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Give Bangalore its due

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaWhat Sir Winston Churchill and I have in common, along with 1.2bn Indians. And why everyone is obsessed with the mystical number 2,000.


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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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The Bangalore Club is a wonderful colonial relic

The Bangalore Club is a wonderful colonial relic, a blue building in which to drink away your blues/ photo: Vijay Verghese

YET to develop his famously dour bulldog jowls, former British PM Winston Churchill turned up in Bangalore in 1896 as a young and restless army officer to find a small and sleepy cantonment possessed of splendid weather but otherwise exceedingly dull. He described it later in his memoirs as a “third rate watering place”.

Nevertheless, in between reading books and catching butterflies - the top-billed entertainment then – young Winston ran up a substantial bill of Rs13 at the Bangalore Club that he forgot or failed to settle before departing for more lively duties in 1899 to the North-West Frontier Province to quell some equally restless natives in search of wine, women, song, and independence, not necessarily in that order.

To this day, that storied ledger entry of the outstanding sum is proudly on display at the stodgy but giddily aquamarine club, reverently perused by old codgers with bristling moustaches and chota pegs in hand, gawping tourists, and bemused Englishmen offering to pay the bill. The astute Bangalore Club has favoured celebrity over settlement.

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I visited Bangalore in late November 2016 to find myself, much like Churchill, in a quandary over bills. It wasn’t whisky.

{They nodded in that uniquely empathetic South Indian manner, heads bobbing left to right, clearly signalling, ‘Yes, No, Maybe, Do you want more chilli?'

My taxi from the airport had run up a charge of Rs800, a simple matter you might think, but with the unexpected ‘demonetisation’ of commonly circulating Rs500 and Rs1,000 notes, roughly 80 percent of street cash – to punish black-marketeers and spoilsports who never pay taxes – there was no change to be had for the ‘approved’ Rs2,000 new note. None. Anyone with nous was hoarding Rs100 bills.

I asked my hotel for change and the beaming receptionists nodded in that uniquely empathetic South Indian manner, heads bobbing left to right, clearly signalling, ‘Yes, No, Maybe, OMG, Do you want more chilli? I did not vote for Trump...’ My taxi driver wrung his hands, looked at me imploringly, bobbed his head, and handed me what change he had, promising to adjust the balance on the return trip. And that is what we did. He was as good as his word.

It was firsthand insight into how, along with black money hoarders, common people queuing for medicines, transport, and groceries, as well as baffled tourists, were being borne along willy-nilly as India rocketed towards becoming the ultimate cashless society, though not in the Swedish sense. It was controlled chaos with a unique ‘Make in India’ stamp.

But none of this has stopped Bengaluru (the ‘The City of Boiled Beans’), as the city is now known, from forging on with vim and vigour, full of beans of course. Churchill’s ‘boring’ jibe flies in the face of the motoring mayhem in the streets, the space-age technology parks, an efficient and modern airport, universities brimming with engineering and bio-tech brilliance, pubs brimming with brilliant engineers, and call centres and back offices that have achieved international notoriety with the dreaded phrase, “You’ve been Bangalored” (laid off).

With an elevation of about 3,000 feet, the weather remains cautiously pleasant despite the inroads of rampant construction that has encouraged creeping warming. Leafy boulevards as well as dusty potholed roads are choked. People put their trust in God and luck as they forge the torrent of vehicles. Bangalore roads are a litmus test of sorts, separating the men from the boys, squirming invertebrates from the intrepid. All this simply by reading the head bobbing, or lack of it – ‘I’m a pitiful wretch and deserve to be despatched’... ‘How dare you sir, I know the chief minister’.

Pedestrian pavements are non-existent save for around the city centre and along Residency Road that passes the arthritic and whimsically characterful Bangalore Club, posh new residences, and a discrete Ritz-Carlton, set away from the thrum, with its distinctive latticework and 400-thread-count Frette linen that will add nary a wrinkle or blemish to your bottom (rooms from US$240 and a lunch buffet from US$25).

{There is a palpable undercurrent of energy generated by eight million hard working people, all frantically searching for spare Rs100 notes...

In this broad area travellers will spot a modern JW Marriott, the Chancery Pavilion, a Woodlands Hotel, the ITC Gardenia, and a bright and cheerful Ibis from Accor (with bouncy beds, extensive breakfasts and helpful staff at around US$45 a night and a lunch buffet at US$9). Other popular choices include the green and manicured old world Taj West End (from US$206) on bustling MG Road, the city’s main artery, the colonial ITC Windsor, and the humming business traveller darling, The Oberoi. Take your pick.

Business is thriving. There is a palpable undercurrent of energy generated by eight million hard working people, all frantically searching for Rs100 notes, with the more devout fervently praying for the second coming – an ATM able to dispense new larger sized legal tender. Demonetisation has produced some winners, like the digital wallet Paytm that saw its user base climb from 150 million to 160 million within a week, an increase roughly equivalent to the entire population of Greece.

The traditional Karnataka cuisine Mavalli Tiffin Rooms (or MTR) in Lal Bagh is always bursting with diners who pay at the entrance (using credit cards) before waiting patiently to be summoned to their tables. Meals are served on thalis in briskly choreographed moves by dhoti-clad staff who ladle out all manner of delicious slop from steel buckets. Think endless servings of lentil rice (bisi bele bath), curd rice, soft dosas laced in ghee, chutney, grated carrots with coconut, vegetables, pickle, and more. It’s all you can eat for Rs240 (US$3.50).

Other Bangalore distractions include Wonderla Amusement Park (with water slides) or the extensive Cubbon Park (with a biofuel guzzling toy train) for kids who have been weaned off their iPads or given an old-fashioned smack on the head; Bangalore Fort; Tipu Sultan’s palace with its fluted columns and Saracenic arches; the Botanical Gardens in Lal Bagh; the HAL Aerospace Museum; and assorted temples, churches, and lakes.

Tipu Sultan, the ‘Tiger of Mysore’, with whom Napoleon hoped to forge an axis against the British, perished at Seringapatam (now Sriringapatna) in May 1799 at the hands of the future Duke of Wellington, a full century before the young Churchill decamped from the Bangalore Club without paying for his whisky. Yet, that Rs13 bill is now academic as it would be impossible to clear, even by the most ardent altruist, as no one – save for Ranjit my taxi driver – has change for a Rs2,000 note.

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