Go abroad to study, pursue an MBA at one of the Indian Institutes of Management, or find a job in a Bangalore-based IT company: In the nineties, during the college years I spent studying Computer Science, we saw our futures following one of these paths. The options are now passé; the “cool” thing nowadays is to start a company or join a startup. On this visit to Bangalore I met six people, cousins and friends, engaged with a startup. Two of those startups were financially sound; the others were passing through a rough patch, their future uncertain. But success seemed to matter less to these people than the experience, the thrill of “doing your own thing”.
The entrepreneurial fever had spread beyond business and technology. I had read about it earlier, but saw it only this visit at an evening with eight standup comedians in bFlat, a bar in Indiranagar. Set on the 2nd floor of a commercial building, the cavernous bar was crammed with sixty to eighty people, young men and women mostly in their twenties. The standup artists were also young. Their themes — race, gender, the IT worker, language and accents, porn, relationships — were unsurprising, and so was their Western influence: Russel Peters, Aziz Ansari, Chris Rock. But the jokes gathered an original quality from the setting they used — the Indian context, rich with material waiting to be picked apart. This crowd was a fairly new class, young liberal urbanites at ease in the global culture and sharing its attitudes, and they had to deal with others who had grown up at a different time with another set of values. The gap proved a good source for humour, tapped with skill by the artists.
Bangalore of the early nineties had no such place. Serious pub culture in the city began around the mid-nineties, so we missed the wave by a year or two. (I do not recall anyone from my college going to a pub; our idea of fun was dinner in a North Indian restaurant.) We were also an awkward bunch in public, showing little of the easy-going confidence one sees in urban teenagers nowadays. And we did not have the kind of money the middle-class now flaunts. A scene like the one in bFlat — with young adults displaying an easy familiarity with the opposite sex and with alcohol — would have seemed to us like fiction, or like a setting from the West.
The comedians in bFlat stayed away from politics, mostly. When one of them compared a neighbouring state leader to a baby elephant, he quickly added he could hear the sirens already — the police were on their way. Among the artists were two women. Their jokes were often self-deprecatory — touching, for instance, on her weight and figure (another baby elephant), on the way women drive cars, on how she only had to stop “shaving” for a week to grow a moustache and be seen as a man — which lent these women a soft charm lacking in the postures the men adopted.
“Other than the exchange rate, what brings you to India?”
It was a question to a foreigner in the audience, a Dutchman. When the laughter subsided, the comedian, a young man with a goatee, continued:
“So are you and your friends going Dutch today?”
This crop of youngsters saw themselves as entrepreneurs, doing their own thing, leaving well-paying corporate jobs for an uncertain but fulfilling profession: the standup comedian. In a YouTube interview I watched later, one of them revealed that his parents did not really understand what he did, or how standup could be a career. This did not appear to matter much. These young men and women seemed to trust their instinct more than the tradition they grew up in.
The next day, I visited the State Central Library in Cubbon park. Although I’d passed the library on numerous occasions during my years in the city, I had never been inside. A newspaper article that morning spoke of its hundredth year anniversary, listing statistics — over 3.14 lakh books, 400 to 500 readers each day — and describing the building as one “Setup in classic European style with Tuscan and Corinthian columns”. It piqued my curiosity; I hailed an Uber cab and set out for the library.
The building and the area around it had not changed at all. Outside the red structure a lone gardener walked around watering rose plants. Inside, in the main hall beyond the lobby walls lined with polished wood panels, a small group stood filming the interiors while the others, mostly students, sat at tables reading or writing. Upstairs, in a circular passage, English and Kannada newspapers and magazines lay scattered on tables at which young and middle-aged men sat reading. They were the type of people you’d find in a public sector company, lower-middle-class folks wearing an untucked calico shirt over cotton pants and a pair of ordinary slippers. In a nearby corridor I heard voices in Kannada. Below, at the counter, a teenager asked for directions in hesitant English.
I tried to juxtapose these scenes with the ones I had seen the previous evening at bFlat. There were no entrepreneurs here, no one wearing fashionable clothes or carrying branded handbags. The young adults sitting in carrels belonged to another social class, and from the books by their side it was clear they were following well-worn paths, seeking traditional careers in Civil Services, Law, Engineering, and Medicine. This was a different Bangalore, one you could miss in an itinerary that included only malls, bars, airports, gated communities, and Uber car rides. I lingered in the library that afternoon, savouring shades of a past I had once inhabited.