Saturday, October 07, 2006

Bye Bye Malgudi, Hello Mysore

Under the overcast sky, the green of the paddy fields looked as dense as the grey above — so picture perfect that I could have tried my luck with National Geographic if I was not standing at the door of the train. In fact, when a hill appeared in the backdrop of the lush greenery, I did turn to fetch my camera. But I found my path blocked by the suitcase of an elderly fellow traveller who announced with an apologetic grin, “Mysore is coming.”

Mysore is one of those places like Siberia: you’ve always heard about it, but you never really see anyone booking a ticket to get there. For the lay traveller, the city is on the itinerary only when a trip to Bangalore permits enough time. It was hardly surprising then, when, 90 percent of the passengers on the Chennai-Mysore Shatabdi Express detrained in Bangalore.

Mysore is also a city whose mention — particularly if you have never been there — conjures up some image or the other in your mind: it could be colourful silk sarees or the smoke emanating from a sandalwood agarbatti or just a soap. But as I sat in the nearly-empty train presently pulling out of Bangalore, the faces of two elderly men floated in front on my eyes every time I tried to visualise Mysore.

One is 90 years old, while the other would been exactly 100 if he were alive. One made Mysore the international capital of ashtanga yoga, the other gave the city a pseudonym and put it on India's literary map. Pattabhi Jois and RK Narayan, lions in their respective fields; and Mysore, I thought, would bear their signature. The two men had given me a detailed visual tour of the city long before I set foot in it.

Jois’ Mysore was indoor: chiselled Western bodies striking difficult yoga postures in unison in a gloomy hall. Narayan’s Mysore was necessarily outdoor. Veteran photographer TS Satyan, a friend of Narayan, wrote in an article in 2002: “One of my greatest joys in life was to stroll down the streets of Mysore in his exhilarating company, listening to his witty comments and observations on the people he met and the goings on that he saw. He never walked fast and stopped at many places on the way. He observed people and their ways with pleasure.”

I now wanted to walk the streets as Narayan did. But when you decide to walk back half a century, that too in a new city, you don’t quite know where to begin and which route to take. So I sought the help of a local friend, and asked her to drive me around Lakshmipuram, where Narayan and his large family lived in a rented house till the late 1940s. I was hoping to find Malgudi.

“I don’t know if you will find anything there, but still,” she said, breezing through the traffic around the Chamaraja and KR Circles, the city’s most prominent roundabouts named after (and bearing the statues of) two former kings, Chamaraja Wodeyar (who ruled from 1868-1894) and Krishnaraja Wodeyar (1894-1940). The latter is the architect of modern Mysore. (The city had a private radio station, Akashvani, way back in 1935. In 1957, Akashvani became the official name for All India Radio). On these roundabouts, which are overlooked by the majestic palace, it is common to see jutkas, or horse-driven carts, jostling with cars and bikes. The old world seeking to survive in the new.

Lakshmipuram is a maze of spacious streets flanked by well-appointed houses. Some are old-fashioned, some are really old and crumbling. A number of them, however, are modern: 20 or 30 years old. “There, on the left,” the friend stopped the car and pointed out, “that’s where Pattabhi Jois used to live.” The door of the house still bears a small signboard: Vidwan Pattabhi Jois. The house looked too simple to have been the world’s biggest export centre of ashtanga yoga. Jois now lives in a more upmarket neighbourhood, Gokulam. He charges Rs 27,900 for the first month of training (doesn’t include food and lodging) and Rs 17,900 for each month thereafter. Little wonder that almost all his students are Westerners.

We drove around a few more streets before I was suddenly shaken out of the Malgudi stupor: apartments are springing up in between old-fashioned houses. They stick out like sore thumbs, shattering the visual silence of the neighbourhood. I instantly recalled a UNI report I happened to read the night before taking the train to Mysore. It began like this: Emerging from the shadow of its cosmopolitan neighbour Bangalore, Mysore, witnessing a flurry of activities on many a fronts, is all set to evolve as a brand.

Narayan, in all likelihood, would have liked Mysore to remain in the shadow of Bangalore. He wrote in The Emerald Route: “When in Bangalore, I generally feel a regret that I didn’t make it my home (instead of Mysore), considering the advantages — its cosmopolitan air, amenities, accessibility to any part of the world, climate and all the excellences of urban life. But actually Mysore has been my home — for half a century now. It just happened that way, that’s all. And every time I go back to Mysore, I feel thankful to the heavens for placing me there.”

