"WELCOME TO THE SKY.”
The elevator doors bing open at the 16th floor and the liftman, a pair of furred ears pinned to a sunken chest, mumbles this as you step out. You’re at the Skyye Bar, standing above a shining colossus of shops and clubs and lifts and executive offices and a luxury car wash and escalators and lots more lifts. You’re at the top of the city of Bangalore.
The only things above you are a helipad and, slightly higher, a great blue sign on the brow of a second tower. This tower has a tall spire, and a stocky body that seems too short by comparison, like a pygmy Empire State Building. On the sign, the top half is a neon-blue Pegasus, winging upward into the orange fuzz of the city’s night sky. The lower half says “UB”. Of course—all around you is UB City.
Skyye Bar occupies one of the terraces of UB City, a monumental, million-square-foot complex owned by Prestige builders and the
United Breweries Group. For 100 years, there had been an actual brewery here, and other low-lying company buildings. Then in 2004, the earth thundered and a marble mountain broke through, pushing up gleaming new peaks and plateaus of commerce, and a spired tower, and Skyye Bar.
The wind pushes steadily across the rooftop bar, revising the hairdos of some of the young women who sit by the edge of the terrace. The glowing floor panels shine through their cocktails and light their chins blue and purple. There aren’t many people here, but a social murmur from below suggests that the wind gusted most of the patrons right off the roof, and set them down like feathers on the balcony of another bar, Shiro, a few floors down. Shiro is always packed. On the balcony, the red points of cigarettes dart between silk scarves and silky elbows, everyone asks everyone else, “What’re you drinking?”, and night after night they return, as fixed as the giant bodhisattva statues above them.
People’s eyes were still adjusting to this height, this shine, when they learnt that it was only the beginning. A pair of bungalows behind UB City has become, in turn, a huge pit in the ground, fuming with work and materiel. Here they are building “the sequel”: Kingfisher Towers, a sky-reaching stack of luxury flats. At about R30,000 per square foot, the flats are the highest-priced real estate ever purchased in the city (and they’re already all sold). But one of the bungalows that was torn down was the family home of Vijay Mallya, chairman of the UB Group, the alcohol-to-aviation conglomerate, whom they call the King of Good Times.
This bungalow will be rebuilt—on a platform upon the roof of Kingfisher Towers. A private driveway will lead Vijay Mallya in. A private elevator will carry him up 33 floors. There, on a tray raised high in the sky, he will have a garden, a pool, a pillared portico and a home with only the clouds for neighbours.
At Skyye Bar, you are nearly as high up. This view of Bangalore is unfamiliar. It has never been a city with much vertical reach. Its buildings, like its residents, rarely raised themselves so high that they looked down over the rest; even today, the raintrees feel like some of the tallest things in the city. But it’s no accident that where you are now is high over Bangalore, clinking glasses, above a palace named after a brewery, awaiting a tower named after a lager.
Long before information technology made Bangalore famous, alcohol was the city’s defining industry—shaping its identity for outsiders as well as residents. Though Bangalore is often called India’s “Pub Capital”, the pubs are just the frothy head on the pour.
Alcohol printed the city’s newspapers, produced its movies, put down hospitals and schools and sports teams—and ruled the men who ruled its people. It caused the worst medical emergencies, sweetened the long evenings and created the brands to which Bangaloreans feel truest loyalty. Yet Bangalore’s identity as a liquor city has always stayed in the realm of folklore. It has never been recognised in urban histories, only in jokes and in its hazy self-image as a town of “guzzlers”.
The city of Bangalore was born divided, as a colonial Cantonment and a native city, white and black twins. From the start, they had a divided drinking culture, of “foreign” and “country” liquor; alcohol has helped define the city’s split identity ever since. After the British left, the two halves of Bangalore were merged. They came together like two strangers with their backs to each other, not knowing whether to embrace or wrestle. As the two cities grappled, so did the two liquor industries.
This is the story of how beer, arrack, rum and whiskey—and the companies that made them—irrigated the growth of Bangalore from a quaint colonial outpost to a regional capital, and onwards to the promised land of the globalisation era. Between the 1950s and the 1970s, country liquor reigned, and its profits patronised a surge of cultural pride in the capital of a newly unified linguistic state. In the 1980s, beer and foreign liquor broke the ranks of country liquor, pouring out across the city from the former Cantonment. As a new consumer economy arose in the 1990s, foreign liquor seized the chance to name and claim city institutions. The battle of booze made the city, and today we drink inside the victor’s castle.
RIGHT HERE IS WHERE THE STORY BEGINS. The ground now pressed under the mass of UB City was once the site of the Bangalore Brewery, which opened to ease the thirsty work of maintaining the British Raj from a remote, inland hold. In 1807, a small imperial garrison near the native pete (settlement) of Bangalore was expanded into a full Civil and Military Station. Similar cantonments were being built across the subcontinent, but the Bangalore Station was an especially powerful symbol, built on the site of a major battle, very soon after the defeat of a defiant ruler, Tipu Sultan.
The native “City”, to the west, was a dense, unplanned commercial cluster, filled with the clatter of silk and cotton looms and the vapours of cowdung. The “Cantt”, to the east, was a wide, spacious sprawl of parade grounds, church spires, barracks and bungalows, with great spaces given over to equine sports, like the racecourse and polo grounds. But Cantt and City were not only different, they were strictly separate. The border between them was topographic, administrative and, obviously, ethnic. The British troops, settlers, Anglo-Indians and Eurasians in the Cantt were served by an imported population of Tamilians and Telugu-speakers. To avoid being dependent on the native population, labour was never sought from the City. So the two areas remained aloof and mutually suspicious, until long past the end of British rule.
This line was well patrolled in the colonial era, but as the city historian Janaki Nair has found, it was also constantly crossed. Viewed from the City, the Cantonment could be nerve-wracking and exclusionary, but it was also strange and beautiful. Its broad roads held a promise of social escape and open thinking, outside the conservative miasma of the City.
The City also had its own temptations for bored, barracked soldiers: specifically, sex and alcohol. Sexual commerce in the City left soldiers with syphilis, gonorrhea and soft chancre, but according to Nair, it was impossible to suppress. Troops also snuck into the City to find cheap local liquor, and ended up drunk and disorderly, or poisoned by spurious brews. For this problem, however, there was a ready solution: a supply of cheap, lower-proof booze, like beer.
In 1889, Cantt officials permitted the opening of the Bangalore Brewery. By then, the sounds of the weaving industry had been silenced in the pete, as they were in towns across the subcontinent. So the Brewery, the only industry that was opened inside the Cantt, became the first sign of an economic future for Bangalore. The brewery prospered during World War II, as did the dancehalls of South Parade and Brigade Road, where thousands of Allied troops drank down their per diems before being shipped off to the front.
