Bangalore – Behind the Neon

You do not need to visit the deserts, plains or Western Ghats to see the full romance and diversity of India. Sometime you can take just as great a journey by seeking not the wide empty spaces, but those inner spaces, the narrow streets and alleyways of the urban scene.play with me

Kaveri is away. She is in North Karnataka meeting temple prostitutes, for an article about HIV in the state. (Incidentally, we had dinner with prostitutes and hijras recently, during her research, but that is another story and I’ll cover it later.) So I was in Bangalore alone and decided to use the time well and go out and explore. Superficially, Bangalore is what it’s hyped up to be. The Cantonment area of town – the former British barracks, around Mahatma Gandhi Road and Brigade Road – is all throbbing neon and Levi stores and Pizza Huts and bars and ice cream parlours. And yet you don’t have to delve very far behind the billboards and neon to discover a different Bangalore.

Tonight I went to Commercial Street, a Muslim and Tamil Hindu district. Commercial Street itself is a typically neon drag of Levi’s and Wrangler shops. And though there are traditional textile and carpet shops between the Western brands, and rickshaws choking the roads, and women in saris and full burqas amid the jeans, there is still a golden consumerist glow about the place, a throbbing neon promise and all the wallet and purse-fluttering excitement of pristine, gleaming stores. I ate a masala dosa for dinner at Woody’s on Commercial Street, a restaurant that is a local institution with its wood and pot plants and old school charm. Then, continuing a bit further down Commercial Street, I dipped away into one of the smaller lanes. The street appeared to sell nothing but ladies’ bangles, all lit up in purples and golds and vermillions by bright striplights. The next street was all shoes. The one after that saris. There is almost something obsessive-compulsive about the way the ware in streets in this and other traditional neighbourhoods are grouped together this way. Already I felt a very different atmosphere from the rosy world of choice and cosmopolitan consumption of Commercial Street.

A little further in and the streets began to get darker, the ground underfoot more uneven, and I was in a rapidly changing world. On Commercial Street, sterile-looking, glass-fronted clothes stores are opened by doormen. Here, each shop is a little box of light, a little cell open to the street. In one, a tailor whirred away against a brilliant turquoise backdrop, in another a man sold framed prints, gaudy and golden, of Hindu gods; the next was a domestic residence, a pristine, red-oxide-floored little cell lit by a flickering television. And so on. Oddly enough, one of the little portals was a temple, a hole-in-the-wall affair with an impossibly long passage down the end of which a pot-bellied priest, in lungi, stood before an idol dripping with gold. I stood at the entrance to the temple, transfixed. The scene was like something at the wrong end of a telescope, a tableau so far away and yet so sharp and fluorescent in the night it seemed unreal. I considered going in, then decided against it because, for foreigners, visits to such temples involve a tedious financial transaction dressed up in spiritual ritual. The priest in question becomes a vendor, just like anyone else on the street, his willingness to solicit money from Westerners depressing in the house of a religion that allows no converts. In India, at least as far as I can tell. you are a Hindu or you are not: there is no question of converting you. Your money, on the other hand, has no caste, so welcome my friend, you are most welcome.Gflowers CM

I went further. Soon I was walking into the heart of the Muslim quarter, the call for prayer beginning as I walked down a muddy lane of vegetable stalls and men in pristine whites leading enormous goats. And then on to the meaty heart of this neighbourhood, a heady, stifling district of raw meat hanging in holes in the wall on one side of the street and, just a little further down, people eating at roadside stalls. It seems to me only natural to feel desperately sad at the site of shivering chickens in cramped cages watching others being plucked and skinned before their eyes. A little further up the road a huge goat was tied by the neck to a post with only inches between neck and post to spare. It was outside a butchers’ jammed with swinging carcasses. His fate was too close to him: his nose pushed up against it.

From my impressions, Muslims in India are tolerant and unthreatening. (At least towards humans.) Even the most intense-looking young man in pristine whites and beard or the gnarliest old grey beard with cane barely give me a second glance as I walk around their neighbourhoods. Why do I mention this at all? Because without a doubt the symbols of the Muslim world – the crochet hats, the burqas, the beards, the melancholy call from the mosque at dusk – have become symbols that arouse suspicion and fear. And yet I feel less judged and more invisible here amid those apparently edgy symbols than in any Hindu district of town. In Malleswaram, for instance, a brahmin (high caste) Hindu area, where Kaveri’s mum lives, I am stared at and looked up and down whether I am with Kaveri or not. By the look on some people’s faces, I could be strolling through their puja room and not down a public highway. But as I walked further into residential alleys of almost complete darkness, among kids laughing and tumbling and fighting on piles of cement, stepping over sleeping dogs and crossing the bridge over a fetid river so rank I speed up my step to get away as fast as possible, the only thing I feared was my ability to find my way out again.

And yet in moments, I was out of this little slum I’d stumbled into and in Russell Market. This is an institution in Bangalore, a dark, covered market punctuated by pools of dazzling, striplight-illuminated colour – flowers, vegetables, fruits, pomegranates cut open into segments and shining like rubies. And soon after Russell Market I find my bearing again and I’m back into… Could you call it civilisation? It’s not that I think so simplistically or sentimentally as to see the traditional streets as civilised and modern Commercial Street as some carbuncle on Bangalore. It’s all more complicated than that. But in seven weeks here I’ve already seen changes. This is the fastest growing city in all of Asia. A whole street of trees is known to disappear virtually overnight, leaving a naked world of tarmac and dust behind. Maybe I needn’t worry. India has dealt with Mongols, Buddhists, Portuguese, French and the British and survived. Even the narrow streets I walked through tonight were built by the British, according to a Muslim gentleman I shared chai with in a small tea shop. Only built in the 1950s, apparently. And yet they looked ancient. India has a knack of making things look impossibly old. Maybe soon, the latest wave of gaudy, plastic store fronts will peel and flake and soften and fall slightly askew and become something other than just another international brand on another international street. Maybe that’s too much to hope for, I don’t know. Maybe it’s not to be hoped for at all. In any case, despite the rapid changes I have a suspicion that behind the neon another India will be going on just as normally, just as narrowly and pungently and idiosyncratically, for some time yet to come.

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