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Bangalore and Its IT Industry

A Changing Landscape of Work and Life in Urban India

Askew—A Short Biography of Bangalore by T J S George, New Delhi: Aleph Book Company, 2016 (hardback).

Reengineering India—Work, Capital, and Class in an Offshore Economy by Carol Upadhya, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2016, pp xiii + 384, ₹995 (hardback).

Encoding Race, Encoding Class—Indian IT Workers in Berlin by Sareeta Amrute; Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016, pp x + 268, price not mentioned (paperback).

A persistent myth has it that when Kempe Gowda founded Bangalore1 in 1537, he had four towers built to mark the outermost boundaries of the city, and had proclaimed that the city would never grow beyond these limits. The views from atop these towers, however, show that present-day Bangalore’s outer limits have long since disappeared into the horizon. In fact, the towers can now be considered part of the city’s urban centre. Disheartened by the rundown state of some of the towers, especially the one located in Kempegowda Nagar in south Bangalore, a facelift was announced for all four recently, at a total cost of ₹3 crore.2

While the city has never been particularly heavy on historical sites that predate the arrival of the British, this latest effort to protect and upkeep what remains of Bangalore’s heritage needs to be at least partially understood within the context of urban change. It could be argued that nowhere else in India has urban change been as rapid, impactful, and perhaps as “disheartening” as it has been in Bangalore. There is no denying the influence the IT industry has had on the city. Over time, India’s IT industry and Bangalore have not just developed a symbiotic relationship, but they almost seem to have become synonymous with one another.

Bangalore is often referred to as the Silicon Valley of the East, though of late, it is more likely to be called Silicon Plateau—a direct reference to the “plateau” the city sits on, roughly thousand metres above sea level. Due to this geographic advantage, Bangalore, at least in the past, was often thought of as the Air-Conditioned City, decidedly cooler than other cities and towns located on the much hotter plains of Karnataka. The salubrious climate was one of the factors that influenced the British to establish a cantonment in Bangalore in the early 19th century, and it certainly also played a part in the city’s emergence as a Pensioners’ Paradise in the post-independence period. Throughout, Bangalore was thought of as Garden City, characterised by spacious tree-lined avenues flanked by British-style bungalows. The British influence, the (later) presence of the Indian Army, as well as the relocation of strategic industries to the city post-independence, all contributed to Bangalore’s emergence as India’s Pub City and also as its most “middle class” of cities.

For a city with such a variety of identities, few studies actually engaged with the various dimensions and characteristics of the city until the new millennium. Bangalore was known, admired, enjoyed, but was rarely the object of research, unlike (admittedly considerably larger) cities such as Kolkata, Mumbai, or New Delhi. This has started to change more recently, and the arrival of the IT industry has been key to this development.

This review essay explores Bangalore’s relationship with its IT industry through three recent publications and, by doing so, it seeks to understand not only how the two relate to each other, but also the various kinds of questions that have emerged over time. In particular, it seeks to understand how the idea of an old Bangalore (as encapsulated by its various names in the past) and the arrival of a new Bangalore—which seems somewhat coterminous with the notion of a “new” India in general—relate to each other; it also seeks to trace the trajectories and narratives of urban change that can be distilled from the city.

This essay argues that it is important to not limit ourselves to studies that directly speak of Bangalore and/or its IT industry, but to employ a transnational lens that also includes perspectives on the lives and lifestyles of Indian IT professionals across borders. The three primary books that will be examined here are T J S George’s Askew: A Short Biography of Bangalore, Carol Upadhya’s Reengineering India: Work, Capital and Class in an Offshore Economy, and Sareeta Amrute’s Encoding Race, Encoding Class: Indian IT Workers in Berlin. Published in 2016, these books explore different aspects of Bangalore and/or its IT industry. While veteran journalist T J S George’s account of Bangalore is styled as a highly personal “biography” of the city that only touches on the IT industry peripherally, Carol Upadhya’s meticulously researched Reengineering India is primarily interested in the functioning of the IT industry, albeit set in Bangalore. Finally, Sareeta Amrute’s Encoding Race, Encoding Class extends the discussion on India’s IT industry across borders and focuses on the lives and lifestyles of Indian IT professionals in Berlin with a particular focus on race and class.