After Independence, what had been known as Cantonment liquor—the rums and whiskies supplied to the troops—was officially classed as “Indian-made foreign liquor”, or IMFL. But it was a colonial creation: even today, the labels of Kingfisher and Hercules rum carry a discreet crown.
IMFL was distinguished from “desi” or country liquor, like toddy and arrack. From then onwards, the terms for the two kinds of liquor—“Indian-made foreign” and “desi”—would also serve as stereotypes for the two kinds of people who drank them.
In 1956, Bangalore became the capital of a new state, with sovereign power to make laws controlling “intoxicating liquors”. Historically, nearly every Indian state has staggered between regimes that encouraged the industry (and its giant contribution to state revenue) and regimes that suppressed it (and its moral and social costs). Karnataka is the exception. The power of its liquor lobby ensured that, uniquely among the South Indian states, it never attempted Prohibition.
AT FIRST, BREWERIES AND IMFL distilleries were quiet operations, linked to a drowsy ecology of urban tippling. In 1947, Vittal Mallya had been the young director of United Breweries Limited, in Madras. He bought up company shares from departing Englishmen, so that in the year that India became independent, UB moved from British to Indian hands, too. After that, the corporate history of UB developed in step with the history of Bangalore. In 1952, the year Bangalore became the legislative capital of Mysore State, UB’s headquarters were moved here, to the grounds of the Bangalore Brewery. In 1956, the year Karnataka was born, so was its best recognised export: Kingfisher.
Vittal Mallya was “like a quiet chartered accountant”, said one senior state bureaucrat, a numbers man with a receding hairline and a demure personality. It is a piece of UB lore that when his son Vijay lost a one paisa coin while playing, his father made sure to make a note against his account. After Vittal Mallya’s death, Grant Road, the street where his brewery sits, was renamed in his honor. But it was appropriate for other reasons too: Vittal Mallya Road was a wealthy area, as central as could be, yet it was quiet, low-profile and of a piece with an earlier Bangalore.
UB made its entry into producing hard liquor in 1951, when it acquired the company McDowell & Co and started distilling brandy. Through the 1960s, however, as the trickle of foreign spirits made in Bangalore swelled to a steady flow, another company came to dominate hard liquor. The Khoday family business had begun in 1906, in another classically Bangalorean industry, silk. It took a new step in 1965, when the four brothers who now run the company spied their fortune in foreign liquor.
The Khodays were not from a Cantt background, and some of the brothers encountered country liquor at a young age. Their grandfather, Eshwarsa Khoday, had sent each one to live in the home of a company worker. Sri Hari Khoday was 13 when he was sent off for a week, and only remembers his host, Lingappa, as a man blind drunk on arrack. “He brings rice and tells his wife to cook afterwards,” he recalled. “Then he beats her.”
The House of Khoday hired a Scottish distiller named Peter Warren to set up their Bangalore distillery. Within a few years, the Khoday family name was synonymous with dark rum. Hercules Rum and Khodays XXX brushed off the competition from North India; Peter Scot (named by Warren after himself) became the leading whiskey brand in the city, as well as in defence canteens countrywide. The link between the foreign-liquor distiller and the army mess had remained strong: military canteens sold large quantities at excise-exempt prices, and leaked plenty into the general market.
Later, when the IMFL lobby reached its hand deep into the state legislature, the Khodays would exercise their real genius. In their heyday, they threw parties where models mingled with ministers; it’s often alleged that they built the houses of major state politicians. At the start, however, even they were small fish before the cetacean self-confidence of the arrack lobby.
WE DON'T UNDERSTAND ARRACK ANYMORE. It’s thought of as a lurid orange potion drunk in villages and urban slums, a bottle smashed by a protesting women’s group, a plastic sachet filled with social crisis. Yet in the early decades after Independence, country liquor was never thought of as déclassé.
Traditional country liquor is toddy, tapped from palm trees and fermented. When toddy-making was industrialised, the liquor was diluted, flavoured, or replaced with a different alcoholic base, like sugarcane: this was arrack. The official distinction between arrack and IMFL had less to do with cultural separation, and more with different systems of excise. Beer and IMFL were taxed per unit produced or sold. The revenue from country liquor came through the older abkari system, which auctioned the contract to vend from the arrack shops in each district. The district-based rentals linked up naturally with the district-based politics of a new electoral system.
Tapping palm trees was the hereditary trade of the Idiga caste, and “excise contracts” stayed in the hands of Idiga gentry who owned palm plantations. They were wealthy and socially esteemed, in the model of the arrack baron KN Guruswamy, a great patron of the Turf Club never seen without a Mysore peta on his head. Auctions were practically symbolic; the rental could be fixed through genteel negotiation between excise contractors and senior officials. “They used to ask the government, how much revenue do you require?” said a former state minister. “Government would say, we require this much, and then they would settle. Keep your profit, give us our money—too much of bureaucratic interference should not be there.”
The auction for the excise licence was itself a major social event. The journalist Sachidananda Murthy recalls the scene from an auction in the1970s:
Town Hall was the most imposing edifice in Bangalore, and that’s where the liquor auctions used to take place. Very interesting people turned up… people from society, horse owners, Stewards of the Bangalore Race Club, because there was a strong connection between liquor industry and racing. And a public display of big money was taking place.
Mr Guruswamy would arrive in his Studebaker car; other contractors in their cars. The bidder had to bring hard cash—8 crores, 10 crores, in gunny bags and with guards. You produced the cash within one hour of bidding, so armoured vehicles and Black Marias would be waiting to transfer it to the treasury.
It would be a big affair, almost like the Derby. They would come in all their finery, and when they won there’d be butlers with soft drinks and snacks, and normally the winner would host a big lunch. But with no liquor served.
Held in place by social monopoly, and sensing no threat from IMFL, the arrack barons rested comfortably. The big scare after Independence was that Gandhian impulses in the Congress party would lead to Prohibition. One staunch Gandhian was Kengal Hanumanthaiah, the last chief minister of Old Mysore State. In 1956, when the Congress failed to reappoint him, the arrack lobby was thought to be responsible. From the year of its birth, the first whiff of liquor entered Karnataka’s halls of power.
At the height of Prohibition anxiety, KN Guruswamy and a group of Idiga excise contractors purchased a building on South Parade, the proudest boulevard at the heart of the Cantt. The place was called Funnels: a dancehall famed for drunken wartime brawls between Tommies and Yanks over who would dance with the Anglo-Indian girls. After the purchase, however, the premises were put to a new purpose. Guruswamy installed a press here, and began printing two daily papers, The Deccan Herald in English and Praja Vani in Kannada.
Both the newspapers became integral Bangalorean dailies, and until the 1990s and the arrival of The Times of India, the circulation of both papers was unchallenged in the state. Still, there has always been good-natured speculation about Guruswamy’s real reasons for getting into news.
