Saturday, August 30, 2008

Walk right back

So I finally conceded my personal and private stand against putting one more car on the road and walked into a showroom to buy my first car. The distances are not commutable any other way, not if I want to do more than get to the office and back, and do that with some sanity left.

A recent survey says that most Bangaloreans will not give up their own vehicle for public transport; they won't even car pool. One of the reasons cited is that there aren't enough buses. This is patently untrue. There is a plentiful and well-connected bus service. There are even different classes of bus travel for the more fastidious. The perceived lack of buses is the result of other, very real, very visible problems.

1. Bus-stops
They have shelters that look good but aren't much use when it rains and too small for peak hour crowds. This leads to large numbers of people milling around on the road around the bus-stops getting in the way of the people in the cars – not one of whom, unsurprisingly, is inspired to risk the bus. There are no signboards that indicate what route numbers come there or where they go. So someone who's new to the city has a bad experience to begin with and will of course get some own steam as soon as possible.

2. Behaviour of bus drivers
Buses do not always stop at the bus stops, they stop about fifty meters before or after. Nor do they wait to see if anyone is hurrying to catch the damn thing. It makes the whole experience needlessly stressful. The driver's job is complicated by the fact that bus-stops are often situated too close to turnings, exits or traffic lights. If the driver has a green light he won't bother stopping. If it's red, he will open the doors at the light and passengers have to negotiate traffic to the safety of the footpath. Which brings us to…

3. Footpaths
There aren't any. What we have are disaster areas – unpaved mudslides, unevenly paved obstacle courses, booby traps with bloody great holes in them. Taking public transport involves walking a bit and I was forced to get new shoes that violate all my aesthetic sensibilities because my beloved skinny heels are unsuitable for cross-country adventures (I had a few).

4. Behaviour of auto drivers

This is why nobody will car pool. You don't want to be left dependent on them. There are some good ones but mostly they don't bother with meters, demand whatever comes into their heads and generally make getting from A to B more difficult than it has to be.

These things are much quicker and simpler to solve than building a metro or a flyover. So why not just do it?

Walk Right Back, Everly Brothers, 1961

Dear die-hard Hindi-speaking immigrant,

It's called Kannada. The 'a' at the end is pronounced. It is a language. It is spoken in the state of Karnataka of which Bangalore* is the capital. Try to grasp it. Do not get huffy when the indigenous population cannot understand your Hindi. It is not widely spoken here, just as Japanese is not widely spoken in Seattle.

These indigenous people are called Kannadigas. If you look closely at the two words you will see that they are in fact different. Please learn how to say them – it's only polite.

Now that you've migrated you've learnt that not everything south of the Vindhyas is Madras. In the same way, everything south of HAL is not Whitefield. Please learn the proper names of places so that those of us who do live in Whitefield do not have to have metaphysical conversations with auto drivers.

*You are here. No, it isn't a suburb of Gurgaon.

The people of Bangalore (who are really quite an easygoing, hospitable bunch if you would just relax and stop shoving us about, demanding chaat like mother makes it.)

Monday, August 25, 2008

Forgive us our trespasses

The Church of Our Lady of Lourdes in Whitefield was built to accommodate the early Anglo-Indian settlers who weren't Church of England. Like most churches in India, it remains extremely well-attended.

Midnight Mass here used to be a quaint social occasion. You wore your Christmas Best. You wished everyone in the courtyard after mass. You congratulated the pastor before you left. If you were sixteen you ensured you got a pew with a view so you could check out the cute visitors that almost every family had at Christmas. You sang the carols, recited the responses, made eye contact during the sermon and gathered at the club for wine and cake afterwards. That would inevitably change as the congregation increased.

Today a procession of priests conducts the mass in three languages. There are monitors outside, three choirs with a full orchestra and a sound system fit for rock concerts – this is wonderful. Those who attend still follow the original pattern of behaviour, except for the gathering at the club. That is wonderful too.

What is not is that the church is being razed to build a new glass-fronted complex for communal religious observance. It also means the uprooting of much of the church's venerable mango orchard – from which my brother, my neighbour and I once stole bagfuls of raw mangoes simply because it was closely guarded. We did this by scaling a vertical granite wall and crawling in tall grass, a crack operation orchestrated by the intrepid neigbour, who would become my sister-in-law seventeen years later.

The church compound includes a little hill – called, of course, Calgary Hill – on which someone was once inspired to install the Stages of the Cross. The trees that grew thickly on it have been thinned a bit because the local romances tended to be conducted in the undergrowth here. I have a vision of the church wardens running up and down the hill with bird dogs, flushing out the courting couples before every service. The view from up here is still pleasant. From a distance, the world looks blue and green, as long as you don't look west, where, quite appropriately, the first of the tech parks gleams. (The compass on my keychain insists it's technically northwest, no matter how much I shake it.)

This is the old grotto at the base of the hill. It is as nice as it always was, but needs a security guard now, which makes it difficult to just sit aimlessly on one of the benches enjoying the sun.

