Traffic thwarts terror attack

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Could Bengaluru’s polycultural roots have saved us from years lost to the hot air of rashtrabhasha, wonders Arul Mani

Illustration: Samia Singh

SINCE THE word Capital comes to us from the Latin word for ‘head’, all talk of alternative rajdhanis leads us to metaphysical haymakers about heads transforming bodies, and vice-versa. The idea that naming a city other than Delhi the capital might have produced a different history rests on a troublesome and unverifiable conceit — that cities are secure in the spirit that defines each as place, that they may not themselves be altered in unimaginable ways by such a change of circumstances.

What then if Bengaluru had indeed woken up one day and found itself named capital by colonial will or by the whims of infant democracy? Would the new nation have wandered unchallenged through the thickets of history? Or would it have nodded off from time to time in the same narcolepsy that made an otherwise undistinguished local politician’s stint as prime minister so memorable? Given Bengaluru’s double nature, both remain equally, and perhaps simultaneously, possible. It has been, for a good part of its history, two cities waging perpetual but good-natured war with each other — one polyglotally propah and uptight, the other laidback and at ease. Under such pressure, the notion of an “India, that is, Bharat” might well have lost the somewhat sinister Dr Jekyll-and–Mr Hyde suggestion that it now contains.

When the British moved capitals from Calcutta to Delhi, among the things they transported successfully was the cult of high seriousness. That would not have lasted very long here — the bracing air tends to settle in the bones of its citizens and express itself as an all-weather talent for wry self-deprecation. The initial encounter between such local guerrillas and those armoured in an imported seriousness might have been a moment to die for.

Bengaluru is a small-scale city beset by large problems. And that might have been all to the good. A terrorist attack on the Indian Institute of Science some years ago didn’t pan out as planned because one of the two raiding parties chose to catch autorickshaws and lost time, first in haggling, and then in traffic jams. I can only imagine that Indira Gandhi’s baroque badness, the brashness of her sons or the epic greed of insect politicians catapulted to the national stage may all have been diminished to a human scale by our city’s tendency to start and sputter and stop.

The terrorists first lost time in autorickshaws and later in traffic jams

Moving the capital might also have led to a string of smaller consequences. The belly-rumbles of the cow-belt, magnified by mere proximity to New Delhi into seismic importance, may have dwindled into ordinary noise. Bengaluru is home to a polyculture that nobody owns, and that simple fact may have saved us the several decades lost to hot air of the rashtrabhasha variety. An off-centre capital might’ve led to a civilised conversation with those who wish to depart from the nation’s umbrella. And since we must push psycho geographic conceits to their limits, temperate weather must mean a more sober political culture and channels less intent on noise. Bengaluru’s capacity to be smaller and more lowkey are possibly capital gifts for any nation to receive.

Mani teaches English at St Joseph’s College,

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