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.
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?”
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.
My wife’s friend G visited us last weekend. She’s Flemish, and she lives in Brussels with her husband and two daughters. The younger one, 19 now, had just returned from the U.S. following a gap year spent at a private school in the South. On Saturday, over dinner, she spoke of the daughter L’s experiences.
L found her classmates racist, G said. Their awareness and worldview were limited to their country. The notion of Europe as a place with different cultures and languages was beyond them. Once L was asked if she liked the freedom she now had in the U.S., in contrast to her home country.
Her classmates were relaxed inside the campus, but when they drove downtown they all carried guns: for protection against the blacks, they said. At meals they dug into their meat with their forks alone, and made fun of L when she used both fork and knife. On hearing that both L’s parents worked, they decided she must be poor — why else should both work? At her foster home the practice of sitting together for meals was alien, which L found hard to understand.
They really don’t have a culture, G said.
Among the courses at school was one L called “Speech”. At the year’s end she’d turned into a confident speaker: name a subject and I can give a speech on it, L said to her parents.
For her daughter’s graduation ceremony G visited the U.S. with her husband. In the graduation roll, L’s place of origin was listed not as Brussels, but Ghent. This was strange, G said; it must have been due to the recent blasts in Brussels: perhaps they wanted no connection with the city. During the visit, the school advised them to avoid talking politics or religion with others. Outside the school, most parked cars wore ‘I support Trump’ stickers.
It was a good year for my daughter, G said. She now knows what she doesn’t want. And she has changed. A shy person once, L is now more assertive and confident: not easy for me as a mother.
Some months ago, during the Easter break, my wife and I traveled to Greece. The first three days we spent in Athens, following which we took a bus to Delphi, two and a half hours away, and spent half a day among the ruins and in a museum. Athens turned out to be yet another Western European city flaunting its historical sights to tourists, most of whom were white, and amidst those scores of tourists I found it hard to summon the interest and enthusiasm that grips me when I read about the ancient civilisation that began in this region. We skipped the Acropolis; the queues were too long. Instead we spent time walking the old part of town, absorbing the atmosphere, taking photographs and, on one morning we visited the Acropolis museum. It was a sunny day, ideal for an outdoor trek, and indeed the hordes were at the site on the Acropolis hill, but we walked inside the beautifully designed museum looking at stones culled from that site. I found moments of inspiration here, looking at the pieces that formed the Parthenon frieze and also other sculptures in a large hall bathed in light streaming from one side through the floor-to-ceiling windows. The beauty of the building (I can’t remember another one as astonishing as this one) lies in its setting and in the way this setting is exposed to someone inside the museum. Through those windows one can view the Acropolis hill and also the low-rise houses of Athens that hug the foot of the hill. On the hill a section of the Parthenon is visible too. Nowhere have I seen this proximity — spatial and visual — between an object in a museum and the place it was recovered from. In between pieces of stone in the museum and stones on the hill were stones that formed the structures of modern houses, separated from each other by three thousand years. This juxtaposition created a strange effect I was unable to shake off, and I walked around the floors in a daze, wondering, at times, how this hill and its surroundings would look three thousand years from now, how humanity itself would look like, and how that race would view this museum, or whatever remained of it, gathering, through the fact of this museum’s existence, clues about our own civilisation and the way we looked at antiquity. My reflections did not lift my spirits. Given where we are now and how we are progressing, I cannot conceive of a future in positive terms; but three thousand years is a long time.
Last Sunday, late in the afternoon, P & I crossed the Theodor-Heuss bridge and climbed down to the riverside, for a walk along the Neckarwiese. This stretch of green between the Neckar and Neuenheim is a popular spot, and on this day people were basking in the afternoon sun, enjoying the first signs of summer after a cold April.
