Sunday, October 31, 2010

Day 30 - In Sunderbans

Friends,
The Bangladesh Sunderbans is spread over 26000 sq kms and constitutes 65% of the total area of the Sunderbans. The Indian Sunderbans is an agglomeration of 102 islands; of which 54 are inhabited and the balance 48 are forests. It spans an area of 9630 sq kms, of which 4664 sq kms is forest. The forest is divided into the tiger reserve and the divisional forest. The tiger reserve, which spans an area of 2585 sq kms, is comprised of the wildlife sanctuary, the buffer zone and the core area.  While the wildlife sanctuary is open to tourists and the buffer zone is accessible to dependents such as honey collectors and fishermen, the core area is exclusively the preserve of departmental personnel. The last census of the Royal Bengal Tiger indicated an increase in their population (281). The census is done by identifying and ‘fingerprinting’ the pug marks. The modern method of electronic tagging is yet to be employed.
The name Sunderbans comes from the Sundari tree, which is one of the 64 species of mangrove trees that Sunderbans is home to. The Garjan with its supporting roots and the Pneumatophores or the respiratory roots are more common. A tour of the wildlife sanctuary can be made only with the assistance of a guide employed by the WB Tourism. The guide suggested a different route than the normal one so as to cover a larger area. The chances to see wildlife are better when the tourists respect the silence of the forests. The Sunderbans is a labyrinthine maze of rivers, rivulets and creeks. After a little while I stopped trying to understand the direction in which we were going and trusted the experience and expertise of Tapas Kathua, the guide. The guides – there are 26 of them - are basically graduates who are trained about wildlife, trees and the routes. Tapas bemoaned the fact that there were no inputs given to improve their language skills. Despite his obvious struggle with the English language, he was an excellent guide and I recommend him to those who would be visiting the Sunderbans (09733801235).
The trip through the Sarak Khali creek produced the maximum excitement. While I like to watch birds, I am no good at identifying them, except for the crows and the mynas. Tapas introduced me to the Black Capped Kingfisher, the White Breasted Kingfisher, the Whistling Ducks, the Great Egret, the Little Egret, the Black Cormorants, the Pond Heron, the Little Heron, the Lesser Adjutant Stork, the Brahminy Kite and the Sicra. I took some great pictures of the feathered friends too. As if to prove that the human species is not all that unique, I witnessed two Great Egrets having a major disagreement. A few spotted deer made another photo op possible. The highlight of the tour was a sighting of fresh tiger pug marks. According to Tapas, the tiger must have swum across the creek in low tide about 15 minutes before we arrived, as pug marks could be seen on both sides of the creek. The boatman got as close to the pug marks as was possible for me to take a few photographs. Sightings are normally during the low tide, as there is a difference of nearly 15 feet between the two tides. Tapas mentioned that nearly 50 people fall prey to the wildlife annually – crocs, tigers, snakes, etc. The honey collectors and the fishermen are most at risk. The Sunderbans honey is famous – the bees from Kashmir migrate to the mangroves in the Sunderbans in April/May to provide this delight.
The tour also included a visit to the Sudhayanakhali watch tower. I was apprehensive about it as the previous day’s outing to the Sajnekhali watch tower was a damp squib. The presence of Tapas made all the difference. Despite not being able to see any tigers or such wildlife, he explained the features of various trees that populate the mangrove swamps of the Sunderbans. I got a chance to observe the Fiddler Crabs at close quarter. The female of the species do not have claws – thank God for that; could He have not done something similar with the female of the human species? The peculiar feature of the Fiddler Crab is that they close their crab holes with mud before the high tide brings the water in! They remove the ‘roof’ once the tide recedes. The ‘Mud Skipper’ is another inhabitant of the Sunderbans. This is a peculiar fish that lives on wet mud and trees. They move by jumping from one point to another. Tapas narrated the story of Bonabibi and Dukke – the latter was saved from the tigers upon calling to the former for help. In the Sunderbans, Bonabibi is worshipped by the Hindus and the Muslims alike and this has forged a strong religious bond – a lesson to script a few others?
I visited the Rangbelia Mahila Society in the morning, before departing from the Resort, to buy some more stuff. They open at 6.30 am to service the first wave of customers in the morning. The breakfast at the Resort consisted of Puris and potato curry. When Biren offered me ‘mango jelly’ I readily accepted in the hope of tasting something new. When he spooned a huge piece of mango pickle onto my plate I tried as best as I could to hide my disappointment! The lunch was a lavish affair, on board the boat, of rice, three vegetable dishes and a huge portion of Bhetka fish curry. The resort personnel made my trip to the Sunderbans enjoyable. I recommend the resort for those who wish to visit Sunderbans. Siddhartha Sen, the owner of the resort is available on 098301 43016 and www.bananiresorts.co.in.
I visited Ms. Kaushik Nandi and the kids at their home in Gharia – Gharia was a part of the Sunderbans before it became administratively part of Kolkata - on the way back from the resort. Over two pegs of vodka with Kaushik, I enjoyed fried fish – Top She (fried in suji) and Bhetka - and cashews. Ms Nandi explained in detail an exotic recipe titled ‘Daab Chingri’. It sounded so yummy that I intend to get someone to cook it for me during the course of this journey. Modesty stopped me from asking for another helping of the ‘Paneer Payas’ – outstanding stuff this.
 A quick transit by the Metro took me to Park Street, en route to the GR ORH. The evening was still young - at 2145 I ‘shamelessly’ walked into the house of Ajoy Behera for dinner. A couple of rounds of Talisker and a combination of serious conversation with non serious banter preceded the excellent dinner laid out by Ms. Behera. Ajoy is on deputation with CONCOR and is a serious golfer. I expect to meet up with him in Shillong, where he will be defending his trophy. Taking leave of the friends, who have became dearer than before, is never easy.  

Friday, October 29, 2010

Day 29 - In Sunderbans

Friends,
The tour of the Sunderbans of two days and one night was arranged by Kaushik. I had to report at the Science City for the first leg of the travel by car. Ganesh, the driver, was on time for the pickup. Siddhartha Sen is the owner of Banani Resorts, where I would stay in the Sunderbans. It was a package tour by the Resort which included the tiger sighting trips and mangrove expedition. Sen met me at the commencement of the trip and handed over a breakfast packet and a bottle of water. He also asked me to speak to him in case of any difficulty on the tour. The road journey of about 110 kms to Ghodkhali, via Basanthi and Sonakhali, passes through many villages almost exclusively inhabited by the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh – the border is less than 50 kms away. Ganesh was critical of Jyothi Basu, who encouraged the immigration to develop vote banks. The tanning and leather industry has been relocated from Chinatown to a leather park en route to Basanthi and one can see heaps of leather waste on the way. There are large cultivations of paddy and vegetables. The wholesale auction centres for vegetables and fish are on the route to Basanthi. The greenery and the vegetation are not unlike that in the villages of Kerala. The means of transportation are mainly motorized carts and overcrowded rickshaws.
After a two hour road journey, at Ghodkhali, I was transferred to a motorized boat. Ganesh handed me over to Biren Mondal. There were not many tourists at the launch jetty. The boat on hire by the resort seemed to be the leat impressive of those at the jetty. But it performed adequately. There were chairs on the deck to enjoy the rich mangrove vegetation. The boatman made an unscheduled halt at Gosaba to pick up fuel. Biren pointed out to me the circuit house on the island where Rabindranath Tagore had stayed for a while.
The next two hours was a ride through the largest mangrove eco system in the world and the Sunderbans, with its tiger reserve, is a World Heritage Site. Home to the Royal Bengal Tigers, the Sunderbans is a controlled tourist destination. The ‘not so easy’ access also protects the fragile eco system from being damaged. An evening outing was arranged to the Sajnekhali watch tower. It was an indescribable disappointment. The WB government run facility has one crocodile, a few totoises, three monitor lizards and a few deer. I do not know what we are expected to watch from over the tower. We witnessed a group of ‘Vanars’ (monkeys) fighting (genes proved!) and later crossing from one mangrove to another swimming through the water. A few deer gave us a gracious audience and so did a pair of wild hens. Elvis, my colleague in DP World, and I had done a tour of the mangroves in Beruwala, Sri Lanka. That was definitely a more enjoyable trip, where we could travel deep into the mangroves in a canoe.
At sunset we were back in the Pakhirala village, where the Banani Resort is located. I was taken for a village tour by Biren. It was mentioned that the road to the village got cemented when President R Venkitaraman visited the village. The Rangbelia Mahila Society has a shop in the village which sells excellent batik bedsheets, kurtas, hankies, etc. The Sunderban honey is supposed to be the best in the country. I spent quite some money at the shop before moving away to see the rest of the village. With the sun down the men folk had spread towels on the road to indulge in a few rounds of card games and women could be found leaning across fences to exchange notes of the day with their neighbor.
The Banani Resort is not a luxurious resort, the like of which we have come to expect in Kerala. The Resort is fairly modest, but the room and the bath are quite clean. Since the island and the village are not electrified the dependence on generator is total. The rooms are air conditioned as it is very hot and humid during the afternoon. The food at the resort is yummy; outstanding preparation of Bhetka fish for lunch and country chicken for dinner.

