by Hari Balasubramanian
My parents live in a two-bedroom flat at the northern end of Bangalore, in a town called Yelahanka. They moved in 2002, two years after I left for grad school in the United States. Over the last fifteen years, as I've continued to live abroad, Yelahanka has become the somewhat unfamiliar home in India, experienced every two years but no more than a few weeks at a time, and always changing each time I visited.
Once a town with a history of its own, Bangalore's explosive growth over the last few decades made Yelahanka part of the greater city. In 2005, when I came to renew my student visa, the highway outside my parents' flat complex, the Bangalore-Bellary road, was being widened in preparation for the new international airport twenty kilometers north. The city seemed then to be splitting at its outer limits: earthmovers raking up heaps of rubble on the roadsides; laborers patiently striking heavy hammers to break existing concrete structures; and uprooted trunks and roots of what had once been massive trees, caked with the red earth of the depths from which they had been dug up. A study based on satellite imagery revealed that Bangalore, once called Garden City for its beautiful parks and tree-lined boulevards, lost 180 square kilometers of its green cover from 2000-2006.
The new airport got going in 2008. A flyover – a separate airport access road to bypass local traffic – was constructed about 50 feet above, supported by giant pillars. In Yelahanka, these pillars landed on the lower road, splitting it in two. Instead of making things easier, the flyover for a long time felt like a major obstruction to the locals, blocking the view, and reducing access to public buses. The traffic, always notorious in India – an ever present cacophony of honks, a jostling for every inch of space between motorbikes, auto rickshaws and newly acquired cars – only got worse as drivers adjusted to the new u-turns and flows.
Eight years later, things have settled down somewhat. The road from the airport to Yelahanka now has billboards encouraging the wealthy to purchase luxury high-rises that seem to be popping up everywhere. A couple of kilometers farther south are new malls, showrooms, glass fronted buildings of software firms and multi-specialty hospitals. Meanwhile, around the edges of these new developments, the older sections of Yelahanka continue undisturbed: a maze of narrow streets densely packed with homes, roadside businesses, vendor stalls, places of worship, with activities proceeding in an unstructured fashion and at a frenetic pace.
Last August, as I strolled through various parts of town, I kept feeling that there is something very different about Indian neighborhoods when compared to the places I'd lived and visited around the world. But what are those differences exactly? The contrasts with American towns, not surprisingly, are the sharpest. Yelahanka is supposed to be a suburb, but the word suburb in the United States conjures up quiet streets with rows of single family homes, lawns, and parking garages; the mismatch could not be greater. Even the most crowded boroughs of New York City, parts of Brooklyn and Queens, are not quite like their Indian counterparts. Then there are the economically deprived towns across the US with their hollowed out buildings, vacant lots, potholed roads, grasses seeping back into the cracks of pavements – there are some surface infrastructural similarities, but such American towns lack the population densities and thriving small businesses that even smaller Indian towns have.
Other parts of the world come a lot closer: the backstreets of the suburbs of Seoul, Hong Kong and Istanbul, market streets of Oaxaca in southern Mexico, and particularly Yogyakarta in Indonesia. Still, the combination of chaotic traffic and small-scale entrepreneurship gives the Yelahanka-like neighborhoods of India a distinct feel.
Take the bustling side of the road outside my parents' flat complex. This is not a neatly marked pavement dedicated to pedestrians, rather it's an unpaved gray zone that ends up being shared by pedestrians, by vehicles that encroach on it to get ahead of the traffic, by public and private buses that swerve in suddenly to drop off and pick up waiting passengers, and by the vendors and informal businesses that have set themselves up along the edge. (There's also plastic litter everywhere despite the best efforts of the BBMP staff to sort trash and keep things clean — this is another feature of Indian streets that I did not find in other developing countries, say in Guatemala or Peru, but I won't get into that in this column.)