The tall poplar at the beginning of the stretch had just begun to bloom, and this state, where the tree’s inner structure shone through the thin foliage of leaves, gave it a mysteriously beautiful character, not unlike a bride’s face seen through a veil of silk gauze. We walked to the tree and sat under it. A blonde woman stood by the river ringed by four children, their attention centred on a swan with her tiny cygnets. Nearby, a gang of students sat with their speakers and musical instruments — drums, guitars, and a keyboard — while another was picnicking with a spread of snacks and beer laid out on a mat. There were families with children running about in orbits, and one Turkish group had set up a table with chairs, where they sat drinking tea and laughing. Couples lounged on the grass, and here and there we spotted a solitary man or woman, sitting or lying prone, reading or simply staring ahead.
We walked next to the water and soon reached the children’s recreation area, a space of creative confusion with a troop of boys and girls running and jumping and shouting and playing on the slides, swings, and other equipment installed there. P pointed to a seesaw, which turned out to be three seesaws connected serially, so that the upward movement of one node affected not just another but two more nodes in that chain. We stood watching this strange contraption for a minute or two, trying to decipher the logic of the ups and downs.
Beyond this section were two beach volleyball courts, both occupied by a pair of players on each side. Following the courts was again a long stretch of green, but here we saw fewer people lounging on the grass. Instead, following the pattern set by the play area and the volleyball courts, there were more instances of people playing: two red-haired girls tossing a yellow frisbee, a German boy with a Müller soccer shirt running after a dog, and a bunch of teenagers with Middle-Eastern features passing around a football. The din we had passed through earlier, in the children’s area, was replaced here by isolated shrieks and calls of players in a game.
We sat at the water’s edge, not far from a weeping willow, staring at the Neckar’s gentle flow and following the path of geese flying a foot above water and then landing, feet first, head and body angled backwards, wings spread out, and beak sticking out, all reminiscent of the Concorde.
On the walk back we chose the path that runs on the other side of the green, next to the grand mansions that stand facing the river. The benches here were occupied by people who sat looking at the Neckarwiese, and some of them were black — probably refugees, given how these young men were dressed in clothes that seemed out of character here, and how they sat in groups, or alone, watching the riparian crowd with a mixture of curiosity, awe, and perhaps longing. On the grass, a young blond-haired father sat reading to his daughter from a brightly illustrated storybook. A covey of burkha-clad women sat in a circle, like stones at a prehistoric site. Nearby, three middle-aged men with beards were playing cards. A young man in dreadlocks was strumming his guitar, watched by his swaying friends. There was a woman playing with a dog, patting and poking it with glee, and it emerged that the dog belonged to a girl passing by, who watched this scene with amusement before calling the dog back to her. A middle-aged couple walked past us speaking in Arabic, followed by a teenage girl with freckles jogging at a leisurely pace, wearing fluorescent pink shoes. Next to some groups a bicycle or a pram was parked, and in the middle of the green, almost invisible in all this visual noise, were two green garbage bins.
Back on the bridge, we stood at the edge taking in the long view of the riverine scene. From this height the Neckarwiese appeared small, merely a patch of green sandwiched between the muddy river and the tall mansions of Neuenheim, and the people gathered on it seemed like strange creatures, sitting in groups or in pairs, scurrying about with purpose or wandering aimlessly. The specifics we had seen earlier blurred into indistinguishable dots, which led, momentarily, to an illusion of timelessness: the scene had not changed in a hundred years, and would not change for a hundred more.
On the flight to Athens a blonde-haired girl of about seven or eight sat beside me, on the aisle seat, separated from her twin brother and her parents on the other side of the aisle. My first response, upon seeing this little companion, was a mixture of surprise and delight: children usually stay close to their parents in flights, and a girl sitting apart is rare. She sat reading a storybook in English, and below her feet was a pink-coloured school bag filled with more books, a collection she explored through the two and half hour flight, replacing one and pulling out another with care. The bag, I discovered, held comics and storybooks in English and German, and reading them she displayed the none of the distractedness children usually do, flitting from one interest to another.
She sat absorbed in her books through the duration of the flight. Not once did she turn and seek her parents. She managed the in-flight meal experience by herself, asking for a drink (Cola), nibbling the sandwich like a grown-up, and returning the empty tray when the stewardess came by. And when her brother began to tease her and poke her, playfully trying to distract her from reading, she dealt with it by elbowing his hand away or snapping at him. She was not the playful type, or perhaps she wasn’t in a mood to be playful. I do not recall seeing her smile.
