The assault on a Tanzanian woman in Bangalore has been received with shock and outrage around the country, and has seemed to do some damage to the city’s reputation for cosmopolitan welcome. But for those who know Bangalore, there is nothing really surprising about this episode. Bangalore’s cosmopolitanism comes at a certain human cost.

Some years ago, I fell into conversation with one of the staff at the city’s now-defunct Premier Bookshop. His job was to stand around, help people find books, and ensure, via random circuits of the shelves, that nobody gave in to the urge to pilfer. At our previous meeting, he had rushed up to help after seeing me fall off the bike post a nasty skid on a road rendered muddy by flyover work. That’s when I found out that you too live in Banaswadi, he said. We fell into the obligatory three-sentence exchange in Kannada that compatriots from far-flung Bangalore localities will readily have when they discover a fellow sufferer.

I was born there, he said, and we worked on the vineyards till the 1980s, when the landlords sold them off. His last sentence, after he asked me if we rented or owned, was Avvaaga baadige maneyalliddvi; eeglou baadige maneyalle iddeevi. (We used to live in a rented house then. We still live in a rented house.)

That conversation has stayed with me. I felt then a little twinge of something that I have tried to name without much success. Let me just call this layout-guilt for now, the feeling that some Bangaloreans have when they come across other Bangaloreans they have unwittingly helped uproot.

Premier Bookshop closed in 2009, and I have no idea what happened to my friend or where he went after that. The conversation has stayed with me because of the story it tells, of people who wake up to find that the city has been thrust upon them, without always including the option of citizenship. Bangalore’s shining stories of arrival rarely include local aspirations, and offer many no more than a place on the peripheries.

The many tragedies

When this disenfranchisement multiplies beyond reason, it cannot but result in a constant simmer of anger and resentment that will occasionally boil over. It has happened before, and will probably happen again, and we will never be able to predict who its target might be. Two young men, in a desperate bid to escape traffic cops after some minor offence, died in a crash at Krishnarajapuram a couple of years ago. The onlookers turned into a mob that stoned buses and nearly lynched every policeman in the vicinity. At the actor Raj Kumar’s funeral, a section of the crowd turned violent because they could not view his remains, and the targets, once again, were the police. These are the ways in which ordinary people signal the exhaustion of their patience, and stage a return to some form of primeval villager justice, and thus reclaim the city for a little while.

None of this can justify or indeed account fully for what happened to this student from a far country on the evening of January 31. Any existing rage, in this case, seems to have been compounded by ill-will that may well have had some racist element to it.

We must necessarily acknowledge the many tragedies that form the facets of this incident. There is what happened to the Tanzanian woman. There is also the Sudanese medical student whose moment of carelessness now means that he must deal with being a criminal offender in a strange land. And then there is the 35-year-old woman who died in the accident, had her name mangled by several newspapers, and now appears to be no more than a contextual detail in newspaper accounts.

We could also mention a Home Minister whose punctiliousness in debating the semantics of terms like “stripped” and “racism” revealed an emphasis on managing a public relations disaster rather than any genuine concern. Looking at how sections of the English language media have reported the incident, it is also necessary to ask if they have implicitly relied on the stock figure of the unreasonable local, and turned the Tanzanian student into grist while grinding on about how Bangalore will be perceived.

Talking of stock figures, it is perhaps worth remembering the British sociologist Stanley Cohen’s notion of folk devils – marginal figures who, by their marginality, provide the justification for mobilisations of opinion and action that he dubbed “moral panics”.

The student from elsewhere has a long history as folk devil in Bangalore, perhaps because it is the capital of the state which pioneered turning education into a commodity. When I was a child, I remember being fed on a steady diet of stories of Iranian students and how they rode their motorbikes without any concern for pedestrians, and how violent they could be. At various points, similar stories have done the rounds about every group of students that have arrived – the faces change, but the stories remain the same.

Education industry

Five years ago, a colleague reported a conversation with a church-going neighbour in the eastern suburb of Kammanahalli who was very cut up about “these Black fellers” and their noisy weekend habits. A report in the Kannada Prabha from the day before on the Ganapathinagar incident has among the comments a long diatribe by one Ravi about “these Nigerians and Somalians” who, in addition to “selling drugs, clubbing, and having joint parties”, want to marry girls from the North East so that they can stay on in India, get Aadhar cards and PAN cards. And while he doesn’t say what is so terrible about all this, I gather from his gravitas that he fears they might perhaps conquer the world soon after.

When Indian universities charge foreign students several times the fees they charge Indian students, it is worth asking what they do for these students apart from taking their money and giving them a certificate in rote learning. What indeed do the many Bangalore colleges that seem to market a form of educational tourism in African countries do, apart from delivering on the tacit promise of a trouble-free passage through university mills, while ridding students of their money? When a university system is geared to work for foreign students who can afford to pay rather than for those who might need the degree, there will be complications that university or college must anticipate and resolve.

Of the score or so colleges in Bangalore that receive foreign students, one or two may run an occasional cultural programme for foreign students. But none of them seems invested enough in providing a more substantial support system for academic matters, for legal and financial questions, and for orienting them to local sensitivities. These systems, when they exist, owe their origins more to student will rather than to college, university or government initiatives. An introductory course that equips every foreign student with about 500 Kannada words, might, for instance, be the simple solution that averts a shouting match where neither party understands each other, or worse. If a college launches a neighbourhood initiative for their foreign students, it might do much to simply start a bunch of conversations where there are none happening.

In a city as divided as ours, it may take nothing greater than imagination for everybody to turn over a new leaf. When greed is the language in which the book of our experience is written, it is doubtful if the urgent finger that comes to the page can do anything other than turn it at top speed – nobody is going to have the time to read from that book, or learn.