His grandson, Shanth Kumar, who has edited both The Deccan Herald and Praja Vani, is sure they were never a device for opposing Prohibition. “There was this need for, and this space available for a newspaper,” he said. “The country was setting off on an entirely new path, and the media needed to play a crucial new role.” Shanth Kumar admits to being impressed that two newspapers, “seeded and nurtured by successful entrepreneurship in the liquor business, maintained this credibility” for decades. But the fact that Pothan Joseph, then a celebrity editor, was hired “for a regional newspaper [The Deccan Herald] starting up in an obscure town like Bangalore… It shows that he wanted this to be a success on its own.”
On the other hand, as any journalist knows, you don’t control newspapers by controlling the news—you control newspapers by choosing editors. Pothan Joseph had a “grand affair with the bottle”, in the words of journalist TJS George, and was a prolific editorialist against Prohibition. His trademark column was called “Over a Cup of Tea”, though as his deputy PK Srinivasan remarked to historian Ramachandra Guha, “never was a newspaper column more grossly misnamed”. Joseph and Srinivasan were leading lights of the journalism of that era, so the jokes that did the rounds—that Deccan Herald ought to be called “Drunken Herald”, and Prajavani “Paanavani”—never carried much sting. Still, Guruswamy’s newspapers helped steer Bangalore clear of Prohibition.
In the days when arrack reigned, excise contractors were the great entrepreneurs and benefactors of Bangalore. They built the city’s main hotels and movie halls, the latter especially important at a time when statehood, language and cinema were being braided up into the cord of Kannada pride. The state of Karnataka reunified the cultural energies of Kannada-speaking provinces long cleaved between other British presidencies and princely states. The film industry was ready to create the icons of modern Kannada pride, of which the greatest was another Idiga, the actor Rajkumar. And there were other good reasons the Idigas built cinemas, said M Bhaktavatsala, an actor, former president of the Film Federation of India and nephew of KN Guruswamy. “They had a lot of black money. You can build a cinema hall for seven lakhs or seventy lakhs, according to your fancy.”
Many Kannada films were therefore watched in the City, yet the films themselves registered a deep suspicion of Bangalore. “Sandalwood”, as the industry has been labelled, operated from here, but Bangalore was too colonially coloured, and outside the real Kannada nation of Old Mysore. The film critic MK Raghavendra described Kannada cinema as “confused” about the state capital.
“Bangalore is presented differently at different moments,” he said. “And the Cantonment—even though it has always been more glamorous than the City—is usually absent.” One exception is the setting of the notorious song ‘If You Come Today’, from the movie Operation Diamond Rocket. In it, Rajkumar infiltrates a cabaret, where women are drinking; he sings silly English lyrics, teasing the Cantt-like crowd about their affectations. When the villain comes into view for the first time, he is tipping a glass of whisky into his mouth.
Links between the worlds of arrack and film grew stronger through the 1960s and 1970s. Bhaktavatsala himself built the Minerva, Lavanya and Lakshmi cinemas. HR Basavaraj, an excise contractor who became director of the Karnataka Film Industry Development Corporation, built Blue Moon and Blue Diamond. Another arrack baron, Malappa Shinde, opened Kalpana and Alankar, and another, Dasappa, built half a dozen cinemas, including Majestic. Majestic was so popular it gave its name to the old “City” bus terminal, Bangalore’s largest landmark.
By the 1980s, however, the balmy summer of the arrack industry was over. The nature of its entwinement with politics was changing: new politicians grew more predatory, and the established system of rents turned into a competitive economy of poor regulation and bribery. Arrack producers began to adulterate and spike the stuff. “It became a dirty game, in every sense: you’d pay off people, they’d allow you to cheat, you’d cheat the customer, the whole thing,” said Shanth Kumar. “By the time I grew up, none of us were encouraged to get into the business.”
Most lethally, the loss of state control had given rise to an underground of illegal distillation which nobody could contain. Traditional monopolies on country liquor were falling apart, and a flood of hooch had mingled with legal arrack. It wasn’t long before Bangalore’s cup was poisoned.
On 6 July 1981, the Bowring and Victoria Hospitals were suddenly crowded with men and women writhing with stomach pains, vomiting, losing their vision or unable to breathe. They were dying within hours of their admission. Two days later, city hospitals were overwhelmed, and bodies were leaving Bowring Hospital piled in lorries. In six days, a batch of contaminated hooch had killed 336 Bangaloreans: the worst liquor poisoning in history. Mass burials and cremations followed.
The mass poisoning exposed a booming business in illegal distillation in the city. Previously, excise contractors had policed their own turf, wiping out moonshiners, but by now both the state and the arrack empires were too compromised to check them. Hooch poisonings recurred every few years, morbid reminders of arrack’s fallen state.
THE CITY AT NIGHT IS ABLAZE with light, but looking down from UB City, only one other building bursts through the darkness. It is Vidhana Soudha, the Dravidian-kitsch home of the state assembly. The great portico is filled with green light, and etched with a motto: “Government’s Work is God’s Work”. Bangaloreans get a regular laugh out of that. From this angle—as it faces east to the UB Tower, both buildings lit like festive idols—you see that government’s work was committed to a different kind of spirit.
As country liquor entered terminal decline, the IMFL producers’ lobby rose to compete with their country-liquor cousins. There was not one liquor lobby now but two, and their battle over the excise-industrial complex would consume state politics for decades. The 1980s would start and end with the fall of a chief minister: the first one undermined by the decadence of arrack, and the other toppled by the new muscle of IMFL.
That decade changed everything for Bangalore and its liquor industry, as it did for the country and the economy at large. Part of the reason the liquor industry had become so politicised was that its inputs were tied up in heavy regulation. Molasses, the base ingredient for all IMFL, was controlled by state boards that set prices and inter-state export allotments: as good a metaphor as you’ll find for sticky and slow-moving state intervention. By the end of the 1980s, an era of supply-side snarls and state regulation had fallen away, and in 1993, molasses was decontrolled.
The consumer economy began to heat up. The arrival of Texas Instruments in 1985 turned the key in the city’s next identity, and IT salaries fuelled the city’s commercial life. Jobs in business-process outsourcing eventually liberated young people in unexpected ways: a young woman could go out at night, telling her parents she was headed to work at Wipro instead of to party at the Night Watchman. The varieties and brands of IMFL multiplied. Barred from conventional advertising, companies devised the most creative and enduring ways to use profits and place their brands around the city.
Elsewhere in the country, bloodied ethnic banners were raised over entire states. In Bangalore, agitations for vernacular rights were mostly peaceful. A state capital 40 kilometres from the Tamil Nadu border, but hundreds of kilometres from most of its heartland, began to be claimed as a place where Kannada belonged. The Gokak agitation, which demanded first-language status for Kannada, caused the language to become widely taught and spoken in the old Cantonment zone.
