Bangalore: A Tale of Two Cities

Whenever there happens to be any kind of incidents that disturb the peace of the city of Bangalore, like it happens with increasing frequency these days, be it over the Kaveri river water-sharing issue or when women are assaulted during celebrations, social media, mainstream media, and personal discussions erupt with messages expressing shock, surprise, and indignation about those incidents. "Isn't Bangalore a cosmopolitan city, the IT capital?" "Why are Bangaloreans acting/reacting like this?", "Aren't these educated people?" and so on they ask, gaping at be it the response to a bandh call or about the sheer amounts of violence rocking the city, watching in disbelief as men roam the streets of India's technology capital burning buses and trucks, throwing stones at establishments, molesting women and attacking evil mobile-store display canopies.

NOTE: This is not about the hows and whys of the assault or riot incidents, the internet is full of those. This is more on why Bangalore is seen as immune to those incidents, and why it is not so.

It seems what shocks most people is the fact that these incidents can occur in Bangalore, more than the incidents themselves. No one might beat an eyelash if you say "women molested in Delhi", but replace Delhi with Bengaluru and everyone suddenly explodes. This is because Bangalore is perceived as somehow being above all the "old" machinations driving the average Indian city. Even before the IT boom, Bangalore, already home to a large number of technical institutes and a string of high-tech Navratna PSUs, with its salubrious climate, many parks, lakes, large cantonment and substantial British cultural influence, always possessed an ethereal, overarchingly liberal image of a quiet, calm, green, unhurried spotless, leafy paradise where temperatures never rose above 24 deg C, populated by happy, educated, well-mannered, decent, liberal, rational, educated, outward-looking and English-speaking people, where there could be no riots, slums, pollution, dust, protests, shutdowns or such backward things that marred every other Indian city. The IT revolution only carried this image further, and now it was a technologically advanced progressive liberal paradise, the "IT city" everyone loved to celebrate, the poster boy of India's newfound success, the Indian city truly global in every sense, free of all those things traditionally "Indian", India's very own San Francisco.

So, when such incidents happen in Bangalore, people suddenly seem shocked, thinking that it is those well-dressed, suave and sophisticated software engineers who are out in the streets rioting and burning buses.

"Bangalore. What a Rocking City!"

It amuses me no end whenever Bangalore is described as some kind of libertarian hipster technological wonderland, like something of a cross between San Francisco and Amsterdam. Like I have mentioned elsewhere, Extrapolating on its old image, Bangalore has cultivated a more posh, cliched image of itself, of a "modern" sanitized Indian utopia where everyone dresses in funky fashion, dine in fancy bars, live in expensive flats, drive only expensive cars on spotless roads and speak only in perfect English as if they were all living in some lifestyle advertisement, the image projected of the city not just around the world but also inside the minds of the upscale upwardly mobile crowd employed in its mostly new-generation technology industries as well. This is where the problem starts, because, this, what the world thinks it is, is not the real Bangalore. That is only its outside veneer. The real Bangalore is something very different, but very familiar as well, a city just like any other in India.

Bangalore what a rocking city yaar still from Bangalore Days

This guy isn't helping. No wonder he blocks everyone on Twitter

Bangalore is not the sanitized liberal, cosmopolitan urban wonder it is made out to be by any stretch of imagination. That part only exists as a minority inside some buildings and in glossy magazines. The real Bangalore (Bengaluru) just like any other city anywhere in India, the city of broken roads, open drains, jumbles of cables and piles of vehicles, of ugly, cramped buildings lining narrow, dusty bylanes, of crippling pollution, mountains of garbage, numbing corruption and crime, where women are not safe and fraud is commonplace, where teeming masses with no access to clean water, sanitation, healthcare, quality transportation and so on struggle to make ends meet or barely get by doing odd jobs and businesses. The polished IT/ITES- startups-banks etc crowd, whose cars choke the roads and high-rises rip into lakebeds, make up maybe 20% of the city, and not all of it like how the world loves to think. This much-celebrated but rather thin facade rests on the restless 80% churning underneath, the real city. This facade is well-maintained because it is the cash cow, but every once in a while cracks appear in it to give a glimpse of the real Bengaluru underneath. Reminded of its existence, the upper crest Indian world recoils in horror as it cannot comprehend that the reality of "Bharat", which he tries to make go away by shutting his eyes, exists even in this most "posh" Indian city.

