Starbucks On Church Street


I was sipping a short Americano with soya milk. A short lasts me an hour. Two shorts over two hours is my usual at Starbucks.

On my right, a Sikh, and with him a man who could’ve been Japanese, or Chinese, or Tibetan, but was probably North-East Indian. The table on my left, not taken. The table further left, the last of a row of four two-seaters, taken by a man aged about forty-five, his coffee served cold in a glass, the straw wet on the table. He was concentrating straight ahead.

The Sikh and the North-East Indian both wore shorts. On his feet the Sikh sported black flip flops, and his companion, green soft-shoes. Both men appeared to be marching happily through their thirties.

“The moment the idea hit me I thought of you,” the Sikh man said to the North-Eastern, who laughed. They were bent toward each other, the Sikh’s forearms were folded on the table.

“Believe me,” the Sikh said, it’s true. And it’s no small deal. There will be only millionaires in this thing. Cool forty-million.”

For businessmen in Bangalore, the dollar is the currency of choice, although sometimes they settle for the euro.

A woman walked toward our row, tray in one hand, handphone over her ear, held there by a raised shoulder. She slid under the table left of me. My eyes were on my Kindle (open to Less by Greer) but the black of her skirt and the white of her shirt flashed on my eyes when she curved in. I also took in how she arranged her tray, the croissant, and coffee — her workday breakfast, I presumed.

“He was very good,” she was saying into the phone. “He has energy. He’s aggressive. He’s the guy I want for a partner.”

Her listener — a female voice issued from the phone — said something.

“No, no,” my neighbor answered. “Vikas is too calm. He is too settled under his skin. No energy. His vibes are terrible, I tell you.”

Meanwhile, the Sikh was better detailing his proposal. He was saying, “Let me explain why you’re the perfect fit for this.”

But I’d tuned out of him and his friend. The thin high confident voice of the lady on my left had taken possession of my ears and my mind. Her voice and something about her presence suggested this was a woman in her twenties. By now I’d registered that she was very fair, but I hadn’t seen her face yet, I didn’t see it at all, because just then I shut my Kindle and rose, deciding that this morning, one Americano would do.

Because, you see, in just a few minutes the men on the right and the woman on the left had force-fed me three shots of stimulus, adding to the effects of the Americano, sending me high and making me addled. On top of all that, I‘ve been wearying of business for some time now, and lately any talk of commerce hurls me outdoors, gagging, seeking fresh air.

Walking out, I saw the man at the end of my row still looking straight ahead, to the wall where cups and coffee-presses and other Starbucks stuff were on display. Tall man. Grey hair gifted with a touch of bounce and wave. His skin had the sheen and texture of the rich and accomplished, but his eyes were soft and collapsed and watery — the eyes of the defeated.

It was sunny when I stepped into the street, Church Street. It was not hot, it was not too cool. I chose to walk off the sidewalk, away from the shadows, thinking of Vikas whom the fair lady had so vehemently rejected. With what eyes was Vikas seeing the world, this calm man whom I don’t know, whom I’ve never seen?

Mutha and Brother

All vehicles were whizzing by, and we could only ask two children who looked like brothers and were selling Kannada evening-papers. Their dark-brown faces were clean and sharp. They knew the landmarks: Food World and HDFC Bank before it, Bata Shoe Store on the left, Food Bazaar on the way—establishments beyond their use, but which they knew. They gave clear directions eagerly. Then the younger, shorter boy demanded that we buy a paper for two Rupees. His brother thought him overly opportunistic and tried pulling him away: yey, baaro! But he was stubborn and we bought one and I asked him his name: Mutha. We drove on and I saw in my mirror the older boy still chiding Mutha.

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Saturday Evening: Inox

All cars are out Saturday evenings. If people aren’t going to the pubs they are headed for the malls. Sujaya had two tickets for a Bollywood movie at Inox in the Garuda Mall: a gift from someplace where she’s been spending money. She was keen, so we went. It was as I had feared: we were constantly bumping into people and knocking elbows with them. I peered into the shops while riding the escalators: Mango was empty; many more were empty and were looking into aisles milling with people up to their doorstep. The jewellery shop was full. We were late, and I wanted to escape to the top floor and into the movie-hall. There the movies had begun and the aisles were empty except for a couple hurriedly buying popcorn in American-size tubs—one leg toward the food-counter and the other toward the movie hall, the rest of their body-parts similarly divided and inclined. The toilets were clean, the air-fresheners were effective and a soft disorienting light adequately benumbed the senses. The movie-hall was half-empty, though it was a Hindi movie rated with a good number of stars in the morning paper. The seats were plush, and the sound was strong and sharp. I haven’t, until now, experienced movie-theaters with this comfort in India, and have been seeing films only at home. I’ve stumbled on a new pastime.