With the landing of the offshored service industry, however, English made a reverse claim. “A certain amount of Kannada influence came to the Cantonment, there’s no doubt about it; I can speak Kannada and be perfectly understood, which wasn’t the case earlier,” said Narendar Pani, a professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, and a scholar of Bangalore. “But the much bigger thing was that English went to the City.” Texas Instruments’ pioneering office opened on Queens Road, demonstrating how a place first settled by global empire was now to be resettled by global capital. English was part of the technology of both, though civil service ledgers were now call centre headsets, and strained British accents were now trained American ones.
It was a decade of insecurity and elation, a period of unravelling and of knitting up a new order. From 1983-84, as Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister, Ramakrishna Hegde became chief minister, and Vijay Mallya the chairman of the UB Group. A new mix was in the bottle.
Hegde led the Janata Party into power, unseating the Congress for the first time in the state’s history. Hegde was charismatic, beloved of the middle class and the Bangalore intelligenstia, and a face of change in Karnataka.
Early in his term, he received a judicial committee report about the 1981 hooch tragedy. From its recommendations, Hegde chose one to implement right away: to stop arrack from being sold in drums, and instead have it sealed in bottles. The result was the Bottling Scam, in which the excise commissioner J Alexander handed major bottling contracts to eight entities nobody had heard of. According to Ravindra Reshme, who covered the story for Lankesh Patrike, the eight firms were fronts for figures as varied as Congress and Janata leaders, the arrack contractor Dasappa and the CM’s own son-in-law. Hegde resigned, and although he withdrew his resignation before long, he never regained the confidence of a hopeful middle class. Neither did the arrack industry.
By the end of the decade, another CM would fall. This time it was a sign of the strength of the IMFL lobby, and the system of enrichment it had built: the “seconds” regime. Politics in India is speechless without its euphemisms, and in Karnataka the finest is “seconds”. It refers to IMFL on which, with ruling-party collusion, no excise is paid. The excise rate for liquor sold inside the state was much higher than the export levy for liquor shipped out, so typically, seconds liquor was marked up for export, but never actually left the state. This wasn’t just a bit of regulatory massaging: seconds allowed an incredible diversion of wealth out of the exchequer and back to parties and IMFL companies. At certain points, half of all the IMFL made in Karnataka may have evaded excise.
The Khodays’ political relationships were the key to the seconds regime, said one former state minister. The eldest brother, Ramachandra Khoday, was especially close with the admired chief minister Devraj Urs. “Whoever became chief minister, they were very, very, very friendly with almost all of them,” the former minister said. “The seconds started with them only.”
Seconds were part of the strategy of IMFL’s advance on country-liquor territory. “When they decide to compete with arrack, particularly after liberalisation, the simplest way of doing it was by not paying your duties,” said Narendra Pani. “You make a deal with your excise department, work out a ratio of trucks. These were all instruments of the continuous tug-of-war between the groups.”
In 1989, Veerendra Patil led the Congress party back into power with an awesome majority. Patil had inherited a state in dire fiscal condition, and resolved to suppress the growth of seconds. His government raised the state export levy from R2 to R20 per litre, and passed a law requiring manufacturers to sell their liquor only to a government distributor, the Mysore Sales International Ltd (MSIL), nixing their ability to move excise-evaded liquor straight to the shop. He also banned the sale of traditional toddy, a generous favour to the arrack lobby.
This was atrocious news for foreign-liquor producers. The industry was tumbling from its newly acquired grace. Between July and September 1990, UB’s beer sales reportedly dropped by 45 percent. The Khodays sued the government for infringing on “the fundamental right of the parties to carry on trade or business in liquor”, a case that was eventually dismissed. In his memoirs, the bureaucrat Madhav Godbole recalls Patil saying: “They told me they could either pay my taxes, or pay my party money for elections. I told them straight away that they must pay taxes.”
On 24 September 1990, Patil had to be hospitalised after a stroke, and the IMFL lobby moved fast. Within the week, Congress president Rajiv Gandhi flew to Bangalore, called on Patil at his home, drove back to the airport and announced before boarding that the state would have a new chief minister.
Patil protested. “I am alright,” he told the press. “I have strength in both arms and legs… my strength has not come down, the only thing is coordination.” But he was already history, replaced by Sarekoppa Bangarappa. Bangarappa, an Idiga himself, yanked the lever back: He lowered export duties, cut taxes on beer and re-legalised toddy. He also rehabilitated J Alexander, tainted by the Bottling Scam, and made him finance secretary, where he controlled excise once again.
The battle of booze raged on. Now each government tended to favour one lobby, while targeting the other with the attentions of the excise department and the contempt of the ruling party. “You can use Prohibition rhetoric against arrack, if you want to help IMFL, or use moralistic jargon against IMFL to favour arrack,” Pani said.
By the end of the 1990s, the cup of IMFL had run over: all that outpaced it was the growth in seconds. But the rest of the state economy had transformed, and new industrial lobbies had matured: real estate, granite, education and, of course, mining. When SM Krishna became chief minister in 1999, he was handed a report estimating that, in recent years, the amount of excise companies had evaded was thrice the amount they had paid. This time, the CM fought the seconds regime and won. Krishna used the same tax tools Patil had, and consolidated MSIL’s mandate in the new Beverage Corporation. “It wasn’t really administrative. It was political,” said Shanth Kumar. “But he made it look like an administrative thing, because you needed an excuse. You can’t say ‘I’m stopping it today’, because then the question is, why didn’t you stop it yesterday?”
Krishna’s success began a new phase of fiscal stability in Karnataka. His tenure, however, was the last full-term chief ministership Karnataka has had. With every major party in disarray, the 2004 elections were a free-for-all. Ten new political parties had materialised, started by anyone who wanted a foot in the door. That included Vijay Mallya and Sri Hari Khoday.
Khoday formed the Urs Samyuktha Paksha (Urs United Party), calling for a backward-caste Kshatriya alliance in the name of Devraj Urs. Mallya disinterred the state unit of the Janata Party: the saddest orphan of the old Janata Party of Ramakrishna Hegde. Neither party won a single seat, and afterwards both sank quietly to the seabed. Yet despite their equal failure, the two liquor barons’ agendas came out looking very different. Khoday’s campaign, by most accounts, was a last lunge to revive the seconds regime. Mallya sought a ladder to the national stage: probably a Rajya Sabha seat, which he did later coax out of the state government. That helped him deepen the ministerial relationships that were crucial levers for new endeavours, especially Kingfisher Airlines. The airline was the greatest possible extension for the Kingfisher brand, and a way for Vijay Mallya to strike out from his father’s alcohol empire. But he didn’t have his father’s luck with acquisitions, and the airline’s debt crisis now threatens the alcohol empire. It may even end with the family giving up the original Mallya company, UB Ltd.
