Two New Yorkers spend six months 18 months!?! in Bangalore and other places in India.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Civic Unrest

Well, I got to leave the office early today. There were disturbances in the streets of Bangalore and the riot police were called to keep the peace. Around four o'clock the management solemnly urged the employees to leave immediately to ensure that they got home in case things took a turn for the worse.

No, it wasn't Muslim-Hindu tension, or anger at corrupt local politicians, or a protest against the recent Simpsons episode (sort of) set in Bangalore. What happened was that Raj Kumar, Kannada-language film star, had died. At age seventy-eight. Of natural causes. This is what drives people to the streets in this city?

The answer is yes. I left the office and the streets were filled with people like me, trying to get home in the suddenly heavy traffic. Fortunately, the actual distubances were centered around Raj Kumar's home and also the government assembly building where the body was to be buried, neither too close to my office. I was very lucky and got an autorickshaw right away; the driver was honest and didn't try to extort money out of me in the face of high demand, though he did disconcert me by laughing at all the folks along the road trying frantically to get rickshaws of their own. "Bandh, bandh," he said to me, gesturing at all the shops closing up their shutters on the main throughfare of MG Road. "All bandh." A bandh, loosely speaking, is a strike or a general closure of businesses. And sure enough everything was shutting down, even the main grocery store.

I made it home just fine, without witnessing any trouble other than the traffic. No one seems to have been injured. Raj Kumar was simply a vitally important person to the locals in Karnataka. And to be fair, he was not just a prolific actor (200+ films), he was also an advocate for Kannada-language cinema. And naturally his biography has a bizarre twist to it; in 2000 he was kidnapped by bandits and held hostage for 100 days in an attempt to free some Tamil activists held in jail.

Tomorrow the funeral is scheduled to take place in a large sports stadium in town. The state of Karnataka is declaring two days of mourning. The office will be closed. Stores will be closed. The TV is already given over to Raj Kumar retrospectives. So I guess I'll catch up on my reading.

UPDATE (April 13, 2006): Some serious violence occurred today. At the stadium where the memorial was taking place, some sectors of the crowd turned unruly. Six policemen were injured, and authorities fired tear gas on some groups of mourners. Near the bus station, a city bus was set on fire by rioters, and there were also reports of stones thrown and ATMs attacked. We took a walk this morning; our street was quiet as could be, nobody out except police and all the stores shut up as tight as clams. We walked to the end of Cunningham Road to the Parker Meridien hotel in hopes of getting a newspaper, and we saw that the lamps outside the hotel entrance had been smashed. So we won't be venturing out much until things calm down a little more.

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