December 2007, alighting from the airplane, I stood for a moment, glancing at the tarmac wondering what this city would show me. It was hot. Standing by the pavement, peeling off the layers of woolens, the first adjustment to the South of India had already begun.
Everyday life began to take over. As an outsider to the city, there were tiny instances where one knew somehow that a cultural faux pax had been committed. It shone through in the clothes that I wore, the assertive body language that made me stand out, the retorts with an auto-rickshaw driver, a glare form the neighborhood lady as I walked down the roads brazenly displaying my arms in a sleeveless shirt.
My north–Indianness spoke louder than my words ever could.
The mumbling mutterings, the glares, the rueful shake of the head were always accompanied by one constant anthem. Bangalore had changed.
Five years have passed by. The city is my home, yet somehow the pulse of the city seems to elude me. To understand the transformation, I needed to explore the history; the old talking to the new. And so it began, a journey of enquiring into the history of the largest growing Metropolis in India, and the fifth largest city in South Asia.
Reminiscing For the Old Bangalore
Perched on a plateau, nestled in the hottest part of the Indian sub-continent, Bangalore was almost like a hill station. The weather remained cool almost all year around, with the temperatures rising to a sizzling summer of 20 degrees. Always a melting pot of religious groups, the city had learnt the art of appreciating differences from an early age. Unlike the rest of the country, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Jains all maintained their own identity, while blending in with the rest.
The little big city was content in living its idyllic life – close knit and warm. No matter where one went, you were sure to bump into someone you knew and exchange a few pleasantries. People dropped by home, time was spent being together and doing things. Pensioners’ paradise was a nickname it cherished.
Tree lined roads squealed with the tinkling of cycling bells. 8 -10 year olds were gifted their first set of wheels and the city became a rolling adventure. Riding cross city, a section of 6-7 kilometers to perch on the walls of the army airport waiting for the planes to land was a thrill, swimming at the club in the center of the city, no big deal and indulging in petty street camp fights, bravery.
Open playing grounds littered the city. Intent and serious boys converted themselves into fast paced bowlers. Friendships were forged. Enemies made. Plans were hatched while dangling ones legs in your very own colony lake (there were over 400 to choose from).
Dating was hush hush. Permission was taken, and the girl wooed by taking her to the Time and Again and later, Pub World and Guzzlers. Girls hardly smoked in public, young ladies hardly stayed alone and ‘living-in’ was unheard of.
So what? Wasn’t this true for half the Indian Cities? Yes, it was, but in the 1970s. Bangalore managed to hold on to the connected slower pace of life almost till the late 1990s.
That’s when everything changed….
Appreciating the New Bangalore
The dotcom bubble burst in America by the late 1990’s. India had already laid the foundation to become a major outsourcing hub, thanks to all the low cost, back end and Y2K projects executed successfully.
The flat outsourced world had emerged from the pupae of the pensioners’ paradise.
Post 2003, the real wave started with the outsourcing of millions of jobs. Infosys increased their headcount from 20,000 to 1 lakh in 3 years. IBM India grew 800% from 9,000 employees in 2003 to 74,000 employees in 2007 (today it has 1.5 lakh). Giants like Wipro, HCL, TCS, grew as rapidly.
So rapid, so intense, so global was the rise that the word “outsourced” and “bangalored” found an entry in the Oxford Dictionary. The sleepy hill town was taken by surprise.
In just 8 years, Bangalore district’s population ballooned 46.68% to around 9.59 million in 2011. Population density almost doubled, people from across the nation flocked to this job haven, international visitors and expats made an entry, hotels mushroomed, property prices shot through the roof and the pensioners’ paradise was invaded by rich, affluent youngsters with their first taste of FREEDOM!
Masses of people needed mass housing. Grounds and lakes were converted into housing societies and gated communities emerged. IT companies needed large offices and they set up shop in the outskirts of the city. Without adequate public transport to get there, the new rich youth bought 2 wheelers and 4 wheelers. The roads became choked. Cars needed space to park, roads needed to be widened. The trees had to go. Unfortunately, they did.
Bangalore was confused. Traditional ways elbowed the liberal youth. Mutterings and mumblings began. Slowly minds and hearts of people expanded and contracted, simultaneously.
But good things also happened.
Cultures interacted, clear demarcations between right and wrong gave way to a new grey. More things became acceptable. Suddenly, women had job options and they grabbed them.
Financially independent, empowered women could make choices, could say ‘no’. Expectations from new wives decreased, gender equality in houses increased.
Little changes cropped up. Working women skipped the morning Rangoli once in a while, Morning breakfasts saw steaming idlis, give way to Kellogs and parathas, sarees made space for jeans and t shirts, husbands learnt to pitch in and mother in laws learnt the value of silence.
Spanish, Japanese, Italian, American and other world cuisines like Lebanese also made their presence felt. Choices and availability went up. From one locally run bakery and fast food joint, several McDonald’s lined the streets with long queues waiting to sample the vegetarian burgers.
Gone were the olden days where an urge to eat Goan Sausages meant a trip to the center of town. Paremsan cheese, gongesela sauce, soya bean paste, smoked ham, fresh basil, crisp lettuce, broccoli – exotic food, largely unknown to the Indian palette went from being novel to regular – at least for the affluent.
Purchasing power increased. For the first time, people in their 20s were buying houses, cars, travelling abroad, living the lives that their parents were only able to afford in their 50s.
