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Globalized Bangalore

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Photo: Max Kim-Bee

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.

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