Pune: ambling slowly towards metro-hood
Like thousands of young professionals in metros, the covid-19 lockdown sent me scurrying back to my hometown. I had resigned myself to a lifetime of paying (ever-increasing) rents in Mumbai but here was some unexpected relief. As Pune was gradually “unlocked”, I got the chance to rediscover a place I had not lived in since my college days. Old drab neighbourhoods seemed to have come alive. The restaurants, cafés and bars that lined the streets of Kothrud and Erandwane seemed to match their south Bombay counterparts. Old Pune seemed to have embraced a much more modern tone.
Growing up, going out meant going to the local Udupi restaurant. The first Café Coffee Day branch opened around the time I was in class XI and gathered lines of college kids in the initial days. Restaurants and bars, however, were largely confined to tony areas like Koregaon Park, far from my house. Parental guilt about spending kept me well away from watering holes, as did the absence of a dating life. Pune seemed small, boring, a city I couldn’t wait to get out of. Little did I imagine I would be longing to return 10 years later—and the transformation that would await me.
“A lot of the restaurants and cafés that were earlier confined to particular localities like Koregaon Park have spread out across the city, including residential neighbourhoods. That’s a welcome change. Pune is quite cosmopolitan that way. You will find restaurants serving, say, meat and fish, in fairly orthodox neighbourhoods and doing great business there,” explains Gouri Dange, a writer and food columnist based in Pune. “The things that set Pune apart—its weather and low crime—have been there for a long time. What’s new is a spreading out of commerce, driven by yet more educational institutions and IT companies coming up,” she adds.
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The proliferation reflects an underlying economic reality: Pune is growing wealthier. I speak to Aditi Watve, city head-Pune, ANAROCK Property Consultants, about this. “The gentrification of neighbourhoods is simply a result of the original inhabitants of old Pune becoming more prosperous,” she says. Watve does not connect it to IT or auto, the industries that have driven Pune’s economy for several decades. “IT and auto workers buy homes close to IT districts rather than the old centre of Pune,” she says. Instead, Watve sees a city that is growing upwards after years of spreading outwards. “Two shifts, in my opinion, are ‘re-centralising’ the city. First, floor space index rules which earlier encouraged integrated townships to be built outside the core city areas are now more favourable to building in central areas. Second, the Pune Metro will bring some demand back to the city centre,” she says. To these two forces, covid-19 may have added a third—dislocated workers from metros.
Hirwai Garden Path, a narrow strip of green connecting the busy Prabhat and Bhandarkar Roads, is a revelation. The path winds between the backyards of old bungalows, giving walkers a glimpse of beautifully maintained gardens. The route ends at the back gate of the Fergusson College campus, where more determined strollers can continue through the college’s British-era buildings. I walk with Neeraj Thakare, a fellow covid-19 returnee, to the IMDR canteen in the green leafy setting of the campus that offers Puneri chaha (tea) for ₹20 and poha for ₹25.
Thakare, a 30-something data scientist, returned to Pune after a 15-year stint in Mumbai and Bengaluru. He sees slow change. “The same man delivers milk and papers to my house as the one we had growing up. My neighbourhood has seen some transformation but it remains the middle-class Maharashtrian locality it always was. Yes, a lot of cafés and bars have come up but not on the scale of Bengaluru. Pune, I think, has been able to digest the change because of how slow it has been,” he says.
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Some of the city’s evolution has been led by its most famous residents. The Pune International Centre (PIC) was founded by Raghunath Mashelkar, former director general of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, and Vijay Kelkar, a former finance secretary in the Union government, among others. “We started PIC about 10 years ago, modelled on New Delhi’s India International Centre. We wanted to create a space for free discussion of ideas, music, art and more. Alongside the space, we wanted to create a public policy think tank, which uses Pune’s vast intellectual capital and traditions as well as its large pool of educational institutions. Remember, this is the city of intellectual giants like Jyotiba Phule, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Justice Ranade,” says Kelkar.
As I write this piece, the city has gone into lockdown again. Residents can only step out for essential work and Pune is recording close to 11,000 new cases a day. The cafés and restaurants I discovered have been closed.
Once the disease recedes, its covid-19 returnees too may have to make their way back. I expect at some point to be called back to India’s financial capital until my hometown becomes big enough in sectors such as media. A hyperloop project between Pune and Mumbai, which will use magnetic levitation for a super-fast commute, is reportedly being planned. But until then, a slow amble towards metro-hood rather than a furious dash may well be just the thing for Pune.
Old-world charm, yet modern: Bhubaneswar is finding its voice
The longer you have lived outside Bhubaneswar, the more you realise how much you missed it when you were away. College, then a job, took me away from home, and before I knew it, a decade had passed. My husband and I had always thought of settling in our hometown at some time in the future. Thanks to covid-19, what we had thought of doing in, say, 10 years happened last October.
We moved from Mumbai to Bhubaneswar mainly because we were worried about our parents, who found it hard to manage during the lockdown. I was worried about giving up my job but fortunately, two weeks before we were to move back, I got one with a local startup. My husband’s office has allowed people to continue working from home.
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For the past decade, we had never been in Bhubaneswar for more than a week at a time, spending most of those short vacations at home or visiting relatives. Now that we were back for good, we began to explore the city and discover what had changed.
It’s no longer a place with patchy internet and undependable public transport, without malls or multiplexes, where the only hangout was the local Café Coffee Day or chaat corners. The government has been trying to turn the state into a tourist destination and that means the capital has got a facelift. The city is cleaner, and people take pride in keeping it that way. Public transport has improved, with many new routes and air-conditioned buses—and more people use it now.
Older localities such as Old Town, which has many temples, have been beautified. Heritage walks are being conducted; there is a musical fountain, and a mall. So there’s a touch of modernity, though the city still exudes an old-world charm. Bhubaneswar never had an apartment culture but that’s changing. The rental rates are more or less on a par with Pune or Hyderabad, where I have lived. There are organic salad bars. Home chefs and cloud kitchens have gained popularity. Rooftop cafés have live music gigs. Bhubaneswar has a nightlife now!
It’s not just me. When I speak with friends who have returned due to the pandemic, they feel the same. Professional opportunities are improving. Earlier, I couldn’t have got a job here in my line of work. Over the past few years, startups and firms have set up offices, giving people like me a chance to come home. Over the last few years, Mumbai has increasingly seemed too crowded. I wanted a slower pace, peace and a sense of community, along with the amenities of a big city. Suddenly, I realise that my hometown, Bhubaneswar, checks all these boxes.
Ankita Mohanty is a communications professional at a dairy startup.
-As told to Rashmi Menon.
Also read part II of the story: Rediscovering home in the pandemic