I made an impromptu visit to Bangalore. This was my first ever impulse trip so it is fitting that it was to the city I think of as my first love. I have made other impulse visits before but those were to people (albeit in other cities). Bangalore is the place that first made me think of my relationships with cities. And ever since then, Mumbai has been my immediate family full of chafing familiarity as well as rock-solid partnership. Delhi has been the creepy people I’ve endured – unwelcome visitors, unsavoury colleagues, unlikable acquaintances. Kolkata was the matrimonial match that seemed right on paper but there was no chemistry. Chennai is literally and metaphorically on my family tree but with tenuous lines connecting us, at best. Pune is like my friendly cousin, periodically smiling as we run on parallel tracks. But the city of filter kaapi & IT, namma Bengaluru was my first ever love.
I’ve been stuck in a life rut well before the pandemic, including not being able to travel out of this city. A thousand reasons stop me. But tens of thousands of excuses existed before and they didn’t stop me. Carried by the exuberance of youth, the high of clear goals and some early wins, I broke through glass ceilings of gender, lifestyle and profession. I have travelled before, internationally too and not always ‘because I have to’. This later me, more concerned with reasons to say no is protective but doesn’t feel good. In a rare good moment, when The Anarchist spoke about wanting to explore the history of Bangalore, I thought why not? It’s a city I have liked, one that I have a personal history with myself. And history is best when it is alive & evolving the way my history with Mumbai is. But Bangalore has fallen into the decay of closed chests and musty tomes. Or in a slightly more appealing way, Bangalore is an old boyfriend that I haven’t thought about in years except as it exists in my memories. It was time for a meeting – as I am now with the city as it is today. So I picked up a ticket and made my way there.
The funniest thing to happen was right at the start of the trip before I even got out into the city. Mumbai’s fabled weather and crowd-caused hurdles stood in my way. Amidst everyone else’s panic, I found myself cooly breezing through the traffic jams, the security checks and even the abnormal wait for take off. In the air, I became engrossed in a new book – a gift from the Miracle and miraculously, the first book I’ve felt able to enjoy instead of plodding through since the pandemic began. That’s when I knew something important was happening within me and around me. I only noticed we were on terra firma when I got a text from a friend flying in from another city. His flight – different carrier, different takeoff point, different schedule – taxied in right next to mine and stopped at the same time as mine. Together and in parallel we alighted and entered our different coloured buses. And we stepped off at the same time and walked into the city together. All I felt was mirth, such an unfamiliar new feeling.
I started the next morning braving Bangalore’s public transport, all ride-share apps having failed. Mornings are fun if you don’t have a deadline or boss pressing on you and the garden city’s crisp weather surrounding you.
I met Aditya Kane for brunch at Koshy’s, that Bangalore institution from its Retirees’ Paradise era. It’s been a long while since I casually connected with new people so I blurted out to the stranger seated opposite him,
“Are you local?”
She grinned and said, “No! I’m from Jakarta, Indonesia!” Devin Maetzri, I’d later discover, was the celebrity guest at that weekend’s event. We gushed over masala-stuffed eggs, swapped familial and cultural histories. And in a conversation that would mark the tone of my trip, I showed off the many languages of Bangalore – English (for Koshy’s colonial era legacy), Tamil (yayy for Dravidian unity), Kannada (solpa solpa only but kindly understand maadi), Malayalam (because why not), Telugu (the server’s native tongue) and finally only, Hindi.
Through this trip, I found the Dravidian discrimination that I face in my birthplace Delhi and even my beloved Mumbai, conspicuously absent. No ‘tum South Indian log‘ as if we are one state, not five. No regionalist ‘andu-gundu‘ slurs. No racist gori-chitti body shaming. No “But where are you ACTUALLY from because you’re not like us Gujarati-Marwari-Punjabi-Hindi people who are really from Bombay, na?” No. I was tickled to notice the shoe on the other foot with Hindi speakers facing this for the first time in the form of quiet but definite pushback. While Bangalore resents cultural erosion, it does so with less violence and fanaticism than our North Indian counterparts.
