Demanding Laws and Poetic Traffic: Chaos and Quiet in Bangalore

Rickshaw economics, charity Toastmasters and rhyming police; prohibitions in Cubbon Park and techno headaches in malls, the Windsors in India and flagging down Gandhi.

Leaving the Ecumenical Christian Centre where I’d stayed the last month, on Friday I headed to central Bangalore.  When my auto-rickshaw stopped at a traffic light, a scruffy girl somersaulted past, climbed through a hoop then tapped me on the knee for money.  On the other side, a skinny chap insisted I needed sunglasses.

The drivers themselves continue to amuse or infuriate.  I’ve been asked ten times the meter rate, demurred, and found myself besieged by other drivers offering their two-stroke steeds for service.  At first I hoped this could work in my favour.  My high school economics teacher told us that excess of supply over demand will drive down prices, so I hoped I could divide and conquer.  But the fellows know you’re helpless and defy the laws of commerce; they haven’t read the right textbooks.  They neither divide nor discount, but enjoy the haggling match, or foreigner-bating.  Sometimes I end up walking in frustration.

Once I have embarked, drivers turn around to ask my “good name”, age, marital status, occupation, income, and other such questions that we consider nosy but are normal friendliness here.  It’s all most agreeable, though I’d prefer they kept their eyes on the road.

I spent three nights at a Church of South India guest house called Vishranthi Nilayam, meaning House of Rest.  It lived up to its name, on a quiet tree-lined street ten minutes’ walk from hyperactive Mahatma Gandhi road.  There are Scripture verses on the walls: “Jesus Christ cares for you” in my room, and in the foyer an old favourite that’s good for solo travellers, “I will never leave you nor forsake you”.  Over breakfast I met a lady with Mt Cook NZ sweatshirt – actually a Brit working in Mother Teresa’s order; the former head of Scripture Union India; a Korean at a conference who thought India resembles Korea 40 years ago.

After a KFC VegeBurger for dinner, I attended the 821st meeting of the Garden City Toastmasters Club (Toastmasters is an international, non-profit group that develops public speaking confidence and that I can highly recommend).  Founded in 1991, it was the first Toastmasters club in India.  A picture of American founder Ralph Smedley hung on the front wall (where you often see a Hindu god) and signs instructed “switch off your cell phone, not your concentration”.  Members gathered over pre-meeting chai and vadas (crusty doughnut shaped bread).

I was pleased to see their social commitment.  The president hopes to run a SpeechCraft course in a prison, another visits a backward school with his company, and they’ve founded a club for poor kids.  They used an electric bell to warn speakers going over time, instead of the coloured traffic lights we have in New Zealand.  Prompts for table topics (unprepared two-minute speeches on an unknown topic) included “We know the speed of light, but what’s the speed of dark?” and “Society forgets the criminal, it never forgives the dreamer.”

Only 10 of 40 members attended as it was Diwali weekend.  It sounded like a war zone outside with fireworks rumbling and booming all round.  The walk home – past marriage halls that accommodate 100s or 1000s of guests – was exciting!  A friend told me that India’s Supreme Court had forbidden fireworks after 10pm.  I’d seen enough of India to ask “who cares?”, and they were still going at 11:30 when I fell asleep with earplugs firmly in place.

It was the usual pattern.  India has many rules, but no one cares.  You would never guess, for example, that helmets are mandatory on motorbikes, despite encouraging traffic police signs like “You have only one head – protect it.”  Some signs are prosaic: “Jay walking is dangerous – walk on the footpath.”  “Every mistake can be your last negligence.”  Others are in rhyme: “Follow the traffic rules. Speed thrills but kills.”  “Every time you drink and drive, you lose choice to survive.”

The literary flair of Indian officialdom inspired Salman Rushdie in his children’s book Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990).  The Express Mail Coach careers around Kashmir cliffs plastered with punchy one-liners – “Drive like hell and you’ll get there”, “Be dead slow or be dead” – and quirky couplets:

If you try to rush or zoom,
You are sure to meet your doom.

All the dangerous overtakers
End up safe at undertaker’s.

Look out!  Slow down!  Don’t be funny!
Life is precious!  Cars cost money!

If from speed you get your thrill,
Take precaution – make your will.

Bangalore’s Cubbon Park is a shady haven from horns and fumes and such near death encounters.  Sunrays dance through tall bamboo creaking in the wind, bushes are sculpted into animals, stone benches face flower beds and families play cricket.  But it’s also full of scolding signs.  “Prohibited: Playing.  Hawkers.  Feeding the dogs.  Illegal activities.”  Unlawful conduct is presumably permitted elsewhere.  “Caution: Do not sit on the lawn.  Do not pluck the flowers.  Do not throw the stones at the birds.  Co-operate to keep the garden clean.”  500-1000 Rs spot fines are stipulated, but who cares?  The park is littered everywhere, despite cute penguin and rabbit rubbish bins entreating “Use me”.

In the middle of Cubbon Park is the circular state library.  Tidy and airy, with rustling newspapers and easy chair browsing, wooden ladders for clambering to the upper reaches.  Walls of books above me recalled childhood wonder, when I gazed up at towering bookshelves and felt small on the shores of endless knowledge.

Westernised malls promise another escape from the chaos, but the loud costly clamour is scarcely more soothing than impoverished street noise outside.  Hoping to relax, I bought a McDonald’s Maharaja Mac, then vacillated between headache-inducing techno inside and incessant honking outdoors.  It was hard to believe from such a postmodern mall that I’d spent the last two hours wilting in heat and dust, failing to find an internet connection or phone booth that worked.

After singing from a colonial era hymnal at Emmanuel Baptist Church on Sunday, I visited ivy-covered Bangalore palace.  It’s a smaller residence for the hot summer months of the Maharajas from Mysore palace that we saw last week (see here).  The building is modelled on Windsor Palace and protected by guards with antiquated rifles, who waved and blew their whistles with gusto when I photographed the facade from afar without the expensive camera pass.  Indian minor officials take their authority seriously.  Once forgiven and permitted inside, sepia family portraits and china figurines reminded me of my grandmother’s dresser, though she didn’t have rubbish bins and stools made from elephant feet.  I read that real gentlemen in the British Raj carried their golf clubs in a bag made from the elephant male organ.

Today I auto-rickshawed to the station, to store my pack until my night train, and passed crowds cheering at speeches beside a statue of Gandhi.  As I walked back, the streets around Cubbon Park and the government buildings swarmed with people sporting ribbons and bearing placards with photos of political leaders.  Lines of flags fluttered from fences, lampposts, trees, all with simple logos to assist illiterate voters.  Green and orange with a tulip is the nationalist Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party.  Green, white and orange with an upraised hand denotes the more secular Congress Party of Gandhi and Nehru.  Their supporters were in white kurta shirts and pointed white Nehru caps.  Green and white with a peasant woman carrying wheat is the Janata Dal Party.  I collected one of each flag that had fallen to the ground as souvenirs.  All seemed peaceful, although thick-vested police were leaning against a fence nearby.  I later gathered it was the swearing-in of the new state government.