Ultimately, foreign liquor had come out on top. No recession could slow it down. According to the research firm Euromonitor International, the sale of beer in India swelled from one billion to 1.9 billion litres between 2006 and 2011; spirits went from 1.2 billion to 2.2 billion. Forty-one percent of this is consumed in South India. Arrack, still unable to lose the taint of spurious hooch, was draining out of the picture. Long after it was banned in the other South Indian states, in 2007, Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa banned arrack in Karnataka. Today, on Seppings Road, the gate that led to the most popular arrack vendor in town is now locked. On the streetside, men still flick oil onto the spiced mutton that sizzles in giant black pans. But the lot behind the gate is a godown for scavenged trash.
AS BANGALORE TURNED towards foreign liquor, the companies in the IMFL lobby did battle over the city. At the start of the 1980s, the House of Khoday was the state’s leading producer of hard liquor. United Breweries was the unchallenged market-leader for beer. To challenge UB’s beer dominance, the Khodays needed a fresh strategy, and they had one.
In 1983, the Khodays opened the Ramda on Museum Road, a bar that sold beer fresh from the keg, with patrons that “lent it the air of an ersatz British drinking joint”, said Jaideep VG, editor of Time Out Bengaluru. There was always a crowd, a fact that caught the attention of Ashok Sadhwani, the owner of a garments shop nearby on Church Street.
“We were totally into silk trade,” said Sadhwani. “We had no head-or-tails knowledge of this bloody liquor business at all.” Still, he was intrigued by the Ramda’s popularity. “Somehow we came into touch with Vijay Mallya and group, and told them the concept of this pub, and would you guys be interested in opening a place like this?”
Sadhwani meant a place that served draught beer, but also one that cultivated a leisurely, social air like pubs in Britain. “At that time there were bars—dingy bloody areas, dark, shady, where you had all these wrong elements,” Sadhwani said. But British pubs opened their doors to families, to men in suits, and crucially, to women. That kind of cheery liberalism hadn’t been much in evidence since the Cantonment dancehalls shut down.
Mallya was already toying with the idea of selling draught in the city. “He said, ‘Listen guys, I am with you. Don’t worry about the excise licence and this and that. We have our connections. We’ll do everything for you. You just open the damn place. Let’s get started!” Sadhwani would never have managed without Mallya’s encouragement and connections. “United Breweries gave us all the damn support,” he said. “At the time, Mr Alexander was the Excise Commissioner. He was a good friend of Vijay Mallya’s. He gave them a blanket permit, in the sense that, listen, these guys, whatever help they want, just go ahead.”
When The Pub opened, in 1986, “the place created havoc”, Sadhwani recalled. “We had long queues outside, and a bloody mela inside.” Mallya personally inaugurated it, and it, in turn, inaugurated Bangalore’s pub culture. By the time the Sadhwanis opened their second establishment, Pub World, in 1991, nearly 40 other pubs had sprung up. “They were mushrooming everywhere. From the Garden City it became the Pub City.”
In 1993, Sadhwani relaunched The Pub as NASA, a bar built like the inside of a space shuttle, with stars in the portholes and astronautical announcements on the sound system: “Fasten your seatbelts…” The creative audacity of NASA was a contrast to what had happened to Ramda. By 1994, the bar was so stagnant that the Khodays began selling arrack there. The next year, the Ramda shut down. Speaking to The Times of India in 1995, their VP Marketing was brief: “We are reorienting our strategy for pubs.” By this point, the Khodays’ alcohol strategy, in general, seemed to be unruly retreat. UB’s, however, was only to advance.
IN THE HIGH CENTRAL GALLERY of UB City, escalators arc upwards like a bridge to retail heaven. On the ground floor, they’re flanked by a display of two Mercedes Benz models: an SLS AMG convertible, which costs R32 million, and a relatively affordable E-Class Coupe (R7.6 million). Most people head straight up the escalators to the terrace-piazza. As they ascend, their eyes wander over the ring of mock-Florentine art that girds the ceiling. There are portraits of hook-nosed bishops and other chintzy characters, but the one that’s most memorable is a heavy-jowled, bearded, puffy-looking monarch. It is obviously Henry VIII, but it mainly recalls the king of this very castle.
When Vittal Mallya died in 1983, control of the UB Group passed to his son, a not-yet-30 hellion who loved yachts and planes and fast cars. A typical anecdote about the young Vijay Mallya goes like this: In 1981, his father was waiting for him in Udaipur to inaugurate a newly acquired bottling unit. Vijay Mallya was still in Delhi. So he decided to buy a Porsche and floored it all the way to Udaipur, “dodging and pushing passers-by and some cops”, according to the associate who rode shotgun.
In Bangalore, business heroes tend to distinguish themselves through parsimonious living, self-effacement and other herbivorous virtues. Vijay Mallya was ever the opposite. But his business style, so different from his father’s, served UB well as pre-'90s concerns about supply gave way to a millennial obsession with marketing and brand.
Arrack lost ground as incomes rose and IMFL prices fell in the 1990s. But neither of those was its essential, lethal weakness. Arrack was a generic product—indistinguishable between shops or distillers—in a society hypnotised by brands. It faded from the vision of consumers sold on fizzing aspirational imagery, linked to new media and new pop culture. Other IMFL producers like the Khodays were casualties too. Only UB was everywhere you looked.
Today when you look up in central Bangalore, you see a skyscraper-ish spire and a neon-blue Pegasus; they crown UB Tower, the group’s new headquarters. To approach the lobby, you climb a long asphalt ramp, and as it comes into view, you’re welcomed by a pair of nude, skinny legs taller than a man. Next to it, a giant sandy torso thrusts a blue bikini into the air. The blown-up collage of the new Kingfisher calendar girls probably ensures that most visitors never notice the beer-bottle chandelier on the ceiling. It’s appropriate: If UB has done anything since the 1990s, it has blown up its brands until they’re impossible to ignore, and even more visible than the products they sell.
In his glass-walled office on the 16th floor, Kalyan Ganguly keeps all the blinds open. The city swells out behind him, winking in the sunlight, like the sea beneath a ship captain’s bridge. Ganguly, the managing director of UB’s beer division, believes his company has defined “the personality of the city—a city that is, as we say, UB positive in its blood group”. In return, Bangalore taught him how to communicate with young India. “What does Bangalore mean to an outsider? Bangalore is young, it’s colourful, it’s vibrant, it’s cosmopolitan. It’s fun.”
Since the early 1990s, Ganguly has hunted fun the way his predecessors hunted import licenses for hops. One serious opportunity came around in 1996, when the cricket World Cup was held in India. While other companies fought to sponsor India’s star players, the UB Group announced its sponsorship of the West Indies team. “Nobody tried to capture the spirit of fun in cricket,” Ganguly said. “Well, who represents that more than the West Indies, who can beat Australia one day and lose to Kenya the next?” That campaign was a huge success, and left behind an earwormy jingle, composed by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy: “Oo la la la la lo lay oh!”
