Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Chapter 4 - BANGALORED

Chapter 4


By late evening we had reached Bangalore and though it wasn’t raining in Maharashtra, a thunder shower had unleashed fury and thousands of leaves on the roads in the outskirts of Bangalore. I sat in a stationary bus, stuck in a traffic jam for about two hours rooted to one spot in the technology and computer programming capital of India.

Being the technology centre of India hadn’t changed the city a bit. There was the usual unplanned chaos, of shops devouring sidewalks, the shameless encroachments, the general lack of civic sense, and the madness for survival against all odds. A vinyl signboard above the clogged traffic read “Enamor.” I stared for a long time at the undergarment advertisement.

Then I remembered a talk show I had seen on television conducted by a prominent news channel in Bangalore. Several participants felt that the information technology contracting business for foreign corporations had let them down. One man with an earnest face, a middle class individual wearing a tie – I will call him Mr. Earnest, for I don’t remember his name – said that it also pushed up the cost of living of ordinary Bangaloreans who had no skills for information technology jobs.

Mr. Earnest’s lament was valid. I saw a lot of institutes advertising computer programming courses, the quick-fix, and instantaneous variety. I had been a victim of such institutes and had wasted time and money waiting for computer instructors to turn up and computer time to be allocated. The technology companies can offer a few million jobs to Indians but what about the villages I had just passed? Would there be money for them too? Could they afford costly computer courses and degrees that would propel them into the back office jobs that most Indians craved?

The west had invented the term “Bangalored” to uniquely describe jobs that were outsourced to India. If Mr. Earnest was to be believed, and he had a point, being “Bangalored” equally affected Indians who weren’t a part of the outsourcing boom as well as the people in the US who were deprived of jobs. I mean, only a section of the people of Bangalore were Bangalored, as only a section of Bombayites were Bombay-ed. Though outsourcing had created pockets of affluence, it didn’t touch the majority of Indians who lived in the rural areas that I had passed on the journey to Bangalore. Most of these villages were starkly poor without either electricity or water.

I had read in an article that in the nineteen nineties the number of millionaires had doubled in the United States. From where had the money come? From poorer people who had no knowledge, skills, or, resources. In the technology era that we live in knowledge could be leveraged for money and foreign corporation knew this very well.

Therefore, there was a mad scramble among Indians to be engineers, managers, and programmers, so that they could acquire knowledge and technical skills. With this knowledge they can manage contact centres for companies in the US and other advanced countries. Thus jobs flew from these advanced countries to these contact centres where comparatively only a fraction needed to be paid as salaries. This availability of knowledge at cheaper rates was making businesses more profitable in the US. Is it any wonder that the number of US millionaires doubled?

Simultaneously, this wave of job migration must have deprived a lot of Americans of jobs. The poor and knowledge-challenged in both countries have no alternative but to grunt and bear it. I guess Mr. Earnest had a point. Being “Bangalored” affected a lot of people especially middle class Americans as well as Bangaloreans who were knowledge-challenged.


At Bangalore I changed buses to go to Cochin. The bus that had brought me was bound for somewhere in Tamil Nadu. The road-builder hadn’t woken up yet and I carried my bags down into a wet rain-glistening Bangalore road. My fellow passenger, the reader of a hundred Tamil magazines was sleeping soundly. I guess if you read well, you would sleep well. Ever tried sleeping after watching a movie on television? It’s difficult, random images keep you awake. The road in Bangalore was badly dug up and the mud had run all over and the area resembled a football field in the rain.

Was road digging a national pastime? I think the state of the road is an indicator of the health of the governance of that area. If that is so most areas of India are the boondocks as far as basic infrastructure is concerned. I had heard that there were contractors acting in concert with officials to dig roads and cover them back again. There was a man I knew in Kerala – he died recently – whose job was to build bridges. His nickname was “Bridge Pappy.” He would build his bridges with utmost care. In fact, he was so diligent is he that he would build the bridge to wash away in the very first gust of monsoon.

Then he would wait patiently for the bridge contract to be awarded to him. This went on for a major part of his life. Bridge Pappy made a career out of his inefficiency and retired a rich man. He built around forty bridges in as many years, using the same drawings and the same techniques. He used to openly boast about his bridge-building skills to anyone who would care to listen. So, the nickname Bridge Pappy stuck.

From the dingy office of the transport company I got a ticket issued for my onward journey by a man speaking gibberish. Making conversation in Bangalore is a tough job. All I know about the language of this state is “Inchanda Yencha.” But then, that is Tulu – another language that is spoken around the Western Coast but has no script like Konkani. Making me understood in Bangalore is like climbing the Everest in rubber slippers. I was told that English was widely understood but my best effort at a Bangalorean pidgin resulted in wide-eyed stupefaction. Then I tried my Tamil heavily laced with Malayalam words. That seemed to work. Just as Hindi is the lingua franca in the north – courtesy the Hindi film route, so is Tamil in the south care of Tamil movies. And Tamil movies’ biggest icon MG Ramachandran was born a Malayali.

