Sunday, March 23, 2014

Walking the Chikpete Area: In The New Indian Express today

The Chikpete area in Bangalore has always brought out mixed feelings in me. While I love the old world charm and the chance of discovering something new after every corner, the crush of people, the filth is something I can handle only for a short while. With its tiny lanes and alleys, it is a city wholly different from the rest of Bangalore. I wrote a travelogue of sorts of this other world sometime ago. It finds place in the Sunday magazine section of The New Indian Express today.

Read it here or see the unedited version below. Photos are not from the published story.


It would make a great scene in a movie – soundtrack and all – to stand there in the middle of a market area that’s over a century old and observe the chaos of man and cart and animal swirling around you and away in full speed. A scene when there is an epiphany. The kind where you realize history isn’t drab, that vintage ways are alive and functioning and carrying on very well, thank you, in a section of the city you have made home in for many years now.

Traversing through the dense, closely knit labyrinth lanes of the Old Pete, the old town areas of Bangalore is an intense experience, a sudden assault upon all the senses at every other turn. Each of the old towns are named after why they were first designed, to sell bangles – Balepete, rice – Akkipete, ragi – Ragipete, for the flower sellers – Thigalarapete, oil processors – Ganigarpete, and so on.Chikpete was the small town, an afterthought. Today, the entire section of town is, more often than not, collectively called the Chikpet area. The order behind the chaos of all the abbreviated street names, individual lanes, alleys that grew and grew and grew over decades, remaining in a constant state of wanting to burst at its seams any minute now is insider information. Not for an infrequent visitor. Most certainly not for the rare tourist hoping for a quick insight within a day or less.

I stand with Mysore Bank Circle behind me. There isn’t really a circle, just several roads that pour into one on which most city buses ply, onward to Majestic bus stand. Before me, along each of the narrow side streets and the jostling of a thousand people, the old town is spread out. I have lived in Bangalore many years; work, obligation, pleasure has taken me to these parts many a time. Yet, I feel like having entered a time warp; the air conditioned towering buildings, metro rails and malls seem like they belong to a futuristic city. The main road down till a crossroads is lined with shops selling textbooks, stationery, gifts, cheap plastic, clothes, faith and everything else in between. The fun lies in taking a turn further down the road, any turn, into one of the petes.

Along one, young boys and middle aged men nearly pull you into saree shops they work for, promising the best silks, the softest cottons at “best price.” Along another is Raja Market, a slightly more manageable array of shops selling silver and craft accessories. Gold leaves for Thanjavur paintings, sequins and ribbons and buttons and beads are displayed, the hung pieces of glass and translucent plastic catching bits of the winter sun now and then. Further along I take a left, then a right and a left again and I’m finally where I want to be: lost. Like the famed gallis of Varanasi where you never need see the main roads if you know your lanes well enough, the back alleys of Chikpet are like a maze that only the regulars, the insiders have the key to. The only way to see this whole other city that breathes and thrives at its own pace, its own time zone, is to get lost in its folds. Each corner promises a tantalizing secret for you to walk around and discover. Sometimes it is yet another temple – I spot ten within two parallel streets alone – sometimes it is a tiny house tucked away, the lady of the house going about doing her laundry calmly. Sometimes the curious corners host a tea shop below a flight of stairs to something else. Admittedly, the tea, or the instant coffee, is terrible, but the people that congregate there come mostly for the conversations.

There is too much to take in. Steel utensils, spices, costume jewelry, gold and silver, shiny tassels, firecrackers, plastic buckets, glass jars, wires and tools, electronics, spare parts, groceries, clothes, coir mats, vegetables, snacks, fresh dosas, stale samosas, cut fruits, raw materials for every other industry, you think it, you find it here. The addresses painted on side boards don’t help; if one side of the street is Old Khasai Road, the other side is Ragipete. Between roads, there are crosses, Mastan Sahib Lane, Nagarthpete Cross, such like.

If you peek behind the shops, or turn your head up towards the sky, there are houses with odd shaped windows and iron curtains. Some look like they have always existed, their starting dates lost in distant time. Pink sarees, baby blouses and faded formal shirts dangle down from high wires, flapping furiously in the little breeze that manages to wind down into the lanes.

At the end of one road is where the Sunday market opens up every week, selling everything you never thought you might want and if you get lucky, some lovely antiques too. Here in these parts is everything you will ever need to take you through the days of your life. Food, festivals, temples, mosques, old world healers, quacks, schools, and families of people that look like they could not belong to what the world would expect modern Bangalore to contain.

The Chikpete area is a city with a history of centuries past, with colonial marks still standing now and here, its own economy, its unwritten rules, its secrets. It is a different city after all, much older, much noisier, much of everything more than the rest of this metropolis. I have long stopped trying to make sense of how its geography works; I will always want to get lost here. It must take months, years to know a city and her manners. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

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