Why Mysore is no longer R.K. Narayan’s Mysore

PRITHVI DATTA CHANDRA SHOBHI writes: Jayadev Gurumallaiah, a childhood friend from Mysore, who dabbles in real estate among other business interests, told me the following story.

After drinking tea at a café, a mutual friend of ours paid with a hundred-rupee note. While waiting to collect the change at the counter, Jayadev asked our friend whether he had received a black money payment and further, if the note he had just used was part of that transaction.

The friend confirmed Jayadev’s hunch but was curious to know what had made him suspicious since the note was issued by the Reserve Bank of India.

Jayadev replied that the note had smelt of a gunny sack.

Money comes into Mysore, especially for real estate transactions, not only through legal, banking channels but also in gunny bags, and that has been a common practice. Real estate transactions, with the exception of new apartments purchased from builders, generally include both a legal white money payment through a bank instrument, and a black money component of cash.

This flow of money into Mysore has been a constant feature of the last decade, and has mostly involved the real estate and construction industry.

Consider this proposition. The flow of money into Mysore has been disproportionate to the city’s economic prospects and its growth hasn’t occurred organically. Today, Mysore has a population of a million people, but it has never been a major centre of commerce and manufacturing.

Since Bangalore, the nearest major economic centre, is bursting at its seams due to inadequate infrastructure and is seemingly incapable of absorbing more investment, the logic of speculative investment in Mysore seems to suggest this city as the best alternative urban destination.

However, in reality, Mysore has received only moderate investment in the new economy industries and negligible investment in manufacturing. With the exception of Infosys and Wipro, no software major has established a development centre there.

Further, most of the smaller Mysore based software companies are call centres and medical transcription companies. More significantly, since software revenue generated in Mysore is a twentieth of Bangalore’s earnings, it does appear that the investment in the city’s real estate is primarily speculative and based on perceived potential.

The participants in these real estate transactions are both Mysoreans and outsiders—individuals, professional developers, cooperative societies formed by different professional groups, and speculative investors. Given that there is no scarcity of land, Mysore’s expansion isn’t following the pattern of other metropolitan cities in India.

Instead of constructing large apartment complexes, professional developers and big investors prefer to purchase large plots of land in and around Mysore to form residential neighbourhoods and private individuals buy housing plots. Consequently, there has been a dramatic horizontal expansion of the city in the last decade.

This flow of money and the speculative investment in real estate has produced a new form of urbanism and a different ethos in Mysore. While it is difficult to flesh out the city’s new ethos just yet, it is unmistakably clear that R.K. Narayan’s Mysore doesn’t exist any more.

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At the heart of this new urbanism is the formation of residential neighbourhoods by private developers. The Mysore Urban Development Authority (MUDA), the nodal agency responsible for city planning, has largely abandoned its traditional role of assessing the housing needs, acquiring land, and developing residential areas.

While it continues to produce the Local Planning Area (LPA) and Comprehensive Development Plan (CDP) documents, which ostensibly offer the blueprint for city development and also develop residential neighbourhoods on occasion, in reality, MUDA has become an approver of projects developed by either private developers or, more often, cooperative societies formed by professional groups such as journalists, employees of various banks, universities and colleges, government departments and public sector companies.

These private entities have not only usurped MUDA’s role, but have succeeded in undermining MUDA regulations. Thus, there has been a systematic dismantling of Mysore’s urban planning institutional mechanism, developed in the early 20th century by the administrators of the old Mysore state, resulting in the privatization of city planning.

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In 1904, the Mysore government established the City Improvement Trust Board (CITB), one of the earliest town planning bodies in India. The first such urban planning institution, the Bombay City Improvement Trust, had been established only six years earlier in 1898.

The CITB planned new extensions and created modern civic amenities such as new drainage and sewage systems; moreover, it also augmented the beauty of the city by planning wide boulevards, circles and parks. Mysore administrators also built several monumental public buildings in Indo-Saracenic style, which served as administrative buildings, schools and colleges, hospitals and libraries.

