View from the outside

BANGALORE, AS I am fond of telling anyone who cares to listen, lacks personality. It's a mish mash, a hotchpotch. "Cosmopolitan", if you want to be polite. The fact comes home to you most acutely when a visitor commands, "Show me your city", and you waver between Vidhana Soudha and a shopping mall. Is there no such thing as the true essence of Bangalore? I fear not.

Other cities have character. They have antiquity oozing out of every cranny. They have heritage buildings, monuments, lakes, rivers, seas. And we? We have pubs. For those of you who're stuck for ideas on how to showcase the city for the benefit of your guests, I'm thinking of drawing up a master plan. Basically, you need a grade separator like in those new flyovers coming up all over the place. Grade your visitors NRI, Foreigner, and Resident, and propel them forward on their respective routes. Oorinda banda Shivanna cannot take the same path as Bisleri-toting Susannah. They have different expectations.

The hardest to please is the NRI, especially the one who left Bangalore many moons ago. He's a moaner. No matter where you take him he will moan over increase in traffic and decrease in tree cover. Treat him to a breakfast in a historic restaurant and he will moan about the quality having deteriorated shockingly since he last ate there in 1972. He will spend his entire holiday smiting his brow at every vanished landmark and sobbing "O tempora, o mores". What you have to remember is that he actually gets some form of masochistic pleasure from having his worst fears confirmed. Maybe you could startle him out of his moroseness with a googly: "get a suit stitched" or "get your teeth checked". Remind him that dentists and tailors are not as expensive though quite as good as they are in the west. The penny-saving instinct is bound to surface. He might wind up having gained something from this visit, after all.

The foreigner, on the other hand, is not discriminating. The first-time visitor finds in even the most pedestrian object or experience a source of amusement or amazement: vegetables, signboards, autorickshaw rides, the tin-roofed shacks of construction workers, and that all-time hit, the cow on the road. As for you, you might find yourself tending to be on the defensive. You'll hope she doesn't notice the open sewers and the long queues for water. You might want to tell her, "Our roads aren't always ploughed, you know. And see, this lake is not half empty but half full. The walkway around it does seem specifically designed to encourage small children to fall into the water, but there'll be a barricade soon." Stifle your apologies, for she isn't complaining. She'll make you see your city with new eyes. It was care-of this view from the outside that my attention was recently drawn to a banner that said "Learn English in 30 days", and another that promised "American education". Oh, and don't let a sense of misplaced pride ("our city is truly global") lead you to take Susannah to a fancy Greek or Italian restaurant. She'll be much happier eating idlis in an Udupi hotel.

Shivanna too is easily impressed. What, for us, is yet another glass-fronted tower block leaves our small town visitor in a daze. Travel with him in the lift of the tallest building in the city, or take him up a flight of moving stairs, and you've given him his quota of shock and awe. For the knockout punch, introduce him to the cost of everything out here — quick, get a stretcher! That's an irksome detail you'll have to deal with — a constant reference to prices. You'll hear it frequently from visitors from other cities: "Why is everything so expensive in Bangalore?" These people are not looking for a sociological perspective. They have just one mission: shopping. Silks, handicrafts, toys, shoes and clothes are the treasures they seek — Chikkapete for the hard bargainers, Commercial Street for those who fling about purses of gold. The sylvan charms of Lal Bagh and Cubbon Park do not, for them, stand up to the nocturnal dazzle of Brigade Road. After a whole day of buying, when your kitchen has run dry, you can take them to the new-sprung Food Street in V.V. Puram.

I've been blithely saying "take them" without discussing how. The deal is, they loll in the back seat while you frown your way through every-hour-is-peak-hour traffic. Autos, though less comfortable, would rescue you from frazzled nerves. But only if you are well and truly heartless will you foist a one-day city bus tour on them. Save it for a disliked relative. The lightning round of temple-fort-palace-garden-shop is the most uninspiring way to see the city.

If all else fails there's Mysore. Maybe you can fool your visitor into thinking it's a suburb of Bangalore. They can feast their eyes on the palace and art gallery, climb Chamundi, and wander through the zoo garden. Notice how Mysoreans always say zoo garden, and not plain zoo. I wonder if they're aware of this habit. Perhaps not. For it to be brought to their notice, they need — what else — that invaluable view from the outside.