The first signs are inauspicious. Vast piles of rubbish, oceans of plastic bottles and worse, flank the rail tracks on the approach to the station. Stooped figures in dirty shawls pick through the refuse in search of anything reusable. As soon as we step off the platform we’re set upon by a shady character in a pink shirt, hair slicked back, insisting that we accompany him to the taxi stand.
Once we shake him off and get going in a prepaid auto, though, I find myself quite taken with Bengaluru (like Mysore/Mysuru, Bangalore and Bengaluru are interchangeable.) The central swathe of the city we chug through is crisp, clean for the most part, and much prettier than I’d expected India’s fifth largest city to be. Between lines of modern tower blocks are frequent glimpses of beautiful gardens, including the scenic Cubbon Park.
We traverse the length of this vast city – at 8.5 million residents it’s about the size of Greater London – in quick time thanks to a tenacious auto driver. As Rebecca says, “I like this guy. He doesn’t see obstacles, just opportunities.” He weaves deftly through walls of traffic, like Jason Robinson side-stepping a blitz defence. He jostles for the advantage at every red light, gets the jump on the queued traffic at one and finds himself with three empty lanes of space to motor into. He opens up: time to see what his baby can really do. Turns out that in the case of a 145cc engine loaded with three people and two leaden backpacks that’s not a lot, and we’re soon overtaken by a grey-haired old man on an ox cart, but still.
Our hostel, Electric Cats (specifically the annexe, round the corner from the main hostel) is a spartan affair. Our “private double” room is essentially a dorm with only one pair of bunk beds. A window onto the noisy street outside has been boarded over for some reason so, once again, we consign natural light to the status of luxury extra. Wires protrude from a round hole in the ceiling that once held a lamp. The only identifiable means of cooling or ventilating our little sleeping box is a single electric fan plugged into an extension cable that sparks arrestingly whenever something is plugged in.
Rebecca spots a sign offering a ten percent discount for a good TripAdvisor review, which explains a gap between that promised and that delivered which would make Boris Johnson blush, but in the hostel’s defence the staff are very friendly and helpful and it’s in a good spot – the foodie / craft beer district of Indranagar.
Madhu, Rebecca’s brother’s friend who has sourced us the cricket tickets, lives not a million miles away so after dumping our things and recovering from the plug sockets’ livelier protests we set off to meet him for chai. He is a splendid chap, a software developer who recently left Tesco to join Target. He pays for our chai before we have a chance to stop him and we spend a happy half hour or so nattering while our auto driver waits impatiently.
These drivers, we’re told, are on no account to be trusted. “It’s not just tourists; they rip us off as well,” Madhu explains. “By law they’re required to use their meters, but none of them do.” Hostility towards tuk-tuk drivers seems fierce in Bengaluru. The guide book handed out at the hostel calls them “The Three-Wheeled Monster” and features a cartoon of a few of them sat stationary captioned “Auto drivers doing what they do best – taking a break”. I can’t help but feel as though that’s a bit harsh. If you’re going to denigrate an entire profession at least use a photo.
We talk about Britain, Madhu having spent time in the country during his time at Tesco. A Manchester Utd supporter, he took the opportunity while there to see a game at Old Trafford which, I bore everyone by joking, is more than most English Man Utd fans have managed. The ticket cost him £250. For comparison, those we’re collecting from him – to see the national team play the national sport – cost about £35 for the pair, and still mean we’re smashing our daily budget. I’m stunned at the relative expense and his willingness to pay it, but as I’m soon to find out Bangalore – presumably in no small part thanks to the IT industry – is not a cheap city.
Rebecca is still talking at me but I’ve completely stopped listening. In my head her voice has that deep, distorted sound effect that film crews use when a character is slipping into unconsciousness. My eyes and all my attention are fixed on the cockroach lurching along the skirting board behind her.
“Pardon?” I say, distractedly, glancing unenthusiastically at my dosa.
“Are you alright?”
I sigh. I’ve got to tell her. It means ruining two breakfasts rather than one, but if she ends up getting ill I’ll never forgive myself. “Look behind you,” I tell her with a discreet nod.
“Ewwwww,” she says when she spots it, then chomps a mouthful of masala omelette.
The roach rocks as it walks, as if it’s got a jippy leg – a bit of shrapnel from the Great Fumigation of ’17 – which adds to its sinister aura. In fact, it has an almost identical stiff, spasmodic limp to the Bug from Men in Black. I tell myself that cockroaches are actually harmless and only the irrationally squeamish find them bothersome, then make the mistake of reaffirming this with a quick Google search. The results throw up a long list of deeply unpleasant-sounding diseases they’re known to spread, and I spend the rest of breakfast trying not to dwell too much on the question “What is streptococcus exactly?”
I keep my cool until the hobbly little bastard changes tack and starts straight towards me, at which point I let out a high-pitched yelp and hoist my feet and rucksack up onto the seat of my chair. The manager notices and with a mature, manly calm flattens it with a crunch beneath his flip flop.
So passes our first and only breakfast at Electric Cats hostel.
We spend the morning strolling in Cubbon Park, which is lovely, and around lunchtime we emerge at the luxury shopping mall UB City. Now, I hate shopping malls, and even though I know they’re emblematic of India’s ballooning wealth and modernity I’ve so far done that classic Western thing of avoiding them because they’re “un-Indian”. But whether it’s desire for something new or a craving for sterility after the events of breakfast, we’re drawn to the huge, marble edifice like moths to a flame. It sticks out from the broken paving stones and oppressive heat of the rest of India like a sore thumb: a giant, sore, shiny, air-conditioned thumb.
