Bengaluru aka Bangalore occupies a special place in the Kannada imaginary. Like all metropolitan cities, it is more a cluster of images than the real city itself. Bengaluru has accumulated its own myths, legends and sthalapuranas.
These jostle with the changing images of the city, which has breathlessly gone through the colonial, the nationalist, and the modern phases, and is now the icon of globalisation. But this does not mean that cultural memories of the previous phase are erased.
As in the large house in A.K. Ramanujan’s poem: Nothing that goes in ever goes out from Bengaluru. The residues of the past and the emerging trends of the future co-exist.
Therefore for writers, the ‘real’ Bengaluru, a product of history and the material conditions created by history, is not more important than Bengaluru as a metaphor, as a multi-layered sign of the aspirations, hopes, and despair of Kannada Nadu.
There has always been a sense of its ‘otherness’ and difference. The rhetoric about ‘Bengaluru versus Karnataka’ is only an expression of this sentiment.
Kannada literature has contributed much to this dual perception of Bengaluru .
Kerur Vasudevacharya chose Bengaluru as the locale for his novel Indira (1908), because the novel is about modernity and, expectedly, a modernity which had to be tested on the new woman. In contrast to Indira Bai, the protagonist of Gulvadi Venkata Rao’s novel (1899) who chooses modernity, education and a companionate remarriage as a widow, Kerur’s Indira is a foil to the “modern” reformist women, who are portrayed as the enemies of family and tradition.
Kerur chose Bengaluru because it was already imagined as a place prone to Western modernity. This ambivalence about modernity continues as ambivalence about Bengaluru, even today. Though the photographs and paintings of the city during this period show Bengaluru as an urban pastoral, with orderly laid-out sectors, the literary imagination sees it as the stereotypical city with potential threats of an evil disruptive modernity.
The royal Mysore principality and its Dewans continued to develop Bengaluru, wherein the colonial regime had made a heavy investment in every aspect, including architecture.
With the establishment of the Tata Institute of Science(1909) and later the Central College Campus (1886), Bengaluru begins to draw the best talents looking for modern education.
The Kannada Department and its Kannada Sangha became the hub of Kannada culture and literature. It was a Kannada ‘adda’ in the true sense of the word. For the hundreds of youth who came to Bengaluru for education, it also meant the challenge of acculturation.
With this begins the major motif of the Kannada novel of the conflict between tradition and modernity, in which tradition is the rural world from which the young men arrive in Bengaluru, which symbolises modernity.
For many generations of writers, including the present, the major experience is of this negotiation.
As critics have pointed out, the ‘navya’ [modernist] writing in Kannada can be considered essentially as a record of their experiences in the city. Experiences of alienation, anxiety and also of liberation are basic to this phase. P. Lankesh’s novel Biruku mostly operates in the mode of the Kafkaesque, but the city threatening the hero is Bengaluru.
The anonymous railway station, where the woman carrying a meal of bread [roti] and goes through surrealistic experiences of power and violence, is Bengaluru. His powerful short story Niwrattaru [The Retired], which unravels the ugly meanness of human nature, happens in Lalbagh.
Interestingly in many short stories, Bengaluru remains anonymous, as the imagined city not named as Bengaluru. It is in the autobiographical writings that we see the actual lives of the young men, with little money, crowded hostels, and the fear of being forced to return. But there is also the joy and excitement of entering into a vibrant literary culture. Central College, Vidyarthi Bhavan, bookshops and coffee houses in Basavanagudi, the institutions of the public sphere, such as the Gokhale Institute, the Sahitya Parishat: these were the many Kannada ‘addas’ across Bengaluru.
With the avant-garde of the modernist school holding sway in the 1960s, the next three decades witnessed major movements, which have shaped Kannada consciousness, having their sites of public action in Bengaluru.
The farmers’ movement, the Dalit movement, and the Kannada movement have their epicentres elsewhere, but it became a political necessity for them to make the capital the field of action.
Lankesh, Siddlingaiah and many others were manhandled during the ‘Busa’ (cattle feed) movement, provoked by Basavalingappa’s comments on Kannada literature. The Karnataka Raitha Sangh activists attacked KFC outlets in Bengaluru.
From the erstwhile seat of colonial power, Bengaluru became the central site of democratic politics. The churning caused by the movements impacted Kannada literature in many ways. Dalit poet Siddalingaiah records how he wrote his incendiary poems sitting in the cemetery at Srirampura. These were the songs and poems which inaugurated Dalit literature in Kannada and also provided a unique literary-cultural dimension to the Dalit Sangharsh Samiti’s struggles. His great poems, such as Yesterday my folk came, are poetic versions of the public demonstrations held in Bengaluru. But Bengaluru was also the city in which his mother brought leftovers from the hostel in which she worked.
Susie Tharu states emptiatically that it was in the general [government] hostels that the Dalit protests and literature began.
If ‘navya’ literature produced the image of Bengaluru as the site of existentialist angst, alienation, and sexual liberation, there is a very different subaltern perspective on Bengaluru. Here, it is a world of migrant labour, slums, dehumanising social conditions, but also a world offering strategies of survival.
The most powerful representation of this subaltern perspective on Bengaluru is Raste Nakshatra by T.K. Dayanand. In this book we listen directly to the authentic voices of the underbelly of Bengaluru — of a sex worker, a street vendor, a multi-skilled person who also helps in post-mortems, and a sharpener of knives. They share their tales of extreme poverty, inhuman labour, and the harassment by the oppressive institutions of the State. But there is no other world to which they can return. The work is about a huge social world in Bengaluru, rarely represented in literature. It is only in the fiction of the progressive writers of the 1940s and in Dalit Bandaya literature that we get some glimpses of this unarticulated life world.
Interestingly some of the recent Dalit stories record the fascination of the globalised world symbolised by Bengaluru.
The globalised Bengaluru, with its gated communities of the IT professionals, flats and apartments, is the locale for the analysis of the unnoticed but cataclysmic changes in the notions of the self, sexual freedom, individual ethics, and the trauma of choice.
This is central to the work of the writers representing the professional class, such as Vasudhendra, Uma Rao, Nagaraj Vastare, and others. It is a small world in which very radical interrogation and experimentation takes place.
In an ironic but disturbing story by Vasudhendra, a child’s accidental urination in the swimming pool of an apartment conclave [with the help of the social media], leads to a death and near destruction of two families.
In another story, the lure of a stint in the U.S. leads a creative, gifted individual to forge academic documents, and ends in imprisonment. In another story, a talented young woman professional, from a traditional Madhva Brahmin family, rejects marriage to a liberal, companionate young man on discovering that he is the son of a long lost relation. Nagaraj Vastare’s sensitive probing into the ambivalences of the apparently free hegemonic professional class deserves serious attention. Vastare portrays Bengaluru as the site of the exploration of a cosmopolitan world in which individuals confront the contradictions of their lives in which power, liberated sexuality, and freedom also bring intense private agencies.
Vivek Shanbhag’s short stories and novels especially Ooru Bhanga and Ghachar Ghochar offer serious probing of the confusions and ambiguities of the emergent globalised society located in Bengaluru.
His story Huliya Savari, written years ago, is still the most powerful representation of the political economy of the LPG-driven world of multi-national capital.
It is the complex fate of cities to be made into purveyors of meanings under changing historical circumstances. For Kannada literature, Bengaluru has performed the function of a signifier carrying different associations in different periods.
(Rajendra Chenni is writer, critic, and Director of Manasa Centre for Cultural Studies.)