Bangalore has had the misfortune of being hit with a double whammy over the last decade. On the one hand, the tech boom has sent the population (and, consequently, property prices) soaring. On the other, the city has been taken over by ‘leaders’ who compare unfavourably with sewer rats. Their only contribution being to rename it Bengaluru. Which term I refuse to use, no matter what.
In the process, Bangalore’s had its heart torn out. Its infrastructure creaks under the pressure of unregulated growth. And, in the absence of any protective legislation, heritage buildings are regularly razed to make way for what can only be described as eyesores.
I’d originally written the review below for The India Tube. It’s of one such institution; Bangalore’s oldest bar. Don’t bother going, though – it’s gone, waiting to be replaced by another mall.
Dewar’s: the last bar standing
Negotiate a sharp bend on the suggestively-named Cockburn Road, near Bangalore’s Cantonment Station, and history beckons you in for a drink. Originally a watering hole for soldiers of the Raj, Dewar’s is easily Bangalore’s (and, some say, India’s) oldest surviving public bar.
Little has changed since one Kanniah Naidu set up shop in 1933. Most of the furnishings and fittings date back to colonial times, while the rest seems to have been added about as recently as the ’60s. Think huge rosewood tables, capacious rattan chairs, whitewashed walls and creaking old fans. The wall behind Dewars’ bar counter accommodates an eclectic collection of pictures – a pantheon of Gods, the Vidhana Soudha, Britain’s royal family and ancient liquor ads. But, pride of place, right in the center, goes to Madurai Veeran. He’s a Tamil folk deity who, appropriately, requires alcohol and cigarettes as propitiation.
The staff, too, has seemingly been around forever. There’s Bhaskar, the waiter, who’s served up more alcohol than many distilleries have produced. There’s Varadaraj, the third-generation owner, as weathered and solid as his marble-topped bar. And then, there’s Richard.
Richard sometimes moonlights as a mechanic and can give you a mean discourse on diesel engines. Most of the time, he presides over a cubbyhole of a kitchen, dishing out decidedly quirky fare. There are no main courses – Dewar’s is a bar which makes no bones about not being a restaurant. Nor is there much vegetarian food on order – cheese sandwiches, mixture and wafers are about all that herbivores can expect.
But, if you’re a meat person, Richard is the man. ‘Spare parts’ – liver, kidneys and brain – form a central part of his repertoire. If these make you queasy, ask for the fried fish. The legacy of a long-departed Irish cook, it’s as legendary as the place itself – a melt-in-the-mouth fillet of seer fish, stored marinated in the fridge and then crumb-fried to a golden brown. Mutton chops and kheema balls round off the limited yet delicious menu.
Contrary to popular notion, Dewar’s was not started by a Scotsman, or by any European for that matter. Old Kanniah Naidu simply figured that the name would appeal to the Tommies from Old Blighty who were its first regulars. In the old days, apparently, you’d have been hard-pressed to see an Indian customer in Dewar’s. Post-Independence, though, it’s a remarkably democratic place. Everyone, from railway porters to pensioners to yuppie advertising types, imbibes in close company. But, if you’d rather not be seen having your daily dose by a passing friend, relative or, God forbid, spouse, there’s the ‘private room’ – an enclosed haven with seventies-vintage rexine sofas and flowery curtains to keep the world away.
No music has ever been played here- the clink of glasses, fifty different conversations and cries of “Bhaskar! One more quarter!” are melodious enough for regulars, many of whom have grown up frequenting Dewar’s. It’s the kind of place where you could end up sharing a table with your dad’s friends, without anybody feeling remotely uncomfortable. Two steel almirahs hold reserve stocks of liquor and, when your bottle’s empty, it’s sent to where its contents eventually end up – the toilet – to join its brethren in crates stacked next to the WC.
One wonders how long Dewars will hold out to the chrome-and-glass blight that passes for development in Bangalore. But, for now, as more and more old landmarks disappear from the city, it resolutely sticks around to serve Bangalore yet another peg of cheer.