Impressions of Bangalore

Copyright © 2008, Glenn Story

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The waiting area in the Frankfurt airport, where I changed planes en route to Bangalore, India, was full of nerdy young men. I was to be on a 747 full of software engineers; I feared my experience of Bangalore would be disappointment at the dilution of an ancient and beautiful culture by crass, western commercialism.

But one plane full (or even multiple daily flights) of programmers from the west are easily swallowed by the population of over 5.28 million native inhabitants of Bangalore.

Yes, there are chrome-and-glass buildings here. I’m working in one. Yes, there is a western “tech” presence here–Sun Microsystems was having a meeting in my hotel the day after my arrival. But the majority of the city, and its people, look as Indian as the cities I visited on my last trip. (That trip was to northern India.) Amongst the modern buildings are small cement-block structures, plastered with advertisements for Bollywood movies, patent medicines, notices such as “Stick no bills” or “Do not urine here” or who knows what. (I saw a photograph of a notice saying “Bill stickers will be prosecuted” to which someone had added thegraffiti, “Bill Stickers is innocent!”.)

Most of the population here seems to ride motor scooters. There is a variation: a small, covered three-wheeler with a single front seat and handlebars like a scooter, and two seats in back–a cheap form of taxi. There are also lots of bicycles. There are horse-drawn carts as well. There are goats and cows n the street, and there are people, on foot, everywhere. It is the throngs of people that make this, like other Indian cities, both exciting and intimidating.

And so, my fears were misplaced: This place is very much Indian.

Yesterday morning I decided to take a walk around the neighborhood of the hotel; I haven’t been getting much exercise. The streets are very irregular here; one won’t find neat rectangular blocks. Also crossing the street on foot–there is a constant stream of traffic and no traffic lights–could be suicidal. To avoid both problems I simply walked around the block. It was a large block and probably took me twenty minutes or so. At around 8:00 a.m. I was out before the shops were open. There weren’t that many shops anyway. The neighborhood is mostly office buildings. On my walk I encountered only a few other pedestrians, mostly school girls in uniform. (There are several schools nearby, including an all-girl’s school.) The lack of people walking is unusual, but I attribute it to the early hour.

Aside from my morning walk, yesterday was typical of my days here so far.

I have been waking quite early due to jet lag. I have Internet access in my hotel room so I use the time to catch up on email and make some script or presentation changes based on the previous day’s experience in the office.

The coffee shop opens at 7 and I am generally there at opening time. They serve a buffet (which is included in the cost of the room–typical in India). the buffet consists of western food, including a chef preparing omelets. They also have pancakes, french toast, and assorted pastries. In addition, they have Indian food: a spicy potato stew, little “donuts” that are savory rather than sweet, and flat unleavened bread.

In the morning my driver picked me up from the hotel and we drove for about half an hour to the building in which my company is located. The drive is an adventure. The traffic is thick and energetic. Drivers are constantly honking in warning and to say “I’m moving into that open space.” No one seems to take offense at being honked at. But then Indians seldom seem to take offense at anything. Driving in Bangalore, as in other Indian cities I have visited is very much a game of finding an empty space ahead and occupying it before someone else does. All the cars and even trucks here are small compared to American vehicles. And there is a proliferation of motor scooters. It is a common site to see a woman wearing a brightly-colored sari and a black shiny helmet, riding along on a scooter. It is also common to see two or even three people perched precariously on the seat of a scooter. As well as being cheap to buy and operate, scooters (“two-wheelers” they’re called here) are efficient in traffic. Looking for that next hole in traffic to move into is easier for them since they need a smaller hole.

Driving through Bangalore highlights all aspects of the city, both new and high-tech, as well as more typically Indian. We pass a large compound labelled “Oracle of India”. A block later is a shanty town full of tents and flimsy “houses”.

It is rare to find a beautiful city. San Francisco is one. Certain parts of Agra and Delhi are beautiful. But I have so far failed to see much beauty in the architecture of Bangalore. Most of the buildings look twenty or more years old and are largely plain concrete rectangles of various sizes. The newest buildings, such as the Oracle compound, or the building in which I work are modern chrome-and-glass multi-story offices.

