“Is it possible to wander through the coconut grove,” I ask, gazing out to the enticing greenery that unfolds from my vantage point in the residence lobby, nine stories up.
“Ma’am no, remember the leopard,” I’m gently rebuked. The staff seem mildly amused by this newly arrived resident of Bangalore, or rather Bengaluru to use its traditional name.
Yes of course, I chide myself, recalling the front page news on this morning’s Times of India; a leopard attack with two other ‘cats’ prowling this suburb known as Whitefield. Perhaps it isn’t surprising as we’re in Karnataka, a southern state of India known for its jungles, coffee plantations and rainforests…its ancient temples and forts. I gaze longingly at the coconut palms and eucalyptus dotting the open spaces between housing compounds, new apartment buildings and haphazard streets. I’m already yearning for clean, fresh air.
Even as a seasoned traveller, I find myself wavering between my usual curiosity and the less familiar sense of disorientation. This city of 10 million might well have become the ‘Silicon Valley’ of India, but the infrastructure hasn’t kept pace with its relentless growth. The roads are chaotic; no lane discipline, precious few lights, cows strolling at will, a jostle of auto rickshaws, cars, hand-painted haulage trucks and motorbikes all vying for space…edging forward, inch by inch with toots and beeps and throaty horns merging into a dissonant musical score. The moment you encounter the streets of India, all senses are engaged.
On day one, we’re welcomed by Kasturika our relocations expert, one of the millions of young professionals who have relocated to Bengaluru. Over the next three days, her insight and sensitivity help us transition as we traverse the city to view houses in various compounds. Some locals choose to reside in these walled oases, as well as expats who find the communities safe, orderly, social and if I’m honest…insulated.
There’s isn’t any doubt as to the privileged life within these protected enclaves. Small armies of workers sweep the streets, tend gardens and guard the premises. Lush landscapes of palms, bougainvillea and fragrant frangipani contrast the street scenes just beyond… where bullock carts amble amidst the traffic mayhem and stray, bone-thin dogs pick at mounds of garbage. Where sari-clad women beg with desperate eyes, precious babies in their arms. Where so many women labour in the sun; digging, carrying, sweeping, and selling, hour after hour after hour.
But ‘out there’ is also where shop vendors smile widely when I pause to buy flowers or fruit. Where a man hefting a coal-warmed iron, working his way through mounds of laundry, greets me with a proud gaze. Where ‘an army of gardeners’ are bewildered when I ask to take their photo, but chuckle and tidy their hair as they pose. Where life unfolds in riots of colour, hierarchies of castes and prayers to a multitude of Hindu gods.
I try to marshall my senses, heightened by extreme emotional swings and sympathies.
Memories flood back of the two months we spent backpacking in India years ago and the contrast is surreal. Where once ours was a carefree adventure, we are now in an orchestrated search for a home, enclaved from tumultuous streets…yet part of me resists the notion.
I flood Kasturika with questions as we crawl through traffic. I sit in the back of the vehicle feeling choked from the poor air quality. I put on my sunglasses and quickly learn to peer straight ahead when there’s yet another knock on my window from a hand outstretched and a plea.
Recalling my ‘First Dispatch from Kazakhstan‘ I know that these initial days are trying and I trust that I’ll settle as I always have in a new country. Yet I admit… I’m in culture shock.
It’s a relief that I fall in love with the first house we’re shown. It’s new, with an open floor plan that communicates with the palm treed garden where parakeets flit and papayas thrive. There’s a sparkling pool in the compound and a small shop for basics.
But I’ll have to come to terms with summoning the driver to do any major shopping. It’s uncommon here for foreigners to drive as the roads are too challenging to navigate. I speak with other women about the loss of independence…they say you get used to it.
At the end of the first day, we’re gathered around the residence pool for a cocktail party and we meet young professionals from Denmark, Hungary and Poland, all here on short-term assignments. There is a genuine bewilderment as to why so many international companies have chosen to set up shop in this ill-prepared city; yet the brisk pace of investment continues.
On day two I peruse The Times at breakfast for news of the leopard…still on the loose. A headline jumps out at me that an elephant has run riot in a forest town damaging forty houses during a seven hour rampage.
I note the overt sexual overtones in countless articles and marvel at the detailed ads for arranged marriages, categorized by castes and religions. And it seems most parents have very attractive children…
I’m somewhat charmed when an Indian gentleman approaches my table and asks quietly,
“Have I seen you before? Perhaps in Bollywood, such a sweet and pleasing face.” I’ve already fallen for the charming rhythmic and slightly archaic pattern of speech that is heard here; it sounded lovely of course. I tell him that it’s unlikely as I’ve only just arrived, but thank him in any case.
