Today we are going to take a walk down a typical back street in Bangalore. Don’t worry; there is no danger involved at all.
The back street we are going to walk down is near the hotel where I started. So to get there we must take a ride in an Auto. So let’s start there.
When riding in an Auto (three wheeled, motorized rickshaw), the first thing that you must ascertain is that the driver will use the meter, otherwise you ARE going to be taken for a ride. This is not usually a concern, but occasionally it can be when the driver is hell-bent on taking you to the shops that he is associated with, OR simply thinks you are a gullible tourist. So, while standing outside the Auto, we point at the meter and say with gusto “Meter?” This is followed by a nod from the driver. First step taken.
Next we get into the Auto, which involves quickly establishing whether the back seat is actually bolted down or not. If it is not, ensure it is pushed back so you don’t end up sitting on the floor in a flurry of bags, arms and legs. Speaking of bags, arrange as best you can. How people squeeze three, four, sometimes five people into an Auto has me astounded. They aint big. Now sit back and enjoy the ride.
We take off in a flurry of two stroke squealing. We join the flow of traffic first, then look to see if there is room second. As we hurtle along at 20 kph, which seems mighty fast enough considering the conditions, we are amazed by just how close we can travel with other vehicles. As we approach the first set of lights, the driver manages to inch his way forward through the gaps left between cars, buses, two wheelers, so that together we form a mixture like rock-cake dough before it goes into the oven. There is barely enough room to stand on the road. Then as the lights turn green, all of the Auto drivers start firing up their machines, which they have left to die while we sit at the lights, so there is a blur of revving engines spewing blue smoke and smelling like a Melbourne suburban street on a Sunday afternoon. Off we go.
Weaving through the traffic as we all take off must be similar to the starting grid at Le Mans. I haven’t yet figured out why we can’t just wait and let everyone progress up to speed. But we can’t, so have to dodge and weave until we have three metres of clear road in front of us. Then we can wind the beastie up to its full potential; 40 kph on the open road. Meanwhile we sit in the back and watch the people and the shops and all of the happenings of life in Bangalore. This is the second best way to see it. The meter ticks over.
To get to our destination we must travel along the Ring Road, which travels under the flight path of the airport. This area is open, with Eucalyptus plantations, rubbish dumps, squatters and other activities going on along a wide, relatively open stretch of road. So this is where we get maximum speed. The meter ticks over.
Eventually, after 3 kilometres, we join the city proper again and the suddenly increased volume of traffic. But does the driver anticipate this increase in traffic? It appears not as we approach the congestion at full tilt. Hmm, this will be interesting, especially as the right hand lane is banked up with cars turning right. Oh, now the lane beside it. Oh now the next (keep in mind that the term “lane” is purely academic. We’re talking about rough lines of vehicles.) No matter, we’ll just rocket over to the left and get past that way. Oh, so is everyone else. Then let’s lean on the horn. Oh, so is everyone else. Cool. The meter ticks over.
Now we are at the intersection of the Ring Road and Airport Road. They have been building an overpass here for the past few years, which will be great when it is finished, but it is now three or four years overdue apparently. So we are all squeezed into one and a half lanes, which allows three lines of traffic to proceed, or not, as we wait for the lights to change. Most motors are turned off. Many intersections have an electronic board which shows how long until the lights go green. Imagine if we had that in Melbourne; the intersections would become drag strips. But here it works. The reason for the boards is so people can restart their motors in time to move with the green light.
We’re almost there now. The driver thinks he’s taking us to the airport, because he has no other information. When stating a destination, it is usually best to refer to a well-known land mark further along the route than where we actually want to go. So it is up to us to direct the driver as we get close to your intended destination, so he has time to take appropriate action, like swap lanes. So we tap the driver on the left shoulder and indicate that we want to stop just up the road. He will always be confused, probably due to the language barrier, but with enough instructions and waving of hands we stop at our desired spot.
A quick check of the meter shows us that we have travelled for Rs36, so we fish four Rs10 notes from our wallet and hand it over with a smile. He smiles because of the lack of a hard time from us, as well as the small tip, and we part new but temporary friends. Our twelve minute dodgem car ride and sweep of street life in this part of Bangalore has cost us $A1.20.
We are now at the side street that we are going to explore. It doesn’t look much. As a matter of fact you would normally drive past and not even see it. But that’s the point; we are now going to explore the real Bangalore, where the people actually live. We are currently standing on Airport Rd and there are three or four lanes of slow moving, smoke belching, horn blowing traffic oozing ever-so-slowly forward. There is a traffic policeman in his fancy uniform with white gloves and white hat directing traffic and the whole scene is one of semi-controlled chaos. Then we turn the corner.
