koshy’s Parade café in the early 90s and to quote Wordsworth, ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!’.

Kaustav Bhattacharyya is a PhD from Cass Business School, London, entrepreneur and an Anglosphere enthusiast.