Comedians and students

bflat

 

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?”

Continue reading “Comedians and students”

The first days

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.

Continue reading “The first days”

Sutherland and the moons of Jupiter


South Africa


[ Part 4 of the South Africa series that began with Cape Town Weekend, continued in Clanwilliam, and had last stopped at Tankwa Karoo. ]


In Cape Town and later, when I spoke of my plan to visit Sutherland, eyes always lit up. It was a place most wanted to visit but few had, and their pupils revealed something of the reputation the town carried. I knew nothing of this character when I included it in my itinerary, relying solely on town’s proximity to the South African Large Telescope (SALT), “the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere”, where visitors on a guided tour look through the instrument’s eye at the night sky. I planned one night in Sutherland, and prayed silently for a clear sky.

The sky was clear when I left Gannaga Lodge on Thursday morning. The evening before, Johann had suggested I follow the Ouberg Pass to Sutherland: this route was more difficult, he said, but the scenery was spectacular. At breakfast that morning Louis had seconded this view, and he gave me directions to get on the route. Following the Gannaga pass into the veld I had crossed the previous day, I turned east after the park office. The gravel track curved toward another arm of the Roggeveld mountains, and soon the track turned narrow and steep. I drove slowly, halting, at one bend, to watch a small pack of springboks saunter downhill.

Continue reading “Sutherland and the moons of Jupiter”