The news that this would be the last Christmas for Santha Bakery means the end of an institution that inhabited the sweetest (literally) recesses of my childhood memories. It would be no different for at least three generations of Thiruvananthapuram for whom Santha was the ultimate culinary experience for nearly eighty years for anything baked or confected. Be it the everyday bread, the mouth-watering plum cake, or the hot, spicy mutton puffs, Santha introduced the best of such Western delicacies to a very provincial Thiruvananthapuram. Even for those who migrated out of Thiruvananthapuram made a mandatory stop over at Santha whenever they re-visited the city, propelled by their taste buds and nostalgia.
The Santha may have been a puny sweetmeat shop at the busy Pulimoodu junction compared to today’s glittering bakery malls. Yet, Santha’s history is closely intertwined in many ways with not just Kerala’s culinary evolution but even its sporting and political histories. Sadly, PMK Premnath, -Ronchu to his close friends like this writer- the current holder of Santha’s hoary tradition, says he has no option but to close down his family business, ailing for a long time due to many reasons- financial, technological, and health-related. There is also a lack of interest among younger family members to take the business forward and also declining demand from the younger clientele. In short, the octogenarian bakery was limping to keep pace with time. A familiar story faced by many legends.
Kannur is known for its four Cs -Cakes, Cricket, Circus, and Communism. Santha symbolised all of them except the circus. The reason for Kannur’s -more specifically Thalassery’s- links with most of the Cs (except Communism) was its traditional links to European colonialism, thanks to its strategic location and as the hub of Malabar’s global spice trade. As the capital of North Malabar, the region (then Tellicherry) had European military and missionary settlements since the 18th century. Britishers were the early chairmen of the Tellicherry Municipality, the second oldest in Kerala. Naturally, the region catered to European needs by learning from them or innovating ingeniously. Local people learned to speak English, some converted to Christianity, many played cricket with them (English test captain Colin Cowdrey played cricket here when he came with his parents as a five-year-old), and some became experts in continental cuisine.
Thalassery’s Mambally family’s Bapu learned to make bread and biscuits from Rangoon and set up his Royal Biscuit factory in 1880. During a Christmas time, Murdoc Brown, the manager of the famed cinnamon estate at Ancharakkandi (also a hub of local slave labour) asked Bapu if he could make something he had never made before- a plum cake. Bapu took up the challenge. He got a cake mould made by locally, used indigenous ingredients like custard apple, kadalippazham, etc, and fermented it with coconut toddy instead of the French brandy, Brown suggested. Sayipp was bowled over when he tasted Bapu’s cake. Thus began Mambally’s sweet tryst with destiny.
With passage of time, Bapu’s descendants traveled southward sowing the sweet seeds of their family tradition all the way. Thus came up a series of illustrious bakeries from Kozhikode to Thiruvananthapuram, set up by the Mambally members- Modern Bakery at Kozhikode, Cochin bakery at Kochi, Bestotel at Kottayam, and Santha at Thiruvananthapuram. All legends on their own, which created the regions’ culinary histories. Many including Thalassery’s Mambally’s Bakery survives to date. Cochin Bakery has branches in Kozhikode and Mangaluru. But the highly popular Bestotel closed down recently to the grief of generations in Kottayam.
PM Krishnan who set up Santha had a link with Kannur’s other C also- Communism. Young Krishnan was attracted to Kannur’s spreading Red movement and its leaders like A K Gopalan. The North Malabar of the 1930s was marked by several militant Communist struggles and leaders were hunted down by the British police and also thugs of the local landlords. Leaders like AKG, P. Krishna Pillai, and E K Nayanar were at the forefront of the agitation of Pappinissery’s Aaron Mill workers. When the mill owners sent goondas to break the strike and beat up the leaders, the tall and well-built Krishnan, adept in Kannur’s Kalari, was deputed to protect leaders. His panicked family made Krishnan quit his job in the colonial administration and packed him off from Kannur.
Krishnan came to Thiruvananthapuram in 1940 and set up his family business at Pulimoodu, next to the Secretariat, and named it Santha, after a departed family member. The bakery flourished with its delicacies unknown until then to Trivandrum. Unlike today’s machine-made bread, it was then hand-kneaded by experts, the yeast used to ferment the dough was a wild variety and naadan palayankodan provided the sweetness.
In Thiruvananthapuram, Krishnan pursued the other Thalassery passions also- cricket and kalari. He founded the Travancore Cricket Association and his elder sons -PMK Mohandas and PMK Raghunath- became top medium pacers who played for Kerala in Ranji matches. The youngest Premnath too was a feared pacer during our college days whose bouncer once broke this writer’s front teeth. Other prominent Mambally cricketers include PM Raghavan, PM Ananthan, and APM Gopalakrishnan. Krishnan helped set up the first kalari in Thiruvananthapuram and he was the city’s top pigeon racer- competitive flying by trained pigeons-, a sport that has faced extinction.
I have much more personal memories also of Santha. When my parents moved to Thiruvananthapuram during the late sixties, we lived in the Mambally mudukku (meaning lane in Thiruvananthapuram lingo) at Pulimood behind the imposing General Post Office. The mudukku should have been named so because Krishnan and his family too had lived there. As a ten-year-old migrant from a village, I had no clue about the strange game of cricket the city lads led by Krishnan’s sons played. But gradually I was drawn into the game and Ronchu was among my dear friends. An opportunity to visit Santha with its wood and glass showcases filled with mouth-watering sweetmeats was the moment we kids awaited most eagerly. Santha's factory near the Bank Employees' hall filled the area with the aroma of baking. We envied Ronchu for being born to a bakery family and surreptitiously called him Rotti Ronchu.
I vividly remember the ever-smiling Krishnan uncle with his rugged good looks and baritone Kannur accent, walking through the mudukku to the bakery, with a cigarette dangling from lips. He sat at Santha’s small wooden desk writing bills, clad in his trademark mundu and creamy terylene shirt with sleeves folded up to his biceps. Leaders like AKG were seen chatting away with him. He had free cakes with icing (so rare then) delivered to every home in the mudukku on every New Year's day which was the best day in life we looked forward to. Ronchu’s graceful mother feasted us with a piece of cake whenever we went to their home pretending to see their fierce bulldogs and hordes of homing pigeons. Ronchu’s sister Zaina was my sister’s friend. Tall and dashing Raghuvettan was the handsomest man I knew those days and according to the grapevine, women dominated the clientele whenever he substituted his father at Santha’s bill desk. The big-built Mohanchettan was billed once by the cricket coach Bhoopathi as South India’s best pacer. Both brothers died some years ago.
With Santha’s swansong falls one more of the lovely bricks of my house of memories.