The immaculately dressed guards scan our bags and bodies, and nod us inside. It’s not entirely clear what they’re scanning for. Presumably explosives, but it could equally be dirt. I imagine the guard placing a sympathetic palm on my shoulder and saying something like “My most sincere apologies, sir, but you cannot come in with those trainers. It would upset the other guests.”
The well-heeled of Bangalore glide around the bright interior like leaves in a gentle breeze as they shop for the essentials – Swarovski, Jimmy Choo, Burberry. We shuffle between designer outlets gawping at shiny watches and slickly-designed perfume containers, knowing without asking that everything is out of our price range. We take careful pains not to touch anything with our unmanicured fingers. I expect to be hauled outside at any moment by large men in Armani suits when the authorities realise my ray-bans are fake.
The top floor opens onto a breezy, open-air food court with a string of fancy-looking independent restaurants and an unexpected Subway. We plump for Toscano, an easy-going Italian joint in the corner and have the first pizza – in fact, the first Western food – of our trip so far that isn’t wildly disappointing. Rebecca washes hers down with a glass of Indian rosé that costs five times what we spent on dinner between us last night.
We pop out for a few evening beers at Vapour, one of the many microbreweries for which Indranagar and Bangalore are increasingly renown. Their Ale, Blonde, Wheat and Lager are all delicious but all taste basically the same. Later on I drop my phone and the screen goes black. It seems I’ve become a lightweight.
Further North, the Indian Air Force sends twelve jets across the Line of Control in Kashmir for the first time since the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, and carries out an air strike on a suspected terrorist training camp on Pakistani soil.
There is a boisterous energy around the M. Chinnaswamy stadium that supersedes events or logic. Even before play starts the crowd is in full party mode. The announcer announces the coin toss, to raucous applause. He announces that Australia have won the toss and chosen to bowl, to raucous applause. He announces that today’s match is brought to us by PayTM to a cheer that makes Queen’s LiveAid crowd look bored. Not an iota of cricket has happened yet.
My dad WhatsApped before the match telling me to keep an eye on KL Rahul and after a cagey couple of overs the opener gets the show on the road, clubbing a loose delivery unceremoniously for four. The crowd erupts, particularly the two mid-twenties lads in the row in front. Dressed in checked shirts and glasses they seem like civilised, almost reserved types between deliveries. The second the ball pierces the outfield, though, they’re up on their feet, sinking back disappointedly if it’s kept to a single but launching into riotous hip-waggling dance every time the ball finds the boundary. Their enthusiasm is so infectious that after a few overs Rebecca and everyone else around are joining in with the pair. Every boundary unleashes pandemonium in the crowd, greeted with glee by the announcer-cum-hype-man and a thumping pop song that gets the fans jumping.
Rahul keeps carting the Aussie bowlers around the park in between being periodically crunched in the goolies. Pressure on Indian cricketers is immense and nothing, for me, sums that up better than the sight of a 26 year old man collapsed in a heap for the third time in ten minutes, clearly in need of speedy medical attention to save him from impotence, being compelled to continue against his obvious will by a fanatical announcer whipping a crowd of 40,000 frenzied fans into chanting his name. I’m glad for him when he finally falls for 47.
Rahul’s opening partner S Dhawan had already been caught out, bringing India’s iconic captain Virat Kohli to the crease to a deafening roar. Rishabh Pant replaces Rahul but doesn’t last long, meaning we’re soon treated to a spectacle as enviable in the right circles as any of the wildlife or monuments we’ve seen so far: a Virat Kohli / MS Dhoni partnership. Comfortably the two biggest stars currently playing in the country where cricketers are the biggest stars of all, the names Virat and Dhoni adorned, between them, as good as all the replica shirts we shuffled behind on our way into the stadium.
The current and former national team captains put together a swashbuckling stand of exactly 100 runs, including Virat smashing three crowd-pleasing sixes in as many balls. At this point the guys in front are bum-wiggling like freshmen on Spring Break. Even Rebecca is nearly as entertained by the captain’s antics as she is by a fruit bat fluttering over deep midwicket.
Despite these interludes of brilliance the Indian innings is characterised by long spells in which the Australian bowlers keep the batsmen well in tow, and the hosts’ total of 190-4 feels a bit light given the shortish boundary. Rebecca nods when I mention this between innings. Maybe she agrees, although she happens to wear the same facial expression she adopts whenever I tell her the age of a Jain temple.
In the event, Australia chase the runs down comfortably and the party atmosphere dissipates during their innings. The partisanship is inevitable but hilarious nonetheless, the exuberant “BOOM!” with which the announcer greeted Indian boundaries replaced by a drab “Annnd that’s a four” for the visitors. He does his best to keep spirits high, setting himself ever more ambitious verbal challenges to do so: “When I say ‘KANAKALAKALALALANKA’ you say ‘INDIA!'”, but to no avail. Glenn Maxwell hits an imperious century and Australia reach 194 with two balls to spare which, for obscure cricket reasons I’m unable to explain to Rebecca, means they win by 7 wickets.
Besides the usual hype the announcer periodically calls for the crowd to acknowledge the armed forces, particularly the Air Force. In amongst the joy, entertainment and wildly good-natured fun of it all, there is the unmistakable undertone of a country psyching itself up for war.