Day 28 - In Kolkata

Friends,
Kundan Sinha is the Chief Operating Manager of SE Railway. Two batches of IRTS probationers were trained almost together and that is how I met Kundan in the Railway Staff College in Baroda in late 1981, a year senior to me in service. The probationers of the two batches bonded very well. While classroom training occupied the entire day, the evenings were exclusively the preserve of games and movies. The facilities for games at the RSC were quite good, particularly, badminton, squash and tennis. These games were indulged in for over 3 hours daily – the squash duels with Ajay Mehta and Bhanu Tayal and badminton doubles games with Kundan and his partner Sharat Misra were what helped retain a 32 inch waist during probation. Kundan and Sharat were a deadly combination on the badminton court. Their generously proportioned looks deceived the opponents; deft placements and cat like reflexes took everybody by surprise and they were more than a match for most.  Kundan is a great Shammi Kapoor fan and I had not seen even one of his films when Kundan ‘motivated’ me into watching ‘Teesri Manzil’ (which he claimed is one of the best suspense thrillers made in Hindi). Ever since that second show in Baroda I have been an ardent fan of Shammi and Rafi.
Up until 2004 the National Library in Kolkata was housed in the iconic Belvedere building, reportedly annexed by the English East India Company and residence to many a representative of Her Majesty. The building, which is nearly 400 years old, is today in virtual ruin. The heritage site has been taken over by the ASI. The renovation work is expected to take another 10 years or more. Even in ruin, the magnificence of the building cannot be missed. The high ceiling and long corridors, the hallmark of British architecture in India, make the building stately. The new ‘residence’ of the NL is the Bhasha Bhavan, a four storied modern structure. The staff at the NL are courteous and helpful. What I liked best about the NL is the writers’ gallery, where you can get a private corner to do research and make notes. Besides, there is a section devoted to Indian writers of all languages – the works of Mahakavi Vallathol are displayed along with those of Rabindranath Tagore, Munshi Premchand, et al. The pertinent law stipulates that two copies of every book published in India should be sent to the NL. As a senior railway colleague remarked: ‘Without a proper mechanism to select the books for the NL, a lot of junk gets accumulated, resulting in the loss of precious older works.’ Moreover, the ‘modern’ NL is in many ways antediluvian – the catalogue of books is still manual, the system of lending is archaic and the number of computers in the library is woefully inadequate. Despite all this, it was heartwarming to see a large number of users at the NL.
Lunch was an unforgettable experience ‘on board’ the Floatel, which is arguably the first floating hotel in India. Situated a stone’s throw away from the ER HQ at Fairlie Place and bang opposite the fantastic SBI HQ, one has to cross the Circular Railway track to get to the Floatel and is almost equidistant from both the Hoogly bridges. One has to walk a gangway to get to the three storey anchored ‘barge’. The Upper Deck houses the restaurant and the views of the Hoogly River are majestic. The buffet was quite good – the highlight was the sugar free ‘Sandesh’. The lunch was organized by Ambrish Gupta, my batch mate and the CCM, ER and hosted by Biswas, the GGM of IRCTC. I got the opportunity to meet with the Commercial HoDs of ER.
After lunch I headed for Belur Math, the HQ of the Ramakrishna Mission, was established by Swami Vivekananda, the foremost disciple of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, on the banks of the Ganges. The building housing the meditation hall is architecturally unique and is one of the finest specimens of temple architecture in India. The bedroom of Swami Vivekananda, the place of his Samadhi, the Samadhi of Sarada Devi – the spiritual consort of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa – the relics of the Saint, etc are housed in various buildings in the Math. The Math affords a panoramic view of the holy river Ganges. On the opposite bank is the most important Hindu temple in Kolkata, the Dakshineswar Temple, another architectural marvel. It is reported that over 40,000 devotees throng the temple daily, which houses a lot of memorabilia of Ramakrisha and Sarada Devi.
The Indian Railways is the largest employer in the world and this makes the railway fraternity in India very unique. As a railway person you will never be far from your extended family in this country. This was reinforced at the dinner hosted by the COM SER and organized by Gopal Mohanty in the BNR Club. 14 senior IRTS officers of SER and ER got together and made it one of the most memorable evenings of my life. The love and affection of these brothers of the extended family make my life meaningful.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Day 27 - In Kolkata

Friends,
I strolled the street in front of the SER HQ In the morning to buy a newspaper and appreciate how the place ‘wakes up’. By 6 am the chai shops were doing brisk business. After buying the newspaper, I parked myself on a bench in a tea shop and asked for ‘cha’. The ‘cha’ arrived piping hot. There was incessant chatter going on, which I could not follow. Apparently the discussion was something related to the Docks. The tea cost me Rs. 2 – arguably the cheapest tea in the entire world.
I thought it prudent to get the car serviced before hitting the roads for the NE. Mohan was a colleague in CONCOR. He has continued with the organization in the Eastern Region and is based in Kolkata. He took me to a Maruti service station not very far from Garden Reach. ‘Motocraft’ is reportedly the first service station set up by Maruti in Kolkata. Alex, from Pathanapuram, is the Manager of the outfit. A preliminary examination only revealed minor work in the silencer gland and leak in the rear shocks; I instructed Alex to replace the latter. After service the car was ready by evening.
Having worked in CONCOR for 5 years sometime back I still have a strong feeling of affiliation towards the organization. I visited their HQ in the Metro Bhavan, which houses the office of the Metro Rail GM. The entrance to the office was full of union flags – the first time I see them on display after leaving the State of Kerala. The Metro has been taking flak over the past few weeks due to a derailment and a public relations fiasco. In fact, the GM and two senior officers got transferred on account of these issues. The political bosses find easy scapegoats in mute bureaucrats.
I headed for Fairle Place to meet Rakesh Saxena, the Chief Operating Manager of Eastern Railway. I have known him since my early days of probation in the Railways. He was posted recently to Kolkata on promotion. Spending time with people like Rakesh is uplifting. He is so full of life and warmth. As he says: “I have told myself that I will always be happy. That’s my choice”. What a wonderful resolution to live by. The hot seat he now occupies does not seem to have, in any way, dented his resolve to be happy. He gave me excellent suggestions on must see places in Bhopal, Jabalpur, etc.
Kolaghat is the office of the Chief Commercial Manager of ER. Ambrish Gupta is my batch mate and we have known each other since September 1981, when we joined as probationers in the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie. We caught up on railway news – some scorching and some not – over tender coconut water. Ambrish made arrangements for my stay in Maldah as also for someone to take me around the historical site of Gaur, while in Maldah. When you are a railway person you are never alone in this country.
The College Street in Kolkata is an amazing place to visit. I have never seen so many bookstalls together and such excellent bargains. The street is crowded with students. The Presidency College, established in 1817 is an institution one has heard of with so much of awe. As I walked into the premise of the college from the College Street I witnessed the poignant scene of a group of students touching the feet of their tutor – Mata, Pita, Guru Daivam (Parents and teachers are equal to God). In some parts of our country teachers are made to touch the feet of students! It is in Presidency College that Dr. JC Bose did most of his pioneering work.
It was Chole and Puris for lunch from a street side vendor on College Street. One can see people from all strata feasting from stalls on the way side – I hear fish curry rice is available for Rs. 20. My meal of 6 Puris and three helpings of Chole set me back by Rs. 12!
Kaushik Nandi, my former colleague in DP World, works in Kolkata these days. He heads the technical team that is building the tallest structure in Kolkata. It’s a premium residential project that will be completed in two years. Understand that they are designing exclusive car parks to be sold at Rs. 10 lakhs per slot! He offered dinner in Chinatown. The Chinese population has dwindled considerably with the closing down of the tanneries and migration. ‘Beijing’ is an excellent Chinese Hotel ‘somewhere’ in Chinatown. Golden Fried Prawns got the feast rolling over a couple of pegs of the ole chum – Old Monk. Starter preparations of chicken and fish followed. Mixed fried rice and chicken bell pepper, as the main course, was glorious.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Day 26 - Ranchi to Kolkotta

