A Dying Complex

During a walk through Jayanagar Fourth Block last evening, I happened to walk through the shopping complex. Now, this isn’t something I do normally – while my usual Jayanagar walking route goes along one side of the complex, I seldom cut across it.

As it happened, my wife had asked me to buy coffee powder from a specific shop (from where I’d last bought coffee powder twenty years ago), and the easiest way to get to it after I had remembered to buy coffee was to cut across the Shopping Complex.

And it was dead. In my childhood, I spent most evenings “putting beat” around Jayanagar 4th Block with my parents, and we would invariably go to the shopping complex. The complex was then full of respectable stores, including a HMV outlet, a fairly high end tailoring outlet (called Khanate) and the shop where I bought my first ten pairs of spectacles. It was then natural that a shopping trip to 4th block included a visit to the shopping complex.

Not any more, for the shopping complex is dying, if not dead already. The walls look the same, the shop structures are the same, but most respectable businesses seem to have made their exit from the shopping complex. In their place you have stores selling cheap footwear, cheap clothes, possibly counterfeit goods and suchlike. There aren’t too many “respectable shoppers” in the complex as well.

On the other hand, the area immediately around the now-dying shopping complex has emerged as a brilliant retail destination. You can find large-ish outlets of most major brands, a wide selection of restaurants and stalls, fresh vegetables, hardware stores and yes – shops selling coffee powder! Just that the shopping complex has pretty much died, and faded into insignificance.

Quickly walking through the shopping complex last evening (it didn’t appear that safe), I mulled over why it had died, while the surrounding area had flourished. I have one hypothesis.

Basically the shopping complex is owned by the government, and the rents in the complex didn’t rise along with the market. This meant that businesses that were not exactly flourishing (or sustainable) continued to do business in the complex (low rents meant businesses could afford to be there even when they weren’t doing well). This reduced footfalls, and reduced business for the relatively healthy businesses. Which again didn’t move out because they could still make the rent.

And so the shopping complex went through a downward spiral until the point when businesses that had chosen to remain got crowded out by less respectable ones, and figured it was time to move out even if the rent wasn’t much. And so you have some of the prime real estate in Jayanagar being squatted upon by sellers of cheap footwear and cheap clothes and electronics of suspect make.

A journey back to civilisation

Earlier this evening, I was at a coffee shop in Whitefield with a friend when it started raining cats and dogs. I got a message from a wife stating that it was raining insanely in her part of town, and that I should be careful while coming back. I promised her that I would wait it out before returning, and returned to my conversation.

I made my first attempt at booking a cab at 1845, by which time the rain had stopped. Uber showed that the nearest cab was 8 minutes away, except that when I tried to book it it failed to find me a ride. Ola was no better – except that it showed that the nearest cab was 20 minutes away when I opened the app.

I continued waiting, and continued checking on both platforms. No cabs materialised. And after some 45 minutes of waiting thus, I decided to get out and find a bus. My friend was surprised that I was willing to change buses to get home. “I would never do that”, he declared, adding that it would be easier for me to move back to India.

I walked up Varthur main road looking for a bus stop. It had stopped raining but there were huge puddles on the roadside, and mosquitoes buzzed all around. There was a huge crowd at the bus stop. The first two buses came at an interval of five minutes each. Both were jam packed.

It was clear that Varthur main road wasn’t a great place to be, since the bus frequency there was low – most buses would be coming from the other side of Whitefield, so it was clear that I should get to Kundalahalli gate.

Presently an “illegal bus” (an office bus picking up passengers for some extra income for the driver) materialised, and it was a good opportunity to get to Kundalahalli gate. The bus sped there, and charged 10 bucks.

As expected, there were plenty of buses, including Volvos, at Kundalahalli Gate, except that there was no room to get into any of them. Once again, there was no luck to be had on the Uber or Ola front. I even tried UberPool and Ola Share (stuff I normally never use), but nothing materialised. The only result of all that was that my phone battery drained like crazy. And it started raining as well – I was happy I had behaved like a rich man this morning and bought a new umbrella when I realised I’d forgotten mine at home.

