About 50 elderly men sip coffee from white china cups in and around the ground floor coffee-room. Some lean against the walls, some support themselves on narrow cement benches, and some, for want of space, have moved on to the pavement.
The pavement outside is equally busy. There is a newspaper seller arranging English and Kannada papers in neat stacks, and an elderly Muslim man with a snow-white beard, spreading upon his blue plastic sheet, an assortment of things: cigarette lighters, pocket combs, ball pens, nail clippers, handkerchiefs, watches. On the other side of the entrance is a flower seller with white, orange, and multicoloured venis placed neatly on a large bamboo basket.
Nothing seems to have changed at MTR in the four years that I have been away. The tables are still basic, the chairs are still plastic, the fans still whir lazily...
These flowers have defined Bangalore to me ever since I first stepped into the city on a pleasant June morning six years ago. I remember buying them every evening from an elderly lady close to home and placing them in every corner of my house. The fragrance, mingled with the nippy Bangalore breeze, would waft through the house for hours; for a North Indian used only to dust and grime in her house, this was as close to paradise as possible.
Nowadays, I buy a string of flowers and promptly put it in my hair: I no longer have a home in the city to take it to.
Nostalgia fills my heart as I climb up the stairs and come across the sole item of décor in the two-storeyed Mavalli Tiffin Room (MTR)— a portrait of Krishna etched on a mirror. I have seen it so many times now that I can tell every detail of the picture blindfolded. Soon I am at the first-floor waiting room. Like every time in the past, I expect to meet many hungry souls like me awaiting their tables here but I am pleasantly surprised to find the hall vacant.
In my umpteen visits to MTR, I have never seen the place so empty. Even at 6:30 in the morning, which was my usual time to get here when I lived in Bangalore, it would be buzzing with people waiting to break their night long fasts—families, students, women, men, children—and I would pass my time reading and re-reading the white board on which the menu is painted in black. Looking at the names of my favourite foods not only intensified the hunger many times over but also made long wait tougher. The crowds, however, ensured that I had waited long enough to deserve a table, even though shared. But then this was on Sundays, and today is a Tuesday. I walk in with a flourish and take my favourite table.
The waiter arrives soon. Barefoot and dressed in a white lungi and a striped monogrammed shirt, he rattles off the menu in Kannada and patiently waits for me to decide. After much deliberation, I order my staple, a masala dosa, and look around.
Nothing seems to have changed at MTR in the four years that I have been away. The tables are still basic, the chairs are still plastic, the fans still whir lazily, and waiters still do not have menus; the guest list still comprises locals talking in their musical mother tongue—Kannada—with a phrase or two of English thrown in. A person like me is an exception to the rule at MTR.
If there is one word you can associate MTR with, it is leisure: the fans spin languidly even as the aroma of strong filter coffee lingers in the air along with soft peals of laughter and the lively banter of the patrons. Some tables, however, house the lone hungry soul like me, who has travelled 2500km only for the dosa here. Even the waiters, who constantly navigate between the ground floor kitchens to the first-floor dining hall, balancing several china plates with the ease of jugglers, are never rushed or hurried.
I am lost in my thoughts when my coffee arrives. Strong, sweet, aromatic... it is just like my memories of Bangalore.
Having said that, you never have to wait too long for your food.
It has just been a few minutes since my order when my dosa arrives. Crisp on the outside, soft on the inside, coated with masala and stuffed with a flavourful potato mix, the dosa here is served with a tiny portion of ghee along with the regular chutney and sambar. You are expected to pour the entire contents of the ghee bowl over the dosa before you dig in. I diligently follow the protocol and take my first bite.
It was not until I moved to Bangalore that I heard of MTR. Even after that, it took me significant time and effort to locate the place in the pre-GPS era. But once I discovered it there was no looking back. Every other weekend was spent travelling 25km from home to eat the dosa here, mostly on the same table where I am sitting now, scribbling non-stop on monogrammed paper napkins.
I do not realize that my scribbling and daydreaming has caught people's attention until a lady from the next table asks me if I am a journalist. I am not, but I do write, I reply. We talk about our mutual love for Bangalore for some time before she leaves—she needs to reach work soon.
I am halfway through my dosa, missing my husband dearly when the waiter gets the vada. In my greed, I have ordered that too and am now not sure if I can finish it. But this is MTR and I don't know when I will get here again. I leave my dosa midway and begin nibbling at the vada instead.
I take the time to enjoy the moment. Unlike most people, I neither have an office to attend or a home to go back to. So I stay on.
I am lost in my thoughts, longing for my time in Bangalore, when my coffee arrives. Strong, sweet, aromatic, and served in two silver tumblers, it is just like my memories of Bangalore: compelling.
MTR is a 95-year-old restaurant located in the heart of Old Bangalore. First set up by two brothers in 1921, it now has several branches in and around Bangalore. The one in Lalbagh, however, remains the most famous and still maintains its old-world charm.
MTR is easily approachable by car, auto-rickshaw, cab, and if you happen to be in the vicinity, even by foot. It is a good idea to use the GPS since it is easy to get lost in the maze of streets. They have a dedicated parking a few yards away; alternatively, you can park at the Lalbagh parking and walk.
Good to know
The place opens at 6 in the morning and can get crowded on weekends. It is best to reach early if you do not like to wait. They have separate lunch, dinner and tiffin hours and they shut down for an hour and a half between breakfast and lunch (11am– 12:30pm). The only mode of payment accepted is cash. No reservations are taken for Tiffin hours.
This post first appeared in the writer's travel page.