Friends,
The erstwhile Bengal Nagpur Railway (BNR) operated two highly acclaimed hotels in Puri and Ranchi. Set up by the British Officers who manned the BNR at the time, theses two properties developed into highly sought after destinations for the high brow. With the formation of the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) the properties passed on to it for development and operation. The BNR Hotel Chanakya in Ranchi is on a 19 year contract. I was visiting the hotel for the first time and it just took my breath away. It will most definitely rank among the finest in India. I could gather that the private agency that is now operating the hotel has done a lot of renovation and addition to the facilities. However, the heritage part of the hotel has been left largely untouched, save some exquisite refurbishment. My first destination in the hotel was ‘Mehfil’, naturally, since it housed the bar. The selection of spirits is quite impressive and very economically priced. I settled for a Kingfisher Lager with sprouts and gram salad to chew on. Youngsters have been drafted to service the bar and the restaurant. They served with a smile and a lot of respect for their customers. The dinner – the recommended Continental dish, Chicken Mercury - was top stuff.
This morning I started my journey to Kolkotta with a visit to the BNR Hotel to take some pictures. I met Munna there, the guard on duty. I was surprised about his familiarity in handling a camera. It transpired later that he had been working in Saudi and had to return home to look after his ailing father. He spent all his savings looking after his parents and had to take up the guard’s job. I got some excellent photos of the Hotel and the flowers that adorn the entrance.
The Ranchi-Jamshedpur leg was done in an hour and a half – the road is excellent. But, 15 kms either side of Jamshedpur the road is incredibly bad and a humungous traffic block set me back. Thereafter, the road upto the border was so so. At the border with West Bengal, there was a large board spanning the road, thanking the travelers for having visited the State – a first I found during this journey. Of all the States I have travelled through so far, I must admit that the State of Jharkand was the most traveler-friendly in terms of road signages, warning boards, road condition, attitude of the people to queries, etc.
Immediately as I navigated the border into WB, at Chichra I was consumed by a traffic jam of all sorts of freight carriers, with no movement whatsoever. Seeing the condition of some of the vehicles one wondered if they had moved in the past year! Yes, it was worse than the Walayar check post – I am sure my friends back in Kerala had this doubt in their mind. The enterprise of two occupants of a car ahead of me, with the help of the locals, helped me get out of the check post mess in about a half hour. The interesting thing one notices at the check post is the presence of a large number of Sales Tax ‘Clearing Agents’, some of whom promise a ’24 hour & Fast Clearing Service’. They did not seem to be walking their talk!
The saving grace of the mess in Chichra is that the road thereafter to Kolkotta is extremely good – possibly because all the freighters are held up at the check post! The NH6 from Kharagpur is a super NH stretch – one can do the 135 km stretch in less two hours. The difference is that this NH is tolled – the one thing I have noticed during the journey is the better condition of the tolled roads. The Sher-e-Punjab Hotel, on the Kolkotta highway near the Haldia junction, served me tough mutton curry and undercooked rotis.
Gopal Mohanty is the Chief Freight Transportation Manager of SE Railway, a coveted position on the IR as SE Railway used to be known as the ‘Blue Chip’ Railway. We have been colleagues in SE Railway and CONCOR. Besides being professionally accomplished, what marks Gopal out is his human qualities and is never one to spurn a request for assistance. Accommodation was arranged for me in the Garden Reach (HQ of SE Railway) ORH. The evening was spent planning the program for the next few days and catching up with friends in the SER office – I met with Ms Papiya Lahiri, my batch mate, who I had not met since our days as probationers in 1982. She holds the critical position of SDGM of SER. I was fortunate to meet her excellent team of young officers. KS Murthy was a Union Office bearer of the SER Men’s Congress when I was in Bilaspur. The spat we had in Bilaspur is now part of the history of the Division. I was reminded of it when I met the staff in Bilaspur. I came to know from Gopal that Murthy is now in Kolkotta, presiding over the larger fortunes of the Union. I paid him a surprise visit in his office, within the GR premises. To say that I took him by surprise would be a huge understatement – the first comment he made was about the ‘fight’ we had in Bilaspur!
The GR club, on the bank of the Hoogly, is a wonderful place to unwind in the evening, with or without spirits. That’s where Gopal took me for a dinner of noodles and an excellent chicken preparation.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Day 25 - In Ranchi

Friends,
The ORH is proximate to the Ranchi railway station. Hence, I dispensed with the service of the peon at the ORH and took a walk to the station for the morning tea and to buy the newspaper. The morning trains had arrived and the hawkers were busy selling their wares and the rickshaw walahs haggling with prospective customers. I realized soon that the Hindi spoken in this part of the country needs sharp ears and some proficiency to lip read. I bought some biscuits and cakes from a vendor at the platform for the journey tomorrow. The tea was almost ‘kheer’ like – felt as if the tea was made in sugar. The newspaper was full of the second phase of Bihar elections and how the political parties in Jharkand are trying to make their presence felt in the neighboring State.
The Ranchi Division of SE Railway was carved out of the erstwhile Divisions of Adra and Chakradharpur, taking cognizance of the aspirations of the Jharkand State, in 2003. The Divisional Office has been set up near the Hatia railway station. I visited the Senior Divisional Traffic Manager, Mr. SC Banerjee, who holds the responsibilities of Operations, Commercial and Public Relations. The three responsibilities have been clubbed since the jurisdiction is quite compact. After discussing with Banerjee, I decided to skip the halt at Dhanbad tomorrow and go straight to Kolkotta. The distance is short of 500 kms and is expected to take about 9 hours. I need an extra day at Kolkotta to get the car serviced before the North East leg of the journey. I have been advised to leave early to cover the sensitive areas during the day; but as a friend (or foe?) said: the Maoists have enough division in their ranks; a Malayali would be the veritable last straw!
I was planning to spend the day in idle mode at the ORH. Banerjee recommended the Johna Falls for a short visit. As I had all the time I took to the road and reached the tourist spot in just over an hour; it’s 45 kms from the city. Guides try to befriend you the minute you park the car. I hired the 35 year old Surjon Lohra. Surjon has been a guide at Johna for more than 6 years. The tourist spot is jointly run by the Jharkand State Tourism department and an NGO “Sasakth Nari Udhan”. Surjon is supposed to be paid Rs. 85.15 as daily wages; he says it takes a long time for the payment to be received as it comes out of some Centrally funded project. Therefore, he has to manage the household expenses from the tips given by tourists – he manages an average of Rs 5000 per month. He has three children (two daughters); the eldest is studying in Class VII. He aspires to educate all his children as much as he can so that they can get good jobs in the Government. He himself is a Metric Pass and regrets having left his first job with Hindalco, where he worked in the Guest House and learnt the ‘art of service’, as he says.
At Johna, one can get a sumptuous veg meal for Rs 45 and extras of egg curry for Rs 20 and Chicken curry for Rs 60. As Surjon said, rice can be had ‘per bhar’ (till your stomach is full). Apart from the 13 guides, there are also 5 artists who perform local dances and sing tribal ballads. Surjon was full of talk. He explained at length the various remedies provided by Nature for ailments ranging from stomach pain to BP; rounding up with the statement that local people seldom fall ill because they eat what Nature provides and bathe in the flowing stream.
The Gunga Nullah (that’s what I think Surjon told me) is what produces the Johna waterfall. It is not spectacular like the Jog or even close to Courtalam. However, I had some fun time beneath one of the branches of the Falls with Surjon clicking away (Mandakini would blush!). The deficient rainfall this season has affected the flow of water; but it is strong enough for a Jacuzzi effect on the neck and shoulders. The Gunga Nullah and the Rado rivers meet at Johna; 65 kms downstream it flows into the Subernarekha river. The Buddha temple at Johna is not maintained well, but the statue in marble is majestic. The presence of Gautama Buddha is the reason why the place is called Gauthamdhara.
On the return from Johna I picked up a kg of each of Custard Apple and Guava being sold by the villagers on the road side. The Custard Apple is super. The Kantatoli chowk is the most critical junction in Ranchi. All roads seem to be heading towards it. To those of us stuck in the traffic, to navigate through the chowk, it is apparent why the chowk (junction) is so named – “Kanta” (thorn}, it truly is.

