Pune | Lifestyle in Oxford of the East
Pune is a sprawling, jungle city of five million, affectionately known in Asia as the Oxford of the East, as well as the cultural capital of the Indian state of Maharashtra. Though it carries less international renown than the state capital Mumbai, as a basecamp for an adventurous foreigner, it provides vivid images of India both historic and contemporary. Every weekend is an introduction to a new neighborhood, each one a unique microcosm that developed independently of any sort of city ordinance or planning. The expat network is extensive and spirited, with young people arriving from Tunisia, France, Germany, Tanzania, Singapore, and many other vibrant nations to intern in the tech sector and study at Pune’s renowned universities.
Most foreigners, like myself, arrive with employment lined up. In order to qualify for a visa, you have to have a place to stay at the very minimum, and a job helps if you want to stay for more than three months. A hotel can suffice, and a hundred pounds can go a long way if you arrive with slim funds. Be wary of workers’ hostels, as they cater to migrant workers more than travelers, and can be rather spartan.
Finding a nice apartment to rent is easy, and letting agencies operate in a similar way to the UK for newer places. You’ll live inside a “society,” which is basically a walled complex. A single room, while cheaper, can be harder to find, as landlords don’t really favor co-ed living or HMOs. For this reason, employers often own apartments and offer a room for rent as part of the package.
Earning Your Keep: Working in Pune
A rapidly developing city, Pune hosts much of the run-off for southern neighbor Bangalore’s tech industry, with plenty of adventurous startups sandwiched into highrise offices, competing for the millions of technical college graduates that pour out of Pune’s internationally renowned universities. Transferwise even rated it as the #2 developing tech hub in the world back in 2014.
Pune hosts international firms like Accenture, local tech consultancies like Extentia IT, and development centers for Tata motors. There’s also India’s largest cluster of German industries, with over 225 companies. ExpatCiti is a good Facebook group to sign on to for tips and openings in Pune, and global services like AIESEC offer paid roles in India for six months and more.
Start Your Engines: Scooters, rickshaws and taxis
While you’ll see many carts, buses, and occasionally the token cow, autorickshaws and motorcycles rule the road. After a month of learning the various unspoken rules of subcontinental traffic conduct, I opted for renting an old Honda Dio, a speedy scooter that set me back £32 a month. The arrangement was made through my office, and the scooter didn’t have a functioning gas gauge or odometer, so if you’re willing for a more reliable vehicle, various rental services are online, and dealerships exist along the North Main Road.
Rickshawing from A to B is a perfectly affordable option. You can hail one from the street, or use Uber or the more reliable Ola Cabs to order an autorickshaw to your doorstep. Make sure to agree on the price before entering, and get a feel for distances (learning Hindi numbers helps), as establishing a price for the journey is much easier when you know how far you’re traveling.
Get Your Bearings: Navigating Pune
Pune is cut in half by a river, and the old town is the cultural heart of Pune. It’s made up of districts called ‘peths’, and this is where you’ll find markets, movie theatres, zoos, temples, and shrines from throughout Pune’s thousand-year history. The universities and the old city center are to the southwest, and can be accessed quickly either from the arterial Bund Garden road, or the more complicated but less crowded and smoother road system that links together Camp, Pune’s sprawling military district.
Koregaon Park, Kalyani and Viman Nagar, the newest of Pune’s developments, are on the north and south banks of the river, and if you work in tech you’ll spend most of your time here. You’ll need a phone SIM, so get to a photocopier and scan your visa acceptance document, “host” document, and passport. Get used to bureaucracy. Don’t skimp on a data plan, as 3G is often more reliable than wi-fi.
In the new city there’s ample space to exercise. Jogging parks are normally free, and most high rises will have a small gym inside the compound that offers an affordable membership. Cricket and football can be found wherever there’s a vacant lot, so don’t be shy if you fancy joining a kickabout! Sponsored by Arsenal FC, Hotfut runs two astroturf futsal facilities, one in Koregaon Park, and the other in Viman Nagar. They can be rented, and also frequently host tournaments. The horse racing track is a fun outing, and they also host a rollicking Oktoberfest party, in recognition of Pune’s large German community.