All this contributed to the rapid urbanization of Mysore in the first three decades of the 20th century and the making of a handsome, modern city. In his Modern Mysore: Impressions of a Visitor, Padmanabha Iyer, a journalist and author, who had travelled extensively in India, wrote after visiting Mysore:

‘Mysore is the most handsome city in all India that I have seen. Its parks, gardens, broad roads, circles, squares, beautiful avenues, etc., arrest the attention of the visitor and produce the first impression which is most lasting. The city one sees today is entirely the making of His Highness, the present Maharaja, who has been taking a personal interest in its improvement and modernisation.’ (Sridhara Print House, Trivandrum, 1936, p. 31)

Not surprisingly, Mysore’s population grew rapidly between 1900 and 1930, exceeding 100,000 by 1931.

While Mysore’s urban form was planned by the CITB, the specific nature of its urbanism drew more from its status as a royal centre. While Mysore has often claimed a glorious pre-modern past, until the beginning of the 20th century it had always simply been the place where the kings lived, and was just a small town around the palace. It had never been a centre of manufacturing and trade, or of cultural, intellectual or military activities.

Its history is linked inexorably to two other cities which performed those functions: until 1799, when the British conquered Mysore it was the neighbouring town of Srirangapattana, and subsequently, Bangalore, which was developed by the colonial administrators, both as the administrative capital of Mysore princely state and a cantonment city.

The early British reports of Mysore too describe it as a rather modest town.

Col. Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington and the brother of the then Viceroy, Richard Wellesley, couldn’t find a suitable hall for the coronation of the new Wodeyar king of Mysore, after the 4th Anglo-Mysore war in 1799-1800.

In fact, Lord Valentia reports that the city consisted of one street, which was a mile long.  (See for more details Mysore City by Constance Parsons, Oxford University Press, London, 1930, pp. 18-19).

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Unlike Bangalore, which rapidly grew as a manufacturing and trading centre in addition to being the administrative capital of the state, Mysore’s growth came from the status it earned in the 20th century as a centre of culture, education and intellectual activity.

This was particularly true after the founding of the Mysore University in 1916.

Although some modern industries (silk and sandalwood oil factories) were established by the state, Mysore city saw very little industrialization. Mysore’s demographic profile too remained mostly stable since the majority of the settlers were Kannada speakers from southern Karnataka.

After independence, Mysore continued its impressive growth between 1951 and 1991, often at the rate of 40%.

This growth didn’t alter its ethos even though this period saw the influx of tens of thousands of non-Kannada speakers. Their arrival was linked to the establishment of several major national research institutions and laboratories such as the Central Food Technology Research Institute (CFTRI, founded in 1950), the Defence Food Research Laboratory (DFRL, founded in 1961), All India Institute of Speech and Hearing (AIISH, founded in 1965), Regional Institute of Education (RIE, founded in 1963) and the Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL, founded in 1969).

These institutions strengthened the nature of Mysore’s urbanism as a centre of education and research, culture and service economy. Additionally, Mysore came to be known as a pensioner’s paradise due to its salubrious climate, relaxed lifestyle and good civic amenities.

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The CITB continued with its role as the planner of the city and developer of residential neighbourhoods. There were hardly any private initiatives since even the CITB developed neighbourhoods had remained under-utilized. In 1988, the CITB was renamed as the Mysore Urban Development Authority (MUDA) but its responsibilities continued to be the same.

In the past decade, however, the old model of city planning has been abandoned as the new expansion of the city is managed by private developers4 and not by MUDA, which has mostly become an approver of private initiatives.

How has this changed the nature of Mysore’s urbanism? I argue that even though the private developers and cooperative societies are required to abide by the MUDA guidelines while forming their layouts, there are two significant ways in which their projects differ from MUDA developed areas.

First, the cityscape itself changes since private developers often do not plan parks and wide streets; given the focus on maximizing profit, developers frequently even violate MUDA regulations. Second, the developers are also free to sell housing plots to any individual, to even a non-resident of Mysore, and more significantly in any number, thus fuelling a speculative boom.

In contrast, MUDA regulations exclude not only non-residents but also those who already own a house in Mysore from even applying for MUDA developed housing plots.

While such regulations are often violated, yet it is undeniable that they constitute some restraint on speculative buying. Moreover, MUDA regulations are based on a notion of equitable distribution of housing plots, whereas private initiatives of the past decade are more in the nature of speculative investments.