While in Encoding Race, Encoding Class Bangalore is presented as a place where IT professionals come from or may one day return to, Amrute’s study complements a growing body of work that investigates the dialectical and dichotomous relationship between the city and its IT industry. Here, it is important that we do not reduce India’s IT industry to its presence or “headquarters” in Bangalore (the industry has a presence in most large Indian cities as well as in some smaller ones) nor limit our understanding of Bangalore to studies that focus on how the city has (physically) changed in the last two decades. In that sense, Reengineering India is a typical example of a study that is remarkably revealing of the city’s (changed) mental make-up without explicitly drawing on a Bangalorean perspective. Upadhya’s des­criptions of changing urban middle-class lifestyles, the attendant consumerism, and the mushrooming of luxury shopping malls, secluded residential enclaves, and glass-fronted office towers, are as much physical as they are mental: they describe and point to new ways of living, working, and thinking. The notion of a city having run askew, to borrow from T J S George’s formulation, is deeply present in such analyses, not just of the city itself with its clogged arteries, endless infrastructural projects, and worsening environmental conditions, but also with respect to working lives, management techniques, and lifestyles in general. As such, the three books discussed here need to be subsumed within a larger and rapidly growing body of studies that touch upon this one way or the other.

To complement the subsequent analysis, I will draw upon a number of other (recent and not so recent) publications on the city with the specific aim of situating the earlier-mentioned titles within a growing body of work on Bangalore as well as its IT industry. One such work that I would like to highlight here is a recently published graphic novel, simply titled Bangalore (Syenagiri, 2017). The cover of this title is adorned with what can only be interpreted as a blue-skinned goddess emerging from the ruins in the background that look vaguely Hoysala in style—a city bathed in a golden hue, a fiercely futuristic take on what Bangalore may be many years from now. This graphic novel is particularly relevant to the discussion at hand not just for the way it envisions a future Bangalore, but also for its “courage” to imagine one altogether. Although it brings together the memories and myths of an old Bangalore with reflections on a yet undetermined future, in its narration of murder mysteries, spooky recollections, and even zombies, the IT industry is intriguingly absent. It is as if the authors have sought to distance their work from the ever-present IT industry, perhaps building on the idea that as it once arrived, it might also depart in some distant future.

Although this essay does not speculate on this in detail, it needs to be noted that many publications on Bangalore and its ambivalent relationship with the IT industry are characterised by a certain lamenting of the demise of an “old” Bangalore and the arrival of a “new” and far less appealing one. As we will see in the analysis below, perspectives on the Indian IT industry are not very different: for all its ostentatious “newness,” considerably higher salaries, and concomitant middle-class lifestyle, the new ways of working (and thinking) do come at a cost. While both the city and the industry have long since passed a point of no-return, the works discussed in this essay raise important questions about new ways of working and living, middle-class dreams and aspirations, as well as urban change in India—all topics that will remain high on the research agenda in the years to come.

A City Askew

T J S George notes in his intriguing “short biography” of Bangalore, Askew, that “the changes that overtook Bangalore from the 1990s onwards were deeper, faster and more far-reaching than earlier changes” (p 17). The author points to two areas in the city—Whitefield and Sarjapur—to illustrate how the city has changed. Once too far off to even be considered the suburbs of Bangalore, now they have firmly merged with the city’s urban landscape and are well-known areas of urban expansion. Whitefield, which started off as a Eurasian enclave, has since become “a monster” (p 18), partly due to the establishment of International Tech Park India Ltd (ITPL), “a ten-building behemoth that included sports arenas and a hotel, all of international standard,” while Electronic City’s hailing distance from Sarjapur meant that the “real estate mafia arrived in a frenzied rush” (p 20). In broad brushstrokes, T J S George paints Bangalore’s history of the last century, noting that while the IT industry is often credited with ushering in the more “futuristic” dimensions of the city, it was in fact Tipu Sultan himself who introduced technology as such to the region. He says, “as early as the 1870s his engineers had invented rocketry, terrorizing the British” (p 22). The author goes on to note that the British too played an important role in this regard—he remarks that by making Bangalore the headquarters of the Madras Sappers, they enabled the subsequent development of the Bangalore Torpedo here; and he also points to Diwan Seshadri Iyer’s project of harnessing waterfalls in 1904, because of which “Bangalore became the first Indian city to have streets lighted by electricity” (p 22).

