Being at German Bakery at Koregaon Park, Pune, could takesome getting used to. For starters, German Bakery is, well, not the old German Bakery with the humble counter and the ‘Self Service’ sign making its no-nonsense terms very clear.
Now, it is a sunny, swanky cafe with blue mosaic tabletops, white chairs and orange umbrellas, amnesiac of the February 2010 blasts which killed 17 and injured at least 60. The bakery also has a new mascot - an owl holding a pretzel. It keeps a keen eye on patrons who could ditch the bakery signature combination, bun maska and chai, for smoothies and risottos. The long communal tables which seated at least 70 people are out, and well-informed waiters who know how to pamper unobtrusively are in.
But, of course, there are signs of caution, and if you look closely enough, there’s no mistaking it - three years after German Bakery opened doors to patrons last week, eagerness hovers, but strictly within the lines drawn by prudence and security checks.
There are 16 CCTV cameras in the café. At the entrance of German Bakery, guards open every bag and baggage one has, and not as sloppily as they do in malls these days. They poke their security devices in every possible crevice; you cannot just wave your backpack in their faces and mutter, “Laptop,” to get away. There isn’t a chance.
‘People want to forget’
It is all going according to plan, feels Vijay Shewale, German Bakery’s new owner. “The moment I bought German Bakery from the erstwhile owners, I decided that I will not let the new premises remind people about what happened. I wanted it to move on, like the rest of the city wants to.” Shewale points out to the murals of Audrey Hepburn, Michael Jackson and Marilyn Monroe on a wall, and says, “This is the new German Bakery. Puneites are an emotional people, and this will help them forget the past.” He then fishes out his card, with the owl on it, holding a pretzel. “Even the mascot was chosen to represent the end of a dark night. The pretzel has been retained to keep the German connection alive.”
Shewale said suggestions and opinions flowed freely when people found out the bakery would reopen this year. “Some people said it will not work at all because no one wants to return to a blast side for a cup of coffee. Others said I must keep photographs or build a plaque to commemorate the dead.” But Shewale is not a man of the past, something he emphasises on throughout our conversation and one which is palpable in his establishment, too. “I decided against it. I didn’t want people to come here, look at them and break down. Change is important.”
But there are other changes, too, and they are blatant even when not being singled out and presented in the bakery’s spotless white crockery. They seem to lurk in people’s minds when they lower their heads as they step across the security check at the entrance. There’s that look of surprise — even awe — when a patron looks around at German Bakery, picking the ideal table, but mentally lauding the idea of how a blast site can stand unscathed. Then, there are other changes which have everything to do with transient mental associations with a city’s landmark which is there, but not quite.
It comes at a price
It begins raining outside and German Bakery’s staff ushers the patrons inside the cafe. Previously, the 400 sq ft establishment seated around 70 people, but now, the 2,500 sq ft bakery has a capacity to seat more than 150 people because it has been expanded to the first floor, too. The manager and his staff bring out mops and cleaners while a bunch of college students make jokes about their cold coffee “getting wet in the rains”. One of them, Sudhir Dasgupta, 17, was only 14 when the blasts shattered German Bakery, but he isn’t low on adjectives, description and nostalgia rather unusual for his age.
“It was…rustic, you know. Dusty, too. And there was that musty smell to the German Bakery in the rains sometimes,” he says, while his friends smile and shake their heads, perhaps at their friend’s unintended rhyme. Dasgupta says he was at the bakery in the morning before the blasts and couldn’t return that evening as planned. “The area was inaccessible because of the security arrangements and a few weeks later, the bakery was reduced to a spot covered in blue tarpaulin.”
His friend, Rahul George, 19, says he expected the bakery to reopen, but not with such lavishness. “We’d come here, ask for their signature bun maska and chai, and scoot. There was no time to linger, and the person at the counter often admonished us if we did. But, well, this looks nice, too; we are glad it opened up and is so gung-ho.”
