I am a Bangalorean. I have lived in this city since I was born, spending my entire childhood and youth here. I have cycled around the city’s nooks and corners with schoolmates, often going doubles and triples, puffing as we laboured up the hills and laughing as we sped down the slopes.
Growing up in Bangalore was a remarkable immersion into India’s diverse multiculturalism.
I am a Brahmin. My “chaddi dost” is a Muslim, Muzzamil Pasha. We met first when we were five, in nursery; we last saw each other four days ago, when he dropped into my office. In school, our close circle of eight—they called us the “inseparables” in the neighbourhood, as we strutted down Coles Road for our daily dose of masala vadas and Iyengar bakery puffs— had two Mudaliars, one Gujarati, two Muslims, one Christian, and one Naidu, besides me.
We each had our individual identities, even as we forged a strong collective one.
We were all members of everyone’s larger families, constantly in each others’ homes. Muslim weddings saw us work the back rooms, me the Brahmin passing out mutton biryanis, shouting back in my best localized Urdu, “khaabaan laa re, plate-aan laa re.”
My story is not different from that of many Bangaloreans. The city created the environment that allowed people to break barriers and forge ties. I am not an urban planner, but I suspect that it had a lot to do with the physicality of Bangalore: it was a city of neighbourhoods.
I’m not sure I can say this with the same certainty today. Without romanticizing the past, I can’t help feeling that the unique aspects of a city’s character need to be preserved. And vibrant neighbourhoods and communities come pretty high on the list.
There is a link between the idea of communities, and those of ownership and identity.
As the city triples in size to become one of Asia’s largest metros, the question “Who is a Bangalorean?” defines how each of us relates to our city.
A few months ago, two of Bangalore’s leading journalist/theatre people, Vedam Jaishankar and Prakash Belawadi, organized a discussion on this issue.
Titled Greater Bangalore and Identities their invitation said, “We are all agitated about Greater Bangalore. The asymmetric economic boom in the city seems to have marginalized large sections of the city’s traditional communities. The Bangalore identifiers have faded away. Lal Bagh, Cubbon Park, Kadlekai Parishe, Karaga... have yielded to Electronic City, the annual air show, IT.com, rock concerts at Palace Grounds, which all somehow accentuate the sense of alienation.” Most importantly, it asked the question, “Who is a Bangalorean?”
At the programme, the angst of divisive identities was evident everywhere. There were professional conflicts—between old Bangalore’s traditional industry and and the newer IT professionals. There were tensions of economic class—the new rich making life unaffordable for the retired pensioners. Much of the debate was also about Kannada and its marginalization, with strong views being expressed about the city losing its Kannadiga identity.
As the tension in the room mounted, one multi-generation Bangalorean spoke from her heart.
She said, “I must confess that I am confused. I have always been a proud Kannadiga defending various aspects of our language and culture, but my son is much more casual about this. We speak Kannada at home, but he is okay about how the city is changing. When I tell him about the past, he says very matter-of-factly, ‘Amma, things change.’ I don’t know if the problem is with him or with me, clinging on to my old ideas.”
Karen Armstrong wrote in The Battle for God, “Modernization has always been a painful process. People feel alienated and lost when fundamental changes in their society make the world strange and unrecognizable.”
While she wrote this in a different context, her words are relevant for the challenges that Bangalore faces: As people feel helpless in dealing with the fast pace of change and its resultant conflicts, the danger is that they will retreat into familiar comfort zones, generally of their own community or caste. If this happens, the multicultural neighbourhood will become a tragic casualty, and the city risks getting splintered into silos. The early signs are already showing.
Identity, communities, neighbourhoods. The softer stuff that actually make cities vibrant. Bangalore had it at one point. As we force our way onto the map of the world’s great metros, the challenge is whether we can keep these alive.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org