Most of Karnataka, up until independence, fell under the independent princely state of Mysore. It was Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya (1860–1962), whose motto was “industrialise or perish,” who permitted a technocratic bureaucracy the freedom to implement modern, industrial planning models in order to establish some of India’s earliest electrification and communication infrastructures (Schenk 2001: 42).3 This paved the way for other initiatives. During the 1940s and 1950s, massive investments were made in public sector enterprises around the city. Jawaharlal Nehru himself described Bangalore as the “city of the future”; while in the early 1940s, industrialisation had focused mostly on textile manufacturing (Madon 1997: 233), after independence, the establishment of a number of large-scale modern public sector undertakings—such as Hindustan Aeronautics, Hindustan Machine Tools, Indian Telephone Industries, Bharat Electro­nics, and Bharat Heavy Electricity—ushered in a new industrial phase for the city. These institutions sped up the establishment of a number of universities, institutions, and colleges providing engineering and scientific training (Madon 1997: 233). Industrialisation also had an effect on population growth in the city. In 1951, the organised sector employed 46,000 people. In 1971, this number had risen to 1,06,000. During this period, the population of Bangalore almost doubled (Schenk 2001: 42).

T J S George’s Askew does not discuss these changes in detail, but it does connect these earlier developments to the arrival of well-known Indian IT flagship enterprises such as Infosys and Wipro, as well as Texas Instruments, the first American (IT-oriented) multinational that established itself in the city in the 1980s. About the IT industry, he notes that it “transformed Bangalore in ways that earlier bouts of industrialization and immigration had not.” The old Bangalore was characterised as being “agreeable,” while this was now replaced by one “where no one had time for his neighbours.” About the newcomers who had flocked to the city, he writes: “If the pre-IT immigrants made an effort to merge into Bangalore, the new combatants were too disparate to try.” He concludes here: “Cosy Town turned international melting pot, Bangalore’s face turned ugly.” He goes on to wonder: “Why did modernity and enterprise make Bangalore unbearable” (p 24). T J S George then goes on to sketch some recent developments such as Kannada language and Kannadiga identity/representation issues and the animosity, racism, and violence directed towards Africans and North East Indians. At the end of his first chapter, T J S George ominously notes that the IT boom and related forces have altered Bangalore from within,

as though unseen hands had reconstituted its DNA … It used to be a city at peace with itself. It [is] now a bundle of contradictions, a battleground of competing constituencies, where going forward resemble[s] going backward.

And thus, the city has gone askew: “Knocked off balance by the weight of its own growth…” (p 32).

The Arrival of the it Industry<

In Reengineering India, Carol Upadhya starts her introduction by stating that “visitors to Bangalore are usually struck by the numerous signs indicating the city’s reinvention as India’s ‘Silicon Plateau’” (p 1). Newly-built apartment buildings, luxurious shopping malls, gated communities, and never-ending infrastructural projects all, one way or the other, seem to cater to the needs of young urban professionals. Here, Upadhya notes the “glaring contrast between these sharp-edged, modernist, steel-and-glass structures and manicured lawns” and the urban environment in which these buildings and middle-class spaces of living, leisure, and consumption have mushroomed. The old and new are interwoven here in a narrative of transformation that a growing number of studies on Bangalore seek to sketch, mention, and/or explain. Upadhya’s point of departure, however, is not the physical transformation of the city, but what can be observed going on inside, behind the glass-fronted offices of large IT companies. As she observes:

Shutting out the noise, pollution, and crowded streets of the city outside, this is a world of expansive air-conditioned and obsessively clean workplaces where neatly dressed, polite, and apparently enthusiastic young men and women toil before computer screens in their symmetrical cubicles—an atmosphere of hushed voices punctuated only by the tapping of numerous keyboards. (p 2)

It is thus IT professionals and the global workspaces where they spend the bulk of their time that Upadhya seeks to investigate. In general, the book explores “aspects of India’s development after liberalization” through the lens of the IT industry and the experiences of those working in it (p 3). Upadhya is quick to point out that she does not consider the IT industry an “enclave economy” that is only tenuously connected to what may be considered the real India; instead, she believes that it comprises a social field that is “both embedded in older formations of capital and class as well as central to the fashioning of a ‘new’ India” (p 3). One of her central arguments here is that

the forms and modalities of capital, labour, production, sociality, and subjectivity that have been forged in IT workspaces are not simply by-products of globalization, but have deeply shaped by the social and historical conditions of their making. (p 3)

She therefore also considers the IT industry as a site where “novel forms of work and working subjects, dispositions and social identities, and new aspirations and social imaginaries are being created, circu­lated, and naturalized” (p 3). The idea of a “new workplace” is central to this (p 16).

