It is a fact that the changes that overtook Bangalore from the 1990s onwards were deeper, faster and more far-reaching than earlier changes. No part of the city told the story of this fundamental shift in values and lifestyle more starkly than Whitefield, where the (Madhav) Sivaram family settled down and Sarjapur, headquarters of the Azim Premji University, (Nuggehalli) Nigam’s career choice and where he hoped to find a home. Both places were once too far away to be even considered suburbs of Bangalore. In less than ten years, the Internet revolution converted both locations into terrifying inner-city dens and, simultaneously, symbols of the kind of chaos that Bangalore has trademarked.

A house in Whitefield.
A house in Whitefield.

Appropriately enough, Whitefield began as a white enclave. The European and Anglo-Indian Association only had to ask and the Mysore government in 1881 allotted 4,000 acres to the east of Bangalore for them to establish a settlement. Eventually, they retained only 542 acres because they could not raise the money to develop the rest. Agricultural farms and a few dozen residences constituted the settlement they named after D. S. White, the founder of the original association in Madras. A couple of churches and a school completed Mr White’s field. A 1920 tourist guide noted that ‘there is some fairly good shooting to be had’ in the vicinity of the Eurasian enclave. It specifically mentioned duck and other wildfowl in the cold weather, and partridge, quail and hare all year round.

Askew—A Short Biography Of Bangalore, Aleph Book Company, 116 pages, Rs299.
Askew—A Short Biography Of Bangalore, Aleph Book Company, 116 pages, Rs299.

By the time I arrived in Bangalore, the wildfowl and hare had vanished but Whitefield was still a wide open precinct where one could go for a day’s outing. The moment you crossed the HAL airport on what is now called Old Airport Road, it was open country. Farms on both sides of the rustic road were interspersed with thatched-roof houses serving light food and tender coconuts. There were open spaces and fields of flowers dancing in the breeze. Traffic was sparse because there were only two known institutions in the area—the Sai Baba ashram and the Ecumenical Centre. One could spend time in either, enjoying the peace, the flower beds, the fresh, pleasant air. One could stroll down the quiet streets envying those who lived in tiled bungalows with vast compounds sporting patriarchal trees.

In about ten years the old familiar features were all gone. In 1994, an India-Singapore consortium put up a massive monument on a 69-acre landmass in Whitefield. The International Tech Park India Ltd. (ITPL) was a ten-building behemoth that included sports arenas and a hotel, all of international standard. It thus became the preferred campus of every multinational high-technology giant with an eye on India. Other Brobdingnagian towers followed. The techie population along with the supporting service multitudes began to choke Whitefield because, as usual, providers of civic amenities refused to notice that something was happening in the area.

Phoenix mall, the biggest mall at Whitefield
Phoenix mall, the biggest mall at Whitefield

Whitefield became a monster. There were only two main roads, both teeming with company buses, autorickshaws, fruit and vegetable vendors, streetfood wagons and sundry hawkers. Drivers, constantly overtaking one another, blocked the traffic when they were lucky and caused death and injury when they were not. Some residents made videos documenting and exposing the mess and posted them on social media hoping that the authorities would be shamed into action. The authorities were not. Some formed Whitefield Rising, a collective of resident associations, to fight for some order in the midst of chaos. They fixed a road here, cleaned a median there. The mess continued. Protesting citizens even took to the streets en masse, forming human chains kilometres long. The mess continued.

But citizens could not pack up and go just because Whitefield was in a shambles. Hundreds of companies operated out of the area and tens of thousands of jobs depended on those operations. Residents, even as they rallied against the wretchedness of the place, had to seek comfort in what facilities they could find. Thanks to the presence of international companies and a bulging population with money to spare, modern urban facilities were constantly coming up in Whitefield. Malls, hotels, multiplexes, specialty hospitals and schools merged into the congested, overflowing anarchy of the area. The availability of such conveniences mattered to a relocating family like Madhav Sivaram’s. His priorities were a good school for his two kids and accessibility to the airport. ‘It’s a terrible scramble outside,’ he said. ‘But in our compound things couldn’t be better. Good neighbours and quality services. Everything is available within walking distance. Our boy is the last to be picked up by the school bus and the first to be dropped back.’

The Sivarams were lucky. In September 2016 as many as eight schools pooled their resources to install traffic signals at some of Whitefield’s notorious intersections; they had faced a desperate situation with children taking five to six hours to reach home from school. There was no guarantee of course that their joint effort would mitigate the nightmare. They just did what was within their reach to make up for the lethargy of official agencies. Even in Whitefield, hope sprang eternally.

The approach road to Sarjapur
The approach road to Sarjapur

Compared to Whitefield, Sarjapur was less frenetic because it was historically outside Bangalore’s sphere of influence. Till the very end of the twentieth century it remained rural in character, known for its traditional role as a manufacturing centre for raw silk, muslin and cotton carpets. Then the developers discovered its felicitous location within hailing distance of Electronic City to the southwest, Whitefield to the northeast and urban beehives like Koramangala and Madivala nearby. The real estate mafia arrived in a frenzied rush, their grip on Sarjapur becoming as Dhritarashtrian as their embrace of Whitefield. As in Whitefield, malls and hotels, hospitals and schools opened all over Sarjapur alongside housing projects, commercial complexes and more housing projects spreading round-the-clock pandemonium on Sarjapur Main Road. Premji’s Wipro units and university were caught in the melee, forcing staff to deal with some of the world’s most unreasonable traffic bottlenecks on their way to and from work. Nigam was caught in the squeeze. ‘I take a cab from Malleswaram to Electronic City which I sometimes share with other colleagues. But the commute is long and tiresome. I realize that I am better off than most people in Bangalore who rely on public transport, but sitting immobile in a car for three to four hours a day is still very annoying.’

Shops at Sarjapur
Shops at Sarjapur

He had moved to Bangalore and to Malleswaram because he was assured of family support when they returned to India after about seventeen years abroad. But he did not realize how Malleswaram had changed. Making no effort to hide his shock, he said: ‘I am quite tired of living in what is probably the noisiest part of Malleswaram, which my wife refuses to believe was one of the quietest and prettiest parts of Bangalore. I use earplugs in the evenings to block out the noise. Something tells me this is no way to live life in urban India.’

Edited with permission from Aleph Book Company.

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