When I moved permanently to Bangalore in 1995, I hoped to renew my acquaintance with five institutions in particular. Two were bookstores. Premier was owned by a shy Hindu from the Konkan coast, and sold new books. Select was owned by a loquacious Kannadiga engineer, and sold used or second-hand books. Both owners were extremely knowledgeable about their stock, and about the obsessions of their regular customers as well.
Two other Bangalore institutions I knew well also dealt with the printed word. One was Variety News; it stocked a wide range of periodicals from across India (and the world); it was owned by a family of Muslims who spoke Dakhani to each other and English or Kannada or Tamil to their customers. Like the owners of Premier and Select, those who ran Variety had wonderfully warm relations with their regular customers, knowing their interests and catering to them with professional ease. Then there was the British Library; one of the more benign legacies of imperial rule, it housed books published in the United Kingdom, here issued to desi members by devoted and competent desi librarians.
I liked all of these places; but the place that I liked most was Koshy’s Parade Café. “Koshy’s” is how the newer residents of the city know it; for me it has always been “Parade’s”. The restaurant is located on St Mark’s Road, in the ground floor of a two-storey building owned by the Church of South India.
After the game
Parade’s was founded in the 1952 by a Syrian Christian from Kerala named PO Koshy. I first got to know it in 1970, exactly 50 years ago. I was spending the summer with my uncle in Bangalore, going with him every afternoon to practice with the Friends Union Cricket Club at a ground opposite the Kanteerava Stadium, a cricket ball’s thrown away from Koshy’s. After nets we cricketers would repair to the café, where the men drank coffee and I, 12 years old at the time, drank lime juice.
I got to know Parade’s much better in the 1980s, when I was working in Bangalore. Our house was off MG Road (near the Trinity Circle side), and on my way to the café were both Select and Premier. Across the road from Koshy’s was Variety News, and above Koshy’s itself was the British Library.
My way to Parade’s thus happily took in visits to four varied – I should say gloriously varied –repositories of print culture. Once I entered the café I would order a coffee, and perhaps a snack, while taking out from my jhola the books and magazines I had just bought, opening and riffling their pages with love and with anticipation. After half-an-hour at Koshy’s I would walk back home.
In 1989 my wite Sujata and I moved to Delhi, returning to Bangalore six years later. Back in 1995 all the places I knew and loved were still flourishing. The situation in 2020 is somewhat different. Premier, Variety News and the British Library have all shut down, while Select is a shadow of its former self. In the 25 years since I settled in Bangalore, only one institution has kept me continuous company – Koshy’s Parade Café.
Parade’s is now run by the founder’s grandsons, Santhosh and Prem. Santhosh is quiet and self-effacing; very much a behind-the-scenes man, keeping the institutional operations afloat. Prem, on the other hand, is affable and outgoing – hopping from table to table chatting with customers and getting feedback on new items on the menu (and many other things besides).
Prem Koshy is the same age as my wife Sujata, and they grew up on adjoining streets. In the days when he was a young hippie he would say, on being introduced to someone his age who was not of his sex: “The name is Prem. It means luvvhh.” His passion at the time was rifle shooting. Then he went to Louisana to study baking technology, and became an alcoholic. He returned home, and gave up both the gun and the bottle. With his brother Santhosh, he now devoted himself to making his father’s and grandfather’s café an always-welcoming place in a chaotic and ever-changing city.
The attractions of Koshy’s are various: the light, the ambience, the food, the location, and not least, the more visible of the two owners. Prem is stocky in build, clad often in jeans, and always with a large ring of keys around his waist. He is infinitely kind with customers; first-timers can stay hours with a single cup of coffee, while old-timers can go on a riotous binge if they so choose. I have never seen him raise his voice, or wear a grumpy face, not even when a daft Supreme Court ruling got him to stop serving liquor, on the grounds that the place was too close to MG Road, allegedly a “national highway”. (It was months before this ruling was over-turned – the financial losses suffered by Koshy’s in this period must have been immense).
Everyone who has visited Parade’s more than once grows to like Prem. Those who have been going there for some years know that, for all its identity with him, the café does not consume his life: there is his wife Ruby and his son Josh, his love of theatre, and his own ability to rescue and rehabilitate snakes from building sites. And his ability to rescue and rehabilitate some humans too. Although his restaurant serves liquor, he has himself not had a drop since he returned from America. He is deeply involved with the Bangalore branch of Alcoholics Anonymous, and has personally helped many men, of varying ages and class backgrounds, conquer their addiction and rebuild themselves and their families.
I have two Prem stories of my own which show the special character of the man. The first relates to a gifted young photographer named G Raghav, who did a series of portraits of people at the café (including one of the great playwright Girish Karnad). When Raghav died in his thirties, of cancer, Prem hosted a meeting paying tribute to his work, for which he closed down the establishment for an entire afternoon, serving tea and snacks on the house while the rest of us made speeches about our friend and his legacy. Certainly no restaurant owner in Delhi or Bombay would forsake hours of business to honour the memory of a relatively unknown artist. We were all very moved, no one more so than Raghav’s mother.
The second story may be even better. One night, Sujata and I returned home to find a large owl in the garage. He would not move, and we did not want to hurt him. We stood next to the owl, hissed at him, shone the headlights at him, but he stayed put. What to do? Call Prem, said Sujata. Are you sure, I asked: it is 10.30 already. Call him, she insisted, he knows about birds and animals, and will go anywhere to help them.
So I called Prem. Fortunately he was awake, and of course he lived in the next street. He came over, saw the big, beaky, beady-eyed fellow still staring at us, walked up, stared back at him for a minute before picking him up in one arm. Prem then came out into the main road and flung the owl into the sky. The owl shook his wings, shook his head, and flew away to safety. When we asked for a diagnosis, Prem said that the poor fellow was drunk, having sucked deep into the roots of a palm tree, the sort of stuff that happened to birds of this species on moonlit nights at this time of the year. Because he was drunk Prem could pick him up easily; because Prem flung him so hard and so high he was shaken out of his stupor and could save himself from humans while allowing us to go home and go to bed too.
Like most business establishments in Bangalore, Koshy’s Parade Café was grievously affected by the pandemic. It has been mostly shut since April, but it opened again last week, operating with a strict safety regimen in place. That it has reopened is a relief, and a blessing. As one grows older one has fewer wishes and hopes for oneself. One of mine is this; that I may die before my favourite café does. I can probably (just about) live without music, cricket, and even books, but life without Parade’s is impossible to contemplate.
Ramachandra Guha is the author most recently of Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World.
This article was first published in The Telegraph.