An airport bus appeared as a sort of a saviour. It was empty, and the conductor said passengers not headed to the airport weren’t allowed on it. I offered to buy a ticket till the airport, and was allowed on. The conductor said I best get off at the next stop (Marathahalli bridge) given where I was headed. He charged me Rs. 16.

So at every step I got closer and closer to civilisation. Kundalahalli Gate was civilisation compared to Varthur Main Road. Marathahalli was civilisation compared to Kundalahalli Gate. Another illegal bus there dropped me to Domlur (Rs. 20), and under normal circumstances that should count as “proper civilisation”. Except that the design of the Domlur flyover means that it’s rather desolate and dark and unwalkable under it. So I needed to reach the next stage of civilisation, which I did when yet another illegal bus dropped me to Richmond Circle (the driver demanded Rs. 15, but I gave only Rs. 10 since I didn’t have change).

At all stages, I continuously tried to get cabs and autos, but perhaps due to tomorrow’s state elections, none materialised. Most of the time I was on one road (Old Airport Road), and most sections of it are rather badly lit and seem unsafe and “rural”. This was a journey I would have never done if I had been with family.

And the mode of transport was bimodal – three of the five buses I took to reach home were “illegal”. Two others were the most expensive Volvos. The last leg of the journey was completed on yet another airport Volvo, where the conductor made no fuss of letting people in, and not only gave me change for Rs. 100 (ticket cost Rs. 37), but also gave me 5 100 rupee notes for a 500 rupee note I handed him.

The entire journey, from the time I started hailing the cab to when I opened my door, took exactly three hours. A cab would have cost me upwards of Rs. 500, but my bimodal transport cost me Rs. 105. Frankly I would’ve been more than happy to spend the former amount for the pleasure of getting home an hour and half earlier, and being able to do something productive on the ride home.

But then it’s not often that an NRI has an adventure such as this!

NRI Diaries: Volume 2, Number 2

I’m writing this while chomping on a bar of Amul Colombia Classique Black Single Origin Dark Chocolate. You read that right. Amul now produces single origin dark chocolate (55%) using chocolate from Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela (!!!).

It was only six months back that I first came across the concept of single origin dark chocolate, when a (then) colleague in London offered me some Haitian dark chocolate he had bought at Waitrose. I had been bloody impressed, and fallen in love with this brand of chocolate then, but now I’m reminded of what my father used to say – that there’s nothing that is not available in Bangalore “nowadays” (to put that “nowadays” in context, he died in 2007).

The said bar of chocolate was purchased at Namdhari Fresh, which I visited with the express purpose of checking out what exotic foods are available in Bangalore nowadays (and Namdhari is hardly the place where you get the most exotic stuff in Bangalore nowadays – it just happens to be within walking distance of my house).

And now I see that several kinds of cheeses are available here – apart from the “usual” Cheddar and Mozzarella, you get Feta and Halloumi as well. Well, Feta we used to get back in 2016 as well, though not always (which prompted an entire chapter in my book), but this is the first time I’m finding Halloumi in Bangalore. It’s expensive, though – INR 640 for a 150 gram block (if I remember correctly). To compare, a 250 gram block of Halloumi costs GBP 2.25 (~INR 200) in London.

On my long walk to “flowth block” today, I felt like an NRI. I felt like someone who’s visiting India from abroad, and who is very impressed with the “energy” and growth. A couple of my old favourite restaurants had shut down, I saw (La Casa and Gramina Thindi, for those who want to know), but there were also loads (and loads) of small cutesy places that had opened up. There is plenty of construction activity, and plenty of investment in the city. Some of the investment will surely go under, but a lot of it will produce outsized returns. In a way, compared to when I left last year, based on very tiny anec-data, it seems like risk-taking ability of people in Jayanagar has gone up.

Another piece of evidence of the vibrancy of India is in the mobile internet space – I was telling a friend I met today that before I moved last year, I had a package that provided me with 3GB of data per month. The pay as you go plan that I use now offers me 2GB of data PER DAY! And I pay a fifth of what I used to pay in 2016.

And this has set off another wave of entrepreneurship, since this has resulted in a massive spike in the amount of video consumption (the friend I was talking to today quoted some impressive numbers in terms of this growth).

