If you ever get a chance to be in or near Mysore, you should not miss the opportunity to try Set-dosa and Ravva idli followed by Chow chow bhath and finish the meal off with proper “Mysore filter coffee.” A set-dosa is just that – a set of small fluffy dosas served with kurma and chutney. It looks like a stack of pancakes and is the epitome of mouthwatering deliciousness! Ravva idli is idli (steamed dumplings) made with Sooji or cream of wheat with nuts and other spices. Chow chow bhath is a unique way of serving Upma (savory breakfast staple) and Kesari (sweet Upma) as a combo. I consider these to be the quintessential signature foods of Mysore – kinda like Hyderabadi Biryani or Philadelphia Cheesesteaks!
One morning, my friend Aditya and I found this exact combination of yumminess in front of us in a small nondescript “hotel” in the V.V.Mohalla area of Mysore. Back then (maybe even now, in small towns in India), restaurants were called “hotels” and hotels were called “lodgings.” So, as we took our time savoring the yummy breakfast, we pondered how we ended up in this place.
Both of us are “pucca” Hyderabadis that had never set foot in Bangalore or Mysore before this. We had just graduated from Engineering College with a B.Tech in Electronics and Communications Engineering and had made this trip to Bangalore for my on-site interview at HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) in Bangalore. Aditya was free and we thought it would be a fun trip to tour Mysore and surroundings. Our buddy and classmate Ravi’s family was originally from Mysore, so he had uncles, aunts and cousins who lived there. Unfortunately he could not make the trip with us, as he had his own post-graduation related interviews/travel. Ravi had raved about the sights of Mysore and surroundings so much that we just had to check them out ourselves. He contacted his uncle in Mysore to help us out with accommodations and other arrangements.
I don’t remember much about our stay in Bangalore or even about the interview in HAL. As expected, time has taken its toll on my memory, but thankfully it left all of the interesting and fun events still intact! Right after the interview, we boarded a bus to Mysore to visit Ravi’s uncle. I clearly remember the road to Mysore, flanked with green fields and coconut trees. The bus took about 3 hours to get to Mysore, which included one scheduled pit stop at a roadside dhaba, where I remember we had the sweetest “tender coconut water” (“Yellneer” in Kannada).
I have vague memories of meeting Ravi’s uncle and cousins and of their house in the Gokulam Park/V.V.Mohalla area. If I close my eyes, even today, I can picture the Gulmohar trees full of the flaming red flowers, and smell the strange mélange of jasmine flowers and the famous Mysore filter coffee!! Mysore had a very distinctive small town atmosphere. Obviously it was a lot less crowded back then, and just as today, Mysore provided a wonderful alternative to the hustle and bustle of Bangalore (and certainly Hyderabad).
For me, Mysore was synonymous with the Maharaja’s Palace, the famous Dassera celebrations, Chamundi Hill and also my favorite author R.K.Narayan’s hometown! As soon as I found out that R.K.Narayan was from Mysore, I wanted to go visit him. All through the trip from Hyderabad to Bangalore to Mysore, I kept talking about visiting R.K.Narayan, the way teenagers go crazy about “One Direction” or Justin Bieber!
That summer I had read RKN’s collection of essays “Next Sunday” as well as his diary called ”My Dateless Diary”, which he wrote during his travel through US in 1958. As there was a good possibility of me going to US for graduate school, I was keen on reading this diary of RKN. His descriptions of specific events and locales in US made such an indelible impression on me that I remember some of them even to this day – “On thanksgiving day millions of turkeys were finished off..”, “The word ‘Grand’ never had a grander role to perform than when describing the Grand Canyon”, “No wonder they call it a railroad – it comes to a stop right in the middle of the road”. He was a bit of a coffee chauvinist – he declared that he wanted his coffee “neither black nor white, but brown which ought to be the colour of honest coffee – that’s how we made it in South India where devotees of perfection in coffee assemble from all over the world.”
