The Place of Constant Return
The office rains always catch me off-guard and I have to wade up the gali which has turned into a small river, up the slope from the computer paraphernalia bazaar of SP Road, with my loot for the day, locally made printer cartridges, a 1GB memory chip, or an audio cable with unusual features, tucked away inside my shirt. I try to feel happy about the fact that as long as it rains I won’t need to breathe in the dust of years of bullock poop ground into the asphalt, though I do worry a bit about the glue keeping my soles attached to the bottom of my shoes. If my karma is really bad my shoes (or parts of them) might swim down one of those semi-open drains and clog the municipal sewers, causing unnecessary bother to some of my fellow city-dwellers.
Perhaps my lack of precaution stems from the fact that as a writer I don’t have an office to go to, from which it follows that I have no natural way of timing the arrival of the surprisingly punctual late-afternoon monsoon showers that are a daily nuisance for everybody else who leaves office at this particular hour.
In Majestic, the man about town might find refuge on higher ground in a seedy first floor bar, chomping away on garlicky Gobi Manchurian (and wondering what the Chinese might think of this unauthorized official dish of our cosmopolitan city) or that distinctive red-paint-covered, deep-fried, miscellaneous road kill called Chicken Kabab, another local contribution to the universe of bad eating habits. Or I might escape into a covered market that defies all laws of copyright and brings to us the best of world cinema, another proof of this city’s borderless cosmopolitanism, and with the gutter-water squishing in my boots browse through French Noir and Japanese Horror, side by side with cineastes ranging from leading film critics to general culture vultures like myself.
But on this particular day I run past the august Majestic Talkies, festooned with huge cut-out stars getting soggy under the open skies, climb some nearby steps and find myself in an odd little currency recycling shop. Buying torn bank notes at less than their nominal value, the shopkeeper gets his assistants to paste them together and passes them off to some European tourist or the other in one of those massive wads of hundred rupee notes that they get in exchange for their Euros. However, my great discovery was a counter full of ancient coins, so ancient that they could no longer be passed off as legal tender, unless one happens in one of Majestic’s backstreets to find a convenient time warp to the founding days of the city, that is to say, to 1537.
Some coins were even more ancient than that: Sangam or Kushan period. All coins, pre- or postcolonial, were up for sale and the shopkeeper turned out to be a leading coin collector (his numismatic hobby being an extension of his job), so he knew pretty well exactly from where each coin came. I bought a Kashmiri coin from circa AD56 for 50 rupees (no great appreciation of value there) and an equally old Roman coin swept up by a tributary to the Cauvery, not far from Tiruchchirappalli, for 600 rupees (which might suggest a bit of inflation in Italy in the last two millennia). The shopkeeper even had a good explanation as to how the Roman coin had ended up in a South Indian river: it had been sacrificed in the way one might flip a coin into a wishing well. Apparently if you do this in Fontana di Trevi it guarantees that you’ll return to Italy in good health. Some Roman trader, I assume, must have wanted very badly to return to South India. Finally, through this miraculous little shop the coin got a second life, reincarnated as a collector’s item.
Now this was the moment that made me think. In the middle of a modern city, just a couple of blocks from the computer bazaar, I am holding in my hand a human artefact, a tiny coin, which has witnessed - albeit in hazy visions from beneath the mud of a riverbed - approximately as much history as most of our history books put together.
There it was: that momentous feeling of being in one time and glimpsing or touching - if ever so fleetingly - another era. It is important that we are able to recognize history when we see it, but unfortunately we’re often too busy with other things. When I communicate with history, willingly or not, I often find myself in Majestic.
I still recall in vivid wide-angle Technicolor remembrance, the day I first set foot in this particular corner of the world: how I got off the train and walked across the footbridge wrapped in the blue fumes of the buses in that inverted anthill of a bus station, and breathed the slightly dry and nippy December air of the Deccan. Revisiting Majestic I am sometimes able to relocate the hotel I checked into that day, and sometimes I have no clue where it is. It wasn’t - obviously - the best in town, but exuded a feeling of “this is your home too” which is fairly unusual for hotels. And at 85 rupees a night, well, I wasn’t going to complain.
I’d for some time been carrying my life around in a backpack: apart from the clothes, I had a couple of books and a typewriter. The road ahead just seemed to get longer the more I covered of it, so this sudden feeling of being at home came as a pleasant surprise as I sat every morning reading The Hindu, Deccan Herald, the (as yet un-split) Indian Express, having my coffee and vadai. It felt as if I was heading for home when I walked through Cubbon Park in the evening with books from Premier or Gangarams, or from performances at Ravindra Kalakshetra. It never occurred to me that I should upgrade myself to a fancier hotel in MG Road.
How can I explain that sense of belonging I felt in the streets of Majestic, where I had my dinner in restaurants so dimly lit that I couldn’t read my newly-bought books, and which have now either been pulled down (to make way for brightly lit malls) or are still there, more decrepit than ever and smelling as if I forgot to flush the loo fifteen years ago and nobody bothered after me?
Only years later, after I had properly moved to Bangalore, did I find out that Majestic was supposedly a “bad” area, shunned by better-off travellers, and pretty much terra incognita even to many Bangaloreans except those who lived or worked there. After my backpacker days, from 1992 to 1994, which resulted in my first book, I thought I might not see the city again, but the law of karma has its own way of operating and brought me back in 1996 for the Sahitya Akademi’s festival of letters. The following year I returned as a commissioned writer for a travel magazine and when I finally left Europe at the turn of the millennium, it so happened that my wife-to-be was a Bangalorean.
