When going slumming, it’s always best to invite a companion along, because the fun is so cheap that it’s really worth sharing. So I called my designer friend Vinayak Varma and asked if he could skip an evening at the microbrewery, and come downtown to Majestic.
The locality is intense and bustling with nightlife. After a few drinks, we’re admiring the perfection of the Chicken Ghee Roast, something of a signature dish at Port of Pavilion (1st Main Road). Vinayak says that this is definitely one of the best ghee roasts he’s ever had. Then again, he’s just downed a big 96-rupee peg, so perhaps it is the brandy talking.
I tell him how some food critic put me onto this Kundapuri delicacy, and indeed the existence of this reasonably reasonable coastal joint. Port of Pavilion’s been around for ages, I’ve been visiting it for over a decade. But there’s one jarring note tonight: I hear loud music thumping and there seems to be a party going on to which we haven’t been invited.
We are clever boys, so Vinayak asks the waiter. The waiter smiles, does a nudge-nudge type of movement, and reveals that there’s a “ladies’ bar” hidden behind an unmarked downstairs door. We suddenly lose interest in the Chicken Ghee Roast; the prospect of seeing real-life chicks seems more alluring.
As soon as we enter the secret bar, we talk entirely different prices: the cheapest drink is Rs 330. Yet, the sofas around the panelled walls are crowded with men who are happy to pay through their noses to ogle the twenty or so girls in tight blue sweaters and jeans. Mind you, this is not a dance bar. (Dance bars were banned a few years back.) The girls just stand and smile, holding bill folders, pretending to be waitresses, and the guys seem happy with that.
The phenomenon strikes us as somewhat surreal, but then there’s lots of strange stuff going on in Majestic. That very morning, newspapers reported that police had raided two hotels, seizing cash and gambling chips worth crores and arresting 59 gamblers who’d booked the hotels to play teenpatti over the weekend.
Majestic is a place of thrills. Once the traditional entertainment district in town, long before the posh suburbs (Indiranagar, Koramangala, etc) with their multiplexes and microbreweries came up, Majestic had the largest number of cinemas per square kilometre anywhere in the world (or so I’ve been told). Although many, including Majestic Talkies that gave the area its name, have been torn down to give way to shopping malls, several gorgeous standalone cinemas survive with the towering cut-outs of superstars still garlanded out in front — such as Anupama and Triveni that mark the KG Circle end of SC Road. Come on a Friday when films are released and you’re sure to think this is the Hollywood of India. (Most films are in Kannada and other southern languages; to catch an English flick there’s a multiplex just north of Majestic at the Mantri Square Mall.)
Further, Majestic lies right next to the city’s main bus and railway stations, which explains why the area has so many cheap lodges, cheap restaurants, cheap shops and cheap bars. There’s something to suit every pocket, but if yours are decidedly deep, then immediately north of here is a string of luxury hotels (such as the Grand Lalit Ashok on Kumara Krupa Road), while for those too poor to afford even a budget room, the alleys to the south are full of rock-bottom dormitories accommodating a substantial floating population. Majestic is a place where you don’t have to wear a tie, though you wouldn’t be unwelcome if you did. Life is very come-as-you-are and no bouncer will look twice at your bathroom slippers.
Out of all the bars and booze shops in Karnataka, some 38 percent are located in Bengaluru, the majority of them concentrated in Majestic itself. It has the vibe of a place where small sins are no sins at all, it’s a place for business and pleasure, the embodiment of the wonderful and the … weird is the word that comes to mind when, outside a bar, a ragged man hands me a brochure promoting a Centre for Alcohol & Drug Deaddiction & Rehabilitation. That’s a new one, I think, but take it as a sign that I must explore other aspects of Majestic too. But tomorrow...
Majestic isn’t just a place of cheap fun; it’s also about pocket-friendly shopping. Whether you want to buy a laminator machine to laminate everything you own or just a pair of macho Bofors jeans. In the morning, weaving my way through the merchandise that spills out of the shopping complexes onto the streets, past a vendor of broken wall clocks in a corner, a bearded trader with hundreds of pairs of sunglasses tucked into his beard, past three-legged stands laden with spicy churmuri mixtures or sweet fly-encrusted jalebis, I head into the bazaars on the south side and come across a somewhat amazing shop.
P. Kumar, proprietor of Sri Lakshmi Venkateshwara Frame Works (8B, BVK Iyengar Road) is a collector of some 65,000 vintage pictures of Rajkumar, the late iconic Kannada movie star. Outside his shop, on the surface of some kind of electric transformer, he’s hosting an exhibition of selected priceless images — some are for sale, some are even signed.
Taking the narrow gali immediately behind the framing shop, into the guts of Anchepete, I reach a lane where all the gem shops are. I find the proprietor at Navarathna Diamonds (62, BT Street) particularly informative, so we discuss gemstones and their different qualities. Before leaving BT Street, I buy two stunning turquoises as a wedding anniversary gift for my wife.