As an experiment, I spoke English at the metro station ticket counter, my appearance probably passing me off as ‘an outsider’. The officer was deeply offended at my charge that he treated another customer differently. But his distressed polite, “But how you can say so?” was rather sweet. His eyebrows shot up when I smiled and said, “Thanks, now give me my change” in Tamil. Every server, autorickshaw driver, Uber rider, shopkeeper and stranger on the street that I spoke to in Tamil answered in a friendly way – sometimes in Kannada, sometimes in broken Tamil but in the spirit of keeping the conversation alive. Now think about how people who speak Punjabi or Urdu in Mumbai & North India are received. And in contrast, think about the ridicule, the hostility that South Indians, North Easterners, Bengalis, Oriyas, and Axomiyas face. The Bangalore I remember of 1999 was just as welcoming of diversity but without the civilised pushback against Hindi that I see now. It’s good to know that the temperate Bangalore mood hasn’t succumbed to linguistic terrorism.
Garden City & Electronic Birds
Aditya and I were both keen to check out the metro, being the public transport-loving Mumbaikers that we are. We only really managed to ride between two consecutive stations but what a whole lot of adventures we had! The signage is rather confusing at MG Road station, probably one of the most bustling stops. But it’s much more aesthetic than Mumbai metro stations. Look at this entrance!
Aditya is the one who noticed that we went from sky-borne to underground between MG Road and the next station, Cubbon Park. This is pretty mind-boggling to me, limited by my linear sense of space. I didn’t actually notice it till we stepped off the platform. Adding to this disorientation were the sounds of birds chirping loudly enough to remind me of Hitchcock. Imagine hearing birds in an underground, windowless tunnel! They sound loud and they sounded like they were being tortured. Electronic recordings, can you believe it?! But before my snobbery could blind me, Cubbon Park metro station offered up a magnificent piece of urban design in the form of a short story laid out on the exit staircase. You read it from bottom to top. Imagine that!
We wandered around Cubbon Park. Bangalore is still the beautiful garden city for greenery-starved Mumbaikers. There is just no comparison with the nana-nani parks, the plastic children’s playsets, and the over-optimised running tracks bordering astroturf-labelled walking areas. How two hours passed on stone benches surrounded by ancient trees with nobody competing for money, attention or time I will never know. We did spot a lesser park just opposite Cubbon Park and entered it to find a curiously bloomer’d man statue. Here’s Aditya paying tribute to him. And just look at what Bangalore calls a lesser park!
Nostalgia trip – Bangalore then and Bengaluru today
How do you meet an old lover? You relive old memories, compare notes and come away changed. I was keen to explore Brigade Road and Church Street, 19-year-old me’s haunts. I recognised very few places, all of Bangalore’s ‘classic cool’ haunts having come up after I left the city. Overshadowed by the urban homogeneity of chain restaurants and stores, I spotted an old familiar name – India Coffee House and in relief, I made my way in for a good old-fashioned lunch. I’m afraid this place, like the people with whom I’ve visited most, has withered and seems on the verge of death. At least I got to have a final dosa and filter coffee in its company. It reminded me of the hour I spent singing to my grandfather hooked up to breathing tubes, the night before he passed. There is a grim sort of gratitude in this experience. I needed to pay homage to my beloved history.
I suggested (badgered) Aditya and Devin into a walk down ‘the road where I had my first internship’. It turned out to be like stockimages of ‘international cities’, all gleaming glass & chrome structures, clean pavements. They both indulged my Mumbaiker habit of walking on the road rather than the pavement until I realised how disorienting that is to people who are used to walking in places that have been designated for them (no such luck in Mumbai). And in that crazy, merry, frustrating crossover, we had a few experiences. As I picked my way across an overflowing gutter (hello, Indian city plumbing), Devin pointed to a stall and said, “Can we have that? I’ve seen it in Tiktok videos! What is it called?” Aditya and I exchanged a look and herded her away. But why, she wanted to know, couldn’t she have that. “Because it’s panipuri. It will be overpriced here and probably not very good.” Had we heard bad reviews, she asked. “No, panipuri is street food. It’s not meant to be eaten at such posh places. The flavour umm is quite city filth-open gutter-flies around that makes it umm tasty.” 🤢 I can imagine how that might have sounded but to Devin’s credit, her enthusiasm continued unabated.