If I were to don Narayan’s spectacles, I would see Mysore undergoing reverse metamorphosis — a butterfly turning into concrete larvae. Some people, though, would like to call it ‘growth’. Such as KB Ganapathy, the owner-editor of Star of Mysore. He has an impressive office on the outskirts of the city, which also houses his Kannada paper, Mysooru Mitra. In the parking lot, a Mercedes stands out proudly. Ganapathy, impressively turned out in a red silk shirt and black Color Plus trousers, showed me into his office. “It’s like asking a mother what changes she has found in her grown-up son. The changes take place in a subtle but sure manner,” he pronounced when I asked if Mysore was becoming a mess. And Narayan’s Malgudi, he says, is only imagination.

“I can relate Mysore’s growth to my own. (In 1977) I started my press in Saraswathi Puram in a small house. The owner was not able to build the house fully so I completed it. Now I have grown so big. Similarly, all people — hoteliers, industrialists — have grown. Growth of industry and trade is a sure indicator of growth of a city,” he says.

According to Ganapathy, Mysore has two kinds of visitors these days: people who come sightseeing, and people who come site-seeing. “Last year MUDA (Mysore Urban Development Authority) auctioned four and a half acres of land near the race course. The highest bid was Rs 22 crore. The next highest bid was Rs 11 crore. Since then, property prices have shot up,” he says.

According to Mysoreans, it is common these days to see dozens of cars parked on the Ring Road on weekends, with wealthy buyers negotiating for land with the locals. And the buyer could be anyone from India. A source told me that even a top politician from Uttar Pradesh has bought lands in Mysore.

The breeze had a mild chill, perfect for an evening walk, and as I walked up and down the Devraj Urs Road — Mysore's answer to Bangalore’s MG Road — I sought to shake off from my mind the sight of the ugly apartments in Lakshmipuram and the concerned voice of Ganapathy that informed me of the scramble to buy land in Mysore.

I wanted to be RK Narayan: walking leisurely, listening to people, taking mental notes. But I felt I was on a sidewalk in Bangalore — or perhaps London (because of the cool breeze) — with a Reebok store distracting me every now and then. I felt like Narayan only when I walked past the grocery stores on the road and smelt the strong aroma of the spices they displayed in jute bags.

Only in Mysore can you find grocery stores co-existing with swank Reebok outlets. I didn’t expect a pub, though, on Devraj Urs Road (maybe because Narayan drank only coffee), but I hunted for a bookshop where I could find his books and maybe buy them all over again as mementos. All fingers pointed to Geetha Book House, on the KR circle. The bookshop clearly belongs to old Mysore — “47 years old”, an attendant told me — and doesn’t have enough of anything, leave alone Narayan. But the Ashok Book Centre, a few streets away, has an impressive collection, but again, not many of Narayan. Not even on his birth centenary.

I guess Mysore had bigger preoccupations, such as the Dasara which, during my visit, was only a few weeks away. I saw electricians climbing up poles at the KR Circle and fixing electric bulbs. I wanted to take pictures but had run out of film. I walk into a photo studio.

“Things have changed very fast in the last two years. Bangalore is full because of the IT boom, so people are coming here. And once the six-lane highway comes up, you can reach Bangalore in just 90 minutes (a distance of 140 km), so more people will come here,” says Krishna, who runs the studio. He is talking about people who expect to earn Bangalore salaries while living in relatively low-cost Mysore.

Krishna also remembers old-time Mysore. “As a kid I have seen RK Narayan going for walks in Yadavagiri (where Narayan built his own house after the landlord in Lakshmipuram hiked the rent). He was quite old even then.” After taking more pictures, I buy some newspapers and retire to my hotel, Siddharta.

But not before strolling around the bus station, where I notice dozens of people eating paani puri from the roadside vendors. Narayan has mentioned set dosai, but not paani puri. Clearly, winds of change are blowing. I notice more changes back in the hotel. AAI takes over airport land, at last! — screamed Star of Mysore. The takeover, according to it, was held up because of litigation over 20 acres of land, and the Airports Authority of India had now decided to make do without it and would prepare an airport in two years.

