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Rahul Jacob: The two sides of Bengaluru

Rahul Jacob  |  New Delhi 

Rahul Jacob

In a 1962 speech, Jawaharlal Nehru presciently said, "Bangalore is a picture of India of the future." For one vision of this, go to the website of the civic issues organisation, Janaagraha, which is headquartered there. There are a series of animated videos of some of the city's busiest streets, implausibly featuring cycle paths and car drivers who courteously yield to bicyclists. In this sci-fi world, cars are few and far between, outnumbered by pedestrians taking a stroll in the shade provided by trees that have created a canopy at several points along St Mark's Road.

Last week, a colleague and I tried to cross this very road on our way to K.C. Das, the Bengali sweet shop. The rutted paths suggested a medieval battlefield where the mud had been churned up by soldiers in chariots engaged in a fight to the finish. The road itself had been the subject of so many simultaneous excavations that it looked like the earth had vomited its innards, to borrow David Pilling's evocative description in Bending Adversity of villages in Fukushima after the tsunami in 2011. On some stretches, there were giant intestines of coloured rubber that was broadband cable. There was such a furious traffic pile-up that two policemen took command of an intersection to try and direct the flow. My colleague and I cowered behind them so as not to be hit by the oncoming cars.

Even by the standards of the urban dystopias mushrooming around the country, from New Delhi's world-beating air pollution, which has given its empathetic chief minister a semi-permanent cough, to Mumbai's Hollywood-famous slums, Bengaluru's decline is epic. The city I remember from visiting my grandparents there in the seventies - where we occasionally cycled through what seemed like a gigantic botanical garden - is disappearing. Nehru's speech was made before, of all things, the Bangalore Municipal Corporation. Its current avatar has its strengths. Payment of property taxes, for instance, is done online. But, if Bengaluru's road-building and pavements are anything to go by, the municipality has been overrun by anarchists. As Praveen Sood put it in the Bangalore Mirror recently, new flyovers and underpasses follow the logic of building a grave and "then looking for a dead body to fit the size of the grave." As exhibit A, he cites the Richmond Road flyover. It was so poorly conceived that it initially required a traffic light - on the flyover. Then through the innovative use of irregular blocks of stone and barricades, a two-way road was created that crisscrosses the flyover like the letter X. It looks like an invitation to a demolition derby.

The people you feel really sorry for are the elderly, in what was once called a pensioners' paradise, and children. Even in an IT capital, only the foolish negotiate Bengaluru's pavements, which are designed to be an obstacle course, while texting on a smartphone. Not surprisingly, old people trip and injure themselves often. My dentist told me how an elderly patient recently came in covered with blood, needing implants for four front teeth. Traffic, like a river in spate, roars past the Baldwin Girls' High School. Children must dart between cars to cross the road, often at even more risk because they are not visible to the successive lanes of traffic.

My dentist is a spry fifty-something, but he had fallen himself on his walk home. (He walks because it takes half as long as the 45-minute drive home would.) A pole had been decapitated but a stump of cement was left behind as part of the urban decathlon of endurance the city authorities have created for its citizens. When he complained to a policeman, he sniffed a few times and asked my dentist if he had been drinking. My dentist's recounting of it made him, his wife and I suffer a laughing fit.

And, here is a riddle for anthropologists about this archaeological ruin of a city. No place in the world, except perhaps Beirut where an immigration officer once asked friends and me to come home for dinner, has as easy-going and likeable citizens. My dentist stayed late on Saturday evening to squeeze me in but still chatted for 20 minutes after my five-minute appointment. My delightful doctor, who makes me feel more upbeat just by talking to her on the phone, waved off my apologies for not having made the time to drop off a gift in person. It was a signed copy of Atul Gawande's Being Mortal, but she wanted me to inscribe it as well. My neighbour downstairs went up to my flat with the building association president and a plumber to get an estimate on what it would cost to fix a massive leak the day after I returned to Delhi. She then sent me detailed follow-up emails for days afterward. And then there was the IT multimillionaire I was interviewing over lunch last Saturday. When I called to say I would be late because my taxi had ditched me and I was looking for an auto, he swung by on his way home from yoga to pick me up. Only in Bengaluru do acquaintances treat you as friends would elsewhere.

Twitter: @RahulJJacob

First Published: Fri, February 27 2015. 22:44 IST