I spent countless summers as a child in Bangalore, India ,the city of my parents' pre-immigration past. Bangalore is a breezy, tree-laden city, formerly used by colonial-era civil servants to indulge in retirement. After Indian independence, the city retained a small-town feel, becoming a quiet refuge for an array of religious, ethnic, and linguistic cultures. This diversely localized aura lasted until the 1990s, when an information technology boom spawned rapid, poorly-managed urbanization. Today, Bangalore is bursting with its own teeming sprawl. Yet, the city still echoes with evocative memories of a former intimacy.
One aging local legend is Bread Mama (Uncle). "I remember him cycling around to deliver bread when I was 10," my father would say reverently. My grandfather would recall him "delivering bread when I was a college student, when we were both younger men." And my grandmother would add that she could remember him doling out bread during her first days in Bangalore as a young bride. Cheeky younger cousins would point to the Energizer Bunny on television and shout, "Bread Mama also goes and goes!"
Bread Uncle's age is uncertain. I surmise that he must be in his early 80s, but he seems to have inexplicably stopped aging for at least the past two decades. For the last four decades (and now I venture into hearsay), he has always worn baggy periwinkle pants and a yellowish collared shirt intended to be white, with a pen and various receipts tucked jauntily into a single breast pocket. His vehicle of choice is a rickety bicycle that, perhaps, once gleamed with newness, but now shows evidence of wear and rust. Last, attached to the back of his bicycle, he carries a large, dented metal box filled with freshly baked breads from the Sweet Chariot, one of Bangalore's better bakeries.
Bread Uncle started to deliver bread as a teenager. Beyond this, I know little of his origins: how he came to fill the role of beloved bread deliverer to the masses remains a mystery. In some ways, I think that the cheerful chime of his bicycle bell serves as a marker that the past existed. In delivering our daily bread for over six decades, rain or shine, household after household, he looms large in many neighborhoods' collective memories.
I first made friends with Bread Uncle at age 2. Because he typically bestowed me with a complimentary sweet treat, I came to wait for him at the gate as he nimbly cycled by. Home-video footage from this time features him prominently, proudly posing by his bike as I perch jauntily on the seat, my legs dangling far above the pedals. Afterwards, on visits to India, he was one of the first people I saw, simply because he came by every morning.
Rather like the friendship between an Afghan peddler and a Bengali child in Tagore's short story, Cabuliwallah, Bread Uncle and I shared an unconventional camaraderie. I am Hindu, while Bread Uncle (whose real name is George) is Christian. Yet, our interactions, from the very start, were marked by deep interfaith understanding. He never hesitated to mention, day after day, that he prayed for my entire family's welfare at his church. Eventually, I came to add him unconsciously into my daily prayers, and would tell him so as well. Our conversations, held in Tamil, ranged everywhere over the years from favorite ice cream flavors to local politics and cricket, but talk always ended with a commitment to mutual prayer.
Bread Uncle has several prosperous children who have begged him, over the years, to quit his bread deliveries and relax. However, he's persevered -- "I'm elderly, but even old people have to keep their legs working," he'd say.
I last saw him earlier this year. "I'm thinking that I'll finally retire at the end of summer," he confessed. "I'm finally feeling a bit old, and I should spend time now with my family." I didn't say it, but I felt that the change which had swept rapidly over Bangalore in the past decade was now manifested, with a punch, in my own life. "The company offered me a truck to do the rounds, but I said no -- it just wouldn't feel right. You couldn't talk to friends, the way we're talking now, sitting high up in a truck. And besides, look at the traffic -- a truck would just clog the streets even more," he said wistfully.
We were both quiet for a while. Then, his face brightened. "But, of course, I'll still pray in church for you and the entire family. And I'll give your grandfather my mobile number. We must be grateful to God for all this technology! Ring me on your next visit to Bangalore, and I'll cycle over to see you if I'm still around -- just like always."