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इंडियन आवाज़     13 May 2021 07:28:14      انڈین آواز

Beggar-free Bangalore


Beggar-free Bangalore; Middle class sensibilities

A.J. Philip

IT was my first visit to Bangalore after the new airport was inaugurated. I remembered the old one, in the heart of the city, which was overcrowded. It was built for the Avros and the Dakotas of the sixties and seventies, when Bangalore was a paradise for the retired, and not the Boeings and the Airbuses of the 21st century, when Bangalore is the first port of call for visiting dignitaries like the British Prime Minister.

When the luggage arrived a little late, an impatient passenger was overheard saying, "It is taking longer than the flight from Delhi". It seems our tolerance level has been falling precipitously.
 
When I shifted to Delhi in December 1973, I considered myself privileged because I used to get letters from my parents on the third day of posting. This was because my father would personally go to the Railway Mail Service (RMS) office to post the letter.
Today we get impatient when the e-mails we send do not reach the destination the moment we click on "Send". Notices warning passengers of "touts" attracted my attention. Just then a smartly-dressed young man accosted me and asked whether I was looking for the "Pre-paid" taxi booth.

When I said "yes", he led me to a booth, one in a long row of booths that provided services ranging from booking bouquets to converting foreign currency. In Bangalore I learnt the word "currency" stood for something else also.

In this Information Technology capital, cell phone recharge coupons are called "currencies". It is not uncommon to find shops advertising "All BSNL, Airtel, Tata Indicom, Aircel and Vodafone currencies are available here". As it turned out, there were two "pre-paid taxi booths" operated by private travel agencies.

And when they quoted a price of Rs 1,000, I decided to look for alternatives. In any case, I was alone, did not have much luggage and could wait, for my grandson would not mind if I reached half an hour late. I approached a policeman, who courteously directed me to the bus stand.

On the way, I was accosted by several "touts" who offered to "drop" me at my destination for as low as Rs 500. They also "warned" me that I would have to wait for a couple of hours to catch the bus.

How misleading they were became apparent when I reached the bus stop in the airport area itself. A new Volvo bus was about to leave. There were only a few passengers. I occupied a front seat with enough leg room for both my limbs and luggage.

The bus was air-conditioned. The ticket cost me Rs 180. The journey was far more comfortable than in an ordinary taxi. Yet, most of the seats remained unoccupied. As the bus got on to the highway, I noticed another lexical innovation. "Fuel Farm" the billboard said.

Was it a farm where some strange "fuel plants" were grown? No, it was just a "fuel depot" of an oil company that met the aviation fuel needs of aircraft operating from Bangalore. Adding to the enjoyment was the stereophonic sound system in the bus that played a popular Kannada song.

Half an hour passed without any passenger either getting down or getting in when a khaki-clad person waved at the driver and he stopped the bus. It seemed they knew each other, for they got into an animated discussion.

Though I do not understand Kannada, I could make out that the new-comer was briefing the driver about what happened at the Karnataka Assembly earlier in the day. I could guess that the B.S. Yeddyurappa government had won the vote of confidence.

I immediately checked the Net on my BlackBerry and found that the Chief Minister had, indeed, won the vote, a second time, by a margin of six votes. The victory was actually that of the Speaker, who hastily disqualified 11 BJP legislators and five Independents, who expressed "no confidence" in the Chief Minister in a letter to Governor H.R. Bhardwaj.

Had they been allowed to vote, Yeddyurappa would now have been sulking on the sidelines. Neither the ruling BJP nor the Opposition Janata Dal (S)-Congress combine instilled confidence. It did not speak highly of democracy or its practitioners when MLAs had to be herded off to far-off places and quarantined there for fear of falling prey to poachers.

When ministers become poachers and the government is dependent on the muscle power of miners for its survival, few can be enthused by such farcical trials of strength. But the driver and his friend were so engrossed in their conversation that I thought it would have been appropriate if a sign board – "No political discussions please" – was installed in the bus!

In Kerala such boards were common in teashops and restaurants where political discussions could lead to the discussants taking the law into their own hands.

A little over an hour later, I reached my destination. The conductor stopped the bus at a convenient spot and advised me to hire an auto to reach my destination. "It will not cost you more than the minimum fare", he told me as I got down.

Unfortunately, the auto driver could not read English. He sought the help of a bystander, who knew the area so well that he gave him proper direction. Deliberately or not, he drove me around the colony in search of my son’s house, though it was adjacent to a "High School".

It was partly my fault. I looked for a high school with a large compound. I did not know that in Bangalore, a high school could be run in a small two-storied building, which was originally a house.

The driver stopped in front of a shop that sold "Condiments". My knowledge of English was inadequate to figure out what the word meant. Later I found many shops using the word in their signboards. I have travelled all over India but I have never seen anywhere else shopkeepers using this word.

The mystery was solved when I checked "Collins Cobuild English Dictionary for Advanced Learners". It said, "A condiment is a substance such as salt, pepper, or mustard that you add to food when you eat it in order to improve the flavour".

