My city is not my city

I don’t have a new book to review this week (look how fast that resolution crumbles), because I am knee-deep re-reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and as usual can’t make up my mind whether to be madly in love with the book or go back in time and strangle the guy. (occasionally, I feel both emotions about the same sentence.) That tends to make for rather slow reading, especially since I’ve been reading on my kindle & making copious argumentative notes in the margins, typically while stuck in traffic on long bus rides.  (Thoreau would not have approved.  I can imagine the kind of eloquence ebooks might have inspired in him – “What abyss has the soul of humanity descended into, that I can no longer feel the pages of a book, can no longer smell its earthy origins? The heavens feel far off indeed, when I can only reach the wisdom of the ancients through this cold, lifeless screen.”)  Also I’ve just given myself a few more projects at the moment than can be humanly handled, which is something I really need to not do so much.

So I thought I might post something rather different, which Walden has been making me think about – the oddness that is my adopted home city of Bangalore. I am not much of a city person. I imprinted on rural Washington at too young an age to be very comfortable in a place without horizons. But cities fascinate me rather endlessly, perhaps because I’ve never quite known what to make of them.  I wrote a short story about Bangalore for a class a few months ago, partly based on reality – a year-old reality, that is, which is already out of date. (Airport road doesn’t look like this anymore. Neither does M.G. Road.) Much of it is reality that I bent somewhat, and I also slipped in a fair bit of magical realism, because apparently that’s just how I write.  Here it is, in place of a review – the product of my sleepless attempts to write ghosts into a city that to me seems filled with them.

(Note – I wrote this after reading a loadful of Ciarán Carson, poet of Belfast & interrogator of useless city maps, who has a way of taking over one’s head.)

“I am […] a map which no longer refers to the present world, but to a history, these vanished streets.” — “Question Time,” Ciarán Carson 

The City & The City

The road to the airport cuts like a knife through the heart of my city. I don’t know yet if the wound is fatal; I know that if my city recovers, it will only do so by transforming into a place that I have never known. The city living in my mind will be gone, lingering ghost-like in alleyways and gardens, memories haunting the vanished lakes and uprooted trees. My city turns in its sleep, flickering through multiple identities around the ruptures of its new roadways. Bengaluru – Bangalore – Bengaluru. Bangalore’d – verb: to have your job (you = a First World citizen, unemployed and angry about it) outsourced to the backwaters of the Third World, in this case shiny, glittering, dirty crowded cracked-at-the-seams Bengaluru. Bangalore, a backwaters comprising ten million people, where those with the most money are the surest that they’ll never stay. The road to the airport will summon them all eventually, that siren song of smooth unbroken pavement stretching for tens of kilometres through demolished neighborhoods and ripped up fields way out to places that never heard of Bangalore before (they only knew Bengaluru, the old-new name, the name that is meant to throw off an Anglicised past). This is how you leave the dream, leave the mess that has become my city – in perfect comfort, at high speeds scarcely broken by traffic lights.

Within the first six weeks after the new airport road was opened, slicing through villages (homes still hang by the side of the road, cut in half like honey-combs), seventeen people died. Mostly pedestrians, though not entirely. (The death count on Bangalore roads hovers at about one per day, and half of those that die are on foot.) I think that’s when I first started seeing her, back when people were beginning to shake their heads about what a death trap the new expensive airport road had turned out to be. I was on the bus that made a straight shot from the Hebbal market to the Devanahalli airport when I saw by the edge of the road – a crowd of onlookers, and beside the crowd an old woman, wrapped up in stillness. The woman wore a plain white cotton sari, pallu pulled over her head and across her mouth to guard against smoke. Wrinkled brown face, pure white hair. Peering through her spectacles to see beyond the edge of a crowd surrounding – what was it? Oh, god. Not again. I saw – a shattered windowpane, and within it a clutch of black hair, and that was all as the bus whisked us away. But I could not unsee the crushed car, and all the way to Amruthahalli – past the degraded green of the Army Base, shops clinging on to the side of the road, wedding halls, roadside restaurants, temples butting out into the stream of traffic, cars honking and scooters weaving in and out, a crush of carts and lorries and people – always, people darting across to get from one side to the other in this chaos with no crosswalks – I could not unsee the black hair in the windowpane. I could not stop wondering what had happened to the rest of it.

