Thursday, November 24, 2016

Askew-ed Up Bangalore

Over two months of living in Bangalore, but I still struggle to find a perfect word to describe this city.  Anytime people ask me how I find Bangalore as a city, I mutter non-committal phrases like ‘ Um...it has a beautiful  climate’ and/or ‘ You get good south Indian food’ , only to be retorted with a ‘ This weather?  You should’ve been here 20 years ago – that was when Bangalore’s weather was beautiful’ or a ‘Duh! You don’t get good south Indian food here anymore. Everything has become commercial’. This prompts me to ask them to describe a bit of the pre-IT Bangalore, but all I get in return are wistful stares into (presumably) the past and statements like ‘ There were trees everywhere’ and ‘ There were not as many vehicles then as they are now’, which, frankly, doesn’t distinguish Bangalore from any developed/developing Indian city.

In my observations, I find this city rather odd. Vehicles tread down pothole-adorned roads, dodging other vehicles as well as pedestrians. As a result, distance is measured by time. For example, a distance of 15 kms will easily take 1.5 hours in lean traffic. High rise buildings share their boundaries with piles of rotting garbage.  Major junctions seem to be bereft of traffic signals, zebra crossings and consequentially, any order whatsoever. Lakes, which normally form a visual recess to the plains, spew inflammable foam instead of hosting fresh water. Mains, crosses and Margs begin to swim in a whirlpool in my brain. With all this, it seems unfathomable that the city was once a ‘ paradise for pensioners’. A recent read of TJS George’s short biography of Bangalore made it slightly more fathomable, and also gave me an apt word to describe Bangalore – Askew.

The cover of TJS George's short biography of Bangalore - Askew, published by Aleph Book Company

Anybody who finds the history of cities interesting will find Askew to be quite an enthralling read.  It begins with the evolution of New York and Hong Kong, the cities in which the author had previously lived in, and slowly focuses closer back home, to Bombay and Patna.
 The tale of Bangalore begins with the brief history of how the city was set up in the 1500s by Kempe Gowda, the founder of the city, who built a city taking into account the area’s ‘hillocks and valley’ topography. According to his mother’s orders, he ensured that the city was adorned with ample lakes and trees. The British left its mark here when it started to set up its cantonment in the 1800s.As India gained independence and the public sector began to come into play, islands of townships – ITI, BEL, HMT etc – with facilities like schools and shops began to form within the city. All in all, Bangalore seemed to have been built in an organized manner, with Jayanagar touted to be one of the largest planned neighbourhoods in Asia. The advent of IT, along with a breed of corrupt politicians brought along illegal constructions, the garbage mafia and total chaos to an erstwhile peaceful city. The disorder caused by illegal constructions & ‘swanky’ flyovers led to rapid deforestation. Thus began  a slow, yet sure decline in the city’s climate and air quality. IT people, as the author says, represented “ a kind of fashionable rootlessness”, and the IT industry ‘ set up fancy headquarters buildings with no thought to the living and commuting needs of their tens of thousands of employees’, thus losing the chance for orderly development completely.  I have never heard anyone tell the truth about IT so eloquently.

If history connoisseurs find the geopolitical history and development of Bangalore as a city in this book fascinating, food connoisseurs will find the cuisine of Bangalore to be a gastronomical delight. The author has devoted pages and pages on the various restaurants here, from the well-known MTR to the local upahara bhavans. Udupi cuisine began to flourish in the city as Shivalli brahmins, especially around the areas of Basavangudi & Malleswaram set up the first Udupi restaurants in the city. Udupi restaurants set an unparalleled, excellent quality of food as all the dishes made & served  were meant to be offered to the Lord, and hence, no compromise on the ingredients was tolerated.

Other unusual food joints began to make their mark in the city. The McDonalds-inspired Cafe Darshini, which was an instant success  due to it’s excellent South Indian food and friendly prices, the Nammura hotel which sells all its dishes by weight & the By 2 Cafe, which served filter coffee along with four dishes on the menu- idli, vada, khara bhaat (upma) and kesari bhaat ( sooji halwa).

While one side of Bangalore had its traditional, all vegetarian Udupi fare , the other had vindaloo , fish-n-chips and beef in the form of Koshy’s, originally named Parade Cafe. Set up keeping the English crowd of the cantonment area in mind, Koshy’s did brisk business as it provided the English with a taste of their much beloved non vegetarian food in what seemed to be a vegetarian’s paradise.Food in Bangalore today has branched out. There is hardly any cuisine one cannot get here, be it the ubiquitous Chinese or the slightly rare Korean, but one can still find little gems of South Indian food in certain pockets of the city.

A lost part of Bangalore is the variation in its architecture. Due to the vast presence of Anglo-Indians , beautiful little homes were built in areas as mainstream as MG Road. The acclaimed Goan artist, Mario Miranda finds a connection to Bangalore in the form of his father’s house on St Mark’s Road.  The building has been redesigned since, and now houses a banquet hall. According to the book, only 350 out of 823 heritage buildings remain in modern-day Bangalore .No surprise indeed, as any piece of land is being converted into multi-storied apartments.

The theatre and fine arts are deeply ingrained, thankfully till date, in the soul of Bangalore. Carnatic music reigns, mostly in the form of the Bangalore Gayana Samaja, the oldest running music sabha in the country. The 2000s brought in a wave of modern, electro-pop, death-metal music, and spread across the city. Even today, in the old parts of the city, it isn't uncommon to hear strains of classical Carnatic vocals emanating from one house clashing with thrash metal from another, and yet, inexplicably forming music. Theatres such as Ranga Shankara & Bangalore Little Theatre, continue to thrive and generate interest amongst people.

The book is a quick & gripping read, with 5 chapters housed in 128 pages, and easy on the pocket at around Rs 299. The author manages to blend in the present whilst tapping into the city’s past and its cultural & social heritage. Reading this book transported me to the Bangalore of 30 years ago, where ‘ life was orderly and people had the time to greet passing strangers’.

P.S:  I decided to follow the author's argument in the Bengaluru vs Bangalore debate - '..this book is in English and I prefer to use the English spelling of Bangalore. If a Kannada version appears someday, I shall insist on Bengaluru' . Needless to say, I have great respect for the language as well as the state of Karnataka.

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