Earlier in the day, I took my wife’s old scooter to move all round town for a series of meetings. Based on anec-data (once again), traffic actually seems to have better, at least in parts of old Bangalore that are now served by the metro.

I might have a different opinion of Bangalore’s traffic tomorrow, though, since I’m headed to Whitefield (not taking the scooter there, though).

NRI Diaries: Volume 2, Number 1

We were welcomed with the mildly warm mildly humid air of Bangalore as we walked out of the airport early this morning. It was that nice kind of humidity, that makes you feel good without breaking a sweat.

The exit from the airport had been rather smooth, except for a bit of a wait at the baggage carousel. Passport control, which had taken 30 mins during our December visit, took 3. No questions asked anywhere.

The airport taxis seemed rather disorganised, though, with random (non-licensed) taxis standing in the same rank as the licenced taxis, and drivers shouting to attract customers. This is a departure from the usual practice at Bangalore airport where the taxi rank is rather well organised!

First order of business after landing at the in-laws’ house in Rajajinagar was to go for breakfast, which was at CTR. The driver of the first auto rickshaw we sat in insisted on filling up gas before he dropped us. So we jumped out and let him have his gas instead.

The vaDe at CTR was average. The masaldose was good but not great. Based on recent samples, I’m once again in the Vidyarthi Bhavan camp in the great north-south dose battle. The dose there during my last visit in December had been brilliant. I’m going there again next week.

I had a work meeting in the afternoon. Over the last year or so in London I’ve consistently eschewed the big chains in favour of the numerous independent hipster cafes the city is littered with. Suddenly, here I was at a loss in terms of meeting venues – not finding anything beyond the chains in the area of town I’d to go to. I finally picked Coffee Day Square at the Tiffany’s junction, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Then, for the first time this season, I’m getting to watch the IPL live. Living in the UK, where cable TV subscriptions are not a thing, I’ve hardly watched live sport. I occasionally buy day passes on Sky TV to watch football, but taking a specific subscription just to watch IPL doesn’t seem worth it.

And as it happens, my in-laws have only once channel that shows live IPL – Star Suvarna Plus, with the channel’s specialty being Kannada commentary! While it’s pleasant to hear fresh voices describe the cricket, somehow it feels weird listening to Vijay Bharadwaj and B Akhil talk about the game. And I didn’t feel this way when listening to Kannada commentary of Ranji trophy matches on radio in the early 1990s. As I write this, I’m watching on mute.

Oh, and I’m still yet to adjust to the time zone change. At 3:30 this afternoon I was wondering why the IPL game hadn’t yet begun, and while writing this at 8:30 I’m wondering why the Guardian hasn’t started its MBM on the Atletico-Arsenal game yet!

Finally maybe it’s because it was a shorter gap between India visits this time (4 months), but I feel less like an NRI. I’m not too fazed by the heat, and most of the day has felt “rather normal”. Maybe I’m getting used to being an NRI!

NRI Diaries: Day 3

The longer I’m here, the less I feel like an NRI and the more I go back to my earlier resident self. You can expect this series to dry out in a few days.

So Saturday started with a reversion of jetlag – I woke up at noon, at my in-laws’ place. One awesome breakfast/lunch/brunch (call it what you want – I ate breakfast stuff at 12:30 pm), it was time to get back home since I had some work at some banks around here.

I decided to take the metro. The wife dropped me by scooter to the Rajajinagar Metro Station. The ticket to South End Circle cost Rs. 30. The lady behind the counter didn’t crib when I gave her Rs. 100, and gave change.

