Inside the Ngorongoro crater, as we stopped to photograph the elephants, Gerald told us about the Elephant Graveyard. A marshy area with tall and soft grass, it attracted ageing elephants seeking easy access to food and water during their last days. Although Gerald did not directly say this, we left with the notion that ‘elephants came here to die’: poignant but misleading.
On our drive to Serengeti and back, we passed small towns with a thriving roadside economy bound to this passing traffic. The bigger and more permanent shops were set a little away from the street: Mobile ‘Wakalas’ (agencies), bike repair shops, car washing centers, groceries, medical stores, and others whose purpose you could only guess at: Lelo shop, Joh Mix shop, Mama Soni shop, Dogo shop. Closer to the road we saw motorcycle taxis, autorickshaws (called “Bajaj” by the locals), and pushcart vendors selling all manner of things from bananas, corn, and cassavas, to handicrafts, shoes, and clothing. Hilary Clinton Shop and Michelle Obama Mobile Shop were labelled to attract the attention of tourists who fall for such tricks, and it worked on us to a point. We slowed down to take a photo.
At a fuel station nearby, hawkers peddling handicrafts drifted towards our jeep.
“Hello mister, are you from India?”
The boy — he was fourteen or fifteen — had a backpack strapped to his stomach and a smaller bag on his shoulders with wooden figurines peeping out. His left hand was obscured beneath a thicket of bracelets.
“Yes we are!”
“My name is Krishna.” He held out his hand towards my window.
“Then I’m Rama,” I said, shaking his hand, and before I could withdraw it he had placed an elephant on my palm.
“It is made of ebony — really good.”
“This is too light,” I said. “It can’t be ebony.”
“It is ebony! Anyway, try this one.”
The giraffe was no heavier than the elephant.
“No thank you.”
“Try these!” he persisted, untangling a few bracelets. A man wearing dark glasses and carrying similar odds and ends arrived at my window. On instinct I began to close it.
“No close mister,” the boy said. “Friendship is more important than money. You don’t buy, no problem.”
I left the window open and indulged in my curiosity, asking about this or that object. Krishna continued to maintain it was all ebony. When we were done fuelling, I thanked him and shook his hand.
“Asante!” I said.
“Karibu!” came the reply.
Our first day in Serengeti. We had just seen a leopard descend from a tree and walk away into the savannah — a rare sighting, in the opinion of Gerald, our driver-guide. Leopards were shy, and often the only glimpse they offered visitors was a faint flicker of a spotted coat behind a foliage. We were lucky.
Gerald drove further from that kopje into the vast emptiness. Some minutes later we saw, in a flash that lasted perhaps two or three seconds, a cheetah chase an impala. The impala got away. And in the instant the chase ended the cheetah lay down on the grass, a manoeuvre whose speed and grace was as stunning as the chase itself. Gerald said she was staying low to stay out of sight, to seek another chance, another prey. And he said it was our vehicle that had distracted the cheetah from the kill.
We had saved a life; we felt happy. Then the cheetah’s young one appeared, following the mother. That young cheetah will probably go hungry today, Gerald said. He felt sorry for it. Our happiness was short-lived.
Gerald stopped our 4×4 some meters from the pair. On the opposite side, a few hundred meters away, the impala stood looking in this direction, alert to any move by the cheetahs. But they stayed put, and we moved on.
News of the incident arrived through the Internet. On Saturday afternoon someone had rammed his car into pedestrians in Bismarkplatz, a square two hundred meters from our apartment. Three people were injured. The attacker was pursued by the police and shot near the Alte Hallenbad on Bergheimerstr.
We were home, but heard nothing. A friend sent an SMS asking if we were alright. My wife posted the news on Facebook.
Earlier in the afternoon, as we walked on the Hauptstrasse, she’d observed how common it was these days to see a car on the pedestrian zone; these folks probably lived here, but vehicle access must be restricted, she said. After the incident, she recalled this conversation. People driving on the Hauptstrasse had begun to worry her of late, and now there was an event involving pedestrians on a square nearby.
Around dinnertime the Hauptstrasse carried the usual Saturday evening buzz. There were no signs of change.
Next morning, under a grey sky, I walked to the Grimminger bakery on Bismarkplatz. The car had run into the pedestrians right in front of this bakery. Two tulips and a candle lay beside a pillar nearby, circumscribed by yellow etchings on the floor that revealed where the attacker’s car had stopped. Not far from it a cameraman readied himself while a young blonde in a dark coat waited with a yellow mike.
The bakery girls were chirpy. I paid for two rosinenbrötchen and a croissant before turning back. On the way home I ran into our neighbours M and A and their two boys. Smiles and greetings followed. I told them about the flowers and the cameraman on the square. M asked if I knew what had happened to the injured. No idea, I said. The smiles had vanished, eclipsed by murmurs of concern, but they flashed back as we said goodbye.
