Bangalore’s Shapeshifts: A Personal Journey

Jun 14, 2019


This is an edited version of a talk Rohini Nilekani gave as part of a curated series called ‘Speaking of the City,’ curated by Bangalore’s World-Famous Semi-Deluxe Writing Program at Shoonya. Rohini talks about the city’s role in her work as a philanthropist and social innovator.



An Accidental Bangalorean

It’s been 35 years since our arrival in Bangalore in 1984. That’s three and a half decades, most of my life, and certainly more than I spent in Mumbai, the town I was born and grew up in. So clearly, I am a Bangalorean now, there’s no two ways about it. But we weren’t the first to arrive in Bangalore. Infosys and Wipro were the third wave, but it was the public sector institutions that came in the ‘50s and ‘60s that brought in new kinds of migrants to the city. After the public institutions like BEL, HMT, ITI, etc. entered the picture, they brought with them a lot of new people and a new culture to Bangalore. Then in the ‘70s there was a phase of government factories as well as the hardware industries that were being set up in the city. It was only in the ‘80s that the IT revolution truly began here. The government itself decided to set up Electronic City, and brought in a lot of companies, Infosys, very clearly a major one among them.

That’s what really began our journey to Bangalore. For Nandan, who was born there, it was like a homecoming, but it was new to me – and the Infosys story was new to everyone. The story of Infosys captured media attention in the early ‘90s, as India’s first software company to set up its own five-acre premises in Electronic City. In 1993, the IPO meant it would be a public company that was an emblem for this new narrative: middle class professionals who wanted to beat the dynastic capitalists at their own game. It reflected the idea that you could remain true to your values and could still ethically create real wealth and an institution to be proud of. For us, the story of Infosys has been running like a thread through our own lives.

When we first moved to Bangalore, we lived in a house in 4th T Block, Jayanagar, with D. Linge Gowda as our landlord. He had just run an unsuccessful election campaign as a Congress candidate against Ramakrishna Hegde of the Janata Party in a Kanakapura by-election, and had lost. It was great to be living close to the Gowdas. Every day, in the evenings, I would sit with his wife for half an hour on the steps going up to our little flat and she would help me learn Kannada. Thanks to her, I was able to get a bit of a grounding in Kannada and also learn about the local food, since she used to call me down to her kitchen to have “akki” roti and other snacks. With that foundation, I was confident enough to make full public speeches in Kannada, and I always hoped that my enthusiasm would make up for my poor grammar. I made many mistakes along the way, but I found the Kannada people were always supportive to somebody who was trying to learn the language.

We brought up our children here, in this beautiful city, and I outsourced a lot of parenting to Valley School. With its 100 acres for the children to play in and Krishnamurti’s philosophy of “no reward, no punishment,” the children were as happy going to school as they were to come home. We also did a lot of ‘bussing’ in those days, taking two, three buses to go to Malleshwaram, work, etc. My father-in-law, particularly, was a great supporter of anything to do with the public sector, and he taught me how to get around the city using public transport.

As a journalist I used to write for local papers, and one of the earliest things I remember was marching with an organisation called Vimochana, which worked with women’s rights. We used to have placards outside people’s houses where there had been dowry deaths. I went there partly as a participant activist and partly as a reporter and sometimes the police would come and crack down on the protests. I used to go to report stories at the BBMP office, and one of my biggest goof-ups was when the officer I had gone to meet was not in his seat, and I asked his colleagues, “Lanchake hogidaara?” I learnt much later that that was not the smartest thing to say. Then, of course, there were the same old haunts that everyone used to go to, like Koshy’s, Vidyarthi Bhavan, MTR, Lalbagh, Cubbon Park – we did all the things that most Bangloreans used to do then. I even went through a phase of wanting to do Urdu shayari, and I took lessons from a gentleman called Khalil Ur Rehman, who was a DIG Intelligence officer who gave up his evenings to teach me Urdu. These are the kinds of people you meet in this city, who are willing to give so much of themselves to help someone else.

Writing In The City

Since I moved to Bangalore in ‘84, I was writing for several papers, including India Today and local papers as well. In ‘87, Vir Sanghvi had taken over as Editor of the Sunday Magazine, so it was an easy decision to join the magazine. With Gauri Lankesh as my predecessor, I was in excellent company though I couldn’t stay there for too long. I was also writing scripts for documentaries, and doing a lot of children’s writing at the time, to keep myself busy. Then I wrote my first novel, ‘Still Born,’ which was definitely inspired by the city.

The story follows Poorva Pandit, a journalist who lived in Basavanagudi, but it was also about a Bangalore that was growing into new media, that was growing into buildings of glass and concrete; where Basavanagudi itself was changing. I’ve just recently learned that Basavanagudi is one of the oldest settlements of this new city we call Bangalore. It was set up in 1895 as a refuge for people who were escaping the plague. So the city was very much at the background of my novel, and in the story, Poorva actually uses technology to solve her problems.