The accident was a footnote in the newspaper the next day. It found its way into a paragraph on the fifth page of The Deccan Herald. A taxi cab had made a swandive off the Hebbal flyover, rushing to get its passenger to the airport for an evening flight to Delhi. No survivors. The driver had been in his late twenties, recently arrived in Bengaluru, survived by a wife and two kids in a village somewhere (I imagine the village surrounded by mountains and fields, I wonder why he had to leave and yet I know why he had to leave; the state of Karnataka once you leave Bengaluru becomes progressively more parched of funds). The passenger, a young woman just out of college, working as a software engineer in Whitefield, on her way home with her first paycheck to visit her parents in Delhi. (The flight was delayed, as always. She need not have hurried.)

The next time I saw the old woman, my bus was caught in the ooze of traffic between the Kodigehalli and Amruthahalli traffic lights. Rush hour traffic, surrounded by that ever-present brown haze that rises above Bangalore. A little boy had gone to pick up groceries in Sahakarnagar that afternoon, and was trying to cross the airport road to return to his home when he was hit by a scooter. The ashen face of the young man who had been driving the scooter told me what had happened. A crowd had gathered, once again – as a crowd will always gather around a traffic accident in Bangalore, at any time of day or night, as if sprung from the ether. Between the mingling figures I caught a glimpse of a small heap on the ground, completely still. Behind the crowd, a torn-up building that looked like it had been through an air raid, crumbled bricks revealed as the widened road sliced through. Someone had painted Save Water!! on the falling wall, with artistic water droplets running down into the rubbish heaps on the ground. The boy’s shopping bags lay spilled in the dirt, and no one seemed to know quite what to do.

The old woman was there again, white-clad and small, off at the side of the crowd. Her gaze strayed out into the ooze of traffic, dark eyes oddly accusing, but of whom I couldn’t quite say. Her face seemed weary. I wondered if she knew the child; I wondered what bad luck kept bringing her to the sidelines of tragedy.

The boy came after number seventeen. People had stopped counting after a time.

They talked about adding pedestrian walkways to curb the death toll, but nothing of the sort ever materialized. The death rate did slow after a time, however, which makes me think that people in the bisected villages just started keeping more to their own side of the road. Hebbal – Kodigehalli – Sahakarnagar – Amruthahalli – Jakkur – Yelahanka – I can trace out the string of villages swallowed up by the northward expansion of the city and gentrified by Bangalore’s rising yuppie class based on the signs on the way to the airport that tell me just how late I am for my flight. The airport is in Devanahalli, thirty kilometres out, the village where Tipu Sultan was born. Tipu Sultan, the “Tiger” King of Mysore, died defending his besieged fort at Srirangapatnam from the forces of the British East India Company in 1799. Even after Tipu’s death, the British never gained complete control over the Kingdom of Mysore. They kept an eye on the place (still marginally autonomous) by establishing a military base in Bangalore, that haven of beautifully cool weather in the midst of South Indian heat. They kept an eye, and as they kept an eye they established a strange sort of hybrid community in the British Cantonment of Bangalore, ambling bungalows and wide boulevards and cathedrals and railway stations, the sort of graceful forgotten colonial architecture that haunts every ex-colony in the world. They attracted Europeans and Indian Christians and Muslims and Anglo-Indians to the place, who in turn started movie halls, places of worship, pubs, restaurants, bookstores. And then, a century and a half after Tipu Sultan’s death, this entity known as “India” that would have seemed foreign to the Tiger King of Mysore gained independence and the British left, leaving ghosts in their wake.

The erstwhile rulers of Mysore live on, whiling away their declining days in artistic gentility. Srirangapatnam is a crumbling tourist attraction, where tour guides scalp the gullible for money. The decaying British bungalows of Bangalore have become shopping malls and dumping grounds, and Tipu’s birthplace has an international airport on it, the shiny road that leads from it an artery in the beating heart of globalization.

The British left the Bangalore Cantonment but their ghosts remained. I cannot move for ghosts in this place; every street, every corner riddled with the hauntings of colonialism and neo-colonialism and the emergent strangeness of my city’s hybrid past and globalized present. Follow the arteries of my city, all the way out from the outskirts in dusty Devanahalli. The road, I have to say, is perfect. No potholes here, no speed bumps, no trees to dodge that no one had the heart to uproot. The road is unbroken, and it seems to move at first through a wasteland. Early morning, the first time I find myself in a taxi cab that purrs along through the half-dark out of the new airport, moving swiftly towards the distant lights of Bengaluru. What are these fields? What is this place? Is this my city? No matter – large signs announce new developments out here; whoever the land belonged to before, it will belong to my city soon.

