Published: April 2009
By Bruno Maddox
In the heart of India’s Silicon Valley, Bruno Maddox finds a city transformed by globalization, dreaming of the future.
And on the weekends, what does he do, the British adult man?Where does he go?Anybody?Anybody?"
I should know this one, theoretically, being an adult British man myself. On weekends I generally like to...unwind?I don’t know, actually. It’s a good question.
"He goes up to...?Anybody?The British man, he goes up to...to Scotland!"
Ram, our friendly instructor, knocks on the screen of a filthy old Compaq desktop, where flickers, dimly, a map of the British Isles. They seem very far away, all of a sudden, the British Isles, and in part that’s because they are. I have, for three days, been prowling the rockstrewn, redmud sidewalks of Bangalore, India, and now find myself in a telephone callcenter with curling carpets just to the south and the west of that city’s center. Myself and 12 of the young callcenter operatives of tomorrow are learning the fine points of AngloAmerican culture, so that later on, during our working lives, we can more easily relate to the faceless Westerners whom we’ll be reminding to pay their credit card bills and whose Unforeseen Errors of Type 2 we’ll be trying to probe the mysteries of.
Frankly, though, it was news to me that 80 percent of British insurance claims result directly from soccer hooliganism. I also don’t see how it could have escaped my attention that the standard Western table setting, in America and Britain alike, comprises "a fork and a spoon"; that many Westerners indeed use the same fork and spoon from childhood to death; and that many choose to be laid to rest in the cold, cold ground gripping said beloved items of cutlery in their cold, dead Western hands. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea, necessarily. Just that it doesn’t ring a bell.
"And why?" Ram continues, cocking his head and touching his chin in a gesture of quizzicality not much seen since the days of the Elizabethan stage. "Anybody?Why does he go up to Scotland on the weekend, the British adult man?He goes to Scotland on the weekend...for the wines!" Ram shoots me a wink and caresses his belly in a circular motion. "Mmmmm! Very delicious. Some of the finest wines in the world, they are coming from Scotland!"
This is, of course, not actually the case.
But there is a larger point: nearly a decade after the South Indian city of Bangalore was anointed as the ultimate symbol of globalization and outsourcing, a gleaming beacon pointing the way to a future of frictionless capitalism, its light still flickers like the screen on Ram’s beloved Compaq. The city remains a work in progress, one that reveals the future’s perennial fondness for giving the impression it’s just about to arrive...and then getting called away on other business.
A good place to watch the work progress is from the rooftop patio of Bangalore’s superb Ebony restaurant. My hotel, the Ivory Tower, is just across the way, and I’ve been starting my mornings with the traditional South Indian breakfast of idli and dosas and very strong coffee, gazing out over the chaos of Asia’s fastestgrowing city while being stared at by a team of six waiters who descend en masse anytime I even vaguely look like I might want something. The view over Bangalore is impressive. Most mornings there are two or three separate buildings burning down in different parts of the city and, as if in response, the gleaming stumps of three or four new glassandsteel skyscrapers that you don’t remember seeing yesterday.
The energy is palpable, but it isn’t what it was. Around the turn of the millennium, at the height of the city’s hightech boom, there was so much money, and so many people flowing into Bangalore, it felt like a city being built in a day. To anyone chancing to pass through (as I did myself, in 2002, on my way to an ultimately fruitless week of tigerspotting just outside Mysore) the pace of Bangalore was pretty close to unmanageable. The potholed roads were crammed with traffic—mainly helmetless men on scooters, as I recall, balancing computer monitors on their heads—but it didn’t seem to slow anyone down. The traffic lights were rigged with huge digital timers, like NBA shot clocks, and the revving would begin a good 10 seconds before zero. When the light did finally change, the entire logjam would already be doing 40—not including the cows, who’d be doing about 3—beneath a cloud of dust and fumes so thick it blotted out the sky. In every vacant lot, furthermore, there seemed to be an office building growing at visible speed. I remember the sign outside one of them: microhard. It was that kind of heady atmosphere, when even a terrible pun seemed reason enough to throw up a skyscraper and just see what happened.
Returning to the city today, however, I find it hardly recognizable. The roads are still jammed with cars and scooters, but the stoplight shot clocks have disappeared and the speed of the traffic, indeed of life in the city, has slowed considerably. Before the boom, Bangalore was known as India’s "Garden City," a tag that seemed destined to join "Greenland" and "Pleasantville, New Jersey," in the ranks of ironically inappropriate place descriptors. Nowadays the foliage seems to be reasserting itself—though I trust the splendid, colonialera botanical gardens were never under threat—and the general mood of the place has mellowed from frantic pioneer hysteria into a sort of chic selfconfidence. There are shopping centers now, and suburbs. There are nightclubs and restaurants and bars. There is even, in the rubbled moonscape of the slum two blocks from my hotel, a wooden shack with a roof made of sari material and plastic bags, whose handlettered awning proudly reads: lazer eye surgery. I’ve been meaning to have my eyes lasered for a while now, as it happens, but I find myself giving the shack a fairly widish berth.