These were still frills, cosmetic changes in a way. Real change was taking place silently, among the urban poor. As the city expanded, the access for them increased. Schools became better and everyone learnt the magic language – English. Computer skills were easy to get, maids’ daughters knew they would not be maids. Drivers’ sons knew they could and would get overseas. Equality stretched its hand. Vijaya, my maid put it aptly, ‘Madam, now everyone can dream and get, earlier we weren’t even dreaming’.
A new fear emerged, isolation.
Parents adapted. Scared that their sons, would marry and set up home without them, they changed. It was ok to marry someone you choose, it was ok if she wasn’t from the same caste, class or even religion, it was ok if she wanted to live alone in another city, it was ok to see young people smoking, it was ok for couples to live in, it was ok to know that drinks and pubs were the format of entertainment.
It wasn’t really ok, but somehow this acceptance was what life had become.
Lost in a crowd, one hardly knew the neighbors. Relatives that were always thought to live close by were now more than an hour away. Meetings became infrequent,. Everyone knew almost no-one. The connectedness and community feeling shrank. Friendliness and kindness was replaced with aggression and anger.
Traffic had become a monster, crowded roads, noise and air pollution and a desperate desire to race the light creating a honking, gesticulating, angry mess. Children could no longer cycle to school. Gully cricket (street cricket) vanished. Grounds were crowded, so play time became an endless list of tennis camps, swimming camps, martial arts etc. Unless you were in an expensive gated community, the children were left with few areas to play.
Hot long summers became a norm. It rained less, and the sun shone on. Living in denial, one still saw people walking in jackets and hoodies, a habitual garment they needed when they left home. In fact in three of my working places, the management refused to install air conditioners, not because it was expensive, but because in Bangalore there was no need. Denial danced her merry dance.
To top it all, Bangalore Police held the city ransom to some archaic laws. 11.30 pm the CITY WILL SHUT DOWN. C’mon really?!!! Even Cinderella had a midnight curfew. Dancing was banned and so were live bands were banned too. So now, the young-rich-internationally-travelled youth had to cram all its living in the two hours between 9 pm and 11 pm. Naturally, anger rose, people preferred meeting at home, and isolation–and sheer lack of community, became the reality. Echoes of children playing on the streets and peaceful lakes were no more.
All these are superficial changes. Easy to point out and understand.
It’s the changes below that are subtle, sublime. At its core, the city remains one that accepts and adjusts. It observes the new for a long time before either adopting it or simply stating – not in my house. Unlike any of the larger cities within India, not once has there been a hostile riot or a demonstration demanding that the migrants head back. The hill town has opened its arms to welcome strangers, and make them friends.
For me, it’s amazing to see this high a level of tolerance on a continuous daily basis. Maybe, the words of Roshini, a local Bangalore girl ring true. ‘As we grew up there was always an immense guilt associated with being angry, the thinking was not about only what I want but what everyone needs. Harmony was cherished, beyond me/my thoughts, emphasis was given to ‘we’ and ‘our’ thoughts, and somehow this is how everyone thought. It was a kind, caring place to be..”
I blushed crimson red. A long forgotten memory of a holiday came rushing back. I was travelling with from South India to discover the Himalayas. One morning, the gentle tour instructor, hailed down a passing bus and made us all clamor in for an excruciating 13 hour ride. There was a lack of seats, and my luck was to get a bench next to the driver with little back support. I flipped out. Demanded my rights, my fare, better organization, and fumed at how ‘swalpa adjust maddii’ (come on just adjust/compromise) tones were thrown at me.
Looking back now. I understand. For someone like Roshini, adjusting to that seat, would have meant that harmony would be resorted, everyone could carry on with the journey and she would somehow get kindness, passed snacks, a smile in return. Though I am pretty sure, I will still bristle the next time around; this new perspective was an eye opener.
Even though the very fabric of life is now unrecognizable, it’s interesting that there is no blame games on. IT enjoys immense goodwill among the citizens; it has ushered in prosperity, not only for themselves but others in the city. The lament is about the speed at which it has happened. Government bodies, slow as they are were just unable to cope. Developmental measures that begin now are already too little too late. The birds of India’s garden city, left long ago.
The people have accepted that the change is here, to stay. Coping measures are cropping up slowly. Ads for gated communities promising lush green acres of land dot the city. Land in adjacent areas is being scouted for. Trekking groups are leading the city to open spaces to stretch their legs. The city is making itself a new history once more.
In the last two years there “imagined communities” are popping up, of athletes, artists, and intellectuals–groups that often get lost among the talk of India’s rapid development. Citizens have organized themselves to create a lifestyle they need. Running clubs have enrolled over thousand people, trendy cyclists – armed with sippers and helmets (a biking helmet remains a novelty in India) risk their lives as they drive to work, stand-up comedians are poking fun at the metropolis, bands are performing, new dance schools are thriving. It’s a Bangalorean Renaissance —and the crowds are raising a toast to the new era.
Armed with a picture of old Bangalore, as it exists, I walk along the shaded green trees lining the paths near home. Sitting on a bench, I watch the dogs play. Flowers have covered the cars parked on the curb. A gentle breeze is nudging the flowers to play. An occasional cyclist silently rides by. I breathe. Closing my eyes, I can so easily imagine a bunch of kids chasing each other down the street, playing hide and seek.
Smiling, I sit there and enjoy the moment.