A dreadlocked writer goes looking for an African hair salon in Bengaluru, and finds a neighbourhood full of surprises
The neighbourhood has developed into a melting pot of cultures with students and artists from various African countries, Korea, Iran and eastern Europe
I always said no when people asked to touch it, and yet they did, intrigued by the texture and feel of my Afro hair. After years of having people ignore my stern “no’s", I decided to seek a change of style. I was tired of spending hours getting the right pouf, stepping out of the house and then looking like a deflated balloon till I came upon the next mirror. I decided to let my long curls turn into dreadlocks (contrary to popular belief, dreadlocks aren’t the result of not washing, but, rather, of not combing one’s hair. Word of advice: run your fingers through your dreadlocks to define them). After nine years of wearing dreadlocks, they turned unruly and I began to understand the importance of the barbershop, a fixture in every African town and village. No one in Bengaluru was working with African hair, and, well, Khirki in Delhi was just too far to go for a hair appointment. Then, a few months ago, I received a photograph on WhatsApp. It was a drive-by, hazy shot of a billboard announcing the opening of an African hair salon in Kammanahalli, one of Bengaluru’s most multiculti neighbourhoods. Quick Googling gave me a number and a location. I tried to book an appointment but no one ever picked up the phone. This rumour of the existence of an African hair salon in Kammanahalli eventually led me to walk through every street of this neighbourhood, where single-storey houses belonging to the original residents of this once solidly bourgeois area rub shoulders with hastily built buildings housing hundreds of students and young professionals from every Indian state and a vast number of countries. Along with students from practically every African nation, there are Koreans, Russians, Iranians, Jordanians, East Europeans, even a few South Americans.
Bourgeois backwater to bustling bohemia
During the day, it still looks pretty bourgeois. But once the sun sets, the de facto high street mushrooms with the standard offerings of any new neighbourhood: the “Darjeeling Momo" carts, shiny vans with promises of 99 varieties of dosa, Chindian food stalls lit by that single white CFL bulb, kebabs sold on handcarts, numerous rough and ready cafés selling falafel rolls and shawarmas. Look up past the smoke from the grills, and the neon sign boards invite you an ever-changing roster of breweries, bars, cafés and restaurants. Less than a decade ago, the area was a sleepy backwater of Bengaluru’s Anglo-Indian neighbourhoods like Cooke Town and Richards Town. Today, it’s “Kamana-hattan"—and this is only partly a joke. But it’s not just these contraptions of consumerism that mark out this neighbourhood. Here, you walk alongside Iranian boys and girls with the slickest hairstyles, Africans dressed to the nines, or Koreans heading to the supermarket stocked with ingredients from back home. There are East Europeans and Brazilians, sitting on the footpaths or at Sugar n’ Spice, a popular street-side café. I even spotted a restaurant that seems completely on-trend, with a keto-only menu
“This is the best part of Bangalore—at least for the moment," says Kristian Al-Droubi, a 40-year-old Serbian performance artist who lives in the area. Al-Droubi is a giant—he has long, grey-streaked hair tied carelessly into a chignon on the top of his head. The shopkeepers in the area affectionately call him ‘Shaitan’, he says, laughing. He’s dressed in the uniform of the modern hippie—a blue Tibetan short kurta and Buddha pants with a low-drop crotch.
Al-Droubi has been in and out of India for over five years and is married to an Indian. “Kammanahalli is packed with interesting people from various cultures—one can just kill time people-watching. And it also has an open and unabashed culture of meat-eating that stands out for me," he adds. He likens the feel of walking here to hanging out at a public square in a European city. “Everything is within walking distance. The energy of the student community really gives this place that same public-space vibe," he says.
Since the 1980s, Bengaluru has profited from its reputation as a premium destination for higher education, bringing an influx of students. Initially, the courses offered focused on producing engineers and medical graduates, but private colleges today offer everything from management and legal studies to journalism and fashion design. With new colleges sprouting along the outskirts of the city, surrounding neighbourhoods began filling up with off-campus students. Then the Koreans moved here to enrol children in English-medium schools.
“At first, it was students from the Arab countries, then Africans, and now there are students from other nationalities as well," says Wency Mendes, a Delhi-based film-maker who spent time in Kammanahalli researching his documentary #UNFAIR on colourism and race in India. “While these universities provide education, they don’t necessarily take into account the culture of these foreign students, so they are forced to step out of their campuses," he says. “For example, most of these college cafeterias are pure vegetarian, so these students prefer to live off-campus and eat out or cook for themselves."
Together but distinct
Rossy Mayunda, a 23-year-old business administration student from the Democratic Republic of Congo, had heard of Kammanahalli even before he came to Bengaluru. “Studying in India is cheaper and requires less complicated paperwork than going to Europe or the US," he says.