Having used the metro as my primary mode of transport in London for the last nine months, I’m entitled to some pertinent observations:

  • Trains seemed very infrequent. When I went up to the platform, the next train was 8 minutes away. And there was already a crowd building up on the platform
  • Like in London, the platform has a yellow line and passengers are asked to wait behind that. But unlike in London, the moment you go near the yellow line, a guard whistles and asks you to get back. I’m reminded of Ravikiran Rao’s tweetstorm on Jewish walls.
  • For a Saturday afternoon, the train was extremely crowded.
  • My skills from an earlier life of expertly standing and grabbing a seat in a BMTC bus were of no use here, since other passengers also seemed to have that skill
  • My skills from the last few months in knowing where to stand comfortably in a crowded train were put to good use, though. I managed to read comfortably through my journey
  • It took 20 mins to get to South End. Another 10 mins walk home. Not sure this is quicker than taking a cab for the same journey

Afternoon was spent running around banks updating mobile number and Aadhaar. It was all peaceful, except for Punjab National Bank asking for a physical copy of my Aadhaar (which quite defeats the purpose! HDFC told me to update Aadhaar online. ICICI did it through ATM!).

In the evening I let go of some more vestiges of my NRI-ness. I got the water filter at home cleaned and started drinking filtered tap water. And then I went and had chaat at a street gaaDi. I promptly got “spicy burps”. I guess it was the masala powder he added.

I quickly made amends by going to my favourite jilebi stall and belting jilebi.

Then I went to meet fellow-NRI Paddy-the-Pradeep for coffee at Maiya’s in Jayanagar. We ordered bottled water, discussed first world economics and made jokes about NRIs carrying around bottled water. And then we walked out carrying the leftover bottled water as a NRI badge.

On my way home, I went to a nearby bakery and got plain cake, nippaTT and Congress.

All is well.

NRI Diaries: Day 2

NRI Diaries: Day 1

NRI Diaries: Day 2

I know this is a day late, but the reasons for that will be apparent by the end of the post.

Day Two (15th December) started with waking up at 9 am – jetlag had clearly not worn off. I was going to be late for my 10:30 meeting and started getting ready in a hurry only to see a text from the person I was meeting that he was late as well.

Once again I took an auto rickshaw for breakfast. Meter showed Rs. 35. I handed a Rs. 100 note. Driver said “no change”, and didn’t seem to mind when I told him that I’ll get change from the restaurant I planned to eat at and that he should wait. I bought coupons for my food, and brought back Rs. 50 for the auto guy, and he promptly gave me the change.

The meeting in question was on the other side of Silk Board, and I was dreading the commute. Surprisingly, the commute was rather smooth, taking less than 20 minutes from Jayanagar 4th T Block to HSR Layout. Along the way I got to hear the driver’s life story as he was constantly on the phone with a friend of his.

Traffic was worse on the way back from the meeting (started from HSR around 1230 pm). Took nearly an hour to get home (Jayanagar 3rd Block). And along the way I saw this:

I honestly miss this kind of stuff back in the UK, where I find people taking “data science” too seriously (another post on that sometime in the future).

Lunch was swiggied. Main course came from Gramina Thindi, It’s a tiny restaurant and doesn’t have a computer, so it’s not integrated into Swiggy’s ordering system. So swiggy actually sent a guy to the restaurant to place my order, and he waited there while it was being prepared and then brought it home to me.

I totally didn’t mind the Rs. 35 “delivery fee” they charged on top of my Rs. 55 lunch.

Dessert was from Corner House. Cake Fudge was as excellent as usual. Made a mental note to introduce this delicacy to the daughter before this trip is up.

And then it was time to go launch my book. Sales of the book are not exclusive to Amazon any more – it’s also available at Higginbothams on M G Road, which is where the book launch happened.

The launch was at this nice outdoor backyard of the store. I spoke to Pavan Srinath about some of the concepts I’ve described in the book. After that I signed copies, trying hard to get a wisecrack for everyone I signed for. I mostly failed.

The highlight of the launch was this guy zipping across the venue right behind me on a scooter, and then loudly honking. He was followed by another guy on a bike.

After the launch function was over, the wife and I decided to head to Mahesh Lunch Home for dinner. We took an auto. The guy at MG Road demanded Rs. 80 (ordinarily an exorbitant amount) to take us to Richmond Circle. We instantly agreed and got in.

He may have had some sense of seller’s remorse after that – in that he probably priced himself too low. So he drove slowly and, as we got to Richmond Circle, he said it would cost us a further Rs. 20 to take us across the road to Mahesh. We paid up again.

