This post appeared in The Hindu.
About fifty odd men, all with grey hair and receding hairlines, stand in and around the coffee room sipping aromatic coffee from identical white cups. Outside, on the pavement, a hawker sets up his wares – handkerchiefs, nail cutters, combs, lighters, wristwatches. Diagonally opposite of him is a newspaper vendor already doing brisk business. The flower seller is here too with his basket loaded with fresh and fragrant venis. It is only 6:40 in the morning but the day has long begun at MTR, Bangalore’s most iconic Tiffin room.
Nostalgia fills my heart as I enter the building wondering what all might have changed since my last visit. The only change I notice however is the empty waiting room: during all my previous visits, the large waiting hall had been swarming with people, the queues, sometimes, spilling well into the staircase.
MTR, like many other iconic institutions, is as much about experience as it is about food. I happened to discover this on a warm afternoon many years ago when my husband and I tried walking into the café for lunch not knowing what the place meant to a true blue Bangalorean – and how almost the entire town congregated here for lunch on weekends. The long wait in the sun had taught us the lesson, and since that day we always reached the place well before its opening time.
By that standard, I am late today, but am lucky enough to find my favourite table vacant.
What strikes you first about MTR is the simplicity. The tables are basic, the chairs are plastic and, other than two-three old, discoloured pictures and a shelf full of white coffee cups, there is nothing that you can classify as décor. And yet it has far more character than a five-start hotel would.
A familiar waiter, dressed in red and white striped shirt and a white dhoti, walks up to me a few minutes later and rattles off the menu for the day (menu cards find no place here). I place my order and look around.
If there is one word you can associate MTR with it is leisure: the fans whizz languidly even as regulars sip strong – and often sweet – coffee among lively banter. Pearls of laughter emanate from some tables, while some seat the lone hungry soul watching the world eat, drink, and laugh. Even the waiters here have leisure writ large in their demeanour: they are efficient but never hurried or flustered, not even on the busiest of days when they run incessantly from the ground floor kitchen to the first floor dining hall carrying upto half a dozen orders at one go.
My order arrives soon. Crisp on the outside, soft on the inside and served with a generous helping of spicy coconut chutney, and a tiny potion of ghee, the Dosas here can beat any other Dosa in the country hands down. The secret to the texture and taste, I suspect, is the same languidness that serenades the air. I am tempted to ask for the coffee too but resist. Like a proper South Indian, I want to enjoy my food first and coffee later.
I am only halfway through the Dosa, when the waiter gets me the Vada. I suspect my ability to finish it but take it nonetheless: who knows when will I get to taste it next.
Nibbling at my Vada and scribbling in the soft paper napkins, I think of the many mornings I have spent at MTR, and the long walks at Lalbagh afterwards. Those breezy mornings have always defined Bangalore for me. Lost in my thoughts I am caught smiling by a beautiful woman. “Are you a photographer?” She asks looking at my camera and my notes. In a matter of minutes we are not only sharing the table, but also talking like long lost buddies.
Befriending strangers, after all, is another quintessential MTR experience.