Friday, 9 March 2012

Cities: Bangalore 2000 ~ Colonial traditions, cyber dreams

When IT giants Hewlett-Packard,  Infosys and Wipro set up shop in Bangalore,  they paved the way for an influx of engineering graduates,  mushrooming computer schools and a dollar-driven lifestyle. A natural corollary was the dotcom boom, now on the verge of a bust. While traditionally, parents in Bangalore dreamt of an independent bungalow on retirement, their cyber-competitive children have been catapulted into jet-setting lifestyles - monthly salaries of over a Rs 100,000, fast foods to fuel a global image and a luxury flat within five years.
With its laid-back lifestyle and colonial culture under threat, its pensioners overtaken by the yuppie IT set, and 'IT Boom City' replacing its 'Garden City' nomenclature, Bangalore is a city in transition, in search of itself.

Millennial Bangalore defies categorisation, characterised as it is by in-built contradictions. Should we focus on its predominantly Anglo-Indian, colonial-tinted culture? Or its conservative old-city enclaves? Should we discuss the Information Technology (IT) boom city? Or the pleasures of a former pensioner's paradise? Does the Garden City of evergreen Cubbon Park and Lalbagh merit a look? Or the city's lack of civic infrastructure?

When Kempe Gowda I, dynamic ruler of the Yelahanka Nadu dynasty built a mud fort here in 1537, could he have imagined it as a bustling metropolis? In fact, today's Bangalore is many cities rolled into one.
No matter what the route to the heart of Bangalore's seven million residents, some facts are irrefutable. The fragrance of 'sampige' (jasmine) blooms has given way to exhaust fumes and the pleasures of walking in the park to pub hopping and cyber-chats.

Sprawling bungalows set amidst bloom-rich settings are shadowed by glass-fronted skyscrapers. Rickety public buses hug the kerb as sleek Mercedes Benz and other hot wheels zip by on potholed roads. Even leisurely lunches at Koshy's restaurant, dating back to 1952, or the once whites-only Bangalore Club, are punctuated with cell-phone chatter. As for the Turf Club, a British legacy, it is now deemed less fashionable than bowling alleys and artificial ice-skating rinks.

What's the current flavour of Bangalore, the Karnataka capital that is not as steeped in local culture as, say Mysore? Unlike the Tamil culture that permeates Chennai, Bangalore doesn't flaunt its ethnic roots. As a visitor from Berlin observed in 1994, "This doesn't seem like an Indian city. It's so westernised!" That's apparent in the many tongues that fill the air, whether at the 1812-consecrated St. Mark's Cathedral or at the famous Mavali Tiffin Rooms (MTR) eatery where the dosas (papery rice pancakes) ooze pure ghee (clarified butter).

In 1997, only 38 per cent of Bangaloreans listed Kannada as their mother tongue. This cosmopolitan city accepts Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Hindi with equal fluency. But the city's very language has since changed. Cyber lingo peppers the conversation and computer geeks, who access friends on the ether and work round-the-clock, abound. It's the virtual life for real.

Even tradition-bound MTR has launched ice-cream kiosks selling cones for Rs 5 (1 US $ = Rs 47) and ready-to-eat bisibele-bath (a local preparation of rice and lentils) in foil pouches.

Is there a buzz in Bangalore over the Great Digital Revolution that has caused this transformation over the past 15 years or so? Will its dwellers adapt with the typical Bangalorean phrase that trips off every laid-back tongue, "Swalpa adjust madi" (just adjust a little)?

What should its denizens adjust to?

The changing skyline, for one. As Bangalore recently prepared to unveil its first, controversy-dogged flyover at Richmond Circle, English playwright and national literature award-winner Mahesh Dattani, 42, noted, "With this, the aesthetics of the city have gone for a toss. Instead of tile-roofed buildings with ironwork grills, you now have curved concrete lines in your vision. Frankenstein has been created!"

That's true in myriad senses. , When IT giants Hewlett-Packard, Infosys and Wipro set up shop in Bangalore, they paved the way for an influx of graduates from the Indian Institutes of Technology, mushrooming computer schools, and a dollar-driven lifestyle. A natural corollary was the dotcom boom, now on the verge of a bust. While traditionally, parents in Bangalore dreamt of an independent bungalow on retirement, their cyber-competitive children have been catapulted into jet-setting lifestyles - monthly salaries of over a Rs 100,000, fast foods to fuel a global image and a luxury flat within five years.