My city looks best in the half-dark, still asleep, lights emerging from the darkness over the horizon. My city looks best before its people are awake, before the cacophony of its traffic begins. My city looks best when shadows hide the scars of development, cloaking the continuous Sisyphian construction and uprooted pavements and uprooted lives. My city looks best in the forgiving light of dawn, when it can scarcely be seen.

Pass the string of villages that lie between the airport and Bangalore proper, announced on green signs above the traffic lights. Yelahanka – I went to school out here, once. The road to the airport, widened to engulf shops and trees and houses on either side, blanketing all in black pavement, has rendered the place unrecognizable. Two long years in highschool I came out here for school, every day, and I could not pinpoint the turn. On to Jakkur (traffic jam at five in the morning? Already?) where the Indian airforce has its base (the British left Bangalore, the military remained), and then Amruthahalli, where a massive outlet of Larsen & Toubro Cement (started by Danes before World War II, converted into an Indian-owned company after) supplies building materials for the ceaselessly expanding city. Sahakarnagar, overtaken by bourgeoise eateries and shops; here Chinese restaurants rub shoulders with Pizza Hut and American-style ice cream shops, North Indian dhabas. Colonialism never ended, here; it merely shifted strategies. Malls rise on the horizon as we approach Kodigehalli and I try to remember what was here before. I try to remember what this road was before it led to the airport, built to lure in more capital for the burgeoning IT industry. I think I remember trees, but I cannot be sure.

Hebbal Lake, nearly sold to developers (but not quite yet). Hebbal flyover, lined with murals that show dolphins frolicking in the imagined ocean. The sun is beginning to rise as we swoop down the flyover and into Bangalore proper, where Ganganahalli market has disappeared (my old school bus stop) and Mekhri circle is no longer a circle but rather a vast and busy underpass, constantly clogged, cloaked with smoke. My mental map wavers, it overlays the city with half-remembered visions. I was a child here once, a child who could not read the city, could not speak its language. I was a teenager here long ago, with an identity that straddled continents. I grew beneath these trees, this city molded itself around my soul, but now Mekhri circle has no trees anymore but the sculpture of a tree rising up to one side ringed with stone figures that protect it with clasped hands. Stone trees and murals of trees to replace the real ones; I wonder if this was somebody’s attempt at a joke.

At the edge of sight in the red light of dawn, the old woman with her white braided hair is standing and staring up at Mekhri Circle’s stone tree, which unlike the real ones will never be cut down. I wonder if it’s the ghost of the city that I keep seeing, if the soul of the city is an old bent woman in a white sari, bearing witness to traffic accidents. Someone ought to be. I wonder when she’ll go mad from it. Staring up at the stone tree, perhaps it’s only a matter of time.

The interminable road bears us along down Palace Road, whose palace is now a tourist attraction and whose orchards are gone, making way for barren grounds that host rock concerts (Mick Jagger came recently) and wedding parties. Past the golf course – another hang over from the British, a vast expanse of desert green where the privileged few play golf in urban comfort. And now we are in the British Cantonment proper, which no longer has any British in it, but old colonizers make way for the new and roads must be expanded now in the name of those new dark gods, Globalization and Development. Traffic must be made smooth as foreign investments pour in, requiring glittering airports and swift transportation all the way from the new airport to the IT hub in Whitefield, forty kilometres and two hours of painful traffic away. Whitefield, started by the British as an all-White enclave, now serves privilege of a different sort.

My city looks best when it can scarcely be seen. Look close and shadows start to intervene; if I look too close I have to look away. Seventeen people died the first six weeks after the old colonial enclave at Whitefield was connected by widened roads to the new shining airport at Tipu’s birthplace. Seventeen people died, and then they stopped counting.