Suddenly the noise diminishes. On the right hand side is a trolley selling some sort of hot food. A closer look shows it to be a big wok full of what looks like peanuts. The fellow is constantly stirring and adding what looks like salt to the mixture. Every couple of stirs he taps three times on the side of the dish with his metal stirrer, making a musical, ringing note. This is his call sign, telling all around that his delicacies are here and available for their eating pleasure. Around the wheels of his trolley are a range of children and old people, the children playing various games and the old people sitting on the rocks talking quietly to each other. We move ahead a few steps.
Next we see on the right an old, old man sitting on the edge of the dry, open drain. He looks about 70. His skin is dark like rich, dark chocolate, but unlike the chocolate he is very wrinkled. His hair is short and grey. He sits and watches the children play.
One step further and just beside and in front of the old man is a covered stand selling fruit and some vegetables. There are the tiny Lady Finger bananas hanging from a hook and many other unknown fruits. The apples don’t look too good and the oranges are almost unrecognizable. But there are mangoes and some other fruit whose name is beyond us. The stand is doing a reasonable trade, or at least there are a few people there. Behind the stand is another stand selling something that is not immediately obvious. We have been past this stand a number of times and yet we still haven’t worked out what they do. We suspect it might be some sort of local lotto; but that’s a guess. Whatever it is, there are four or five people partaking.
On the left is a derelict and seemingly abandoned building. We move ahead a few steps.
On the right is an open shop front where they do pushbike repairs. The fellow is sitting out the front on a dirty, plastic chair working on a rear wheel. The chain is piled on the ground near his feet as he works diligently on the bike. On the left is the derelict building.
A single line of traffic moves through regularly as the policeman back at the forgotten main road lets a burst of traffic into our road. It is mainly two wheelers with the occasional car. Every now and then a market trolley is pushed through by a skinny, hard working fellow with no shoes, a bandana tied around his head and wearing a sort of loin cloth arrangement. But there is a regular stream of traffic going the other way down the single lane road as drivers try to join the main road. And somehow it all works. We move ahead a few steps.
On the left is the first working building on that side of the road. It is a place that husks and sells coconuts. They have them stacked ever so neatly on the table in front of the establishment, which is made of scrap roofing iron and whatever other materials have come to hand over the years. Behind the work area is home for the proprietor, his wife and three or four children. We try hard not to look too closely, but we do see that the wife is squatting before a fire with a cooking pot on it. There is a small child playing on the swept dirt floor beside her with an older child peeking through the door, sans trousers. Hubby is working at the front husking coconuts and one can only guess that it is the oldest boy who is manning the sales counter. A family at work.
Meanwhile, as we dodge a speeding two wheeler coming from behind and negotiate the three bicycles coming towards us, we see that on the right is a two story building which has the lower floor half below ground level. There are steep stairs descending from the road to the lower level, where we can see, amongst other shops, a chemist. We know this because it has a green cross on the window and a sign of many languages, the English telling us that this is in fact a “Druggist”. A quick peek through the window indeed shows tightly packed shelves from floor to low ceiling packed with small articles that could be anything, but we presume to be medicinal in nature. At least the lights are bright in that shop. Above this and the other two shops in this group is a narrow verandah in front of darkened rooms that look like they could be dwellings. No sign of life emanates. We move forward four steps.
On the right there are three women of indeterminate age sitting on their haunches talking. At the same time they are each doing a manual job; one shelling some sort of food, one sewing and the other stringing beads onto string. Children are playing near by, so at least one of the women is of child bearing age. Then we notice that two of them have the beautiful smelling, and beautiful looking, strings of yellow flowers tied in their hair at the back. This takes our eye to what they are wearing. They each have on a beautifully bright coloured sari. I am told that there is subtlety in the naming of the women’s clothing but, as we are insensitive males, we are only able to differentiate between two styles. And what these ladies are wearing comes under the banner of “Sari”. Whatever the name, the outfits are beautiful on these women as they squat beside the road chatting and working. There is goat nearby. We move ahead three steps.
On the left is a major looking shop, the type of which we got quite used to in Saudi, and I suspect was common in Oz up until the 50’s. It is a general store that sells everything required in a house, from rice and wheat in large sacks stacked neatly out the front, to cleaning equipment and other paraphernalia inside on the many shelves. Basic groceries line the shelves, counters and floor. It is the type of shop where they have things on the shelves that have not been perused by a human eye for over ten years. It is extraordinary what you may find in a shop like this. This one is a quarter of the size they were in Saudi and stocks maybe twice the volume of stuff. I can almost hear the walls groaning as they keep it all contained. We move forward two steps.
