Suck Goes to High-Tech India


We didn't have to put around Bangalore more than a few minutes for me to soak up the contrast that defines the city. It's like the one you'd find in any American metropolis, but more so.

On the one hand, it is overrun with the business of what Indians universally call IT — information technology. The quick-wired buildings, the billboards, the cybercafes and tin-shack surf shops where a buck buys an hour of snail-paced browsing. The newspapers overflowing with stories about the Internet's wonders and (more to the point) dozens of full-page recruitment ads trumpeting salaries (millions of rupees) and lists of benefits (health clubs!) that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. Most of downtown and newly upscale neighborhoods like Koramangala teem with India's best and brightest, walking around the muddy streets bantering into their cell phones, in English, about which brew-pub they'd visit that evening.

Bangalore is Bangalore for pretty much the same reasons the Valley is the Valley: Decades ago, the local universities began churning out a lot of brilliant technologists, and since the climate was nice, they stayed. A bit after that, tech entrepreneurs from other parts of the country started relocating to Bangalore, where the talent was plentiful and the land was cheap. (Infosys, which I'd visit later, was one such company — it actually started in Bombay.) Along with its relative wealth, the city's population has exploded in the past ten years to nearly five million, and the once vaunted clean air is history. But the city remains one of the most socially liberal in India.

A moment's motorcycling from clubland lie the hundreds of back streets and dirt lanes filled (and I do mean filled — Indian roads burgeon with more forms of transportation than any other place I've been) with people to whom IT makes not one whit of difference. And that's if they even know about it, which they may not, since all the relevant ads are in English, and most of the residents (if they read at all) read only Kannada, the local dialect in Karnataka state.

"This is the real Bangalore," says Simha. We've pulled up in front of a mechanic's shop that seems bereft of tools or parts; a fourteen-year-old wearing a shirt that appears literally to have been dipped in grease emerges, takes a look at Simha's snapped brake cable, and disappears. Simha peers around at the fruit dealers, basket sellers, cow herders, and minions of other passersby busily doing god-knows-what.

"For them, the Internet does not exist. Most can't really read, and the Kannada newspapers don't speak of it anyway. They mainly have stories on local politics and sports and Rajkumar" — the local movie star whose kidnapping a few weeks earlier by the outrageously mustachioed Veerapan, India's leading poacher/smuggler/jungle bandito, had shut down the city. (It seems Veerapan had claimed alliance with a neighboring state's Tamil-speaking rebels, making himself the sworn enemy of Kannadans. Riots choked off streets and shut down businesses, schools closed for two weeks, a curfew was imposed, and only the day before I arrived had the citywide liquor ban been lifted. A few months after snatching the star, but not before utterly humiliating the governments of two states, Veerapan released Rajkumar; the bandit himself is still at large.)

The boy returns with a length of wire he's obviously just removed from some other bike and deftly performs an emergency bypass on Simha's ride. Five minutes later we're back on the road, swerving to avoid oncoming buses and emaciated cows, headed to Koramangala.


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