Bangalore is the yuppie capital of India; certainly its streets are cleaner and its teeth brighter than any other Indian city. But despite the veneer of western capitalism, Bangalore remains a typically Indian place, proof perhaps that however hard the Cult of America tries, it will never conquer the second largest population mass in the world.
Yes, there are supermarkets, but their shelves are tiny and the goods overpriced. There are signs everywhere proclaiming, 'We prefer Visa,' but this turns out to be a blatant lie; find me anyone who wouldn't rather have cold, hard cash. There are comparatively few cows blundering through the streets; I only saw a handful, though they were particularly fine specimens. There are rubbish bins, but they still overflow with rubbish, attract flies and stink like a sumo wrestler's jockstrap. And the people are as aloof as city dwellers anywhere in the world; smiling at them produces a total blank, and apart from a handful of happy-go-lucky locals, Bangalorians seem to suffer from the dehumanisation that comes with successful capitalism.
Other similarities between Bangalore and western cities are quite apparent, but in everything the spectre of Indian insanity looms large. For example, Bangalore sports little red and green men at pedestrian crossings, but in true Indian style nobody takes a blind bit of notice of them, and they're useless anyway; one set I saw gave you precisely four seconds of green time before reverting to red, not even enough for Linford Christie to get across. Coupled with this are the traffic police, who stand at traffic-light-controlled junctions, directing traffic by whistle; it's as if the official line is to ignore the lights, which is exactly what happens. To be honest, crossing the road when the red light should be stopping the traffic is probably more dangerous than crossing when it's green, because when it's red the rickshaws are concentrating more on not hitting the traffic crossing their path than avoiding something petty like pedestrians.
Bangalore still has beggars – a particularly insistent type, too – but instead of living in lean-to tents on the high street, they sit outside shops selling genuine Ray Bans and designer clothes. Not all, though, are this street-wise; I saw my first case of elephantiasis in Bangalore, the disease that makes your limbs swell up so much that your legs look like an elephant's; it was quite a sight, and my heart went out to the poor man.
Perhaps more surprisingly, Bangalorian rickshaw drivers use their meters, which is a first for me in India; everywhere else they steadfastly refuse to use them because they can always make more money out of a dumb tourist by quoting a crazy price and haggling it down a little, but in Bangalore it's illegal not to use the meter, and unbelievably the drivers tend to obey. The only problem with the meter is that instead of getting worried about being ripped off for a trip that may or may not be a long way, you end up getting paranoid about whether the driver is going round and round in circles, just to up the fare. My first rickshaw driver didn't help things; I wanted to go to a place called the Airlines Hotel on Madras Bank Road, and he started heading for the airport on Old Madras Road, which would have cost me an extra Rs50 if I hadn't been paying attention.
In the Buff
But surely the biggest shock that awaited me in Bangalore was the availability of beef, or to be more precise, 'buff'. The cow might be sacred but the buffalo isn't, and perhaps a reason for the near lack of them in the city is that they're available in burgers, pizzas, steaks and stews; it's not that common, but there are restaurants serving buff, and I found myself drawn inexorably towards the smell of burnt bovine like a rat to the lilt of the Pied Piper. I didn't realise how much I missed the taste of beef until I tucked into a meal of buff soup and buff pizza at one of the best Euro-Indian restaurants I've seen for a while. Along with this luxury, beer is freely available and is drinkable in pleasant surroundings as opposed to the prisons of Tamil Nadu, and you can find such western icons as Wimpy and KFC dotted around (though there's no McDonald's, yet).
Possibly as a result of this surfeit of gluttony, a sizable proportion of Bangalore's middle-aged women are quite fat, which comes as a disappointment after the sleek beauty of the rural areas; the younger generation, however, are decked out in hip-hugging 501s and curve-enhancing mini T-shirts, with hardly a saree to be seen. It's an intriguing sight, wandering past a huge queue full of young couples all waiting to see the sexy BMW in Tomorrow Never Dies. And in fairness, the young men of Bangalore look smart in a way that I didn't believe Indian men could, with their designer tops and smart pressed trousers; the odd lungi makes an appearance, but for the most part the male Bangalorians look as well turned out as the national cricket team.
I decided to take advantage of the cosmopolitanism of Bangalore by developing ten rolls of film and mailing them home. Even Kodak makes no sense here, though; on the receipt I received for my deposited films was a disclaimer, which said, 'Because days used in colour photographic materials, like other days, may change in time, neither prints nor copies will be replaced or otherwise warranted against any change in colour.' Isn't it sheer poetry? Whatever it means...
I also managed to track down some more excellent music – Sheryl Crow's latest and Radiohead's OK Computer – and as I wandered down the road towards my shabby little hotel room to try them out, I stopped dead in my tracks. Surely that couldn't be the smell of kretek wafting down the street... but there it was, Gudang Garam for sale at the kiosk! If anything, this sums up Bangalore; to become truly stylish, you need American jeans, a German car, a British accent and Indonesian smokes. Thankfully you'll still be an Indian, though.
The Sights of Bangalore
The sights of Bangalore aren't that numerous, but the ones that are worth a visit are pretty impressive. Government buildings dominate the wide, tree-lined boulevards, especially the bright red monstrosity of the High Court and the modern and highly stylish Vidhana Soudha, which is home to the Secretariat and State Legislature. Above the entrance to the latter is the inscription 'Government work is God's work', which might help to explain why government work involves so much bureaucracy and paperwork; the civil service is truly the home to the Holy Triplicate.
In the south of the city is a botanic garden, probably one of the best in India, and although the grass is brown and the plants wilting from a serious lack of rain, Lalbagh Garden is pretty impressive. The lakes glimmer, the trees cast their shade over the dusty lawns, countless Indians lie prostrate and motionless on the ground, and copious litter skitters down the paths in the afternoon breeze; it's pleasant, despite the people casually throwing Pepsi cans into the undergrowth regardless of the nearby litter bins, and although it didn't buoy my spirits like Kings Park in Perth or the gardens in Singapore, I felt at least that the work of the 18th century botanists who laid it out in the days before the British wasn't entirely wasted.
And on my way back to the shops and shysters of the main shopping area, I came across a delightful little sign on the pavement. 'Urinating, spitting and littering in public places will attract administrative charges,' it said, and I couldn't resist kneeling down to copy these priceless words down. It was only than that I noticed the smell; I must have been standing in a puddle of at least four hours of God's work...