Friday, 23 March 2012

Books: Bangalore ~ the morphing of a Multiple City

In 2006 Penguin India commissioned me to do an anthology of writings on Bangalore/ Bengaluru. I asked myself if I could do one as good as some of their other city anthologies, such as Bapsi Sidhwa’s Lahore or Bombay by Naresh Fernandes and Jerry Pinto. Once the butterflies settled, I thought: why not?

On December 13, 2008, the book I edited ~ ‘Multiple City: writings on Bangalore’ ~ was launched at Crossword bookstore at Residency Road.

The writers in the anthology include U R Ananthamurthy, Shashi Deshpande, Winston Churchill, Rajmohan Gandhi, Ramachandra Guha, William Dalrymple, Thomas Friedman, Pankaj Mishra and others. The book includes essays, fiction, translations from Kannada, oral history, a film song, a nursery rhyme ~ and even a blog.   

Here’s what I wrote in my introduction to the book.

First person singular:
In Search of a City

         IT’S A windy May morning in the year 2007. About 7.15 a.m. I’m helmeted, strapped into the passenger seat of a motorized hang-glider. At the helm is a veteran naval officer with a passion for the air sport. The glider, 1000 feet above the city that I’ve called home since May 1992, soars skywards from Jakkur, then banks, glides and, as I seem to suspend my breath for an incredible fifteen minutes, offers me an alternate lens through which to view Bangalore or Bengaluru. Or is that a mythical landscape that unfolds below us?
      I’m conscious that I have no parachute on board, nor the shell of a cabin to cushion me from the breeze that had the windsock at the airfield jigging furiously since dawn. The chill morning air nips at my ear-lobes, teases my bare toes. Wonder surges through me as I consciously shift gears mentally – and jettison inherited or collective notions about the city we hover over.

      I gaze upon sheets of pristine water. Is that Hebbal lake? Verdant stretches, seemingly unpopulated, cross, twist and zigzag on terra firma. Is that the Life Insurance Corporation building on arterial Mahatma Gandhi Road, and the new United Breweries tower on Vittal Mallya Road? Impeccable toy-sized houses swing into sight, as if conjured up from a Lego kit, with dinky red, yellow and blue cars arrayed in open garages. The scene unfolding below has the unlived-in openness of a Google Earth exploration.
      I mull over the past years of searching for our city through writings on it. My journey has unfolded through stop-start scenes where I’ve stumbled upon facts and features, characters and cartoons, even alternate or divisive perspectives, in lieu of a grand, linear narrative. I’ve sensed unidentified shadows through multiple conversations, had chance encounters both literary and political, gauged readings over steaming by-two cups at the India Coffee House, even entered high-voltage debates about the interior landscapes of gays and hijras. I’ve listened to the narratives of Generation Next and tuned in to their grandparents’ ajja-ajji stories over set dosas at stand-and-eat darshinis, often buoyed by excursions into the Kannada literary landscape with practitioners and interpreters. 
      What layered identities exist, or once flourished, within this emerging global city? What schismatic tugs-of-war rage between Bengaluru and Bangalore, between the western pete that can be traced back at least five centuries and the eastern Cantonment, at least three centuries younger, between the City and the Civil and Military Station, the native and the colonial, as the Mysore peta and the silk roomal from northern Karnataka come to terms with the Gandhi cap? Did the traditions of stately Mysore vanish when the City and the Cantonment were united under a single municipal administration in 1949?  Is the cosmopolitan nature of Bangalore, then, a stumbling block to defining its identity? Has the IT-propelled new city taken the shine off its established public sector undertakings, its famed silk looms? Will the city on fast forward mode towards the future spell its doom, especially since its population has boomed from 1.5 to nearly seven million in barely three decades?
       As I fly over these warring entities, deep-seated flickers of unknowing flutter within me, along with unrequited curiosity, and yet a sense of belonging. This is a city, or multiple cities within, that have enfolded me and drawn me in, oddball that I am, Bengali by birth and south Indian by choice. Is this the terrain of the four boundary mantapas or towers that the Yelahanka nadaprabhu or chieftain Kempe Gowda is said to have founded around 1537, celebrated in folk ballad and contemporary narratives alike? Why did he choose the village of Sivanasamudram, ten miles to the south of Yelahanka, to build his mud fort in? Did the city derive its name from the meal of boiled beans or bendakalu that an old woman shared with him?
        Every city dweller I interact with seems to espouse a private vision of Bangalore. I stumble upon hidden stories retold in whispers, threadbare yet convergent narratives. Of a memorial to a 9th century hero commemorated during an ancient Battle of Bengaluru. Of megalithic tombs and iron tools dating back to 1000 BC, besides records of Roman silver coins that hark back to the emperor Augustus. Of a tutelary deity named Annamma, whose temple borders the Dharmambudhi tank. Of a Jewish settlement that gave rise to Asia’s biggest shoe store of the early 20th century. Of a city that had access to electricity before the rest of Asia. Of the base where India’s first indigenous helicopter was developed, and where the Bangalore torpedo was devised by British Captain McClintock of the Bengal, Bombay and Madras Sappers in 1912.
       When the British defeated Tipu Sultan of Mysore in the Battle of Bangalore in 1791, the rural aspect of the location was its defining feature. It was a location defined by its keres or tanks. That’s besides its large temple complexes, its agraharas or Brahmin settlements. In the 21st century, the technopole represents the city as much as the annual Karaga rites at the Dharmaraya temple in the old city. 
      “Jeans pants on the outside and madi panche on the inside,” wrote Bargur Ramachandrappa, former Chairman of the Kannada Development Authority, describing the reluctant metropolis. Is the Mysore state emblem of the two-headed Gandeberunda bird, then, an apt representation of the city’s state of mind, straddling the puranas and technological advances with equal felicity?  
      Even as I juggle these notions, I carry memories of other cities, other homes, within me. Of the quintessential Tamil culture that enriches Chennai/ Madras, where silk-draped maamis in Hakoba blouses and rubber slippers critique a Carnatic music concert with as much panache as they weigh up Thiruvalluvar against Shakespeare. Of the jostling mass of Mumbai/ Bombay, with its folk-rich Ganesh Chaturthi and equally fervent Bollywood worship, its capacity to make outsiders feel at home despite the ebb and flow of a city constantly on the move to wherever. Of eating rich shahi tukra and biryani that the palate still lusts for at intimate chowkis at the Qutb Shahi tombs, or bargaining for mirror-studded Ladla Bazaar bangles in the bustling Charminar at Hyderabad. Of the beat of the dhaak and the sensuous, swirling aroma of dhuno as the priest calls the deity into public consciousness at the annual conclave that is Durga Pujo in quintessential Kolkata/ Calcutta.
     How does Bangalore fit into this framework that defines a city for me? It seems to engage with its past with insouciance, within a continuum where the past, the present and the future collide every milli-moment. Its streets voice their cosmopolitan culture and urban angst as much in Kannada as in Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam or English. It does not offer outsiders a pageant of archaeological monuments; instead, in the words of a wag, it has just ‘two rambling gardens and a crumbling palace.’ It is as much at ease with the masala dosa of Vidyarthi Bhavan as with the stiff upper lip colonial traditions of the Bangalore Club, or the shining new towers and gated communities of IT-based international commerce.

