Mud and Silicon: Growing up in Bangalore

Boiled beans, brave hares and anti-British rockets; pensioners, prangs and Frogger; camera curiosity and wobbling ambiguity, lakeside laughter and David’s departure.

The city of Bangalore has come a long way.  Around 1100 A.D. a king was lost while hunting and sheltered at an old lady’s cottage.  He named a new settlement, so the story goes, for the simple meal she gave him: Bengaluru first meant “Village of Boiled Beans”.  400 years later, a local chief saw his dog chased away by a hare.  He was so impressed by the bunny’s courage that he built a mud fort on the site.  His grandson erected four watchtowers on surrounding hills, dug tanks to harvest water, and a real town was born.

In the 18th century, a powerful Muslim ruler moved in, Tipu Sultan.  I visited his botanical gardens and palace during my last week.  The “Tiger of Mysore” allied himself with France and hated the British.  He built a life-size model of a tiger mauling a British officer, complete with internal pipes to sound the Englishman’s groans.  He invented rockets that shot swords from wheeled launchers and trained his troops to calculate angles for targets up to a kilometre away.  He once forced the Duke of Wellington to retreat (he regained his honour at Waterloo).

The British defeated and killed Tipu Sultan in 1799, and an army cantonment was established at Bangalore, as you can still see on a map.  I caught the train to and from Cantonment Station, stayed at a guest-house on Infantry Road, marched past the Parade Ground and down Brigade Road.  Civilians were also drawn to the elevated town that represented “India without its scorching sun, Europe without its snow”.

At Independence in 1947, Bangalore’s population was only 600,000.  It was called the Garden City, the Pensioners’ Paradise, a tranquil escape from centres like Bombay.  From the 1990s, however, international IT companies moved in.  Bangalore became India’s Silicon Valley and the population has boomed to 6 million or more.

Peter Colaco Bangalore CoverIn Bangalore: A Century of Tales from City and Cantonment (2003) long-term resident Peter Colaco reminisces about the changes he has seen (see reviews here and here).  In his youth the city was a quiet hill station, “a lazy little place… space and grace personified” where he rode his bike down open roads with no traffic lights.  In 1958 there was only one horse-drawn carriage left.  Now the streets are a nightmare.

I arrived in India with trepidation, fearing theft and sickness, but statistically my greatest danger was traffic.  A Bangalore Traffic Police “Road Accidents Awareness” sign reported 395 fatalities and 2719 injuries from 1 January to 31 May this year.  In three decades I’ve never witnessed an accident in New Zealand, but in two months I have here.  In Bangalore a car pranged an auto-rickshaw.  Surrounding auto drivers leapt out to berate the motorist.  In Hyderabad a motorbike hit a pedestrian.  The latter limped off cursing and the former lay on the ground as my auto-rickshaw pulled away.  And in Chennai, walking down the street because the footpath was fenced off, my shoulder knocked in the wing mirror of a van.  Fortunately it was moving slowly.

I’ve come a long way since I first stumbled in shock down the Whitefield roads, but crossing streets continues to be fun.  It’s a sort of live action Frogger game, except the traffic doesn’t always travel in predictable straight lines.  Intersections are often governed by a muddle of both lights and a policeman directing.  One time I thought a wide road was clear.  Half way across, a wall of motorbikes and rickshaws bore down on me.  I started to slowly back off as they swerved to both sides of me, then just stood still and prayed!

No one has mauled me as Tipu Sultan did the Brits, although hawkers and auto-rickshaw drivers have come close.  At first I felt awkward when people asked how much my camera cost.  I mostly say I’m not sure: it was a gift from my parents.  Which is true, but I know it cost several hundred dollars.  And I know a simple meal costs me 60 cents at a CBD café and locals could eat for less.  I estimate the price of my camera might feed a family for a year.

In their shoes, I’d be fuming at the injustice and launching rockets like the Tiger Sultan did, but they show no resentment.  Indians are simply curious about the sort of details we mostly don’t discuss – like how much you earn.  Most people here seem content, grateful for what they do have, unlike Westerners who have so much and envy others who have more.

In fact the camera has been a bridge to friendly encounters.  I’m shy about photographing people (especially women, most especially covered Muslim women) and always ask or gesture for permission.  They mostly wobble their head in reply.  I’ve heard the Indian head-wobble can mean “yes” or can mean “no”, or maybe “don’t know”, or convey other subtleties that leave me unclear, but there is mostly a smile.

A few stall holders object or want money, but many more love being photographed.  Some ask for a click when my camera isn’t even out, or run up to join their neighbour in the frame.  In the flower market, a man gave me tea and a button-hole rose, then begged for a photo, although I said it was too dark.  “Please sir, you’re breaking my heart!”  Going digital is wonderful.  Both children and adults love seeing themselves and their friends cluster around to point out a “brother” in the camera screen as an “Indian monkey”.

As well as sharing their friendship, I’m beginning to taste their frustration.  This country has so much potential and so much is wasted.  On my final day in town, I went to see Ulsoor Lake.  Fountains were playing among the artificial islands, but the shore line was fenced off.  I found a little park with a playground, hedges and shady seats, but the gate was locked.  A few fishermen dangled lines from the concrete area outside.  Pedal boats floated unused, covered with leaves, inside a dilapidated boat shed.  The place could be so nice with so little work.  In another park, where bats hung from trees, I noticed a sign for a laughing club – I’d heard but scarce believed that people gather early mornings just to chuckle!  Maybe it’s the only way to survive.

After being away for three weeks, bouncing down the dirt road of the Ecumenical Christian Centre felt like coming home.  I was even back in my same corner room.  I relaxed among the familiar faces, though missed the Minnesotans, and relished the green grounds.  A new sign had appeared with a challenge for India and the West – a list of Gandhi’s Seven Deadly Sins:

Wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, science without humanity, knowledge without character, politics without principle, commerce without morality, worship without sacrifice.

The last nights I was invited to two staff homes and found myself eating alone at 7pm – locals don’t eat till 9 or 10pm.  They asked whether it’s the case that in the West we need an invitation to visit someone’s house, you don’t just pop in.  I was sad that it’s often true – we rich are less hospitable – and that they’ll never afford an air ticket to see for themselves.

Bangalore has come a long way in two decades.  So have I in two months.  At the airport check in, I saw a minor squabble over the ambiguous queuing.  I wasn’t surprised – don’t these Indians know this is India: why expect a tidy order?  I was afraid I had packed too much, but the industrial kitchen scale at the ECC must have overestimated my weight.  My luggage wasn’t bursting as much as my brain is after all I’ve experienced here.  I could have bought a few more books.