Bangalore, it should be said, has been wealthy before, or rather it has been home to wealthy people before, wealthy people who left behind them pockets of oldworld colonial luxury to be colonized again by India’s new "nouveaux riches". The Forsteresque Bangalore Club, established in 1868, boasts a 15 year waiting list for membership and the former patronage of Winston Churchill (who still owes the club some 15 rupees, according to a prominently displayed ledger of Irrecoverable Debts). In terms of sheer opulence, though, Bangalore, like most of southern India, stands in awe, and in the shadow, of the mighty Palace of Mysore, one of the chief attractions of the region. For any discouraged cell phone entrepreneur seeking to get her eyes back on the prize, to be reminded of what wealth actually looks like, the fourhour drive from Bangalore is a shrewd investment. The Palace of Mysore was only finished in 1912, having been commissioned in 1897 by Mysore’s then queen regent, but in its tasteful hugeness, and the epic whimsy of its pink marble domes, it looks more like something out of "Kubla Khan."
Returning to town, I pay a visit to the trendy Park hotel, where young Bangalore allegedly comes out to play. The Park is a towering masterpiece of Terence Conran-helmed Modernist architecture, and—having arrived too early for the cocktail set—I spend some time inside with the serene figure of chef Abhijit Saha, a man who rises daily to the surreal challenge of running a worldclass Italian restaurant in the cradle of modern India. If that weren’t difficult enough, Saha’s restaurant is named "it.ALIA." Clearly the Bangalorean impulse to hang millions of dollars on a feeble attempt at wordplay hasn’t dimmed very much since the gogo days of MicroHard.
Saha’s predicament, in many ways, embodies Bangalore’s new precarious stability—but if his minestrone with pancetta is anything to go by, the city has nothing to worry about. Rich and oily, this is a strapping young soup that revels in its surroundings, holds fast to its Italian heritage, but keeps the greenery to a minimum beneath a coiled plume of pancetta, and respectfully declines to taste like the melancholy bathwater that so many supposedly firstrate minestrones seem to aspire to. Invigorated, I ask Saha about his city.
He shakes his head. "It is the roads," he says sadly. "The roads here in Bangalore, they are very bad."
I’ve been hearing this a lot, and I hear it more after the sun goes down and the Park’s iBAR fills up with young entrepreneurs. I’m perched upon an ottoman when the party lounging next to me, two young women in saris and two young men in polo shirts and spectacles, start comparing notes on their stock portfolios. "It is very good to have a stake in Kingfisher Airlines!" says one of the women, and all four of them throw back their heads and laugh. Their laughter continues, then subsides.
"But Bangalore, it must have a very good international airport," says one of the men, and they all pensively sip their drinks.
"And of course there are the roads," says the other man, eventually, providing what I sense is a familiar coda to the conversation.
Indeed it is this, the quintessentially prosaic issue of "infrastructure," that has slowed Bangalore’s growth from Meteoric! to steady, and upon which may hang the city’s future. The roads in Bangalore are not just bad; they are very bad. Any given 10yard stretch could pass for the Senior Thesis of a conceptualsculpture student who views the very notion of human beings moving from one location to another as a dastardly capitalist plot.
But the state government—Bangalore is state capital of Karnataka—doesn’t care terribly much. Or it does and it doesn’t. AT&T, Dell, and Citibank may have moved whole departments of their companies to India, but those people don’t get to vote. To most Karnatakans, the ones who elect people, this is still a rural state with an agricultural economy, and fixing Bangalore’s roads, understandably, is a relatively low priority to those who rise predawn to plow the clay with iron shares that were old and dull when their grandfathers first laid eyes on them. Work has started, finally, on a truly international airport. But the roads... are still the roads.
One day, I make the trek to the Infosys campus, outside the city, though it’s more of a pilgrimage really. What Dublin owes to Joyce’s Ulysses, Bangalore arguably owes to The World Is Flat, the bestselling 2005 meditation on the new world economy by Thomas L. Friedman, the excitable, walrusmustached oped columnist for the New York Times. In The World Is Flat, Friedman comes to the realization that geography no longer matters, thanks mainly to the Internet and cheap computers, and he comes to this realization in Bangalore. During a visit to the corporate headquarters-slash-pleasure gardens of Infosys, one of India’s top two or three IT behemoths, an executive leans across to him and whispers—I’m quoting—"Tom, the playing field is being leveled."
And Infosys, certainly, is a playing field that’s been leveled within an inch of its life. The place is literally spectacular, a lush green ideal community of watered lawns, PingPong-style amenities, and dominated, like all proper spectacles, by a monstrous glassandsteel pyramid. "Wow," I tell Bani Dhawan, the young woman in a pantsuit giving me a tour. "I guess Thomas L. Friedman wasn’t kidding."
"Oh, Mr. Friedman," she giggles, looking away and tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. "Yes, he was a very nice man."
But the tragedy, or the creation myth, of modern Bangalore is there in Friedman’s own words: "As I left the Infosys campus that evening and bounced along the road back to Bangalore, I kept chewing on that phrase: 'The playing field is being leveled.'"
For while the playing field was indeed being leveled, the bouncy roads of Bangalore never were. What we now have, here atop the dusty Deccan Plateau, is a city stuck midtransformation, not between past and present—many cities are stuck there—but between past and future. And as a veteran of this exquisite metaphysical dilemma, I would not have my Bangalore be any other way. Nor could I want a better and more colorful home for those angelic, disembodied voices that I know are now there for me, to help me in my hour of need, even if that hour is, like, 3 a.m., and who will always understand, as did Supertramp, that
There are times
When all the world’s asleep
The questions run too deep
For such a simple man.
And I hope, as we trained telephone callcenter operatives are fond of saying, that I have been able to be helpful.
Bruno Maddox writes a column for Discover.