I revisit memories of Bangalore and reflect on what has changed, travel back to colonial times and encounter fatal hazards.
Over Easter I stayed at the church guesthouse where I’d been in 2007. This time the verse on my wall was God’s promise to the Israelites wandering in the desert – and to me as I perambulate this wild land: “My presence will go with you.” (Exodus 33:14)
It’s been good to reacquaint myself with Bangalore five years after my first visit (see my reports on that trip here). Here was KFC and McDonald’s where I ate my first meals when I was new to India and paranoid about getting sick. Ullas Vegetarian Restaurant that Lonely Planet recommended so I felt safe – now its breezy balcony was closed. K C Das, the first eatery I proudly discovered on my own for pooris so hot off the pan they burned my fingers as I dipped them into tasty samba.
Brigade Road is still full of pedestrian-threatening traffic and punchy police signs. Mahatma Gandhi Road is still full of tourist-trapping hawkers – with the same sunglasses and maps, small wooden chess sets and toy helicopters. Sellers of bamboo pipes were still playing Titanic. They all seemed less persistent than I remembered – maybe I’m inured, or now less obviously gullible and green. The biggest change I’ve seen runs over their heads: at long last the first stage of the Metro is going.
I re-located my favourite stores. The Bookworm’s sign looked as if it hadn’t been painted since I perused its shelves in 2007. One bookshop seemed to have recently closed, with clearance sale posters in the window. Another I couldn’t find at all. I remembered chatting to its owner about the pirated books spread out on the pavement. These photocopied bestsellers seemed to have disappeared too, but I saw them after a few days, more surreptitious now.
It was all like meeting an old friend. I sat on a shady bench in Cubbon Park and reflected. How has the city changed since we last met? And what has changed for me? I’m now a little older. I’m a little more confident at navigating this vast and fascinating country. And I’m a little sadder, though hopefully wiser, because I’ve travelled through the valley of my father’s dying since then. A Bangalore paper had an article on ageing. It had a line from the Persian poet Rumi that made me think of Dad:
Why is it that the lion’s strength weakens to nothing? The wrestler who could hold anyone down is led out with two people supporting him, their shoulders under his arms?
Dad had the British stiff upper lip and was a true scholar and gentleman. Down the road from my hotel, the 1852 Holy Trinity Church had many such memories from colonial times. The neoclassical portico is painted brown and cream. In the lobby I found a page from the Bangalore Mirror: “Churchill Prayed Here”. He also left an unpaid 13 pound debt at the Bangalore Club. I went inside, where deflated balloons and dangling ribbons suggested a recent wedding.
The front-left seat still has a plaque, “The Hon’bl Resident”. Behind are rows reserved for “Commanding Officers” and QAIMNS (Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, est. 1902), while front right seats are earmarked for the chaplain and GOC (General Officer Commanding). On the whitewashed walls are relief sculptures of soldiers and banners and swords, with inscriptions that recall an age of sudden death.
Some were taken by disease, like the four who died of cholera on the march in 1852. Sailing was perilous: a Major General was “drowned by the foundering of the steamer Cheduba in a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal” on 16 May 1869; his wife then died at sea between Malta and Gibralta on 28 May 1869. Lionel Bridge, Captain Royal Artillery, perished “on his homeward journey from Madras, 1866, aged 38 years”. He caught my attention because, after a Burma expedition, he participated in “the suppression of the Indian Mutiny 1857, & for his services at the relief of Lucknow, he received a Brevet Majority” – only two months ago I saw the bullet holes in the Lucknow Residency myself (see here).
Some soldiers even survived other hazards to die in action. In 1858, “George King Newbery, captain of the 8th Madras Light Cavalry… fell leading a charge of his men in the attack of Shorapore”. But I gave first prize to “George Staple Dobbie, Esquire, Mysore Revenue Survey, who died from the effects of wounds inflicted by a tiger near Shemoga, May 6th 1875. Aged 30 years.”
Mark Twain visited India in 1896 and noted the statistics. Over the last six years, on average, 45 people had been killed by elephants, 100 by bears, 230 by leopards, 700 by wolves, and 800 by tigers. Even combined these hardly counted: 17,000 people per year had met their end through encounters with snakes.