A city's anatomy

A city's anatomy

A city's anatomy

A crude index of the level of interest in a city’s layers of history and urban identity is the number of books that have been published about it. A quick online search suggests more than 14,000 books have been published about London.

The figure for Bangalore is a little more than 70. Clearly, we have a long way to go! Yet the last few years have seen a definite uptick in the number of people who are curious about Bangalore’s story. Heritage walks for visitors and locals are springing up like mushrooms after rain, there are very active social media groups dedicated to the city’s past, and yes, there have been a number of books written and published about the city.

Maya Japayal is an old hand at writing books about cities. She has written on Singapore, Jakarta, and on Bangalore itself. In the foreword to her latest, Bangalore: Roots and Beyond, the eminent historian Suryanath Kamath says, the book “resembles a river that takes something of everything en route, thus unfolding the story of Bangalore multifariously.”

Indeed, the book covers a lot of ground: from a basic history of the city; to its old buildings; lifestyles in some of its neighbourhoods; its parks and gardens; its temples, mosques and churches, and more. Jayapal does not claim to be an academic, but seeks to “offer more than what a tourist wants.” In this, she succeeds admirably. If you are looking for a fairly comprehensive introduction to Bangalore, an overview of what has made the city what it is, look no further.

Jayapal writes that her book is a portrait of the city she fell in love with when she came here as a college student, a city that she now calls home. That love and affection for her adopted city are occasionally palpable in her writing. She is at her liveliest best when describing the cantonment and its life.

One feature that sets the book apart is its section on the different communities of Bangalore and their contributions to the city. Vokkaligas, Lingayats, Kodavas, Bunts, Arasus, Mudaliars, Cutchi Memons and more are featured, all of whom have played a part in the city’s growth. Many of the communities are reduced to long passages on their origins, beliefs and rituals, with no mention of any Bangalore connections. The interesting ones are where the author profiles a prominent member of the community.

I particularly enjoyed reading about Sakamma, of Sakamma Coffee Works fame, who founded the Kuruhina Shetty Kendra Sangha and Hostel in Bangalore and was awarded a medal for public service by the then Maharaja of Mysore. There are similarly enlivening portrayals of Ali Asker and Arcot Narrainswamy Mudaliar.

It is a little disheartening to note that this book is actually a very lightly revised version of Jayapal’s 1997 oeuvre, Bangalore: The Story of a City. Much of the revision is cosmetic, such as replacing the word fire with blaze, or quiet with quietude. There are a few expected additions, such as a short paragraph about the new international airport.

And then there are some unfortunate additions that betray careless editing. The new book asserts (incorrectly) that Richards Town was named after a Lt Col G R Richards. Just a few pages later, in a line that has remained unchanged from the earlier book, we learn (correctly) that it is named after F J Richards, the then Collector of Bangalore! Similarly, an addition in the new book says Fraser Town is named after a Col M D Fraser, when, of course, it was named after Stuart M Fraser, the then British Resident in Bangalore.

Only a few nuggets of truly new material are found in the latest book. One such is an entertaining recollection from an old-time Anglo-Indian about the ‘verandah tailor’ of his childhood, so called because of how he used to set himself up in the verandah of bungalows. But such additions, though welcome, are few and far between.

Word substitutions and minor additions apart, the major difference between the new book and its 1997 version is its generous sprinkling of striking visuals. Most of the photographs are taken by Jayapal herself, but there are also several interesting contributions from families whose members feature in the book, such as Sakamma. One especially arresting image is of a 1935 prescription from Cash Pharmacy! Unfortunately, Jayapal does not cite sources or credits for most of the images, including those that appear to have been pulled from several online sources, such as the British Library.

Bangalore: The Story of a City was a path-breaking book in many ways. However, the 17 years since its publication have seen a wealth of new scholarship about the city by historians, sociologists and others. It is a pity Jayapal chose not to incorporate any of it in her recent work. Bangaloreans have lost out on what might have been a great book.

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