“I told myself to let me have the courage and come say hello,” he adds gallantly and politely takes his leave. I chuckle at the Bollywood reference and as I gaze over the dining area I notice a striking young Indian couple that certainly look as if they’ve just stepped from a movie set. A group of ladies chat animatedly, their vivid saris colouring the room. The children of a young Canadian family fill the room with excited chatter, the young Euros are in deep conversation beside me. The cross-section of nationalities is emblematic of modern day Bengaluru.
That afternoon we travel north, viewing compounds removed from the city and the crush of urban traffic. I begin to notice that many of the houses are decorated with a somewhat malevolent looking mask near the front entrance.
“Those are nazar battu,” Kasturika tells me, “they fight evil with evil and protect your home or business. It’s an evil eye, a drishti.” And they’re everywhere, as are temples painted in pretty pastel shades and an inordinate number of roadside fortune tellers. Also in abundance are coconuts; laden on bikes and wheeled carts, neatly stacked with guavas, grapes and more. Caged chickens cluck for sale in shoddy storefronts. I see little meat for sale as it’s very much a vegetarian based diet here. And everywhere, absolutely everywhere are the bright green and yellow three-wheeled auto rickshaws that transport passengers for a mere few rupees.
These scenes unfold alongside IT business parks and modern hospitals, timeless counterpoints to the boom. Late afternoon we make our way back through simple country villages, past fields of marigolds, cows grazing near haystacks and goods balanced on the heads of villagers. The narrow road is busy with bulky, garishly painted trucks that pass dangerously as they dodge cyclists, autos, and bullock carts. I feel the danger factor intensify.
Eventually we find ourselves near our temporary residence and I’m uncharacteristically panicky. Yet another beggar knocks on my window, a one-armed monkey hops along the roadside wall; I know that’s all I can take for one day and we cancel an evening engagement. As someone who has transitioned to nine different countries, I temporarily surrender and finally find peace by envisioning my pending walled refuge…perhaps I’ll hang a drishti at the entrance as well!
Making our way into Bengaluru proper on the third day, I finally get a sense of how the city looked in the days of the British Raj and why it’s called the Garden City. There are wide boulevards where trees meet overhead; this is where Cantonments were built and where Winston Churchill lived for a time basking in the colonial life of polo, elegant parties and hunts. Old colonial buildings recall the past, massive cricket stadiums fill for the national sport and stately government institutions proclaim India’s status as the largest democracy in the world.
A succession of South Indian dynasties once ruled this region. In 1537, Kempé Gowdā – a feudal ruler, established a mud fort considered to be the foundation of the city. It eventually developed within the dominion of the Maharaja of Mysore and became the capital of the Princely State of Mysore, existing as a sovereign entity of the British Raj.
In 1809, the British shifted their cantonment to outside the old city and a town grew up around it, governed as part of British India. Remnants from this period dot Mahatma Gandhi Road, or MG as it’s known.
On MG road we wander into an old bazaar where chits are still used for payments, carbon copies are given to complete the sale and a security guard thumps it with a rubber stamp on the way out; one can’t help but be transported back in time.
A street seller flanks the entrance and is down to his last guava. In a kind gesture, a group of young millennials insist I have theirs to taste. It’s piquant and delicious, sprinkled with an unknown spice. The friendly professionals are also new to this burgeoning city, the capital of Karnataka and pass on some local tips.
Our day finishes amongst modern sights of gleaming shopping malls with high-end showrooms and terraced restaurants. Part of me…no all of me…is relieved that this part of the city exists. Where I know I can escape to ‘Western modernity’, yet I know I’ll embrace the rich culture and the mysticism of India.
As we completed our three days with Kasturika, I tell her how much I’ve appreciated her openess to my endless questions.
“Every question is important when you’re thrust into a new environment, especially one such as India,” she responds. And so very true, India’s disparities can overshadow the beauty of its ancient stories echoed in everyday life…they beg to be appreciated for what they are.
We finish the day with a wander along a vibrant street where young people are enjoying a stroll or a drink, as at it would be in any major city. Yet in this atmosphere on a balmy Saturday evening, a cow saunters past and suddenly there’s a ramshackle mess of a building next to a sari shop that offers valet parking…quintessential India.
We celebrate the completion of our orientation with the comfort that we’ve perhaps found a home. In probably the coolest Hard Rock Cafe we’ve been in anywhere in the world, we enjoy a glass of the local wine and I pull out a whimsical purchase from the day, that ‘ubiquitous form of transportation’ that will grace my desk and remind me of the trials of transitioning to this fascinating country.
For now, our transportation is in the hands of Shivu, our assigned driver. He collects us and manoeuvres through the gridlocked traffic. I ask him if he has children and when he tells me her name I note that it’s the same name as the compound I hope to live in…surely it’s a good omen!
Post script…At the time of writing, the leopard had been captured but has escaped. It is once again on the loose.