Swensen’s and the Lost Estate

An edited version of this article was published in the Winter 2014 issue of BOOM: A Journal of California, with the title “Peering through the cracks in the California Dream: Bangalore’s nostalgia for our manufactured past.” 

A general rule of thumb in Bangalore, India is that one should not visit shopping malls on Sunday afternoons. Particularly not on a rainy Sunday afternoon, when nobody inside the mall is going to be inclined to leave, and everyone out on the wet pavement will see the climate-sheltered building as a welcome relief. I have avoided malls on weekends, these last ten years that they have mushroomed across my strange adopted city. So assiduously have I stayed away from them that I forgot my rule, and here I am at Mantri Mall on a Sunday afternoon, attempting not to succumb to the general stampede of humanity. Families on outings, teenagers, students, IT professionals, older individuals escorted by younger grandchildren. The demographic here is hard to place; their commonality seems to be a combination of spending power and shopping frenzy. “Even your wallet will find our cuisine irresistible,” reads a large poster for a new restaurant. Multihued streamers follow the colors of the Indian flag. They hang from high above me in green, saffron and white, drawing the gaze upwards and away from the crowds towards layers of shops rising out of sight, a many-storied surreal homage to capitalism.

Mantri Mall

Mantri Mall

Swensen’s Ice Cream lies tucked away in a corner of the first floor of Mantri Mall in Bangalore. Boston-based Au Bon Pain once sat right beside it, but I see on this overcast day that Au Bon Pain has vanished, as stores have a way of doing in this city. Outside Swensen’s, a sign proclaims that the chain has been America’s favorite ice cream store for sixty years, a statement that seems rather curious to me. Having spent half my life in various corners of the United States, from the Pacific Northwest to the Northeast, and now most recently Southern California, I ought at some point to have seen a place that sold “America’s favorite ice cream.” And yet I have never heard of Swensen’s elsewhere, never seen it except in India.

SwensensWe escape from the flood of Sunday crowds into the ice cream parlor, where we are greeted by a picture of Earle Swensen himself. The man is diminutive and white-haired, broad smile on his face. He carries an ice cream scooper in one hand, arms open wide in welcome. Earle Swensen opened the first branch of the ice cream parlor in San Francisco in 1948, an era and place that every piece of the store’s décor is designed to evoke. Around us sit groups of cheerful teenagers and twenty-somethings; I am not sure what message the post-war America atmosphere will actually transmit. Stained-glass lamp shades hanging above the counter spell out “Swensen’s” in exaggerated Ye Olde lettering. On the walls, a sketched-out depiction of the Golden Gate Bridge and row houses, alongside brighter-than-life photographs of ice cream sundaes. Maudlin American pop music accosts us from the speakers, muddling the 1950s atmosphere with songs from the 1980s and 1990s. The menu lists ice cream combinations with names like “Earthquake” and “Gold Rush,” with the inclusion of flavors such as lychee and mango as a brief concession to the store’s actual location. As is increasingly common with multinational chains across India, prices have not been scaled down noticeably from their US equivalent. Despite that, the place is still packed.

My husband has cheerfully agreed to take part in my ice cream experiment, sampling overpriced and exotically-named ice cream that proclaims to be the best America has to export. We order a flavor that looks suitably chocolatey (I assume the “Ring-a-Ding” in the name is meant to evoke San Francisco trolley lines, one more reference likely to miss its mark), and it arrives in a tall glass, three scoops high, drenched in caramel and chocolate syrup. Promising beginnings, but the insides prove to be not terribly exceptional. We both judge the ice cream to be about Baskin Robbins-quality, way down at the bottom of the barrel in a city with many better and cheaper options for sweets.

