Bangalore: Out of sight, not out of mind

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By Nirupama Rajan

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It’s been a little over two months since I left Bangalore (Bengaluru, if you really insist). I’m a whole continent away now – certainly too far from a hot plate of bisi bele bhaath for my liking. I’ve said this even when I lived there, but with this distance between me and the city that for the most part made me who I am, it strikes me more so that it is one that I’m incredibly partial to, even if only by force of habit.

Where I live now in Berlin, life isn’t too difficult to get used to, especially if your knowledge of the German language is enough to ensure you don’t go to bed hungry at night. The buses are on time (as are the people), the streets are clean and there are no power cuts- basically, I’m as spoilt as I can be in 2018. The two months that I’ve been here in Germany may seem like little compared to the twenty-two years I’ve spent in India, but I think I can safely say that whatever little “culture shock” I experienced on first arriving here will probably pale in comparison to what I’m going to face when I get back to India and its Indianness a year from now.

This is not going to be one of those things where I conclude by saying that at the end of the day, my heart is still hanging around in the country of my birth. I’m not really one to pine for the little things. I genuinely believe that the only thing I miss about India is how easy it was to go out and get a packet of Maggi for so little money (don’t blame me- I’m a product of my generation). I’m very happy being where I am today and I’m excited about where I might go from here in the future. Be that as it may, twenty-two years is a long time and it feels longer to think that they were all spent not in one place or school, but many – perhaps even more than what would be considered ideal.

By the time I was seventeen, I’d studied in seven schools in seven different places. From a remote convent school nestled in the hills of Ooty to a regular city school in bustling Coimbatore, from an ‘alternative’ KFI school in Pune to what was then probably the only English-medium school in Cuddalore, and from being in a class of nine students in a fancy boarding school in Chikmagalur to one with over a hundred (requiring teachers to use a microphone within the classroom) in a junior college in Bangalore, I’ve experienced schooling – and consequently, life – across a relatively large portion of the economic and educational spectrum.
If I had the discipline and/or the motivation to, I could write several books with five volumes each on the experiences that each of these episodes held for me. But the point I want to make for now is that despite so many schools and towns and homes and just so much furniture – moving isn’t easy if you do it almost every year, believe me – Bangalore and everything about it stands out for me as one of those things that can actually stand out.

It might take a village to raise a child but those children and the people that raised them play a huge role in shaping the very village itself. Now, I’m certainly not blind to the problems that plague the (somehow) still beautiful city of Bangalore. If anything, I was always screaming my lungs off back then about how we were doing everything wrong. Given half a chance, I still would. Burning lakes, steel flyover, Kaveri riots, wait for it… traffic jams (I’m still traumatised from the one time I was at Silk Board during peak hours) – I’m already exhausted and that’s just the memory of them!

In Berlin, you could lock yourself up in your bedroom for a whole day and you’d still somehow meet people from at least five different countries. The more I interact with all these fascinatingly different people and the more I interact with Indians here from all over India, it becomes clearer to me every day that despite all the previously mentioned misgivings, Bangalore is one of those cities that will stick around in your thoughts for a long, long time after you leave.

It’s the little things as much as it is the whole thing. It’s the feeling I would get when I would force myself out of bed on a Sunday morning and head to Cubbon Park only to find that half the city and their dogs were already there, running around come rain or shine, even if they’d spent most of the previous night in one of the bars dotting every street of the city. It’s the amazingly therapeutic quality of the rusty books and musty aisles of Blossom (the old one, especially) that could calm me down no matter what was happening in my life. The conversations with the owner at Pecos on Church Street until it shut down because of way too many power cuts, the way NICE Road felt under the tires of my scooter at 6 am on a weekend morning, the insanely long queues at Thaaza Thindi because that dosa was worth it and you knew it! It’s how you could mention Marathahalli traffic in casual conversation and only a Bangalorean would understand the hilarity of what you were saying. It’s the fact that I can go on romanticizing it all for a while yet and not regret it the slightest bit.

It’s all these things, but it’s also the bigger things – like the people and just how much they tried to care about everything. I’d always wanted to get rid of my Facebook account and I think the only reason it took me so long was how happy it made me to see that there was an active local community for every little thing, with members trying to improve the overall quality of their lives despite their long hours at work and longer hours on the roads. It was how I realised that Bangalore’s environmental and social problems are as prominent as they are simply because enough of its citizens are involved enough to make a hue and cry over everything that happens. It was the fact that I went to Jayamahal at 3 am on Valentine’s Day 2017 to paint white hearts on the trees to protest the Steel Flyover Project, expecting nobody else to show up so early, only to realise that we were already overstaffed. The problems may keep mounting, but the people keep trying to push back. And that effort by itself is an amazing thing.

It’s not easy to describe in words, but there is a certain innovative, creative spirit that thrives in Bangalore like nowhere else. The people are always ready to move forward and embrace the new. And it’s not just the start-ups and the infrastructure that are benefiting from this. It’s definitely no secret that Bangalore is currently one of the most progressive cities in India. You can start a conversation about the subtleties and nuances of feminism, gender and ecology, sexual liberation or human rights and fewer people will blink back in confusion than in most parts of the country. Despite the handfuls of naysayers here and there, Bangalore has for the most part always welcomed every kind of perspective and every school of thought. That is what made it one of the most cosmopolitan cities in India in the past and that is what allows it to be progressive today. No wonder it’s so crowded; people flock to the city for good reason.

At the end of the day, I guess what I’m trying to say is that Bangalore is a city with the potential to change you for the better, if you’re willing to let it. I mentioned this at the very beginning, but the city has played a huge role in making me the person I am today. It gave me the freedom to be exactly what I wanted to be because there would always be someone around who understood or at the very least, accepted it. I remember a friend of mine from Kerala once joked, “you don’t meet Mallus; they happen to you.” I say with a happy heart full of fond memories that the same can be said for Bangaloreans and the city they call home.

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