Harini Nagendra’s The Bangalore Detectives Club is set in 1920s colonial Bangalore, where Kaveri, a budding mathematician, stumbles upon a body at an elite event and is pulled into solving a crime, while exploring the city’s bungalows, brothels and bylanes. Harini tells Historia how hard it was to uncover the diverse voices of Indian residents, despite the fact that Bangalore was their home, more than that of the British.
1920s colonial Bangalore, the setting for my book, was a city of contrasts, ruled in part by an Indian king, and simultaneously by the British empire.
The old areas of the city, the pete, were administratively managed by the Maharaja of Mysore. This landscape had a mix of palaces and rice markets, cowherd’s colonies and wealthy neighbourhoods with large bungalows. Abutting the old city, the British cantonment housed the soldiers in barracks and officers in red-tiled bungalows with wooden ‘monkey top’ structures, with upscale markets that sold everything from footwear to ‘iced creams’ and beer.
These two parts of Bangalore – the native city and the British cantonment – existed in uneasy balance until 1949, when they were merged into a single urban planning unit, the city of Bangalore, shortly after Indian independence.
Writing about a colonial city with adequate depth and texture is not easy, because of the paucity of written records. The chronicles left behind for us to peruse document a singular, rather homogenous voice and perspective – that of a British (or British-educated Indian) bureaucrat or administrator, who is wealthy, privileged, and indubitably male.
Administrative reports, gazettes, ledger files, meeting records of the Mysore Representative Assembly, newspaper reports, even biographies – typically record the dominant voice.
At a book launch event in Bangalore last week, I was asked a very perceptive question: given that my book is written from the point of view of a young Indian woman and features a number of women characters who come from varied socio-economic backgrounds, of privilege as well as dispossession – from where did I get my sources?
Occasionally, the archives throw up contrasting narratives of the city, and especially, of claims to the city, which give the chronicler – and the mystery book writer, me – a glimpse into how people thought about colonial Bangalore. Like veins of gold, they are rarely found, but when they are, must be prized and treasured for what they reveal. In 1847 Reverend Williams Arthur, a Wesleyan priest visiting Bengaluru, wrote about the city in his book A Mission to Mysore.
He wrote approvingly of the British cantonment and its large bungalows, tree-lined avenues and majestic landscaped gardens which bore “marks of horticultural taste”.
But he disliked the Indian pete, dismissively terming it a “metropolis of monkeys” which he found in countless numbers “scrambling up the side walls, playing antics up the roof, bounding from houses to the trees, and peering everywhere in search of plunder.”
Nature and people were controlled and managed alike in the British areas, but more free to be themselves in the Indian settlements. Archival documents that record the struggle to claim control of one of Bangalore’s largest water bodies, Sampangi Lake, further demonstrate how places of nature were perceived and controlled by different groups of people.
As my colleague Hita Unnikrishnan and I document, Sampangi Lake – which is now filled in and converted to an iconic sports stadium – occupied an intermediate space in Bangalore’s contested ownership, with both the Maharaja and the British laying claims to the land.
Once an important water body that supplied drinking water to Bangalore, by the 1930s the lake had dwindled in importance. The city was by then well supplied with pipes that brought in drinking water from distant streams.
A British regiment asked the colonial administration to drain the lake, pleading that they wanted to play polo. The British Resident was also in favour of removing the water body, to protect the nearby bungalows, and the all-important British breweries which supplied British troops with quantities of beer, from flooding.
The Indian residents objected, and 49 local horticulturalists belonging to the Tigala or Vanhikula Kshatriya community petitioned the Mysore Diwan (Prime Minister). They wrote passionately about the importance of the lake, saying: “The difficulties which your honour’s petitioners have been experiencing for the last 20 years for want of water for the maintenance of crops owing to the tank being deprived of its various supplies are such as cannot be described in words.”
Moved by the petition, the Maharaja in turn wrote to the British Resident explaining that the horticulturalists were his tax payers, and therefore deserved a hearing. The archives are silent on the British Resident’s response, but it seems unlikely to have been favourable. For a year later, the records indicate that a part of the lake bed was in fact drained to be used as a polo playing ground.
Despite these occasional nuggets of information, the archives remain largely devoid of the Indian voice, especially the voice of the poor, dispossessed and disenfranchised – or of women! The Tigalars were after all land owners, tax payers who could organise themselves sufficiently to write a petition to the Diwan.
I turned to oral histories to understand the stories of those who could not collectively organise, those who were moved away from the landscape – the grazers, firewood collectors, fishermen and women, weavers and so many others whose livelihoods and ways of life were tied to local ecology.
When a lake was drained or a local wooded grove cut down to make way for a brewery, bungalow or office, local communities were torn asunder, peremptorily evicted to the periphery of the city to exist there for a while – until urban boundaries expanded to the fringe, leading to their eviction yet again.
In-depth interviews with men and women now in their 80s and 90s provide ecological historians (and authors) with a glimpse of diverse lived realities in 20th-century Bangalore.
When my heroine Kaveri enters the bylanes where the cowherds live in 1920s Bangalore, she sees the landscape that our interviewees described, where most encounters of daily life were made outdoors, where women fashioned cowdung patties from fresh dung by flinging them onto large boulders (much like pizzas are made from dough, with an expert flick of the wrist).
In this landscape, the majestic rain trees planted by the British for shade and floral beauty gave way to straggly bushes and untidy papaya and coconut trees, favoured by people and monkeys alike. In such a landscape, where nature was everywhere and in everything, a large metal safety pin found in a garden was as out of place as Reverend Walsh in the metropolis of monkeys – but unlike Reverend Walsh, clearly a clue, albeit an inanimate and non-judgemental one.
Read more about this book.
If you’d like to read more about India’s history, have a look at:
Unforgettable legacies of the East India Company by Vayu Naidu
Finding empathy – the complexities of writing Robert Clive by Diana Preston
Re-examining the history of Empire in fact and fiction by Tom Williams
The Ranas and the Raj by Louise Brown
It’s time to remember Ganga Singh: maharaja, reformer, statesman by Alec Marsh
And, coming full circle, our interview with Abir Mukherjee, who also writes fiction set in India in the 1920s
- St Mark’s Church From Cubbon Park, Bangalore, postcard: Families in British India Society (FIBIS) (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)
- The Main Street of the Pettah, Bangalore from Benjamin Rice by Edward Peter Rice, 1890: Wikimedia (public domain)
- South Parade, Bangalore, published by Spencer’s & Co, Madras, from the private collection of Dr Emily Stevenson: University of Michigan Library Digital Collections via Trans Asia Photography (open access)
- Evening, Sumpegay Tank (Sampangi Lake) from Picturesque Bangalore by CH Doveton, 1900: FIBIS (public domain)
- Sumpegay Tank, showing women washing clothes, from Picturesque Bangalore by CH Doveton, 1900: Wikimedia (public domain)