Something’s seriously wrong with Uber in Bangalore it seems. Out of six times I’ve tried using the service, I’ve got a cab within 5 minutes on only one occasion. On a few occasions, it’s been upwards of 10 minutes. And when the app showed that the nearest Uber was 20 mins away, we simply decided to take an auto rickshaw.

Except that we’d not bargained for drivers refusing outright to take us to Rajajinagar. One guy agreed and after we got in, asked for Rs. 300. This time, with our stomachs full, we were less charitable and walked out. Some walking and more waiting later, we were on our way to Rajajinagar, where I spent the night.

Oh, and it appears that the daughter has been afflicted by NRI-itis as well. She bears a red mark on her cheek following a mosquito bite.

NRI Diaries: Day 1

So I arrived in Bangalore this morning, after nine months in London. This makes this my first visit to India as a “Non Resident Indian” (NRI), and since foreign papers quite like getting opinions of India from NRI observers, I thought it makes sense to document my pertinent observations. I should mention upfront, though, that nobody is paying me for these observations.

The day began after a very short night’s sleep (we went to bed at 11 pm British Time and woke up at 7:30 AM India Time, a total of three hours) with a visit to one of our favourite breakfast establishments in Bangalore – Mahalakshmi Tiffin Room.

It was the daughter’s first ever auto rickshaw ride (back when we lived here we had a car and she was really tiny, so didn’t need to take her in an auto). She seemed rather nonchalant about it, occasionally turning her head to look outside. The auto ride cost us Rs 30. We gave Rs 100 and the driver asked us if we didn’t have change. Living outside makes you unlearn the art of change management.

We got our usual table at MLTR and were greeted by a rather usual waiter plonking three glasses of water on our table. We politely declined and requested for Bisleri.

After breakfast, it was time to get connected. I went to a medical shop near my home which I knew offers mobile phone top up services. Topping up the wife’s phone was rather straightforward, though it took some time given the crowd. During my fifteen minutes at the medical shop, at least six people came requesting for mobile phone top ups. Only two came asking for medicines. India seems to be getting healthier and wealthier.

Airtel decided to reassign my number to someone else so I needed a new SIM. I asked the medical shop guy for a Reliance Jio SIM. He spent ten minutes trying to log in to his Jio vendor app, and I gave up and took my business elsewhere. This elsewhere was a really tiny hole in the wall shop, which had a fingerprint reader that enabled the issue of a Jio SIM against Aadhaar authentication. The process was a breeze, except that I consider it weird that my mobile number starts with a 6 (the number I lost was a 9845- series Airtel).

Waiting at the hole-in-the-wall also made me realise that standing at shopfronts is not common practice in London. Thanks to high labour costs, most shops there are “self-service”. It’s also seldom that several people land up at one shopfront in London at the same time!

Losing my old number also meant I had to update the number with banks. I started with State Bank of India. The process was rather simple – took no more than 2 minutes. While at it, I asked about Aadhaar linking of my bank account there. There seems to be some confusion about it.

For example, I heard that if you have multiple accounts with the bank, you should only link one of them with Aadhaar – which defeats the purpose of the exercise, if one exists! Then, joint accounts need only one Aadhaar number to be linked. The linking process also differs based on who you ask. In any case, I encountered one rather helpful officer who completed my Aadhaar linking in a jiffy.

Then, my book is launching tomorrow which means I needed to buy new clothes. I landed up at FabIndia, and as is the practice in forin, I kept saying “hi” and “thank you” to the salespeople, who kept muttering “you’re welcome, sir”. While at it, the missus discovered that FabIndia now has rather explicit sales targets per store, which possibly explains why the salespeople there were more hands on compared to earlier.

Later in the evening, I got a haircut and a head massage. The last time I visited this salon, it was called “noble” (a rather common name for haircutting shops in Bangalore. Like Ganesh Fruit Juice Centres). Now it’s called “nice cuts”. The head massage was fantastic – I miss this kind of service back in the UK. I also borrowed the inlaws’ car and drove it around and even managed to parallel park it – nine months of no driving has done no harm to my driving skills.

Hopefully I’ll have more observations tomorrow.