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Swami Brahmanandaji

Swami Brahmanandaji telephoned for us to do the arti on stage for his yajna last week. To be asked by him is an honor, so we went. I cannot be religious in public: one has to lose inhibition, close eyes, look inward, do body signs, and pray—not easy for the self-conscious. There before a large picture of Krishna, Sujaya held the deepa, I cupped the bottom of her palm and we struggled to be in sync: I tried fast turns and she forced a slow pace. Then I realized that if the deepa went off it would be a terrible omen. Fear and discomfort shook my hand and the flame fluttered. It was a long arti, our hands went round and round, accompanied by song. When done, we offered the deepa first to swamiji, then to the devotees. They stretched their their arms in our direction, hundreds of arms, reaching for the flame, hands cupping the vision of it from far, absorbing its power and its blessing. They chanted, eyes half-closed, some eyes imploring, some rapturous. We held the object of their devotion, standing behind it, standing over them, seeing a sight only for God to see. I glanced away.

As he preached, swamiji often withdrew from talking, closed his eyes and took deep breaths. A profound peace came upon his face when he did that and compounded his radiance. Now we were down in the audience, in communion, and his peace descended on us. He said the things we’ve heard in other sermons but they came home with fresh power. His eyes shone. When he smiled, which he did when he spoke in jest, lines appeared and settled easy on his face—a picture of peace. Two hours went like two minutes.

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Dog Days

They are fond of dogs in my neighborhood. Most houses sport at least one, some even more: big ones, small ones, some long and short with belly close to ground, tall great-danes, shepherd-dogs, black and beige labradors, various hounds. Golden retrievers brushed silken and shining. My neighbors are rich, with children in the United States or United Kingdom or Singapore. Dogs give and take love in place of their children. Their masters have also adopted dogs outside their gates—street dogs, a dog per house before some houses, two or three before other houses. Dogs behind the gate eat factory-made dog-food; dogs outside eat leftovers from dining tables. An old lady whose daughter lives in Singapore walks nightly to her street-corner and empties a pot for a pack that has claimed the territory. When I first saw, so many dogs ran at her heels and devoured what she poured. Nowadays they start walking with her, then drop out one by one until a surely starved finalist reaches the street-corner to eat her charity.

In the middle of night they rise up in orchestral chorus, and bark and bay, high and low, for many minutes; when sleep is all but destroyed, they fall silent. Early morning, the labrador pup in the front house yelps continuously and draws out any vestige of sleep. Behind our home, their dog is always chained in their backyard; his constant complaining nags more us than them. Sometimes, from a close distance, a melancholic one wails in such lamentation for God knows what, he submerges the neighborhood in depression. Just now, a man walked his untrained dog without a leash on our street; his dog attacked the labrador; soon other dogs arrived and each attacked each—their bark and snarl tore the silence in my study.

Someone once tried to get the city corporation to take away the street dogs. The neighborhood reacted swiftly and put collars on all of them. The dogs are here to stay. I’d miss them if they go—I think. Up where my street bends left, a thin one with white streaks on a black coat trots up when I approach. He walks close by my heels for some time, always looking up at me, unnerving me with human-like expressions changing from questioning to conversational; when the next one’s territory comes up, he returns to his base back in the middle of the street. On First Main, a black fellow looks nervously, but gains courage and growls showing sharp teeth when the small brown pet behind the gate runs up barking fearfully: fearful because he sounds like he’ll tear his throat, and because he runs full speed slipping and sliding until he is one inch from the bars and it appears he might break his snout. Both of them will not make friends with me. The big pack at First Cross looked downright nasty when I was new and when I walked Duke past them. Duke died last month; now they lie and only lift a brow and register my lone passage.

It Is alright. In this neat place with its two gardens and its lovely houses, I have grown to accept these chaps. I haven’t heard so far that any of them bit a human, however seriously they snap their teeth at each other.

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Deepavali, 2006

The sound of exploding crackers is incessant. Wealthier people are igniting chains of ‘bombs’ that go on forever, like batteries of machine-guns firing endless rounds of ammunition. ‘Sparklers’ and ‘rockets’ are of new kinds this year. Rockets shoot up to a great height, abruptly slow and trace a snake-like coiling path in the black sky. Then they stop, explode, and rain down slowly—big bright multicolored drops gently scattered by cool October breeze. ‘Flower-pots’ throw up fountains of sparklers which are higher, much wider, and brilliant than before. Thin silvery shimmering lines intersperse the height of white and golden fountains.

All this week, sweets given by friends were generous in quantity and rich in variety. Symbols of hope have transformed to celebrations of achievement. So many people have moved into the middle-class; the wealth of the rich has expanded vastly and fast. This Deepavali—our festival of prosperity—a large Indian population is resoundingly announcing the arrival of great wealth. I see from my balcony, a hundred meters beyond the trees, now at night, an impossibly thick cloud of smoke lit by amber electric-lights, rolling slowly and expansively to the sky. The billows are multiplying at the base and widening. The smoke will rise all night, it appears to me.

