Bangalore – First Impressions

February 3, 2009

in General Interest, india

On my recently completed trip to India, I made my third trip to Bangalore. This time, my visit was different and I was there for  a few days.  I’ve written previous posts on India and doing research there. I’ve also encouraged visitors to look beyond the oft traveled routes. If you don’t, you might get the following impression.

Imagine for a moment you are a US exec arriving in Bangalore and visiting India for the first time. You’ve traveled at least 20 hours to get here and could probably have had a stopover at Mumbai or Delhi where you traded planes. That experience would have been a little hair raising as neither international airport is all that good. Mumbai is better (and you can see it will be very “international” when finished)  and certainly so on the domestic side. Still you managed your connection and then headed on to Bangalore where you arrive in a spanking new airport.

When I say new airport it is totally new, built some fifty kms (30 miles) out of town. It’s got glassy, high ceilings, and is clean, modern etc. It could in fact be anywhere in the world. Luggage is delivered quickly and it’s easy to find your way to the taxis waiting outside. The temperature at this time of year was perfect.

You jump into a new Renault Logan (a low cost global car design) that’s roomy enough to sit in the back. There’s nothing old in the taxi line, they all look the same. So far, I feel I could have been almost anywhere. The taxi starts heading out from the airport. Soon we are traveling 80kph and we are on a relatively empty (I landed on Republic Day, a holiday) dual carriage way heading into Bangalore.

While we stop every so often at traffic lights, within the hour we are passing through MG Rd (where there is some construction work for the upcoming city metro) and then heading towards the hotel. On the whole trip to the hotel all the roads were dual carriageway. (I know this is very very unusual). The hotel is  brand new. It is opposite a huge new business park whose tenants include Dell, KPMG and Sony and whose signs are prominently displayed across the street. The Paul Hotel is up an unfinished dirt road where other houses are being built. It wasn’t particularly busy as hotels go and this was a surprise to me. The hotel again, very international, new, nicely designed if a little cold or sterile. Definitely a fit with the modern “tech center”.

I went out to lunch at a nice Indian Restaurant called Bon South. South Indian food and a buffet was being served. The cab dropped us  and again the decor was modern and contemporary. Like at the hotel there was free WiFi in the restaurant.

Later the same day I found myself at the “Forum” a new mega mall of many storeys. Not dissimilar to malls that have now been built all over India. I ended up in a Cafe Coffee Days (they are killing Barista in India) and got my coffee and conversation fix. Again I reached for my iPhone and there was free WiFi.

Now if my visit had followed the course of this hypothetical US-based, here-for-a-brief-visit visitor, and this is all I had seen before going to the office across the road tomorrow, I might think that wifi is everywhere in India, that the economy is booming and people don’t live that differently to the way they do back home. That could well be true if one of their exec’s took them home or entertained them further.

This really bothered me the whole time I was in Bangalore. I even wonder what the “orientation” is for visiting first time exec’s no matter what the seniority is when visiting India. If Bangalore like this was my only experience of India I’d leave thinking everyone can get access to the internet, that new roads are coming (even traffic seemed okay!!!) I’d probably jump to the wrong conclusions and make the wrong decisions. While I make many of my observations in relation to tech and mobile products this same experience would enable mistakes to be made about who you can hire, what the costs are etc.

I also learned about “Filter Coffee or Kaapi” prepared the Bangalore way and went to the traditional Coffee House right next to the newspaper office at MG Road. This place had the patina and grime of ages and ages. With a little work and budget it could be quite an ‘in’ place to be.

At least I knew the water had been boiled and boiled! I think the same clientele had been coming here for ages.

On the way back to the airport, the cab driver gave me the run down on the changes the airport is wrenching. Conned to go the back road way (a little longer – faster he says – costs 200 Rupees more) the run down on the farming communities that are being replaced by the airport. The ex farmers who are now driving Tata Safari’s and have a motorcycle as well as driving into their little local villages. Then a ramble about the Punjabi’s and Gujaratis moving in from the north and buying up the land, turning it over and making profits and then building new houses at the same time. And how the locals are just enjoying their new-found wealth and throwing it away, rather than putting it to work for them. All reported with some lament on how life has changed.

Indeed it has. Bangalore is changing and from all reports I didn’t even get close to seeing some of the new communities (although I’ve also seen pictures of the very US-like housing developments). There’s not the radical impact of building a whole city from the ground up like I lived through and saw in Gurgaon. Yet the pressure of progress is all around.