A Tale of Two Cities

There is a popular narrative that talks about our country consisting of two entirely different, opposing entities, India and Bharat. The "IT City" in reality also exists on those same to planes and parameters, as Bangalore and Bengaluru. All those people with English degrees and employed in new-age professions, mostly from outside the city and state, who speak English and are Indian in looks and western in outlook and also referred to as "migrants" become Bangalore. The hordes of English-illiterate people who speak mostly only one of the Dravidian languages or Hindi and pour into the city from villages dreaming of landing a job in those glass buildings, but usually do not make it and end up on the fringes are Bengaluru, also known as the "locals". Locals and migrants do not mix and exist on different planes, inhabit separate universes with their own laws and customs, each viewing the other with contempt. Note that the concept of local and migrant does not depend on where they are from or what language they speak, but on their worldviews.

This is not another extension of the famous cry of how "migrants destroyed Bangalore" because this very thought of "outsider" vs "insider" is ridiculous. Constitutional niceties aside, the inflow of people into cities in search of better lives is a historical phenomenon going on ever since the settling of the first city. If you look at it in one way, everyone is a migrant to Bangalore, even those who claim to be "locals", because we all came from somewhere else and all migrants will eventually become locals and then blame the newcomers for their troubles and so on, as exemplified by this story of the lady who owned one of the 15 houses I have stayed in Bangalore, as told by the guy who manages her umpteen apartments given out on rent.

She was illiterate, very unpleasant, horribly stingy and impossible to deal with. She was also immensely rich and owned large plots of land, houses, and apartments in and around Arekere, and lives in a big house on a huge plot with a large, dirty cowshed right next to the house. Her grandfather had arrived here from somewhere in Telangana almost a century ago and pitched a hut in what was then empty, untamed, windy wilderness full of bushes. They fenced in and cleared large swathes of land and cultivated it. Post independence, when government surveyors arrived and asked them who all that land belong to, they replied: "us, of course". The officials shrugged and went on their way. Acres and acres of land were now officially theirs, all of what would become Arekere later on. Today, they have sold off or leased out bit by bit of those lands to various developers and builders.

Bangalore pretends Bengaluru does not exist and carry an enormous chip on their shoulders on the belief that they are the arbitrators of the city, thinking that the "locals" are not pampering them enough, and do not change their ways of life to make them more comfortable. Bangalore constantly plays make-believe that it is living in the west and keeps up that charade by means of language, living space, neighborhoods, transportation, education etc. and locks itself up in its glass towers, and refuses to involve itself in any matters of the city and the land it lives in. It jumps from its westernized abodes to its westernized malls and offices in their (previously tinted) cars. The only time Bangalore and Bengaluru meet is on the famously gridlocked streets of the city. However, it is Bengaluru that controls the city and everything in it, including Bangalore.

"How fast a city can fall into the hands of the mob!"

It is only the mob that controls the city in the first place, sir. You with your Facebook photos do not.

Bangalore used to be a small city, which until a decade ago started at Sirsi Circle and Mekhri Circle and ended at Silk Board and HAL. Then came the ring road and the umpteen adjoining IT parks and apartments. The resulting building boom caused lands previously parched farmland and dusty villages to be rapidly swallowed up by the growing city, making a lot of previously poor villagers suddenly immensely rich, so rich that they wouldn't have to work again in their lives but only roll their money around in real estate. They are very influential locally and are the right and left hands of most politicians while retaining their intensely orthodox and conservative values. They and their sons, who call themselves "social workers" and roam around the city in their SUVs and bikes all day long and do much as they please now control most of the city. They do have a general contempt for the new-gen but do not show it openly outside their circles because they know it was them who made them rich.

If you look carefully you can spot a lot of young, able men roaming around the city mostly on bikes at any time of the day, most of them seemingly jobless. Most of them hail not from the city but from other parts of the state or from surrounding states, but mainly from the outskirts of Bangalore like Bangarpet, DB Pura, Tumkur, Ramanagaram etc, places which got rich off the IT boom but aren't really here or there. They have some education which is all but basically useless to enable them to participate in the "new" economy in any meaningful manner, but with their aspirations, they see "outsiders" living their supposedly awesome "Bangalore" lives just an arm's length away, lives they will never enjoy and feel bitterness at being left out. All this makes them ripe for vested interests and political parties to use as cannon fodder for their various schemes, riots, and disturbances, which they see as an outlet to vent their pent-up aspirational anger. They end up foot-soldiers for those new controlling powers of the city, whose proximity to politicians give them a free pass to do whatever as they please, with no fear of any repercussion whatsoever. And they call themselves "locals".

And of course, this is not blaming just one class of people. Even most of the otherwise polished, sophisticated, charming, chivalrous urbane Indian man can dissolve into a leering boor after two pegs of Whiskey, the magic elixir exposing the rotten interiors of how they are really hidden underneath a well-polished facade. No, not all men everywhere in the world aren't like that. It is a little thing called "upbringing". And maybe, movies.

