I did something on Thursday that I never thought I would get a chance to do: I walked in the middle of MG Road, one of Bangalore’s busiest thoroughfares, and survived. This gesture normally would be suicidal, but today’s a different kind of day in Bangalore. An eerie quiet descended on parts of India’s call centre and tech outsourcing capital as a nationwide strike to protest petrol price rises shut down businesses and public transportation.
I rolled into town from New York City early Thursday morning, and went for a walk to find out how the “Bharat Bandh,” or “India Closed” (more or less), declared by India’s top opposition party, the BJP, and some other, smaller parties, was affecting the city. The sun was out, the humidity rising; it was a delightful day in the so-called garden city of India, but it looked and felt like a exaggerated Sunday, with men hanging out by their local paanwallahs, grabbing an idle smoke and noshing on fried goodies. Security guards drooped in plastic chairs in front of stores and offices, looking even more bored than usual. There were so few cars and motorcycles on the road that you could hear yourself think, and there was so little exhaust that the air nearly felt healthy. In other words: the strike was on.
To anyone who has never visited this city, this scene doesn’t sound all that novel. But Bangalore on a normal day is a near constant grind of traffic. Endless buses, motorbikes, autorickshaws, cars, and trucks, trucks and more trucks. To cross the street without assistance, particularly for a foreigner, merits the award of some kind of medal of honor. It is normal for someone unaccustomed to the density of traffic in the heart of this city to wait 15 minutes before crossing the street — and that’s when the light is on your side.
Nazia Shaheen, the receptionist at my hotel, said that the city buses that normally ferry drivers for the hotel to work have stopped running. What can the hotel do for guests stranded at the airport, nearly an hour away? They’re on their own, she said. Nothing to be done. The new mall down the street from my hotel was shut, with a sign hanging that said it was because of the bandh. Similar notices hung on metal roll-up doors that normally are, well, rolled up around the noontime lunch hour. The bus stops were empty, the autorickshaw stands at the Taj and other expensive hotels free of drivers waiting to overcharge their fares.
Nadeem Pasha, 26, is a salesman at the Nike store in the shuttered mall. He and two friends sat on a bench across the street from the building, waiting to go to work. The Nike store said it was calling them in despite the closings to do inventory and stock work that they normally would do at night. Why not participate in the strike, I asked him.