Of all of his books, “The Guide” was the one that I loved the most. The way he casually deals with the taboo subject (back then) of adultery is quite remarkable. While I loved the songs and dances in the movie version of “The Guide,” I actually enjoyed reading the book much more. The descriptions of the fictional south Indian town of Malgudi and of interactions between Raju, his mother and his other relatives is so typically south Indian. The movie departs quite a bit from the book, but certainly had its charm and was a big hit. By the way, I recently learned that Nobel prize winner Pearl S. Buck was responsible for the book being turned into a movie. As a matter of fact, she wrote a screenplay for the English version (both English and Hindi versions were simultaneously produced). Pearl also helped Waheeda Rahman (lead actress in the movie) with the English diction. Of course, the Hollywood movie was a huge dud whereas the Hindi version was a runaway success. As an aside, I now live 15 minutes from Pearl S. Buck’s house in “Bucks” County, Pennsylvania.
As soon as I met Ravi’s uncle, I started bugging him about RKN. Do you know if he actually lives here? How can we find out? Can we go visit him? Just for a few minutes? His uncle was nice and patient with me. He said that he would try to find out from his contacts in the local newspaper office. Since we had two days in Mysore, Ravi’s uncle suggested a day-trip to Belur, Halebeedu and Sravanabelagola.
If these stones could talk
The tourist bus was sparsely filled – Aditya and I, a mother and son (~13 years old), a middle-aged couple from North India, a couple of foreigners (possibly European, based on their accents), and another Indian couple. This last couple was seated diagonally across from us. The man was middle-aged and his partner was probably in her late 20’s. The moment the bus left Mysore, the man and the women started getting frisky! This created a very uncomfortable atmosphere for all – especially the mom who had a heck of a time diverting her son’s attention. She kept asking him to look at the “beautiful scenery” outside! This unusual display of public affection (for India, that too in 1980’s) was quite amusing for me and Aditya, and we had our own theories – we said they either just got married or were having an affair!! Later we dismissed the “just married” theory, ‘cos the “affair” story made more sense based on their perceived age difference and also added ‘masala’ to the story that we would later tell everyone! Surprisingly, even the foreigners (white couple) seemed to be shocked by this activity too – they were turning beet red with embarrassment. Yet, of all the people on the bus, they were the most successful in avoiding staring at the show. For the rest of us Indians, staring at others was a national pastime, so we just continued what came naturally!! At each of the stops, the amorous couple would take a break from their activity just to take a quick tour of the sights and then hurry back to the bus!!
I had first seen the giant (naked) stone statue of Gomateshwara also known as BaahuBali, on TV – when they had a huge festival called Maha Mastakabhisheka which literally means “the great head bath.”
At this festival, the statue of Gomateshwara, who was a Jain saint, was ritualistically bathed using water, milk, turmeric, etc. The statue which was carved out of a monolith around AD 981 stood about 60 feet tall. The scale of the statue was very impressive.
It was quite simple and symmetric. The nakedness was understood and accepted by everyone as part of the Jain digambara tradition (for the saints or ascetics) – and represents the complete victory over earthly desires.
There is a lot of history associated with Sravanabelagola that I did not know back then. I was especially surprised to learn that in 298 BC, after abdication of the throne to his son Bindusara, emperor Chandragupta Maurya had spent his last days here as a Jain ascetic, and supposedly fasted to death. I had no idea that he had come this far south.
After Sravanabelagola, we headed to the 12th century temples of Belur and Halebeedu. I had heard of Belur and Halebeedu as the famous ancient temples that were used as the backdrop in one of the songs in a popular Telugu movie (Shankarabharanam).
The carvings in these temples were simply amazing and were perfect examples of Hoyasala art and architecture.
We could see intricate jewelry that was carved into stone. Elephants and crocodiles were carved along the entire perimeter of the temple along with detailed carvings of the Hindu epics.
There were detailed depictions of women in exquisite dance poses.
It almost seemed like the sculptors were picking the most challenging postures and situations to show off their skill! The guide used the sunbeam reflected from a tiny mirror as an improvised laser pointer, on the outside of the temples, to point out various minute details of the carvings. He showed us that fashions and hairstyles from the 12th century were making a comeback – like capris, bangs, and up-do’s. He pointed out the depiction of erotic poses and said that this was not a taboo back then (12th century) and that it was considered normal – which caused most of our tour group to turn and stare at “the couple!” The guide also explained how the temples were saved from destruction at the hands of the Bahmani invaders by burying them under a huge mound of sand. There were several similar temples that were destroyed and a precious few that were saved.
I was so impressed with these two archaeological sites that I visited them a total of 4 times since my first trip in 1983.