What's a typical young Bangalorean's dream? Patting his new Ford Ikon, K V Ramnath (name changed on request), 30, who's with chip-making major Intel, explains, "Between 1993 and now, IT has resulted in a wealth creation environment with salaries that are about 25 per cent higher than in other industries. This has artificially given rise to brand consciousness and a whole yuppie culture. IT guys choose Levis jeans, not Newport; a bite at Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), not a traditional meal at MTR."

While the pseudo confusion of fresh US-returned IT professionals over left and right-hand drive on the road can be amusing, what's less funny is the hole in the heart of Bangalore families whose children have opted for foreign climes. The result? A computer in every well-connected household. That spells grandmothers in Mysore silk saris who are equally adept at steaming dosas and dashing off e-mails.

How does computer-savvy Saraswati Singh, 67, who taught English at the upmarket Mount Carmel College for 20 years, view the changing face of her city since 1954? With a laptop all set to communicate with her two US-based sons, she says, "IT has changed the demographic map of the city. Earlier, women did not go pillion riding in old-fashioned areas like Basavangudi, Jayanagar or Chamrajpet. But with the IT boom, that sleepy 38th Cross in Jayanagar is filled with computer institutes. Net-wise daughters from Jayanagar now go to work. But their full-sleeved salwar-kameezes (loose pyjamas and long shirt), long oily braids and no lipstick sets them apart from the Cantonment crowd - the jean-clad girls with streaked hair who frequent chic Brigade Road pubs. The Jayanagar girls return home at the stroke of 5 p.m. There's no suspicion of free living about them."

Free living. What's that? That's the mantra of the designer label-obsessed IT set with their clothes-strewn chummeries or live-in arrangements, their monetary abandon and non-ethnic lifestyles. They wouldn't be caught dead digging into steaming idlis and sambar off a trolley at Visveswarapuram at midnight, preferring to exercise their taste rights at a Pizza Hut on swank Cunningham Road. If it weren't for their mega-bucks and cooking-free regimen, how would Bangalore's eatery boom --be it Tex-Mex or Lebanese or Thai or Iyengar-- survive?

Primarily residential areas like Kumara Park and Malleswaram encapsulate the city in transition. The squat, brown headquarters of Satyam Infoway towers over the Kumara Park's garden-shaded bungalows, while Malleswaram has a cyber cafe on every street.

How has the government responded? Computers now crowd the corridors of power while swipe-cards govern staff check-ins at the dome-topped Vidhana Soudha (Legislative Assembly) building. Benson Town has been renamed Kadamba Nagar, Richmond Road is now Field Marshal K M Cariappa Road, but civic amenities like water and power continue to be in short supply while the Chief Minister promises a swank international airport by 2004.

Nor has Bangalore a public transport system worth the name. As Maya Jayapal, 60, points out in 'Bangalore: The Story of a City', published in 1997, it then had 1,800 buses, which were rapidly overtaken by the privately owned 100,000 cars, 600,000 two-wheelers and 35,000 three-wheelers. The result? Chronic pollution, a steep rise in asthma rates and soaring accidents on ill-lit roads. In 2000 alone, there were 622 cases of fatal road accidents in Bangalore which took 655 lives.

The cyber-crazy pace has also taken its toll on Bangalore's quality of life. It's visible in IT marriages that are on the rocks within a year, with equally ambitious partners unwilling to compromise, as volunteer counsellors like Jayapal discover. In dreams of entertainment centres containing multiplex cinemas and mega-malls, of food courts and swank resorts which will benefit the top five per cent of its citizens, while sewage clogs the slums on the periphery of the city.

The city's naturally salubrious climate has been ruined by injudicious felling of shady jacaranda and gulmohur trees. Where once homes did not even have ceiling fans, air-cooler companies are now doing brisk business while sweaty Bangaloreans try to stave off heat that they are simply not accustomed to.

In 2000, a citizen's initiative that included corporate super-achievers like Nandan Nilekani of Infosys and Kiran Majumdar-Shaw of Biocon India joined hands with the government to set up the Bangalore Agenda Task Force (BATF). For a while, it made waves and raised hopes of a change for the better. But neither has the bureaucracy been made accountable nor have the overflowing garbage bins been tackled. The BATF is no longer a strident voice, but a whimper.

Perhaps the state of Bangalore's Great Digital Divide is best evoked by Dattani's image: "Bangalore recently had coils of colourful fibre-optic cables on its pavements. Under a blazing sun, I saw a skinny old man with a crowbar digging a trench to lay them out. I realised then that it wasn't going to touch his life at all."

Whose Bangalore is this, anyway?

(Originally in Women's Feature Service, 2000)

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