”I was born with a sweet tooth” my grandfather stated. “There’s no such thing as being born with a sweet tooth,” my father said rolling his eyes. “How would you know? You eat chillies for breakfast, lunch and dinner. You wouldn’t know how to differentiate between the cheap Mysore Pak they serve at weddings and the rich authentic ghee-laden ones in Guru Sweets in Mysore” my grandfather replied rather offended that my father had questioned such an integral part of his identity.
It was during the summer of 2000 when I was 8 years old and staying at my grandparent’s house during my summer vacation that my life changed for the better. It was when my grandfather decided I needed to be introduced to something special. “Have you ever been to Iyengar’s bakery?” he asked me. “Dad buys bread and puffs every week from there but I have not been there” I responded. “I took your cousins there when they were your age, they didn’t like what I introduced them to. They are a bunch of spoiled kids” he stated with a scowl.
Iyengar’s bakery was a small store in Bangalore, a city in the south of India, known for its pleasant weather and filter coffee. The bakeries were often located near the main road. They had rows of freshly baked milk bread, fruit bread, pastries, puffs, spicy biscuits and potato buns. To an 8-year-old me, this bakery was like a treasure chest, there were no big bakeries during this time and this kind of variety dazzled me. My health-conscious parents controlled all my meals and snacks.
“3 honey cakes please!” he told the cashier who also packed the products. The honey cake was moist with a soft cake base, generously dipped in sugar syrup, rolled in desiccated coconut and topped with a layer of pink jam. It tasted exquisite, it melted in my mouth as the flavours of honey and coconut came through. I devoured it for a few seconds and my grandfather looked pleased. “That’s why I got 3, you can never have just 1 honey cake”.
I was so excited about the honey cake, that I told my parents and sister about it and my father diligently bought a few slices home the following week. “It’s too sweet. All you can taste is the sugar” they complained.
“What do they know? They don’t understand sugar as we do. They are like your spoiled cousins” my grandfather told me when I visited him. “There’s a new bakery a few streets away, They have this lemon cake, let’s tell Nanamma that we are going to pick up movie CDs for the latest Telugu releases” he suggested, his eyes glimmering.
Every summer, my grandfather and I went to different bakeries and tried different sweets. Chocolate cakes, carrot cakes, Indian versions of the Japanese cake, doughnuts, black forest cake, Dilkhush and sweet rusk were some of our favourites.
My parents became concerned by the time I was 10, that I gravitated to eating bakery products constantly with my grandfather and we both were now chubby and content. “We are leaving your sister with you at Thatha’s house so that she will inform us if the both of you go out to the bakery” they informed me sternly. “We are just going out to rent movie CDs,” my grandfather and I told my sister. “I am coming with you, Mummy told me to keep an eye on the both of you” she pleaded with us. “Who is going to keep your grandmother company?” My sister had to stay home and never had any proof of our criminal activities.
We always ate honey cake when my exams were nearing or when my grandfather was upset. It was our comfort sweet. Every Iyengar’s bakery didn’t have the same touch, some of them made the syrup too strong, some of them didn’t use enough syrup to make the cake moist and some of them were just not fresh. We had our reliable one which we had been going to for years and now it was like we were going to a friend’s house. “Don’t get the bread, it’s not fresh now. Here try these almond biscuits” the cashier, our new friend told us.
Over the years I got busy with school and then college and visited my grandparents less frequently. New bakeries dominated the market with a modern version of pastries and the cafe culture had just begun. My cousins lived abroad and when they were in India, they found the sweets too sweet and the rest of us were interested in the American Hersheys chocolates and waffles they introduced us to. “Bunch of spoiled kids, I don’t want these rubbish sweets, I want some Kesari bath this Sunday” my grandfather demanded.
My grandfather had become too old to go anywhere by himself. He had 70 years of independence where he travelled everywhere in his trusted scooter, which had ended in the late 2000s. He had to take control of his diet, go on walks and resort to watching whatever was available on the television.
One summer, I was with my group of college friends on our way back home when I passed an Iyengar’s bakery. “Do you guys want to try something delicious?” I asked them. I waited with bated breath as they each took a bite of the honey cake. “Too sweet dude, and there’s no honey in this, it’s just sugar syrup and coconut” they stated. As annoyed as I was that they didn’t have as good a palette as I did for desserts, I smiled and told them that it was not a big deal.
I visited my grandparent’s house that evening. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen you,” my grandfather said. “I’ve been very busy Thatha” I informed him. “You look slim these past few years,” he said observing me through his glasses. “I had to lose some weight, Mummy was complaining that none of my clothes fit. And Uma aunty said I was starting to look like a pumpkin” I told him, glad that the weight loss was visible. “Pumpkin? You look the cutest amongst all your cousins. That woman doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Did you know she was the shortest girl in her class?” my grandfather said defending me.
I took out the small paper box that had the honey cakes in it. “It’s been years since we ate this together!” he exclaimed. As we savoured the rich taste of coconut, sweet syrup and jam we chatted about life and our crazy family. It was a moment of indulgence captured in time that was imprinted in my memories of my grandfather.