The new grotto, I think, is the resurrection scene, but it could equally be one of the more obscure passages in the bible, especially as the afternoon clouds come rolling dramatically in. But the last few of the indigenous folk still walk to every service, in all weathers. They were here before the peacocks were introduced into the church compound. They're still here after the peacocks have unaccountably disappeared. In response to my good afternoon, she said with the detached sympathy of the very old:, "You must find it greatly changed my girl", and walked on. The rain held off until she was inside the building.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The view is not exactly clear

I have nothing to say really. I've only started this post because I've discovered the only good thing about Windows Vista - you get a blog post page right there on your desktop that you can use to type and publish without ever negotiating the inefficiencies of Internet Explorer.

In all other respects, Vista and everyone responsible for creating and selling it should be burned to the ground, preferably on live webcam. My recent entry into a world without Macs is attended by deep disgust for all things PC, deepening as I unfortunately find that my prejudices are in fact, fact. I haven't been absolutely anti-PC before this and am comfortable working on one, so there's no technical trauma. Just the horror of principles violated. That's what makes Vista even more unspeakable than it is – it's trying to ape a Mac OS, but it's all just cosmetic. At heart, it is still hidebound and the hide is pin-striped. It drives me crazy every time I encounter something stupid that could have been done so much more simply, has been done!

For example, it has a Taskbar like the Macs have a Launcher, but for some reason you can't put everything in the task bar and you have to go through two steps to do it. You can't change the size of the icons either so you have to peer at the bottom of your screen for an hour before you can make out that the seventh blue dot is Internet Explorer. It fussily puts everything into dedicated folders and doesn't give you an easy way to change the automatic settings. It pretends to give you everything in the bloody Start button and then organizes it into sub folders, sub-sub folders and paragraph a, clause 56.2, so it becomes unwieldy and not at all user-friendly. That, incidentally, is the seventh or eighth most over-used word in the technology industry according to a recent survey.

It is also slow, slow, slow.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Godzilla Vs T-Rex

In the gigantic corporation that I work for now, there are several others who have come in from advertising or "agency". And just like (supposedly) the people from that other Agency, you can spot a fellow pretender instantly no matter how well disguised. One of my non-agency colleagues asked how it was possible to spot someone who's ex-agency. My Dad a few days ago asked a similar question – what is this difference between agency and corporate? It's the difference between the impeccably trained pedigree pet and the scrappy stray with the fly ear and stubborn tail. That is what we recognize each other by, even across the vast spaces that swallow hundreds of people, in corridors that are more like highways. That almost shy pride in the new collar and leash just like all the top dogs have… but just occasionally, against our better judgement, the urge to bite through the collar and return to the free-for-all on the garbage heap.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Bathos in Beijing

If the secret PR objectives of the opening ceremony were a) Change the quality perception of "Made in China" and b) Scare the shit out of them all by showing them what we can do if we want to, then the secret PR department has done a great job. 1.5 billion people running in harness was an awesome spectacle.

India meanwhile couldn't get its snout of the trough long enough to think about basic protocol. What was the head of a political party, even the ruling party, doing among the Heads of State? And 56 participants? That's all we could get from one billion people? The local sports meet in one village alone would throw up about 10 possibilities – without special training. Where have all the sponsorships gone? Gone to cricket, every one.

Still, I'm glad I'm Indian and not Chinese. I've not been broke to bridle.

Café Coffee Day, Sterling Suites, Whitefield

The Starbucks of India is as ubiquitous as its American counterpart is in the places where it holds sway, but the coffee is a hundred times better, perhaps two thousand years better.

The music swings wildly from Eminem to Bryan Adams, Alicia Keys to Celine Dion, SP Balasubramaniam to AR Rahman. The clientele is the same sort of mix, a teeming sample of India in a Petri dish.

The English on the menu is impeccable, but everyone else struggles a little with the language. The influences of the two colonial masters, past and present, are not so much intertwined as hopelessly tangled. They do seem to call it a zee now but they don't use it in "realise". It might be listed as a cookie but it's sold as a biscuit. A new generation will have to be trained from birth to call it a jelly donut. Till then it'll be jam. You can offer your customers a muffin but you won't get them to ask for it. It is, has always been, may remain for ever, a cupcake.

People are not quite used to the girl sitting alone and doing her thing but I'm getting them used to it pretty quickly by repeated application – a useful lesson I learned from P G Wodehouse. If I don't go out and do this now I will get resentful and claustrophobic – the other side of living in a small town, caring about the gossip, staying under the radar, "looking out of the window, staying out of the sun". This may be Any(boom)town, India, 2008 but for some of us it's just a small town and I know as certainly as if I overheard it that "they" are talking about me. The difference is that it makes none to me.

I'm glad I have a coffee shop 30 seconds from my house.

Friday, August 15, 2008

61 years of freedom

To really feel Independence Day, you have to be in school. Or have school-going kids or be with people who have such. My mother was chief guest at a school today for their Independence Day celebration. Her description made me as sharply nostalgic for my days of marching in my house in the parade, as I suspect it made her for her days of organising these events. This is the only chief guest I know of whose speech was actually addressed to the students assembled before her rather than into the middle distance. She told them what it specifically meant to be born into an independent country and that what they got out of it depended on themselves, not anyone else.