That evening I learned that one of the three injured, a 73-year-old German man, had died. The accused was a 35-year-old German man, now recovering from the gunshot wounds. His motives were unclear. Terrorism was not suspected.
We moved to Germany in late 2000, and our first visit to Bangalore came two and half years later, in 2003. I was curious to see how Bangalore had changed. I was also uncertain, after this period abroad, what to expect, and unsure of my response to the city.
On that first visit I began to notice the differences between the privileged and the poor, an evident trait that had escaped my attention in the past. The inequality was striking, and I wondered what might be done to change this Janus-faced society. But by the end of the third week the gap bothered me a lot less than it had on the first day. The juxtaposition of luxury and poverty was a common feature here, and I had relearned to take it for granted. This conditioned indifference seemed natural and puzzling at the same time. It occupied my mind after I returned, but not for long: life in my immediate surroundings in Germany held a power those distant scenes lacked.
The thoughts and emotions surfaced again on following visits to Bangalore. I saw that while some had grown visibly richer, things had barely changed for others; and what the streets conveyed was at variance with the growth statistics I’d seen. These observations were followed by a sense of helplessness, and later, indifference. On each visit the cycle was similar. Noticing the contrast, worrying about it, then ignoring it: after a decade this pattern was so well set that scenes in Bangalore (and my response to them) stopped bothering me as much as they once did. On every following visit I noticed less than I had before.
It happened again in 2013, beginning with an incident the day I landed in Bangalore.
Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu, a Kannada movie starring Anant Nag, begins with a boy playing with an elderly man. The game isn’t an innocent one. Using the old man’s failing memory to his advantage, the boy attempts to trick the grandpa-like figure. Soon he is stopped by a nurse, but we are the only ones to sense relief: the old man, an Alzheimer’s patient, isn’t aware of what has transpired.
The backstory emerges gradually. Venkoba Rao has been admitted to the old-age home by his son Shiva. Incapable of facing the situation of his father’s condition, and unable to bear this responsibility after his mother’s death, Shiva distances himself from his father. One day Venkoba Rao slips away from the old-age home, gets muddled up with a couple of contract killers, and the rest of the movie follows the twin threads of a son’s search for his missing father (of ‘Wheatish complexion, average build’: the film’s title) and the tragi-comic predicaments of criminals who are stuck with a man carrying few memories but plenty of wisdom.
The ending brings a resolution. Son and father are reunited, and along the way the son finds himself too: Shiva now regrets his earlier decisions. A neat and feel-good conclusion that reaffirms a comforting belief: this is a society that still cares for its elders and values how they are treated.
I watch the movie at the Mantri mall in Malleshwaram. Physically and commercially the multiplex movie experience in this city mirrors what one sees in the West. Standing in the dimly lit windowless foyer, with digital screens beaming trailers and counters stacked with bottled drinks, I recall evenings we stood on M.G.Road waiting to be let inside The Plaza. On the sidewalk were magazine sellers competing with hawkers peddling roasted peanuts or corn cobs. Traffic eased by unhurriedly, and the expectant buzz of cinemagoers on the pavement made this wait a part of the movie experience: we could not have imagined it otherwise. This was during the nineties. Nowadays, before you enter the foyer inside a multiplex, you pass through a security check, and surrender your camera’s battery. Smartphones are permitted without fuss, but even a small point-and-shoot camera is problematic. Inside the cinema hall, the glow of mobile phones is a source of amusement and discomfort, especially when people take calls when the movie is on. In the nineties crying babies were the only source of interruption. They were hushed or taken outside, but a ringing phone triggers a different response. These new babies demand immediate, on-the-spot attention. (more…)
The lines behind the REWE checkout counters were dense and busy. Christmas was behind us, but grocery shopping showed no signs of lulling. I placed my items — aubergines, thyme sprigs, olive oil, lemon, cheese, yoghurt, sambal oelek sauce, avocados — on the conveyer belt. The woman behind the counter was one of those sprightly, chatty ones who make you wonder if this isn’t the best job in the world. Middle-aged, in her early fifties perhaps, she wore her golden hair in a plait. A round face with wise wrinkled eyes. Simple stud earrings. No makeup.
When my turn came, I greeted her and asked: “Haben Sie eine papiertüte?” Do you have a paper bag?
“Ja, hab ich,” came the reply, as she scanned the groceries and put them aside.
The typical response here is to hand a bag over to the shopper. The woman did no such thing; she continued to scan my items. At one point she looked at me with a cheeky grin, and said: You didn’t ask me for one, did you? You only asked if I have a paper bag.
I laughed, and said: That’s a game I play with others!
Well, now you see that others can play it too! She smiled and gave me the bag.
