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Bangalore is the best Indian city I've seen

October 24, 2007 14:44 IST
There were twenty of us. A majority were Americans, three Chinese, three English, and a sprinkling of other nationalities including some with hyphenated identities. Besides me, there was another Indian.

The group was diverse consisting of engineers, a lawyer, financial managers, and people with varying business backgrounds. We were visiting India to experience different aspects of an emerging economy and the culture. In Bangalore, two other smaller groups joined us.

The setting was unconventional. There were no trips planned to the normal tourist destinations of Jaipur and Agra, and living arrangements did not include stays in any of the decadent 5-star hotels that have cropped up.

We walked the streets of Bangalore and got a lesson in colonial history in the Rose Market, made a trip to a village in Hosur, Tamil Nadu, and dined with a billionaire one evening.

Activities such as these helped me experience an India I had not seen before. Having grown-up in the hinterlands off the Ganges where she becomes one of the prairies, and then in latter years on the streets of the 'Maximum City,' I pride myself in knowing my India. But, this trip definitely stretched my horizons.

Our living arrangements were off the beaten path as well. We stayed in the dormitories of a management institute. Ok, not exactly where the students live, but a section created for working professionals in their mid-career.

The spartan facilities with no television or room service and on occasions without hot water, provided for ample time to reflect and jot down thoughts. Here I share some notes from my journal:

Growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s, in the North, Bangalore never really made it to a list of places to visit. Now, having been in the city, I can say that Bangalore is the best Indian city that I have been to. I liked its layout, the people and everything the world has gotten to know of it. I walked through the parks, saw the Vidhan Sabha, the Court House and the Majarajah's home that has echoes of Windsor Castle.

On a free day, I hired a car (and a driver) and headed to Mysore. Within a span of a couple hours, the almighty got to see me at three different places. I did a long Namaskar at the altar at Seringapatnam, rested my knees off of the perch on top of Tipu Sultan's mosque, and sat down deep inside the pews at St Philomena church in Mysore.

In the first week of our stay, the airwaves, the streets and the chatter in the Bangalore pubs was consumed by four events -- the state elections in Punjab and Uttaranchal where the ruling party got routed; the presentation of the national budget; the Cauvery river water dispute that puts Wagah border to shame; and finally the thrill of playing Holi, albeit in its subdued format in Bangalore. Where else, all this within a few days, but in India!

There is no debating the condition of Bangalore's infrastructure. But, in some ways, I found our prolonged commute times a tad more interesting than the peak hour commute on Long Island Expressway, on 101 in California's Bay area or on London's M4.

We watched the Global Bazaar come to IIM Bangalore. The days before the recruiting marathon began it felt as if there was a wedding on campus. Hundreds of people descended to raise large tents, lay out red carpets, and to do a massive clean up. On the fateful day, students, twisting their necks uncomfortably in ties, were put up for auction. The high and the mighty names of corporate America, Europe, Asia and India sized each candidate up. The students waited patiently, in the patio, chewing on Domino's Pizza hoping to hear their name called out. Periodically, there would be commotion as word spread of the high bid received by a freshly minted graduate, sure to make it to the papers the next morning.

Walking the streets with Caucasians is different now than it was when I was growing up. In those years when we made it to Banaras after a treacherous three-hour trip on the hillways, I, with the rest of the city found it fascinating to watch the firangs with their tie-dye shirts walking the perimeter of the Ganges in search of salvation in the pungent confines of a chillum.

The Caucasian who now walks the streets of India is different from his ancestral traveller and slowly becoming less of a novelty, although I am sure Banaras continues to field those who come looking for god or ganja.

Always on the lookout for a good chola bhatura or rogan josh, to my dismay, I ran in to menus at high-end restaurants that flaunted their beef and pork dishes. As elated as I am that India has left the Hindu rate of growth behind, I worry about our values getting slaughtered on the path to modernity. In this ancient land where hospitality has long meant taking the lid off of cauldrons to serve steaming idlis or saffron-infused biryanis, there should be no place for beef and pork on the menu. Perhaps the Pandits and the Mullahs will find this to be a unifying cause.

On a structured walk through Bangalore, and in research thereafter, I have discovered how the histories of India and America closely intersect. Our tour guide, Arun Pai (www.bangalorewalks.com), helped me put the two Lord Cornwallis's I had known together. In 1781, Lord Cornwallis was defeated by a combined American-French force at the Seige of Yorktown, widely considered the end of the American Revolutionary War.

He regained his pride more than a decade later in 1793 when he promulgated the Permanent Settlement between the East India Company and the Bengali landlords, paving the way to a longer, occupying stay by the British in India. Imagine if the fog had not descended on Boston Harbour and if the British had defeated General Washington -- the histories of America and India may have taken a different turn.

We visited a school in a village in Tamil Nadu. This experience left the most lasting impression on everyone. The village seemed to be living Gandhi's vision of clean surroundings, empowered women running the local school and happy, mischievious children doing what children do.

Bangalore airport is the worst airport I have been to in my life. It is so bad that it made me long for the waiting room at Allahabad train station.

Prior to the trip, my conversations with my fellow to-be travellers revealed their un-preparedness of what to expect. Some expected Bangalore to be like Mexico City or Sao Paulo, others touted their travels to Beijing, Johannesburg or Jakarta.

Once in India, my travel companions realised that no amount of reading, travel to other countries or mere imagination could have prepared them for the place.

'India is like trying to read a serious book of history with the television on, the cassette player turned up high, the children yelping and neighbors quarreling. It is an acquired taste and if you don't get it, India is one gigantic headache,' so wrote, Abe Rosenthal, the famous New York Times editor, and an India lover.

I would like to believe that most in our group had 'gotten it.' However, a very few will, unfortunately, only remember the wily mouse who scurried across the floor in their living quarters.

To them, all I can say is -- Jai Ganesh!

Girish Rishi, a Chicago-based writer, can be reached at girishrishi@hotmail.com

Girish Rishi