It is 7:30 AM and I am all set for an early start to my Bangalore workday. Based on vehement recommendations from my friends who have lived here longer than I have, I have subscribed to a cab service. My driver arrives on time and I get into the car. An arctic blast of imitation Jasmine fragrance knocks me into my seat. Since I paid for the AC car service, the driver has dutifully rolled up all the windows and is running the car’s AC at a freezing 21 degrees with a freshly opened Jasmine deodoriser to give me my money’s worth. I am quick to have him turn off the AC and roll down the windows to welcome some balmy Bangalore air.
We roll out of my residential complex and I sense we are out on to the Bangalore streets as the hint of Frangipani flowers in the air has been replaced by a mix of exhaust and spice. Almost at once we come to a grinding halt, my laptop which I have foolishly begun to work on, lurches forward as we encounter a big yellow school bus making a seemingly impossible U turn in front of us. Two-wheelers buzz around it, like flies around a wounded mammoth, making it harder. My window still rolled down, I notice the decibel levels of automobile horns rising with the urgency of those waiting for this school bus to pass. My driver uses the down time to tell me how the road is going to be widened and there will soon be a flyover to ease things. I think I have heard that a few years ago when I was visiting. Maybe it’s deja vu. The bus finally bellows and grinds forward in the direction it wanted to.
The car is moving again at the normal Bangalore driving limit of 10 mph. After the first lurch I have given up on my laptop and I now give up on reading email on my phone, or doing pretty much anything that requires my neck to fixate on a screen as we drive over a dot matrix of potholes. I wonder what message they were conveying. Neck straight, looking out of my window I focus on the still fresh morning scenery punctuated by real-estate billboards, enticing me with visions of California, Italy, and Spain. Residences with exotic names like Palo Alto Estates, Walnut Creek, and Tuscany, with pictures of azure waterbodies and sumptuous villas are in sharp contrast to what I am experiencing at the moment. Between those billboards I see glimpses of the real Bangalore waking up. Lazy coconut palms and banana plantations, steamy Darshinis (breakfast spots) serving hot Idlis, spicy sambar, and strong filter coffee to hungry standees; mini temples of variegated gods and goddesses, their bells chiming in with the sound of growing traffic; fragrant flower baskets and loads of coconuts urging passers by to indulge in an express blessing; and freshly bathed school children in uniform, all vie for attention. Life goes on. No, it thrives, much faster than the traffic I am in.
A red public transport bus obstructs my view momentarily. It is loaded twice over capacity with bleary eyed passengers floating through their commute with the life rafts that are their smart phones and headsets. The bus passes and I am greeted by a mother – helmet on and a flowing orange gajra fluttering in the breeze – ferrying 3 uniformed children to school on her two wheeler. One child is squeezed between her handle and front seat. The two others cling for dear life on the back seat with arms stretched in a human chain anchored by her girth. They peer into my car with just one passenger and I look away guiltily, right into the eyes of a little girl no more than 6, in a crisp white school uniform, pigtails tied with the brightest red ribbons her mother could find, a heavy school bag, walking alone, no footwear. Older college-goers in trendy clothes flit and dodge around my car, fixated on their smartphones, probably playing a virtual game and the real-life traffic dodging game at once. A little further, a concerned driver citizen has disembarked from his car in mid-traffic to help an old couple navigate the jammed road.
We inch towards my destination, which I was told about 30 minutes ago, was just 5 more minutes away. Newton and Einstein are both turning in their resting place somewhere. I stay blissfully immersed in my experience as Bangalore limps by. Sacred Ganesha statues for sale next to a slaughterhouse; a Pizza hut and KFC next to a biryani joint; a locksmith next to a Nike Factory store; a glossy Intel building next to a single fruit seller selling only pomegranates; and a pungent sewer by a brand new hospital pass by in the backdrop of what was once old Bangalore – rows of vibrant Gulmohars, imposing Acacias, cheery Frangipanis and retired seniors on long morning walks outside rows of peaceful, low rise, shaded, private residences. My reverie is interrupted by the thick of traffic. I roll up my windows, preferring the synthesised Jasmine to a diesel exhaust draining into my face. I cut out the city noise some more by putting on my headsets. Bob Dylan reminds me that the times they are a changing.
Finally, ten miles and 45 minutes later, I am told I am at my destination. I enter my office which is no different and probably better than some I have occupied in the Bay Area. It welcomes me with the blip and growl of a power outage and diesel generators coming on simultaneously. All is well, I think, as I fire up my laptop again and begin my day. News of a $1B investment in Bangalore based Flipkart greets me, followed by Amazon’s counter attack of committing to $2B in the Indian market, along with a clip about Uber creating a presence in India to disrupt the conveyance market.
Dichotomy is the word I think I should use, but it falls so short of what I experienced in just this one hour. Is there a single word conveying an emotion of contrast, exhilaration, calm, chaos, anticipation, disparity, frustration, and optimism happening all at once? Maybe the word I am looking for is “Bangalore”.