A Day About Town in Pune
A visually striking city, Pune culture combines an insatiable thirst for the newest technology, with a laidback attitude that puts foreigners at ease – street harassment is less common, and haggling with rickshaws and shop owners is more of a conversation than a shouting match. Whether spring, monsoon, or summer, you’ll want to spend as much time as you can outside. Pune is a temperate city, and many day and night spots will accommodate your desire for a gentle summer evening’s heat.
Saras Baug is a large public park in the city center, where locals of all ages flock to the open green. Nearby is Parvati Hill, with a series of temples and Pune’s oldest structure, a renovated palace. It’s the second highest hill in the city, and provides a spectacular panorama, but why not go all the way and hit Vetal Hill? Pune’s highest vista is to the northwest of the city, and can provide some much-needed escape from the bustle.
There’s also the Aga Khan palace, a historic landmark most famous as the prison of Mahatma Gandhi and his wife, Kasturba Gandhi, during the freedom movement. The palace is also a five minute drive from Phoenix Marketcity, a sprawling megamall where English language bookstores, (expensive) international supermarkets, and Western-style clothing outlets will satisfy any homesickness.
Although Gandhi is held in high regard, be careful how you speak of him in public, as many Punekars categorically hate the man, considering him a sellout to British interests and a proponent of a caste-based economy that is the antithesis of modern India’s vibrant capitalism. Oh well, you’ll learn fast. No subject is taboo for chatty locals, who are often well-versed in international affairs.
Under the Stars: Nightlife in Pune
Culturally, Indians go to bed as late as their UK peers, but be prepared to spend much more time horizontal. Evenings will be spent smoking, drinking and conversing over a slow meal on the city’s many spacious balconies. You can listen to the drum corps practice in the late summer, preparing for Ganesh Chaturthi, Pune’s largest festival honouring the elephant-headed young god. Going out to eat, singing karaoke, and smoking shisha is common, and clubbing is a Saturday affair.
It should be noted that cosmo clubs are highly westernised, and may feel a little cheesy. My advice is don’t waste the money, and kick back at a spot harmonious with the local temperament. Koregaon Park has decent bars; the Jazz Cafe and Basho’s are relaxing, atmospheric outdoor lounges where you can grab late night tea. Indian cinema is also a must. You’ll soon discover that Bollywood is biggest, with Kollywood, Tollywood, and Malayalam cinema close behind. The mega mall will have the largest screens, but the old town has the most authentic theatre, and there’s a few hip rooftop cinemas as well, like Lost the Plot.
Branching Out: Trips from Pune
The city has a small social elite that knows each other well, so the expat community has a close eye kept on it. Ask to be included in WhatsApp groups to learn about flat parties in Wanouri and Khadari, or day trips to the ghats and ancient cave temples. A little bit of social capital goes a long way, and you may find yourself becoming someone’s dinner guest!
For out of town journeys, the Hadapsar rail station goes to Mumbai daily. The ride is truly striking, passing along a picturesque mountain ridge, and is often safer than the highway, which, while equally beautiful, is subject to landslides and traffic jams throughout the summer. Tickets can only be purchased online if you have an account, which requires an Indian ID, so show up early for your train, and remember that while a third-class ticket for £1 sounds tempting, it doesn’t guarantee you a seat. Pune airport flies to all major cities, and is a logistical breeze, unlike the pandemonium of the train station.
India is called the ‘subcontinent’ for a reason. With 29 states, innumerable dialects and local customs, Pune offers just one small slice of the Indian experience. Compared to the hectic aggression of Delhi, the cosmopolitan flamboyance of Mumbai, or the carefree spirituality of Kerala, Pune seems like one miniscule, yet grounded nexus for historical curiosity and collegiate hedonism.
Punekars truly work and play hard, and the city’s unique mindset is hard to find out with the metropolis. That being said, it’s a welcoming environment for any foreigner or expat, with close links to Mumbai, Bangalore, and the beautiful heartlands of Maharashtra. You’ll find yourself eating lots, sleeping little, and wearing out your shoe soles venturing from one place to the next, but the exhaustion will ultimately leave you with a new understanding of how determined yet leisurely urban life can be.