Mayunda’s decision to head to Bengaluru was also personal: “I had heard that other Africans lived in Bangalore, especially in this area. It has easy access to my college and renting a place isn’t very expensive. Attending Sunday mass at the First Assembly of Zion Church, with others from the African student community, was important to me." This church alternates between services for people from the North-East and the African student community. “It feels like we are in Africa," says Mayunda. But he quickly admits, “I don’t have any Indian friends and don’t interact much with the local community."
This is the unspoken reality of most so-called multi-ethnic neighbourhoods in Bengaluru—indeed India. While on the surface it seems to be a melting pot of cultures, the idea of sticking to one’s own runs strong. In fact, even students from different African countries hardly mingle with each other, says Mayunda.
In February 2016, a 21-year-old Tanzanian female student was beaten, stripped and paraded naked for an alleged hit-and-run incident by the residents of Hessaraghatta in Bengaluru; this was followed by a series of other incidents of racial violence. This rallied the foreign student community in Bengaluru to challenge perceptions. One of these initiatives, the Miss Africa Bengaluru beauty pageant, was co-founded by Mayunda in 2017.
“We needed to change the negative impression of the African student community, and do something fun with a positive message," he says. Another motive was to break down the divide between the students themselves. “While a lot of locals think of Africa as a single country, it isn’t. We saw this as a platform to change that notion and showcase various cultures from the African continent. Students from different countries would also get to interact with each other," he says. The success of this first outing led to the demand for a male category in the contest, and the Miss and Mr Africa Bengaluru debuted last year.
At the second edition, which I attended as a host for a web programme, I spent time with students from countries like Angola, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Everything started late but no one seemed to mind—they were dancing and chatting. There was an air of competition but it didn’t dampen the event; rather, it catalysed it. Interestingly, even here, my dreadlocks became a topic of conversation. Most Africans living outside Africa have adopted poker-straight styles or less “ethnic" ones. I became a curio—an opportunity for them to play with their own hair through mine.
Mendes believes violence is quieter now, and more insidious, even in supposedly cosmopolitan neighbourhoods like Kammanahalli. “The students won’t always say, but there are problems, like landlords refusing to return deposits or women being harassed," he says. “The interaction between the local community and this floating population of students might have changed to from ‘oh, they’re trouble’ to ‘oh, they’re cool’ but they have to know their place."
Bibimbap and Brazilian sausages
The shift to respectability is reflected in the business opportunities given to these communities. The Korean population can navigate the neighbourhood between the five restaurants, a tea-shop and bakery, and several supermarkets like the one below Arirang Korean restaurant, which only stocks Korean food products like instant noodles, gochujang paste, kimchi, seaweed sheets and even Korean cuts of meat.
Nine years ago, Mi Jung Jung, the chef-owner of Thran, a Korean café and restaurant in the area, came to Bengaluru to provide her two children affordable English education. “There was already a Korean community here made of people who had come to work in manufacturing and IT, so it was easier for us. If your people are already there, everything becomes easier," she says. Six years ago, she decided to open her café because there was only one other Korean restaurant at the time, and has now opened a bakery serving Korean goodies like buns stuffed with custard cream and red bean paste.
Brazilians Bruno Camera and his wife Sirlene, proprietors of the restaurant Churrascaria Brazil, were attracted by the affordability and mix of people in Kammanahalli three years ago. The couple used to run a Brazilian restaurant in Dakar, Senegal, for nearly two decades and were invited by Brazilian friends working in Bengaluru to visit the city. “I ended up coming here three times that year. Bangalore seemed like a great place to start my restaurant because I discovered that it had a lot of different cuisines but no one was doing what I wanted to do. I scouted for locations in Indiranagar and Koramangala, which are expensive. But besides the rent factor, I noticed that more people eat meat around this area," he says.
While the availability of various cuisines is an indicator of diversity, the locals still aren’t as welcoming of other cultural ideas. “We should be embracing the cultural wealth brought by each of these groups, encouraging them, and bonding with them. Instead, these groups are quite apart," says Al-Droubi. “Accommodation is one thing, but till crossovers actually happen it isn’t really cosmopolitan," he adds.
A quick check of hangouts popular with locals corroborates this. “There’s the occasional foreigner here but I wouldn’t say that people who come here are representative of the street," says the head waiter of a popular bar located on the high-street, which is teeming with people of all nationalities. Clearly, everyone sticks to their own watering holes.
Where’s the African hair salon in Kammanahalli, you ask . It sprang up for a bit, I hear, but it couldn’t be sustained on the backs of the students. They’re broke too. There are few businesses catering to the African student community because they aren’t interested in hanging back for too long once they get their degrees. “Studying in India helped me understand that it is the lack of opportunity and support, not poverty, that kills an individual’s dreams. So, I intend to go back home (to the Democratic Republic of Congo) and start my own business and create opportunities for others. I don’t want to remain here," says Mayunda.