Bangalore and Mysore are two large Indian cities that are almost always mentioned in the same breath. As in: “have you been to Mysore, and what did you think of Bangalore?”
This is probably because Mysore and Bangalore are only two hours apart by train, and they are both cities in the south Indian province of Karnataka. But that, however, is about where the similarities end.
[Context: When I finished law-school I set off on an extended voyage of discovery across Asia and Europe, with Camilla, my girlfriend at the time. This included backpacking in India for more than three months. I wrote a series of short stories about our experiences there. After a brief and unsuccessful attempt to see them published, they have languished in my cupboard ever since. Not many people have read them but recently, a friend who has suggested I should dig out my India tales, edit and “publish” them via this blog – an online book of sorts. There are 18 “chapters” in total, and from time to time I will post the next one, although each can be read standalone. In revisiting these stories now, almost two decades after they were written, it amazes me how little things have changed in India. In many respects, the events described back then could just as easily have happened today. I hope you enjoy].
We arrived in Bangalore by train early one morning, and caught a rickshaw into the city’s central business district.
Maybe it was due to the lack of crowds at that time of day, or maybe it was because when we arrived first light was breaking over the city, but I was immediately impressed by Bangalore. It looked more like a privileged European enclave than an Indian city. The streets were wide and well paved, with unblemished sidewalks and planted trees and median strips. There was not much traffic, and what traffic there was moved smoothly and efficiently, thanks to working lights at most intersections. There was no litter to be seen, no rancid piles of garbage, no steaming heaps of cow-dung.
Everything seemed so modern, from the crisply painted office blocks to the outrageous hotel prices (Bangalore is first and foremost a business town, and the travellers who arrive in Bangalore tend to have deep pockets).
We checked into Bangalore’s grottiest (and cheapest) hotel, which we had found with the help of a young student. The student had seen us standing on a street corner, studying our guidebook. He had approached us politely, and offered his assistance. Then, for over an hour, he had ferried me on the back of his scooter from one hotel to the next, until I finally found a suitable room. The student did not offer to take me shopping, or try to sell me useless trinkets, and he refused my invitation to breakfast. Once he had ascertained that we were properly settled, he wished us a good day, smiled, and left. No strings attached. “I have a class at the university to attend”, was his parting comment.
We went for a leisurely stroll through central Bangalore, and my sense of wonder and surprise grew with each step. There were young people seemingly everywhere, talking on cell phones and dressed in Levis. We passed a group of giggling teenage girls who were all wearing fashionably short mini-skirts – something I had not seen for months. We had a breakfast of coffee and toast in the Indian Coffee House on MG Road, Bangalore’s main commercial thoroughfare. The wait staff wore shiny black waistcoats and bow-ties, the service was impeccable, and the coffee was strong and hot. Tips, believe it or not, were forbidden.
We walked some more, along pristine streets, through Cubbon Park, and past the magnificent Bangalore central post office building. We visited the courts, and the Vidhana Soudha, Karnataka’s state parliament building, a monstrous neo-Dravidian granite structure with the logo “Government work is God’s work” chiselled into the stone above the main entrance.
We ate at some really good restaurants filled with gregarious locals, serving creative, imaginative fare – what a Californian might be inclined to label as “modern-Indian cuisine”. There were also fashionable bars, light and airy and well decorated, without the stale air and oppressive, prison-like atmosphere that typically characterises Indian bars. We sat down at one, next to a group of men in smart clothes, laughing loudly and sipping Kingfisher beers from the bottle. There were even a few women in the bar. And, there were no tourists.
Everything seemed so familiar, and after the sustained stress occasioned by travelling through the rest of India, Bangalore was a welcome breath of fresh air: new, clean, and quite frankly, out-of-place. It seemed like we had entered into a parallel universe of sorts, an alternative version of what India could be like.
What the hell was going on here?
Bangalore, I later read, is the pride and joy of India’s town-planners, and is held up as the “model” Indian city. It is one of the fastest growing cities in Asia, with a population of over five million [note: that was then – today, it is almost nine million]. The residents of Bangalore are predominately made up of India’s growing and relatively affluent middle-class – educated, western-oriented and progressive.
They have in turn attracted many high-tech companies to Bangalore, and the city is today frequently referred to as the Indian “Silicon Valley”. And the word “yuppie” is often used to describe those who call Bangalore home.
In fact, there was only one major problem with Bangalore: it is dead boring. The air may have been fresh, but it was also sanitised, odourless and tasteless, and after strolling through the streets for less than half a day we found ourselves with absolutely nothing to do.
So we did as the good citizens of Bangalore do, which is to hang out at the malls, and shop.
Bangalore is the home of several Yankee style malls, where you can buy designer clothes and burgers. Not surprisingly, the people of Bangalore are immensely proud of their malls, and they are held up as shining proof that Bangalore is a modern, hip kind of place, and not like the rest of India at all. More than one mall shop owner eagerly asked of us: “This is a good mall? Like malls in Australia?” Yes, we sighed, unfortunately just like in Australia.