Around the corner in Avenue Road stands the pretty Rice Memorial Church, built 1915 in the memory of Benjamin Rice, a priest who became one of the foremost Kanarese scholars of the 19th century, an amateur archaeologist who dug out the history of the city but today is mostly forgotten (except here). The stretch of Avenue Road around the church is one of the main markets for pirated and second-hand books, a popular haunt among students looking for cheap text books. In the opposite direction down Avenue Road, one gets to the very heart of the old town: in fact, the point where it crosses Chickpete is said to be the geographical and historical centre of Bengaluru. In the surrounding streets, one still spots age-old buildings.
Further down, I turn into SP Road because I need a new laptop. While the Avenue Road end is devoted to construction hardware, scores of electronics shops are clustered around its eastern end. The story goes that SP Road was always the bazaar for mechanical stuff until new generations of shopkeepers diversified into electronics in the 1970s, and it is now the best place to pick up computers andperipherals of all brands at practically wholesale rates. And one usually gets a warranty too.
Then back to Majestic and its legendary air-conditioned shopping complexes with evocative names like Burma Bazaar, New Hong Kong Bazaar and, last but not least, the iconic National Market. One finds most of these clustered along 5th Main Road, around the stylish old Tribhuvan Theatre. Shops and shoppers jostle for space; in the old days, this used to be the place to go if you wanted anything from the ‘grey market’–a Sony Walkman or pirated videos (before people started downloading); one shop here was legendary for stocking international art films. Even now, when genuine showrooms for branded stuff abound in glitzy malls, business goes on as usual. I end up buying a pair of Bushnell binoculars, no warranty, of course, but they’re pretty cheap at Rs 1,400, and I’ve always wanted to take up bird-watching as a hobby. And although video piracy is officially banished, a stash of the latest DVDs turn up from under a shop counter.
Next I head to the Achal Cashew Centre (2, 5th Main) which has competitive rates — whole cashews Rs 560-1,700 a kg depending on quality — and also stocks spices, dry fruits, banana halwa and so on. Up the road is the Race Course, tickets start from Rs 10, which is also the minimum betting amount; gambling on horses here doesn’t burn a big hole in your pocket.
If one’s taste is more highbrow, then nearby is Chitra Kala Parishath (“CKP”, Kumara Krupa Road; Rs 10; 10.30am-5.30pm on weekdays), an arts school and museum — and there are frequent crafts melas where one can pick up beautiful ethnic ware. On the way, Gandhi Bhavan makes for an interesting stop. When visiting in the 1930s, the Mahatma stayed at Kumara Park and the Bhavan was inaugurated as a memorial in 1965 with an exhibition, a Gandhian bookshop and a khadi shop. The National Gallery of Modern Art ( Rs 10; 10am-5pm except Mondays) is housed in a grand old mansion on the other side of the Golf Course, on Palace Road. Apart from regular exhibitions and events, there’s a quiet open-air café that serves nice local snacks.
On the eastern side of Majestic is Freedom Park (Seshadri Road), which used to be the British-built Central Jail, where many of the so-called thugs were incarcerated in the 19th century. It is now a peaceful garden where one can cure a hangover while exploring some of the old jail blocks. Entry is free, as it is to Cubbon Park, a kilometre further down Seshadri Road. Laid out in 1864, simultaneously with Central Park in New York, it has a bandstand and rich flora, including several stupendous bamboo thickets. At the end of Seshadri Road, the charming Sir K Seshadri Iyer Memorial Hall (free entry; 8.30am-7.30pm except Mondays and holidays) houses the State Library. Around it, the park itself stretches out like a big green lung for the city, a haven for young lovers and squirrelling squirrels. It is surrounded by some of the city’s important cultural institutions, such as one of the oldest archaeological collections in the country at the Government Museum ( Rs 4 including entry to Venkatappa Art Gallery; 10am-5pm except Mondays), Visvesvaraya Industrial & Technological Museum ( Rs 40; 10am-6pm) full of interactive exhibits plus a 3D dinosaur movie show, the well-maintained Aquarium ( Rs 5; 10-5.30pm) that has colourful fish of all sorts, Jawaharlal Nehru Planetarium ( Rs 35; shows in English and Kannada), and a special children’s play park, Bal Bhavan (free if you’re under 12 years; 10.30am-6pm).
Back in Majestic, after days and nights of enjoying the good life dirt-cheap, I’ve spent almost my whole budget of 6K, but have appetite for one more meal. To make it special, I pick Fishland (1st Floor of Sujatha Complex, 1st Cross Road): this coastal Karnataka canteen with its retro interiors has beckoned foodies for decades. It’s just around the corner from Port of Pavilion, where I started this hedonistic adventure. A seafood thali with its trademark mackerel in spicy red curry is set down before me, and with it I order a masala-fried pomfret… and some prawn fry.
As I hog, I already begin looking forward to my next visit to Majestic. Just give me an excuse. Any will do.
