Jailbird Vajpayee told city hotelier: Your idlis still keep me fit!

“Not what we have but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance.”  EpicurusSteaming hot idlis would cement the friendship of a lifetime, between a restaurateur, a doctor and an activist. Anant Srinivas Bhat, then the General Manager of the Kamat Hotels in  Bengaluru, was asked by a friend, Dr Dharmapal, if he would bring freshly-cooked meals to a patient of his, who had no family in the city. The patient, it turned out, was a young Atal Behari Vajpayee, then an activist with the Jan Sangh, who was jailed in Bengaluru during the Emergency in 1975. Vajpayee was released from prison and returned to Delhi and the matter was forgotten. Twenty years later, Vajpayee returned to thank the friends who stood by him… His son, Vikram Bhat, tells Darshana Ramdev the story

It was the year 1999 and Anant Srinivas Bhat, Ullas, as he was lovingly known then, strode into his Bengaluru home with this startling declaration. Atal Bihari Vajpayee had just been sworn in as Prime Minister of India and was returning to the city for an event.

 So why was a restaurateur given a special summons to see the new Prime Minister? The story begins in 1975, when then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency. Vajpayee, then a fiery activist with the Jan Sangh party, was jailed, along with BJP leaders like L.K Advani and Madhu Dandavate. They were brought  to the Central Jail in Bengaluru (now Freedom Park), where they spent 19 months as political prisoners under the care of Karnataka CM Devaraj Urs of the Congress.

A.S..Bhat (Photo: Pritham Denzil D'Souza.A.S..Bhat (Photo: Pritham Denzil D'Souza.)

 Anant Srinivas Bhat, as he was known then, arrived in Bengaluru in 1965, to take over as the General Manager of the Kamat group of hotels. "Bengaluru was a much smaller place then and everybody knew everybody," says his son, Vikram, who grew up hearing stories of his father's fateful meetings with Atal Behari Vajpayee. "He was just an activist at the time, nobody knew or imagined that he would go on to become the Prime Minister." Opposite Kamat Hotel stood Victoria Hospital and before long, Mr Bhat, a personable man, had made a great many friends among the doctors and staff. "They would drop by everyday for lunch, at the time, eating at Kamat Hotel was as good as eating home cooked food," says Vikram.

 It was during this time that Vajpayee found himself at the Central Jail, where he was suddenly taken ill. He was rushed to Victoria Hospital, as is the custom, where a team of doctors were put on the case. "The surgery was finished and Vajpayee was moved back to the jail but the doctors thought it necessary for him to recuperate with hot, well-cooked meals," says Bhat.

 Dr Dharmapal, who was on the team of doctors who treated Vajpayee, thought at once of his dear friend, Ullas. Everyday, Ullas would make the trip, under strict police supervision, to Victoria Hospital, where he would deliver meals to the ailing Vajpayee. "He liked the idlis best, that's what dad always told me," Vikram laughs. It was always simple fare – idlis for breakfast and a meal comprising rice, dal and a vegetable forlunch.

Vikram Bhat.Vikram Bhat.

 "They would sit together for a while everyday and talk politics. Vajpayee was one of the main opposers of Partition and was very keen to know how the people felt. My dad's favourite subject was politics too, so he was happy to oblige!" Vajpayee recuperated, was released and went back to Delhi. Anant Bhat, on his part, worked at Kamat Hotel till the 1980s, when he branched out and started another restaurant that would also go on to become a landmark in Bengaluru: Ullas Refreshments.

The meetings with Vajpayee were forgotten as the new business began to take off. Nearly two decades would pass before Ullas returned home from work with his announcement. Vajpayee, who had arrived in the city for an event, sent word for Dr Dharmapal and Ullas. "After all those years, he addressed them both by their first names," says Bhat. They spent 20 minutes together, chatting over biscuits and tea, Vajpayee bidding farewell with another compliment to Ullas, "Your idlis are still keeping me fit!"

 Vikram Bhat recalled the story after Vajpayee's demise, when he decided to talk about it with fellow history aficionados on social media. "I really didn't imagine this response,"  he says, emphatically. "His passing did make me sad because my father admired him immensely as a politician and a human being. It's amazing to see the number of people who have reached out to me!"

 Ullas Refreshments closed its doors in 2015, after nearly 40 years of dishing out dosas and uthappams to every Bengalurean who came traipsing in to watch a movie at the old Symphony Theatre in Public Utility Building. "My father was always generous about these things, I have never once seen him turn a customer away for not being able to pay. He came from a life of abject poverty and understood, really, what it's like to go to bed on an empty stomach. He never wanted anyone to feel that way if he could help it."

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