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Seeking Amits in Bengaluru’s ‘Kor-mangle’

Even as a photo project tries to address the hostility associated with the North Indian male, Lounge looks at initiatives that help see Bengaluru as a city of migrants

Locked into your own experience, it’s probably easier to blame the outsider for the city’s infrastructure issues and changing identity.
Locked into your own experience, it’s probably easier to blame the outsider for the city’s infrastructure issues and changing identity. (Photo: AP)

Horrormangala", “Forumangala", “Kor-mangle"—these are just a few of the epithets used to refer to a Bengaluru neighbourhood that’s also celebrated as the startup hub of India: Koramangala. The rude names come from its notorious traffic snarls and shoddy infrastructure and, in the case of “Forumangala", its soaring commercial value—Forum is an old neighbourhood shopping mall that still acts as a landmark for people brave enough to venture there. And even though newer localities spreading ever-outward from the city also draw gasps of horror from old-timers—the distance! The traffic!—Koramangala continues to be a convenient stand-in for many of the tensions that exist in this city of close to 13 million people. The idea of Bangalore as it was till the IT boom in the 1990s can only be described in clichés such as “leafy avenues", “balmy weather", “AC city". But the city as it is today—a loud, chaotic urban mess—can still sometimes take your breath away as you round a corner and find yourself at a sun-dappled lake.

Unfortunately, there are no lakes in Koramangala any more. There was one, and it was swallowed when the neighbourhood was expanding to make way for a residential layout. “Someone like very likely to use Koramangala as an example for all that is wrong with the city’s recent accelerated growth," writes quizzer Thejaswi Udupa in his column in the Deccan Herald on Bengaluru neighbourhoods. Having grown up in the city, Udupa, who is in his 30s, has seen it change at a hectic pace and in a way that’s probably unique to Bengaluru.

The scale and rate of growth—the population has grown by nearly nine million since 1991—has been bewildering for many of the city’s older residents who saw their beloved parks and lakes and gardens being turned into malls and shiny office buildings. Unlike the perhaps more pragmatic residents of Delhi or Mumbai, Bengalureans continue to be sentimental about these markers—older residents recall a time when it was possible to give directions by using trees as landmarks: take right at the gulmohar, go straight till you find the flowering pink...

With an estimated 50% of the population described as “migrants" in the last census of 2011, the sense of loss has occasionally turned into a sense of anger towards the outsider—the perennial other. Last year, an Uber driver sent me a text by mistake—it was meant for his previous passenger with whom he had had some altercation over payment—saying “get out north Indian".

Overt hostility is usually not the “Bangalore way" but simmering resentments over how their once-quiet neighbourhood has changed, how their language seems to be disappearing, sometimes do bubble over. And locked into your own experience, it’s probably easier to blame the outsider than the corrupt politicians of your city who are ultimately responsible for its degradation.

The Memory Maps project by urban historian and writer Aliyeh Rizvi, founder of Native Place, which works to create awareness of Bengaluru’s local history and culture through curated experiences, walks and travel writing, is an attempt to build an understanding of what it means to have memories of a place and to belong to it. “Some of the ideas we ask participants to unpack are ‘who is a neighbour?’, ‘what makes a community?’. And we ask them to record if theirs is a story of loss, or of change," says Rizvi. “We are deeply distressed by the sense of animosity, isolation and anonymity that have emerged between communities in the city, and this project is an attempt to bridge those gaps."

The ongoing project is Rizvi and artist Arzu Mistry’s labour of love, and it sprang from the idea that everyone builds memories of places they live in, whether they have belonged for 30 years or three days. “It started with us asking the question—does city identity influence individual identity? How does place impact identity? We did workshops at Cubbon Park and Rangoli Metro Art Centre, and received some marvellous responses. And we came to an understanding that memories and experiences are not just ‘old’ ones—someone who arrived in the neighbourhood a week ago has a week’s worth of memories," says Rizvi.

Rizvi and Mistry undertake “memory mapping" walks—they have covered areas such as Malleswaram, JP Nagar and Richmond Town and are planning to venture into Sadashivnagar and Vyalikaval in north Bengaluru next. During these walks, a group of 30 residents strolls around the neighbourhood, exchanging memories of various spots and notes on their lives in the area. At the end of the walk, they go to a quiet place and “draw" these memories on a map. The duo is planning to cover 10 neighbourhoods by the end of the year and eventually come out with a book documenting the experience.

Conservation architect Krupa Rajangam has spent 10 years studying Bengaluru neighbourhoods. During the course of her project (conducted between 2010-20), Neighbourhood Diaries, done in collaboration with Jaaga, a creative community space, Rajangam studied several fast-evolving neighbourhoods like Whitefield and Malleswaram which had a rich history—Whitefield as the Anglo-Indian bastion and Malleswaram as a traditional upper-caste hub. It took the form of oral history interviews, videos, talks and articles, and though most people spoke of loss and longing—for heritage and a certain way of life—Rajangam has come around to the view that people like her need to take “their blinkers off and see who is speaking for whom".

“I have learnt not to see it as destruction of heritage or culture but to understand that what people value is a reflection of what they seek or what they like to be identified with. I might see something as heritage but somebody else might not...what is destruction to me might be the means to a better life for someone else," she says.

While acknowledging the many tensions within Bengaluru—not just between the “old" and the “new" but those arising from differences in language, place of origin and income levels —Rajangam feels there are also many aspects that bind its residents. “At the level of individual neighbourhoods, people share similar concerns over the challenges of day-to-day life, irrespective of the tensions. The tensions also come into place over attempts to ascribe a singular identity to the city. The diversity of its neighbourhoods attests to the fact that the city was never singular—that’s what has made it attractive to many people."

For writer-editor and media entrepreneur Gaurav Jain, who has recently embarked on a photography project under a grant from India Foundation for the Arts Project 560, the sense of isolation and hostility has come to be embodied in the shadowy figure of the north Indian male who has migrated to the city and supposedly remains clueless about it and its culture.

Titled “How da, Amit", the year-long project involves Jain photographing and interviewing north Indian men living in Bengaluru whose first names are Amit. Why “Amit"? That is a reference to a meme of vague origin that sprang up on blogs and social media sometime in the past decade as a shorthand for a “brash north Indian male" in Bengaluru/Chennai. “Amits"—they could be a co-worker, a neighbour, a carpool partner—are often unpopular in Bengaluru, and their otherization is a fascinating subject of study that can tell us a lot about who is seen as belonging to the city and who isn’t (and why).

Through his photo project, Jain seeks to humanize the random Amits of Bengaluru and “explore the subjects’ sense (or lack) of inhabiting this idea of one monolithic, homogeneous north Indian identity in a fast-changing Bangalore". Jain also plans to maintain an Instagram account for Amits in Bengaluru to publish an image of their favourite activity or space in the city. “The project is not about ‘victims’ or about feeling sorry for Amits. It’s really about turning the stereotype of random Amits upside down by exploring and presenting the Amitness of Bengaluru instead. It’s important to explore what makes Bengaluru this great city of and for immigrants. There is friction, but there is also what works. I think what art can do is present the larger picture of what makes the city so open and welcoming for the so-called aggressive and obnoxious ‘Amits’, many of whom are thoughtfully making a nest here, building this city, calling it their home. The cool thing about Amits, about north Indians, here is that we are also assimilating our energy into Bengaluru," says Jain.

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