The Pune between the Porsche and Pulsar | Mumbai news - Hindustan Times
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The Pune between the Porsche and Pulsar

Jul 07, 2024 08:19 PM IST

How events after the Kalyani Nagar tragedy in May have revealed that ‘metro city’ Pune is a struggling small town at heart

PUNE: In the 2018 film ‘Andhadhun,’ the retro-modern Vespa two-wheeler being ridden around by Radhika Apte’s character is a beautiful motif for Pune. In many central parts of the city, leafy bungalows share walls with luxury goods showrooms and the palates that grew up on missal also crave macarons. But on the morning of May 19 this year, these ‘two Indias’ collided, and the aftermath of the accident has revealed that beneath Pune’s sleek urban body, the metro’s engines are still rusty, struggling to grow out of its small-town past.

The morning of May 19 this year, these ‘two Indias’ collided, and the aftermath of the accident has revealed that beneath Pune’s sleek urban body (HT/ FILE PHOTO)
The morning of May 19 this year, these ‘two Indias’ collided, and the aftermath of the accident has revealed that beneath Pune’s sleek urban body (HT/ FILE PHOTO)

The real-life andhadhun driving event too featured a two-wheeler, which was rammed into during wee hours by a Porsche Taycan allegedly driven by an underage boy under the influence of alcohol. The Pulsar motorcycle’s riders, software engineers aged 24, died. On July 5, the 17-year-old, out on bail, submitted to the Juvenile Justice Board a hand-written essay of around 300 words on road safety. For someone who partied hard to celebrate a 60 per cent result in Class 12, this surprise assignment must have been stressful.

A long, painful hangover

In the weeks after the accident, the arms of law have slapped Punekars hard. Nakabandis and police barricades are common on all nights; drunk driving fines on 832 drivers totalled to over 26 lakhs in the month after the crash and as per the local hoteliers’ association, around 150 restaurants, bars and pubs have downed shutters, either having their liquor licences revoked or for the fear of raids over non-compliance.

The knee-jerk reaction may seem natural until one hits upon the political cocktail around this case that’s made Pune’s hangover unbearable. ‘Crack down on the growing pub culture here’, former mayor and now a minister in the NDA government, Murlidhar Mohol told the police commissioner. While he squabbled with his opposition counterpart, Congress’s Ravindra Dhangekar who publicly read out ‘monthly bribe payments’ to night clubs, both leaders chorused on a sanskari narrative. “The younger generation is getting addicted to pub culture and their lives seem to be getting ruined,” Dhangekar was reported as saying.

Every time such narratives emerge, Pune’s big city vibe goes backwards, and on this occasion they’ve been handed to the police with asks to crack down on pub culture. “It’s as if to say the restaurants were the perpetrators,” says restaurateur Riyaaz Amlani, whose establishments thrive on urban culture in Pune and 19 other cities across India. “Pune has traditionally been a conservative market, and it has a dichotomy like any other city – there are those who love going out …and those who feel eating out is an excess, not a need.”

Missing social infrastructure

This dichotomy is intriguing – there are hip joints such as Amlani’s antiSOCIAL (no irony intended), beer breweries such as Babylon and Koregaon Park’s many airy restaurants; and there are legacy establishments such as Kayani and German bakeries. There is barely any in-between – plazas or open spaces where children can play with abandon and women can put their feet up without paranoia. The plush neighbourhoods where pensioners and retired civil servants snooze aren’t really buzzing after 9pm. “Builders have promoted gated spaces, but the social infrastructure that every big city needs is an afterthought,” Amlani explains.

Heramb Shelke, owner of Kalyani Nagar’s Ballr, India’s ‘largest club’, has a similar view. “Those who run Pune are active to represent it in competitions like the ‘Happiness Index’, but we also need efforts to make it socially vibrant. Tags like ‘knowledge city’ make sense only when students and professionals get to unwind safely outdoors after long hours. Ever since the incident, the parties haven’t stopped… they’ve just moved indoors or to villas in Lonavala.” Shelke is counting days to a judgement which could allow him to reopen Ballr, which stands suspended after the Porshe accident occurred within metres of it.