The ride to work takes me through major thoroughfares as well as back alleys. The driver clearly knows the area intimately. At last we turn left into a winding dirt path. We pass a construction site for a soon-to-be companion of the building I am in. My driver stops and lets me off.

The lobby of the building is unfinished. There is yet no ceiling and pipes and wires are visible above. There is a row of machine that look like ticket gates at a subway station. They are covered in plastic sheets–not yet operational. The elevator is fully lined in mirrors except for the outside wall which is glass–to give a view outward from the building as you rise into the sky. I’m sure the view will be interesting, but for now the outside glass is covered in temporary corrugated aluminum, either to shield our eyes from the ugliness of the construction next door or to protect the glass from any dust or debris that might come our way.

I work for VMware, which in the US has broken away from it’s former parent, EMC. That division has not occurred yet here. EMC occupies the 2nd and 3rd floor. There are other companies on other floors, some with names I recognize.

My cubicle (if you can call it that–it only has three sides, the forth being completely open into an aisle lined with scores of identical “cubes”) has a Dell desktop computer and I can read my email and do other work. At first I was left to myself, but now people are increasingly coming to talk to me. This increase is partly due to the fact that their shyness (and mine) is wearing off, and partly because they have an increasing number of questions based on the the classes I have been teaching. They are obviously correlating the material I have been presenting with their own work assignments. Their questions show me that they have understood what I have been covering. The questions also show me how much more work we have to do on my team to fully support the tasks they have to accomplish.

The room in which I sit is huge, probably holding several hundred identical cubicles. As a consequence it is noisy. I don’t see how I could concentrate on solving a tricky design issue, or hunting a complicated bug. Both the ring of office phones, and the tunes of cell-phone ring tones is constantly heard. There is constant talking.

The bathrooms are clean and modern. Each toilet stall is completely enclosed from floor to ceiling–a small room unto itself. There is an attendant who immediately swoops in and cleans a sink after someone has washed his hands.

There is a pantry that contains drinks and snacks–all free to employees.

At lunch time we head down to the cafeteria on the first floor. Each of the companies in this building has a separate cafeteria. The one for EMC has no kitchen–food is brought in by a caterer. There is a different one every day, and employees are asked to fill out a questionnaire about the quality of the food. I guess they’re trying to pick a permanent caterer.

The food, of course, is Indian, not fancy but quite tasty. There are sinks at one end of the room so that one may wash one’s hands after eating–Indians typically eat with their hands, although I see many people here also use a spoon. There is a bottled water dispenser as the only choice for drinking. I have been drinking that water with no ill effect. Lunch is free, paid by presenting a voucher issued by EMC.

After lunch I have been teaching classes on the technology my team and I have been developing. There is a conference room with a long table, a projector to show the powerpoint presentations and demonstrations and even a video-conferencing facility. On one occasion the video-conferencing facility was on and I could see what appeared to be an empty conference room in Palo Alto–it was after midnight in California.

The room is designed to hold around a dozen people; for my classes it has been typically packed with twice that many. Someone has installed a temporary 20-port hub, so the attendees can bring their laptops. There is no WiFi in the building.

Almost all of the engineers here (including my “students”) are young–many fresh out of college. This is a consequence of the relatively recent rise of the computer industry in India, relative to the US. Thus there are more “old guys” like me where I work in Palo Alto, although even there the workforce is dominated by younger people. I am undoubtedly the oldest person in the room here. When I catch my reflection in the mirror-lined elevators I sometimes ponder how old I look. I am told that age is revered in India; it is not so where I come from and I find myself wishing I were as young as my Indian co-workers.

The mixture of men and women is similar to the computer industry in California: that is to say, almost all men. In the presentations I’m giving, all but three of the twenty or so attendees are men.

The women tend to wear brightly-colored Indian clothing; they are beautiful. Some women wear jeans or other western styles. The men universally dress in clothes of western design. Jeans and open-collared shirts are the norm. I haven’t seen a single person wearing suit and tie.

There are frequent questions–more questions than I got when giving similar classes in Palo Alto.

There is a tea break half-way through the afternoon. I skip it, partly because I’m eating too much already, and partly to be available to answer questions or discuss potential projects.

After the classes I may go back to my cubicle for a while, depending on the time. Then the driver picks me up and takes me back to my hotel.