Majestic is located adjacent to the Bengaluru City Junction and the main Kempegowda Bus Station (also known as Mezestic Bus Stand), from where shuttle buses run to and from the airport — and indeed to every corner of Bengaluru. Arriving, just follow the flow of people through the underpass tunnel on the east side and you’re in Majestic. But you won’t find the name on most maps: Majestic is officially known as Gandhi Nagar.
Where to stay
There are hotels to fit every budget. One of the cheapest is Sri Ramakrishna Lodge (080- 22263041; no reservations), which operates on a first-come-first-served basis, but is a huge place on 262 SC Road; rates start at Rs 430; their vegetarian Priyadarshini Restaurant is popular. A few steps north, the quaint Royal Lodge (080-22266951; royallodge. in), next to Kapali Theatre, has doubles with TV from Rs 730.
On a slightly higher budget, there’s the 57-room Kamat Yatrinivas (080-41241114; kamatyatri. in) on 4, 1st Cross (behind National Market); rooms from Rs 990 up to Rs 2,600 for deluxe suites.
Of the higher-end hotels, the most interesting is Dr. Rajkumar International (080-40223344; drrajintl.com) at 109, 6th Cross (near the Race Course); run by family members of the late superhero Rajkumar, with neat rooms, wifi, electronic safes and 24-hour check-out; from Rs 3,000.
Where to eat & drink
Almost anywhere in Majestic, you can have a satisfying meal for under Rs 200. The place for coastal Karnataka cuisine is Fishland (hotelfishland.com), on the 1st Floor of Sujatha Complex, 1st Cross Road; apart from the fish thali (Rs 130), you get crab, clams and more seafood fare. A cheaper alternative (in nearby Cubbon Park) is Mathsyadarshini (an initiative of the Karnataka Fisheries Development Corporation) with fish-curry-rice for Rs 80; other fish dishes are Rs 120 per plate.
You’ll need to search for Bengaluru’s best Bengali canteens, Babu Mosai, on Killari Road on the 1st floor of STT Glass House; try the authentic mustard fish.
There are many Andhra restaurants that serve mutton biryani and chicken 65; one of the classics is Nandhini at the corner of 5th Main and 2nd Cross; another oldie is Sagar on SC Road (with a seedy ground-floor bar).
Majestic isn’t just about dicey non-veg. Kamat Yatrinivas Hotel offers arguably the best vegetarian experience in town; try the Jowar Bhakri, jowar roti meals, along with the North Karnataka-style brinjal gravy (badnekai).
Majestic is the place for street food. At the corner of BVK Iyengar Road and KG Road, a clean stall does vada pav and the jumbosa, a hybrid between a spring roll and a samosa (Rs 15). From a stall next to it, you can buy sugarcane juice (Rs 15) or a lime soda with chat masala (`20). On the narrow 6th Main Road off-KG Circle, you find vendors cooking seekh kababs Rs 20 per plate); the lane is also home to Malabar-style canteens: for the best beef fry, try Nandana; for some spicy chops, head across the street to Prince.
For South Indian tiffin, there’s Kamat Hotel on SC Road, a classic that serves delectable vada-sambhar; new on the block is Vasudev Adiga’s on 5th Main.
Adjacent to Fishland is the best bar in the area, Status Deluxe AC. A beer is Rs 200-260; despite its scruffy backstreet location, even women may feel welcome here.
A little cheaper, and just around the corner, is Port of Pavilion (1st Main Road) that does satisfying Mangalorean food; a beer is Rs 120. Talk of the Town on 2nd Cross is another ‘nicer seedy bar’ (they use table cloths!); they’re big on tandoori but sample their jowar roti and chicken curry combo. Green House on 1st Cross is frequented by filmi folks. Blue Heaven on 37 SC Road (near KG Circle), a new entrant, has a flashy ultraviolet lighting scheme and flatscreen TVs showing sports channels. Downstairs, where you’re served by male waiters, a mug of beer costs Rs 55; upstairs, where buxom women wait on you, the price is Rs 450 a beer.
Where to shop
There are plenty of bargains to be had, but bring plenty of small-denomination cash; much of the stuff will cost a mere Rs 20.
There are a couple of handy bookshops. Sapna Book House on 3rd Main prides itself on being the town’s largest book showroom; it also has a great selection of subtitled Kannada films. Navkarnataka, about a block north of National Market, stocks Kannada novels in English translations.
This being a hotspot of the Kannada film industry, plenty of shops sell props for action films. Looking for a gun replica? Try Ranjit Opticals south of KG Circle. For a police outfit (including those stylish hats that Bengaluru policemen wear), go to Orient Police & General Stores at 3, Siddaganga Building in BVK Iyengar Road (opp. Abhinay Theatre).
For cameras and photographic equipment, if you don’t care for dicey grey market stuff but want expert guidance and a warranty to go with it, photographers swear by RK Photoguide on 5th Main. For computer stuff, go to SP Road on the old town side.
A more upmarket shopping experience can be had at Mantri Square, north of Majestic. For cheap but branded stuff, head for Commercial Street in the Cantonment part of the town.