Day 24 - Bishrampur to Ranchi

Friends,
The caretaker of the GH told me yesterday that I would not have any problem on the route to Bishrampur since there is no call for a road blockade from any of the outfits that make the route sensitive. He was right. I thoroughly enjoyed the drive, stopping at many locations to capture the sceneries in the lens of the mind and some with my digital camera. Wide open spaces, acres and acres of yellow mustard fields, peanut and tomato cultivation, rice fields as far as the eye can see, thick teak forests – all these made the drive truly memorable. Batholi, about 20 kms from Ambikapur, boasts of an Ayur village and an Ayurvedic plantation. Life in the villages goes on at their own steady pace; not for them the hectic pace of the cities. I had thought of breakfast at Batholi; had to change my mind for the village was slowly stirring itself awake at 8 am! Breakfast at Sitapur in the ‘Rajesh Hotel and Bhojanalay’ consisted of samosas, which is fast becoming my standard breakfast diet. The ginger tea was simply divine; I left after the second cup of the specially made brew.
The condition of the road was terrible – it is a NH. Vast stretches of the NH 43 is a single lane road; you get driven off the road by the freight carriers that ferry project cargo and products from the Steel Plants. The condition of the road improved rather magically at Lodham, the Jharkand border – politics or negligence by the NHAI? Hard to say. At the entry point to the Jharkand State there is also a polite welcome board – a rarity. During the course of the nearly 400 km drive I completed 5000 kms since setting out from Cochin.
I have been provided accommodation in the ORH of Ranchi Division. The ORH is next to the famous BNR Hotel of the erstwhile SE Railway; the hotel is now called the BNR Chanakya. I intend to dine at the BNR Hotel tomorrow.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

DAY 23 - Bilaspur to Bishrampur

Friends,
The accommodation in Bilaspur was arranged in the New Satpura ORH. It was a revelation. The rooms are commodious and well furnished. Room No 201, where I was parked, would serve well as transit accommodation. It has a small kitchen, a drawing cum dining, a large balcony, a huge bedroom, a dressing area and a toilet; there are enough cupboards too. The rooms are air conditioned. Most importantly, the outsourced maintenance contract is working well. In many places the ORHs are not well maintained, despite the good layout and construction – the Moore Market Complex of Southern Railway is a case in point. The contractor of the ORH volunteered to get my car washed; he was probably not happy with a shabby car in the well maintained premises! It suited me fine, anyways.
When I started the car in the morning to leave for Bishrampur, a couple of incidents involving Mr. RS Thakur, another mentor in SE Railway, came flooding into my mind. A few weeks into my assignment at Bilaspur – while still very much wet behind the ears – an accident occurred on the Urkura-Sarona section, which is a chicken neck on the Nagpur-Calcutta route. The accident happened around 1900 hours and the entire traffic had come to a standstill on the critical section. Lalit Lal, the Sr DOS, left the Control Office in my charge and retired for the day. Mr. Thakur was the Additional COPS in the SE Railway HQ in Garden Reach, Calcutta at the time and an old hand of Bilaspur Division. He called me up to enquire about the restoration arrangements – I must have made the right noises for he asked me to proceed as planned to restore one track by 0100 hours. He signed off with the order that freight trains will be given priority. However, the Area Officer Bhilai had other plans – he thoroughly messed up the restoration work and not even one track was restored by 0600 hours. Mr Thakur came on the phone at exactly that hour. I had to confess to him that the section remained closed due to certain problems encountered during the restoration work at night. His response still rings in my ears: “Your posting as DOS (ML) is greater disaster than the accident itself”. That minute he must have regretted the role he played in my transfer from Khurda to Bilaspur!
Not very much later, Mr Thakur took over as the DRM of Bilaspur Division. When he was in the Headquarters he used to insist on Bilaspur Division stabling rolling stock that had no demand on any other Division. After he took charge as DRM his priority changed – to improve the operating indices and the financial health of the Division he wanted all immobile stock to be cleared out from the Division. However, the pundits in HQ would have none of it. When the matter was snowballing into a crisis the Chief Operating Superintendent got through to me with a definite order that HQ orders on rolling stock stabling will be followed, since the stations on Bilaspur Division had enough loops to accommodate them. I conveyed this to Mr Thakur. His response was another classic: “Tell your COPS that if the loops in the Division are meant for stabling idle stock, we will surrender all the loops in the Division.” Talk about being caught between the devil and the deep sea!
With these thoughts replaying the scenes of the times gone by I left Bilaspur by 0630 hours. I stopped a few times for direction to enter the highway – none was as conclusive as this one: “Aap seedha chale jaana, kissi se math poochna” (you keep going straight, don’t ask anyone). Beyond Pali I stopped for breakfast at the local ‘fast food joint’. A few rickety tables and benches fully occupied by the early birds gave an indication that the food would be ‘taza’ (fresh). I ‘ordered’ two samosas, chana and Poha. The owner cum cook put the samosas in a plate and asked me, “Daba doon, kya?” No clue as to what he meant since “dabana means push”, as far as I could understand; so I said, “nahin” (no). While feasting on the samosas and chana I heard another customer being asked the same question. As the customer gave his consent, I saw the samosas being violently taken apart and chana being mixed with it! Now I will know what it means when someone asks, ‘Daba doon, kya?”  But my response will remain the same – no.
There is no indication en route of the Bilaspur – Ambikapur road being part of the NH network – the maps indicate that it is the NH 111. About 70 kms of the Katghora-Udayapur section is a bone shaker. My accommodation is arranged in the SECL GH at Bishrampur. I reported to the Station Manager of Bishrampur, who directed me to the GH.
When I was having lunch at the GH I remembered the absolutely fabulous lunch I had at Bilaspur yesterday.  I initially went to the Neela Food Court at the Station; but left soon as the standard response was, “sahib, yeh nahin hain” (Sir, it is not available). It tested my patience and I decided to explore the road leading to the legendary market in Bilaspur, the Budhwari Bazar. There were numerous Bhojanalays along the road – one dirtier than the other. The Ajanta Bhojanalay was no different, but it was full of customers. I ventured in; got a reasonably clean bench to sit on and savored the aromas wafting around. The menu displayed on the wall was exhaustive, and interestingly the rates were for half plate and full plate. After a close look at the menu I decided on a half plate of rice with dal and half a plate of chicken curry. Immediately after the order was placed the items were before me. The aroma and taste of the rice – Dhubraj – was special. Hot rice and dal is my favorite. The chicken curry was very exceptionally good. All the food and a Pepsi cost me Rs. 67. The fact that I enjoyed the food was evident from what happened to my shirt – I had to get back to the ORH, change my shirt and wash it.
I will turn in early today as I have nearly 400 kms tomorrow to Ranchi – and the route is known to be sensitive.