Swensen’s is a relative newcomer to India, one of the latest in a steadily widening stream of Western companies that have gone global, carving out niches and spawning hybrids across Asia. In the mid-1990s, when my family had just moved from rural Washington to Bangalore, this trend was only just beginning. Pizza Hut was a novelty when it opened in the city, the year after we arrived. The line stretched all the way down through the building on Cunningham Road, and I remember the sheer taste of that pizza when we finally got a seat. Real mozzarella cheese, thick and oozing above a pocket of spicy tomato sauce. Not long after, my French class was assigned Marcel Proust’s piece about old memories unleashed by taste alone. At the time I had only the haziest idea what a madeleine was, but I found I could empathize with the basic sentiment. As a displaced adolescent Indian-American in the rapidly-expanding metropolis of Bangalore, my taste of memory was strong, if rather less sophisticated. Memory was embedded for me within the spectrum of Americanized fast foods that had now become so hard to find. I learned how to make Indianized-quesadillas using wheat flour chapattis, cheese and hot sauce, before Tex Mex food made its way to Bangalore. My family improvised refried beans for burritos, pasta sauce for spaghetti. I dreamt at the age of thirteen of finding donuts with actual texture, colby-jack cheese, fresh ice cream.

Mural on an abandoned building in Malleshwaram

Mural on an abandoned building in Bangalore: “Ignorance is Blindness of the Soul”

In the present day, Bangalore is a radically different city than it was when my family moved here from the US nearly two decades ago. There is little from across the world, be it language or cuisine or brand, that cannot be found in this crazy city, cracked at the seams. There is little that cannot be found, with the notable exceptions of peace, quiet and clean air. I have watched Bangalore shift from the Garden City to Silicon Valley of India, becoming overrun with multinational corporations and grid-locked traffic, all beneath the yellow of an eternally smoggy sky. Bangalore’s skyline has changed over the years from the contours of avenue trees to jagged proliferations of highrises, the detritus of buildings under constant construction. The present moment is difficult to contain with words in this kaleidoscope city. Here, the only constant is a yearning for imagined futures, alongside burning nostalgia for the vanished past.

Swensen’s reeks nostalgia for a past that I have never seen. It is filled with cultural cues meant to comfort the consumer by bringing back a period of economic stability, of general prosperity in post-war America. “Here is your childhood,” says the internal décor of the ice cream parlor – photographs of children smiling in the California sun, seats built in the style of a 1950s diner. “Don’t you remember the soda fountain down the street, how good things were back then? Don’t you remember the bell of the trolley lines across the hills of San Francisco?” I can imagine, but I certainly cannot remember. I missed the golden era the place is trying to evoke by several decades at least. I have never been to San Francisco. These are not my memories, this is not my nostalgia. Neither does this nostalgia belong to the larger portion of the ice cream parlor’s patrons across the world today.

The Swensen’s website gives locations for the store all the way across Asia and South America. Bangalore alone has seven apparently thriving outlets of the ice cream parlor. The ice cream that markets itself as America’s favorite, however, has largely disappeared from the United States. Although the chain once spread across the country, by the 1980s it had already begun its nationwide retreat. A friend of mine recently told me about one that existed on Bristol Street in Santa Ana, California when he was a child, just minutes from my apartment in Irvine. David Farris, who currently teaches math at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, was once a frequent consumer of ice cream at the Santa Ana Swensen’s. “I used to go there a fair amount,” he told me. “Of the ice cream places nearby it was by far the best quality. It sort of had a premium reputation, and a lot of that was bound up with it being old-fashioned and old-style.”

The Santa Ana Swensen’s is now gone, with a new ice cream parlor in its place. Four outlets remain of the ice cream chain in the United States today, one of which is the original in San Francisco. With the economic downslide of the US in the 2000s, this ice cream parlor, like so many other American brands, followed the siren song of growing markets into the developing world. Swensen’s, and Krispy Kreme, and countless others have carried their faux-1950s décor to India, a message that changes meaning as it travels across oceans. The cultural cues for an imagined comforting past are converted into emblems of a shining future. Reviews for Swensen’s (India) online speak of its pleasant, modern ambience; the place is described as well-lit and airy. I am left reading the book from both sides, as always. Signals cross, and I do not know where or when I’m meant to be.