The Seshadri Road hostel I lived in during the early nineties was a protected space. The comings and goings of outsiders were monitored. Staying away from the hostel for a day — with a relative, for instance — needed the hostel warden’s approval. So it was a surprise when one evening a band of five or six young men entered the hostel premises and asked all residents to gather in the courtyard. The warden was absent, and we were curious. Soon around thirty of us collected to hear the outsiders.
Their leader came forward and began to speak in Kannada, using a tone I’d heard previously in political rallies dramatised in films. His aim, it soon emerged, was to protect the local language and culture from neighbourly influences. Too many Tamilians have settled in our city, he said. They’ve diluted our culture, replaced Kannada with Tamil on the streets, and they have also taken away our jobs. Tamil movies run all over the city. It is hard to find an autorickshaw driver who can speak Kannada — they are all Tamilians. This has to stop. Tamilians must leave Bangalore and return to their state.
While their leader gave this speech, his companions walked around distributing pamphlets. It was a call to action, exhorting us to spread awareness of this “takeover” of the city by our neighbour. Among us were a few students from Tamil Nadu; they listened silently and collected the pamphlets.
This was an isolated episode that I soon forgot. Much later, I learned that linguistic nationalism in Bangalore had a long history, and the decades-long quest for Kannada dominance in the city had never come to fruition. In the pre-independence days, efforts by the Mysore state had proven inadequate to stop the rise of English in public and private life. Post-independence, as the hegemony of English grew, Kannada nationalism took a turn towards targeting Tamil and Urdu speakers using demographically driven tactics. (The 1991 census revealed that 35% of Bangaloreans spoke Kannada as a mother tongue, followed by 25% Tamil, 19% Urdu and 17% Telugu speakers.)
The Bangalore days I’m most fond of lie in the early nineties, during my late teens. My parents lived in Secunderabad, which contributed, in no small way, to the sense of freedom I felt in Bangalore. I had been enrolled by my father into a hostel on Seshadri Road. The hostel warden, a devout septuagenarian with a headmaster’s eye for discipline, held a roll-call each night at 8 pm, before locking the gates. On some nights we would climb over them and slip away in the direction of Majestic, the city’s nerve centre that lay around the corner. Occasionally we watched a movie in one of the dozen or so cinema halls there. (The film I recall most vividly, for obvious reasons, was Jacques Rivette’s Le Belle Noiseuse, miraculously released uncensored under a film festival programme.) Most often we were happy to break curfew and simply roam the streets with abandon, stopping for a snack at a roadside stall. Late in the night, after the restaurants closed, we saw the day’s food waste being collected in open drums on the streetside. Filled with vomit coloured slime, the vessels were eventually picked up by boys and cycled away to an unknown destination.
The college I studied in was in Jayanagar. Each morning I rode a bus — 25 E or J, most often — from Majestic to Jayanagar 4th Block. The walk to Majestic Bus Station led me through Ananda Rao Circle, where I stopped for breakfast in one of the nearby Darshinis — eateries that offered, for five rupees, a plate of Idli-Vada and a granite-topped platform to stand at and eat. Waiting near these platforms were skinny, barefoot boys in shorts and a soiled shirt, holding a wet rag in small hands that moved swiftly to clean a vacated spot, leaving behind a grainy trail on the granite. On a display above the counter backlit by tube lights the menu listed Idly, Vada, Upma, Kesari Bhath, Puri, and Dosa. Masala dosas (eight rupees each) were served fresh, so one had to wait with a coupon for the order to be called out. I finished breakfast with a filter coffee, served in a steel tumbler set inside a flat-bottomed steel cup designed to cool the steaming drink, or mix it. But one could drink, without difficulty, the coffee from the tumbler itself; when others used the cup they did so unconsciously, slowly foaming the drink by pouring it from tumbler to cup and back again, a practice whose allure I grasped only years later when I saw a cappuccino machine.
The Majestic Bus Station — now renamed Kempegowda Bus Station but still known by its original name — was, to me at least, an architectural marvel. Spread over an area covering several football fields, and laid out like an onion slice with concentric semi-circular bays, the station features an overhead walkway that leads pedestrians across these bays and ushers them down to the platforms through exit stairways. Bus timings were arbitrary, announced informally by conductors as they stepped off a returning bus, which meant a passenger in a hurry had to choose carefully between alternatives: the wrong bus could delay you by ten minutes or more. The overhead walkway offered a bird’s-eye view of the station. The buses from here seemed tiny and the people tinier, like figures in a tilt-shift movie, and when a bus reached the platform people converged upon its doors like sheep shuffling into a pen. Down at the platforms it carried the energy and inertia common to bus stations, with the staccato rhythms of conductor whistles rending the air, the dash of people for an empty bus, the interminable waiting when one is time-bound.