Then there is the age old thing of human tribalism. When "locals" see "migrants" living in style and that they are getting edged out in their own land, they close ranks and try to show "who is in control" to assert their rights over the land, resulting in intimidation and violence. That is basic human nature. And then again, most of these cases are usually orchestrated and are hardly spontaneous. Bangalore, is generally still a safe city (maybe), women still roam around late at night at many places, especially around the places where the incidents happened. Just like any other place, these incidents can be engineered for gains by vested interests.

Sure, these misguided young men exist in all countries across the world. The difference is that here they get away. Many are politically affiliated mischief-makers who do whatever they are told as long as they get paid, who arrive on call, cause mischief and vanish. Remember the riots on Dr.Rajkumar's passing in 2006? Just how many got prosecuted for that? And now with politicians doing the usual routine of blaming the victims to possibly shield the perpetrators because they need each other, it looks like nothing is going to come out of the shame that happened on New Year's eve too, just like various rioting cases of the past.

Of course, the good old Bangaloreans of Malleshwaram, Basavanagudi, Jayanagar, JP Nagar, Banashankari and the older central areas of the city and the Cantonment have got nothing to do with all this. They also exist on yet another plane and are the same good-hearted, friendly people everyone knows them to be. However, these original proponents of the "Bangalore culture" of yore have all but migrated to the west. As the educated move out and rabble rousers moved in, that "liberal Bangalore culture" slowly got diluted and Bangalore turned into any other Indian city. However, the rest of the world (and Bangalore) never realized all this and lived under the impression that everyone in the city is a highly educated, globe-trotting technocrat thriving on meritocracy, and were shocked at vandalism because such "educated people" would never indulge in violence and vandalism.

Bangalore Needs to Meet Bengaluru

Bangalore has to come down from its imaginary perch to Bengaluru. No matter how much ever you try to make yourselves believe it, you are not living in Europe. You are living in a chaotic Indian city with all its trappings and problems, no matter the "Silicon Valley" tag. You cannot just close your eyes and make all those "unsanitary" surroundings go away. You cannot live by isolating yourselves from a majority of the population in your ivory towers. Reach out. Understand and realize what they and their thoughts and problems are. It is fairly easy to do this. Make friends outside of work. Eat at the local Darshini. Drink standing shots at the local wine shop. Buy veggies from the push cart lady. Leave your car home and travel in the bus at least once a week. Listen to people. Observing people on the road and in public transport (without getting creepy) is such an enormous window to the lives of others that provide amazing learning experiences that will make you realize how much you are losing by not interacting with them, how much perspective you are missing in your closed lives. Maybe, if Bangalore took it upon themselves to solve the problems of the city, just maybe, there wouldn't even be any rioting or protesting.

Bangalore meets Bengaluru

The modern Bangalorean, believing himself to be a "western" capitalist, deems strikes and protests relics of uncivilized socialist times and people carrying them out as dinosaurs maligning the "developed" image of his city. He believes those problems are not his because he thinks he does not inhabit their world, that his problems are affected more by the Mississippi than the Kaveri. During the week of the Kaveri troubles, my (and your) Whatsapp groups were full of messages talking about "that Kaveri problem", an annoyance in their perfect lives. They made Bangalore their home but selectively accepted only its "good" things and refused to accept its problems. The Kaveri problem is your problem too. You cannot go "why are 'those' people fighting" and sit around as if it doesn't affect you because it does. It is a question of the water that you too need. You don't care because you get water in your apartment when you open that tap. But do you know how good that water is? Do you know where it comes from? Do you know where your tanker gets it from? Are you sure it is not from a lake frothing with toxic foam? Do you even care? What if one day you opened the tap and no water came out, and no tanker guy would respond to your calls?

These incidents might have been vote bank politics, pre-planned conspiracy to fulfill some hidden agenda or anything else because nothing ever is black and white. Whatever it is, the biggest fallout here is obviously the image (or whatever was left of it) of Bangalore as India's Silicon Valley. Already reeling under spectacularly bad infrastructure and horrifying traffic snarls, Bangalore's image as a slick, sophisticated technology hub might have been irrevocably destroyed. The Kaveri disturbances and assault on women made Bangalore look like an unsafe war zone, and not many people would want to invest in a war zone, do they? Well, all that does not matter either because Bangalore was never any Silicon Valley anyway, but mostly just an enormous back office for the world where high degree-holding laborers toiled away in software sweatshops at incredibly cheap labor rates. Everything else was a farce pulled out by some unscrupulous real-estate mafia to get rich by exploiting the land.

Those who posted on social media saying "This is not the real Bangalore" are wrong. Sorry, but today, this is the real Bangalore. Meanwhile, Bangalore continues to spiral down the vortex of its own destruction.

  • disqus_dor1YsFNCG

    Great article Vinod, as always. I was wondering if you will write something on demonetization?
    btw, do you see any parallel between Bangalore event and Cologne’s new year event last year?

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