Your columnist was an undergraduate student of English at Delhi University when he first undertook a train journey across the length and breadth of India to the National Law School of India University. For whatever reason, the student theatre group he travelled with took went from Delhi to Chennai, then to Pune and finally to Bangalore. Days merged with platforms, as the concrete edifices of the North gave way to greener pastures in the South, as the taste of each State permeated through the fenestrated windows of the train. The various wallahs thrust eager arms with wares and food. Over a decade ago, every train was a Shatabdi (Express) but for the most part, elements of speed, timeliness and efficiency remained good ideas or rooted in a karmic timetable. Not that inexplicable and long delays mattered to a boisterous student group. In 2000, upon graduation, your columnist took the second longest train journey across India – from Delhi to Trichy (now Tiruchirappalli), under the Western Ghats, on the then recently completed engineering marvel, the Konkan Railway line. Though these were not journeys that were easy, they allowed the observation of a vast country through different frames, as its dialects, customs, tastes, cultures, personal and communal journeys filtered in through passing landscape, ticketed citizens and the occasional farm animal.
It was around this time that Bangalore was first experienced. In contradistinction to Delhi – at the time a city with air pollution so bad, your columnist returned to Sri Lanka with respiratory issues and weakened eyesight – Bangalore offered an oasis similar to how Colombo was missed and remembered. Large trees sheltering main roads, weather that was markedly milder than Delhi and with much cleaner air, far less of Delhi’s brutal, cacophonous traffic, friendlier, less hurried pedestrians and for students, the abundance of relatively cheap pubs and good beer, each with its own character. In the intervening years, stories of a progressively more populated, expensive and hurriedly urbanised Bangalore filtered in through friends, making the memory of what it once was, and how it was first experienced, even more treasured.
Thirteen years after that first journey by train, Bangalore’s experience over the past week was nothing like the city remembered. There is a new metro. There is no PCO/STD booth in sight. Everyone has a mobile. The metro stations are large and clean, though the main roads directly under the elevated line are a mess – rubble, mounds of earth, veritable storms of dust, dysfunctional signs, debris of erstwhile construction and rampant litter. The city has become a foodie heaven – with international chains cheek in jowl with great local pubs, high-end restaurants, coffee shops and even specialised chai spots. There are shopping malls exceeding the size of Liberty Plaza and Majestic City combined, indistinguishable inside from those one would find in any Western city, and arguably, more opulent. Luxury apartments are all the rage, and there is even housing modelled, ostensibly, on the lines of Californian Villas. Underneath the Metro lines however, India’s masses still emerge from their ramshackle hovels, criss-crossing with their bicycles and distracted children in tow traffic that most loudly horns when completely stuck. Apps for the iPhone suggest sublime culinary experiences based on locale, price and cuisine, but the best breakfast to be had remains at Koshy’s, which sadly though is now given to play Flo Rida over its speakers. The remembered city of lush groves and a milder clime is long gone, or is perhaps now increasingly just for gated communities and harder to find in public, for free. In its place is in large part a more modern, confident and extremely wealthy city, with a middle class that enjoys discretionary spending and a smorgasbord of choice over good and services that didn’t exist a decade ago. And yet, the unevenness of this growth is evident as well. The main approach road to the city from Bangalore’s airport, for example, is for several kilometres, meticulously landscaped on either side. This soon gives way to utter chaos, dust and grime. The billboards advertising cars, housing, telecoms and (international) travel suggest economic growth and greater upward social mobility. Yet for new millions in and around the city, they remain the larger equivalents of the glossy magazine pages that serve up hot gram and masala on the roadsides – depictions of an alien, unreachable world, far removed from the existential concerns of an uncertain daily wage.
Over the last decade, Bangalore changed to Bengaluru. Thomas Friedman found in this city reason to believe the world was flat, but that’s quite naïve. Bengaluru’s far more unjust, unfair and uneven than Bangalore. Yet a new and convenient patriotism, identity and lifestyle trump any concern or questioning.
This is the dominant façade of India today. It could well be Sri Lanka’s tomorrow.