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The City and the Writer: In Bangalore with Madhuri Vijay

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Bangalore as you feel/see it?

Bangalore—it is now called Bengaluru, but I find the old name hard to give up—was a small, sleepy cantonment town that woke up one day to find it had become a booming metropolis. It has done its best to adapt to its shiny new avatar but it cannot shed its former self entirely, and so always present—on every crammed street, inside every glass-walled skyscraper, tucked into the din of a thousand vehicles—is that same sleepy old town with its pastel bungalows, temperate weather, and yearning for siesta.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Growing up, the flowering of the gulmohar was one of the highlights of my year. When those fleshy orange flowers fell, it was as though the streets were on fire. They’re all but gone now, the gulmohars, cut down for the sake of easing the traffic for which Bangalore is increasingly infamous, and their huge stumps, mangled yet still dignified, are hard to look at. All the more so because the gulmohars seem to me emblematic of everything Bangalore has lost in the last few decades.  


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

That the monsoon rains always begin at four o’clock in the evening. On the dot, like someone tapped a switch. Of course, this detail may have gone unnoticed simply because it’s my own invention and not actually true, but that doesn’t bother me.  


What writer(s) from here should we read?

U. R. Ananthamurthy (who was instrumental in the renaming of Bangalore to Bengaluru), Vivek Shanbhag, and Shashi Deshpande.


Is there a place here you return to often?

Left to myself, I tend to stay close to home whenever I return to Bangalore. Perhaps this is because I’m afraid to find out how little I know my own city anymore, or, worse, how little I ever knew it. Luckily, my best friend, who is more attuned to the shifting pulse of Bangalore than anyone I know, drags me out from time to time. Thanks to her, I see the latest plays, eat at hole-in-the-wall restaurants, explore unfamiliar neighborhoods. Each time I go back, she reveals to me some new aspect of the place in which we grew up together. She is my link to the past and, more crucially, to an alternate version of the present, to the life I might have had if I’d stayed. As for a particular place I return to, there’s a demolition company on St. John’s Road that owns a godown filled with items salvaged from old houses they tear down. It’s a wonderful place, filled with everything from lamps to spoons to doors to pianos, and I love poking around to see what new oddities I can find.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Blossoms and Higginbotham’s are time-honored local bookstores and always worth a visit. Koshy’s is a historic yet unfussy café/restaurant where historians, writers, politicians, journalists, theater personae, and students have gathered to drink and debate for over half a century. I also love Bangalore’s itinerant footpath booksellers, men with fifty or so books spread out on a plastic sheet in the middle of a busy pedestrian walkway. There are fewer and fewer of them left these days, but when I was growing up, they were everywhere. The books they sold were illegal, xeroxed from the originals and poorly bound. Sometimes a dozen pages would be missing from the middle, or entire chapters would be printed upside down. I’m not defending book piracy, of course, but I can’t help but feel some pride in those little pavement enterprises. What better gauge of literature’s status and ubiquity in a society, after all, than having the ground literally strewn with books?


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Bangalore has a number of ancient temples, most of them now hidden by a proliferating mass of cellphone shops, apartment buildings, Internet cafés, and shoe stores. As you’re passing on the street, you may catch a glimpse of an intricately carved gopuram rising from behind a tangle of electric wires, and it is as though you’ve dropped through a fissure in time—back to the tenth or the twelfth or the sixteenth century. To be clear, these are not fusty museums or carefully cordoned-off monuments but active temples that continue to be used by hundreds of worshippers daily.


Where does passion live here?

There are more and more people organizing their energies around environmental causes, which I find very exciting. Bangalore, the erstwhile Garden City, has been subject to rapid and unchecked urban development in the last four decades. As a result, it has lost nearly ninety percent of its tree cover, and its once-pristine lakes now spew an alarming, toxic, white foam. Bangaloreans have always known that our city’s very character—its gentle, temperate disposition—is tied to its abundant natural wealth, and so there is a real sense of urgency about restoring the latter to save the former.


What is the title of one of your works about Bangalore and what inspired it exactly?

My novel, The Far Field, is set partly in Bangalore, but the irony is that it is narrated by a woman who has never lived elsewhere and in whose mind the city is so familiar that she barely notices it. To her, Bangalore is home and therefore invisible. It would have been disingenuous to have imbued her with my émigré’s homesickness, forced her to describe the city detail by detail, like some overzealous tour guide.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Bangalore does an outside exist?”

What a complicated question! For a person in my position, having lived away for more than ten years, Bangalore can itself seem like it exists on the outside, as difficult as this is for me to admit. Or rather, I am the one on the outside of Bangalore, cut off from it spatially and temporally, while at the same time not quite being on the inside of anywhere else. A doubled outside-ness, if you will. Some part of me will always mourn the loss.


Madhuri Vijay was born and raised in Bangalore. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, and her writing has appeared in Best American Non-Required Reading, Narrative Magazine, and Salon, among other publications. Her debut novel, The Far Field, was published in 2019 by Grove Atlantic in the US, Grove Press in the UK, and Harper Collins in India. 

Published Jun 19, 2019   Copyright 2019 Nathalie Handal

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