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City in flux

shashi deshpande | Updated on April 17, 2014

Pretty as a picture Will Bangalore, the city of gardens and lakes, die of its own surfeit? k bhagya prakash

From innocent and insular to worldly and frenetic, Bangalore over the last five decades

History can be very humbling. To look back is to realise that what we regard as eras and epochs are but a microdot in the vastness of time, to understand that the Wheel of Fortune keeps turning and nothing is constant. As with humans, so with cities: they grow, prosper, achieve greatness and then fade into obscurity. Bangalore today is at the peak of its growth; yet, why do I see it as a cancerous growth, the seeds of death concealed within? Why do I wonder whether Bangalore will die of its own surfeit? At times, I have a strange Cassandra-like vision of a ghost city, of people driven out by lack of water, poisoned by the pollution of millions of vehicles. A vision that seems to say: if Bangalore could grow so rapidly, can it not have an equally swift decline?

When we came here, nearly 50 years back, Bangalore was a nondescript town with a small-town atmosphere. Pony-driven jutkas plied on the roads, cows were brought home to be milked, girls wore lehngas or half-saris and every woman wore flowers in her hair. Nothing triggers memory as much as smell; even today the smell of the mallige or sampige, the aroma of coffee, the enticing odour of masala dosas and idli-sambar take me back to that time. Innocent — that’s the word for the city of that time. Boys came home during the Ganesha festival, not to intimidate people into contributing for large community idols, but to see the little Ganeshas installed in homes. Crime was small-time — thieves took your washing off the line, your footwear if left outside. And as I walked to the bus stop in the mornings, young men living in a lodge whistled and called out appreciative remarks about my two long plaits while I went past in haughty dignity, pretending not to hear them.

Insularity is the other word for the city of the ’50s. A city oblivious of the world outside, recognising only two other places: Madras, which was the Big City, and Mysore, the Royal City. Bangalore, earlier contained within the four towers constructed by the founding father Kempegowda, was limited by its own idea of itself. And it was not one city but two — the City and the Cantonment, invisible walls between the two keeping them strictly apart. Each served its own purpose. For sari shopping and masala dosas, we went to Chickpet, for fun shopping and biryani to Commercial Street. There was ice cream on MG Road, then South Parade, the most beautiful road in the world, with fish and chips at Koshy’s round the corner. We saw Hindi movies on KG Road and English movies on MG Road. It seemed an unchanging world. But there’s always a churning going on and in time, the city, suspicious and resentful of outsiders, had to contend with a greater influx of people than it had ever seen before. Two cities emerged yet again out of this cauldron: the city of the old residents and the city of newcomers. Once again there are invisible walls between the two. Old residents, untouched by the never-before-seen prosperity, grumble that their city has been ruined, while newcomers are happily oblivious of the complaints, often, it seems, of the city itself. For them it is only a rung on a ladder.

I too, for years, felt myself an outsider. And the city as insipid as rice and curds without salt. It did not enter my fictional world. A writer needs to possess a place (or let it possess her) before it enters her imagination. When I wrote a story located in the city, it was an outsider’s view, a tourist’s vision. Only after I had lived here for two decades, did my characters first inhabit this city, people whom the stray chance of history had deposited here generations earlier. Ten years later came a novel, which was about criminals trying to frighten a woman from her home. Fiction following the graph of change.

The tolerant easy-going Bangalorean now lives, courtesy of copy-writers, only in ads. Beaming down from hoardings at the chaotic traffic, saying ‘svalpa adjust maadi’ to people who are battling for space on the roads. Hostility runs rife, two-wheelers climb on to pavements and snarl at pedestrians, motorists hurl insults and abuses at one another. Do I want to go on living here?

Yes I do, because now this is my city. We brought up our children here, planted trees, built a house, let down roots. Summers may be scorchers, but the rain, when it comes, cleans the streets and bathes the trees. And when the sun comes out next morning, there are a million rainbows on the grass. Miracles still happen. When the early-morning long queue for coffee at an eatery is held up because a man, reaching the head of the queue, finds he has forgotten his purse, a stranger comes to him with a cup of coffee and says, persuasively, ‘Have your coffee, sir.’ And I know that the old Bangalore still survives, somewhere, in this hostile jungle.

(In this monthly series, authors chronicle the cities they call home.)

(shashi deshpande is a Bangalore-based writeran award-winning novelist)

Published on March 21, 2014

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