As a consequence, there has been close to a tenfold rise in prices since 2003-4, effectively keeping large sections of middle class Mysoreans from ever owning a house in the city. Thus, we have begun to notice a change in the ownership patterns as well, which will likely be more pronounced in the next decade.

Finally, there seems to be a steady decline in the institutional capacity to develop and maintain civic amenities and it is in this regard that 21st century Mysore appears to have most regressed. It is not clear whether this inability reflects a larger institutional malaise or is a consequence of the privatization of city planning.

Mysore is a recipient of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) funds from the central government for creating urban infrastructure and providing basic services to the urban poor. Mysore’s civic bodies are also supposed to submit ‘detailed project reports (DPR)’ in order to receive funding. Yet, even a cursory glance at the proposed projects reveals the ad hoc nature of planning and the massive corruption during execution.

By and large, proposed projects have focused on building bus terminals, upgrading water supply and waste management systems, and rehabilitation of slums. While the city of Mysore is home to multiple universities, management and technical institutions, none of these institutions appear to take up civic problems as part of their research agenda and produce city planning proposals.

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Such lacunae are not unique to Mysore alone, yet it is baffling to witness the complete absence of engagement on the part of research institutions with civic problems. Note that this state of affairs is accompanied by a systematic effort to privatize basic services, such as water supply.

Additionally, we should note two groups of Mysoreans who have benefited enormously from the wealth created during the real estate boom, given their impact on the ethos of the city and its public life.

First, the booming land prices have produced a plethora of new millionaires: peasants from villages on the outskirts of Mysore, whose land would have been acquired by the CITB or the MUDA in the past, have in the last ten years sold their land in the open market. Kannegowdana Koppalu, a village that is now part of Mysore city, alone has more than three hundred multimillionaires, according to my survey.

The second group of beneficiaries is the large real estate investors, a majority of whom are Mysoreans and happen to be active in Mysore politics; this is an instance of politicians realizing very early on the potential of real estate business as a money making venture and benefiting from the booming market.

These politicians also have additional land holdings in and around the city, and it is in their interest to persist with the privatization of neighbourhood formation. Both by virtue of their land ownership and their ability to affect public policy, this second group will have enormous influence in determining Mysore’s new urbanism.

What is the impact of this new urbanism on the form and ethos of the city?

The cityscape has begun to change as modern architecture takes hold, slowly changing the character of the royal city. While the palaces and public buildings from the early 20th century continue to define Mysore’s landscape, new shopping malls, resorts, multiplexes, apartment complexes and luxurious private houses have now become fairly common.

Mysoreans seem to be quite receptive to the changes brought about by the new money flow. While there does exist some nostalgia for the older and simpler times, the younger Mysoreans are active in real estate trading and construction industry.

So far, despite its rapid growth, Mysore retains its 20th century charm and continues to be a manageable city.

That is Mysore’s attraction for outsiders: for thousands of software engineers, students from all over the world, and increasingly, migrant workers from North Indian states, who come to the city in search of employment. Additionally, over 2.5 million tourists visit the city, among whom are an exotic category of visitors: the yoga students, who have become an ubiquitous part of the cityscape.

Thus, it is not only money which is flowing into Mysore, but new people as well.

What will partly determine the ethos of Mysore is their form of engagement with the city. As noted earlier, Mysore has seen the arrival of outsiders in significant numbers; what’s different about the present is the rampant materialism that seems endemic to both Mysoreans and outsiders.

More than anything else, the flow of money in the form of speculative investment is and will continue to be at the heart of how Mysore will change. Will that leave Mysore’s unhurried and relaxed lifestyle as well as notions of civility and hospitality unaffected?

That ethos of Mysore, of which R.K. Narayan was the finest chronicler, seems to be disappearing. Rampant materialism wasn’t the ethos of Narayan’s Mysore. It only represented the quaint professionalism of Malgudi businessmen.

Today’s Mysore may not offer much space for them.

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Prithvi Datta Chandra Shobhi is on the faculty of San Francisco State University, specialising  in medieval South India (especially Kannada literature and cinema) and the cultural politics of contemporary South Asia. A fuller version of this piece appears in the August 2010 issue of Seminar.

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Photograph: courtesy Michael Polizzi (top), and Karnataka Photo News