Margaret Lunel’s father worked at the Income Tax Department. The job would take the Lunel family to different parts of the country. For Margaret, summers meant coming to her grandma’s place, with beautiful gardens to play in, plenty of trees to climb onto and a close-knit community where everyone knew each other.
Her grandparents lived in a quaint little suburb where sometimes hours would go by before she could spot a car on the mud roads. There were no high rises and no traffic, and the air was a pleasant whiff of Casuarina trees.
“When you entered the town, you were greeted with the smell of tea and biscuits, wafting from Moody’s Tea shop and a biscuit factory right opposite. It was a warm welcome,” she recalls fondly.
This was Whitefield, thirty years ago. It did not have the choked-up roads, polluted air or neighbours who didn’t know more than each other’s names.
“At the time, Whitefield was just the Whitefield main road - from where Forum mall is today to Hope Farm, the Inner Circle, and Outer Circle which opened to farm lands,” says Deepa Peck. The 64-year-old moved to Whitefield in 1991.
Margaret’s grandparents had been living in Whitefield since 1956 (“when there was one bullock cart to take you to Bengaluru”), and her memories of the suburb date back to 1962. “I didn’t like it too much at the time because it was pensioner’s paradise. There weren’t many kids of my age, although I did enjoy sliding down the mud roads when it rained,” Margaret reminisces.
Margaret and her family too then moved to Whitefield around 1973 when she was 14. A total of 3,000 people lived in Whitefield at the time, including the families and the workers, with the latter living east of the main road.
There weren’t more than 50-60 middle class families who lived in beautiful Anglo-Indian houses, Margaret recounts. “There were a few more kids my age by that time. We’d pack a few sandwiches, rent bicycles for Re 1 and ride down to Hoskote,” she says.
“There were all of five cars between us and because everyone knew each other, it was common for people going into the city to ask if anyone else needed something,” says Margaret. “Our car on the other hand often doubled as an ambulance. We’d take sick people, and even took a few dead bodies, into town sometimes at odd hours,” she adds.
In 1977 Margaret began working as a secretary in a mining consultancy firm on MG road. “I would zoom back on my scooter in the evening, take a bath and be back in town to hang out with my friends. I used to come back at 2am without a worry. The one-way trip would take me 17 minutes. Now it takes me 17 minutes to drive out of my gate,” she says.
Things had not changed much when Deepa and her husband bought property in the Outer Circle in 1981. They would come on their yearly visits from Saudi Arabia, where her husband was working.
“There were single lane roads here in the 1980s. Ours was often the only car after you crossed the HAL airport,” Deepa recounts. “There was probably one small place you could pick up biryani, and Brothers Bakery which came up later. I go to them even now because they have the freshest bread!” she says.
Paul D’ Souza, a 50-year-old inventor, moved to Whitefield in 1987 when his father bought a house in the Inner Circle. “The number of houses at the time would have been in 100s. The last of the Anglo-Indians were there at the time. Everyone had time to stop and say hello, it was easy to make friends,” he says. “There was just one bus which would run every two hours and an auto if you wanted to go into the city,” he adds.
Deepa, Margaret and Paul say that the leisurely life continued till the mid-1990s. But things changed drastically when the International Tech Park was built in 1995.
“There was a sudden influx of people. And when property became more expensive, land-grabbing increased. Many of the old-timers began leaving to live with their kids elsewhere and the newcomers did not care much for our kind of life,” Paul says.
Paul and his family own Perfect Peace, one of the oldest and few surviving Anglo-Indian bungalows in Whitefield. He admits that it’s almost a full-time job to maintain the property which is over a century old. But what makes it worth it is when a few people still come to their gate and admire the structure.
While there hasn’t been a dearth of builders offering to take the plot of land to build high rises, Paul and his mother, the only residents of Perfect Peace, have continued turning them down. “It’s a conscious choice we have made to preserve the old way of life,” he maintains.
For Deepa, the change happened much faster than she could have predicted. “It was almost as if I woke up and everything I remembered was gone. Suddenly, traffic choked our roads. There were all these luxurious buildings but no comfort. I couldn’t step out of the house without breathing smoke and dust,” she rues.
Deepa and Margaret also talk about the sudden influx of builders and the indiscriminate widening of roads to facilitate their constructions. “One day in 2005, the BBMP just descended on Borewell Road and demolished the compounds of 40-60 houses along the road and took bits of their land. They (residents) had no sort of warning, nothing!” Deepa alleges.
In 2007, 216 roads were approved to be widened, including the Whitefield main road. “The Whitefield Club was on the main road and so was the church, over a century old. How can they disregard that?” Deepa questions. The residents then protested, and Banappa Circle and Whitefield Main Road remained untouched. “But the threat never stops looming,” she says.
For Margaret, the loss of the old way of life weighs heavy, because it coincided with the death of her mother. In 2007, her mother sold the house her grandparents had bought on Borewell Road because she couldn’t maintain it anymore. She bought an apartment in a building being constructed on the Inner Circle.
In January 2010, the builder asked her to pay a few lakh rupees more, because his staff had siphoned off some of the money and delayed the possession. She couldn’t afford it, so, for the time being, Margaret’s mother rented another flat. But she passed away in February, her dream of owning a house unfulfilled.
Margaret and her husband then took an apartment in Outer Circle. But the buildings which came up around them cut off the breeze which Margaret so cherished.
Margaret says that she has to prep herself for two weeks if she has to go into the city now, and get everything she needs to avoid going for the next two months. “The cemetery is full of my family, but this is not the Whitefield I want to be in anymore. We bought some property outside Hosur in Tamil Nadu. I’ll move there soon,” says Margaret, resigned to her fate. She misses the fresh air and greenery the most.
For Paul, it is the loss of the warm and welcoming environment which hurts. Deepa misses the laidback lifestyle and freedom to walk on the road. She points out the irony between the olden times when there weren’t authorities to govern them.
“There was a Whitefield Residents and Settlers Association, comprised of the original settlers who were given the land by the Maharaja of Mysore in the 1880s. Things were fine then. Then came the Panchayat and the BBMP. But no one really has the time to care,” Deepa says.
Referring to Whitefield Rising, she says they have come a full circle. “It may not be self-governance per se, but between us, at least we know we care,” she says.