In its transition from Garden City to Mall City, Bangalore has lost its identity
When you live close to a city or town of public interest – say Agra or Pondicherry – you invariably end up never going there because the proximity makes you take the place for granted. “Oh, what's the hurry,” you keep telling yourself as the years roll by, while people living thousands of miles away keep coming in hordes to visit the very place.
I came to live in Chennai in early 2001, and it was a good four years before I happened to visit Bangalore, barely 360 km away, and five years before I finally travelled to Pondicherry, just 160 km away. They may say it's better late than never, but in the case of Bangalore, had I delayed my visit by a couple of years, I would have never known what it looked like in its heyday when it was also known as the Air-conditioned City, Garden City and Pensioners' Paradise. I had made it just in time – the reverse metamorphosis of the city, brought about by the IT revolution in the late 1990s, was beginning to be visible but still far from obvious.
As with everything ‘first', the sensations of that maiden trip to Bangalore in June 2005 are still alive. As soon as I stepped onto the station – it was close to noon by then – a cool breeze caressed my face. The portable, invisible air-conditioner was to accompany me throughout my stay. And one evening, when a small group of people had gathered in the balcony of a friend's house for post-dinner conversation, it became so cold that the friend had to dig out all the blankets and shawls she had in her cupboards. This was June, when Chennai was a furnace!
This small group of people, that included me, went pub-hopping every evening. Bangalore took great pride in its pubs – they weren't mere watering holes where people just went to get drunk; they were the symbols of its sophisticated culture where the young rubbed shoulders with the not-so-young to get drunk on music and conversation. The frothy beer was mostly an excuse – and, at times, the catalyst – for the enjoyment. How can I ever forget the sight of young men frenziedly playing the air guitar with their eyes shut as the DJ brought on Led Zeppelin!
June 2011: As I got off the train and walked down the platform on a bright morning, the first thing that struck me was the heat. I waited several minutes for that familiar breeze to brush past my face but none arrived. By the time I reached the parking lot, where a friend was waiting to show off his new car, I found patches of sweat on my shirt. “Next year we are going to buy ACs for our bedrooms. The summers have become quite unbearable here,” the friend told me as he navigated the station traffic. His wife added, “We would have bought them this year itself, but we spent quite a bit on the car.” I hadn't even brought up the weather.
The same evening, I returned to M.G. Road. I found it brutally scarred by the monster called development. It is no longer a place for a stroll, but a cramped pathway where you navigate crowds. And the less said about Brigade Road, once the most fashionable stretch in the city, the better. Today, it is a slightly upscale version of Chennai's Ranganathan Street, where it is impossible to walk without your elbows touching those of total strangers.
The Pensioners' Paradise is today undergoing reconstruction to accommodate the migrant workforce. The green cover is shrinking, the population is exploding. Much of the migrant population has never known the charm of old Bangalore: they are dazzled by its malls and so more malls are coming up. A huge mall is opening shortly on No. 1, M.G. Road – and is most likely to be named after its enviable address.
Later that evening, I made another heartbreaking discovery: the death of Bangalore's nightlife. I was aware that nightclubs now follow a strict 11.30 deadline, but what I didn't know was that many of the popular standalone pubs I had visited during my maiden trip had shut down. In any case, today's Bangalorean hardly has the time to wind down with mugs of beer. After a hard day's work, he has a bigger challenge waiting for him: the long and strenuous drive back home.
Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, June 4, 2011.