One of the best explorations of nostalgia that I have ever seen lies within the book Le Grand Meaulnes (1913), the only manuscript that French writer Alain-Fournier published prior to his death during World War I. The book follows two boys in the twilight of adolescence. They search for a place in the forest where one encountered a wedding party organized by children, and a beautiful woman that he cannot get out of his mind. We only learn of this dream-like location and unreal woman through flashbacks. Neither one can be viewed directly, and eventually we realize that both place and person will always be out of reach. The protagonist locates the woman after several years only to find his dream still elusive; her solid reality weighs against her. She can never live up to the longing that has led him searching so many years. The boy (now a man) continues searching for that bright idyllic place in his past. He seeks a world half imagined; we begin to wonder if perhaps he seeks a world that never was.

Bangalore is replete with nostalgia for a world that never existed. At Krispy Kreme, opened on bustling Church Street a year and a half ago, the walls are decorated with sepia-toned photographs of small-town Depression-era Americana. Cheerful employees in anachronistic aprons manage a conveyer belt that shines in the warm lights: donuts lightly fried before receiving that final perfect touch, a decadent waterfall of sugar icing. “Don’t you remember back when you could walk down the street to your neighborhood donut maker,” the décor seems to say to me – “Don’t you remember back before malls and chain stores took over your world?” To be perfectly honest, I do not. And neither would anyone else here, younger than me by an average of about a decade. But still I am drawn back here, Meaulnes searching for his vanished world.

Graffiti painted over government murals in Malleshwaram

Graffiti painted over government-commissioned murals in Bangalore

I find a battle over memory, from one establishment of my city to the next; one image to the next. Cornerhouse ice cream parlor was founded in Bangalore thirty years ago, enough time to have seen the expanding city multiply personalities several times over. On its walls are black and white pictures of a Bangalore that predate the store by decades. Here we have the gentle curves of colonial-era architecture in pre-independence India, broad promenades where long-dead figures meander, dusty roads and spreading trees. Do you remember, the images whisper. Don’t you remember what you’ve lost. I can recognize few landmarks in these black and white photographs, which also line the walls of seventy-year old Koshy’s Restaurant, nearby. In between the two, the India Coffeehouse tries to give the impression with spartan blue paint and dated coffee ads that it has not changed décor in fifty years, despite the fact that this particular outlet is scarcely five years old.

With the present out of control, commercial establishments and popular media alike fight to control the swirling past. My own memories prove secondary to this deluge. I cannot tell you what stood where Krispy Kreme now stands, or Starbucks, or Swensens, or Taco Bell. I do not remember what was here before the India Coffeehouse. And in five years or ten, when these too are gone, new memories will spin, new nostalgias for that imagined eye of the storm where the present seemed clear.

Conventional wisdom has it that we only miss the things that we used to know. And thus nostalgia marketing tries to tease out that narrow window, between childhood and the early twenties, where our happiest memories are presumed to lie. So it is that the Baby Boomer generation (along with everyone else within viewing distance) has been flooded with cultural cues from the 1950s and 60s for decades now. Presumably, when Generation X gets its turn, they will be bombarded with cues that combine grunge music with flannel clothing, peppered with a heavy dose of irony. I suppose in a few decades my own so-called “Millenial” generation will be expected to open our wallets when subjected to the Spice Girls.

And yet our minds and emotions are far more complex than such practices tend to suggest. How else can I explain the fact that I feel the strongest nostalgia for a world never seen? Peering through the cracks in barred up gates in Bangalore, I find windows into lost secret worlds. Ancient bungalows long uninhabited, overgrown lots with trees grown tall; an opera house that has not opened its doors in decades. Ruins and slums half-refurbished, clothes hung out to dry as squatters bring crumbled buildings back to life. I search for the world that lies beyond the image, beyond media bombardment. Behind the glitz there is something real here, painful snatches of beautiful meaning. One hundred years after his death, I keep searching for Alain-Fournier’s lost ideal.

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