Courteous. Respectful. Almost obsequious. That’s typically the treatment meted out to the well-heeled visitor at the entrance to any of the city’s top-notch hotels. The exaggerated politeness is a sad illustration of the mile-high class barriers that permeate urban society.
A typical sequence of events is as follows. Mr Cool drives up in a chauffeur-driven BMW. Tinted windows, so dark they must surely be illegal, are rolled down an inch. For a moment the unpleasant outside world sneaks into the plush, pollution-free, noise-free interior. "Sir, for security, can we inspect the trunk". Mr Cool with a regal nod, agrees, though not without a slight mouth-click, making his displeasure known: if not to belittle the security guard, in order to hold his own with the company he keeps within the all important confines of his BMW.
The harried security guy rushes to minimize the delay, and as soon as his business is done, waves the car on with a salute, hoping to somehow compensate for the inconvenience caused.As the BMW gurgles its way over shiny stones in the five-star driveway, the guard is thankful that he escaped without a tongue lashing.
An average looking person rides up on a two-wheeler to the same five-star hotel. Not on a Harley Davidson, no, not even on a Pulsar. He is on a humble bicycle (some of the bikes you see on the streets these days are anything but humble, but to an untrained eye, they’re all the same). The point is, this time, there’s no obsequiousness on display of the security guard. A little courtesy perhaps?
It’s fascinating to note the range of reactions that a cyclist provokes from a security guard at the entrance of luxury establishments in the city. In fact, its confined to a narrow band, whose emotion is best illustrated by the universal single syllable exclamation, "Hoy!" that all Indians, language barriers aside, understand all too well. Sometimes it’s accompanied with brandished, threatening stick that tries to send you back to where you came from. In the most benign cases, it’s a frantic oscillation of an outstretched hand: not exactly a wave, but a uniquely Indian way of saying "forget it yaar, there’s no place for you here".
From here, what happens next, with slight variation, depends on the establishment. At the Taj West End, you’re told (not asked) to dismount and walk your bicycle to the parking area where other cars and motorized bikes are parked.
In fact, the Taj West End in this reporter’s experience, is relatively receptive of cyclists. Though one does wonder why they don’t allow cyclists to go through the security barrier and park somewhere closer to the hotel, at a location visible to all guests, hence lending some credence to much touted corporate mantras of being environmentally sensitive.
But how naive. Most cycles in the city belong to labourers, and those black doodh-wala cycles would look so ugly against the elegant entrance to the main lobby. Now, if only everyone rode Treks and Schwinns, perhaps attitudes might be different.
When compared to the Leela (Airport Road), the West End experience is like a red carpet. This author, along with several other city cyclists have been turned away at the pearly gates of the "7-star" on the laughable pretext of security. One particular incident a few months ago provoked an angry outpouring of opinions among Bangalore’s net-savvy, cycling enthusiasts on blogs and a popular social networking site, forcing an apology from the Leela management. It remains unanswered as to what their current policy is towards cyclists, or what stories remain untold from those without access to twitter.
Similar stories abound at other venues as well. The Chancery on Residency Road refuses entry to cyclists through the "Entry" gate, and forces them to enter through the "Exit" gate, putting them at risk against oncoming traffic. What purpose is served is not clear, since you still end up parking your cycle in the same area that’s been designated for motorbikes.
UB City security guards are a picture of comic confusion when faced with the question of what to do with a cyclist customer. F&Bs, a restaurant off St Marks Road, makes you park your cycle in a basement that stinks, and is overflowing with water, while cars get to park right in front of the restaurant.
Museum Inn on Church Street has cycle parking, but good luck extricating your bike from the entangled mass of metal that is the cramped space at the end of an evening. Most city malls have designated cycle parking, aimed at the dozens of employees who cycle to work. But more often than not, these are in the dankest, darkest, and most inaccessible parts of the parking structure.
A troubling aspect of the Leela debate which took place almost entirely online is that a small number of netizens, offended by the socially divisive treatment meted out by the Leela, were quite easily able to extract an apology and force a policy rethink from the Leela management.
One wonders how many thousands of cyclists, who have no access to the internet, or aren’t otherwise equipped to make their opinions reach the headlines, silently suffer the indignity of being at the bottom of the caste system of Bangalore traffic. It’s also hard to blame the security guards for their attitude. They have been brainwashed by a system that teaches us that respect needs to be directly proportional to the size of the vehicle you drive, and the opacity of its tinted glass windows. Where courtesy crosses the line into obsequiousness, it’s almost certainly driven by fear rather than respect.
Chances that a powerful person, the sort who could get you into trouble with your employer, would ride up on a bicycle are so minute, that it gives you enough wiggle room to throw your weight around a little bit.
It’s time for facilities management teams across the city, as well as civic authorities to recognize that commercial and residential spaces that offer any kind of parking, should provide clean, safe, and free bicycle parking.
It’s also time for cyclists who have the opportunity to be heard, to make demands on behalf of all cyclists (not just those who frequent luxury hotels), to make Bangalore a more cyclist friendly city.
It would be a powerful green statement from 5-star hotels if they provided a conspicuous bicycle parking rack at their entrances (for use by both employees and customers). It would not only go a long way in demonstrating their commitment to the environment and this city; it would also help in a tiny way, rectify the disturbingly discriminatory way our society views its members based on the form of transport they use. ⊕