Friday, October 22, 2010

DAY 22 - Raipur to Bilaspur

Friends,
I was upset about having forgotten to get a few snaps taken with the DRM the previous day. As luck would have it, he happened along during the course of his morning walk and I got the opportunity to lighten my conscience, before setting off from Raipur.
Bilaspur is where I spent some of my best time in the Railways. It is more than 22 years since I left the Division and I never had an opportunity to return over the past two decades. Therefore, keen to get as much time in Bilaspur as possible, I decided on a 0630 start. I was apprehensive about the 110 km drive to Bilaspur on the NH200, with the NH6 experience still fresh and sore! The two lane highway was decent and I made good progress. I stopped at Nandghat for breakfast – feasted on hot samosas with potato purrie, freshly made juicy jalebees and spice tea for Rs. 25; Wah, the taste still lingers!
The first stop in Bilaspur was the Railway Station. The room of the Station Manager was full of inspectors, awaiting the arrival of the DRM, Bilaspur. I did not recognize any of them, but when I introduced myself to them some of them did recollect working with a Suresh Joseph who was fitter and had a fairer complexion! A tea and some snaps later I left on a tour of the railway colony. The first stop was the Narmada RH, where we were put up for a few weeks prior to the allotment of a house. Without any help to shop and cook, Beena had a torrid time – often lunch was cooked after I came back from office and took charge of Maya, which was close to 3 pm. In Bilaspur the working hours were long; the day ended after ensuring the interchange of trains at Jharsuguda with Chakradarpur Division at midnight. Not having worked in a heavy Division and suddenly being pitchforked into a crucial role of Divisional Operating Superintendent (DOS), Main Line, I had to literally burn the midnight oil to learn and perform at the same time. It is in such times that mentors play a crucial part. Lalit Lal as the Senior DOS was a super boss and the controllers and other support staff ensured that my learning curve was steep. For a few weeks Lalit Lal and I were neighbors in the RH – Sunday afternoons were reserved for Rum and Fish Fry.
The next visit was to the house were we lived for nearly 18 months. Achachan and Ammachi visited us a couple of times during our stay there. In fact, Ammachi travelled on the maiden journey of the new Trivandrum-Bilaspur service. Their visits were more to spend time with their favorite grandchild rather than to be with their son and his wife! On their last visit to Bilaspur they extended the stay as Maya fell ill and despite the attention of the best doctors in Bilaspur she did not recover fully. They were so concerned that they took Maya with them and pronounced that she would now grow up with them. Ammachi said that we could have another child if we wanted to remain in Bilaspur! How does one argue with parents such as these? In a few months from then I got a transfer back to Southern Railway to reclaim our daughter. I was mighty disappointed today to see that the house in which we had lived was knocked down to make way for a new house (I made a mention of it to the GM, when I met him later) – ironically, the bhoomi puja was done today.
The Bharat Matha School and the Sacred Heart Church were just a few houses down the road from where we lived. The Church has been spruced up and a few more structures have come up, but otherwise it all looked the same. I dropped by and met Fr. Babu Thomas at the gate from who I enquired about Fr. Johnny, who was like family to us. Surprise, surprise – he is the PrincipaI of the Hindi section. I found him trying to settle some plumbing issues in his inimitable rendition of the National language. Pleasantries out of the way, we decided to meet in the evening, which later got confirmed as a supper meeting in the priests’ residence.
The visit to the Control Office was an emotional trip down memory lane. The entire office looked different and modern as compared to what we had then. One of my most outstanding controllers, S. Adhikary, is now the Assistant Operations Manager; and many others had progressed well in their careers. With the help of Adhikary I met Varadarajan, another outstanding controller of my times and a diehard cricketer. Even at the age of 78 I found him fit and active. He had come to my help one late night in 1987 when I suffered spasms due to kidney stone. Even though he was on duty and the Control Office jeep was out of commission he came on his scooter and took me to the Railway Hospital. Such affection and help enrich the journey of one’s life. Kusumlata, a stalwart in the critical demurrage section, was beside herself with astonishment. She later came to the RH with two other colleagues with who I had worked and spent reminiscing about the old times and people and the challenges posed by the formation of the new Railway. They got me apples to have on the way as I could not find time to partake of a meal with them.
I had requested the GM to give me a testimonial of the visit. He got it done stylishly with the picture of the SECR HQ in the background – this building should surely rank as one of the best Zonal HQ on the Indian Railways and it is maintained well unlike many others. The Chief Operations Manager, Ajay Shukla, was the next target. He is an acclaimed writer in Hindi, besides being an accomplished railwayman. One of his plays, Taj Ka Tender, has been translated into many languages and has been staged all over the country and in many parts of the world. The Chief Freight Transportation Manager, CR Swain, had facilitated all the logistics in Raipur, Bilaspur and Ambikapur (for the 23rd). I met him and conveyed my gratitude.
I kept the appointed supper meeting in the priests’ residence and met with Fr. John Punnore, the parish priest, and Fr. Felix, who has many Hindi devotional albums to his credit. We were joined by Frs Babu and Johnny. The supper was preceded by an exchange of views about Kerala, the Church and such other subjects. Supper consisted of Soup, Chappati, Rice, Dal, ‘Achinga’, Fish, Chicken and Pickle. The preparations were super and I ate considerably more than what I should. Ripe bananas rounded up the meal. While leaving Fr. John gave me one of his books to read on the way – I have promised to complete the book in less than a year, because that is how proficient I am with Malayalam!

DAY 21 - Sambalpur to Raipur

Friends,
The NH6 between Burla in Orissa and Mandirhasaud in Chattisgarh should surely rank as one of the worst stretches of the National Highway in the country. In fact, it is a shame that national infrastructure should be maintained in this manner. I wonder if politics has anything to do with it, but certainly the NHAI and Mr. Kamal Nath have a lot to answer for. Spare a thought for the freight carriers that ferry inter-state cargo. My spine took a pounding and I spent nearly 6 hours to traverse 260 kms.
I tried in vain to identify the Orissa – Chattisgarh border; there were no signages. There was a time, in the not so distant past, when the State Governments used to greet and bid farewell at the entry and exit locations to the State through billboards or concrete posts. I guess nobody wants anyone to come into their State any more. Just after crossing into the Chattisgarh territory I stopped at a Sardarji’s dhaba to have ‘nashta’ (breakfast). I chose to have kachoris and jalebi (low calorie ones, of course!). A stomachful of it cost me a princely Rs. 15.
On reaching Raipur I went over to the office of the Divisional Railway Manager. Raipur was a part of the Bilaspur Division of SE Railway when I worked there between 1986 and 1988. Since then, the Division was split to form Raipur Division and later Bilaspur became a Zonal Headquarters of the South East Central Railway (SECR).  While calling on the DRM, Raipur, Mr. BP Swain I could also meet the General Manager of the SECR. The DRM invited me to the lunch that was hosted for the GM and I was introduced to all those present. I was also fortunate to address the gathering explaining the details of the journey and the objectives.
The weather was extremely hot. I thought that it would be the best place to do the laundry as I was sure of the clothes drying overnight. I did not have to wait that long for the washed clothes became bone dry in two hours.
Binayak Swain is an extremely balanced person and has done very well in his Railway career thus far. Spending an evening with him in his house helped me catch up about other friends in the erstwhile SE Railway and the expansion plans for the Division. I did not know that Mrs. Swain is an artist when I made the comment about how well the house is kept; the Chattisgarhi art and collections from all over have been very tastefully arranged, without it giving one a feeling of walking into or through a Museum. The talents of Mrs Swain are many – her bonsais and Tanjore paintings are excellent. Besides a fabulous dinner, I was treated to a very special sweet dish made of custard apple. I am sure the recipe is a prized one. The Swains are connected in two ways to Kerala – their son studied in the NIT, Kozhikode and Mrs Swain’s sister is an IAS officer of the Kerala cadre.
My journey has been slightly enlarged to visit all the Zonal HQ of Indian Railways, apart from visiting all the State Capitals of India. This will require a slight rework of the schedule to include Gorakhpur, Jabalpur and Hubli. I have so far visited Southern, South Central, East Coast and South East Central Railways and the Capital cities of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Chattisgarh. This leaves me with 22 State Capitals and 12 Zonal HQs. The railwayman journeys on.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

