26 February 2015

Cricket fever

It’s hard not to notice that the Cricket World Cup is on. When the cricket is on, everything revolves around it. Then when India plays Pakistan, the world stops for a few hours. That’s what it was like on February 15th...

21 February 2015

A place I love: Vegan Bites in Mumbai

Photo courtesy of Vegan Bites
While I was in Mumbai I had the chance to spend time with my friends Samir and Hemali and have some amazingly good food. They run their own business called Vegan Bites, a catering service that prepares healthy, 100% vegan meals which are delivered to Mumbai’s busy office workers six days a week...

16 February 2015

On the bus in Bangalore

On the 201R going from Indiranagar to Jayanagar... Just after Ejipura signal, an auto-rickshaw driver knocks on the bus door and starts yelling at the driver. Apparently the bus had scratched his auto-rickshaw. A shouting match follows. The door closes and we continue on our way. The bus stops a little further away and the auto-driver is there again. More animated shouting. Door closes, we move on, stop again (heavy traffic). This time a different auto-driver is at the door shouting at the bus driver… looks like the first auto-driver has already mobilized his auto-driving buddies. Auto-driver #1 then shows up and now there are three people in the shouting match, with the bus conductor also joining in to make four. Another auto-rickshaw shows up and blocks the bus so we can’t move forward. The auto-drivers want the bus driver to get off the bus and come look at the damage on the auto-rickshaw. The commotion is now blocking traffic at Sony World signal so we move on.

The bus stops after the signal (traffic light for non-Indians) and a whole bunch of auto-rickshaws pull up too. The bus driver and conductor get off the bus to examine the auto-rickshaw. More shouting, more people. The auto-drivers’ beige uniforms now outnumber the bus driver and the conductor. Passers-by stop to see what all the shouting is about and a small crowd has formed. The back-and-forth shouting goes on for 10 minutes. The bus driver starts walking back to the bus at one point and things seem to suddenly heat up, with the shouting getting louder and body language becoming more aggressive, but he goes back to the auto-rickshaw. Meanwhile people on the bus are making impatient noises and some have got off to take another.

The small crowd then moves towards the rear of the bus to examine the body for evidence of the collision. More animated discussion. Finally the driver hands over a wad of cash to the auto-driver. He takes it, counts it, puts it in his pocket and all the angry faces suddenly dissolve. No more shouting. Everyone walks back very casually to their respective vehicles and we’re on our way again.

11 February 2015

Inside a heritage home in Basavanagudi

Recently I had the chance to step back into another time when I took part in a heritage walk exploring the old homes of Basavanagudi a neighbourhood in south Bangalore. We were a small group made up of long-time Bangaloreans and other more recent residents (and me, a former resident!), who were all eager to learn more about the cultural heritage of this neighbourhood and explore its wide tree-lined avenues, and especially its heritage homes.

Our guide for the tour was Mansoor Ali, an architect who grew up in the neighbourhood and who leads this walk for Unhurried, which organises several themed walking tours across the city. He told me that they usually visit about six homes on this walk, but despite his efforts we only had the chance to see a few because many of the homeowners were out.

The highlight of the walk was a 107-year-old house which had belonged to Nanjundiah Krishna Rau, a former Diwan (prime minister) of the Mysore Kingdom. 

Today his great grandson, Mr M. R. Narendra, an author, lives on the ground floor of the house, while the upper floor is the home of Mr Narendra’s nephew.

We admired the pillared porch which was where ‘informal guests’ used to be received, explained Mansoor, and the large garden and its many trees, including one which was surrounded by a porched enclosure. 

Stepping through Mr M. R. Narendra’s doorway was like taking a step back into another time.  He welcomed us warmly into his home and showed us around. Inside we saw many period features like a Madras terrace ceiling, a red oxide floor, colonial-style furniture, and a traditional swing. We even got a peek of a 1935 Standard automobile in the garage (sorry no photo!).

In my previous post, I wrote about Bangalore’s disappearing heritage homes. This trend to demolish old houses and replace them with apartment buildings has not spared any of the city’s neighbourhoods, including Basavanagudi.

Old and new in Basavanagudi

Gardens make way for parking lots 
A large garden is becoming a rarity in Bangalore, where people prefer to have as large a living space as possible, building huge buildings which leave little space between properties. “At 25,000 Rupees a square foot, gardens are considered a waste of space,” explained Mansoor.

I'm glad that Mr Narendra has preserved his old house and not fallen prey to the developers who are changing the face of the city. There are still a few glimpses of the old Bangalore and thanks to this unique walking tour, I had the chance to experience a little bit of it.  

04 February 2015

Bangalore’s disappearing heritage homes

I’m back in Bangalore after being away for a year and a half. I’m staying in the same neighbourhood and in the same house, but not in the first floor apartment where we used to live, but downstairs with my former landlords who very kindly and warmly invited me to stay with them.

I’ve only been away for 17 months but I’m amazed at all the new constructions in the neighbourhood. Once empty plots are now occupied by four-storey apartment blocks. Houses have been torn down and replaced by more apartment blocks. A whole row of three- and four-storey buildings now stand where there used to be a row of small shops on a corner of Thippasandra Main Road, a bustling bazaar-like commercial street. Over on the other side of 80 Feet Road in Defence Colony, more bungalows have disappeared and have been substituted with, yes, even more apartment blocks.

I mourn these lost treasures: not only the charming houses of another era but also the city’s beautiful majestic trees as they’re chopped down or their branches hacked off to make way for apartments which cover as much space as possible, leaving only a few centimetres between neighbouring houses and no garden space at all.

I understand the commercial logic of this trend: with the boom in property prices, every square foot is a valuable commodity. Why have a bungalow with a large garden when you can have a multi-storey apartment which multiplies living space with each floor built? Multiply the number of apartments with an average rent and you’ll hear the sound of money being minted. Few can resist cashing in.

But what about the city’s cultural heritage? Is that not valued? Unfortunately there are no heritage laws in Bangalore protecting its old, historical buildings. People see an old house as a burden which is difficult and expensive to maintain, and even a waste of valuable real estate space. Houses seem disposable: use for a while and then demolish. Build a new one. Repeat. “My house is very, very old… 25 years!” my landlady likes to tell me... If this house is 25 years old, then it’s the youngest house I’ve ever lived in.

Locals don’t understand why I’m upset when yet another house bites the dust. My first world mind must be clouded by my romanticism. Who am I to lament the loss of a few houses in a city which is not my own? After all, I’ve encountered the same attitude in my new home, a tiny village where old houses are not valued by many locals either. They’re not torn down (heritage laws forbid it) but they’re left to decay instead.

Recently I happened to stumble on these delightful old houses in Park Road, a residential street just steps away from Indian Express Circle, a busy traffic junction.  When I come across these beautiful old homes with wide verandas, typical Bangalore-style ‘monkey tops’, ornate wrought iron gates and big gardens full of trees, I can imagine what this city used to be like – the city everyone reminisces about and sorely misses but few try to preserve. I wonder for how much longer they’ll be around.

This past weekend I had the chance to explore an old heritage home in the neighbourhood of Basavanagudi… I’ll take you there in my next post!