Opinion | The party at Bengaluru’s High Street Park
In a lush corner of Bengaluru, diverse communities and forbidden foods reveal a country as it was meant to be
To live in our little corner of India in eastern Bengaluru, shaded by giant rain trees, is to experience the country’s founding ideals.
I do not exaggerate.
Our communities are diverse—Christian, Muslim and Hindu—but because everyone has grown up together, rarely is offence taken on imagined slights. There is a great ease in accepting diversity in culture and food and, indeed, celebrating those differences. In the old days, no one really thought of this lack of homogeneity and the unities it engendered, but in these troubled, divisive times—when Indians judge each other by what they eat and how they pray—you cannot but notice.
This is not to say that bigotry does not exist. Sometimes, its ugly head peers out in a comment, but it mostly stays hidden because we accept and adjust. The handkerchief-sized parks are lived experiences of our diversity, enablers of common ground. These are where we gather and gossip, where we complain about the trash discarded by parishioners of the Holy Ghost church, the noise from the Ayyappa temple, the rats running around in the local supermarket and the illegal restaurant that it is constructing. In the parks we deliver Eid, Deepawali and Christmas greetings. We exchange notes on improving the local slaughterhouse, we discuss who makes the best brownies and biryani, how the pavements and parks can be improved and acquaint each other with joy and tragedy.
We have just finished mourning Elumalai, our local corporator, who died of medical negligence in tragic fashion. Called the “MGR of Sagayapuram"—as the constituency is called—Elumalai was an independent, defeating BJP, Congress and Janata Dal (United) rivals because everyone knew and liked him, from the slums to the apartment buildings. Thousands accompanied his last journey to the cemetery (many Hindus bury their dead in Bengaluru), including many of his upper-class constituents.
Life moves on, as it must, and as I write this, the local WhatsApp group urges us to gather at Richards Park—a century old patch of green that Elumalai helped improve recently—this week to meet Firoz Mohammed, the new police inspector responsible for law and order. This is the park where rich and poor children play together—whether they like it or not— and where the laughing club has women in pants, saris and hijabs.
Today, I am due at High Street Park, where I am a part of the annual fair—although fair is an overambitious description. It consists of three tables groaning with food cooked by many of us, a scavenger hunt and music. Family bands play, and children scamper over rocks and climb trees. I am tasked with making roast chicken and helping man the food and cash counter.
Last year, my roast chicken was sold out within an hour, 3kg of it. This year I have risen early and roasted 4kg, but sales are slow. That’s because we are a red-meat-loving community and my competition—apart from a variety of cakes, cookies and some vegetarian options (vegetable stew, chana and pasta)—consists of foods forbidden in large swathes of India: my friend Sreedevi’s beef cutlets, two types of pandhi (pork) curries and a pulled-beef stir-fry. The pork is served with sannas—spongy, steamed cousins of idlis—and the beef and my chicken with fresh pav.
When I get there with my roast chicken, the great Cooke Town scavenger hunt for kids, teens and adults is over, and people are hovering around the food tables. The beef cutlets are over by noon, and the 6kg of pork curries by 12.30. My chicken is down to 1kg as I load plates and takeaway tiffin boxes with pork and beef.
Once a rundown patch of rubbish and rust, High Street Park was rejuvenated by the efforts of three women. Kavita John, Deepika Mogilishetty and Aashti Mudnani persuaded the municipal corporation to hand over the park to them. Ever since, the fairs have helped clean the park, repair and maintain play equipment. John has since migrated, but two more women, Helen Issar and Kavita Shenoy, have joined the team. Today’s fair continues their fine tradition of community and creativity.
I must leave early to ferry my mother back home, so at 12.50, I reluctantly hand over my counter responsibilities to Mudnani, hoping my unsold chicken is not wasted. An hour later, she messages me: “The chicken got over, 10 minutes after you left!"
HIGH STREET ROAST-CHICKEN MASALA
12 dried red chillies
2 star anise
8 black cardamom
10 green cardamom
2 tsp cumin (jeera) seeds
2 pieces mace (javitri)
1 tsp black pepper
5 tsp coriander (dhania) seeds
Roast whole spices on a cast-iron or chapati pan on medium heat till spices crackle and let off their flavours. Remove and grind to a powder. Bottle powder and use as marinade with chicken or meat, combining with ginger-garlic paste and/or curd.
Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.
He tweets at @samar11