A little later, she pointed across the road and squealed, “My favorite fruit!”. It turned out to be durian, which is my sole travelers’ tale and the single worst thing I have ever tasted in my life (for any of you puzzled by the previous paragraph, this street is now where exotic fruits like durien are being sold from carts). We had a fun conversation in English, Tamil, Hindi and Bahasa about what each fruit on the cart was called and how it tasted. I hope Devin got to try jamun before we left (since these didn’t look too fresh and they were new to her). She got me to taste dragonfruit, a thing that looks delightfully dangerous and unappetising but opens up to reveal an innocent lychee-like interior.
Have I outgrown Bangalore or has it passed me by? Church Street in 1999 was a quiet bylane into which I’d breeze with all the swagger of my metropolitan self. Now it feels just like Bandra in its ostentatious, overly plastic manner, just with slightly broader roads and not yet with all the asshole attitudes. I was overwhelmed. Not by things that I hadn’t seen before but weighed down by the sense of losing a fresher time that will never be again. Maybe my generation was lucky. We were kids in cities that had playgrounds rather than parking spaces. While I didn’t have trees to climb or rivers to sail, I experienced a childhood outside plastic playsets in malls and digital guardianship from glass screens. My youth was flush with the new millennium economy and we had money to spend without the peer pressure of status symbols. I don’t see pleasure in the faces of young people now, even as they carry flashier gadgets than I ever did and navigate glossier lives than mine. The years are sitting as heavily on dear Bangalore as they are on me.
But the city did give me one last kiss of sweetness in the form of Death by Chocolate at Corner House. This (real) landmark has moved base so it isn’t actually at the iconic corner anymore. And its employees seem new, impersonal like Bangalore’s recent outsiders. But the dessert was as I remembered it. And I got to share it with new friends, Devin & Aditya, in the backdrop of Blossom’s – a place that blends the old & new in messy poetry.
Growing up in 80s and 90s Mumbai, I was rather cut off from Tamilian culture that the rest of my family was immersed in. I also didn’t really fit into my neighborhood & school (this was a time when people thought Madraasi was an acceptable description and calling Muslim people Pakistani was funny). When I first arrived in Bangalore, I was 19, on the brink of graduation. It was the first city that felt welcoming in a way that didn’t treat me as different. The languages were close enough to the ones I knew but without the massive pressure to be top-level fluent in them. My different accents in English, Tamil and Hindi were treated as normal just as the Kannadiga, Malayalee, Maharashtrian, Tamilian, defence forces accents (remember Bangalore also had a massive cantonment area) and others.
I also got to know a cousin for the first time in my life. We’re not as closely related so we hadn’t ever spoken before. But he had just started working in Bangalore then and was just a few years older than I was. Being an only child, I also had no context for siblings or close family other than my parents who were of another generation. He became the brother I had never had, replete with shared jokes as well as bickering. Once, after lunch, I dozed off in a chair after lunch and he quietly slipped away to work. I woke up to find myself tied down to the chair with my own dupatta. 😡
Another time, he came to my room in the evening to ask if I wanted to go out for icecream and found me standing on my balcony. “What’s up?” he asked. I pointed and said, “I think someone there is flashing a laser pointer.” We left for ice-cream after that and I forgot about it till a week later, he asked if I had been disturbed again. No, I said but something about his manner made me suspicious. I kept badgering him about what he had done and he kept denying it. It was two weeks before I got the full story (or what I think it is) out of him. He had tracked down the person who was flashing that laser (apparently a young guy) and gone over to his house. “AND THEN????” I demanded flabbergasted.
“Oh nothing, he wasn’t home. His mother opened the door. I asked her how her son was, whether his health was fine. And asked her to tell him to be careful and guard his health.”
!!!!!!! This led to our biggest fight. It also made me realise something crucial about the world. I grew up fighting my own battles, especially on gender. I had no room or patience to accommodate the roles of men as protectors in my life. It came across as controlling and disrespectful to me. But it is the common male expression of caring in my culture. It’s a dichotomy that I still struggle with. My cousin and I made up of course but this incident was a milestone in my life and in our relationship.