One of the inspirations for that was Atul Chitnis, who was really the pioneer of the open source movement in Bangalore. So the characters of the city also found their way into the novel, including Dr. Sudarshan, who has been working for decades in the BR hills with the Soliga tribals there, where the story is also partly based. My second book, ‘Uncommon Ground’ was based on a television series I did, where I interviewed corporate and social leaders together. I got Anand Mahindra to speak to Medha Patkar; I got Aruna Roy to speak to Sunil Mittal and so on, as a series. I thought it needed to be documented into a book which was called by the same name, ‘Uncommon Ground.’

When I think about the possibility of a third book, my inspiration would have to come from the many city writers that I have been meeting over the last so many decades, including Vivek Shanbagh, Anita Nair, and so many others. Shashi Deshpande, with whom I have had the honour to interact and learn from, on how to have a deep commitment to writing. And I’m always grateful to have been able to get Girish Karnad’s blessings on things like Ratnam Books. It’s a great time to remember, that even if Girish is no more, his work will always continue to live with us and be in our hearts.

A Space For Philanthropy

My philanthropy would have been very different if I had lived anywhere else, because this is a city of reformers. I keep joking that there are more reformers per square inch in Bangalore than in any other place in the country. It’s like a landmine of reformers – you have to be very careful, you can trip over them anytime. The kind of passion, open-mindedness, and commitment that I see here has convinced me that there’s no city in India quite like Bangalore. So living here is a dream for someone who has suddenly accumulated far too much wealth and wants to give it away. There is a cornucopia of choices for Nandan and I in Bangalore, which I’m very grateful for, because over the years I’ve learnt a lot, there’s been time and space to experiment, and passionate individuals to work alongside.

Early on, I set up an organisation called Nagrik, after one of my very dear friends had been killed in a horrible accident. Kiran Mazumdar, Jagdish Raja, Muralidhar Rao, and many others came together with me, to start Nagrik for safer roads. But it was a bit of a disaster, with a steep learning curve for us. We didn’t have any clue how to do proper institution-building. But we spent a lot of time at the city’s 32,000 junctions, trying to streamline the movement around that. That experience taught me a lot about how to actually engage in public life, and helped me with the other institutions that I supported or started.

In 1999, I was lucky enough to be invited to join Akshara Foundation. Its goal was to get every single child in Bangalore in school and learning by 2003. Well, it’s 2019, and I think we did a pretty good job of mobilising the government and the citizens to make sure that all the public schools were doing better than they were before. We were also able to set up more than 1,000 preschool centres that we call “Balwadis” as part of the Pratham network. The Akshara Foundation really taught me about the city, in a way that all the buses and walks around Lalbagh could not. We set up preschool centres wherever there was a community need for one, including a lot of slum areas across the city, and worked with government schools to set up remedial education centres. These initiatives, however, needed citizen volunteers to run. We needed people who believed in the idea and were willing to volunteer their time, because they weren’t going to earn a fortune by joining us. We used to give a very minimal stipend. So for the princely sum of Rs. 500 or Rs. 750, and we tried to get volunteers.

Hundreds of people came forward to set up Balwadis in their own homes, bringing in 20-30 children from the neighbourhood and spending three to four hours trying to teach them. It soon became a movement, and I’m proud to say that for several years, we were able to sustain it. That’s when I got to see how the people at the margins of the city live, and how their courage, risk-taking ability, and absolute can-do attitude meant that they would do anything for their children’s future, and that education was going to be a very important part of it.
The kind of support that we got was astounding. I remember young Muslim women who came forward, in the hundreds, to become teachers and volunteers, setting up classes in their own home. Some of them would not have had been allowed to work outside of their homes, but this was seen as a safe space for them to go and engage in teaching young children. I’m so grateful the Akshara Foundation is still thriving and continuing their work across many states. Ashok Kamath who just became the Namma Bangalore Achiever was the Chairman and continues to do splendid work.

I also got the chance to set up Pratham Books as well because I was part of Pratham’s network all over India. We were creating many eager new learners. But they had nothing to read, except the textbooks that were sent home to them from school. It’s a tragedy that there were very few children’s books that were attractive, engaging and written in different languages for children to read. So we set up Pratham Books. I took on the responsibility to set it up in Bangalore, together with Ashok Kamath, who did most of the running of the institution. The goal was a book in every child’s hand, and in its 15-year journey, I’m proud to say, I was there for 10 years. Now Suzanne Singh continues to take it to newer heights, and we have reached tens of millions of children – not just in this city, but throughout the country. I think a mark of a good institution is when the founder can move on, and the institution can do better. And I must say, all the institutions I have left have done far better after my leaving them than when I was still there, so I must be a very good founder.

Arghyam came up first as my idea of experimenting with philanthropy, because we came into money suddenly when we participated in the American Depositary motif that we did at Infosys. I personally came into 100 crores. I didn’t need 100 crores for my own life, and we were doing reasonably well. So I decided to put it all into the foundation. But I didn’t know what to do with it, so I first decided to learn some philanthropy heavy-lifting. We saved many children’s lives by helping them get to a respirator in time, we set up yoga centres, and we did some air pollution monitoring.

