Business as Usual (Bangalore)

Bangalore is the kind of international city that could be anywhere.  Traffic, smog, concrete, chrome, glass, scrums of suited businessmen on corners, an endless blare of horns,  the stench of garbage decaying in the heat, McDonalds, KFC, Baskin and Robbins, Staples, Levis, United Colours of Benetton, Puma, Addidas, Mango, Marks and Spencers, Accessorize, four lane overpasses, incomprehensible city bus routes, nightclubs, cocktail bars, pubs, coffee shops lined with macbook users abusing free wifi, high class restaurants; continental, thai, japanese, italian, lebanese, indian, a booming IT industry, a smattering of local sights and cultural institutions, sprawling beautifully kept city parks and shopping malls and shops and more shopping malls.  Not exactly the kind of place I’d usually put on my itinerary but a family friend has a niece here who works for a charity.  He and my father think I might find their work interesting – fathers and matchmaking, they get excited…  Email addresses and phone numbers are relayed, the playdate is made and after a day of getting irrationally excited about being able to wear jeans (Bangalore has the most temperate climate in India, it’s June and never more than a comfortable 75 during my stay), seeing women with exposed knees and shoulders (not that I ever feel  comfortable doing so myself) and eating doughnuts and sushi (with highly satisfactory results) I’m lost in an incongruously rural neighborhood trying to find the office of The Concerned for Working Children.

If you have the chance, look them up.  Then give them money.  Their work, grass roots activism and advocacy for the human rights of children, most pointedly the right of children to self-determination and participation in governance, is truly inspiring.  In India local governments hold annual open meetings with their constituencies.  Through the CWC’s work the state of Karnataka now holds parallel meetings for children to feedback their concerns and issues to their governments with such success that plans to launch the initiative nationally are underway.  As someone with a history in the youth service and youth work, their mission is pretty close to my heart.  So maybe you’ll be taking this with a pinch of salt.  But you don’t have to take my word for it.  They’ve just been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize with Unicef and Children’s Aid.

Kavita (my father’s friend’s neice) is warm and inspiring.  After a half day visit I’m 80% committed to spending some time volunteering at a residential school the CWC runs on the coast and have been invited to meet Kavita’s family when she gets back from a weekend trip to Mysore.  I leave buzzing with a familiar mix of excitement, ambition and intimidation that overcomes me like too much caffeine whenever I’m presented an interesting challenge.

In the meantime I’ve got a weekend to fill in the big city.  I don’t know what it is about a metropolis but whenever I’m in one I feel like I slip into character: city girl, who sits emailing and facestalking on her smartphone in the kinds of coffee bars that play english pop 40 pop music and serve iced caramel mochacinos and bruschetta, who tries on piles of clothes she can’t afford while being politely dismissive to the sales assistants, who charges deliciously expensive meals eaten at the bar while drinking champagne cocktails made by flirtatious bartenders, who cultivates a moral outrage and personal disgust with rickshaw drivers in general for their double charging on fixed fares and use of the meter only when planning an unexpected detours at their cousin’s shop or to pull over to make a couple of calls on the way.  Which is all great fun for a day or two but in the end, a. I can’t afford it and b. I hate that person.  I feel like a vapid, consumerist, over priveleged bitch and ultimately I’m bored and exhausted of myself.  You could chart my decline in the choice evening activities; an all-class pan-asian roof terrace restaurant on the 13th floor of a highrise, a stylish zen cocktail bar followed by a similarly chic minimalist japanese restauarnt,on the downward slope to the university area american style dive bar with burgers and beer until finally I’m hiding out in my hotel room watching 90’s movies on cable because I no longer have the energy to go outside.

It’s this kind of environment that makes me homesick inasmuch as I can ever be, not sick for an actual home (having not had an actual “home” for over a decade; my address has changed roughly every six months since I left college) but the idea of one.  A place where I can close the door on the big bad city and curl into the safety of my couch.  A place where at least three close friends and a generous handful of good acquaintances share the same public transport system.  A place with constant phone and internet access and a set schedule so I can call my mom and my grandma and my nephew and tell them how I’m making tracks and moving and shaking and achieving all those desirable achievable things the city makes possible.  The thing is I’ve *had* all that, more or less.  I had a life in London.  A job.  Friends.  Plans.  A home in the city if not an actual address.  And I chose to leave it.  More than chose, was compelled in what must have been a slow deterioration of my relationship with the place but what I experienced as a sudden knee-jerk overwhelming compunction to forcibly eject from the entire world I was living in and all of it’s presumptions, assumptions and prejudices.  And as much as I miss pieces of that life I’m in no way compelled to go back.  So why am I curled up in a budget hotel room with a bag of potato chips watching Total Recall?

The next day I hightailed in to the train station and got tickets to our next destination more than ready to get the f OUT of this bizarre global hybrid and back to India.  Where the people still stare but it’s more curious than hostile, rickshaw drivers may rip you off but don’t get lost on the way and breakfast is chai and idli not a latte and a muffin.  I spent my last night in Bangalore enjoying one last international indulgence.  Obviously film is a national pastime in India but not speaking any of the local languages Bollywood is pretty much lost on me.  In Karnataka however one of the official languages is English and English language films are shown in high tech dolby digital cinemas all over the city.  Plus a ticket to see Prometheus in 3D was less than $5 ($6 with popcorn and a soda) and I can’t remember the last time I went to the movies much less saw a film on it’s opening night.  Seems like a perfect opportunity to check in with the “real world”.  Two interminable hours later, I left the theatre more convinced than ever that I needed to get the hell out of Bangalore.


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