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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

What Makes This City-Slicker Tick?


There are those who say they want to "get away from it all" and spend their time growing old in the country, picking tea leaves, getting oil massages and writings books no one is going to read. I glance at them from the back seat of an auto rickshaw, skeptical. There is nothing more intoxicating than the energy of the big city. 

There is that smell of a mixture of red earth before imminent rain, hookah smoke and sambar that you get walking along Church Street in Bangalore. Music to my nose. You stride along chaotic streets, phone in one hand, cigarette/Shawarma in the other. Traffic is dodged with an Indian pedestrian's expression etched on one's face: a peculiar combination of apathy, arrogance and disdain. It's 7pm and twilight and the evening rains are almost here. The cool, moist, air, the cacophony of a sub-continental road and the fading light seemingly join forces to flick a switch that changes the mood in the big city. The week is over. Friday night is at the door and wants a place to leave its shoes. Lamp lit sheesha bars and cafe's flicker into life from the carcasses of office blocks, like fresh green shoots from a burnt out forest floor. Indeed, those who flee the middle of town from the 9-5 desk jobs are burnt out. A new sentry is here for a new shift. 

The big city has many faces. A bus stand at 8am captures one such mood. Freshly bathed, the city roars into life. Packed local buses wreak havoc on already congested streets, yet the city slicker manages to slip between these blue-white behemoths to the shiny red Volvo bus. The posh man's bus. The bus for those who can pay Rs 20 extra for air conditioning, a place to sit and a rung up on the social ladder. The few women on the bus sit comfortably at the front. The men, hair oiled, awkwardly slide into seats at the back. The morning's air is still cool, as yet unharmed by the sun, as it rushes through the city. 

Lunch time on Cunningham road is another of the big city's personalities. Workers of all social strata and coffee consumption levels need refueling. There are the men, the women and the poor. The men strut. They pace through the now sweltering heat in search of some non-veg. Shirt sleeves folded up, sweat wiped from their foreheads, they find a table at Imperial and eat perhaps the best 'non-veg Thali' in town. At only Rs 100 per head, its the bread and butter of working lunches. The women slink. They move in herds. They are weary of the many male eyes that shamelessly scan any female body in this backward country. Some of them eat simple south-Indian food at Shanti Sagar. The more adventurous ones feed the Indian consumption juggernaut by spending Rs 200 per head at some classless rip-off franchised restaurant in an air conditioned mall. Though, paying a premium for AC in this heat is worth it, in this humble writer's opinion. And then you have the poor. The labourers who tar our 'roads' and the drivers who'll soon take their masters back to their 5 bedroom villas on the outskirts at 5:30. They eat hearty plates of rice and sambar costing a mere Rs 10 each. Food is cooked, served and consumed in a street corner sheltered from the evil sun only by torn tarpaulin. Customers arrive on bicycles or bare foot. Shoes for this scruffy lot, are optional. They are as vital an organ in the big city as any. They wash the dishes and sweep the streets and bring governments into power.

But now the city shows a different character. 7pm and us disillusioned youth are on the prowl. Bangalore's weather is back to being what its famous for; the drizzle that'll start any second chases the heat and stress out of the day. The rain here has such a profound effect, even before its fallen. Cinema's are full up with the young bourgeois....the new city slickers who inhale mall culture and exhale the dough. But that is not where we hang. We, the pretentious wealthy. The sons and daughters of CEOs, the urban royalty. The privileged few who'll go back to cushy foreign universities come September or international school on Monday morning. But Monday morning is a long way away. We hatch plans for the alcohol fueled night ahead as we slither through the big cities inside lanes. Cheap red wine is sipped, cheap local beer is gulped. The shadiness of the joint is inversely proportional to the prices - we don't want to be spending too much just yet. 

It's now officially night. Night: the most seductive of the city's spirits. Girls have been called, plans have been made. The city slickers flock to their temple: some characterless nightclub throbbing away against the will of the police outside. 20-something year old executives, the crowning achievement of top-down industralising India, throw money at the bar tender. English is the only language spoken, although an interesting accent will get you an audience with the barbie dolls of this land of make believe. But only an audience, nothing more. The Gods of the city are worshiped through liver sacrifices and electronic dance.

Alas, Bangalore is not one of those cities that doesn't sleep. It doesn't pretend to be either. The hour before it hits the sack, is this city slicker's favourite. The air is cool like the evening, but much drier. Moonlit terraces harbour tired urban royalty. Quiet words are exchanged over the night's final glasses of rum. One by one, princes and princesses head off home - ferried back to their palaces by their sambar sampling drivers. It is a time of peace. A time where the city reflects. The energy of the city has toyed and toiled and now, needs time to recuperate. Why would anyone want to leave this? The sweet scent of exhaust fumes. The heart-warming sight of a limbless beggar? The empathy and humility of the urban aristocracy? It's what I live for. You can get the countryside's peace in the city too. All you need to know is where to look. And when.

I'm a city guy till I die.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Bus Driver Blues

Twilight and I'm on my way home. A decrepit, derelict BMTC (local) bus pulls up to the stop. It's completely empty. Tired eyes look down at me from the driver's seat. "Marathalli?", I ask. A grunt of affirmation somehow makes it way over the roar of the engine. I board and pay the driver who manages to change gears, tear me a ticket and give me change at the same time. Using one hand.

I take a seat right at the front so I can look out the front window. I'd never been on an empty bus before. A 9 rupee fare would take me a good 7-8km to my stop. No surprise that local buses in India are always full. The bus lurches forward as the driver accelerates. I've seen people age faster than that bus moved. 1st gear to 2nd, 2nd to 3rd. Auto-rickshaws fly past on both sides. Dogs trotted alongside, mocking. The driver looked like he wanted to die. He had absolutely no life force in him. No anger, no enthusiasm (well, he was a bus driver after all). A hint of desperation, but mostly apathy. Contagious apathy. The breeze from open windows carried his dreary mood over me.

He'd slow down at every stop. And every time, he'd be ruthlessly rejected by potential passengers. Why? For another bus, another route, another driver. Someone makes a bee line for the bus. For a second, his eyes light up. The person walks past the door and crosses the road. A sigh from the driver says it all. Better luck next stop. Stop after stop, no one gets on. No one wants to get on his bus. What is he doing wrong?

We cruise along the Ring Road. The bus reaches its top speed, which is akin to that at which grass grows. In the distance, at the next stop, a young lady stands, arm out-stretched. Someone is hailing his bus. His bus! He brakes and turns into the bus lane. He looks down at her from his seat. He is alive. "Varthur?", she asks. His face drops. He isn't going there. He has found a passenger - a willing passenger - but she doesn't want to go where he wants to go. He shakes his head and in doing so, shakes the life out of his eyes again. 1st gear to 2nd gear. The lonely bus drives on into polluted night. She wasn't going where he wanted to go.

What was he so down for? He had a passenger. A passenger who was going where he was going. A passenger who could pay the fare and wanted, needed to make the journey. But I wasn't good enough for him. I felt ignored. What was I doing wrong?

We reach my stop. As I alight, I pat him no the shoulder. He looks up, shocked. Shock changes to a smile he tries to hide. 1st gear to 2nd gear. This bus has life in it yet.