Crumbs that Lead Back Home to Pune | Nat Geo Traveller India

Crumbs that Lead Back Home to Pune

A writer discovers a few heady markers to life in the crevices of an old confectionary staple, the delightful Austin Bakery inside his childhood stomping grounds of NDA.  
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Part of Pune’s charm lies in its urban landscape draped in foliage. Photo by: Sandeep Gore / Shutterstock

For reasons I’m yet to grasp, the bakery, together with the twin mischiefs of the Irani café and the Parsi restaurant, has become a habitual motif in my life. While the latter two belong to the small streets, swirling enigmas and aromas of a hometown, Poona, and a brethren, Bombay (thus called, for reasons wedded to faithfulness), it’s the first named that has proliferated across this personal cartography.

In the spoken accents of a foreign city, there it is. At the first crunched leaf of winter, its whiff arrives like a longed-for telegram. Across the boulevards of known cities, it plays the reassuring host. And within the folds of time, it serves as the aide-mémoire—nudging, reminding, speaking. The bakery—homegrown and house-proud. An almirah of sensorial pleasures where conversations from the past, desires of the day, and a sense of what tomorrow may hold reside. If this truly is love, then I suppose the long-term affair has a specific, if somewhat nameless, provenance.

I was born and raised in the National Defence Academy, Khadakwasla (the NDA)—the joint defence service-training institute of the Indian Armed Forces and the first tri-service academy in the world. The NDA campus occupies a mammoth 8,000 hectares, perched on the southwestern outskirts of Poona.

To a child’s gaze, none of this registered though. What did was the sense of endlessness at play—long balmy summers spent adventuring across the uncountable hills and meadows of the campus; games of football played across any of thirty-odd fields; mimicking Wimbledon victories on some of the only grass courts in India; winters relished around leaping bonfires and parties that roared well into dawn; festivals ripe with colour and many a shenanigan. And through it all, like a ribbon going around a trove of gifts, lay Austin Bakery.

Now the fact that Austin Bakery was, in fact, Austin Bakery, was lost on us much of the time. Its signboard had the tendency to go missing for long portions of the year. In fact, if memory serves me right, there was no signboard as such, just a sense that here once lay a name, with the greater verification that the whole thing belonged to one Mr. Austin—proprietor, baker, and to childhood eyes, magician.

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Pune is home to old-school bakeries that serve delicious mawa cakes. Photo by: Von UpLight / Shutterstock

The bakery unfurled a smallish menu, but done to perfection: potato puffs of hearty fullness and a crisp, outer arrogance; ‘veg’ and ‘non-veg’ patties, thankfully abstaining from the Indianised plural ‘pattice’, that delivered hidden delights with every morsel; hot breakfast buns and scrumptiously dip-able rusks that seemed to go hand-in-hand with the very concept of early morning; breads that did much the same; expertly done pastries that were creamy, gooey, or otherwise crunchy odes to sugariness.

Heart to hand, it’s the flavours and aromas of Austin Bakery that I both expect and have been chasing all this while each time I step into a bakery. Much of the magic associated with the address could be put to down to location: it was housed in a largish covered shed of sorts, where a motley crew of characters converged.

The shed played home to a raddiwala, a fruit seller, a vegetable vendor, a darzi quick with his tongue and lazy with his deliveries, a couple of odds-and-ends stores whose purpose I could never for the life of me fathom, and even a chap who did the laundry. Within this melee of sounds, sensations, and purposes, there lay Austin Bakery—a tiny, open bakery where a kiln conjured up the treats, accompanied by a section for mixing ingredients and preparing the goodies, along with a slab where orders were wrapped away simply in unfussy brown bags and handed over to a perpetually hungry clientele. Nothing special, really, but to the imaginations of childhood, a palace of wonders.

I realise the danger in nostalgia, but perhaps we should all be allowed our forays into and reliance on these easier pasts. For this writer, remembrances of Austin Bakery are sewn indelibly with the innocence that comes with childhood, sure, but also with notions of life being simpler, the city being a place of curiosity and discovery, the world at large being less frenetic, and things like war, disease, the digital age, and a nation’s increasingly fanatical robes being distant, often unseen concepts.

Life at the NDA danced to its own rhythms. While the epic scope of the place was never in question, it were the little dramas that tended to capture the heart the most. The tiny brook running with the fluidity of a poem beneath a small, stone bridge. Alleyways that snaked off of main roads, dancing towards places lush with foliage. Camping beneath the open sky in a pavilion reserved for stargazing. Sighting the frequent wild boar and occasional leopard on any of the periphery roads. Miles of jungles. Secret spots of exquisite prettiness, with the campus’ beautiful bungalows serving as intermittent freckles. The remembered conversations, those cherished friendships. And each adventure topped off, naturally, with a bicycle trip to Austin Bakery, to its plethora of tastes and smells.

I’ve been fortunate enough to travel well in the world. On these nomadic journeys through life, cities have ended up gifting me their chosen bakeries—together with an old café and a storied bookshop, often the shortcut to the soul of any city. In Paris, rue Mouffetard has unfurled a jewellery-box of boulangeries and fromageries, each one’s front-store windows displaying the French élan for the good life. Back home in Poona, Kayani Bakery has been a decades-old go-to, its wine and Shrewsbury biscuits, together with the light-as-feathers mawa cake, having remained the way they always were.

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On his journeys around the world, Dasgupta digs into the destinations’ offerings. Rue Mouffetard in Paris is a case in point. Photo by: Petr Kovalenkov / Shutterstock

 

Bombay, meanwhile, tends to welcome me via hearty breads at La Folie Lab, mille-feuille at Suzette’s in Bandra, Amul butter-laden khari at Paris Bakery in South Bombay, and all manner of savoury delights at Gaylord, the old and the new swirling in the wealth of age and stories that inform this city. Which brings me to the fabled streets of Istanbul and Isfahan, two cities in whose bakeries I’ve found flirtation and conversation, such as the mise-en-scène at Ustun Palmie Patisserie in Istanbul’s historic Kurtulus neighbourhood where coveted Easter pastries capture the zeitgeist of an entire point in time.

Austin Bakery, plucked from an earlier iteration of NDA Khadakwasla at Clement Town, Dehradun, has probably disappeared by now. And yet, each time I’m on the verge of stepping into a bakery, it’s an old, familiar feeling that accosts me. I prepare the senses for those same sights and smells from a faraway yesterday, half expecting to see those same brown paper bags bursting with a known goodness. I half expect to see Mr. Austin himself, taking orders, orchestrating mounds of flour. And with all of it, I expect the world, if only temporarily, to be lighter, kinder, filled with possibilities of deliciousness.

 

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  • Siddharth Dasgupta writes poetry and fiction from lost hometowns and cafés dappled in early morning light. When travelling, he tends to pick cities inflicted with an existential throb (and the lure of evocative wine). Siddharth’s fourth book—A Moveable East—has arrived in March '21, while he has read in Paris, Lucknow, Isfahan, Mandalay, and elsewhere. He lives in Poona, embraced by its swirling nostalgias.

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