Arriving in Bangalore after two weeks spent visiting friends in Calcutta, I couldn’t help noticing the stark contrasts between the two cities. While Calcutta is the timeless ‘old India’ of hand-drawn rickshaws, tea served in terracotta cups and rickety city buses made partially of wood, Bangalore is the modern ‘new India’ of high-tech businesses grouped into the city’s numerous ‘tech parks’, mushrooming high-rise luxury apartments and red shiny brand-new air-conditioned Volvo buses. The differences were already apparent as I stepped outside Bangalore airport.
I’m always struck by the contrast between the inside and the outside of airport terminals in India. As arriving passengers wait patiently single-file in front of the immigration counters, oblivious to the air-conditioning, a teeming crowd awaits behind the barriers just outside the automatic doors in the humid darkness of early morning, straining to catch a glimpse of a relative or friend exiting the terminal. Flights from foreign countries invariably arrive at impossible hours in the early morning. But this does not deter the crowds.
As I exited the terminal of Calcutta airport, the early morning humidity hit me, and a sea of faces scrutinised me, as I scrutinised them. Men crouching on the ground, their elbows resting on their knees were covered in woollen hats and shawls and I remembered that it was winter though for me it felt like an early summer morning. A child ran up to me and asked for ‘English money’ (clearly he knew that the British Airways flight had just arrived) and was promptly shooed away by our friend who came to pick us up. He then got into a heated argument with the parking warden who wanted a tip for having let him park so close to the terminal. Yes, I have arrived in India.
When we arrive in Bangalore two weeks later, it’s late morning. We walk out of the terminal and there are no crowds – just a few handfuls of men holding signs of the names of strangers they were assigned to pick up. The sun beats down but it’s also supposedly winter here. No crowds, no beggars, no crouching men. Is this India? As we exit the airport grounds and I see a sign asking for visitors to pay an ‘airport entrance fee’, I understand why there are no crowds waiting for arriving passengers.
As we drive along Airport Road, traffic seems fluid and vehicles are keeping more or less to their lanes. The city buses look shiny brand-new. As the car continues on its way to Whitefield, we pass several construction sites on either side of the road. Workers in hardhats totter on bamboo scaffoldings working around the clock on the ‘tech parks’, offices blocks, hotels and luxury apartment complexes which are springing up everywhere. Work on a subway line has recently started. This city is clearly booming. The ‘city of gardens’ proclaimed by street signs in the city centre is quickly becoming a city of concrete towers and office blocks. Another sign baptises Bangalore, home to international high-tech companies, the ‘city of opportunities’. Professionals from all over India, but not only India, come to Bangalore to take advantage of the job opportunities, favourable climate, and delicious South Indian coffee. But these hi-tech opportunities and luxury apartments are not shared by all. I recently read that there are an estimated 4 million people living in Bangalore’s slum areas – 4 million – that’s a city in itself! A huge ‘sub-city’ of ‘low-tech’ workers who wash dishes, sweep floors and put out the garbage in the luxury homes of the hi-tech professionals.