This new workplace contrasts an older (Indian) workplace in that it is open, flexible, and flat in term of its organisational/bureaucratic design. This comes with the rhetoric of “new ways” of working, which draw upon “new age” management ideas originating from Silicon Valley-based (“new economy”) companies, and which have trickled down to Indian IT companies such as Infosys, Wipro, and Tata Consultancy Services (TCS). Yet, as Upadhya also argues, these new management practices do not simply result in a new type of worker-subject; such practices are also influenced by the way IT professionals “engage with, contest, and sometimes appropriate the modes of power and subjectification that they encounter at work” (p 19).

Upadhya argues that the IT industry and its employees cannot be separated from the larger context of an emerging middle class (p 21). In particular, software engineering, as a profession, has gradually emerged as one of the most aspirational occupations for India’s middle-class youth. Yet, as Upadhya also notes, actually securing a position in one of the country’s better-known IT companies can be quite challenging (p 79). Although IT companies have developed a “symbiotic relationship with engineering colleges” (p 85), there is no denying the fierce competition for jobs. IT professionals, thus, often emphasise that they work in “actual” IT companies (as software engineers, programmers, testers, or otherwise), in contrast to call centre or business process outsourcing (BPO) workers, who are often characterised as having failed to have made it into the software industry (p 297). The insecurity associated with job positions is not just visible in how IT workers contrast their own position with those considered “lower” on the ladder, but also in how work is organised and structured within the industry itself.

An understanding of the function of the “bench” or what it means to “be benched” is particularly important here. While it refers to employees who are not committed to a project at the moment and are thus not billable (p 137), in more general terms, it metaphorically captures something about IT work itself: the long hours in office, the 24-hour economy that connects Indian IT companies to various project sites in Europe and in the US, and the significant amount of time spent waiting and doing nothing (while on “stand by”). Because of the standardisation of work and the constant availability of fresh graduates, a certain disposability of labour has also emerged; this all too easily translates into trepidation with regard to future employment. Here, it is helpful to also sketch the “temporal” context within which Upadhya’s and others’ (early) work on Bangalore and the Indian IT industry (including that of Amrute, discussed later) needs to be situated.

Post Millennium (Bug)

Reengineering India builds upon research material that was gathered during an 18-month period between 2004 and 2006 and which was preceded by a preparation stage that was clearly influenced by the developments that followed the turn of the millennium. Riding high on global fears of an impending apocalypse due to the now largely forgotten Y2K pheno­menon or millennium bug, Indian IT companies were instrumental in offering IT-related services to those at risk around the world. To meet this sudden surge in demand, Indian IT companies fiercely recruited software engineers from across the country to work at their campuses in Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune, and elsewhere. Once the new millennium passed, the Y2K problem quickly dropped off companies’ radars and a rapid decline in business set in. Consequently, a significant number of software engineers were either “benched” or laid off. While a new wave of optimism had hung in the air in 2003, it quickly faded in the following years as lay-offs and the closing down of various IT companies created a climate of insecurity, which was further exacerbated by the kinds of contracts employees were on. As Upadhya also notes, such developments need to be understood within the context of flexibilisation of labour in general (pp 97–100). In the case of the (Indian) IT industry, this not only affected the way projects were organised and structured—thus leading to higher competition—but also led to the “breeding” of a particular kind of IT worker who is only a part of a production process. This factory line approach to IT led Upadhya to regularly employ the term “IT factory.”

The detailed case studies and interviews that Reengineering India presents provide a glaring contrast to how the IT industry would have liked to present itself at the time. In the local media, India’s IT industry sought to present itself as innovative, dynamic, cutting-edge, and in a sense, the opposite of “ordinary” Indian businesses. I distinctly recall an Outlook cover from 29 January 2003 which featured the in-house band of flagship IT company, Infosys. In the accompanying article, “A Debugged Operating System,” we see Infosys’ CEO, Narayana Murthy, on a ladder climbing onto the roof, as if to symbolically suggest that even the company’s most important executive is not afraid to get his hands dirty. Perhaps influenced by companies based in Silicon Valley, a keenness to exhibit a particular kind of social consciousness is also seen. Bob Hoekstra, the CEO of software operations at Philips in Bangalore, once showed me a flyer that spelled out the Philips Innovation Campus (PIC) way. The flyers—which could be found across the campus—included statements such as “we respect every person” and that at PIC “everyone is given equal opportunity, irrespective of race, religion, geography, sex, ethnic background, etc.” Bob Hoekstra himself had recently published a small volume of reflections on the city titled An Exemplary Family in Bangalore and Other Short Stories and Pen Sketches (2002). Also, Sudha Murthy,4 wife of the earlier-mentioned Narayana Murthy and chairperson of the Infosys Foundation, had then recently published her first collection of impressions titled Wise and Otherwise: A Salute to Life (2002).