Call it chance, call it karma, but ever since then Majestic remains my particular piece of urban nostalgia: the derelict offices of film distributors with their poster-plastered walls; homely migrant-run restaurants where one can try any Indian cuisine from Bengali fish thalis to Kerala appam and ishtew without spending more than thirty rupees; or the Navkarnataka bookshop that arbitrarily gives me a discount (or doesn’t); the Photo Guide where I buy all my camera equipment; the luggage expert not far from the railway station who has spare parts, such as extra handles, for any type of suitcase; the bazaars filled with everything from antique gramophone parts to cashew nuts to business card printers to bitter gourd pickles to grey-market Sony tape recorders to concrete blenders to rudraksha beads to burqas to bathroom tiles to Circo’s fresh ground coffee at the Mahatma Sugar Candy Works to books that deal with the cultural relationship between India and… Bulgaria?
Majestic is a strangely organic area, a high calorie version of urbanisation, the bitter pill of civilization, where every other shop was founded in 1925 or 1948, yet everything appears to be in a constant state of renewal, reconstruction and renovation, and, simultaneously, in decay. Everything is partly demolished and partly rebuilt: some shops have gleaming glass fronts but if one happens to pass behind the same shops one might be forgiven for feeling that one missed the morning’s headlines about a low-impact localized war or a meteorite crash. Everything speaks of unvarying flux, a perpetual remaking of the city along lines unknown to any modern theory of town planning. Its roads packed with the residue of an ever-growing world trace the boundaries of cities and forests that have long ceased to exist, they lead not only to a future that came and went, but which is constantly coming and going. Yet it remains an utterly recognizable area: I’ve been coming here for fifteen years, but might as well have spent a century roaming these ever-changing streets of no fixed identity which by itself has become their identity.
It is a place for both business and pleasure, the embodiment of the wonderful and the weird, and looking around - which I strongly recommend everybody to do once in a while - you’ll find anything you need from branded stores with the real McCoy or, if that’s too costly, the McPloy in the next stall; the Jepson cartridge, which Epson warns you against using, will print almost as well as the expensive original; a pair of Elvis jeans will fit almost as perfectly as Levis. Speaking of which I’ve even found pants branded as Bofors, presumably for the guy with the biggest self-esteem. Being a migrant from Sweden, I just had to try them on and I must say they were surprisingly tight.
Majestic conforms to the universal Critical Mass Theory according to which areas located next to major railway stations develop a certain identity: an arrival and departure point, a gateway clocking passages at a hysterical rhythm, a doormat spelling out the words “Well” and “Come” on two separate lines. It is both a traveller’s dream and nightmare crowded with phirang backpackers wearing the beach bum paraphernalia they wore yesterday in Goa, but also, on any given day thousands of job-seekers entering the city from Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Tulunad, Malnad, everywhere and anywhere, and an equal amount being drained away by buses and trains that might take you via Kolhapur or Howrah to the end of the world.
If we looked at sweet Majestic from the moon we’d find that it occupies a truly interesting position: it lies immediately north of what used to be the original Bangalore, a walled-in medieval city, still identifiably shaped like a toppled over boiled egg in a pot of biryani. That commercial extension of Kempe Gowda’s mud fort remains majestically pre-eminent among the city’s bazaars; if you want to go there you just tell your rickshaw driver: “Market”. As we are looking at it from the moon, we’ll even recognize the winding bazaars of an ancient map - there’s Balepet and Chickpet and Doddapet and Halsurpet and even a stretch of old fort wall to the south.
Kempe Gowda Road, which cuts straight through, almost certainly represents the moat outside the northern city wall, and is with its endless stream of buses almost as treacherous as a crocodile-filled moat. The Europeans came in early 19th Century setting up their Commissioner’s Residency on Residency Road: Majestic lies immediately to the south of their Race Course (Sir Cubbon was fond of horses) and west of Cubbon Park (laid out in 1864, after Sir Cubbon died, but simultaneously with Central Park in New York. It is as pretty with its bandstand and rich flora). The great park was undoubtedly meant to serve as a border and quarantine area between the old town and the British Cantonment, where roads named for Brigades and Infantries tried to create another kind of home away from home - from the point of view of the colonialists, who had just survived the 1857 war and like all Englishmen believed that “My home is my castle” and “My lip is very stiff”, probably a rational measure.
Between these entities remained a mysterious piece of wasteland, a place of neither here nor there. Fast forwarding to a 1920s map we see that the bus station was a lake, back then when Bangalore was a city of lakes and parks, and nearby was the Central Jail (now demolished), and apart from that nothing else - just a great emptiness. This was what became Majestic, fertilized by its uncertain parentage, an amalgam of the popular and the elite, the kitsch and the profound, the beauty and the beast, the pride and the prejudice, the vadai and the sambar, the chat shops and the chic shops, the temples for devotion and for cinema … once upon a time Majestic had the greatest number of cinema halls per square kilometre anywhere in the world, unless I am being led by the nose, as I usually am, but it remains to me a significant clue to this area’s nature that Majestic is formally named Gandhinagar after the father of our nation, and yet we all call it by the name of one particular cinema.
Published in the anthology Multiple Cities: Writings on Bangalore (Penguin Books, New Delhi 2008).
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