DAY 20 - Bhubaneswar to Sambalpur

Friends,
Thulasi and his family have been tremendously supportive of my journey. Thulasi has provided terrific back office support over the past two weeks to arrange accommodation, meetings, press interfaces, etc. Since reaching Visakapattinam I have had his company and that of his family. This morning they returned to Visakapattinam and I started for Sambalpur. Thulasi will try to join me on a part of the North East schedule.
On the way I purchased a copy of the Indian Express. The interaction with the correspondent the previous evening was featured titled “In a swift journey, railman discovers India”. The Cuttack-Angul stretch is an apology of a National Highway. The NHAI should become more safety conscious and provide adequate advance warnings of the road condition and diversions. En route to Sambalpur I completed 4000 kms and a sixth of the schedule in terms of time.
Accommodation was arranged in the GH of Mahanadi Coalfields Limited, in Burla on the Raipur highway. During my stint in SE Railway MCL was a part of SECL. MCL today is the second largest producer of coal in the country from the CIL stable. Between SECL and MCL, more than half the annual production of 420 million tonnes of CIL is produced. Mr. KN Choudhary was a dear friend at the time and I am fortunate to find him as Chief Manager in MCL after so many years. The evening was most informative with Mr Choudhary and his colleague Mr Behuria updating me on the latest innovations in the production process such as the deployment of the surface miner (which reduces external contamination and pollution) and the mobile crusher (which improves the crushing capacity virtually overnight). The car journey also caught their fancy. Both of them gave valuable inputs regarding the route to Kolkotta and I have made the necessary changes. They also put me in touch with their contacts for assistance in the North East and the North. Such spontaneous offer of help is what makes you believe in the ‘Unseen Hand’.
The Hirakud Dam is the largest earthen dam in Asia – the dam is 4.8 kms long (3.6 kms is earthen) and the dykes on either side together total 20 kms. The dykes end up at the edge of thick forest reserves. The Jawahar Minar and the Gandhi Minar stand as sentinels of the Dam. The views from atop the Minar are panoramic and a treat for the eyes. Photography is prohibited. A drive along the dyke to view the sunset is a captivating experience. The company of RK Tripati made the visit more enjoyable.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

DAY 19 - In Bhubaneswar

Friends,
In December 1985 I was working in Mysore Division as Divisional Operating Superintendent when the Member Traffic (MT) of the Railway Board visited the Division. Little did I know that the visit would alter my life in the manner in which it did. The MT mentioned that they want youngsters to go to Eastern and South Eastern Railways (SER), where officers were short. These two Railways contributed to nearly half of the total Indian Railways’ originating freight loading. I thought that an experience on one of these systems would help me understand operations better and hone my skills. When I volunteered for a posting to SER, the reactions of friends, relations and colleagues were exactly the same as when I announced this journey – “Wow, wish I could do that” and ‘What a madcap”!
I was posted to Khurda Division upon reporting to SER in April 1986. Maya was barely 4 months old when we relocated to Khurda. I worked with some outstanding officers in the Division such as K Ravindra, the DRM, who later became the Chairman Railway Board. The railway colony was infested with snakes and Beena used to be mortified with the safety of Maya uppermost in her mind. This prompted Samuel, the Commandant RPF and my neighbor, to comfort Beena with the statement, “See snake, call Samuel”. I visited Khurda early today, but could not identify the house where we lived. The church we worshipped in and the Rest House where we initially lived have been renovated. Everything looked different, naturally. A visit to the room of the Senior Divisional Operations Manager, which I had occupied for about 5 months in 1986, and the Control Office brought back pleasant memories. I also met a few people who had worked with me; however, most had either retired or passed away.
Back in Bhubaneswar I met with my batch mate RK Tandon, who is the Chief Operations Manager of East Coast Railway, PK Misra, a dear friend and colleague from my days in Bilaspur (he is spearheading the construction of the new 82 km railway line from Haridaspur to Pradip), Subrat Tripati, who was Deputy Chairman and acting Chairman of Paradip Port Trust for five years till very recently, MNS Ray, my colleague in Bilaspur, HS Joshi, the Chief Commercial Manager and Guru Ray, who is on deputation with the State Government.  Tandon is a wonderful artist; his house is a virtual gallery of excellent pieces of sculpture – he works on marble and wood. His recent works of a couple in marble and of a family in wood are exquisite masterpieces.  I have suggested that he hold a public exhibition of his works. When he was the DRM of Ajmer Division he used the iron scrap generated by the workshop to create modern art, which he installed in various railway premises. The ‘Tree of Life’ created out of historic bridge plates is a beauty and it adorns the Ajmer Divisional Office.
PK Misra hosted lunch at the Bhubaneswar Club and what a lunch it was. In slightly over 2 hours 4 of us had consumed 25 bottles of beer, had generous helpings of mutton fry and cheese balls. Srimoy Kar, the Resident Editor was part of the company in the Club. His experiences with the President, Prime Ministers and media of our country were education in itself. All through the bonding experience Tandon kept us in splits with his jokes. The lunch was an excellent experience in Oriya cuisine – Macho Basero, Baddi Churra and Mutton curry.
After many visits to the toilet to excrete the excess quantity of water in the body following the intake of beer, I had two appointments with the correspondents of Deccan Chronicle and Indian Express. The evening wound up with a meeting of the local Kerala Kala Samithi members (a parochial meeting, as PK put it!).

