Dubai airport is a classy place. It is one of the golden crowns of the world’s vajazzled playthings.
But it is more spectacular at certain gates. Hong Kong gets a beautiful gate lounge. London, New York, the same. But the first time I travelled to Bangalore, the dingy little gate felt like it had been borrowed from the pre-facelift terminal.
It was in this section of the airport that I noticed the woman. Tall and glamorous, she towered above other women and many of the men, and despite her apparent long journey to Dubai, she looked like she’d been done up by makeup artists and even airbrushed by Photoshop technicians. She was completely out of place. She looked like that part of Dubai that has huge bottles of cologne with David Beckham’s face on them, not the one we were in with the carpet from a tasteless office in 1994.
We’d end up sitting across from each other on the flight. Neither of us said anything to each other, but when she was pushed down by the sort of fat uncle everyone pretends isn’t related to them, as the mad rush for the doors came, I helped her out. That is when we started talking. I helped bring down her designer luggage as I picked up my backpack I got for free. She was here working for an American office to train the locals in IT, and I was a cricket writer on one of my many Indian trips.
As we got into the rather smart new airport at Bangalore, a bird swooped down near her head and this woman had a small panic attack. It was in no way a big deal, but she completely freaked out.
She took a few deep breaths, asked me to stand beside her, then composed herself, stood up, and said, “Well, I suppose I need to be ready for these sorts of things in India.”
“Ha”, I said, “This isn’t India, this is Bangalore.”
My way of judging a city’s gentrification is by the number of different craft beers I can order at an average bar. If it’s none, it is a place untouched by hipsters. If I can get a beer here with an overly designed label with a fruity aroma, that’s barely available anywhere else and has a microbrewery heritage, the place is pretty with it. Bangalore seems to have a microbrewery every 14 meters. In Bangalore it is easier to find a microbrewery than to find an old-timey pub like Koshy’s.
The night of my arrival my friend was already at the Biere Club. I hadn’t eaten, I hadn’t showered (considering I came in on a 10-hour trip on the Bengaluru Express) and here I was, surrounded by a collection of beers I assumed were all from microbreweries dotted around Bangalore suburbs. Later I’d be at the Arbor Brewer Cafe, which has a whole row of antique brewers; I could be in San Francisco or Portland, or another city known for effortless cool that they try hard to replicate.
There was no time on this trip for the eight or nine other beer cafes (it turns out that if you tell a Bangalore rickshaw driver “beer café,” he just shrugs) that were on offer, and the only beer I remember trying was Bira, which was totally worth it. There are parts of Bangalore with more kinds of beer than where I’m from, and I’m from the beer-soaked suburbs of Melbourne, Australia.
For all that, I’d probably prefer Koshy’s, with Ram Guha in the corner thinking about his next historical tome, and the colonially dressed attendants making sure your glass is never more than a third empty.
I don’t care for beer, but here is where the beer helps me; a place with a sophisticated palate for beer, has a sophisticated palate for other drinks. And I like bourbon. In Bangalore, you can get bourbon everywhere, Jack Daniels (the idiot’s Bourbon) and Jim Beam (the abusive husband’s bourbon) are regularly available. But it goes further than that. Makers Mark and Woodford Reserve, two of the best bourbons in the world are available in Bangalore. If I want craft beer in Mohali or Pune, I have to go to a five-star hotel and mortgage my house to buy one. “A white guy walks into an Indian bar” isn’t the start of a racist joke, it usually ends with the bar cashing in. In Bangalore, a Jim Beam is roughly twice as expensive as Old Monk rum. They are practically begging me to drink here.
Shane Warne once had a crate of baked beans shipped to India. That is kind of an oversimplification of what happened. Warne and some of the other players were struggling with the local food and asked if some baked beans could be sent over. The company they approached shipped over more than 20 tons addressed to Shane Warne for marketing purposes. Warne likes bland Aussie food. He eats pizza and baked beans every day according to his daughter. And like Warne, I too come from the suburbs of Melbourne.
My first curry was forced on me at a Sri Lankan wedding. I don’t eat any Asian food by choice. And the only reason I eat curry now is purely a survival thing. You can’t report on cricket, which is my profession, and not eat curry, not just when travelling to India or Sri Lanka, but because even cricket grounds in South Africa, Australia and England serve it. Curry, more so than cucumber sandwiches and scones, are the official food of cricket at Lord’s. And despite growing up with many Sri Lankan close friends, I don’t like curry. The curry in India (and Sri Lanka), to my Australian tongue, is better than any I have eaten any anywhere else, but, I can still only eat it one a day without craving Western food.