Rains arrive…

It is raining daily here, as it always does when it gets very hot. It is a rare Bangalorean who carries an umbrella or wears clothes for rain. A book held over the head, an arm across the chest, a piece of a plastic sheet, handkerchief knotted at its four corners into an improvised cap, these are protection for Bangaloreans of any station. Thus it has always been, and will not likely change. The weather is mostly kind, so hearing a weather bulletin, knowing how many millimeters of rain fell, what the high and low temperatures were, when the sun rose and set: who cares? The umbrellas and the raincoats and the gum-boots and the hats and all concern for the weather came and left with the English.

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Bangalore, Egypt and Mangalore…

Infosys’ buildings have now almost reached Hosur Road, only a thin fringe of the small old buildings of the consumed village are taking their last breaths. Each is a strange geometric structure and grotesque, one of them a glass pyramid, but I know they will all fall in place and look grand when the scaffoldings go and they are complete. Further down at the central-jail-cross there is a sudden commotion: a group of cars have somehow squeezed in, beacons flashing, it looks like the chief minister’s cavalcade and we grin that he has to go through this mess just like us, even with all the police cars round him. At Adugodi the black tawwas are throwing up steam from the dosas and more smoke comes up thick and white from the onions and masala in oil that the cook pours stylishly on them, standing and working, the evening very young for him at eight. Before Elgin Mills constructions are happening that are not a match for it in elegance. On the sand pile in front a guard in uniform and a straggler have flopped down comfortably into a chat, both too tired from the summer to do anything else. Before Barista’s, the family of (ragpickers?) that lives in front has packed up its world and stacked it all against the stone wall of the cafe, but no one is in sight, and I think it is because it is going to rain tonight and they have to go sleep elsewhere and cannot carry their things there. Temperatures have dropped and it looks like rain is coming any moment but the cafes and eateries at Nehru Circle look bright, pretty and set for business, and the people, happy. I am almost home and I have finished the final chapter, after a long slow read of many days, of Amitav Ghosh’s Antique Land, and am happy that I sat in the back seat and enjoyed Bangalore, and also Egypt and Mangalore on the long way home this evening.

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Raj Kumar

It is not about acting. It is the concept that Raj Kumar was: an ideal as son, brother, husband, friend. For the poor of Karnataka, he personified this ideal on screen. Off screen, at each opportunity, he told them he was one of them; he spoke of his love for them each time he appeared in public. Because he worked in only Kannada films, they believed him. And the millions of poor of Karnataka took from him, (or from their concept of him,) what they craved more even than food: self-respect.

One who has not sometime been poor could not possibly understand the depth of their loss.

The state could have been more respectful of them by making better arrangements; a whole night was available; so many years were available for anticipation of this day. You cannot beat the poor into good behavior. It is sad, but true: in the end, they can only get violent against the apathetic for expression.

Just out of Bangalore…

At seven on Ugadi eve we were packing to go home when colleagues already on the road called and alerted us of a jam starting right after Electronics City. We went backwards on Hosur Road and took a deviation at Chandapura into a bumpy track that leads to Ring Road. Something went wrong and we lost our way.

The track had changed into an asphalted stretch. We drove fast, crossing a farmhouse: its high walls were lit by lamps on higher poles that revealed also the foliage of trees behind the walls, the mix of light and darkness all round lending mystery to the concealed farm, suggesting much wealth while hiding it. After some distance there was no road anymore and so the road that ended was only for that farm. Now a village came up like Hotel California: we went in, but could find no way out.

All exits that night led us back into the village. One exit took us some distance, we thought we were on our way, when we stopped to check with some rustic gents, just to be sure. In this dark starlit moonless night, they were walking out and away into wilderness. The air was still, the trees were still, nothing stirred, just these men stood and swayed, as palms do. No, they said, this road doesn’t go anywhere, it stops over there. Fine, how do we go to ring road? Five eager faces, all talking at once, fresh from strong spirits, came in through the two left windows. The general message was, go left, left, left and then left, spoken middle of Tamil and Telugu with plenty of the English word left, and sing-song from the alcohol. Back we came into the village. A couple of souls appeared from somewhere and walked the path for us and out we went hopping, stretching the car in five directions. Now the path went through thick old trees that had old creepers and above-ground roots snaking round the trunk and also hanging round them, looking like Jungle Book. A strange excitement suffused us. More villages came up, all slept, but we saw more than once, young men, ten or twenty, squatting below street lamps, hunched and huddled over a card game. We craned and saw they were gambling.

We hit town eventually, coming by a huge IT campus, and were soon engulfed by tall new apartment buildings and an ocean of people. The unfinished metaled roads of Bangalore didn’t feel so bad now.

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