But in April 2005 I realised that if one wants to be strategic and long term and solve a real problem in society, it would have to be water. So from then on, Arghyam focused on the issue of water in India. For the last 14 years we’ve been working all around the country with various organizations, and hopefully, I’ve made some impact in the water sector. Most of Arghyam’s work is in fact outside Bangalore, except for some peripheral work I’ve been able to do with our lake-saving communities. The last thing we set up ourselves was EkStep. Nandan and I began to work together for the first time in 2014, however we had very different approaches and I didn’t know if this partnership would last, but it’s been almost five years now, and we’ve been able to change the game, bringing learning opportunities to 200 million children, which is our goal for 2020.

But apart from these institutions that we were able to fund ourselves, we were also able to support marvellous people setting up their own institutions. Whether it was BIC, ATREE, or Takshashila; new think tanks and ideas like IIHS (Indian Institute for Human Settlements), each of these institutions was set up by fiery, committed, intelligent people who were able to build both teams and institutions, and Nandan and I have been really lucky to be able to support some of them.

On the arts and culture side, it was also exciting to find entrepreneurs like Arundhati Nag at Ranga Shankara. Bangalore needed to revive its cultural spaces, and she worked so hard at it, but one day she felt that she just couldn’t go on. So she called us we realised that she was almost there, she just needed this one infusion. The next morning, I went with a check of 50 lakhs, and within a few weeks Ranga Shankara was up and running. Today she has so much support, and they do 300+ plays every year. They have completely revived the cultural space of the city. So I feel very proud to be a small part of that. Similarly many other opportunities to enrich the community came to us like the Devnandan Ubhayaker Yuva Sangeet Utsav, a small festival that has provided a big space for young Hindustani musical talent to showcase itself. All these ventures need some philanthropic capital, and it’s good to see that Bangaloreans do come forward.

In fact, India is learning how to crowdfund, and Bangalore is a huge part of this movement. It’s not just the billionaires who can save this country. In fact, billionaire funding for social movements should be a very small part of anything that happens in the country. We just did a report on everyday giving, and Bangaloreans actually account for a huge chunk of India’s growing small-giving. That’s why I love being a part of the city, because the people here are highly engaged as citizens.

When we moved to Koramangala, I got to be part of the RWA, and that’s something that most people are frightened of because they have strict rules. If you park on the wrong side of the road, woe befall you. Somebody will come and move your car. But I’m very proud to see how democracy functions at this basic level. We call civil society the third sector, but I think that’s ludicrous. It is the first sector and it begins where we live, and how we engage with public issues there. So I consider myself very lucky to live in the third block, Koramangala, with all its feisty civic activism. It’s also taught me to question how we protect our commons. How do we prioritize whose needs to be prioritized? Our road is called “billionaires road” because Rajeev Chandrasekhar is on one side, and Pradeep Khar is on another side. But two lanes beyond me, there are people who don’t get as much water as we do, which leads me straight into 2014.

The 2014 election is very sharp in my mind, though the 2019 one is already blurred away. In the heat of that awful April, March, we were all campaigning. Nandan was on the Congress party ticket against the most invincible Ananth Kumar, and we already know how that movie ended. But it was really the most gruelling time I’ve had in the city, with a very rapid learning curve, because politics is the most difficult profession of them all. I don’t think any other profession in this world comes close. It is 24/7 and the kind of demands to come at you all the time are impossible to manage. My respect for politicians went up by 500% in those few months, even though I wouldn’t exactly want to emulate most of their practices.

We listened to people all day long, what they hoped for, what they wanted, what they expected. And we learned exactly what keeps this dysfunctional law, equilibrium politics in place – it is nothing but a system of patronage and brokerage, because nobody wants to solve it. It suits everybody at some level. But it has been allowed to continue like this for so long, which is partly why we have the city that we do.

Looking Forward

Sometimes I feel that this city used to be one city, but now it is many cities. In these 35 years, it has become many cities. From eight million people, it has become 13.5 million people. It’s a city I no longer know, because in some ways, our lives have also expanded with it. Though my political ideology was groomed in Mumbai, my political sensibilities were very much developed here – in this city of ideas and reformers, this city of curiosity, the diverse cosmopolitan city of many, many cultures.

But I also never expected, no matter how it grew and how dysfunctional it became, that it would ever be a city where Gauri Lankesh could be shot outside her own home, and where trolls could actually say good things about a man like Girish Karnad dying. No matter how much the city becomes unfamiliar, all of us have a lot of work to do to keep that original idea of the city alive. This is one of the oldest human settlements in India, constructed on the basis of diversity, of mutual respect, of a cultural exploration, of looking forward, not back. There’s miles to do, lots of work to continue doing as citizens of this utterly marvellous city to which I now belong.



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