The first business to the right is a small tire repair shed. No more than ten feet long and wide, it's a very basic, low-overhead kind of structure. Tires of various sizes and kinds are strewn all around. A lady with a thick ledger sits outside the shed with a pen, keeping accounts; she could be the owner. It's a busy place. A truck or van or auto-rickshaw driver is always looking for a repair. But you'll find absolutely no record of this bustling place online. It's one of the many ‘off-the-grid' businesses: businesses that in a western town would be marked on a map, licensed, reviewed, and taxed, but in Yelahanka are simply part of local knowledge. Google Maps features a blank space along this stretch of the road, but this misses the all the entrepreneurial activity that takes place. Farther down the same stretch, a blacksmith offers his services beneath a square piece of tarpaulin that serves as a roof. In the center of the square patch is a coal pit to heat metal; next to it, an anvil for banging metal into shape.
And so it goes on along the edge of the road: one informal business after another. A woman in her sixties who in the narrow space of a porch sells idlies in the morning and vadas in the afternoon at rates far cheaper than restaurants; a street vendor who positions his food cart outside a small liquor shop, so that the men who come to have surreptitious drink – unlike bars, these liquor shops have no music or social fanfare, drinking here appears to be a personal affair – can purchase the snacks to go with the alcohol.
The macro numbers only seem to confirm this. India has one of the higher rates of informal sector employment in the world. By definition, these are businesses that are small, easy to set up and dismantle, and do not take up much space. If you are interested in getting a visual sense of how such businesses operate, take a look at this YouTube video, created by Isha Gajjar. It captures numerous street vendors near the main bus station of Yelahanka. I've walked through this part of town many times.
Even the formal businesses in Yelahanka are quite specialized and diverse. There is a small shop, for example, that focuses only on selling varieties of rice; there is a machine shop called GSS Engineering Works which does lathe-based machining; and there are houses from which there comes a clattering sound, as if printing presses are churning out newspapers. But the noise, my parents noted, could also be due to looms: Yelahanka has been known for the quality of its weaving industries for two centuries.
The distinction between the formal and the informal applies to religious places too. In the older sections of Yelahanka and you'll find Hindu temples that span the entire range: from the larger ones with well constructed gopurams (the main structure), to those that you wouldn't formally consider as temples, but nevertheless serve a religious purpose, for example, the base of a tree with a wide, shade-providing canopy where a few idols have been placed; or a simple ochre-colored stone relief by the side of a pathway, accessible to everyone, the relief showing only the abstract outlines of a deity, a few fresh flowers offered by those who sit beside it and pray. Similarly, in the Muslim quarter of Yelahanka, there is a mosque whose prayer calls wake me up before dawn and which everyone knows about, but there is also, not far away, an unnoticed Sufi shrine, a single story structure painted green and with the title "Hazrat Buddhan Shah Wali".
Streets in the old section don't go in straight lines but rather curve and intersect in complex ways. With each random turn, I would discover something new. A utensil shop here, a ladies tailor shop there, a roadside shrine elsewhere. So it goes on and on! To understand this spatial distribution, it might help to consider the following contrast. In supermarkets and shopping malls, we find a dizzying range of catalogued products delivered from various parts of the world, all concentrated in one large air-conditioned room or one large building. Now imagine a more local kind of diversity, a similarly wide range of services, products and places of worship, but spread out in nooks and corners and edges of roads, not catalogued and searchable online, and which can only be known by living there and by learning what the locals know. This is what the older sections of Yelahanka are like.
Finally, a few words about the Yelahanka Lake. If I haven't mentioned the lake yet, it is because the traffic, crowds and the maze of streets are always front and center, and it requires effort to look beyond them and notice the natural beauty of the region. Luckily, from the ninth floor balcony of my parents' flat, I've always been able to glimpse the lake and the adjacent high-grass meadow where the cows graze throughout the day, their feet half sunk in the boggy soil. All kinds of migratory birds visit the region's lakes, which is why the neighboring Puttenahalli Lake has been protected as a sanctuary.
Last year, I noticed that the Yelahanka Lake had more water, and a concrete walkway had been constructed along its outer circumference. The plan is to have a boating dock for residents of an unfinished luxury high-rise at the opposite bank. Maybe this will also turn into a thoroughfare eventually. But for now, a walk along that newly constructed lake-side walkway provides an unexpected and calming counterpoint. Rather than say much about it, I'll close by providing a few pictures.