On the right, on the lower level again, is a “Women’s Beauty Parlour”. I thank God, or the half century gone British, for the spelling. This establishment is as big as your second bathroom, but has a manager’s desk, a counter, a hand basin and two seats for becoming-beautiful customers. It also has bright lights.
We have now travelled thirty metres from the main road, but it is a dim and almost forgotten memory. We are in a different world. We move ahead four steps.
On the left is a building that used to be two stories. Now it is a skeleton with rubble in front to the edge of the road and the floor of the lower level rooms covered in tumbled down rubble. Who knows what it was or how it came to be like it is. A child pokes his head from behind the front wall. He’s having fun. On the right is a cow eating scraps from between two cars parked awkwardly on the side of the road. No one seems to care, including the two wheelers which negotiate their way around the back end of the cow. We move ahead three steps.
On the left is another building, this time still standing. The first shop is a pawn broker, but all we can see is a room the size of a large cupboard with a bare counter. The door is open and the light is on, so the business is in business. Beside the pawn broker is a shop selling vegetables. They are stacked in neat piles half in and half out of the shop. There is a fellow of about 30 serving, with his wife with baby on hip just poking her head from behind the curtains behind him. They pass a few words and take a quick look at us. He indicates a tray with grapes stacked neatly on it. We smile and shake our heads. We know we can’t eat any fruit or vegetable that we don’t peel, but he doesn’t know that. On the right we see a three story building that appears to be the dwelling of a rich man. It doesn’t look like apartments, as there is no outside staircase going to the upper level. It has an ornate door, which opens directly on to the road, and ornate windows on each of the levels. There is a brass name plate near the front door, so we presume this is the residence of a doctor or “Advocate”. We move ahead three steps.
We have now reached the little Internet Café where I used to send my emails from when I was in the hotel. This establishment is part of a string of four shops, single level, that have two concrete steps leading up into them. It is three metres wide with a single door leading in. Immediately inside the door is the person running it. He is sitting at a tiny formica table with a plastic chair. He has a run-down radio babbling away in his left ear and a log book in front of him. This is where he jots down the comings and goings of the clientele. Behind him, in a room no bigger than your old bathroom, are six work stations. The three on the left have small cubicles built around them and the three on the right have small partitions, somewhat like the partitions at a TAB betting shop. Each area has its own small screened, old, old PC and keyboard with most of the numbers and letters almost invisible through use.
But we’re not going in today. We’re exploring. We move ahead five steps.
On the right we can now see a narrow side laneway. We can’t really call it a road, because it is barely three metres wide from wall to wall, and this includes the drain that runs along the left hand side, just in front of the line of houses. We turn up the lane to see what we can find.
The lane is primarily packed dirt, but does have some rocks here and there. It has a relatively smooth path through it where the bicycles and two wheelers travel. But there is so much rubble and piles of dirt that it is impossible for cars to travel along. Besides, there is nowhere for cars to park. The houses, or shacks, open directly onto the road. Most of the houses are barely three metres wide and, unlike the rich man’s house back on the “main road” we just left, these houses are all single story. We can hear chickens out the back of the houses. No wait, we can see chickens in the laneway up ahead. We can also see a cow, some goats and a few dogs; all of this while standing in one spot. We move slowly forward, very aware now that we are in an utterly foreign environment. This is where the not-so-well-off Bangalore lives. We are not in a slum, but we are not too far above that now.
As we progress along the laneway, being careful not to stare into people’s houses, but walking slowly enough that we can see what is going on around us, we get a similar feeling to that we experienced when we turned from the main road into the side street. After turning into the laneway the world changed again and now, as we progress further along, the side street is starting to fade into memory. Along the lane there are men sitting out the front of their houses talking. There are women washing clothes in large buckets of water. There are young girls collecting water from the communal tap in large pots. There are old women sitting close by, staring at the world through silent, watery eyes. There is commerce going on, even in this little outpost, as we realize that the little hole-in-the-wall establishment on our right is actually selling something that is interesting enough to have two fellows, a lady and a number of small children gathered around. We continue to walk slowly along the laneway.
Up ahead we can see that the laneway narrows. There is a donkey on the right hand side, standing there waiting for instructions. Beyond the donkey are two young boys of about ten years of age playing cricket. Really they are playing hit the ball because there is no room to play cricket even remotely properly, but they are pretending it is cricket. As we walk past we smile and the oldest of the boys says something to us. It is hard to understand what he is saying, so we concentrate harder and ask. He says it again and a glimmer of recognition creeps in. We ask a second time and now we understand what he is saying. He is telling us, with a broad grin on his face, that Ricky Ponting is the best on the Australian team and asking if we have any pictures of the MCG. In this young boy’s little world, cricket is his link to the outside world.