The garden city so to speak is so spread out that it might seem over-ambitious to try and write about Bangalore or Bengaluru on the basis of a two day trip, (unless of course you are running helter-skelter all the time and destroying the pleasure of a holiday). As a result of the distances involved I couldn’t visit the Infosys campus or Brindavan the magnificent home and ashram of spiritual master Sri Sathya Sai Baba. I did however manage to speak to an Infosys employee and meet two Sai Baba devotees and for this reason perhaps felt comfortable in writing about my brush with Bangalore.
We landed on the first of May at a reasonably impressive airport. Our Jet Konnect budget flight was on time and the pick up vehicle was waiting for us, signs of good organization in the city. In no time at all we were speeding down towards the city that lay a fair distance away. Advertisements abounded, with at least half of them promising out-of-the-world luxury homes, heavenly villas, what have you. There were apartments to be bought within the 30 to 40 hundred thousand rupee range, but my companion pointed to hoardings that had prices starting from 1.4 crores upwards and then another with 3.5 crores upwards. Clearly then Bangalore was not one of the cheapest places in India to buy property.
And yet despite the high property values for some reason the hotel I had booked myself into, the Chancery Pavilion, which lay in the heart of the city, was charging me only 26 pounds per night (booked on Agoda). I worried that despite the hotel’s star status the rooms might be small and services lacking but I needn’t have worried. My room was large, tastefully decorated with a view of the swimming pool and some greenery beyond.
In the evening I took a walk in the immediate neighborhood as I am prone to do in most cities I visit. I found Bangalore pedestrian unfriendly with broken down sidewalks where they existed and poor street lighting. Autos and cars belched out smoke, and didn’t make the walk any more pleasant. Ten minutes later, after crossing a mosque and a girl’s school, and now being extra alert of the passing traffic since the sidewalk had disappeared, I reversed tracks. To be continued some other time, I told myself, in another direction.
My hotel itself stood just opposite the Bangalore Club, an ancient building with new paint shrouded under shrubbery. The seats in the Jet aircraft were a tight fit, and so I had developed a bit of a crick in the neck that I hoped a shoulder massages would ease off. Using my Smartphone on the hotel’s free wifi, I googled for places to get a massage and found rates fluctuating widely. A few phone calls later I understood the reasons for the difference. The Limelite opposite the prestigious UB City Mall charged 1200 rupees for an hour but provided same sex massages. A heterosexual massage at another up-market place, the Oryza, just a three minute walk away was more than double the price. Demand and supply economics; and a sign of our continued conservatism as a society.
My first evening was spent with a motley group of young friends a couple of whom I had met at a conference six months previously. We met at the Toit Brewpub a highly rated pub in Indira Nagar. Toit means roof in French and I was concerned for one of my friends who walked withsupport. I needn’t have worried for it was a three storied affair. Abhinav, 21, the youngest in our group, reacted with enthusiasm to the rappish music, though I would have preferred jazz or something more melodious. There must have been a hundred young people seated inside, reminding me that Bangalore was a ‘young professionals’ city, more so than other Indian metros. Like other cities in the south, Bangalore has many restaurants that announce themselves on signboards as a ‘family restaurant’. This age old epithet seems to take on a new significance and relevance given the increasing number of pubs and restaurants geared to cater to the specific tastes of young people.
Conversation was difficult, we all had to shout to be heard, but for all that everyone was clearly having a great time. We ordered chicken wings, pizzas and beers including a low priced one called the Aam Aadmi beer. I found the talk enlightening because it gave me a glimpse of how some young professionals with high incomes were thinking.
Radha B, a slight Punjabi girl who worked with an American multinational had married a Jain Marwari professional. It started off as a romance in office between colleagues, not uncommon these days. She spoke of how the most astounding revelation about the family she married into was how her fiancée, now her husband, had to take prior permission for the marriage not only from his parents but from an extended entire network of uncles and aunts.
Some of the other youngsters in our group were unmarried and were thinking more in terms of their career. A few were dating and were completely unconcerned that their partners were from other states. The single unmarried lot had different views and feelings about their family. Whereas Jyotika, a young IT professional was happy to be away from her controlling family in Chandigarh, on the other hand bright eyed Tapasi, a Bengali from Calcutta who worked in the hospitality sector was considering a job in Hong Kong and researching possibilities of taking her parents with her. Tapasi wasn’t alone or unique in this. There were other successful young professionals in our group who had asked their retired parents to join them, and sometimes they did. It was a case of following the money. Young professionals with high incomes often wanted to share their success with parents who had made great sacrifices to pay their fees for MBA’s and other courses in prestigious institutions that had subsequently enabled them to later on get high paying jobs.
At ten when I decided to get back to my hotel where I had emails to send there was still a crowd of youngsters waiting outside to find seating. Saurav B. from Udaipur, a man in his late twenties working with Infosys offered to drop me to my hotel since he lived close by. We drove past other pubs and sophisticated dining places and fell into conversation. I assumed he was a techie but he assured me otherwise. He formulated business solutions for companies that were Infosys clients and not all of them entailed an IT angle. His own technical and IT skills were actually extremely limited, he confessed. A couple of hundred people like him worked with Infosys in the Bangalore office. How did Gaurav compare Infosys with the Tatas his previous employers? Great institutions, both of them, he said, but Infosys had more young people in senior positions of responsibility. He had been happy with his company but was now looking beyond at fresh challenges and yet greener pastures.