My point here is…. this progress, this  sense that it is all modern (or soon will be) is just on the surface… almost like “window dressing”. If you really want to know what India is about don’t start in Bangalore and make sure it is more than a fleeting visit. Plus if your “exec” returns from a Bangalore only visit to India and thinks they know all about it… well send them back because they know enough to make dangerous assumptions. In my view Bangalore is fascinating. It’s just not the best place to learn about India and for many companies it is where their execs learn about India.

Note. I made two quick day visits to Bangalore before the new Airport was opened and all I can remember was the traffic!

  • Stuart

    It was so lovely to meet you and now to read your account of your visit to Bangalore. I lived there in 1995-96 and where I return periodically to see family and friends.

    My impressions of Bangalore’s new airport and the road were similar to yours. They are impressive to say the least. Then about 2h40min later, when I arrived at my family’s home, I had tired of the air-conditioning and only wanted to sleep seeing as I had woken at an ungodly hour in Mumbai to take the flight. That is a major drawback of the airport – no transport links and as I found on my way out of BLR, not enough capacity either at check-in or airside. I think I duly tweeted it all.

    That said, old Bangalore has its charms intact although sadly the locals do not participate so much in the new economy. Some time if you are in BLR, at the same time as me, I would love to take you around into Bangalore’s gardens and old city.

    And on free Wi-Fi, you are absolutely right. I had stayed in what one of my blog-readers, an American living in South India, calls ‘Five Star India’, for a week before I reached Bangalore. I paid hand over fist for wireless web access both in the Taj and in Four Seasons in Delhi and Mumbai, much to my annoyance.

    Hope we will meet again some time soon.

    PS: I see you had ‘meter kaapi’ so called because when you pour the small glass into the bowl, you do so from the height of a meter, creating the froth on the surface 🙂

  • I am a South Indian and I must say your post is intriguing enough to captivate a renewed interest in the city if Bangalore…. it is recession days after all..

  • hey Stuart,
    The phweet call with you was something I will always remember and I do follow your updates on twitter very regularly. Its great I have twitter in control and I am very choosy of allowing people to follow me and the people I follow there. 🙂
    Oh yeah, after a long time I found a foreign national writing something good about India. LOL
    (Normally every1 writes about traffic, chaos, lack of roads, slums, dirt, filth and many more things about India). I have not been to Bangalore for a while now. The last time I was there was 3 years back & that too because my younger brother studied in 1 of the top institutions of India there. The IISc. (Indian Institute of Science), but even I am amazed that you know what “real India” is. Slumdog Millionaire shows it.
    The richest and the most powerful people reside in Mumbai. The actors, the businessmen, CEOs. (After all its the financial capital of India) and we have Asia’s (probably world’s biggest) slums there only.

    India is full of complete opposites. Glad you know that well. buit even more glad that you had a good time in India. Would love to meet sometime later when you drop in again.

  • Rohan

    Hey Stuart….

    What you’ve written is getting to be typical of a lot of Indian cities these days. Last year I flew to Gurgaon to attend a client meeting, and I was amazed to say the least by that city. The high speed expressway teeeming with tens thousands of cars, the huge gleaming glass and steel office blocks that line up the skyline, … it all made for a scene stright out of Dubai or somewher else. My meeting was at the Trident – a hotel that would put any other city hotel anywhere in the world to shame – and I later stayed the night at the Galaxy Hotel, which wasnt too bad either.

    I returned with images of Gurgaon as this slick fast growing megapolis that rivalled the likes of Dubai, Shanghai or Singapore.

    Silly me.

    On my second trip to Gurgaon, I had to make a visit to an upcoming office facility for our company at MG Road. Only you would be able to imagine my shock and disappointment when the hotel limousine turned off the super modern expressway and entered the real Gurgaon behind the false facade: beat up traffic trundling along broken up roads flanked by open sewers, while cows and heaps of garbage filled every available piece of open ground. From here, Gurgaon seemed more like a farce or a con-job than anything remotely close to a city. Later i was to learn that you get power for only twelve to thirteen hours a day – with most office blocks making do with diesel run back up generators. For all the gleaming pools and water landscapes at the Trident, Gurgaon suffers an enormous water shortage in addition to the power cuts.

  • mattie

    hi im doing some homework on bangalore in geography i really have got to grips with what india’s all about thank you 🙂

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