I saw a video about Malleswaram on Facebook a few days back. I was at once nostalgic and also saddened. Nostalgic because Malleshwaram is special. It is where I was born and where I have spent many (maybe all) vacations as a kid. Saddened because the video reminded me about how Malleshwaram has changed over the years. Gentrification and urbanization have changed much of the population and culture of Bangalore. A few old restaurants and parks have survived the turn of the millennium. They are now famous as the relics of old Bangalore. Places such as CTR, Veena Stores, and Janatha Hotel are common on lists such as this. I hated Janatha Hotel as a kid, but now I want to visit these places. I want to eat the food there while I complain about how Bangalore has lost its old charm and how it is no longer the same. All this, while I eat authentic dosa and chow-chow bath, the same food that I thought was yucky when I was twelve. These places are all emblems of old Bangalore, the Bangalore of my childhood. But is Bangalore of the 80s and the 90s, the authentic one?
Malleshwaram is where my mother grew up. She probably reminisces about a different Bangalore . A Bangalore that is not the city I knew as a kid. It was greener and cooler, Kannada was commonplace and spoken with a lot more fervor than it is now. If you ask someone who grew up in Bangalore in the 40s or 50s, I am certain they will talk about yet another setting and culture. Four random Bangaloreans can be chosen from four different decades. They will all be equally nostalgic about the city of their childhood. Yet, their image of what defines Bangalore and what makes it special will be different.
So then, what is authentic? These are some of the definitions I found:
1. Google defines authentic as
of undisputed origin; genuine.
2. Macmillan dictionary defines authentic as
traditional or original, or very similar to this
So, which Bangalore then, is the original one? How do you judge something like that? Is it getting less authentic over the years? When was it at its best? How far back in time do you go to find the true and authentic Bangalore?
These are a few questions that have been bothering me over the last couple of days. This is not just about Malleshwaram and Bangalore. It is about our food, fashion, language, and culture. How can you say that something is traditional and genuine when, in fact, it is all a result of a continuous change?
Let us consider, for example, authentic Indian cuisine. Chilies are an integral part of Indian food today. I am accustomed to eating spicy food. Food devoid of spices is bland and uninviting. My definition of authentic Indian cuisine is one that is spicy, among other things. But chilies did not originate in India. From the Wikipedia article for Chilli pepper,
Chili peppers originated in the Americas. After the Columbian Exchange, many cultivars of chili pepper spread across the world, used in both food and medicine. Chilies were brought to Asia by Portuguese navigators during the 16th century. India is the world’s biggest producer, consumer and exporter of chili peppers. Guntur in the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh produces 30% of all the chilies produced in India. Andhra Pradesh as a whole contributes 75% of India’s chili exports.
Chilies were brought to India in the 16th century! So, if you time traveled to 1400 AD and asked for authentic food, there would be no chilies in it. Or potatoes. Or tomatoes. Yet, batata song and batata humman is authentic Konkani food today. Does that mean food eaten before the 15th century is less authentic? In the 15th century, people probably looked with distaste at the idea of using chilies in food. Just like how the older population views fast food franchises such as KFC and McDonalds today. Pizza, sandwiches, and cheese are not considered as Indian food. But that might be changing. Cheese was not at all common when I was growing up. Today it is making its way into all kinds of Indian delicacies. It is everywhere. At least, that is what all the street-food videos on YouTube tell me. I see street-food vendors making dishes such as cheese masala dosa, cheese pav bhaji, cheese veg seekh kabab, etc. These dishes seem to be common across various cities in India. Twenty years hence, cheese masala dosa might be a part of authentic Indian cuisine. Just like how chilies are today.
We like to justify to ourselves and others that our idea of authentic Bangalore is the right one. We say it refers to a time when Bangalore was flourishing and at its best. The good old days. But what do we mean when we say something is authentic? What do the “good old days” really refer to? And what is the real Indian cuisine?
The idea of something being authentic and original is relative. When we talk about our idea of the perfect Bangalore or the perfect masala dosa, we are heavily influenced by our family and friends. Our memories and mental bias, make things and places seem special and great. The authentic city of our childhood is the place where we enjoyed the most. It is where we have special moments that we would like to cherish. It is the city which has places and locations that we would like to freeze in time. We want to keep them pristine so that each time we visit that place we can relive our memories. We grow up and move to new cities. We accept new cultures. But when we visit the place where we grew up, we want it untouched. Always matching the picture in our head. The picture that means something only to us and nothing to those who don’t share our memories.
Kids growing up in Bangalore today, I am sure, love the place. In ten years, Bangalore will change again. (If this article is to be believed, Bangalore will be a dead city in five years.) Ten years later, if humans are still around, we can ask them about good ol’Bangalore. They will most definitely refer to the Bangalore we see today. Not the Bangalore of the 80s or the 60s or the 40s.
The point of all this is that change is the only thing that is constant. Languages, food, and culture as we know today, are all a result of constant change. They have evolved as people have moved across countries and continents. They have been influenced by wars and trade. And they continue to change. Nothing is truly authentic. If you go back in time to when the humans were hunter-gatherers, the authentic food was raw or burnt meat and berries. We should not develop rigid ideas about authentic food, tradition, and culture. We must embrace change and experiment and try new things. But in the process, we must not forget who we are or where we came from. Or how something as amazing as cheese masala dosa came to be. We must remember, learn and share all these stories of change.