At eleven I was back at the hotel. A charming young girl, Sonia, who managed the business center, helped me log on. Her reddened hands caught my eye; she explained that she had given a dance performance the previous day. Despite the late hour she was still enthusiastic about helping me. Any suggestions on where I should go the following morning? ‘Do visit the Commercial Street,’ she said. Why? An irresistible combination of branded shopping with bargains to be found, she explained. I thought that it would be more difficult to find her kind of cheerful naivety in other metros.
The next day I decided to go in for a four-hour city tour by air-conditioned car. I had ingested enough unwanted dust and smoke on my short walk the previous day. The roads were choked with traffic; even the flyovers seemed wasted with narrow roads. My driver pointed out the first ‘double side’ road in the city, greeted with great fan fare at the time. We passed through a yellow colored arch near a prominent temple, inaugurated a few months earlier by the municipal authorities with much fan fare. Even such small achievements are bandied about. After the double sided road there was the eighty feet road and then the hundred feet road. Road widths have been flaunted as great achievements. Somewhere near Richmond road we crossed one of these snaky, slender flyovers which had – believe it or not – a traffic light on it! It is possibly the only such flyover in the world.
Access to sections of the city are sometimes one way; on an auto it may therefore cost Rs 50 from Point A to Point B but Rs 100 from Point B to Point A. (Autos often use this feature of the city to bluff strangers to the city that the return journey will be longer whereas in fact it may not be)
A few highlights of the city tour. The Visvesvaraya Industrial and Technological Museum referred to in short form as simply the Techno Museum was clearly created on a low budget but was hugely popular. It was swarming with children who had their parents accompanying. Different inventions were on display with scientific lessons to be gleaned from them. It was part Museum and part Science Centre. It was really the interactive nature of most of the exhibits that contributed to its great popularity. There were things for the visitor to do, to move the levers of an ancient printing press, to push another lever to see liquid art take shape, to see liquids that could not mix, to push up a ball by turning a wheel which then went down and then up seemingly defying the laws of gravity. Children jumped with enthusiasm. Perhaps it had something to do with Kannadiga genes, I found myself wondering. Was it a coincidence that the prestigious Indian Institute of Science is located here or even that the IT software revolution started here?
A visit to the National Gallery of Modern Art, a large building reminiscent of the one in New Delhi, was next. What I found surprising was that despite it being a public holiday there was only one visitor: me. I was chaperoned through the various halls with their different exhibits by a series of security guards. There were wonderful things to see, originals from the Bengal school that included all the Tagores and a special exhibition of Amrita Shergill. Unlike the groups of school children that I have seen in art galleries in the West, here there were none. Perhaps it was the numerous nudes on display, Ms Shergill contributing in good measure, that were the deterrent, testimony to our continued prudery.
Price was certainly a factor in bringing more or less visitors. The Tipu Sultan palace is a relatively affair in terms of scale, but the low entry fee ensured that there were many people milling around. On the other hand the Bangalore Palace is an architecturally and aesthetically impressive affair, but at Rs 250 for a single entry the price was prohibitive for the ordinary Bangalorean. There was just one family circling the outside of the palace, to take in its grandeur, aside from myself.
The Vidhan Sabha buildings are wonderfully impressive, as is the red painted High Court just opposite. Manu Rattan, a PhD from the Indian Institute of Science reminisced about her childhood where the buildings would be lit up in the evenings, like India Gate in New Delhi and her father would take the family there for an outing in the evening.
And yet despite such fond memories, the tall walls that run alongside adding to the grandeur also seem to suggest that the common people are being kept off. The slogan at the top of one of the buildings is in the same vein: ‘Government’s work is God’s work.’ At least on the infrastructure development side in Bangalore it seems as if God and the government both had been having a rather long nap. The Metro is as yet barely functional running for three kilometers or so and there is little to suggest active progress on the rest of it. As on date Bangalore is a long way from being anything like a world class city.
We went past Sankey Tank, one of the city’s two lakes, through Mallespuram a middle class area where bomb blasts had taken place the previous year. That morning too, there had been news of bomb blasts at Chennai on the Bangalore Gauhati Express in which a young girl, a Tata employee had died and 14 people had been injured. The two large non Kannadiga groups in the city, according to my driver, were Tamils and Telugu speakers. This explained to me why at the Lido a cinema hall I visited there was running along with Two States, a popular Bollywood film, another Tamil film. Kannada film posters were visible everywhere. We crossed a shamiana thronging with people; it was not a wedding but birthday celebrations organized by fans of the actor Raj Kumar.