We were in a mall, and so fast-food was only a matter of time. But still, it came as a bit of a shock when, like a hallucination occasioned by the heat, we found ourselves face to face with the unmistakable image of the Colonel, fronting Bangalore’s very own KFC outlet – one of only two KFC outlets in India, the other being in Delhi. [Note: this was the case in 1996; it is no longer true – the inevitable has since happened, and KFC and McDonalds have conquered India, too].
You may ask: did we show some respect for the centuries old culture of the country we were in, and eschew this horrid bastion of Western imperialism and consumerism? No fucking way. After months of nothing but rice and curry and stale toast, the promise of the Colonel’s secret mix of herbs and spices was utterly irresistible, and we hoed in with gusto.
The prices were astronomical – more expensive than KFC in Australia – and yet the restaurant was packed to overflowing with school-children, families and young lovers, on dates. No-one there that day, apart from the two impoverished Western backpackers (ie: us), seemed to blink at the cost, even though three pieces of well-greased chicken cost $8.00, or roughly a week’s wages for an average Indian farm worker.
The manager of the KFC outlet, thinking that we might be genuine Americans, got a little excited to see us and came out from behind the counter to inquire of us as to how his restaurant measured up to KFCs in other countries. I was able to confirm to him that his fried chicken was indeed exactly the same as that to be found at any other KFC, anywhere else in the world. At that news, clearly pleased with himself, he broke out into the most incredible smile.
The manager explained that KFC in India has had an interesting history. To told us that Hindu nationalists had mounted a sustained campaign against the entry of Western fast-food outlets into the Indian market, on the basis that their presence would undermine traditional Hindu values, and ultimately lead to the collapse of India as we know it. He then rather casually mentioned that these Hindu nationalists had not been above resorting to the odd terrorist activity to press home their point and that twice in its short history the Bangalore KFC had required rebuilding following a bomb attack.
This was, perhaps, not the best thing he could have told his potential customers. We opted for take-away.
I may be accused of trying to have my cake and eat it too, but after only a short while in Bangalore I began itching to leave. In Calcutta and Madras the filth, the squalor, the chaos and the crowds had annoyed me no end. Yet in progressive western-style Bangalore I found myself missing those very things that give colour and spice to other Indian cities.
There was nothing special or unique about Bangalore, and it reminded me of so many other large Asian cities which have been modelled on the western ideal of a city – orderly, clean, and functional in a third world-ish kind of way. In short, Bangalore has no oomph, and after a couple of days the whole place began to bug me.
We were so desperate for diversions that one evening we bought tickets to the “Great Russian Circus”, posters for which we had noticed plastered all over town on walls and billboards. The circus was playing in a big-top, in a disused field on the outskirts of Bangalore.
It is hard to accurately convey in words how deeply seedy and pathetic this particular “circus” was: an uninspiring collection of abused animals, third-rate acrobats, pre-pubescent gymnasts, days-old pop-corn and tuneless music. Mangy dogs sniffed around the skirting of the battered tent, and the air smelled of piss, thanks to a nearby open-air urinal.
Inside, the performances were awful – each one more miserable than the next, until we got to the grand finale, the headline knife-thrower known as “the Great Vladimir”. Vlad did not look great at all. In fact he looked incredibly down – suicidal almost – and he smiled half-heartedly at the audience, as if to say to us all: “in Moscow I was once somebody, but now, performing here in Bangalore for you wretched folk, I know that my downfall is complete. Don’t be surprised if I suddenly decide to fall on this knife and kill myself”. The crowd, perhaps sensing his inner hostility, barely cheered at what was an utterly lacklustre display of knife-throwing skills.
Who would believe that a circus, usually a giant pick-me-up, could plunge you into a state bordering on depression? Clearly we had reached a new low in Bangalore, and it was definitely time to move on.
At dawn the next morning we caught the speedy, highly efficient Shatabdi Express train to Mysore, and in a sense it felt as if in leaving Bangalore, we were returning to India.
It is nothing short of astonishing that Mysore and Bangalore are neighbours. Whereas Bangalore is modern and progressive, Mysore is possibly the most inward looking, traditional and un-westernised town we visited in all of India. As we walked around Mysore I kept thinking to myself: “My God, this place is positively medieval”.
Mysore’s principal economic activities are the manufacture of incense, sandalwood goodies and silk cloth – all three produced in numerous workshops and studios that are scattered throughout the town. Production methods appear to have remained unchanged for centuries – usually by hand, occasionally augmented by primitive machinery, and using time-honoured skills passed down from one generation to the next.
One morning we wandered into a small factory where incense-sticks were being made. A young girl was rolling the slender wooden sticks in a fragrant mixture of sandalwood and greyish putty; she could easily have been producing over a thousand sticks per day. I read in a tourist brochure that Mysore has a virtual monopoly on India’s sizeable incense-stick market in India, and that incense produced in Mysore is burned in temples all across the country.