I have been humbled by the shopkeepers of Bangalore. My advice to visitors to Bangalore is: Carry a little dictionary in your pocket. Otherwise, you may think "condiment" has something to do with condoms.

Bangalore is one city where you can never be lost. Motorists are so helpful that in case they go in the direction that you have to go, they will ask you to follow. And when they reach a junction, they will stop to guide you further. Auto-rickshaw drivers, most of whom speak a smattering of Hindi and English, are very helpful.

Unlike in Delhi, there is no bargaining and you pay according to the meter. It was a delight to be in the company of my grandson. He had grown enough to bluff me that my USB device had been taken away by a crow, while holding it firmly in his little palm.

I did not know that Ayudha Puja – worship of tools, instruments, machines or vehicles – commonly performed at the time of "Dasahara", was such an elaborate affair until I reached Bangalore.

The puja, when workmen give their tools a day of rest and adorn them with oil and garlands, was just a day away. Large ash-gourds and cut baby banana plants were selling like hotcakes at all junctions. Motorists tie the banana plants to both sides of their vehicles. Bigger plants are used to adorn the gates of houses and offices.

Bangalore turned into a "banana country". I saw our neighbour washing his Maruti Omni and then doing puja to the vehicle. A small earthen lamp placed in a cut ash-gourd was taken round the vehicle to ward off all evil spirits. In the evening, I found a long queue of worshippers at the local temple.

Unfortunately for me, my son’s car won’t start. "This never happened in the three and half years since I bought it", he said. I was convinced that the battery was the villain of the piece. But getting a new battery or calling a mechanic was out of question on the Puja day. It was, perhaps, God’s way of giving the car a day of rest!

I had heard that this epicentre of India’s booming technology industry had increasingly been inflected with traces of America. Streets that were once bordered by colonial bungalows are now lined with glass-panelled towers bearing the logos of US technology companies.

On the arterial Mahatma Gandhi Road, young tech workers shop for bagels and Philadelphia cream cheese. In the city’s pubs, the talk is about venture capital, stock options and Silicon Valley-inspired compensation packages.

I was keen to visit the Infosys campus. As providence would have it, my wife’s niece, doing her MBA, was not well and we had to meet her urgently. Her college was adjacent to the Infosys campus.

A long drive on an elevated road took us to the Infosys campus. I did not find anything outstanding about the buildings there which all looked like the glass-panelled buildings that can be found anywhere in the world, be it Gurgaon near Delhi or Melbourne in Australia or Philadelphia in the US.

I found the building a part of which looked like a human eye hideous, to say the least. I wondered why IT moghuls like Infosys founder Narayana Murthy could not make use of India’s rich architectural tradition while building their offices. All that the Murthys needed to do was to take ideas from the Assembly building, which stands out in the concrete jungle that Bangalore is soon becoming.

For all its "Americanisation" and "globalisation", Bangalore remains the quintessential small town where proper waste disposal is simply non-existent. I realised it the day after the Ayudha Puja. All the smashed ash-gourds and banana plants were found dumped on the roads. The Bangaloreans paid no heed to the municipal authorities’ warning that they should not do so.

Why blame the ordinary citizens when the Chief Minister was himself shown throwing "baiga" (a bamboo tray containing puja materials) into the Kavery at its origins? Why does it not occur to the worshipper that nowhere in the Shastras is it mentioned that rivers should be polluted while paying obeisance to Gods?

That Bangalore is a bundle of contradictions became obvious when I read a report in ‘The Deccan Herald’, which at one time was to Bangalore what ‘The Hindu’ was to Madras and ‘The Statesman’ to Calcutta.

It was about a campaign undertaken in the Garden City to round up all the beggars in the city and send them to a special home for them. What a wonderful idea to rid the city of beggars and an eyesore!

Nobody checked what happened to the beggars in their new "home". Deprived as they were of adequate food, clothing and medicine, they began to die one by one. Finally, the large number of deaths necessitated an inquiry.

The inquiry revealed many startling truths. Out of the Rs 19.31 lakh sanctioned for the "Beggary Eradication Month" in February-March 2010, not a single paisa was spent on the beggars. Instead, a whopping Rs 13.18 lakh was spent on publicity for the programme. The other expenses were for hiring vehicles, mike sets, decorations and 20 people for rounding up beggars.

The chairman, superintendent and head warden of the Nirahshritara Parihara Kendra "broke all rules and looted money in the process" while the beggars died like flies. They even looted the money the beggars had on them when they were forcibly taken to the Kendra. A doctor, whose medical qualifications are suspect, certified every death as "natural".

Alas, the national media did not pick up the story. One of the reporters of a city daily with editions in several metros said his bosses had told the reporting staff that only stories that were palatable to the middle class should be reported. The death of beggars could not have been palatable to them!

As I took an early morning flight to Bhubaneswar, I was still brooding over the headline "Corruption that beggars imagination: Officers concerned celebrated Beggary Eradication Month by pocketing funds". In Hitler’s Germany, beggars were sent to the concentration camps, in modern-day Bangalore they are sent to the Nirashritara Parihara Kendra!

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