This month, Bwog staffer Armin Rosen finds himself in Bangalore, which is not as unlike Manhattan as you might think.
Up until this weekend, my lone experience with south Asia’s IT boomtown was crossing the street between its central bus and train stations. Simple enough in theory—but, owing to the city’s notorious Friday-night traffic and fenced median strips, terrifying in practice. After hopping a couple of barriers and reaching the other side of the median, I found myself stranded with a small group of prospective street-crossers. And although my only words of Kannada are illa (no), and bedda (fuck off), I didn’t need the lingo: their faces communicated “what the fuck?” as well as speech.
Bangalore is one “what the fuck?” after another. Most of them have to do with the fact that, like India itself, Bangalore is both thriving and struggling horribly. The doctor in charge of the NGO where I’m interning lamented that the city’s pollution and uncontrollable growth rate have turned his once-pleasant hometown into a gridlocked basket case—but he added that it has everything you’d expect to find in the nicest parts of most western cities.
The great Bangalorean paradox of simultaneous prosperity and ruin is on display on Commercial Street, one of the city’s major shopping arteries. On the prosperity front, the street’s upscale Indian-style clothing stores attract tourists, expats and upwardly-mobile middle-class Indians. On the ruin front, Commercial Street feels like a place subverted by its own incredible success, and subsequently has almost no character of its own. Bangalore boasts none of India’s architectural wonders (with the possible exception of the spectacular Karnataka state assembly building–although it does have IT, out-of-control growth, consumer decadence, and general aesthetic blight. Jam-packed Commercial Street has elements of all four, although, I did find a pretty delicious “New York Style” chicken dog. While not exactly a dead ringer for Grey’s, the presence of spicy, Indian-style ketchup atop classic American street food gave me heart.
But Bangalore’s problem isn’t that it can’t integrate its Indian and western elements. The Bangalore location of Crossword, a national chain of Borders-style bookstores, is a case in point. At a place obviously inspired by American retail, Indian books and music reigned supreme—it was easier to locate the Karnatic classical music section than it was to find a western CD more recent than a couple years old. This seems like an obvious point (Indian music in India? Holy shit!), but it’s important to understand just how little purchase western popular culture has in most of India. Since the country lacks the deep-seated cultural insecurities of most other places on earth (America, for instance), the death of Rajkumar can spark riots while the arrival of the latest Harry Potter book in a widely English-literate country is a veritable non-event.
But those riots were themselves evidence of a place sucking itself dry: I have a hunch that cars set afire upon Rajkumar’s death were really burned out of longing for what had passed forever–the greener, Kannadiga Bangalore of old that Rajkumar represented–and frustration over the smoggy and decadent abyss ahead. So western influences haven’t ruined Bangalore. But demography, poor infrastructure, pollution, horrible traffic and the fact that in a city this blighted these influences often operate as escapist, occidental porn for expats and Indians newly rich off of the IT boom, have.
Because for every Crossword and traditional dress shop on Commercial Street, there’s a place like Noir, a nightclub that could have been in the West Village if it weren’t for the flat-screen TVs tuned to highlights from India and England’s ongoing series of 3-day cricket tests. That’s where I dropped more money than many Bangalorean families make in a month on a drink called the Liit, a glorified rum-and-coke whose menu description read simply, “get smashed.” Though decidedly mediocre, the drink was delicious as metaphor: how typical of Bangalore to teasingly evoke the occidental joys of getting sloshed, promise a drunken escape, and leave you irritable, exhausted, and quite a bit closer to broke.
And how typical of Bangalore to make you want to escape in the first place.