Such publications seem to embody a general desire to communicate a sense of social responsibility. Industry leaders have made a determined effort to disassociate themselves from ostentatious wealth and living, employees were explicitly recruited on a “merit” only basis, and IT companies sponsored initiatives that aimed to improve the environment or give underprivileged Indians opportunities to better themselves. While cynics would be quick to point out that the IT industry itself was connected to various social and environmental issues across the city, it is important to understand that the way the IT industry presented itself signifies a shift in ideas from a perceived “old” India to a “new” one. By 2003, the IT industry had already become symbolic of—and was gradually becoming synonymous with—this shift, which not only built upon the idea of economic growth, but also gradually came to equate it with various notions of social change.

Reengineering India is particularly insightful because of the critical analysis it presents on the way work is done within an ostensibly new Indian industry such as IT. The gap between those with client-facing positions and those who are part of the production process illustrates that for many the work is mundane, repetitive, and far removed from the innovative and adventurous image the industry has cultivated for itself. Client-facing IT workers, on the one hand, are usually those who can socialise informally with people from diverse cultural backgrounds, and thus are thought to be capable of communicating with clients about work (p 91); on the other hand, the latter group may never have this opportunity and/or develop such skills. The emphasis on soft skills (p 93)—a predominant feature of the industry—is a testimony of this. While the work itself is so much like a factory line that it is rather interchangeable in terms of who is put to the task, it is the more elusive nature of soft skills that determines mobility opportunities.

Upadhya is also particularly critical of the notion of “IT professional” or the often used “knowledge worker.” According to her, it “suggests that all IT employees are engaged in highly challenging and creative work” (p 121), which she decidedly disagrees with. The work done within IT companies is often intensely “process-driven” and is guarded by a range of surveillance and measurement mechanisms that collect data on every aspect of the workflow and output (p 126). Ironically, Upadhya observes, even as IT companies promote the idea of soft capitalism (something which, resonates with their image of social responsibility), in her words, “organizations use direct, panoptical, and exacting methods to extract the maximum value from software labour.” This contrasts the social atmosphere within IT workspaces, which, according to Upadhya, “is marked by informality and camaraderie …” (p 190). Yet, even if the individualised work culture and the ideal of employee autonomy does allow room for negotiation, “the combination of intense surveillance and monitoring systems with subjective management techniques creates a highly effective system of organization control” (p 190). It is therefore no surprise that IT professionals themselves are quite sceptical and cynical about notions of employee empowerment.

A Transnational Perspective

With regard to the way work gets done within the industry, Carol Upadhya’s study resonates with the more transnational perspective Sareeta Amrute employs in Encoding Race, Encoding Class. In fact, they even employ overlapping research periods; Amrute conducted 18 months of research between 2002 and 2004 in Berlin, with a three-month follow-up in 2006. The principal aim of Amrute’s study is to examine how

knowledge work realigns and reimagines race and class and how these in turn give rise to alternatives within the neoliberal colonization of life by work. (p 2)

Like the Bangalore-based IT professionals of Upadhya’s study, the Indian programmers whom Amrute encountered in Berlin were “working through and reinventing ways of inhabiting a changed landscape of work and value …” While for IT professionals in Bangalore, their context comprises similarly highly educated, often middle to upper-middle-class and upper caste Indians, in Berlin, European and American co-workers add a layer of complexity (p 4).