Dasgupta takes a closer look at the menu and points out that the old menu has been incorporated amid the wraps, burgers, risottos and sandwiches. But he hasn’t ordered his old favourites. “Have you seen how the bun maska and chai are for now? Almost Rs 150, from Rs 70 earlier. I think I’ll pass,” says Dasgupta.
Memories? No, thank you
Nearby, a trio remains seated throughout the cleaning and shifting during the unexpected showers. Sulbha Pande, an Andheri resident who is in Pune with friends, is unsure when asked whether she likes the bakery’s new avatar. “You can see they’ve spent a lot of money, and I think it looks really good. But the feel has changed. They had some lovely paintings earlier, which are missing now, and crowd is different, too, don’t you think?” she asks her friends Nilina and Nishikant Pujari, both Pune residents.
“I didn’t even want to come here!” says Nilina. “What’s the need? So much has happened at this place. I am glad they have changed it entirely, and haven’t retained anything from the blasts. That Mumbai café, Leopold’s? I hear they still have the bullet marks in the walls, is that correct?” she asks Pande. Pande nods. “I wouldn’t want something of that sort here,” Nilina says.
Nilina needn’t have worried. There’s a lot at German Bakery to calm a nervous patron down, if any. There is a large Buddha painting on glass on the first floor, there are owls illustrating the effect German Bakery’s many coffees can have on you, and of course, there’s always the mural of Hepburn.
But not everyone has forgotten, or wants to even try. Hotel management student, Apoorva Kanago, 19 who is interning at the bakery, says the place is special. “My father’s first job was at the German Bakery.
He learnt English only after working here, and bought us delicious cookies from here after work.” Kanago was a school a few meters away from the blast site and remembers how the blast spoilt their farewell party. “Of course, worse things were happening outside, but we were pretty much in the dumps.” Kanago says her father tells her of a time when queues were long and conversations even longer at German Bakery. “I can’t imagine that because I don’t think people would mingle with others across tables,” she smiles.
‘Too awkward to enter’
At the end of the street, outside Hotel Surya Villa, its manager is deep in conversation with his friend. When asked about the bakery and its prospects, the manager, who refuses to reveal his name, says, “I haven’t been there in a week, but people have been saying the security is too tight. What the point now? The cakes, the coffee and the people are gone. I don’t think it is the same place.”
At this, his friend interjects. “I am a driver and I almost lived at the German Bakery earlier. We’d go on, have the brown bread, bun maska and chai and meet so many people there. But now,” he looks towards the bakery, flanked by sedans, waiting to find parking space, and says, “I don’t feel comfortable going in there. I am not even sure whether I’ll be allowed to enter. It isn’t for people like me anymore, you know. Some foreigners say the taste of the food has changed. After the blasts, my friends and I sat outside the site just so that no one could say the bakery is bereft. But not now. This isn’t even German Bakery. It’s just another café with the same name. I wish them all the best, though.”
Late evening, German Bakery’s owners manage large queues efficiently. Lights are dimmed, and conversations are hushed and polite. Outside, Jahan Mohammad, the owner of a jewellery store in the bakery’s compound, looks around hopefully. Mohammad bought the shop five months ago hoping his business could take off after the bakery reopened. “Since the last nine years, I had a shop a few lanes away from German Bakery. Our lives changed after the blasts and so much of our business depended on the foreign guests who came to this bakery.”
Mohammad admits that the crowds haven’t trickled in yet, but a week is hardly anything to go by. “My friends advised me not to open my shop here, but I really think this is the place to be now, especially after the bakery’s transformation.” Mohammad says he went to the bakery everyday for at least one meal. He still does, but attributes that to habit more than the food. Mohammad says the old bakery was “free” and “fun”, and is now a more regimented space. “I’ve hardly seen older faces here. I am happy with the changes at German Bakery, but I cannot forget the old place.”
Business and sentiment have no place on the same page here, Mohammad realises. As Shewale clearly puts in at the end of our conversation, “You should never remember. It is bad for business.” firstname.lastname@example.org