      I try to touch base with the essential Bangalore/ Bengaluru. But for every home truth that stands its ground, I chance upon a contradiction that seems equally valid. Questions jostle with answers in uneasy combat. What makes Bangalore pulse to life? Could it be the yoking of the local and the global, the contradictory aspirations of a ‘wannabe Singapore,’ as media debates would have us believe?
     Fifteen years ago, my friends from Chennai, New Delhi or Jaipur and I would often lie back on the grass in a secluded patch of Cubbon Park and ask the lazy, wandering weekend clouds in the blue sky overhead: What defines this city? Where is it going? Where is the Garden City? The Pub City? What makes this a resurgent hub of contemporary Indian art and dance today? What heaves through the underbelly of Brand Bangalore? Will it explode when the past and present collide with the future? Or will the laid-back nature of its citizens soothe ruffled feelings so that life flows on?

      From the hang-glider, the numbing crush of traffic on roads gone berserk seems like science fiction. Even the erasure of the pensioner’s paradise by realtors and mall maniacs appears unreal, however temporarily. For the city I spy below is green, calm, an eminently desirable location, even a space of infinite promise. Of what?

      Of a home truth that I acknowledge as we ease into a gentle touchdown at Jakkur. An essence that is celebrated in Bangalore or Bengaluru daily, through its myriad tongues, its multiple origins, the cacophony of sound tracks within curvilinear recountings.  

       It is a truth that this anthology seeks to represent. Not within an encyclopaedic sweep or a comprehensive, defining narrative. The multi-pronged gaze of the contributors trace the city, its culture of confluences both real and surreal, whether viewed from terra-firma or while airborne. As flexi-cities within the single location tumble into view, it would be impossible not to celebrate their underlying spirit. A spirit that, to me, is best summed up in two words: Multiple City

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Author Shashi Deshpande shares a Bangalore story
A cross-section of the audience that evening

Here's a link to an interview with Kavitha K in Midday, Bangalore:

And a talk piece in Citizen Matters:

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