Bangalore inhabitants are really very sweet, especially if they know one is from Bombay – the movie capital of India. Hamid was a pleasant faced man with a smile permanently plastered on his lips and incredibly kind-looking eyes. He showed me a Police sun glass and offered to give it to me for Rupees nine hundred.

Idly – I was looking for a way to pass time – I looked at the glasses Hamid thrust towards me. My connecting bus hadn’t arrived. The glasses were original and had the right inscriptions in place. “One hundred Rupees, take it or leave it,” I said to discourage him as I already had sun glasses and didn’t need an extra pair.

“Give me something more, sir. I will give it to you for one hundred and twenty,” he pleaded fixing his smiling eyes on me.

I was taken aback. I hadn’t expected this sudden slump in price. I had bargained for the ridiculous price as a deterrent, perhaps, accompanied by a look that could curdle milk. Or, in all probability, a murmured curse. He didn’t do either. I had to buy the glasses. After I had paid him I began to wonder if he might have stolen the glasses. This pair of glasses became my style statement throughout my journey, the sheer comfort it offered was soothing to the eye.

The bus arrived, this time, a white monster. We were again on our way further south through the heartlands of India. Mercifully, this time I had insisted on a seat in the forward section and had got it. I didn’t vibrate as a fish out of water in this stretch of the journey. I stared into the pitched blackness outside and thought of my mother who was ill.


Our next stop was Salem in Tamil Nadu. As I had crossed Maharashtra into Karnataka I had noticed the almost sudden change in the culture, language and even the difference in the construction of houses. In Maharashtra I had noticed the squat concrete houses with flat terraces that huddled in clusters. In Karnataka it was the red tiled houses that bore the distinct characteristics of the south. When we crossed over to Tamil Nadu I could see houses thatched with coconut palm leaves.

Salem was an example of the quintessential South Indian town. Its roads were cluttered with advertisements for computer coaching institutes. I saw “Durgamma Coaching Classes,” and another, “BIT Institute of Technology.” Computer training was a thriving industry, also, a hot new money spinning racket. They played on the aspirations of young people for a job in the growing computer and related professions for hefty, often unaffordable fees. New terms as Business Process Outsourcing were creating a buzz among the youth.

Obviously Indians were seeing education as a panacea for all troubles of life and were rearing children as if they were Broiler Chickens adept at spouting mathematical formulas and theorems. The result was a deep-rooted insecurity and insensitivity among the youth which I could see in the young people who worked with me in the business process unit that I was working.

Some people in the West had named this phenomenon as Mannequinism – the living of ones life in blissful ignorance of what was happening around one. True, in my own youth political activism was at its height among the young. Many of my friends – me included – claimed to be left leaning radicals. The fact that we were misguided was another matter. But we were aware that revolution was possible and we were bent on solving the problems of the country through a revolution. Revolution is passé. Something meant for the old-timers as this writer. But today’s youth doesn’t seemingly to care about revolution or the idea of building a better society. Altruism is beyond them. All they wanted is a lot of money – even easy money – to buy the latest electronic gizmos, and enjoy a lifestyle that is the great advertising industry’s creation. Almost everyone wanted fancy cars, mobiles and, designer clothes.

In one advertisement the model wears a certain brand of underwear and the women are shown taking him into a room. In the next shot he is seen in a highly pleasurable mood with lip marks all over him. What message could such an advertisement get across? I digress. This is unpardonable but I do get carried away at times.

Al Gore – I still think he should have been president – had equated this attitude with that of a “business under liquidation.” This was characterized by the craze for what can at best be termed as “trivial pursuits.” Newer varieties of hair colour, ways of looking younger and more beautiful are lining up the shelves of department stores. Businesses would rather have the people eat designer cakes than bread when they are hungry. I saw such blinkered sort of existence during my travel in the south of India. There is nothing more ironic than looking at the hoardings of all those computer classes beside the ones advertising shampoos and ready made clothes to realize how liquidated of ideas we are.

Next stop in the itinerary was Coimbatore, the hosiery town. Coimbatore was much cleaner than either Bangalore or Bombay. The town was sleeping when I reached it and on its streets hung the calm before dawn. Its dusty streets were littered with the unremoved garbage of the day before. The thin light of dawn was stirring over the horizon. I had an early morning coffee and a hectic day ahead of me.

As the bus sped on in the early morning light I could discern huts made of braided coconut leaves and garishly painted local buses. There were also horse-pulled carriages, bullock-carts, and hand carts. There was a lemonade and tea stall, very sparsely furnished that had a gleaming motor bike parked near it. Something warmed me to the sights of my beloved native state – Kerala – God’s Own Country.

A little note about why I consider the above name is appropriate for Kerala. When India’s major religion Hinduism was under threat from Buddhism, a son of Kerala – Adi Shankaracharya – had led what is known as the Hindu revival by engaging religious leaders in debates. Thus emerged the Advaita philosophy, which has many followers in India.

Kerala’s place in the annals of Vedic learning and art is also buttressed by the fact that Koodiattam, the only extent Sanskrit theatre art form in the world, is still performed in this tiny state.

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