The Quirky People That Give Mysore Its Masala

Snake rescuers and legendary Mysore pak-makers. | By Vinita Shetty & Dnyaneshwar Vasant Kurhade  
Mysore Snake Shyam
A cross between Crocodile Dundee and Sinbad the Sailor, Snake Shyam is a dedicated conservationist and a much-loved local idol. Illustration: Dnyaneshwar Vasant Kurhade

Mysore’s regal past reigns supreme over a traveller’s itinerary. And while the city’s mahals, extravagant  gardens, and vast museums are spectacular, they tend to skim over the charm of the city’s present: its people. Don’t miss the chance to meet these Mysore heroes when you’re visiting.

Snakes And A Charmer

I’m trailing a stocky, quirkily dressed man who is clearly a star. He is surrounded by a small crowd as soon as he steps out of his white minivan, plastered with slogans including, “Snakes are not as poisonous as human beings” and “Nature is a teacher”. “Snake Shyam, hello!” strangers yell out; mothers point him out to their children.

Wildlife conservationist and a walking encyclopaedia on all things Mysore, M.S. Balasubramaniam a.k.a. Snake Shyam, is a much-loved local idol. To me, he looks like a cross between Crocodile Dundee and Sindbad the Sailor, complete with tattooed arms, close to a dozen silver rings on his fingers, golden chains coiled around his neck, and a trademark cowboy hat. His popularity is overwhelming. A local cop hops off his traffic pedestal and pumps his hand when he sees him. ‘’How are you anna (elder brother)?’’ he asks and informs him that the number of cobras found near his police station is on the rise. Tea and jasmine sellers whip out their camera phones, recording Snake Shyam’s interactions.

Although an untrained herpetologist, Shyam is serious about the business of snake rescuing. He has worked with veterans like Romulus Whitaker and Gerry Martin, been featured on National Geographic Channel for his work, and has helped rehabilitate close to 29,000 snakes. He doesn’t charge for his services. A one-time autorickshaw driver, Shyam has also ferried children to school in his van but always had his snake rescue kit on standby in the boot. He is now the corporator of Ward 17 of Mysore city, but always has time for snakes that have found their way into urban Mysore. He even has a street named after him: Snake Shyam Road (call Snake Shyam on 99805 57797 or ask around the Market Square; he visits nearly every day). 

Ghee Whiz

Guru Sweet Mart Sayyaji Rao Road Mysore pak

The current owners of the Guru Sweet Mart claim their ancestor originally created Mysore pak for the maharaja of Mysore. Illustration: Dnyaneshwar Vasant Kurhade

“Pack it carefully,” an elderly woman instructs the man behind the counter of Guru Sweet Mart. “It’s going all the way to America.’’ I stand just outside the modest stall on Sayyaji Rao Road, peering over carefully piled columns of Mysore pak, overwhelmed by the rich aroma of ghee and sugar. When the lady is done, I bite into a piece of the melt-in-your-mouth sweet, and coax Nataraj, one of three brothers who own the iconic store, to let me in on the secret recipe. He laughs mischievously. “It’s been undisclosed for four-five generations. Why will I tell anyone now?’’

He waves his hands over the sweets to keep flies away and grins as two customers urge him to talk about his ancestral link to the delicacy. “My great-great-grandfather, Kakasura Madappa, created the sweet for the Mysore maharaja, who was so happy that he gifted him a house. The fourth and fifth generations of my family live in the same home today.” Tradition is also what sets Guru Sweet’s Mysore pak apart. It’s still made in the old style, “in a coal-fuelled, open-flame kitchen’’ (Shop No 1/3, near K.R. Circle, Sayyaji Rao Road; 0821-2443495; daily 8 a.m.-9 p.m.).

The Sunshine Girls

Mysore Malgudi Café Chittaranjan Palace

The Malgudi Cafe is run by an all-woman crew from the Balmiki Dalit community. Illustration: Dnyaneshwar Vasant Kurhade

“Lemon drizzle cake will go well with your coffee,’’ Pushpa, the graceful young server at Malgudi Café, tells me. Her raven hair is neatly braided and she is dressed in a yellow-and-maroon half-sari—an ankle-length skirt worn with a blouse and a dupatta draped like a pallu, the traditional attire of unmarried South Indian girls. I’m in the quiet courtyard of Chittaranjan Palace, erstwhile home of a Mysore princess, and now known as The Green Hotel. It’s a lovely space, but what makes it extra special is that an all-woman crew from the Balmiki Dalit community manages the café. The eatery has accorded these sunshine girls not only an opportunity to earn a living, but also a chance to learn new skills. Members of the Dalit community were once prohibited from interacting with upper castes, even hidden from sight. At the café, however, the six women cheerfully chat with each other as cakes take shape and trays are carefully placed in the oven. Like the café, The Green Hotel was the brainchild of Dame Hilary Blume, founder of the Charities Advisory Trust in London, following the tenets of sustainable community tourism. Malgudi’s delicious old-world vibe and tranquil surroundings make it a great place to read a book, shop for handmade curios, or snack on organic cakes and pudding. I’d recommend taking home a loaf of their multi-grain bread—all the yoga students in Mysore swear by it(The Green Hotel, 2270 Vinoba Road, Jayalakshmipuram; 0821-4255000; daily 10 a.m.-7 p.m.).

Appeared in the June 2015 issue as “Mysore Masala”.

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