Unfortunately, the island nations did not see the fun. The sponsorship payout was scorned for being too small, and UB caused an uproar by proposing to call the team the “Kingfisher West Indies”. Owen Arthur, the prime minister of Barbados, called the deal “backward and ignorant”. Quoted in Hillary Beckles’ history of the team, Arthur said, “The West Indies cricket team belongs to West Indians, and should not just be debased by its commercialisation and called after a particular product.”
Welcome to Bangalore, Mr Arthur, where half the city was being called after a product. Mallya’s brand names began appearing everywhere, like capitalist graffiti tags. At the Bangalore Turf Club, the big event was the Kingfisher Derby. He opened the Apollo Mallya Hospital; before long, “Apollo” was dropped from the name.
Growing up in Bangalore, I attended two schools, each endowed by a rival liquor baron. The Valley School had its 100 forested acres donated by Sri Hari Khoday, although it didn’t retain his brand. By the time I joined my high school, Aditi, in 1999, it had been renamed the Mallya Aditi International School, in exchange for a donation of about R20 million. One teacher explained, “He wanted every institution of a certain standard to carry the Mallya name.”
Around the same time, Sri Hari Khoday funded Santha Shishunala Sharif, a film about the eponymous poet-saint that became a landmark in Kannada cinema. The project began during a sangeeth at the Khoday brothers’ mansion. The guests included the famed music composer C Aswath, as well as the state minister JH Patel, who would become CM a few years later. Because Khoday is a good singer himself, he went first, with one of the saint’s songs. “Stop!” said JH Patel. “How do you know this?” Khoday explained about finding some tapes in his car. “Yajman, we have to make this film,” Patel said—and it was done. The film won a National Award, and so did the next one Khoday produced with the same director, Mysooru Mallige.
Yet this was an old-world form of patronage—it underlined the Khodays’ lag in the new game, which was branding. In its heyday, the arrack lobby had supported the new regional aspiration: a proud Kannada culture. In this boom-time of IMFL, the smart money moved behind the symbols of globalised aspiration. These symbols were often confusing: vulgar, like Baywatch, or painfully commercial. But a squadron of multinational liquor giants had now borne down on India, dropping heavy-tonnage ads for Smirnoffs, Bacardis and Fosters (“Ostrayliyan for beeyah”). Only UB scrambled to stay ahead of their game.
Their new brand extensions pushed the limits of laddish wink-and-whistle. The Kingfisher calendar, which isn’t even sold as a calendar, was really a way to brand the country’s best bikini bodies. Kingfisher Airlines dolled up flight attendants to the point where the joke was that salaries were inversely linked to skirt length. Mallya’s Formula 1 team had pit girls. Fun, fun, fun. And in April 2008, when the Royal Challengers Bangalore walked onto the pitch for the very first Twenty20 match, at least half the eyes in the stadium were on their cheerleaders. The White Mischief Girls aren’t called that because they’re Caucasian—it’s the name of a UB vodka.
In his office at the top floor of the UB Tower, Vijay Rekhi thought back on his role in naming Bangalore’s IPL club after a blended whiskey. “I remember very clearly, when the tender was floated, I sent Vijay Mallya a note saying we should have a team of our own,” Rekhi told me, “where we can anchor our namesake brand. We couldn’t call it Royal Challenge Whisky—but we could call it Royal Challengers!” He laughed. “And it’s an appropriate name! We’re Challengers. I believe it’s a good fit. I mean, we didn’t call it Director’s Special.”
Royal Challenge wasn’t just a good fit. It was a brand United Spirits had just acquired, after a two-decade legal battle over the ownership of its parent company, the former rival Shaw Wallace. Vijay Mallya must have been delighted to hang its name, like a trophy, on his new cricket team—the only squad in the IPL named after a product.
Rekhi knows how to give a whiskey its due. He’s been with the UB Group for 40 years, spending 15 of them as managing director of United Spirits Ltd, the hard liquor and wine division. He is now the chairman of the Executive Committee. In that time, he saw the company go “from being a follower to being a leader in the spirits domain”, holding more than half the Indian market share. It has 21 brands that each sells more than a million cases annually. This year, USL became the world’s largest spirits producer by volume.
Rekhi identifies three broad factors behind that success. One was Vittal Mallya’s program of acquisitions, beginning with McDowells in 1951. In the late 1970s, Moraji Desai’s prime ministership had created a renewed Prohibition scare (schoolboys everywhere know which yellow liquid he preferred). Several states introduced Prohibition, but Mallya guessed the pressure would be short-lived, and he bought up any breweries or distilleries put up for sale. The move established UB as the only alcohol producer with a nationwide manufacturing network. Vijay Mallya oversaw more acquisitions, including Shaw Wallace and Whyte & Mackay.
The second factor, Rekhi said, was maximising the company’s spirits portfolio, and pushing to be leaders in every category. The third was pouring money into brands, a tactic he illustrated by remembering another cricket match, though this one was played in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. In 1983, the first ever day-night match in the country televised live. India playing Pakistan.
“Kapil Dev was captain on this side, Zaheer Abbas on the other side,” Rekhi recalled with a slight smile. “Madam Gandhi was to come to inaugurate it. [The president of India] Giani Zail Singh came. IS Bindra was president of the Delhi Cricket Association. I went to him and said sir, we want to sponsor this. He said yes, and the price? You’d be surprised. Seven lakh rupees I paid for the entire stadium, and we plastered it with our products. The cameras covered the stadium, and there was nothing else but Bagpiper for eight hours.”
Like his colleague Kalyan Ganguly, Rekhi swears by the spectacle-economy wisdom of the 1990s. “Were we leaders in 1975? No. We were behind,” Rekhi said. “Hercules Rum and Peter Scot have been two of the legendary successes in the country. Peter Scot had unimaginable brand equity.” But United Spirits’ rivals, like Mohan Meakin and the House of Khoday, had missed out on the new game in town. “People don’t drink liquid. They drink lifestyle.”
We didn’t just want to buy alcohol anymore, we wanted it sold to us. “I came into a business that emphasised how to meet demand. In a shortage economy, it was enough to just produce,” Ganguly said. When he became Director of UB Ltd, he started “looking at you, rather than looking at my factory”. Ganguly thinks the transformation of Indian youth was captured by the transformation of the Kingfisher logo. It had gone from black and white to blocky, crayon colours, and then to an iridescent painted bird. “Finally, it was a kingfisher bird enclosed in a space,” an oval border, he said. “Then we let it free, saying, it’s emerging out of its own restrictions. Like the bird soaring—without a limit to its aspirations.”
Is there a difference between flying and falling upwards? City life was changing so fast, it was hard to tell. The outsourcing industry and the consumption economy had rearranged all the furniture: new middle classes were getting comfortable in it, and old ones felt like the chairs had been pulled out from beneath them. We were all outsiders now, but were all supposed to be on the rise. In the days of the Cantt, who you were determined what you drank. In the new economy, we wanted what we drank to tell us who we were.
