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Culture : India's New Middle Class Finds Home in Bangalore : The country's 'Silicon Plateau' is the home for yuppies and mystics. Growth is phenomenal.

December 17, 1991|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BANGALORE, India — Michael Jackson's "Black or White" was blasting through the Pub World the other night, and Rocky the bartender was drawing his 100th or so pitcher of draft as Ramjee Chandran, Bangalore's self-described "Pusher of Pubs" and "Booster of Beer," led an American visitor through yet another stop along what surely ranks as India's most incongruous guided tour:

The Bangalore Pub Crawl.

"Let's see," the swarthy and urbane Chandran began, squeezing through plaid-cushioned bar stools, high-backed booths and the oak-barrel tables that fill the Pub World. "These four guys against the bar here are definitely junior execs with one of the high-tech firms in town. Those guys dancing over there, over by that mural of the New York City skyline, they're definitely students, probably at one of the city's science institutes."

Pointing toward a bearded European seated across the bar and chatting with a South Indian in a suede jacket and wire-rimmed glasses, Chandran continued: "That's probably one of the resident foreign collaborators, discussing profit margins or some such thing with his local joint-venture partner. And there, through the Wild West saloon doors over there, those are a bunch of the ad boys. Yuppies, you know. Strictly pin stripes and ties."

And this was just the beginning.

The Pub World is just one of the 150 or so Western-style watering holes on the pub circuit in this most extraordinary South Indian city. Just around the corner from the Pub World, for example, on a street choked with motorized rickshaws, wandering cows, men in loincloths and women in saris, there is the Black Cadillac, complete with alfresco tables, garden umbrellas and restrooms labeled "Elton John" and "Olivia Newton John."

There's the Take Five pub with live jazz on weekends a few miles away, not far from a hamburger joint called Indiana Fast Foods and just down the street from an old colonial theater that screens Hindi movies about Hindu myths and gods. And then there's the 19 Church Street Pub, with videos of Madonna writhing half-naked on a giant-screen television, next door to a cabaret with a live floor show Chandran describes as "Sonny Liston in a bikini."

All of it is just a few doors from one of the city's oldest Catholic churches, a holdover from the era of British colonial domination that gave Bangalore its first taste of the West more than a century ago.

Taken together, the scene is a dizzying blend of American glitz, British kitsch and Indian nouveau riche, all against the backdrop of the impoverished, medieval and mystical Indian nation.

But behind Bangalore's bar scene is a cultural phenomenon with few parallels in a world careening madly into the strange new era of the '90s. Fueled by India's emerging middle class--a new generation that experts now say includes as many as 12% of the nation's 850 million people--the pubs of Bangalore dramatically illustrate the enormous social and physical impact of consumerism and disposable income on traditionally socialist India.

The pubs mirror Bangalore itself--a multicultural oasis of suave sophistication, urbanization and high-tech science that has come to symbolize what many modern Indians hope for the future of their vast and strife-torn nation as a whole. Nicknamed the "Silicon Plateau," the city draws so many upwardly mobile migrants from throughout India that it has been one of the world's fastest growing metropolises during the last two decades.

"Really, Bangalore is unlike any other city in this country--maybe in the world," said Ramjee Chandran, who concedes he is a shameless promoter of his city, as well as his own slick, bimonthly entertainment guide, "Bangalore This Fortnight."

"On one level, OK, the reason for the pub culture here is that the country's largest brewery is located right in the heart of the city, which means that when a pub is running out of beer, the bartender just makes a local call and, within minutes, a little guy on a bicycle comes riding up with another keg in tow.

"But it is more than that. In many ways, it is like an urban laboratory. Bangalore's growth as a center for computers, electronics, management institutes, satellite technology, defense research and the lot has attracted a large group of people who are high-tech literate from different cultural and linguistic groups all over India. High-tech means the West. So now, you've got this weird mix of East and West here--not just in the pubs but everywhere in the city."

Take Chandran himself. He is a Hindu Brahmin of traditional South Indian upbringing, a 33-year-old entrepreneur who has traveled often to Europe and America. Now, in addition to publishing the entertainment guide to Bangalore's burgeoning industry of pubs, cabarets, restaurants, shops and luxury hotels, he also serves as the Indian sales representative for a Florida-based manufacturer of state-of-the-art phototypesetting machines.

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