The last month was momentous but in a different kind of way. Just when everything seemed to be going okay my Sunday morning was shattered by an urgent call from Bangalore. A close relative had been hospitalised with what sounded like life- threatening symptoms. A huge 2 cm clot of blood had been discovered wrapping his brain. The choice was obvious – immediate surgery or sudden paralysis – even death. But can any family reconcile itself to such a situation so easily? Could there be a third option? How successful are cranial surgeries known to be? What was the prognosis about likely outcomes? In all my 15 years in the Ministry of Health, I had never heard of this phenomenon. I tracked down a neurosurgeon in the GB Pant Hospital in Delhi who thank God, answered the phone that Sunday morning! Imagine my surprise when he said:
“It is a very simple procedure. They will just make a couple of holes and drain out the stuff. Besides your surgeon was my student and he is very competent.”
I forthwith conveyed these words of reassurance to the Bangalore branch of the family and booked the first available flight. My own heart was thumping and my brain was full of forebodings. As things turned out, the surgery was over before I landed but then followed several days when we made rounds of the ICU. Each day began not knowing how it would end. For the first time I felt helpless shorn of my Delhi support systems. But the neurosurgeon was right. Once the clot had been drained, the patient was on the road to recovery.
To change the subject, what were my impressions of Bangalore? This was the first time I had stayed in the garden city minus the regatta of being met at the airport with hotel and transport provided by the host organization I walked out of the posh granite floors of Bangalore airport received only by the refreshing evening breeze outside. Two large boards hung outside. One said ‘Airport Taxi’ where around 20 “corporate” sorts stood in a queue, laptop bags, black shoes and black trousers announcing their business backgrounds. A long line of white Toyota Etios limousines were waiting to navigate them into the city. Another board said, ‘Airport Shuttle’ with an arrow pointing to a yard where several buses awaited the arrival of passengers. A smiling,English-speaking official waved me in the direction of shuttle Number 5 where I was greeted by another friendly face. The bus conductor wore a white uniform with BMLTA- short for the city Transport Authority monogrammed on his shoulders. With an unreserved beam and outstretched arms he yanked me and my trolley aboard. I paid the princely sum of Rs.206 for a 50 km ride in an air-conditioned, Volvo bus seated in the company of clean, neat, smiling and helpful co-passengers. All my companions were keen to tell me the most convenient place to disembark.
Almost immediately on arrival my forays into the hospital had to start. The next few days meant finding my way through the hierarchy of doctors and a labyrinth of hospital staff. Pharmacies, cybercafés and grocery stores filled in the rest of the time. Each interaction left me with three thoughts. What pleasant people these were; so keen to please; so keen to be of help. Through more than 40 exchanges with complete strangers I always came away feeling good.
But another facet of the city detracted from all the decency that had impressed me so much. And that aspect was quite off-putting I was staying in a pretty up market residential colony though not equivalent to Bangalore’s version of Lutyens Delhi. But it was Jayanagar where well-to-do Bangalorians live- some original residents and some recent derivations of in-migration. On earlier visits I had admired the wide roads shaded with enormous trees cascading with dense foliage. Those emblematic giants who had stood their ground for over half a century had been hacked down and replaced by monotonous municipality tiles. Even these had been broken and cast aside to relay all kinds of pipes, girders and cables which had been dumped all over. Clearly the right hand knew perfectly well what the left was doing but if hefty commissions flew in through chosen contractors staying hand in glove was well worth it. Huge stretches of entire streets now looked like trenches with heaps of mud capped with rubbish piled on either side. Aggravated by scanty street lighting every step I took spelt disaster for my bones. It made much of Delhi look quite pristine in comparison.
“Don’t the residents complain?” I asked. “What is the local corporator doing? Is there no Residents Welfare Association? Don’t people use RTI out here?” I need not have asked. The morning edition of The Times of India 25th September headlined as follows:
“Garbage tourism takes corporators to Salem”
“The picnic had begun: Three buses ferried 140 corporators.. Dressed for the occasion, they were busy clicking pictures of each other. It was an enthusiastic bunch, armed with tablets and smart phones, which set out to solve Bangalore’s biggest civic issue. And they made no bones that it was a pleasure trip. Roars of joy went up from the occupants, off on a trip to Salem to study the scientific disposal of garbage in that district of Tamil Nadu.”
Even as the politicians make hay, highly educated citizens do not seem to care. That is because the demographics have changed completely. The simple, almost austere men wearing a tilak and spotless white lungis, the womenfolk resplendent in Bangalore silks and fragrant flowers in their hair seemed to have vanished. Everywhere one saw smart young girls in salwar – kameez or skintight churidars hopping out of buses headed for hundreds of offices. Young men roar down the streets pillion riding on motorbikes, swerving precariously at every turn. Was this progress? I did not see a single traffic cop while even riding on the wrong side of the road was treated casually-even by other drivers and passers-by.
I longed to see the old cantonment bungalows distinguished by their brilliant bursts of bougainvillea and hibiscus flowers. Where had all those multihued croutons gone? Instead monotonous palm trees guarded landscaped lawns within the boundary walls. Those rambling houses which once grew mangoes, coconuts, avocados and grapefruit have been supplanted by hospitals, banks, jewelry shops, departmental stores and gyms. Restaurants advertising Biryani and kebabs were heralded by kitschy plaster of Paris elephants on the pavements. The aroma of fresh South Indian home-made filter coffee had been wafted into scores of red air-conditioned Coffee Café Days- each a copy of the other. I returned from Bangalore with mixed feelings. Is it better to confront broken pavements, rubble, construction material and mounds of rubbish or was it better to live in a city like Delhi which at many places has permitted pavements meant for pedestrians to be devoured by flyovers, the fourth family vehicle and the nth sentry box?
But having kvetched about pavements let us ponder about common courtesy. Has anyone met hospital staff in Delhi who give their mobile numbers and add, “if you have a problem please call me?” Is it better to live where people are pleasant, helpful and efficient or is it better to be in Delhi where “kal aaa jana?” is forever the first response? Where paying a bribe is the second response and brokering a deal the third?
Has anyone in Delhi found cheerful, helpful staff at Mother Dairy vegetable booths or in the Kendriya Bhandars? Bangalore’s Reliance Fresh, Big Bazaars and Nilgiris were a treat to enter and to shop in. Enough reason to change one’s habitat? No!
When all is said and done, the lone factor for which one might be willing to trade at least retired life in Delhi with retired life in Bangalore would be the bracing, temperate climate of the Garden city. Imagine a place where there is no need for even a fan for most of the year; the joy of snuggling into a blanket come September. Picture fruit and vegetables lying without refrigeration and still remaining firm and crunchy after 3 days. Dream of setting creamy curd made from delicious cow’s milk.
But at the end of the day there is a practical side to enjoying all this quality of life business. Delhi residents are highly organized as groups.NGOs and the media are never too far. When the cacophony gets louder, government organizations have to listen and respond. The RWA phenomenon has come to stay. In Bangalore there is no collective voice leave alone naming and shaming those in charge.
How long then can one live only on fresh air and courteousness?