Yesterday as we were leaving I saw two groups of people waiting out front–one of women and one of men. This is fairly typical. There is less social mixing of the sexes in India than there is in the US. I certainly see women and men talking in the office, but I suspect it is mostly about work. And generally (but not always) men and women sit separately in the cafeteria.

The ride back to the hotel is pretty much a repeat of the morning trip, except now it is getting dark. The city seems dimly lit compared to American cities. We did pass one area–a building and an arch over the street that was brightly lit as if for Christmas, except the bulbs were all clear and uncolored.

I have my choice of two restaurants in the hotel for dinner. One, the coffee shop where I have breakfast, serves Italian food. The other serves Indian food and has an elegant menu of some dozen pages, each with food from a different region in India: Rajasthan, Goa, Punjab, etc. I am working my way through the menu.

I normally eat meat, but here in India I choose to stick to vegetarian food. Most Indians are vegetarians, and most (not all) of the food in the company cafeteria is vegetarian. Indians have mastered the art of preparing vegetarian food that is not bland the way traditional American vegetable dishes are.

The food is spicy, but almost never too spicy for me. Indians in the U.S. have repeatedly told me that food in India is more spicy than in Indian restaurants in America. I have found that to be only slightly true.

Arguably the food in the hotel may be “watered down” for foreigners, but I doubt if the company cafeteria is. None has been too spicy for me. It is more spicy than in the U.S., but now way more spicy as I had been led to believe. Anyway I like spicy food; I love Indian food.

I also love Indian music. I had hoped to attend a concert of Indian classical music while here but so far I have not been able to find one. I’m reading a book right now on the music of South India. (Bangalore is in the far south.) I’m finding south-Indian music (called “Carnatak” music) significantly different from the music of the north (called “Hindustani” music. There seems to be more of an emphasis on a well-formed melody and words (often religious) than in northern India. Nevertheless improvisation still plays a significant part in the music of the south. For South Indian classical music, I would draw the analogy of a typical jazz performance, which is based on a song with a melody which is then improvised upon, whereas northern music is more like a jam session, with only a small amount of pre-defined content.

Anyway, I have not found any concerts. I may ask the hotel today. The Indians I know, both here and in the U.S. are generally more interested in popular music than in classical music. The same is true of Americans, and in fact I also found it true in Japan when I was there.

Classical music–from whatever culture–is complex and requires concentrated listening as well as some knowledge of form. The book I have been reading talks about “Nada Yoga” –a yoga of sound. I find it an intriguing notion that I can easily relate to. As the American 20th-Century composer John Cage has said, “Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating. ” When we listen to music of another culture, it sometimes seems like noise, due to different aesthetic values. But I, for one, find it fascinating. Not understanding the words no doubt detracts from the overall appreciation of the work as it was intended to be received. But it also causes me to focus more on the sound of the music.

I have an MP3 player that can also record from the radio or from a small microphone. I find recordings with the microphone unsatisfactory because the mic doesn’t pick up low frequencies and is easily overloaded by loud sounds. Recording from the radio, however, works quite well. I have recorded some Indian radio stations playing Indian pop music–most of it from Bollywood movies, I’m told. I haven’t found any classical music on the radio, but I have mostly listened in the morning. I keep thinking I should try at night but so far I haven’t remembered to do so.

Generally, in fact, after dinner I head straight to bed. If I were trying to adjust to the Indian time I would force myself to stay up, but I’m not trying to adjust–I’ll be home before it matters anyway.

Last night I did seek out the gift shop after dinner, hoping to browse and price shop. However, I was accosted by a friendly and persuasive salesman who convinced me to buy several wooden carvings. I’m sure I paid more than I could find on the outside, although the salesman told me that the prices were actually cheaper because if my driver took me to a shop, he would get a commission. While the part about drivers getting commissions is surely true, I don’t know if that compensates for the high rent they must pay for hotel space. Who believes what salesmen say anyway? Even if I over-paid, the prices seem cheap for the fact that these items are all hand carved.

Today my driver will take me to Mysore (“the city of palaces”), some 75 km away from Bangalore. Perhaps I’ve tales to tell of that trip.

Note: I also have the following photo essays  from this trip:

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