The parents, for their part, left the girl alone. Father and mother did not turn to look if the girl was doing fine; they seemed to know she was. The brother also carried a bag of books (his was brown), and while he sought his sister’s company occasionally, trying to attract attention across the aisle, she ignored him. They both did not bring out any electronic devices, and I did not spot their parents using a smarphone either.
In the beginning, I considered starting a conversation with the girl, but her reserve kept me from trying. I also wasn’t sure if it was appropriate, but since her parents were in the picture I discarded my doubts and, at a moment she looked up from her book, I asked if she was travelling to Greece on a vacation. She nodded, before returning to her book. There was no eye contact. Later, when her dinner tray slipped as she returned it to the stewardess, I offered help but she refused, turning away silently.
During the landing, she remained focussed on her book. After we docked at the gate, she picked up her bag and followed her parents and brother down the aisle, the bag on her back bobbing with the weight of all those books.
LADY 1: “…So, you know, he’s going to be free, he’s going to go back to his home town, a village in the mountains, close to nature, to sort of rebuild himself and reunite with his childhood friends. And one of his childhood friends is a woman who becomes a lawyer in the Hague, and she works with with women who have been… you know… raped or…”
LADY 2: “Tortured.”
LADY 1: “Tortured, in those wars too. So basically the book is all about, you know, being able to overcome all these feelings, with words, and all that, and also the fact that we are all hostages of things in ourselves. We are not necessarily prisoners…”
LADY 2: “Yeah”
LADY 1: “…but we have to free ourselves…”
LADY 2: “Thematically it is perfect. It depends on how artistic it is — “
LADY 1: “So it is also a novel of ideas.”
LADY 2: “Yes, absolutely. But you know, that when people say why is war a theme that you treat in your press — ”
LADY 1: “It depends on how you treat it.”
Dusseldorf airport. My wife is travelling business class (hers is part business trip, part vacation) and I have an economy class ticket. At the Lufthansa business lounge the lady offers me a free upgrade. I‘m curious — fifteen years have passed since I last flew business — but I also think the experience overrated. A reclining seat with a bigger screen is what it is.
On this flight the wide seats recline a full 180 degrees, no hurried movements are needed to stow our bags, the Bose headphones are divine, the three-course lunch is excellent, but it is the service, exclusive and personalised, that clinches it. At few other times do we receive this close attention to our demands as we do in an airplane. It turns us into children again. Press a button and someone is by your side, ready to meet your request. Why, they come to you even if you don’t press a button. Hot towels, refreshments, magazines, medicines, dinner, dessert: these may be offered in economy too, but the business class service is more relaxed, more personal. They slow things down, and make each moment more pleasurable.
The service in business class is better because we pay for it (a sum four to five times higher than economy), but do those flight attendants treat me with so much courtesy and kindness only because I’ve paid more? Although hard to accept, it is the truth: money can buy kindness too. And that doesn’t seem right. But all this luxury is so pleasing, so relaxing in its smoothness, that I find myself asking what could be wrong in coveting an experience that makes me feel so good. I can get used to it, I think, then recoil at the thought.
This consumerist trap is hard to escape. Once used to a certain level of comfort, to let go of it, to reduce your consumption, seems like a sacrifice, even if life was just fine at the previous level of consumption. It reminds me of the concept of ‘hedonic normalization’, put forward by Nicholas Agar in his book The Sceptical Optimist, an idea that suggests that at each point in history humans adjust to the level of comfort available in their environment. But thinking back to a previous era we conclude that life then — lacking the comforts we now have — must have been unbearable. In truth, those people were normalized to their surroundings, had adjusted well to what they had. They did not experience the level of discomfort we imagine for them now, as we project ourselves to their times.
In less than an hour I am normalized to my business class environment. It is the notion of exclusivity that appeals most to me, drawing on the same instinct that makes me avoid touristy places. Less crowded, more space, more quiet. This isn’t really important on an eight hour journey, but if I get it at no cost, why not?