With Kuvempu and kane in Karnataka

Zac O' Yeah | Updated on November 21, 2020

Writer’s retreat: Selfie-seekers at the ancestral house of Kuvempu, the Kannada littérateur, in Kuppalli village   -  ANJUM HASAN

Taking one’s chances on the road often brings honest rewards: A journey in coastal Karnataka tells a story

There’s a saying that goes something like “to eat or not to eat, that’s the question”. I’m pondering this in the back seat of a moth-eaten cab that’s lost its way in the Western Ghats — a mountain range full of winding roads with scarce signposting and no mobile signal for the GPS. I brought snacks suitable for social distancing (chocolate, peanuts, chips and so on) but it seems a shame to fall back on supermarket supplies when one’s nearing coastal Karnataka.

I’d just visited the ancestral home of Kuvempu (1904-94), who spearheaded Kannada literature’s renaissance and whose home in the hilly jungles has become an enchanting museum (daily 9am-6.30pm; ₹10), probably one of the most beautiful memorials dedicated to any littérateur anywhere in the world. The way Kuvempu is revered — statues everywhere, places and institutions named after him, stamps printed with his image, and, in 2017, even a Google-doodle felicitated him — reminds one of Shakespeare’s status in the English language, or Tagore’s in Bangla.

Known as Kavimane, the red tile-roofed “poet’s house” in Kuppalli village is a fortress-like building in the traditional thottimane style of Malenadu (the name of the area means “rainy hills”, roughly). Somehow, I expected to find a locked-up desolate museum — especially since Covid-19 ought to keep tourists away — but it was swarming with people. Intellectually saturated visitors lounged on the lawns, lush from monsoon rains.

The labyrinthine home displays his clothes, umbrella, pen, and a photo collection offers glimpses of his life. “Decorum of a nice home is presence of a good journal and some good books,” Kuvempu is quoted as saying and, indeed, one entire floor is filled with the prolific author’s books such as Kanooru Heggadithi (made into a film by Girish Karnad). Kuvempu’s study is a moving sight — a humble chamber in one of the building’s turrets. Furnished with a simple desk, it offers splendid views over the undulating landscape. A photograph of the writer as a young man, featuring his trademark curls, hangs adjacent to it.

However, the high point for a glutton like me was Kuvempu’s kitchen, with utensils such as spice-box, idli-steamer, buttermilk-churner, rice-storage-container. Early that morning I had woken up in a jungle cottage staring a scorpion in the eye and after this encounter with wild fauna, I tasted a fiery breakfast of a local rice dish called puliyogare. My host had been liberal with the oil and spices, so a few spoons jolted me so wide awake I didn’t even require my mandatory morning coffee. But now the sight of Kuvempu’s kitchen had made me ravenous.

Kuppalli is 153 km from Mangaluru and my taxi toddles down a serpentine road via Kudremukh National Park (highest peak at 6,200 ft) where the driver soon loses his way, which I don’t mind at all since detouring through the tropical rainforest (the area’s annual 7,000-mm rainfall feeds major rivers Bhadra, Nethravathi and Tunga) amounts to a nice sightseeing bonus as long as no tiger, leopard, sloth bear, Naxalite or lion-tailed macaque jumps into the back seat with me. There I recall another Kuvempu quote translated on a sign in the museum: “Malenadu indeed is Karnataka’s Kashmir!”

Eventually we reach a point at the edge of the jungle where men sell freshly sliced super-sweet pineapples sprinkled with masala powder. A full leaf plate costs ₹10.

Red hot stuff: Local fare at Sangeetha Hotel   -  ZAC O’YEAH

About 100 km later, once we’ve found our way out of the jungles and descended to the coastal plains, the driver pulls up at a garage-like canteen proudly titled Sangeetha Hotel, which sits on the highway near the village of Guruvayanakere. True to its name, I hear filmi music composed by AR Rahman. It doesn’t look flashy and I vacillate — since March I haven’t been eating outside my comfort zone of tried-and-tested favourite restaurants. But then I catch a whiff of the food being cooked — fishy, coconutty — and take the plunge.

Spotting a deeply absorbed woman chef in the kitchen, I assume the grub will be motherly. Besides, the fishing port Mangaluru in south-western Karnataka is only 50 km down the road so only an idiot or a vegetarian would say no to a freshly cooked fish meal here.

The menu, chalked onto a black sheet on the wall, is written in the Kannada script so I can only make out the low rates. Nothing’s above ₹130 while most items cost ₹60-80. The smattering of Kannada I know is enough to get me tawa-fried ladyfish (kane), curried mackerel (bangda), parathas, chicken biryani, a rice thali with veggie sides plus an intriguing complimentary chutney of dried prawns, red chilli and grated coconut.

The customarily modest mackerel curry is surprisingly magnificent — expecting a soupy sauce, I receive a fleshy masala-fried fish topped by a ladle of pottage. The parathas are chewy in exactly the way I want. And the biryani is fragrant and mildly seasoned, not the spicy-greasy overkill that has overtaken the biryani kingdom: The chicken juicy, the rice garnished with cashews that grow abundantly in the area. Had this been an upmarket eatery, it would probably have been described as “artisanal pilaf”.

The youngster who doubles as cashier and waiter at the eatery beams as I wolf down every last morsel. Pandemic or no pandemic, taking one’s chances on the road often brings honest rewards.


Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist;

Email: zacnet@email.com

Published on November 21, 2020

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