I went to register myself at the local election office a few days ago and found:
• Government officials have turned polite, efficient and punctual.
• Government procedures are still shrouded in mystery, myth and legend, but less than before.
• Government information is no longer guarded by malevolent spirits and three-headed beasts – it's freely available on detailed Government websites.
• Someone I studied with earns 4% of my salary. She has the same degree I have, the same general background, started with the same lack of influence, old-boy network, money or any other special aids. But she was handicapped briefly by a traumatic marriage, which would explain some of it. There but for fortune, maybe.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Eddies in the space-time continuum

Going through old files in a frantic search for my school leaving certificate, I learnt the following:
• 1 cubic foot of water is 28 litres.
• Our household takes 10 to 24 hours to go through 250 litres of water.
• 1 tractor with a 9-tine plough can plough 20 acres in 10 hours.
• You can grow 144 mango trees in one acre of land.
• The Israelis know many useful things about commercial farming.
• A teacher can also be a polling officer.
• There's a special course on how to teach "gifted children".
• For the price of my college fees, I would today get a sandwich and coffee. It may run to a muffin as well, but that's about it.
• My parents planned to buy a flat down the road a few years ago but abandoned the idea for an unspecified reason
• My brother missed dad and the dogs most in boarding school. He had friends named Clive and Ashok and my mother used to send them home-made jam. I sent him a card for his birthday.
• He was an eight-year-old in exile. Kids that young must never, ever be sent away from home.
• My granddad had beautiful handwriting. He did not believe his grandson was over his homesickness but tried to reassure his son by pretending to think so.
• My grandmom (on the other side) wrote out detailed knitting instructions for booties but knowing my mom, they have been lying unused in this file or another for 35 years.
• Both my mom's children have forged her signature on highly creative excuse notes – but characteristically my brother's got caught and preserved while mine remained a secret until now.
• I was an intensely annoying kid.
• For the supposedly sentimental member of the family, I've preserved relatively few bits of memorabilia. And so far, they do not include my school leaving certificate.

Monday, August 04, 2008

The coming of the roads

Hundreds of hoardings across the city state without preamble or explanation: "I believe in Bangalore… because Bangalore is in my DNA."

I can't quarrel with the second part but I'm not sure what we're supposed to be believing in – the metro that's taken longer to build than whole cities have? Or the indiscriminate granting of building permits so that green expanses turn overnight into forests of apartment buildings? Should I worry instead that my long walks yield not one quiet lane in what used to be the city's most picturesque suburb? Should I be glad that the peripheral ring road is almost ready when it means that by this time next year the farmland, eucalyptus groves and wild grass on either side of it will have become "tech parks" and gated communities?

Yesterday, when my Dad and I drove down it to see how far it's come, it was a beautiful, soothing drive. Next month, the goatherd we slowed down for will be honking at us from behind the wheel of a Ford Explorer, having sold his paddock for untold sums to somebody who wants to build an expensive row of identical haciendas called Casa Del Dancing Butterfly.

It's hard to tell what is right and what is wrong. On the one hand, the goatherd deserves his turn at the SUV, the solar water heater, the plasma TV. On the other hand where does it end?

The butterflies have precious little to dance about, but they seem to be doing it anyway in my parents' garden. I'm told they are pests – they lay eggs in the leaves and the caterpillars destroy the plant when they hatch. Perhaps that's why they're dancing. My parents seem to be philosophical about it; there are certainly no pesticides in sight.

But you can't deny the vastly improved public transport and roads. The perceptible lifting of middle-class poverty. The sense of optimism in the vast numbers of young people swarming up and town the tower blocks that could be in any city in the world. The IT kids, the BPO boys and girls, the frequent rags to riches stories that strengthen the ideal of democracy. These children deserve to enjoy their new cars and swanky flats, the Tag Heuer watches, Body Shop lotions and Smirnoff Ice, just as much as the goatherd his own version of prosperity.

Meanwhile, here in this corner of Whitefield - as perhaps in other corners around the city - neighbours still visit each other. Club members still meet to play cards. Long-standing residents like my mom and dad still extract exemplary service from garbage collectors, road workers and policemen through sheer force of personality. The baker, or rather a baker, a butcher and a kebab-maker still greet me as the kid who was sent to the shops with a list by her mother.

Then there was shisha last night, on a rooftop in the rain, two bottles of very drinkable Indian Shiraz, a highly hospitable "sports bar". And three new friends, with easy conversation that felt as if'd known them a long time. Because we're old Bangaloreans and for us, this is still Bangalore, where an impulsive drink on a Sunday evening will always have strangers at the table, included without fuss or ceremony.

Maybe Bangalore now is only in our DNA. The gleaming towers and glittering lights spread out prettily below us belong to another, more hopeful city, a new era called Bengaluru. I want a piece of it myself.

The Coming of the Roads, Peter Paul & Mary, Album: Songs of Conscience & Concern, 1999

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