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

DAY 18 - In Bhubaneswar

Friends,
It was destination Puri today, to visit the Jagannath Temple. An early morning start was warranted to be ahead of the rush hours in the temple. Walking barefoot on the stone steps inside the temple after the sun is out would be a huge challenge. The car was parked well ahead of the temple in a designated area. V Sriraj, an amiable gentleman who is the Manager of the local PNB Branch, accompanied us to the temple. From the car park there are buses and autos that ferry pilgrims and tourists to the temple. At this point you face the Pandas for the first time. They are everywhere – reportedly 6000 of them work in the temple and they control everything. We were lucky to get a not-so-pushy Panda to conduct us around. The footwear, mobiles, camera, etc were deposited in an efficiently run cloak room. Once inside the temple, the pushing and shoving can be quite disconcerting, if you have not been warned of it. There are many places of worship and prayer inside the temple where you could be made to part with handsome sums of money if you have not been forewarned. Sriraj was there to raise the alarm, where warranted. We were able to go very close to the sanctum sanctorum, where Balaram, Subhadra and Jagannath are worshiped. Legend has it that the figures of the three are incomplete because the Queen wanted to take a peek at the unfinished work of the carpenter, who insulted by the Queen’s interference, left the work incomplete. The idols are made of Neem wood and are replaced every 12 to 15 years – there is a ‘Samadhi’ in the temple premises, where the the burial rites are held. Prior to that, the souls are transferred from the old to the new idols. The annual ‘Rath Yatra’, normally in the month of June, brings thousands of pilgrims to witness the spectacle of Lord Jagannath being taken to His Mausi’s house to recuperate after a bout of illness. During the ten days that Lord Jagannath is ill, the temple is closed for worship. Nandini was my ‘tutor’ on the rounds of the Museum, liftings the clouds of ignorance about the Hindu Pantheon.
A morning well spent, refreshments were due at the Cafe Coffee Day outlet near the car park.  The next destination was the Sankaracharya Mutt – one of the four established by Sankaracharya himself. The present incumbent was on a spiritual tour of Vrindavan. The bed used by Sankaracharya over 2500 years ago is still preserved in the Mutt and is open for public viewing once a  year.
Nostalgia welled up when Sriraj placed banana chips on the table in his house, where we had gone to meet his wife, Priya, and feisty son, Karthick. The banana chips were fresh from Calicut; the plate was nearly empty by the time we left after a hot cup of coffee. Much of the route from Puri to Konarak was reminiscent of Kerala, with a lot of greenery on either side of the narrow road. Toshali is a resort en route, where we had a fabulous buffet lunch. The fish, mutton and paneer preparations were super. After the heavy meal a round of the Konarak Temple under the hot sun was a tough proposition. We hired an accredited guide, Deepak Panda, and a photographer hired himself to click us at strategic locations. The guide kept us enthralled for nearly two hours explaining the history, the vaasthu of the temple, the panels on the Chariot, the various places of interest in the complex, etc. The destruction of the temple in 1848 is attributed to a ‘Tsunami’.  Pipili is famous for appliqué work. Many shops dot the highway linking Bhubaneswar. Wall hangings, bags, umbrellas, etc make good gifts and memorabilia. Hard bargaining is called for.

Monday, October 18, 2010

DAY 17 - Visakapattinam to Bhubaneswar

Friends,
APJ Abdul Kalam had stayed in the NSTL GH in March 2009. I felt honored making an entry in the same Visitors’ Book. Breakfast was at the NSTL with Thulasi and his family; Ganeshan, Vijayan and Krishna Kumar had come to greet us on Vijaya Dasami and see us off. The stay at the NSTL GH was very comfortable and Krishna Kumar took personal care to ensure that it remained so. After loading the bags in the car and taking a few pictures, to pry open memories in the future, we (Thulasi, Nandini and Vishu in their car) left from Visakapattinam – the last South Indian city for some time to come – for Bhubaneswar. The NH 5 between Visakapattinam and Bhubaneswar, a distance of nearly 430 kms, is a peach of a drive – discounting the yet to be completed 100 kms stretch between Ichchapuram and Balugaon. Despite the light to heavy showers en route the drive was done in fair time. If Thulasi stays on as a pace setter for the rest of the journey, I may complete the trip in less than 60 days!! One of the major concerns I have in the building of the National Highways is that information about rivers, about certain locations and even State boundaries are not put up adequately. In fact, I wanted to take a snap at the AP-Orissa border. There was no signage indicating the end of one State and the beginning of another.
The gaiety of Vijaya Dasami could be seen all along the route with people and vehicles decked up. A drive through the city of Bhubaneswar and Cuttack later in the evening helped appreciate the splendor of the pandals and the various programs that the Pooja organizers had got up. There were people everywhere and many roads were cordoned off to facilitate better pedestrian movement. One got a flavor of the enormity of the Mahanadi River even at night.                                                                                     
The Rambha Chilka is en route to Bhubaneswar. The Chilka lake is the largest brackish water lake in Asia, spread over nearly 120,000 hectares. Fishing, water sports and boating attract tourists to Chilka. This gives an opportunity to people like Sushil Behera, who has completed a tourism course from Trivandrum, is a member of the National Geographic Society and is proficient in many languages.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

DAY 16 - In Visakapattinam

Friends,
Thulasi Ram was cutting his first teeth in the family business in Bilaspur with his brother-in-law when I was posted there in the Railways. We became close family friends within a short time. My daughter, Maya, who was just over two years old then took a liking to Thulasi’s scooter and a ride on it became almost a daily ritual. I moved on from Bilaspur and so too did Thulasi. He married Nandini in 1991 and took up independent charge of the business in Cuttack. From there he moved to Visakapattinam in 1994. Vishnu, their son is in the 12th Standard and is an avid reader, like his mother. All three of them enjoy travel and a narration of some of their experiences makes me green with envy, in a pleasant way – if there can be one! Today breakfast was in their house and early to facilitate the Arakku Valley trip by day. The Dosas and the accompaniments, particularly the onion chutney, was a harbinger of the wonderful experiences that was to follow during the day.
The KK (Kottavalsa-Kirandul) Line of the East Coast Railway was made operational in 1967. It is one of the most difficult sections of the Indian Railways (made more difficult by restrictions imposed lately by the Maoists), but arguably one of the most important. This section of the railway transports iron ore primarily to the Visakapattinam Port. A senior railway colleague posted in ‘Waltair’ Division used to regularly attach his ‘saloon’ and take rest in Arakku and he called it the ‘Ooty of the East Coast’! Since then I was keen to make a trip there and today I did with Thulasi. En route to Arakku we made a short detour to visit the Borra Caves. The over 150 million year old Stalactite and Stalagmite caves were explored by a Britisher (reportedly discovered by local shepherds) in 1807. The Gosthani river flows beneath the Borra Caves. It is not known where the tunnel labyrinth inside the Borra Caves lead to – many speculate that they lead to Kashi, Kailas, etc. The KK Line passes over the Borra Caves and it is A leisurely trip through the treasures of the caves is best done with a guide, who can point out the ‘Mother and Child’, ‘The Elephant’, ‘Corn’, ‘Mushroom’, ‘Shiridi Baba’, ‘Shivan and Parvathi’, ‘The Sheesh Nag’, ‘Hanuman’s Gaddha’, ‘Hanuman’s footprint’ and many more.
The drive to Arrakku Valley is most scenic and with low hanging mists and the cool temperature it surely is the ‘Ooty of the East Coast’. AP Tourism offers good accommodation in ‘Mayuri’. The Integrated Tribal Development Program of the AP Government runs three month computer courses for tribals with free accommodation and food. They then find it easy to find jobs (most of them do not return to serve in their place of birth). Thulasi took me to the ITDP Horticulture Farm, where he had placed orders for a kilogram of ‘Bamboo Chicken’. I must tell you the recipe of this mouth watering preparation as told to me by Munga, who made it for us. The chicken is marinated in a paste of green chilly, ginger, garlic and a sprinkling of red chilly powder. A fresh section of green bamboo is opened at one end and the marinated chicken is stuffed into it. The opened end of the bamboo section is then closed with banana leaves and clay. The ‘Bamboo Chicken’ is put into hot coals and left to cook. Munga says she knows exactly when it is cooked – I guess it is the aroma that it gives off that signals when the chicken is ready to be served. The bamboo is almost fully burnt when it is brought before you to be served. The banana leaf and clay at that secured one end of the bamboo section are expertly removed and the cooked chicken is placed before you to feast on. And what a feast it is? Totally devoid of oil and slow cooked, it is a healthy meal. One kilogram of the ‘Bamboo Chicken’ sounded formidable initially. But the bones soon decorated the plates and Munga further treated us with Chicken curry (the preparation was too good) and Phulkas. Munga was assisted by Raju, Sr and Jr. The lunch break wound up with an impromptu dance by the inebriated Mungi.
The ITDP runs a Museum of tribal art and culture, where they are redaying a centre to showcase ‘Bamboo Chicken’. The Arakku Valley Coffee Centre is set up to popularize Arakku Valley Coffee – they sell coffee of various types as well as coffee chocolates. The Shimliguda railway station was till 2004 the highest railway station in the country at 996 meters. The record is now held by a station on the Udhampur-Quazigund section.
Mr. MK Ramachandran is arguably the most widely traveled Himalayan expert. The three books on his experiences of nearly 50 trips are immensely popular. I had the good fortune to speak to him over the phone, thanks to Thulasi. I wish that I am able to make a trip to the Himalayas with him some day. Dinner consisted of Pooris and Vermicelli Upma with Potato curry, washed down with three types of Indian sweets at the residence of a former railway colleague, GVL Sathya Kumar, who is now the Deputy Chairman of the Visakapattinam Port.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