In the years since we lost touch simply because life got in the way. In a sense, I’ve known he’s doing well because we’ve not had too much time to interfere in each other’s lives. We are both officially middle-aged now, a fact that only hit home when he called to wish me on my birthday. We laughed about the time he tried to teach me how to ride a bike and made me stop when I wavered. “But this is bad for my confidence.” I had protested. “My life is more important than your confidence. Now get onto the back.” he had ordered. One of the joyful things about getting older is realising that times pass but there are people who share your memories and those are always on hand to enjoy.
In 2023, I finally met my nephew for the first time. I only knew of his existence from random snatches of familial conversations. This nephew isn’t a baby but a whole, entire human being! One that votes, drives, is discovering his taste in books & movies and his beliefs. A real person! It makes me feel old, doesn’t adequately capture the gamut of feelings this brings. I like babies and little kids but the thrill of meeting a brand new adult, the question of whether we will get along or not, and the incredible new perspectives any such person brings into my life is WOW! The shared history of people we both love is just icing on the cake.
My cognizance of gender has entwined with my sense of self as well as how I engage with people and we influence each other. And now here is a new man in my life, one that brings a relationship I’ve never had before, rife with opportunities for mutual growth and affection. Of course, I want to be ‘the cool aunt’ but really, I’m always going to be that because I have all the freedom of independent thought without the responsibility of a parent. I’m eager to take on this new role in a meaningful manner.
I’m eager to introduce him to new books and ideas, ways to think about politics and the world. I’m curious about what he thinks, this person of this age but also who shares a bloodline with me, who has experienced some of the people I have but differently. Like me, he is a Tamilian growing up in a different city from his native state and with parents who are best aligned with a language that is not his first. Unlike me, he is in a South Indian city that has more respect and alignment with Tamil. Like me, he is an only child of strong-headed parents which sometimes causes clashes. Unlike me, his generation has more of a voice and his gender privilege continues while being in flux because of mine. This is so many things, all that I look forward to. I carry back the memory of two movies made special because I watched them with him – Bangalore Days (which he introduced me to) & Jurassic Park (which I introduced him to).
It is also special that I have a close relationship with his father and it is independent of the one that I hope to have with him. My parents have an independent fond relationship with my cousin and they let the two of us become friends without imposing rigid family roles on us. So also, I see my cousin allowing me the same consideration with his son. I got to know the only person I call anni, for the first time. I was at their wedding but now, 20 years later, she is an actual person, not a role. She’s wonderful, her interpretation of Indian womanhood so different from mine and at this stage I realise, so much wiser and stronger. I started learning about family relationships rather late in my life and these two people are my dearest lessons.
Bibliophiles in Bangalore
Speaking of books, my BOOKURIOUS club put Blossoms’ on my reader radar. How can you say you love Bangalore and call yourself a reader when you haven’t been to Blossoms Book House, my Clubhouse friends clamoured. And so on top priority for my first day in Bangalore was a book jaunt. It coincided with my desire to make up for the lost years with my nephew by guiding his reading journey. And happily, its location right off Church Street was a good anchor to start my visit with a nostalgia trip.
In the Bangalore of 1999, I first became part of the workplace when I interned at an advertising agency. It was also my first taste of adult independence, travelling to and from office in a new city every day. The city was coming of age at the same time that I was. My evenings were experienced in MG Road’s theatres, Brigade Road’s shops, cafes hidden in Residency Road’s foliage, enjoying the greenery & complacent history on St.Marks Road and my first office in Church Street. And today, Blossoms Book House finds its home there, starting a year after I left the city. Most of what I purchased was for other people – book cover postcards for friends around the world, turning point books from my youth for my nephew.
But outside on the footpath, I paused at a streetside book vendor. This is the kind of urban homogeneity I enjoy. And in the company of Aditya, fellow booklover and oddball humorist, it was rather a break in my gloomy nostalgia. Aditya sees funny patterns in the randomness of book titles arranged next to each other. I captured a few moments from that moment of mirth.
Imagine visiting a home that you once knew, meeting the partner of someone you loved a very long time ago. I didn’t center my plan around it but I did manage to make it to WordCamp Bangalore. The last time I lived in Bangalore, I wasn’t IdeaSmith. The last time I entered a college campus, I walked with the self-importance of a faculty member. For the first time, I was being this me, in this space, in this city. There is a lot that is new and it is constantly being interrupted by hellos from people who recognise me or others who are better versed in the language of this world than I am. It turns out even my histories that I think are defunct, follow me.
