I’ve spent a year in Bangalore. I have figured out the bus routes, not just the ones I use every day, but those that I have never taken, those that go to places I only know by name. Sometimes, I’m afraid that if I get on I might get lost, but the same buses will go in reverse, working their way back to where I first got on. Shivajinagar is one such place; I’ve only been to its bus station on my way to somewhere else. I know nothing of its small roads and shops that look similar from the outside, just that it boasts of selling good kebabs. Not because I’ve eaten them, but because my friends say so.
And yet there’s one thing in Shivajinagar that I can claim to have done. I went and watched a movie at Sangeet, one of those old, single screen theatres. There’s something about these places, and it isn’t just the faint memory I have of having watched movies there with Appa and Amma when I was younger. Rather than the movie, I remember the three of us waiting outside the hall for the movie to start, Amma and Appa talking as I stared at empty tables that would have packets of popcorn during the interval.
We almost drove past the theatre on our way there; the dull green building looked much like the other furniture shops surrounding it, only larger. The broken and wrongly numbered seats (27, 28, 11) in a hall that smelt oddly of bamboo and wood were coated with a layer of dust, its stone floor leading to the large screen and a few red buckets that said ‘Fire’. They wouldn’t be of much help. The speaker directly above us would come to life occasionally, alternating with the speaker somewhere behind us, and Melvin said loudly, “Amitav, your house has better speakers”. The five of us laughed, enjoying in that instant the absence of restrictions as we sat there, talking as though we were still in our college canteen. I had never sat in a theatre and whistled, and this time, Rahul did that for me.
When I looked around I saw the hall in a previous time, complete with people, noise and colour. I wish I could say the place felt alive in its oldness, and perhaps it does for others, but for me it was only alive in its past. I could see its wide, impressive staircases full of people; women lining up outside the washroom, now locked, with a faded picture of a woman who looked like she was from an item song. I could see people pushing to get to the front of the table selling soggy, wheel-shaped chips, and chewy yellow popcorn that tasted of an odd mixture of the masalas my grandmother uses every day.
And then there’s that peculiar feeling of watching a movie in a language you don’t understand. It was Malayalam in my case; we were finally watching Bangalore Days. It felt strange, to be able to see people talking on screen, to be able to hear their words, but not comprehend them. I looked closely at their expressions, the images that were my only source of understanding. Then an English word would be thrown in, and suddenly, I’d grasp for an instant what they were talking about, before I was lost again in a sea of words I did not recognise. Rahul would translate for me bits of the story, and I’d strain to listen to his English words that were drowned out by the louder Malayalam.
Sury sat next to me and whispered enthusiastically, an enthusiasm that she later realised was more because she was proud she had understood, despite her distance with the language that was her mother-tongue. I could very well understand what she meant. My Kannada is good enough to use when I speak to auto-drivers, or to friends who are not particular about how I say things. But when I’m asked to attend a play, or read, I hesitate, more out of shame than anything else. Suddenly, I’m conscious of a distance I wish I did not have.
There would be a joke, loud laughter from next to me, and I’d demand a translation. Rahul would repeat in English, and I’d pause and shrug; there would be no late laughter. Sometimes words just don’t seem enough between languages.