Until a few decades ago, people came to Bangalore essentially for the horse races. Once the racing season was over, the city emptied out. Bangalore had little else to offer.
Today the racecourse has been moved out of the city—a former chief minister’s dream of erecting a 100-story commercial tower à la Singapore in the course’s place was foiled by public outcry—and Bangalore throbs through the year with no concern for the seasons. Its roads are chockablock with traffic, and its hotels crammed.
Bangalore started its life as a cantonment built by the British to keep a watchful eye on the nearby princely city of Mysore. It was European in its orientation, with wide roads, bungalows with pillared porticoes, and spired churches where everyone spoke English. And nearby was its “native twin,” Bengaluru, congested and cowed, where the lingua franca was the South Indian language of Kannada.
In 1956 the administrative map of India was redrawn on a linguistic basis with each of its nearly 20 languages defining a separate state. And Bangalore found itself the capital of a new Kannada state, at the mercy of political and economic forces it was unprepared for. The first to pour in were bureaucrats who needed offices, houses, and roads to run the new state, their numbers swelled by the philosophy of a socialist economy that led to the setting-up of government-sponsored enterprises, like the telephone and the aeronautical industries. Ancillary enterprises followed, leading to an influx of migrant workers.
The population doubled in the 1970s. Only 20 years ago, when my wife and I decided to move to Bangalore from Bombay, we could visit a new suburb, buy a site of our choice, and then sit down with an architect to design the house we wanted. No more. As the demand for housing overran the availability of land, the estate developers took control, eating into the villages surrounding the city, occupying farms and open spaces, razing houses to the ground, and installing multistory apartment buildings in their place, with little regard to the city’s existing infrastructure. The current joke is that the only buildings to remain unscathed by the onslaught may be Vidhana Soudha, the building that houses the legislature, and UB City, a complex that is a hideous combination of the Empire State Building and Internet kitsch, built by a liquor baron.
The emergence in the ’60s of the liquor industry, with its intractable deals and infinitely manipulable accounting, seems an inevitable response to the demands of the new democratic politics. And liquor barons virtually took over the running of the city. They built cinema halls, started newspapers, built schools, opened restaurants, produced films, invested in real estate, and even hosted public parties in honor of politicians. Then in July 1981, tragedy struck. More than 300 died on a single day from drinking illicit liquor, and the aura surrounding alcohol began to pall.
It was during this decade that two IT companies, WIPRO and Infosys, and a biotechnology firm, Biocon, were launched and grew from scratch into gigantic enterprises. Bangalore became the preferred destination of global outsourcing and found a new nomenclature for itself as the “Silicon Valley of India.” That these firms grew without bowing and scraping to the government has caused no little resentment in the Vidhana Soudha.
The new IT prosperity has created a young, energetic, educated, and wealthy working class, transforming Bangalore into a consumer’s paradise of shopping malls and office complexes with glass-fronted exteriors. The insatiable demand for “good English” has renewed the anxiety that Kannada may die out in the city. In 2006 Bangalore was renamed Bengaluru.
But the main loss has been the sense of a stable, coherent city. The experience of the city has become formless, even viscous. Everyone is trying to get somewhere, and distance has become the only real object of daily concern. Instead of shrinking the city, the flyovers, underpasses, and elevated trains seem continually to expand it, pushing people farther and farther away from each other.
Twenty years after we built our house in a residential zone, we have now been informed that the road in front of it needs to be widened to accommodate the traffic. Any day now an entire swath could be cleared from our front garden, and the wall of our living room knocked down.
A city planner told me: “Every day 400 four-wheelers and 1,200 two- and three-wheelers are added to the roads of Bangalore. We have to compete with Beijing.”
It was not so long ago that the city was competing only with Singapore.
Girish Karnad, the winner of the 1998 Bharatiya Jnanpith award, is a playwright, actor, film director, and arts administrator.