Majestic, Jayanagar

(Part 3 of the Bangalore Days series that began here.)

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.

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Kierkegaard’s lesson

This morning the radio brought in news of Søren Kierkegaard’s two-hundredth birth anniversary. The program that followed charted the Danish philosopher’s life and explored his legacy. Listening to it during the morning routine at home, I found my mind wandering to those college days when I first read about Kierkegaard in Sophie’s World, a novel by Jostein Gaarder. The novel contains a series of letters a philosopher named Alberto Knox writes to Sophie Amundsen, a teenager living in Norway. The letters speak engagingly of the history of philosophy, and they take Sophie (and the reader) on a journey with great philosophers from Socrates to Sartre. What I remember vividly are not the ideas of those great philosophers but a small incident involving Sophie’s best friend Joanna, where Joanna and her boyfriend Jeremy kiss in the garden and the adults nearby simply laugh. I was in my early twenties when I read the novel, and my first kiss was still a year away. The envy I felt towards Sophie and her friends, living in a country where kissing was commonplace, was heightened by an awareness of my own circumstance, living in a conservative South Indian town in the mid-Nineties, where even holding a girl’s hand needed enormous courage and gumption.

Our instinct for evolution, I told myself then, is far more powerful than our desire to know ourselves and our search for meaning. Things haven’t changed much since: I’d rather kiss a girl today than learn from a book the meaning of life.

Two letters

In October I found an unusual white envelope in my letterbox. Our address, written with a pencil, was spelled out in block letters by an unsteady hand. The sender’s address, pencilled in a similar but smaller script at the top left corner, solved the puzzle: it was my nine-year old nephew in the US. In his hands, Heidelberger Strasse had become Heidelburger strasse, a charming little slip that brought to mind his insatiable appetite for fast food. Opening the letter I found – on an A4 size printed page with his handwritten words in the beginning, next to the salutation, and at the closing, signing off with “love…” – a request to help him with a project at school.

Dear Perappa,

This fall, as a fourth grader at xxx Preparatory school, I will be studying my background and my family. As part of our project we are writing to relatives to find out what their lives were like when they were our age.

My letters will be part of my Ethnic Pride family scrapbook.

Please write back and tell me about your earlier years. Where were you born? Who were your family members? What are your memories of school? Games? Toys? Pets? Chores? Vacations?

Please write back by November 26th. Thank you for your help with my project.


Your nephew R.

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Mongolian dreams

Some years ago, consumed by a mix of nostalgia and curiosity that followed the reading of a book on Genghis Khan, I developed an urge to visit Mongolia. I knew nothing about the country. The websites I scanned threw up images of a sleepy capital, Ulaanbaatar, surrounded by a vast, cold, and dry desert, dotted with settlements of herders living in gers. It seemed like a place untouched by modernity, a country the world had forgotten. This discovery only increased my curiosity, and when I spoke to Wife about a Mongolian holiday she promptly struck it down, wondering aloud if I next planned to visit the moon. Undeterred, I nurtured the idea for a while, creating imaginary itineraries along the steppes Genghis Khan rode eight centuries ago. Then, like other fantasies, this one too faded under the overpowering glare of daily life.

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Year-end musings

In the last ten years or so the Christmas and New Year week has, for us, acquired a particular significance, shaped by a culture-driven consciousness that this is a period of renewal, a time to take stock of the year gone past and to prepare for the new one ahead. Renewal, old giving way to new, is conveyed through a total shut down of commerce (workplaces are empty; business slows to almost a halt; stores are closed from the afternoon of 24th until the 27th morning, and if you do not stock up earlier only the kindness of neighbours or friends can save you), and all the year-end lists in magazines and newspapers send home, unequivocally, the message that this is a changeover period. In all, a sense of ending, an intimation of a beginning.

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An Indian in Germany

[Part 2 of the Interpretations series, which began here.]

