loan (noun): A thing that is borrowed, especially a sum of money that is expected to be paid back with interest.
I had my helmet on when I walked into a bakery in Rajanukunte, one of the many small towns that is fast becoming a part of Bangalore. The cool December air had caught the dust kicked up by the trucks and was rather unwilling to let go. I got my extra-sweet chai and walked up to the railings. Taking off a helmet along with two handkerchiefs while holding a flimsy plastic cup of chai is tricky business, and I wasn’t surprised when a man walking past knocked over some tea on my foot, onto the floor and probably onto his own heel. I mumbled ‘sorry’ but the man just gave me a dirty look and walked past. He didn’t acknowledge my apology, but that wasn’t because I had said it in English. I have noticed that we find it easier to say ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’ in English than use their highly Sanskritized Kannada equivalents, as if the serif around those heavy words would puncture our tongues. Etiquette, commerce and technology is wrought with words whose equivalents are merely forced portmanteaus of obscure Sanskrit words. English works better there.
I drank my tea in peace, thereafter. But as I walked past the bakery to toss my plastic cup, I noticed a panel on one side of the pharmacy abutting the bakery. The irony was too strong to miss. There it was, a message written in a striking white Kannada font, a message that wasn’t seen too often at pharmacies – ಸಾಲ ದೊರೆಯುವುದಿಲ್ಲ – ‘Loans will not be serviced’. Below that, it said ‘No Smoking’ in a slightly smaller red-coloured English font. People were asking for loans to buy medicines often enough to warrant that board. What is striking is that the same message was not written in English. No, no English-speaking customer would ask for a loan. He or she would be more likely to smoke outside.
Language is a not a mirror to the past or a key to the future, but a reflection of the present.
* * *
The skies opened up suddenly and I was stranded outside a grocery store in one of the many by-lanes of Chikkamagaluru, a small city four hours North-West of Bangalore. I had made a mental list with all the things I had to buy for the school session the next day, and two-way tape was next on that list. My mentor Gautam was stranded at a more useful shop a few roads away, and he was busy buying more industrial stuff. I walked up to a stationery shop, squinting to keep out the fading rain.
“Do you have two-way tape?” I asked, not resorting to the non-interrogative form of that request that would have worked in Bangalore.
“Yes, 15 rupees each”, he replied, turning around to take them out of a nearly empty plastic jar behind him.
“15? That’s too much. In Bangalore we just pay 10.” I realized the mistake as soon as I said it, but it was too late. He put the tape inside and while putting the lid back on he said – “You will get it in Bangalore, obviously. But what about transport? Do you know I have to pay a hundred rupees to transport one box?”
There was no smile on his face to suggest that this was regular banter with the customer or a dreamy lament. No, these were puffs of smoke from a Krakatoa that had been brewing inside him for many years, possibly decades. It was familiar angst, too. I was witness to the full life-cycle of this gentrification as enterprising Malayalis set-up supermarkets in my neighbourhood and displaced the more traditionally-styled stores.
The shopkeeper gave me three rolls of tape for thirty. Economy of scale always saved the day, but I’m not not sure how long it can hold the fort, especially when the winds of Foreign Direct Investment are blowing louder than ever and the voices of millions of India’s small and marginal traders are fading away. I thanked him and bought a couple of plastic cans – it wasn’t on my list but I rationalized and got them anyway.
Akshay had a childhood that was very close to nature and these childhood experiences have shaped him as a person. A resident of Bangalore, he is an avid bird watcher, a quizzer and a trekking enthusiast. His volunteering experience across the forests of the Western Ghats with NGOs and the Forest Department brought him close to various problems, intricacies and contradictions at the man-nature divide. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Electrical and Electronics Engineering and a Master's degree in Physics. In his third year at college, he co-founded Tripedia, a travel company that provided sustainable and off-beat tours. For his Master's thesis, he analysed human-wildlife conflict data from more than 6000 households across India in order to find species-specific patterns of conflict. He also dabbled with science journalism, writing press releases for cutting edge research emerging out the Indian Institute of Science. His current fascination is with citizen science, sustainable technology and mapping. A firm believer in institutional change, he believes that strategic scientific interventions can bring about positive change in society.