How Gokulam became ground zero of yoga

While growing up in Mysore in the 1970s, my whole world revolved around wonderful Vontikoppal. Actually, it didn’t revolve much, my world was Vontikoppal.

My mother Sharada had walked—yes, walked—from our home to a hospital at the end of 8th cross when I first became unbearable.

Home (door no. 2931) was on 5th main road; school (Nirmala) was on 2nd.

The library (City Central) was on 3rd main road; the bakery (Pattabhi) on 4th.

Friends and first crushes all lived in walking and stalking vicinity, respectively.

Playgrounds (“Raghulal“) and pani poori gaadis; cricket clubs (Jai Hind) and cycle shops; tailors (Kalpana) and temples; film stars (M.P. Shankar, Arti) and writers; stationery stores (Shivananda) and ‘churumuri’ wallahs were all nearby.

‘Goli’ (marbles) and ‘buguri’ (tops), ‘pata’ (kites) and ‘pataki’ (crackers), ‘batani’ and sweet cigarettes—there was not a thing you couldn’t buy from Papanna ‘angadi’.

Idly came from Amba Bhavan; Swiggy was a millennium away.

Result: Cheluvamba Park at 1st cross was the western-most border in my mind and rarely did one have to cross over to the dark side, “City” as the adults called it, unless it was to catch Bruce Lee or climb the Chamundi.

On the eastern side, the Kannada writer Kuvempu’s house on 11th cross was the farthest one would venture out.

Beyond it was a cremation ground, now stylishly gentrified as Chira Shanthi Dham, and it always scared the hell out of me to see dead bodies, made to sit erect with dark glasses on, being paraded through Adipampa Road on a one-way trip to the hereafter, to thumping beats they call ‘tapangutchi’.

When the legspin legend B.S. Chandrasekhar’s sister-in-law Vinoda, who lived opposite us, moved out to a new area called Gokulam, the general feeling was they had abandoned paradise, although their new home was exactly two roads away from the edge of Vontikoppal on 1st main road.

In 5th standard, when my classmate Mohit invited me to his home in Gokulam to check out his Meccano set one Saturday afternoon, I remember braving gusty winds as we cycled up the wavy hillocks that Gokulam really was, and turning east on to a dusty dirt track road, which is now Contour Road.

In short, Gokulam, in the eyes of a boy barely 10, was the back of beyond.

It was, as Bill Bryson said of Des Moines, a place where people didn’t go to but some came from.

Gokulam didn’t change much in my (and its) adoloscent life either, although there were now many close classmates (Alfred Satish Jones, Manisha Modha, C.N. Koshy) further up the hill; although there was much tennis-ball cricket played in the triangular park where the Rotary West school is now located.

And—”yeh point note kiya jaaye, your honour”—although there were some Pretty Young Things many of us were trying to catch the eye of, as they waltzed across the park trying to catch ours.

But it did little to change Gokulam’s perception.

Unlike other, older localities which had a defined character—old money in Vontikoppal, scholars in Saraswathipuram, businessmen in Yadavagiri—there was nothing particularly unique about Gokulam, although it had a disproportionate number of doctors, dentists and Coorgis, as Kodavas were called before they decided to return Coorg to its roots.

There was even a Doctors’ Corner, if you know what I mean.

Its most international inhabitant seemed to be “Moscow Mahadevaiah” who had read news at Radio Moscow.

But on the whole, Gokulam was like Siddhartha Layout at the other end of Mysore. Heaven knew who lived “there”, who its leading lights were, or what they did “there”. There were no colleges, no theatres, no restaurants, no activity spots worth their name, barring maybe a private circulating library.

It was a Residential area, with a capital R.

I say all this, of course, with the benefit of hindsight, and I say this not to offend those who lived in Gokulam or to establish a non-existent superiority complex about my early years (we lived in an outhouse for a monthly rent of Rs 45) but to merely illustrate my point that vis-a-vis Vontikoppal, Gokulam had lots of catching up to do.

Two near-simultaneous developments seem to have helped Gokulam attain escape velocity.

One was when my CFTRI school senior, quizzing partner and table tennis rival Siddhartha Mookerji decided to move his rapidly growing information technology startup Software Paradigms from Vontikoppal, bringing hordes of new people and new energy (and new money) into Gokulam. SPI has since become even bigger and moved on.

But the more lasting transformation, the metamorphosis really, of Gokulam into a globally recognised neighbourhood came when K. Pattabhi Jois, the synonym of ‘ashtanga’ yoga, moved his school, the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute, from Lakshmipuram.

Result: Gokulam today looks less like an Indian locality, more like an Olympics Games village, with foreigners of every hue spilling out of every lane and bylane, languidly walking up and down its steep inclines or zipping around on rented mopeds and scooters, when not eating ‘chow chow baath’ at Nalpak.

Every other home seems to offer paying guest accommodation for yogis.

Every rooftop offers ‘satvik’, ayurvedic and other vegetarian food for yoga practitioners.

Tender coconut sellers and fruits and health juice parlours are all over.

Yoga stores, nature cure stores, wellness centres, spas, cafes, they are all here.

Why, there is even India’s first “cold stone creamery”.

In the era of the ‘gig’ economy, Gokulam seems to have evolved its ‘yog’ economy, thanks to Pattabhi Jois’s grandson Sharath Rangaswamy and his mother Saraswathi Jois, and other ‘gurus’ who have jumped into Gokulam smelling an opportunity.

Since returning to Mysore in December, I have spent a few mornings observing and counting what has happened to Gokulam. I have found at least 73 establishments that have sprung up and owe their existence to the ‘yog’ economy. There may be more without boards hanging outside.

I am happy to report that Gokulam has overtaken Vontikoppal in its look and feel.

And, lest we forget, I am also happy to remind you that it happened without the exertions of Narendra Modi.

I will drink to that at Pelican tonight.

(An earlier version of this piece was published on Facebook)