"MEMORY” IS A BAD WORD to Sri Hari Khoday, the MD of the House of Khoday. He is an ardent devotee of the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, who called memory a residue of experience improperly comprehended—a freight of confusion that weighs down free thought and love. For these reasons, perhaps, Khoday would not say much about the past.
Earlier this year, Khoday was receiving visitors and supplicants at the office of Yajamana Enterprises, his production firm (so named because it’s what people call him—“Yajamana” loosely means “Chief”).
In an outer room, a row of villagers from Kanakapura awaited his arrival, and jumped to their feet as he entered. Sri Hari Khoday wore a red silk shirt and gold-rimmed spectacles that had silver beading on the bridge above his nose. Like a true Yajamana, Khoday has an air of hard, secretive power, a feeling compounded by how difficult it is to meet him. In person, it dissolves into a boyish combination of vanity and sincerity, mostly concerning art, music and spirituality. He settled in his office and began to talk about Krishnamurti. “According to him, it’s as clear as mathematics: intention is equal to reality,” Khoday explained. “People are getting confused between intention and desire. Intention is beyond, above—no memories control this intention.”
Fortunately for a man free of memory, Sri Hari Khoday is surrounded by men keen to recall his past accomplishments. Like Prabhakar Rao, a chartered accountant.
“Some of the things he has done in his life… It’s amazing—amazing! Whether he accepts it or not,” Rao said. He tries to attend on Sri Hari Khoday every morning, when the Yajamana writes a daily poem. “I don’t know—I don’t know what happens! He writes, he writes. I am the living witness for it.”
Khoday’s eyes had been dipped in modesty, but now he raised them with a controlled smile.
“You’ve come today, sir. Some thoughts have come…”
“Please, please!” Rao almost shouted.
“I will write something.”
Rao laughed with delight. “Ho ho hooo!”
“I have no memory, nothing…”
He began to write. In the silence, as his pen tacked across the page, it seemed conclusive that the one thing not on Khoday’s mind at that moment was his liquor empire. They knew how to keep up with changing chief ministers, but not with changing consumers. Now the House of Khoday was missing boat after boat: for instance, the new popularity of white spirits, like vodka, among women and young drinkers.
Where Mallya looked from his liquor empire skyward, the Khodays turned their eyes down to land. The family seems preoccupied by their huge land holdings in the city, whose worth Prabhakar Rao estimated at “one lakh crore”. The Prestige group, while building Kingfisher Towers, is also building two high-rises on the family’s land, the Khoday Trade Tower and the Khoday Platinum. The real estate business also churns up plenty of controversy to save a liquor baron from boredom. The Khodays’ property-related scandals have ranged from charges of encroachment (by no less than the Mysore royal family) to cases of murder (Devraj Urs’ daughter was accused of killing a woman in a bungalow owned by Sri Hari Khoday).
An hour later, a poem had filled a blank page, been read out to a secretary, transcribed onto a computer and printed out. Standing in a half-bow, her body angled at the waist, the secretary read the poem back to the small gathering. Only then could a question be raised about the evaporating liquor empire. In reply, Sri Hari Khoday said only this: “We will expand. It is a part of life.”
FROM ANY OF THE DECKS of UB City, you’ll see older, smaller towers notched against the horizon. To the north-east is the Public Utility Building. North-west is Charles Correa’s Visvesvaraya Tower, a clutch of modernist periscopes, grey as a pencil sketch. Once, these were the only structures in the city that grazed the sky. Today their height is humbled, and all they represent are ideas that fell short: exposed concrete, phrases like “public utility”, and most of all, sober architectural idealism.
That same idealism once informed a third building in the area. In his last years, Vittal Mallya hired Romi Khosla to build him a new headquarters, on part of the site adjoining the company’s brewery. “He wanted an iconic kind of building,” said Khosla, who is today a leader in the profession. But Mallya “was a very old-world gentleman, who trusted the architect. He just said, ‘Let me know when it’s complete.’”
Khosla built a four-floor octagonal building on a small base, surrounded by an octagonal, solid-concrete weather screen. The screen had apertures two floors high, creating the vague illusion that the building was only two levels. “I said to Vittal Mallya that actually, he could double the height, and it would still look like a four-story building,” Khosla said. “He replied, that’s very interesting, but I’m not going to build on it. This is the building I want.”
The building had terraced gardens, and a complex irrigation system to manage them. Its exterior was bare concrete. Khosla called it “one of the best buildings I’ve done”. About seven years ago, Khosla and his wife visited from Delhi, and took a drive to see it. They pulled over next to a large hole in the ground.
“I… I… It was here. I can swear it was here,” Khosla said.
“You’ve got the wrong site, Romi.”
“No, no, but the—I’m telling you, I recognise this fountain! This was where the building was.”
“How could a four-storey building disappear?”
Khosla’s building, and the rest of the old brewery site, had to disappear to make way for UB City. “It was a big shock,” he said, and laughed, though he doesn’t hide his disappointment. “In contemporary times, unless there’s a war, architects seldom see their buildings come down. It wasn’t located in the middle of the plot. I would have naturally converted it into a museum, and left the building, maybe built around it. It’s a place of work associated with your father—if you have no space for that, on the ground or in your mind, that says a great deal.”
Khosla’s personal feelings linked up with a sense of dismay that’s widespread in his profession: a sense that new constructions jettison the urban memory embodied in older buildings, and cut themselves off from the area around them. “To me this was a complete wipeout of memory,” Khosla said. “When you develop a historic plot, you need to ask yourself, ‘Am I just a builder? Do I maximise my floor area to give it out to restaurants?’” From a family that has a stake in the city, that’s profited from it, Khosla expected some respect for continuity, for inclusivity. “You, as a prominent family of Bangalore, have responsibilities you have not discharged,” he said. “You’ve contributed to the worst thing for a city: dividing it.”
That’s one perspective. “It was a very nice, pretty building, but it was relevant to those times”—that’s another. It’s the perspective of the man to whom Vijay Mallya handed the site, and its million potential square feet of prime city-centre real estate, saying, “Look. Replace this with something really spectacular. I want to create a landmark here.”
Irfan Razack, CMD of the Prestige Group, had made a fortune doing just that all over Bangalore. No company has done more than his to modernise the appearance of the city—or to erase traces of the Cantt, like the 100-year-old Cash Pharmacy that’s now clad in mirrored glass. Today you’d have to search hard for a corner of Bangalore not stamped with Prestige’s falcon logo. But “ten years ago,” Razack said, “people probably thought we would be finished.”
A development of this size, undertaken with a demanding and high-profile landowner, would be a challenge even for the Prestige Group’s resources. Razack persuaded Mallya to segment the development into service apartments, retail and office blocks. For the outside, Mallya knew what he wanted. “He went onto the ’net and brought out some visuals, gave them to the architect, and said: ‘Look, I want you to create a city.’” Mallya’s vision was many terraces and pinnacles, a development that was a skyline all on its own. “That’s how the concept came of UB City.” As he travelled, the liquor baron continuously shot new ideas over to the architects, with the result that the influences behind UB City are truly global. The interiors were modelled on Tuscan architecture, via its recreation in a shopping mall in Dubai. The exterior was modelled on New York City, via its recreation in a Vegas casino called New York, New York.