After a long day of being tourists we reached home exhausted, but I perked right up when Ravi’s uncle said that he knew of a gentleman who worked in either a newspaper or a printing press that personally knows RKN!! He asked us to go meet him the next day.
Meeting the Maker of Malgudi
It was so hard to stalk celebrities back then!! No internet or Google! So you had to do it the old fashioned way – rely on your network and word of mouth. You had to have connections with the right people who should be willing to divulge the information. Ravi’s uncle had a friend whose friend knew someone who worked in a newspaper office or printing press. We were told to meet this gentleman at a particular house on the main street, very close to the restaurant. So, as soon as the sumptuous Mysorean breakfast was washed down with the amazing coffee (served in a traditional stainless steel tumbler), we walked the short distance to the address that was given for our contact. We introduced ourselves to the gentleman as Mr. So & So’s friends. He was nice and friendly (since we approached him through “proper channel”). He inquired about our details (just to make sure we were legit, I guess), then he gave us the address of Mr. R.K.Narayan! (Just like that…). I was thrilled and surprised that it was so easy to get the info! The two of us got into an auto rickshaw and asked him to take us to Yadavagiri, specifically to Dasaprakash Hotel in Yadavagiri. RKN’s house was supposed to be diagonally across from Dasaprakash hotel in the area of Mysore called Yadavagiri. We were there in less than 10 minutes. I could immediately tell that Yadavagiri was a posh area of Mysore. It reminded me a lot of Banjara Hills area of Hyderabad.
From Dasaprakash hotel, we started walking towards the compound and, just to be sure, inquired with a gentleman we saw walking in that area. Sure enough, he pointed us to the writer’s house! We were quite nervous as we approached the gate. There was no one in sight. So we just opened the gate and walked in, rang the bell and waited. After what seemed like a long time, one young man came out. I don’t exactly remember the wording but I mumbled that we were big fans of RKN and we had come from Hyderabad to meet him. Fittingly enough there was a strong smell of “proper” Mysore coffee wafting out. We waited for what seemed like an eternity. Just when we were thinking of giving up, R.K.Narayan walked out. He looked exactly as I had imagined. He looked fresh (after his morning cup of coffee?). I didn’t know then but I estimate he was about 76 years old and looked quite fit for that age. He was very cordial and talked to us as if we were his friends or neighbors who had stopped by for a chat. “What do you do in Hyderabad?” We told him about how we came to be in Mysore and of our future plans. That I was most likely going to US. Told him how much I loved his books, especially “My Dateless Diary.” He spotted Aditya’s camera. We told him of Aditya’s hobby (photography) and the places we saw on the previous day. “Would you mind posing for a photo or two?” “Not a problem,” he said!
We asked his assistant/friend who was there to take a photo of the 3 of us. Just as it looked like we should not be taking more of his time, I thought that I should get his autograph. I am not sure why I was carrying my final year engineering project report – but at that moment that’s all I could find for him to write me a short message – which he readily obliged.
Then he wished us well and we bid goodbye and left. It must have been no more than 10 minutes but we were thrilled that we could actually meet and talk to R.K.Narayan! As we headed home, I was grinning from ear-to-ear!
That afternoon we left Mysore for Hyderabad via Bangalore. Visiting Mysore and not seeing the Maharaja’s palace or the Chamundi Hill is like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower or visiting Agra and not seeing the Taj Mahal, but that is exactly what we did. But, I was extremely happy that I was able to meet RKN. The palace could always be visited later, I told myself. I bragged to anyone who would listen and care that I had met RK Narayan! Some of my friends and relatives were impressed with my tenacity. Lot of others did not seem impressed or had not heard of him. After all, we are not talking of meeting Sridevi or Madhuri Dixit!!
In any case, these fond memories will last a lifetime (as evidenced by their longevity so far). Those were simple, innocent times. Today, I would not even drop-in on my neighbors without calling and making sure they are available and free to meet. Now, thinking back, I find my actions of invading his privacy absolutely unacceptable!! Imagine fans showing up at your house and disrupting your routine and life constantly! Thank God we did not get booted out like Sheldon and Penny did when they went to meet Sheldon’s idol Stan Lee (Marvel comic’s creator of Spiderman, Ironman etc)!!