In addition to Bangalore’s own past/present clash inside my head, there is also the universe of WordPress which I’m returning to, as a different person. 17 of my 19 years as Ideasmith have been on WordPress – much longer than many of the active contributors in today’s community. But also, I didn’t really think about WordPress for most of these years. Like a washing machine that you only notice when it breaks down, it’s been a tool that has quietly worked for me without my having to notice it (which really is what great design should be). I dipped my toe into the pools of WordPress people years ago, speaking at WordCamps, running a workshop in nearby Pune and even organising a whole ancillary event (Word Lounge). My talks have been up on WordPress.TV for the better part of a decade. But my relationship with WordPress hasn’t involved as much consistent participation in the community. In contrast, the people who create and keep alive the community have been invested in the platform a lot deeper. It’s a social faux pas but many of them recognise me while I don’t remember having interacted before. It’s not because I’m more memorable. It’s because our interactions were in a context that mattered more to them at the time than to me. So I’m still surprised when I’m welcomed into the hallowed spaces of this community as an equal. Suprised and very moved.
WordCamp Bangalore 2023 was first WordPress event outside my city (not counting Pune as it was very close & similar to Mumbai). WordCamps have changed since I was a speaker, nearly a decade ago. Or perhaps I’ve changed from seeing myself only in the spotlight. I wasn’t a speaker, volunteer, organiser, sponsor or even representing any agenda. It’s always strange for me to meet people who recognise me as IdeaSmith from my blog. IdeaSmith is the part of me that is essentially shy & bookish, content to toil behind a screen with limited interaction with the world. I know it is at odds with my real-life personality and maybe that’s why IdeaSmith shaped up that way. It has always been a place for me to explore the complexities of myself and life – things that are not possible in the rigid definitions of personality types. It’s equally disconcerting for me now when people recognise me from my pre-pandemic life. I’m still disoriented from the long isolation, fear and bizarre life adjustments of 2020-2022. It’s hard for me to remember how life was. The time before blurs in my mind like the movies and shows I’ve binge-watched and forgotten. Something from my past life before 2020 popping up feels exactly like a Netflix recommendation of ‘Watch Again’ featuring thumbnails I don’t recall with names that sound vaguely familiar. Yet, this experience wasn’t unpleasant. It was many things in a setting I thought would feel more familiar but didn’t. Maybe getting older is like that. Living will probably never feel new to me again but life has a way of throwing up surprises even in the known.
I watched Meher Bala deliver a pretty great talk on Project Management. True to this style of event, there were disruptions and delays. Because I know some part of her WordPress journey, I saw her as a real person, not a random voice vying for my attention. I noticed her get rattled by the vagaries of public attention. And then I watched her take a deep breath, collect herself and valiantly pick up again. The special thing about being audience is bearing witness to the unique journeys of vulnerability and strength that each person takes to stand up on stage and tell their story. If you listen carefully, it’s there in their pauses, their posture and it’s really the thing that makes us want to watch, to commiserate and applaud.
There was something liberating about wandering around between rooms with no pressure to attend or express an opinion. Lunch was had, hidden in a corner till people who wanted to network found my companion. I slipped away to wander quiet corners of the campus and peep into rooms where nobody knew me. I also took a post-lunch walk with Aditya & Ratnesh – Mumbaikers brashly deciding to check out the lake we saw on the horizon, realising too late how far it was and then succumbing to what I called Puneri laziness. We sat down on a stone bench outside the building, enjoying the shade of the trees, the comfortable weather and just being guests in a welcoming place.
The final panel was the showstopper in my mind, a discussion about Open Source and its future. Hosted by Devin Maetzri, it featured Sheeba Abraham (of Pune WordCamps), Aditya Kane, Samuel Rajkumar (whose open-source hardware to detect water quality was extended into testing blood sugar by another person) and Shreekandh Balakrishnan. And this was made extra special to me because I happened to be hanging around the room where the speakers congregated while the audience was still at lunch. It lightened the mood to hear them joke about doing a practice run. I realised they hadn’t noticed that I wasn’t on the panel so I volunteered to be ‘practice audience’. These are the kind of special moments that you miss in online-only relating.