In the winter of 2000, a few weeks before we left India for Germany, Wife and I were invited by a relative for a farewell lunch. This uncle and aunt were encouraging and optimistic about our plans to migrate (“At least you aren’t going to the U.S. like the rest of them,” they said), but the aunt’s father, an elderly man with hawk eyes, took a different view. “Why are you going to Germany?” he asked. “It is the most racist country in the world, don’t you know? Haven’t you read about Hitler and the Jews? The Germans hate foreigners — I would think ten times before going there.”

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The ground beneath my feet

[This began as a comment in response to Beth’s reflections on using our hands. Soon I realized there were a bundle of memories waiting to emerge, and inspired by Dave’s response I decided to write one myself.]

Growing up in India, I spent a lot of time barefoot. School prescribed a uniform that included black leather shoes, but back home I spent the rest of my day wearing nothing on my feet. I wasn’t conscious of this: it was a way of life. The weather – hot and dry most of the year – may have been a reason, but it had more to do with habits that result from watching people around us. These people – our relatives, friends, and neighbours – put on footwear only when they left home, on an errand, for a social event, for work; at home they went barefoot.

I played cricket on a street near home, an unpaved stretch that would turn squishy with mud during the monsoon, and although I wore slippers out of home I took them off during play: it was easier to run barefoot. Sometimes a sharp stone cut my foot, or, when I went searching for the ball in a plot that hadn’t been weeded, a few thorns pricked my soles, but these were part of the game, minor episodes that were soon eclipsed by an action in the match, like a boundary or a wicket. When I returned home with a bruise or a cut I displayed it proudly – it perhaps gave me a sign that I was growing up, capable of bearing pain; then, ignoring all my protests, my mother sat me down and patiently smeared an ointment – Betnovate or Neosporin – on and around the wound, advising me to be more careful next time.

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Ten years


[This has turned out a strangely self-indulgent post, one suited more to a private diary than an online journal. I set out to write, on our tenth anniversary of arriving in Germany, an account of these last ten years here, but what got written, almost unconsciously, was a different score, cryptic and inward-looking.]

When we arrived there was no life plan. The move to Germany seemed like an interesting opportunity, although I do not remember trying to express – or even think about – why this was so. It may have been the allure of a new place, something exotic and unfamiliar. The little I had seen of Germany on a couple of previous trips had appealed. At a deeper level there must have been, although I wasn’t aware of it, the realization that I was doing what my father had done almost thirty years previously: take up a “foreign assignment”. But the similarities end there; I had it much easier. I was simply riding on a wave of Indian emigration westward; his move, in the early Seventies, was an exception. My destination was an advanced Western nation that provided a host of benefits; his was to a town in a small West African nation. I travelled with my wife; he had mother next to him and me, a six month old baby, in his arms.
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The Mumbai weekend


Last January, during a five-week trip to India, I spent a weekend in Mumbai with a couple of ‘blog-friends’. Bunny, an editor at Hindustan Times, picked me up at the airport. It was to be our first meeting, and her SMS, sent from the gate, read: Shortish, messy hair, sleeveless purple and green top, black pants, small blue bag. Later that day Bips, a social worker engaged with a local NGO, joined us near the Gateway of India. It was probably the most memorable weekend of 2010.

We started with a Gujarati thali lunch that captured the essence of a Mumbai visit: there was more variety to experience than you could possibly take in. The dishes, brought to the table at a dizzying pace by uniformed servers, left me exhausted. (All these months later I do not remember what I ate; I see only the anticipation for the next delicacy to arrive, followed by the growing regret that I could not eat all that I wished to.) After lunch we rode South, towards Kala Ghoda, in a ‘Cool Cab’: an air-conditioned taxi, a charming old Fiat that was almost an antique piece. Traffic was inconsistent, clogged and snail-paced in some areas and breezy and fast in others. Bunny made the long drive short with her insights on Mumbai culture and the recent history of local politics. In between, around a bend or in the middle of a street, she would point to a house and refer to a celebrity who lived there: “That’s where Chetan Bhagat lives.” “And here’s Bal Thackeray house.”

[Continued on page 2]