Western cricketers rate Indian hotels by the quality of their BLTs. But those of us travelling on the lower end of the scale have to improvise, with mixed results. The Western food in some Indian cities is just bizarre. Good bizarre, like the stir fries my mate got in Kolkata (yes, they were fries that were cooked in a pan the way Chinese stir fry vegetables). Bad, bizarre pizza I once got in Chandigarh that was a piece of bread with something like cheese on top, and meat that no one would ever truly understand. But I still need that break; I don’t care if the pizza has an Indian flair. Western food obsesses when randomized with non-western flair. But I need something that at least tricks my brain into thinking this is something I am used to.
Bangalore does this all the time, all over the city. I can easily find 10 places that make proper gourmet burgers or pizzas without the smallest effort on my part. I had a decent, medium-rare steak at one place. And not at places that are crowded with Americans, who are too scared to ever jump in a rickshaw, but places that have a cosmopolitan, young crowd.
You don’t need baked beans in Bangalore (I don’t eat baked beans by the way); you can get a pretty decent lasagne or a plate of German sausages. My stomach feels at home here.
If I am right, in Bangalore auto-rickshaws are called autos. Not three-wheelers, rickshaws or tuk-tuks (which is how they were introduced to me on my first Asian trip to Sri Lanka). I could be wrong because when you travel to as many Indian cities as I do, you forget what each city calls them. But let’s go with autos for now.
If I walk down a street in Chennai or Mumbai (not in the Town, where the posh people have banned them), chances are at least one rickshaw will pull over and offer me a lift. Delhi and Kochi I couldn’t take a step without being offered a ride.
In Bangalore, I could be drunk, my wallet falling out of my pocket, being attacked by a six-foot tall scorpion and the auto driver would barely slow down. Quite often I struggle even to get one; sometimes I struggle to convince the first four or five who will stop, listen to my destination, and leave annoyed they even stopped. Forget the gora tax I usually get charged for my skin color; these guys treat me like just another desi. In Bangalore seeing a white face is not a big deal, it is barely a deal at all.
This should annoy me, as no one likes rude autowalas who drive off instead of picking you up. And we’re all happy to use whatever it is about us that stands out for the positive when possible. But it’s so refreshing. When you are a gora in India, you start to act like a bit of a jerk. You might be an average person, or even a bit of a jerk back home, but after a few days of special treatment, reverence, you become a jerk. There are only so many times that people insist you use the ATM before them or offer water bottles when your darker pigmented friends are forced to drink the non-gora still water before it affects you. Maybe you are special you think, and that makes you more of a jerk. Hopefully, there is some Stanford Prison experiment that proves it, but in my own non-scientific findings, I see it all the time.
Something small, like a computer error, is suddenly the fault of the entire Indian culture, and therefore the person at the check-in desk has no problem berating the frightened kid on the other side of the desk. The tourist who is so pissed off at the fact that no one in Nagpur spoke English starts to openly mock the person in front of them who probably speaks more languages than they do. And the white guy who cannot believe the inefficiency of a stadium system, and so decides to try the old I-didn’t-realize-I-wasn’t-supposed-to-just-enter-the-stadium-at-this-gate-I’m-not-from-here shtick.
That last one was me, and I have used that trick a few times in India. I don’t understand your culture, what is a line, my eyes and body language say, as I pretend I don’t understand the immaculate English explanation that I’ve received and I magically end up at the front of the queue. In Bangalore that trick almost got me smote with a lathi. I don’t try that trick in Bangalore, or anywhere. Now I will accept the failings of the system, as I do in the rest of the world with their failed systems. Bangalore, and the fear of corporal punishment cured me.
People in Bangalore are cool. They have tattoos, the kind of hairstyles English footballers have, and they wear intentionally ripped jeans. They sit around western venues smoking or sipping their overpriced drinks (when I order Old Monk in Bangalore, my local friends get embarrassed) and pretending to be in interesting conversations while a pub like Bootleggers plays the music so loud (I mean what the heck, Bangalore, turn the damn sound down, no one is dancing) that you can’t hear anything anyway.
It is nothing like the other cities I know. I remember going to a cool bar in Kolkata once; it looked like the sort of stylized inner city bar in London or New York. It had a Foosball table, a big screen, and items that had been recycled to become bar like items. But it also had two women who I couldn’t quite work out. The people in the bar were obviously educated and middle-class Indians in jeans and T-shirts, trying to look effortlessly cool.
But these two women, they weren’t dressed right. They didn’t have on tight jeans and western T-shirts, they weren’t on their smartphones most of the evening, and they didn’t talk at all. Instead, they were dressed way too glamorous compared to everyone else and when they used their smartphones they used them for calls, not WhatsApp.
