(Images courtesy http://www.manushkakhisty.com )
We drive into Pune on a sugar high after indulging in a chikki invoked binge in the neighbouring city of Lonavala. Shops selling this sweet list more than two-dozen varieties and it is a difficult but definitely pleasurable activity to make your choice amongst those on display. The sweet fudge can keep the small town on India’s map long after its green hills have been taken over by the concrete townships and resorts that threaten to obliterate the beautiful countryside. As it is still the rainy season in the mossy green Western Ghats, the highway from Mumbai is a green-gray mist with the spray of the waterfalls that we cross fogging up our car’s windscreen.
Pune is a flurry of energy and it is hard not to warm up to the town. It is the academic hub for educational institutions old and new. The solemn brick-stoned university buildings set up by colonial India look over the new campuses of the IT and business study institutes mushrooming in the small town. The Indian Film and Television Institute is based in this city and has been the alma mater of leading lights like Jaya Bachan, Subash Ghai and Mani Kaul. At the same time Pune forms an important cyber hub for the country with many of the call center business being trafficked by this town. It is also home to the country’s military academies with a bustling military cantonment. The worlds of the academia, the computer motivated, and the cantonment mold in together, and I believe this is what makes Pune unique. In the many lively café’s that dot the town’s landscape, budding film directors try to rope in gawky college students to feature in their final year thesis projects. The cyber yuppies work for corporate America during the day and fight over passes to the military galas and cantonment New Year balls in the evening. Glimpses of British India during these celebrations, be it in the military band, the ceremonial uniforms, or the formal dances enthrall them. This is sophistication they whisper in awe struck tones as they absorb the chandeliers overhead and the ornate history of the buildings.
A study in contradictions, even though Pune is the heart land of Maratha nationalism, it is home to a large expatriate population. Be it the short term New Age visitors curious about enrolling in the commune at the Osho Meditation Resort, the exchange students in the city’s colleges and the prestigious United World College in the suburbs or the employees of the vibrant NGO industry, they all make Pune an extremely cosmopolitan city. A group of Somalian and Thai residents gossip in the parking lot as I enter my apartment, in the city’s restaurant an Iraqi mother patiently feeds her small daughter bun pakoras, students from Papua New Guinea elbow around jokingly in the markets. There is also a steady population trickling in from Mumbai. Pune has emerged as a booming property market for Mumbai’s rich who have set up their summer homes in the city. Other former Mumbai residents have preferred to make it home and commute to Mumbai for work when need be, the new highway between the two cities has just made their job easier. Old time Pune citizens fear this deluge from Mumbai and many have protested the rapid urbanization that this new population has introduced. The quaint Irani snack bar tries to fight off the Barista coffee chain, the Parsi general store the shopping malls and multiplexes. The narrow roads clog up quickly with the increased vehicular traffic. Women driving scooters wrap scarves around their face to avoid the pollution.
However, just as you start mourning the loss of all things unique to the city, it surprises you with a glimpse of its deep soul. In neighbouring Mumbai the spiritual has become a commercial extravaganza, in Pune there is still a reverence for Maharashta’s religious spirit. Though our group had escaped to the Matheran hill station during Ganesh Chatruthi, (the festival that has followed me through my Indian trip—the elephant headed god manages to reincarnate himself in every town till I am quite sure that I have seen all his regional manifestations) I could still witness some of the religious carnival as we drove back to Pune the next day. It is the morning after the holiday, groups of glum men sit on the various floats being wheeled away from the city centre. Their faces streaked pink and blue from the colored powder that forms part of their celebrations, they nurse their heads after an all night revelry inspired by bhang and loud music. Though the Pune city administration like Mumbai’s had been strict to enforce a ‘noise pollution’ ban after 10pm, it is only in Pune that it is flouted by residents who want to keep their celebrations ‘traditional’. Some of the floats moving slowly in the morning traffic carry life sized Ganesha idols with the deity blind-folded with scarves. These are the more important idols on loan from the city’s temples. Though they have formed an integral part of the various street installations, displays and performances during the fortnight, at the time of the immersion another idol has taken a proxy plunge (quite literally) for them. The deity’s image is blind folded on return to the return to the temple avoid being traumatized by the irreligious on the city’s street.
However, Pune is changing. The changing dynamic of the Indian family is what is more obvious. In the apartment building I am living in, most of the flats on my floor have women listed as apartment owners. A ruse by the wily husband to get out of paying property taxes? No, more and more women, and single women at that now own or rent property in the city. The IT business in the city has been good for them. It has obviously introduced a change in their lifestyle but also challenged as mentioned earlier the power equation in the new Indian family. In more and more families the younger members have increasing buying power and are taking decisions. Sandeep and his young wife earnestly tell me about their new life over dinner in ZK, a restaurant owned by the Indian cricketer Zaheer Khan. The hours are tough, they rarely see each other as its difficult to co-ordinate their free time, usually when one is returning after a grueling shift, the other partner’s day is just starting. However, they now own their own apartment and like many of their friends plan to retire by their mid thirties. They lead a good life; they assure themselves and wonder why they have to follow the life path trajectory that their parent’s generation did. They would rather suffer the paranoid supervisors, the erratic hours and unusual working style today for a very comfortable future. The call centers and the working environment have many critics, with even a report sponsored by the national labor ministry commenting harshly on the working environment. Overseas, the move of local business to Indian call centers has angered many. Globalization does have its critics and it is amazing where this opposition crops up. In Australia angry housewives decide to boycott a telecom provider for providing phone numbers to call centers mostly based in India.
On the last day of my visit I get another reminder of where I am. An early morning visit to the city’s Ferguson College brings me eye to eye with a billboard outside the college’s walls bearing Sarabjit Singh’s image and a plea for his release. The campaign to free him has reached this city with many supporters struggling to make the Free Sarabjit cause a more ‘national’ one rather than a cause localized to the states of Haryana and Punjab. The organizers want to win over the heart and minds of the average Maharashtan on the city’s streets, often the most nationalistic of the country’s citizens.