But the man who hogs the headlines in Mysore, or Karnataka for that matter, these days is Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy. He is redefining the bed-and-breakfast scheme by becoming the first VIP in the country, perhaps the world, to stay overnight in the modest homes of his subjects during trips outside Bangalore. I wonder if he pays the hosts for their hospitality, or takes it for granted that they would consider themselves blessed just because he set his foot in their dwelling. Whatever the case, the pant-shirt clad Chief Minister seems to be the new icon of Karnataka.

After I finished reading the papers, I glanced through the printout of the UNI report that I had carried along:

The heritage city had suddenly become the cynosure of all eyes, with a flurry of activities being witnessed in the IT scene, infrastructure, housing, schooling and investments in highways and airport projects.

Observers feel that the ringing of the NASDAQ bell from the city to coincide with the silver jubilee of IT giant Infosys had done much to build the brand image of Mysore. The historic ceremony in the city, which along with London and Davos were the only places from where trading on NASDAQ was started remotely, could be symbolic, but it had helped the city take a giant leap forward.

The first path to growth was the flurry of real estate activity. The construction sector was witnessing a boom and the skyline of Mysore was already changing as individual houses were giving way for high-rise apartments and housing complexes.

Malgudi is dead. Long live Mysore. Today you might have to spend a crore to buy an acre in Mysore. But to buy the whole of Malgudi, you need only Rs 80; and it is available at your nearest bookshop.

Browner Than Brown

It’s ee-ko-nomist, not a-kaw-nomist,” a well-meaning colleague, who takes great pleasure (or is it pride?) in finding nits in my pronunciation, corrected me recently. His comment should have made me blush; instead, it set me thinking.

Blush I did not because in my younger days I have had girlfriends who tried their best to transform the small-town guy — that is me — into a refined metro-citizen. How to eat, how to speak, how to dress — their inputs have contributed to who I am today. How far they have succeeded, I do not know. And I shall never know, because not everybody is as well-meaning as my colleague.

It is not at all difficult to visualise a situation where I have just left a Page-3 party after rubbing shoulders with the who’s who of my city, and people commenting: “Did you notice that? He was using his fingers to eat. How messy, na?” Or: “Didn’t he look as if he is just out of the zoo?” Or maybe this: “I was trying so hard to control my laughter every time he said ‘economist’.”

Ok, so I was saying how my colleague’s comment set me thinking. The point is, we are all Indians, and irrespective of the state we belong to, we have certain things in common. We all use our hands to eat. And, traditionally, we are also used to eating sitting on the floor. We usually speak our mother tongue at home, which is not English. We all have our traditional outfits — the kurta and the saree being common to most cultures. We all force-feed our guests. We bend backwards to help people (try losing your way and there will be half-a-dozen people giving you directions, at times competing with each other for accuracy).

The two-century old British rule, however, created a class of people that was socially British but culturally Indian. Their table manners, for example, were that of the Sahibs (the British); but the attire of their womenfolk was thoroughly Indian: could you imagine a respectable Indian woman wearing a frock? These people were called the Brown Sahibs. After the British left our shores, they became the rulers; and soon after a class was formed that aspired to be the Brown Sahib. That’s the class most of us belong to — the Brown Brown Sahib.

While the Brown Sahib was the prisoner of circumstance, the Brown Brown Sahib is the prisoner of attitude. While the Brown Sahib was loyal to the British, the Brown Brown Sahib has gone a step forward: he worships the white skin of any nationality. So when a Frenchman speaks English with a French accent, they find it cute. But when a Malayali or a Bihari speaks English with an accent, he is considered a bumpkin and becomes the butt of jokes.

If a German expat wears a Fab India kurta and a dhoti to work, you are likely to find him cool, but an Indian won’t wear a dhoti even when he is out shopping. When a French woman mispronounces an Indian name, you consider it given, even cute; but if an Indian woman says ‘Kam-us’ instead of ‘Kamoo’ or ‘Ver-sace’ instead of ‘Ver-sachi’, she forfeits her right to be admitted to high society.

And can you imagine an Italian girl admonishing her boyfriend for not having heard of the samosa? But you can imagine the plight of an Indian man who loudly wonders what pasta is when he is taken to an Italian restaurant (in India) by his girlfriend. Should the winds of globalisation flow only from the West?

At times I really think of joining English-speaking classes, apart from signing up for French classes, and also going to the Max Mueller Bhavan to learn a bit of German. And maybe enroll in an etiquette class too. Wait a minute: won’t I be killing many birds with one stone by going to a skin-grafting clinic instead, a la Michael Jackson?