In the land of Kempe Gowda

In the land of Kempe Gowda
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First Published: Thu, Nov 20 2008. 11 57 PM IST

Bright lights: Commercial Street, a popular shopping destination in Bangalore, mirrors the rapid globalization the city has undergone. Hemant Mishra / Mint
Bright lights: Commercial Street, a popular shopping destination in Bangalore, mirrors the rapid globalization the city has undergone. Hemant Mishra / Mint
Updated: Thu, Nov 20 2008. 11 57 PM IST
When does a city come of age? Is it when it starts spilling beyond prescribed borders? (But then, almost every Indian town would qualify.) When it acquires a sobriquet? (Errr… what about Moradabad, the Brass City?) Or when it starts changing beyond recognition? (Again, almost every city would make the grade.) Or perhaps it’s when it acquires its own anthology. That’s a sign that not only has the city developed multiple facets, but that it evokes enough passion in its residents and visitors to merit a literature all its own.
Bright lights: Commercial Street, a popular shopping destination in Bangalore, mirrors the rapid globalization the city has undergone. Hemant Mishra / Mint
With Multiple City, Bangalore/Bengaluru joins that hallowed club—its Indian members include Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Lucknow, Allahabad—with its head held high. One of the most lovingly compiled non-fiction titles to come out of the Penguin stable in recent times, it is the one book you must read to grasp the nuances of one of India’s most conflicted cities.
The bulk of the credit for that goes to editor Aditi De, Bengali by birth and Bangalorean by choice. She refused to take the easy path of simply commissioning essays from the usual suspects and instead, ploughed through decades of writing on the city in English and the vernacular. The result is a most comprehensive anthology that includes history, legend, journalism, cartoons, photographs, prose-poetry, songs, academic treatises, biography, blog and fiction. De’s selection proves yet again that it’s not so much what you say as how you say it that carries the day.
Consider the thesis of the opening piece, The Ballad of Kempe Gowda. Subsequent essays and excerpts reiterate the story of Kempe, the labourer who would be chieftain, who is believed to have erected the four towers marking the urban limits of the city he named Bendakaluru, after the humble boiled beans (bendakalu) he was fed by an old woman. But none manages to do it quite so evocatively as the ballad:
“As he travelled, he felt very hungry,
But found not a morsel to eat.
He walked on and on and came upon
The house of an old woman.
‘Dear Ajji, give me a
mouthful of rice,’ he asked.
‘I have neither rice nor roti,
I only have some boiled beans.
Will you eat it, my child?’”
This aura of genteelness, of hospitality and thoughtfulness, graces almost every page of the book. It shows in the well-calibrated formatting of the contents, the choice of writers, in the catholicity of subjects covered—from an examination of the Kannada male image to an exploration of the city’s most authentic restaurants—and, of course, in the treatment of the subjects themselves. The humour is gentle, the touch delicate. When individual writers adopt the negative voice—in the expert deconstruction of the Garden City myth or in the pot shots at the call centre culture—the criticism is rational, the hostility explained.
From among the 50-odd pieces catering to all kinds of readership, a few stand out. The excerpt from Winston Churchill’s autobiography details with sly wit the routine of a British soldier in peacetime, when life revolved around polo and white men had to be out of the sun by 11am. Rajmohan Gandhi’s article, quoting liberally from his grandfather’s letters written, while convalescing in the Nandi Hills near Bangalore, throws in the sweetest surprise in the tale: It was here that Gandhi’s youngest son, Devdas, proposed to Lakshmi, daughter of C. Rajagopalachari. Family elders frowned at the idea because Lakshmi was only 15 and asked the couple to wait for five years to see if their love would survive. It did only too well, as their sons Rajmohan and West Bengal governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi would testify.
Engineer-biographer-writer Nemichandra’s story packs as much of a positive punch. It describes her wonder at discovering the existence of a Jewish community in the city—unlike, say, Kochi or Kolkata, there is little record of their presence in Bangalore—and her efforts to track down any remaining members as part of background research for her novel Yad Vashem. She finally found a house that still stands in the Commercial Street area, bearing a Star of David at the door, which led her to the family of Rubin Moses, residents of Bangalore for at least a century.
Then, there are the micro-scapes: Anthropologist Smriti Srinivas’ essay on the Karaga festival, which celebrates Draupadi, and its intersection with the city’s dying waterbodies; novelist Shashi Deshpande’s memories of the city through the prism of her various homes; historian Janaki Nair’s nostalgia piece on the Church Street-St Mark’s Road T-junction, where she lived; Swedish crime-writer Zac O’Yeah’s tribute to Majestic, the locality that adopted the name of a cinema and much of the colour of the movies it screened; Geeta Doctor’s walk down “Cantonment”, the formerly British part of the city that still aspires to some foreign sophistication; Ramchandra Guha’s eulogy for the iconic Premier Book Shop and its owner T.S. Shanbhag.
If much affection seems to be reserved for the past and for the parts of the city that have resisted change (south Bangalore, for instance), creative writers tackle the “new” Bangalore of malls and call centres through poetry (Pratibha Nandkumar and Anjum Hasan, both depicting the home under the threat of change, and S.S. Prasad, who says “I wear my tag, lest I forget who I am”) and drama (Mahesh Dattani, Ram Ganesh Kamatham). Art is the medium through which they view the complex narratives of the present.
Like all great cities, Bangalore is many things to many people and it would be impossible to encapsulate all that it means within the covers of a book. But Multiple City, with its appropriate cover art (Paul Fernandes), comes very close.
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First Published: Thu, Nov 20 2008. 11 57 PM IST