A few years later, when Razack learned that Mallya was planning to renovate his bungalow, he had another big idea: raising it 120 metres into the air. “What has finally transpired is actually three towers, and on top of them is this big slab of concrete,” Razack explained. “And on top of that—we’re lifting up Mother Earth to the thirty-third floor—this mansion in the sky.”
AT DUSK, VICTORIAN STREETLAMPS AWAKE on the terrace-piazza at UB City, looking strangely placed among the plate-glass sides of the buildings. Downstairs the showrooms hum: a grid of icy, glowing, silent cubes. Up here is the life. Cafes flood the space with chatter, and you can stroll around the piazza with a beer in your hand. Young women light up cigarettes, relaxed, even though it’s against the rules. At one end there’s an amphitheatre, where bands sometimes play. Earlier this year, a film festival was on. “The theme is ‘socially responsible’,” said Uzma Irfan, director of corporate communications at Prestige, which also manages the building. “In the rat race, people are forgetting how to be good human beings.”
The mall has kept Uzma Irfan pretty busy herself. It was her job to draw in the luxury brands and the haute bars and restaurants, and it took work. “In Delhi, Bombay, people love luxury—they don’t mind being seen walking out of a mall like Emporio or Palladium,” she explained. “Here people are more conservative.” Conventionally, high-end brands have offered home or office visits to sell to wealthy Bangaloreans too shy to walk out of Louis Vuitton with bulging shopping bags. It took Irfan five years to convince brands and shoppers to do business inside UB City.
Both Uzma Irfan and Irfan Razack made pointed comments about the UB Mall being open to “everybody from every walk of life”. “In the beginning, people were so hesitant—how can I walk into UB City? It’s like the Taj Mahal,” Irfan sighed. She realised she wanted to draw in people who weren’t all stratospherically wealthy. “That’s why we brought in Diesel.” And Subway. If you want a drink: “You can party at City Bar, Skyye or Shiro. They’re three different levels.” Irfan even stopped brand managers from placing bouncers at their shop doors—a matter of principle as well as pragmatism. “Excuse me! You cannot discriminate. A guy in a lungi could walk into your store and pick up the most expensive LV bag.”
Uzma Irfan’s real triumph is not that Jimmy Choo finds customers here. It is that young men with stonewash jeans and Kannada ringtones hang around staring at the Mercs downstairs. Women in Bandhej salwars, whom you met just yesterday under the vintage brown fans at Koshy’s, are ordering risotto in the air conditioning at Fava. Tilak Thomas, one of the architects of UB City, described it as “a self-contained High Street”. A few rounds of the piazza is part of the daily route for morning walkers. It’s no democracy, but the piazza at UB City has lured in an upper-middle class that self-identifies, often wrongly, as “old-Bangalore”. In fact, they are the new Cantonment, where it is purchasing power, not imperial power, that makes you belong. As they have lost patience for the city, they have found their way to this sky street; a place that would mystify an earlier generation of either City or Cantt. At the piazza they can “relax, away from the everyday mayhem”, Irfan explained. “You can go there, have a cup of coffee, and you feel like you’re in Milan.”
From City and Cantonment to mayhem and Milan, Bangalore remains resolutely a dual city. The exact lifestyles defining each part have changed, but a vague lineage of separation has never died out. City and Cantt were administratively merged in 1949, but six decades later, the appearance of two sides—and their mutual insecurity, chauvinism and stereotyping—was still around. The change in the city’s name in 2006, to reflect the Kannada pronunciation, gave everyone a simple phrase to describe a difficult, obscure cultural non-unity: “Bangalore vs Bengaluru”. Those were nervous years. Hindi films were briefly banned from cinemas. Rajkumar, who had led the Gokak agitation, died, and his mismanaged funeral unleashed alarming passions and violence. In the most visible action, language activists vandalised any signboards that didn’t carry a Kannada transcription. For a year, central Bangalore was marked with thousands of smears of black paint, like a blight infecting the pith of the British town.
By 2008, the city’s characteristic liberalism also felt like it was under attack. The Bharatiya Janata Party had its first stab at power, and its reign was inaugurated with dispersed attacks on Muslims and Christians. Then a Hindu fringe group, the Sri Rama Sene, attacked a few young women at bars. But who was really fighting whom? Old natives, new nativists, old colonials, new colonisers. A knot of different muscles were being flexed over the fate of the city, but they all still looked like one single convulsion.
Whatever that convulsion was, it seemed to threaten Bangalore’s drinking culture. Actually, bars and pubs continued to do fine: restrictions rolled out and rolled back, like waves that never climb the beach. The main complaint, practically a city anthem, has been about the “11:30 rule”, the closing hour for bars. And the boozy fun, integral to Cantt life, now felt targeted by sporadic violence and severe policing.
Kalyan Ganguly, who thinks of Bangalore and Kingfisher as mirrors to each others’ spirit, knows that what lies beneath it all is economic disparity. “I’m talking like my own Presidency College type, but… social pressures are building up,” he said, as the sun flashed through the window and over the city far below. “That Rama Sene guy is not concerned about beer. He’s concerned about visible signs of privilege which make him feel more deprived than ever.” In a city like Bangalore, though, liquor will always enter the picture: as a symbol of vice, if you’re being aggressive, or a symbol of victimhood, if you’re feeling defensive. “We have to live with that,” Ganguly said.
It isn’t easy to live with how your city changes. The comet tail of red brake lights that fills the dark road before you every evening; the flaking municipal murals of dolphins and herons and trees, where yesterday there really were trees; the prices, the crime, the grime; the fractured sidewalks; the new kinds of people on them who aren’t your kind of people, who want to control your culture, get in your face, claim your city. Given the choice, who wouldn’t want to rise up above it all?
This has been a divided city for more than 200 years, but it was only in the past decade that Bangalore began to divide vertically. Today, to get a drink, the luckiest ones go up above the city to Shiro or Skyye Bar. Vijay Mallya dreamt up the Cantonment of the new century, above the ruins of the old one. The circle closes: a separate city for the elite once created a foreign-liquor industry, and now IMFL has rebuilt a separate city for the elite.
Mallya dreamt of stairways and air streets, and of letting in the people ready to rise above the city. A few years from now, perhaps he’ll walk out on his lawn, a small, distant figure, his white hair like a tiny cloud against the other clouds. Across a canyon of air, you’ll raise your beer, and he’ll raise his, and he will yell something that is snatched away by the altitude winds, though of course we’ll know what he’s saying: Welcome to the sky.
Raghu Karnad has been a reporter for Outlook and Tehelka, and was the former editor of Time Out Delhi.