Janus-faced

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(Part 6 of the Bangalore Days series that began here.)

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.

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Movie, Mall, Bazaar

(Part 5 of the Bangalore Days series that began here.)

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. Continue reading “Movie, Mall, Bazaar”

Games people play

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.

Language matters

(Part 4 of the Bangalore Days series that began here.)

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.)

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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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Comedians and students

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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?”

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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.

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Gap year

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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.

The Greece experience



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Dear B,

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.

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