The idea that ordinary people were being somehow excluded from Bangalore’s progress came to my mind once more when I visited UB city in the evening. It was a short ten minute walk from my hotel, though up-market Lavelle Street (still very unfriendly to pedestrians) and there seemed to be no separate entry point for the pedestrians. The poor development of transit mechanisms for ordinary people ultimately impacts the retail sector. In countries such as Singapore, you have young shoppers who come to Malls using the metro and other modes of travel. UB city will however be visited primarily by people who drive in.
UB city is the most upscale shopping establishment in Bangalore and is not a single Mall but rather four towers named UB Tower, Comet, Canberra and Concorde. Such naming is common all over the city with each high rise block in residential quarters given a distinctive name. At my friend Dhananjay R’s apartment built by the Prestige group, his particular block was called Bonn. My mind went to the Germany city till he pointed out the adjacent block named Chanel. All blocks were named after internationally branded perfumes! No advertisement revenue garnered here.
At the UB city there was a collection of a dozen small fountains playing in between the towers, where several eateries were located. Someone from management clearly annoyed at the lack of respect shown to the shooting arcs of water had put up a big board on which the words were written. ‘THIS IS A FOUNTAIN, NOT A SHOWER. PLEASE ENJOY FROM OUTSIDE.’ It wasn’t a deterrent to the children playing with the water and screaming with joy; the parents watched from a distance, not wishing to interfere. As far as the branded shops were concerned I saw hardly anyone shopping there but the restaurants were doing great business. There were offices and serviced residences available, the latter were charged a higher rate than the best five stars in town. A real estate professional Dhruv T who works with a leading real estate organization explained the reason. ‘It’s all expats,’ he said. ‘They all like to live in UB city. They don’t mind shelling out twenty thousand bucks a day for an apartment, more than the best five stars in the city are charging. If you are sitting having a beer in UB city, the ambience all is such that you could be sitting anywhere in the world: Dubai, Singapore or New York.’
I found religion everywhere in Bangalore. The Big Bull Temple is on the tourist map, the bulls eyes shaped out in white chalk. It stands just next to a Ganesha Temple thronging with devotees. Numerous other temples could have been visited. What makes Bangalore special though is that it has been in some ways at the forefront of new age religious movements as well, be it Sri Sri Ravishankar, or Sathya Sai Baba. I couldn’t make it to the Sri Sri Ravi Shankar Ashram but I saw ‘The Divine Shop’ in several places selling that institution’s Ayurvedic products and books.
I couldn’t visit Brindavan either, the hugely impressive residence and ashram of the Sathya Sai Baba, but I met Manu R, a highly qualified devotee. She was a Phd from the prestigious Indian Institute of Science and had recently co-authored a book on Nano Technology. When it was published the Vice Chancellor of the Sai Baba Institute of Higher Learning showed the book to the Baba, who moved his hands over the book, expressing pleasure and satisfaction, and suggested she teach at the University. This is what she does now, abandoning alternative employment that could have been much more lucrative. Her husband Dhananjay, an old friend, is even more other worldly. Also a Sai Baba devotee, (their union had the Baba’s blessings) he is a former corporate honcho who decided to exit the rat race and devote himself to environment causes. Dhananjay insisted with me though that the Baba’s earthly departure did not make a difference; the vibrations were still there especially at Puttaparthi. In time to come, he believed, it would become a pilgrimage centre of global importance.
On my last day in Bangalore I was invited to attend an engagement ceremony at the very hotel I was staying in. My host was an impressively mustachioed serving general in the Indian army. It was a ceremony between a young Punjabi girl who worked for the Birla group and a US returned Jain Gujarati entrepreneur. In the assembly I observed a preponderance of kurta pajamas over Western style shirt and trousers (a sign of rising Indian culture?!) and I thought Indian scriptures had been seamlessly integrated with a more Western sensibility.
For instance the girl’s father read the Gayatri mantra and the boy’s uncle then read verses from some Jain scripture. There then followed a small session in which the girl’s brother, a tall well groomed man, dressed in one of the bright Manyavar kurta pyjamas, in a humorous presentation praised the wannabe bride and groom, all tongue-in-cheek. Two examples from this western style presentation. He praised the boy for a few minutes, turned to him and said: ‘What else was it that you wanted me to say?’ And with his sister he spoke of how he was happy to bequeath to the boy ‘the pinches and hits’ that he had become accustomed to receive over the years. The audience lapped it all up.
This was followed by introductions in English carried out by representatives from the boy’s and then the girl’s family. One by one all the guests came up on stage and were photographed and introduced, again an Indo-Western touch. At roughly a hundred and fifty attendees the Jain community was in full strength even for a tikka; the Punjabi representation was much thinner.
The young couple had first met professionally, taken a liking to each other, dated for a few months and then decided to take the plunge. An identical scenario prevails with innumerable other engagements and weddings taking place in Bangalore. It is the city of young professionals but is also increasingly the place where more and more inter-community, inter-caste and inter-regional marriages are taking place, leading the way, some might say, to a new India, where the politics of the future will not pay so much importance to caste, community and religion. Bangalore responded well to the anti-corruption movement of 2011 with a large turnout at Freedom Park. Come new elections in 2019, perhaps Bangalore and not New Delhi will usher in the new age politics that the country sorely needs.