Afterwards, I found myself carried along in the exuberant high of the conclusion of Bangalore’s first WordCamp. Yes, its first and I was there! The swag was a genuine brass coffee tumbler-daavra stamped #WCBlr and add_filter(“coffee”). What a great day, Yogesh Londhe!
The Welcome Embraces of Namma Bengaluru
Time and weather ripple along in this city and I’m not in the sharpest frame of mind. Getting out of the campus gave me a moment of panic as the internet wouldn’t work and I had only seen fields, village roads and a literal cow on my way in. But sure enough, plans got made and I found myself in a car with people who took charge and made stuff happen. Again, something new, a nice new but an unfamiliar new.
Maybe because of this, I fell sick that very evening. I’m coming to understand now that my health is a lot more complex than allergic reactions or exact measurements of sleep & food. The body remembers what the mind is not able to process and voices its needs in different ways. I’m learning to listen. But Bangalore as always, was kind to me. The family I’m meeting for the first time took care of me with gentle concern and respectful space. The people I met at WordCamp were great, Mumbai familiars and strangers alike. One of them kindly gave me a ride out of the melee and didn’t bat an eyelid when I requested he take me home instead of to the after-celebration. We connected later and I discovered that Saru had been a reader of my blog years earlier and only recognised me afterwards. It’s disorienting but it’s still lovely.
I spent the next two days with my family – a weekend jaunt to some old memories as well as new favourites. We ended up having lunch at ‘Deepika Padukone’s favourite restaurant’ according to my nephew who promptly showed me a reel of her interview saying so. Housed in old money, old-world Malleshwaram where the dimpled diva grew up, Central Tiffin Room is a quaint South Indian eating joint of the traditional style. There was a massive queue outside CTR. To my delight, it was civil and peaceful in the 20-odd minutes we stood, just like the weather. Food was a sumptuous round of panniyarams, masala dosai, rasam-vada and filter kaapi of course. Later, we walked around the lanes of Malleshwaram, my anni telling me about her gentle life here while my nephew regaled me with his college adventures. I think I missed the good parts of the extended Indian family in growing up in nuclear family in Mumbai and not fitting into Chennai’s 80s rigidity. But Bangalore of the 90s and now has the right balance of my family, both urban and traditional, warm and independent in equal measure.
It was fortuitous that the last place I went to in Bangalore was the post office. Do the visible people of today remember or care about everything that a post office symbolises? A bygone era of lickable stamps that also worked as parallel currency. Penpals, postcards from travels, hand-written letters that kept relationships alive, the familiar postman bearing school reports and asking for baksheesh during Diwali. Yes, many of these still exist. But I was probably the youngest person there.
A saree-clad lady in the queue was holding a large envelope addressed to Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai. An application form? A report? I wondered who she was mailing it for. A son or daughter? An employer? How delightful if it were for herself. I wondered if I should offer to hand-deliver it. Of course, I did not say a word. Post offices are a good reminder of the entire worlds we carry within us, full of stories and conversations that never happened.
It took me ten days to write this post. I’m still struggling to string words together but this four-day trip was a stream of myriad experiences. Bangalore is the new kid on the city block still. The twenty-odd years have brought in big-name corporates, flashy stores and the homogeneity of commoditised urban culture world over. The city has not yet learnt to cope with influxes. Conflicting cultures clash as they cram into Bangalore’s bylanes. The new flyovers and metro stations intersect with senior citizen pace and South Indian reticence. The city’s history has not yet assimilated with its geography. It may be awhile before Bengaluru learns its own identity amidst this flux.
Like a lot of blasts from my past, this one seems like it is still growing up. I cannot help but feel tenderly towards it, even as I grimace at the changes. I suppose I’m glad I never married Bangalore. But who knows who I would have been, had I settled down here as I once dreamed? A time-traveller can only wonder.
Bengaluru, it was good to see you, my old love.
*A special thank you to The Anarchist for inspiring me to take this trip and The Miracle for making sense of my words and giving me the courage to hit PUBLISH.