In a bid to distance herself from earlier studies (mainly with a call centre/BPO focus) that centre on questions of adaptation/assimilation through mimicry, Amrute is particularly interested in understanding “how racialization as [she] use[s] it does not imply an ultimate truth about race” (p 4). Amrute is

interested in how the race of the Indian IT workers is used to generalize about emerging economies by providing a frame through which to speculate on the kinds of traits that make a good cognitive worker and to further imagine what populations might possess such traits. (p 15)

What stands out in her well-crafted and thoroughly researched ethnography is how various notions of Indianness (interlinked with the idea of “Indian” IT professionals or “techies”) permeate the transnational/Germany workplace and how it is interpreted, negotiated, and occasionally also appropriated. Drawing on a vast array of representations of Indian IT professionals in German media and elsewhere, Amrute’s analysis also provides insight on a changing world. Underneath the (occasionally shockingly racist) imagery lurks a palpable shift in global power relations which produces a confusing array of interpretations. The IT professionals in Amrute’s study are clearly caught in a divide where they have to navigate a confusing landscape characterised by opportunities on the one hand and all sorts of constraints on the other. While the precariousness of their temporary employment visas only makes the situation worse, their effect is somewhat tangential; what is more striking here is the functioning and structure of the industry. Software programmers often note the limited (creative) freedom they are given in their work and that though they create code, they never own their creations nor does it bear their names; and ultimately, they function as machines within a factory.

Talking about code, Amrute found that IT workers echo Marx’s thoughts on machines:

as a technology that ought to free them to pursue their many-sidedness but has instead been harnessed to a business strategy that sees them mostly as expendable, cheap labor. (p 21)

Within the transnational context of knowledge economies, race takes on a particularly illuminating capacity here: “as both a regimentation of labor divisions and worker management and an affirmation of liberal selfhood and a fecund source of communicative value” (p 83). As “Indian” knowledge workers, their work is interpreted “through repeated moments of noticing and remarking on their foreignness …” (p 84). While this clearly associates them with particular aspects of knowledge work, it also separates them, as Amrute argues, as having a specific role to play in this.

From the perspective of “Bangalore,” the IT professionals in Encoding Race, Encoding Class have been given the opportunity to further develop their soft skills through exposure to a transnational work environment. While this implies upward mobility, it is interesting to note that Amrute’s informant would occasionally espouse “a political philosophy of free code” to explain why IT professionals should be allowed to move freely across borders (p 87). While code is boundary-free and can cross borders, they themselves are not, and yet ought to be. Here Amrute explains:

many Indian coders I spent time with implicitly and explicitly make the argument that they too, like the code, should be able to go anywhere and use their skills to solve problems. (p 97)

They draw parallels between themselves—highly skilled migrants—and the problem-solving capabilities of code: they see themselves as

boundless potential that is restricted by arbitrary laws and people (such as visa-dispensing bureaucrats and business-oriented project managers) who lack the expertise to appreciate the importance of technical work. (p 99)

And here, race (or nationality) is a limiting/constraining factor: “third-worldist suppositions” continue to render Indian software programmers desirable only as temporary workers (p 99).

Close readings of Reengineering India and Encoding Race, Encoding Class show the similarities in attitudes towards IT work and the management techniques and processes used to organise, streamline, and monitor workflows in these companies. In both studies, race and class are recurrent topics of discussion. Race plays a particularly predominant role in the more transnational dimensions of IT work, while class permeates a more general understanding of the hierarchical position of IT work within the mental makeup of middle-class India. Upadhya notes that within Bangalore’s middle class, “conversations about children’s employment are a means of negotiating and asserting relative social status” (p 287). Although most IT professionals hail from middle- and upper-middle-class families, it is not uncommon for “freshers” in the industry to draw a salary that is higher than what their parents ever received. Yet, as transnational subjects working across borders, they are no longer “upwardly mobile professionals” as they were considered at home, but are often

labelled ‘cheap Indians’ who are out to steal Western jobs, or as ‘technocoolies’ who have basic programming skills but lack the social and cultural capital required for managerial or more creative roles. (p 308)

Indian companies play a role in fashioning or internalising such identities as well. Upadhya notes how IT companies make a concerted effort to fashion socially acceptable subjects who can function within transnational work environments, developing in them the habitus and practices of the global corporate workplace and, perhaps most significantly, “instructing them to manage or suppress ‘Indian’ characteristics and habits that are deemed inappropriate for this space” (p 258). Amrute’s study is particularly insightful about how a cross-border work environment or global corporate workplace is experienced—in this regard, she analyses the jokes software programmers share among each other (pp 182–83); Upadhya’s material from her fieldwork in Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands also enriches her study in this regard.

