The flight from Frankfurt lands in Bangalore a little before 2:00 a.m., an unearthly hour for residents here, but ideal for a visitor like me. Riding home in an Airport Taxi, I wonder what it would be like to land during the day and plunge headlong into the manic intensity on the city’s streets. This nocturnal arrival is less invasive, almost soothing.
At home an unusual inertia sets in. I’m meeting my parents and sister after a year, and staying home is all I want to do. We exchange recent and not-so-recent happenings, then retreat into our routines. There’s a pleasure of simply being in each other’s company again: the four of us under the same roof, like those days of childhood.
I stay indoors, in this sixth-floor apartment, and slowly an awareness of a new order of things emerges. Sounds seep in: impatient cars, restless dogs, a rasping generator nearby, a colicky child upstairs. Intrusions are routine: the maid, the deliveryman, the plumber, the garbage collector, the neighbour. Television, running in the background, brings news of murder, rape, scandal; newspaper headlines feature traffic troubles and instances of intolerance. Mother’s South Indian dishes revive childhood memories; cockroaches scurry at late hours for the same food. An inoperative shower forces a bucket bath. And the balcony reveals a sea of low, flat-roofed houses, interrupted by clumps of dull high-rises dividing the horizon.
Three days after my arrival, Germany seems like a place on another planet.
On the fourth morning, coaxed by my father to join him on his regular walk, I step outside the apartment gate. It is late in December, but the air is mild. This street is in a residential corner of Koramangala, a quiet one until my last visit; now a car or a motorcycle passes us every few seconds. I ask my father about the change.
They are using this lane as a thoroughfare, he says — thoroughfare to a shortcut discovered by motorists keen to avoid the Sony World intersection.
The fumes tickle my nose. Isn’t there a street close by with less traffic? I ask.
My father begins to laugh. This innocent query of mine, now in his growing collection of NRI jokes, is replayed to friends and relatives through my four-week stay.
Beyond this marginal increase in traffic, the street has not changed. To my left, the continuous wall of a school is obscured in places by Gulmohar trees, whose branches occasionally touch the rooftops of two storey houses on the opposite side. Our istri-wallah’s tent is on this side, set in the angle of an intersection to another lane, and not far from this tent is a tree with a sign and a garlanded picture of the goddess Saraswati pinned to it. ‘Don’t Dump Garbage!’ the sign says, in English and Kannada. A potted Snake Plant sits next to the tree. Despite these efforts, scraps of paper and unflattened packages litter the tree’s base. Perhaps it has been worse before.
At the end of this street we turn left, following a road that leads to an area now under development. A vast tract of land lies vacant, but not unclaimed: roads have been laid for future residents of the colony. On my previous visit to India this was a contested area, left untouched until the property dispute was resolved: a fact I discovered through an unsettling experience. Passing this way one day, I had begun to photograph the vacant area fringed by tall apartments when someone called out from behind in Kannada.
“Sir! What are you doing here?” His voice was shrill, the tone strident.
A frail, middle-aged man with a slight hunch under a khaki uniform, he was stationed at a makeshift booth I had not noticed before.
“Just taking a photograph,” I answered in Kannada, pointing to the apartments at the far end. “I live there, and I want to take a photo — is there a problem?”
“Ok sir, ok sir, go ahead,” he said, softening his tone, before turning around.
The interruption was puzzling, but perhaps his job was to keep trespassers away. I continued to click photographs, at one point panning the camera from left to right, capturing the sweep of open land in a panorama shot. The voice behind me rang out again.
“What do you think you are doing sir! You said photo, now you are taking a video! You are not allowed to do that — come here sir!”
His manner had turned petulant, and from a person of his appearance this outburst was startling. Before I could answer he pointed me to a Maruti Zen parked beside his booth: “He’s calling you — go to him.”
In the driver’s seat of the car was a thickset, dark-skinned man wearing aviator sunglasses. This man’s presence explained the security guard’s stance and manner. The guard continued to ramble in a high-pitched voice, drawing the attention of passersby, some of whom had stopped to see what the fuss was all about: in minutes I’d been plunged into a crisis I could not understand. Walk away, a voice in my head said, but I wanted a resolution. I turned towards the Zen.
The man in sunglasses spoke in a low voice, in Kannada, across the open car window. “Who are you sir? Who has sent you here? And what are you trying to do, taking a video and all that? Are you surveying the land?”
“I am visiting the city,” I said, “and I’m photographing the apartments my parents live in; there is no video — only a panorama shot.”
I showed him my camera. He seemed uninterested.
“What do you do sir?” he asked.
“I work in an IT company.”
“Don’t take any photos here — do you understand?” His voice had suddenly turned louder.
“Okay, okay,” I mumbled.
“You can go now.” He waved me away.
On the walk back to the apartment sweat dripped down my burning temples.
Later, listening to the episode, a friend concluded that given the tactics used it probably was the real-estate mafia. Bangalore’s explosive growth in the last decade and a half had sent property prices skyward, drawing investors and land sharks. Commercial builders had entered spaces used not long ago for agriculture, transforming pastoral scenes with lakes and fields into enclaves of villas and malls. The rise in real-estate value had spawned a land grabbing practice: illegal occupation of empty plots, followed by threats to the owners and acquisition at throwaway prices. The intimidation of accidental trespassers at such properties was not widely reported, but perhaps it was not uncommon either.
On this occasion, there is no sign of a security guard. The booth too has disappeared. My father and I walk through freshly tarred roads, empty save for a stretch where boys are playing tennis-ball cricket. At the end of this area the road crosses an exposed storm drain strewn with garbage. The sewer-like stink drives us to turn around and retrace our path. Back in our neighbourhood, under the red-green canopy of Gulmohar trees, we occasionally pass a young man or woman — students who live here and walk to nearby grocery stores or eateries. On the sidewalk a tailor has settled down to work with his sewing machine. An autorickshaw sputters past, carrying a gaggle of schoolgirls in grey pinafores. The density of this built-up area strikes a marked contrast to the upcoming colony we’ve just seen, but amid the closely-spaced rows of houses I notice an empty plot with a solitary blue tarpaulin hut. A thin, middle-aged woman in a faded nightie sits near the hut, scrubbing an aluminium pot, and the water she uses from a grey bucket drains noiselessly into the roadside gutter. Not far from this woman two dogs are rooting in a pile of refuse.
The security guards at the apartment gate greet my father and eye me with curiosity. Inside, we walk on a tiled path around the four apartment blocks. The air here seems lighter and cleaner, an effect created perhaps by the greenery on both sides and the wind rustling neatly-planted trees. An unperturbed swimming pool glints in the morning sun. The tennis and basketball courts too are unoccupied. We pass the silent children’s play area, the security guard’s curtained room, the gym and Recreation Hall, before running into a middle-aged man my father introduces as “IIM Balachandran”. We shake hands. When he learns I live in Germany, he lists the cities he’s visited there: Frankfurt, Köln, Stuttgart, Munich and Berlin. He likes Köln the most. In Berlin he loves the missing wall — he laughs, and leans towards me: have I seen it? Soon I am handed his business card and told about the engineering firm he has founded. Before we leave, he asks: what car do I drive in Germany?
As we walk towards our apartment block, I see that Mr.Balachandran, Founder & CEO, has listed his educational qualifications on his card.
Is that why you called him IIM Balachandran? I ask my father.
He has an email-id with this name, my father replies; so that is how he’s known in the apartment community.
We enter our block and ride the elevator to the sixth-floor apartment. The city from this height bears a comforting uniformity. It is a view that hides the differences visible below, on either side of the apartment gate.