Praveen Dixit, former DGP of Maharashtra also cites the dearth of places to hang out in Pune. “A lot of youth has moved here thanks to the IT industry, and they all have higher purchasing power… but where are the cultural hubs like Mumbai’s NCPA? With no options, young people will go to riff-raff places which are reckless about rules,” he says.

To be fair, ‘young people’ splurging fractions of generational wealth and landing into trouble could happen in Gurgaon or Bangalore too. Dr Shiv Visvanathan, one of India’s finest social commentators, calls this ‘arrogance of illiteracy’. “This isn’t just a Maharashtra problem, this raises questions about the nature of our cities in today’s India. What is playing out in Pune is the standard, exaggerated narrative of ‘everyone who is rich is a fixer’, and the script is predictable! It’s affluent violence and it’s scary,” he shares.

As Nagpur’s commissioner of police, Dixit once led a crackdown on drunk driving cases by stationing cops within metres of major bars and publishing names of as many as 500 offenders daily, online. “The result was a fall in the death toll by accidents! The bar owners took to the streets to protest against this – when I was transferred, tyanni pedhe vaatle! (they distributed sweets),” he recalls.

Liberal or conservative? The paradox called Pune

Dixit reminds another inexplicable protest when helmets were made compulsory, “The same politicians had a problem!” There was an actual ‘Punekar Helmet Virodhi Kruti Samiti’ backed by hundreds of citizens, which performed elaborate ‘last rites’ of a helmet in a crematorium in 2019. Quite brave for a city with one the highest numbers of two-wheelers in India. But look deeper into the context behind the protests – the conservatives’ urge to wear ‘traditional’ cloth helmets over standardized ones, and your face will meet your palm hard.

But ‘conservative’ isn’t a label that some born-in-Pune like. Naina, 39, a former film-maker who’s back from a decade after having lived in London and Mumbai, feels, “Everyone thinks Pune is typically Maharashtrian… but it’s always been multicultural and home to people from all backgrounds. I grew up in a very liberal Pune, which no longer exists. It’s grown in a way that it’s unable to manage its growth, the infrastructure isn’t keeping up either,” she says. History bears several testaments of Pune’s inclusive social fabric, one being the Battle of Koregaon, in which the Peshwa’s infantry featured a mix of Arabs, Gosains and Marathas.

Cut to 2024, the undercurrents of ‘outsiders spoiling culture’ are currently strong. Ganesh Shetty, president of the Pune Hoteliers Association is among these voices. “Pune isn’t like any other city! Kuch areas mein 11.30 ke baad apko raste khali milenge! Par doosre areas, jaise Kalyani Nagar, Kondhwa mein abhi IT wale rehte hai… sab mostly north se hai, cosmopolitan crowd hai. Wahin pub culture ka disturbance hai,” he says, adding the line “Uske baad hi sab lafda hua na,” in true hotelier lingo.

Shetty’s industry has received a gut punch with night-time curbs. He says the ‘third round’ (a bar business term indicating customers who come to drink and party after 10 pm) has vanished as people rush home early. “Around 45 per cent business is already down,” he shares, estimating as many as 15,000 workers being jobless since the crash. For locals such as Naina, who say “It was an open secret that several places served alcohol to kids”, this is good news, but for families of out-of-job hospitality staff, not so much. Amlani terms them ‘the bridge between the blue and white collar workers’ and Pune with its bursting nightlife and employment opportunities has been a model example of this.

“Pune’s small city mentality is thanks to the villagers and students who come in from all over Maharashtra. It’s unique and must be celebrated. We’re happy to partner and enforce rules that work for all,” Shelke says. One such rule is the legal drinking age of 25 in the state, the highest in the country.

For now, both of Pune’s Indias, the Porsche and the Pulsar, lie damaged, in custody, awaiting repair. It won’t be soon before they get back to roaring on the road, hopefully with safe distance of each other.

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