‘Indian’ IT and Bangalore

Around the time Carol Upadhya and Sareeta Amrute embarked on their research (circa 2003), there were relatively few studies available on the city compared to the other large metropolitan centres of India. Gangaram’s bookshop, at the time still located on MG Road, carried two volumes on its shelves. Maya Jayapal’s Bangalore: The Story of a City (1997) offered a very general but insightful account of the city, while Peter Colaco’s Bangalore: A Century of Tales from City & Cantonment (2003), which had just been published then, offered a much more personal take on the city, not unlike T J S George’s Askew more than a decade later.

Such early writings on Bangalore reveal something that reverberates with contemporary scholarship on the city and its IT industry. There is a sense of a Bangalore of the past, an old Bangalore so to speak, and an impending new reality that is a significant departure from this. As Jayapal noted in her penultimate chapter in 1997, “Bangalore is the fastest growing metropolis in the country today” (p 263). The city had already been named the “Silicon Valley of India,” and in the year the book was published (1997), the phrase acquired momentum in the international press as it was frequently cited in lengthy overview articles on India’s 50 years of Independence. It is worth noting here that Jayapal raised the alarm about the city’s soaring population and its already overstrained infrastructure 20 years ago, and it has only become even more fragile now. Colaco echoes these sentiments and writes that “the old bungalows are coming down, giving way to high rise fortresses, with black mirror fronts, to house the thousands of IT clones and the amenities they need” (p 293).

Smriti Srinivas’ Landscapes of Urban Memory (2001) was the first academic study to bring together perspectives on old and new Bangalore. Yet, this juxtaposition was less about the demise of a previous, more charming version of the city and the emergence of a less appealing one, and more about the contrast between a local (Karnatic) Bangalore and its global avatar. Centring on various aspects and rituals of goddess worship, the book investigates, as the subtitle explains, The Sacred and the Civic in India’s High-Tech City. However, the book only touches upon the latter. Perhaps like the more recently published graphic novel discussed in the introduction of this essay, this implies that though there is no denying the presence of the IT industry in Bangalore, there are vast sections of the city’s population whose lives are only peripherally impacted by the presence of the industry.

Bangalore as an Object of Study

Compared to the earlier lack of studies on the city and/or its IT industry, publications on these topics have effloresced recently. Janaki Nair’s Bangalore’s Twentieth Century: The Promise of a Metropolis (2005) is an important study on the various factors that have shaped the city’s urban planning and aesthetics. It therefore also provides insights into why Bangalore became the ideal destination for the IT industry. The history of India’s IT industry has been extensively covered in Dinesh C Sharma’s highly readable The Long Revolution (2009), which, as the subtitle states, tracks The Birth and Growth of India’s IT Industry. Sareeta Amrute also discusses these developments in Encoding Race, Encoding Class (pp 118–36) and both show that a Bangalorean perspective is not enough to properly appreciate these various interrelated developments.

More recently, various edited volumes such as Beantown Boomtown (2007) by Jayanth Kodkani and R Edwin Sudhir, Multiple City (2008), by Aditi De, and Bengaluru, Bangalore, Bengaluru, by Narendar Pani, Sindhu Radhakrishna, and Kishor G Bhat (2010) have examined the city in detail. While the first two bring together writings on the city by “original” or “older” inhabitants, collating memories of the past as well as reflections on the city’s current and potential future state, the latter zooms in on various instances in Bangalore’s past, drawing a bridge to where it currently is and heading onwards. A common thread runs through these works: the notion of change and the departure from old to a less pleasant, less certain new. Yet, a certain celebration of the resilience of the city, and perhaps also a pride in its recognisability as a brand within the global landscape, can be observed as well. Harini Nagendra’s (2016) striking volume, Nature in the City, on nature and conservation in Bangalore, deserves a mention here as well, especially for how she strives to connect the past, present, and future through the city’s greenery, which is now so much under threat.

In parallel, studies on the city’s IT industry have mushroomed in recent years. Eshwar Sundaresan’s Bangalored (2006) provides a perspective on the influx of thousands of foreigners employed by the IT industry. Xiang Biao’s influential study, Global “Body Shopping” (2007), was the first to tackle the complexities and precariousness of labour arrangements and relations in the industry. He was also probably the first to map the lives and lifestyles of Indian IT professionals in other countries, in this case, in Australia. Similarly, the more recent Appropriately India (2011) by Smitha Radhakrishnan focuses on IT professionals abroad (in Silicon Valley as well as in South Africa) while also including perspectives from Mumbai and Bangalore. It is not hard to see how Sareeta Amrute’s study functions as the next chapter in this exploration.