The beating heart of my city, the node where twisty-turvy veins and arteries coalesce, where roads meet and lump in one chaotic mess, is a triangle. Three bus stands form the points of the triangle – Shivajinagar, City Market, and Majestic. You cannot get from one side of the city to the other without going through its heart. (An hour and a half to the airport, in good traffic.) And here I sit, at its heart, looking out onto the expanse of what used to be South Parade Road under the British and became Mahatma Gandhi Road post-independence. The military parade grounds at my back remained a strange green heart as commercial expanses grew around them. Across from me, a jagged compressed skyline of buildings whose architects each tried to outdo each other in futuristic strangeness. A recently constructed jewelry store might be an ancient Greek temple, pillared facade. Clothing stores with illuminated displays, tourist traps with Kashmiri carpets and charming owners, coffee shops with neon signs, massively overpriced restaurants walled with windows so that their customers can peruse the city beneath them while they eat. Higgenbothams bookstore, dwarfed by its neighbors, a throwback to the British. Each city in India has a commercial street named after Mahatma Gandhi, and sometimes I wonder what he would have thought about that capitalist homage.

The tree cover on Mahatma Gandhi or M.G. Road is gone. It’s been replaced by the beginnings of a metro line, long over due. Looking up at the metro tracks with their shining train and sweeping arches I might be in Gotham City, but there is no masked hero to come save us from the mess we’ve made of ourselves. The Plaza Theater, which should have been across from me, has been torn down. A pile of rubble sits where the theater used to be, and soon enough a shopping mall to serve the projected metro station will take its place. The Plaza was built in the 1930s to show English movies for homesick British soldiers, and continued to be a haven of Hollywood imports for my brothers and I when my family moved here from the US in the 1990s, homesick in our new South Indian surroundings. Now I sit on a bench on the old M.G. road promenade, regarding the bombed out crater where the Plaza used to be, and I feel a ghost beside me.

The old woman is there, smelling faintly of moth balls and medicine, with a whiff of black tea. She pulls her pallu close in the cold morning air.

“How did it get this way?” I ask her. “I don’t remember.”

The ghost woman takes time to answer me; when she does, she speaks in a wavering voice.

“In 1947,” she says, “there was celebrating all across the city when India gained independence from the British. August 15th. Jawaharlal Nehru spoke over the radio of our tryst with destiny and we believed him. We thought the future would be different. There were fireworks all across the old city, the Bangalore that was here before the British, the city that the British rulers came to and built their Cantonment.

“The Cantonment area, South Parade Road and everything north of it, was deathly silent the night of Nehru’s speech. Everyone celebrated. But not here. The Cantonment was in mourning.”

The sun is rising over the city, over Brigade Road and Infantry Road and Church Street and Commercial Street, roads with names that have their history deeply imprinted upon them. The ghost woman’s English has the accent of someone educated at a Convent school, that clipped tone that makes me think of old British movies with sweeping costumes.

“From Whitefield to the Majestic railway station, there was absolute silence when India gained independence.

“And now it’s all one city. The old Kannada city, the British Cantonment, it’s all one city. Once people had to pay customs duty, travelling with goods from one to the other. You might live your whole life and never pass from one to the other. And now Majestic railway station is the City railway station and there is a bus station where the lake by the train station used to be, the lake where dancing girls entertained visiting British nobility once upon a very different time. You didn’t know there was a lake there? Many don’t remember, don’t want to remember. They are trying to rid themselves of all the old ghosts.”

Something in her tone gives me pause. “But you can’t get rid of old ghosts,” I say. “They stay on, in attics and cornices and unread letters, unopened boxes. The old ghosts will always be there, even when we can’t read them.”

She smiles and gives me a look that edges upon pity.

“You lived half your life in this city,” she says. “Try to tell me what this road used to look like.”

I stare out at the rubbish blowing across M.G. Road, slowly waking up to the yellowed sky. I look at the bulldozed Plaza Theater and the glittering metro blocking out the sun. I know that it all used to be very different. I know that, but right now in my mind the transient present and imagined future have together overridden the past.

“There were trees,” I answer at last. “Everywhere, in this city, there were so many trees. I fought to save them. But now I can’t tell you where they were.”

She pats my arm, and I feel the tingle of fog on my skin where her hand touches.

“Ghosts need a place to stay,” she says. “Same as anything. Take away the places that remember them, and the ghosts will leave.”

Traffic is beginning to build on M.G. Road. Last week there was an accident here, a rich kid driving fast in a fancy car killed three people. There is nothing to show the spot now, no memory of that moment written in the pavement.

The old woman walks away from me, up the road, and even as I watch she is beginning to fade.

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