But here is the thing, it was evident that these women weren’t talking to anyone, because they didn’t speak on the phone. They just held it to their ears (it looked like it was off), and if someone in the bar went over to where they were, they sort of gracefully, like a small flock of birds or two synchronized swimmers made their way out of there. And they did it all night.
My friend from Kolkata was with me, and eventually, obsessed by these flightless soundless birdlike creatures. I asked, “What the f***, has the bar paid for them to be here?” He just smiled and nodded. I knew I wasn’t in Bangalore.
In new Indian cities, I give them 24 hours to prove to me that they’re in Bangalore’s league. I try to keep an open mind (except for you Ranchi, sorry, I’d heard too many bad things). On this trip, I left Bangalore in the morning, caught the train to Chennai, and was there for the afternoon. I was starving, and all I wanted was Chennai seafood, but all the places close to me were shut between 3-7. That seemed nothing like the cool and breezy Bangalore.
So I went to Dominos. One of my favorite things ever is a scene from the Disney film Million Dollar Arm where the kids have never seen pizza before, and there is a Pizza Hut opposite the Disney office in Bangalore. I have been to that Pizza Hut and a few Dominos on my desperate-for-Western-food days in India (I don’t eat either in any other country). So I figured this was one of them and I would just have a cheeky little pepperoni pizza today, and then smash all of Chennai’s seafood afterwards.
When my pizza came, the pepperoni looked weird, and by weird, I mean the color of a corpse in a Gornography film. I said to the waiter that I was unsure if this was pepperoni or it was in any slight way pepperoni. “Yes, it’s chicken salami.” Now forgetting for a moment that there is no such thing as chicken salami, no, sorry, don’t forget it, there is no such thing as chicken pepperoni.
That night, while at what I mistook for a decent pub, I stepped out for a minute to dump my bag in my hotel. I had been drinking at this “pub” for three hours while working, now I wanted just to drink. And when I came back, they would not allow me in as I had shorts. I’d had shorts on for the previous three hours too, of course. The day after I was waiting for an Uber outside the MRF Pace Academy offices, I was set upon by a boy and his monkey (no euphemisms here). I have visited Bangalore more than any other Indian city; I ain’t never seen no monkey.
This could be just subjective bias, rather than objective facts, but it was clear to me that Chennai is no Bangalore. Neither is Kolkata (which I love), Mumbai (which I enjoy), Pune, Cochin, Mohali, Delhi, Ranchi, Dharamsala and Nagpur.
There is a pub in Bangalore called Plan B. It is near my office there. I like Plan B a lot. They put ginormous self-pouring beer things on your table. They are an outdoor indoor kinda place, they have big arse bison burgers, and you are not in a touristy part of town. It is clearly put together by someone who understands modern bar culture, resplendent with ironic old signs on the walls. It is my Bangalore local.
I went there one day. It was at the end of a fairly long season for me; I’d gone straight from the Ashes to South Africa and was now in India. It was the sort of end of season drinking session that can get out of control. With me was an English nuclear science professor, a Chennai games designer, two Mumbai filmmakers and a Texas gymnastics teacher. The drinking got quickly out of control. You cannot self-regulate when you can pour your own drinks, and that is exactly what happened. We lost the English professor and the Texas gymnast, and we drank on strong until the entire bar had started to close down.
They stayed open for us, because it was worth it for them.
I remember a few conversations about the time bars could be open from my many times in Bangalore. Sometimes it was 11 pm and sometimes around 1 am. There was some kind of war between the hip drinkers and the strict thinkers, but I’d never paid much attention to it. This night was clearly a 1 am closing night, and we were drinking toward it.
It wasn’t even 11 yet, and this guy came in. I realized that he was the real deal. He looked military. He had that slow style of walking that made everyone realize how important he was. Plus a police military-style officer uniform. I was still a drunken buffoon, but my friends made the sign that I should settle down a bit. The hand gesture that tells you to sit in your place and stop making loud sarcastic comments about someone who can put you in jail. This guy inspected the bar like he was a general inspecting troops, and the bar staff, so casual and fun five minutes earlier, looked like frightened sycophants.
Midway through his pompous, self-important strut, this guy stopped at the famous Heineken sign of a baby drinking a beer. He stopped there, looked at the manager, said something, and the manager took the sign down. It was obviously an ironic poster of a bygone era when you could advertise beer this way, but this policeman wasn’t going to be listening to any arguments about irony. He said one more thing, and the manager told us we were now closing.
I remember it so clearly as the only time I thought this isn’t Bangalore, this is India.