The Now Long History of it in India

Carol Upadhya’s Reengineering India and Sareeta Amrute’s Encoding Race, Encoding Class not only add to a growing body of work on India’s IT industry and its relationship with Bangalore, but they also provide important perspectives on its impact on urban lives and lifestyles. T J S George’s Askew acts as a bridge to this body of work that clearly draws inspiration from and builds upon the notion of change. This change is best visualised as an (elusive) linearity from old to new, and which comprises changes in quality of life, working lives, and related (urban, environmental, social, cultural) conditions. Upadhya’s and Amrute’s studies show the complexities of working in the IT industry and call into question some of the appeal and glamour it may have for middle-class Indians. On the one hand, while Reengineering India focuses on what IT work really entails, Encoding Race, Encoding Class explores questions of race in the IT industry and reflects on the imagined position of Indian IT within a global playfield.

While Bangalore does not play an explicit role in Amrute’s analysis, her work contributes towards situating Bangalore within a broader global (socio-economic) context. Although both studies build upon material that is at least a decade old, studies that draw on more recent material do not necessarily seem to suggest that the situation has changed a great deal. There are, however, whispers of the industry “maturing”—while some believe that this means that India’s IT industry is losing its competitive edge, others suggest the industry is moving away from low-cost production-oriented work and is becoming more cutting-edge. Such rumours were abundant even in 2003, which perhaps shows that the industry cannot and does not stand still. While the management processes and surveillance techniques that Upadhya describes have become more fine-tuned, one wonders what the experience of race and racism among Indian IT professionals abroad would be now, considering India’s significant economic growth and emergence as a geopolitical power. With India’s IT industry now roughly 20 years old, it is time to investigate where earlier the cohorts of IT professionals are. Here, it is important to let go of the implicit novelty of India’s IT industry and accept that IT now has a long history in Bangalore as well as the rest of India.


1 Like T J S George, I prefer using the name Bangalore in English-language publications. While I acknowledge that Bengaluru is the city’s official name, Bangalore has always been the English version of this. Just as international publications do not speak of Den Haag but The Hague and of Vienna instead of Wien, I will refer to Bengaluru as Bangalore here.

2 B R Rohith, “₹3 Crore Facelift for Kempegowda Towers Soon,” Times of India, 8 February 2017,

3 See also James Heitzman, “Becoming Silicon Valley,” India Seminar, July 2001,

4 The 2002 publication I am referring to here spelled her last name without an h.


De, Aditi (2008): Multiple City: Writings on Bangalore, New Delhi: Penguin.

Hoekstra, Bob and Soumen Chakraborty (2002): An Exemplary Family in Bangalore and Other Short Stories and Pen Sketches, Bangalore: Modern Printing Press.

Kodkani, Jayanth and R Edwin Sudhir (2007): Beantown Boomtown: Bangalore in the World of Words, New Delhi: Rupa & Co.

Madon, Shirin (1997): “Information-Based Global Economy and Socioeconomic Development: The Case of Bangalore,” The Information Society, 13, p 233.

Murthy, Sudha (2002): Wise and the Otherwise: A Salute to Life, Chennai: East West Books.

Nagendra, Harini (2016): Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present, and Future, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Nair, Janaki (2005): Bangalore’s Twentieth Century: The Promise of a Metropolis, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Pani, Narendar, et al (2010): Bengaluru, Bangalore, Bengaluru: Imaginations and Their Times, New Delhi: Sage Publications.

Sharma, Dinesh C (2009): The Long Revolution: The Birth and Growth of India’s IT Industry, Noida: Harper Collins.

Schenk, Hans (2001): Living in India’s Slums: A Case Study of Bangalore, New Delhi: Manohar Publishers and Distributers.

Srinivas, Smriti (2001): Landscapes of Urban Memory: The Sacred and the Civic in India’s High-tech City, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Sundaresan, Eshwar (2006): Bangalored: The Expat Story, Chennai: East West Books.

Xiang, Biao (2007): Global “Body Shopping”: An Indian Labor System in the Information Technology Industry, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Updated On : 16th Jun, 2017


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