Later that day, as if to complete the medieval atmosphere, we stumbled across a large outdoor fruit and vegetable market near the centre of town. More than in any other market we visited in India, it felt as if I was stepping back in time. There were no cheap mass-produced plastic containers; no striped Chinese shopping bags; no flimsy T-shirts emblazoned with the logos of American colleges. Instead, there was row after row of tiny stalls, occupied by bent old men and fat cotton-swathed merchants, sitting cross-legged on small raised platforms, lording over the merchandise which surrounded them. On offer was a cornucopia of greens and reds and yellows; joss-sticks and foot high spice piles; coloured dyes arranged in neat lines; melons and coconuts and bananas, carrots and tomatoes.
There was a palpable feeling of life and energy in the marketplace, a buzz of human activity, and after the sterility of Bangalore we soaked it up like a pair of happy sea-sponges. I loved the hustle and the bustle; the loud haggling; the cat-calls from shopkeepers offering to sell us their wares. I loved that there was none of the acrimony and urgency of the markets in other Indian towns, and that we were not singled out as tourists, but were simply shoppers, free to browse and bargain like everyone else.
Most of all, I loved the flower ladies: large women in saris, stringing fragrant blue and white blossoms together into delicate garlands, to be used in temple rituals as offerings. The work required steady hands and a saint’s patience. I was mesmerised by the women’s ability to sit still as statues in the midst of the heaving crowd, only their hands moving as they focused entirely on the one, incredibly precise, activity.
Could Mysore have got any better? Well, in a word, yes.
The following day, on the advice of our guidebook, we visited the Maharajah’s Palace. Until independence, the city of Mysore was the capital of the princely State of Mysore, which after independence was subsumed into the present-day Indian State of Karnataka. India’s maharajahs were big on their palaces, and the last Maharajah of Mysore, determined to be the envy of all his peers, built himself one of truly monstrous scale.
Unfortunately for said Maharajah of Mysore, not long after his dream palace was completed his subjects had the audacity to demand their independence. Rather unceremoniously he was ousted from power, and his palace became state property. Ever since it has been open to the public as a museum of sorts: a wonderfully preserved and enduring testament to the opulence, and arrogance, of India’s former maharajahs.
The palace of the Maharajah of Mysore must be seen to be believed: an obscene collection of colours, stained glass, and glittering mirrors. It fulfils every fantasy that you could ever possibly have about what an Indian palace should look like. There are turrets and domes, ramparts and cannons, gaudy murals and elegant carved mahogany ceilings. A pair of solid silver doors stand guard at the entrance to the throne room, at the centre of which is the gilded gold throne from which the Maharajah used to hold court.
And then there was more – marble and gold, colours and lights, glitz and shine and shimmering glass, in an endless procession of brash vulgarity. Even Indian tourists, who are usually quite ho-hum about the splendour of their country’s palaces and forts, were stunned into a hushed silence by the excessiveness on display. After an hour my senses were completely overwhelmed, and as one incredible room flowed into the next, it began to feel a lot like I was being drowned in an Indian psychedelic dream.
In short, the Maharajah’s Palace in Mysore was the most schmaltzy, classless place we visited in all of India. I loved it.
We completed our thoroughly enjoyable journey back through time at the little visited but quite excellent Mysore Railway Museum, where several custom-built train carriages that used to belong to the Maharajah (yes, he of the palace) are on display. Not surprisingly, the carriages are sumptuously appointed extravagances, complete with mahogany timber panelling and plush hand-woven carpets. The Maharajah’s personal carriage was notable for its gorgeous carved wooden desk and beautifully upholstered lounge suite. The Maharani’s (queen’s) private carriage was a bit less so, but still came complete with a quaint enamel washroom and a comfortable looking four-poster bed.
But what I found most interesting were the small anterooms to each carriage, fitted out plainly, with nothing but austere bunks, and not the slightest hint of luxury on display. I imagined the royal attendants, asleep on these hard wooden bunks in these uncomfortable little rooms, while not ten feet away their Maharajah and his queen were making whoopee, under white silk sheets.
A visit to Mysore is as close as the present-day traveller can get to seeing something of feudal India: an India of maharajahs and outrageous opulence, but also an India of primitive marketplaces, cottage industries and subsistence living. In Mysore I got to glimpse at India of yesteryear, which for the privileged few was undoubtedly a wonderful place, but for the masses was a life of hardship and deprivation.
Mysore is exotic and rustic, with immense appeal for the visitor. But who can really blame the people of Mysore if they don’t see it quite the way, and if they aspire to the India of tomorrow, found just down the road in Bangalore, with its promise of clean streets and public healthcare, Kentucky Fried Chicken, modern homes and satellite-dish TV. This is the vision of prosperity which the West has sold, and which the people of the third-world have so eagerly bought.
I only hope that in the process of chasing modernity, Mysore succeeds where Bangalore has failed, and does not lose its soul.
[The next post in this series will be in about four weeks time: Chapter 11: Goa – Where have all the Hippies gone?]