DAY 15 - Vijayawada to Visakapattinam

Friends,
The priests of Loyola College, Vijayawada take turns to offer mass at the Nirmala Convent. Sr. Ancy introduced me to the priest who had come to offer mass today. We exchanged notes of our days in Loyola College, Chennai and about Fr. Kuriakose who was the Principal of the College during my time. After the mass and a hot cup of tea Sr. Ancy took me to the St Paul’s Cathedral, which is adjacent to the Bishop’s House. While at the Cathedral, Sr. Ancy introduced me to G. Deviah, who believes that he had a vision of Jesus. As a small boy from a poor family he used to help out the priests in the Loyola College, Vijayawada, in the refectory and the sacristy. As a 12 year old, one day in May 1970, as he was setting the table for the evening tea in the refectory a person of medium build and apparently of European descent, dressed in a towel and vest, appeared in the refectory and spoke to Deviah in a tongue that he did not comprehend. Not able to make out what the visitor wanted, he went to Fr. VT George, who instructed him to serve the guest some sandwiches and tea. The visitor took a bite of the sandwich and put the rest into his shoulder bag. All along the visitor had a beatific smile on his face and a hand raised in blessing. After the morsel, the visitor left the refectory and Deviah followed him. In a short while, a massive gust of wind forced Deviah to close his eyes. When the wind lifted Deviah could not see anyone, except a small cloud drifting off in the distant. Since that day, Deviah is a true believer and visits the Cathedral every day to offer his thanks to the Lord.
Br. Joseph Thampi was born in 1883 in Tamil Nadu. He embraced the Assisi way of life and joined the Third Order. He traveled extensively in the undeveloped and afforested regions of TN and AP. He finally settled in Avutappally preaching the Word of the Lord and living a simple life. He is said to have worked many miracles during his time and even predicted the exact date and time of his own death, which occurred on 15th January 1945. Today his tomb, the house where he lived and the well where he drank water from are places of pilgrimage – every year the center sees huge ingress of pilgrims and the faithful between the 14th and 16th of January. Many claim to have received miraculous help through the intercessions of Bro. Joseph Thampi. I visited this Holy center en route to Visakapattinam. All these experiences I had only because of Sr. Ancy. A big thanks to you, Sister.
The Rajamundhry-Visakapattinam stretch of 150 kms of the NH5 is a beauty. Nearly 90 kms from Rajamundhry is Tuni - a beautiful place with high, green mountains on one side. At the Visakapattinam Urban Development Authority Limit I was ‘received’ by my friend of many years, Thulsi Ram, his wife, Nandini, his son, Vishnu, Unnithan, Vijayan Sr (with his daughter and nephew) and Jr, Ganeshan, Krishnakumar and Manu. The gesture was indeed overwhelming. The presentation of bouquet and liberal use of cameras made many stop on the highway and some fantasized that shooting of some serial or movie was in progress!
I was ‘put up’ at the NSTL (a unit of DRDO) Guest House. The NSTL campus is itself half a hill station and picnic spot; the GH has excellent rooms and superb service. The security of the residential area and the maintenance of the GH are done by an agency run by a Keralite – Krishnakumar. Later in the evening I met with the Divisional Railway Manager; Mr Kashinath and I belonged to the same batch in the Railways. He is an exceptional Signal and Telecommunications Engineer.
A ‘Felicitation’ was organized by the Kerala Kala Samithi at 7 pm. The Samithi has its own premises in a central location in the city and nearly 125 guests gathered there despite the bad weather. The get together and the felicitation function was a touching gesture by the Keralites who had left the shores of their native land in search of work and livelihood many years ago. These outstation representatives of ‘God’s Own Country’ are doing exceptionally well in their chosen professions - one feels so proud of them. However, without exception, they are firm in their stand that they will never return to Kerala to earn a livelihood, but may end up there in their twilight years. They talk of the enabling environment in AP that builds entrepreneurship – hartals, bandhs and labor issues do not dog every effort. They are saddened by what they hear of Kerala’s politics and the lack of opportunities in the State. The evening wound up with great food and a few rounds of Anthakshari – the innate artist in the Malayalee was on display.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

DAY 14 - Hyderabad to Vijayawada

Friends,
One of the deficiencies I have found with unfailing regularity is the poor directions for road users to come into the city and leave it for any major destination. The story was not very different leaving Hyderabad for Vijayawada. The NH 9 which takes one from Hyderabad to Vijayawada is very poorly maintained and it does not have any of the standards one has come to expect of the NHs in India, save in Kerala; only 50 kms of NH 9 to Vijayawada is four laned and tolled. The saving grace is that the work to improve the entire stretch is being undertaken by Punj Lloyd.
I first met Sr. Ancy Thomas of the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate in Rome when I was there with my wife in 1999. We had checked out of the Pension House that we had stayed in. As part of the tour completion we visited the ‘Our Lady of Snows’ Church – Bernini, who sculpted the great piece in the St Peter’s, is buried in that Church. While on a tour of the Church I came across Sr. Ancy, who was in Rome on a theological assignment. She volunteered to take us to the Church where the 5 relics associated with Jesus were on display. We had missed it as it did not figure in the guide book. Then Sr. Ancy took us to the Church where the original picture of ‘Our Lady of Perpetual Succor’ was displayed. I had been searching for a small picture of Our Lady for years, as what my mother had given me was in tatters. As soon as I laid my eyes on that wonderful picture of Our Lady and thanked Her for bringing me there tears welled in my eyes and I wept uncontrollably. I believe in Guardian Angels and I believed then that Sr. Ancy was one sent to us to guide us to visit the two Churches, which we would have otherwise missed.
After the meeting in Rome in 1999 I contacted Sr. Ancy only in March 2006, when my father was hospitalized. An inner voice told me that I should locate her and ask her to pray for my father’s health. Thanks to Joseph, my Secretary in DP World, Cochin I was able to contact Sr. Ancy in the Nirmala Convent in Vijayawada. I had to jog her memory vigorously to establish the connection. Since then I have been in touch with her off and on. Thus, when this opportunity came to visit her in Vijayawada I did not pass it by. I agreed to have lunch with her on arrival from Hyderabad. Little did I realize that she had made all arrangements for me to dine and stay in the Nirmala School premises. After lunch and a short rest she took me all around Vijayawada – the provincial house, the railway station, the modern bus stand, the Prakasam Barrage, the Kanaka Durga Mandir, the miraculous Matha Church and the St. Peter’s Church (it is the first Church established in Vijayawada in 1882). The care and attention that I got from Sr. Ancy is not something that I can describe in mere words. I can only pray for her and her congregation.
Two weeks of my journey is over; 15 remain. I have enjoyed the journey thoroughly the last two weeks and with the kind of wonderful people that I get to meet during the journey I am sure that the rest of the journey will be as enjoyable or even more.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

DAY 13 - In Hyderabad

Friends,
The better part of the morning and the afternoon were spent in the Salar Jung Museum. The holiday season brought in a large number of guests to the Museum. I remember viewing a Public Interest Ad in one of the TV channels recently on the Indian habit of disrespecting the queue. Regardless of age and gender, the queue is given a go by. Photography is strictly prohibited – cameras are prohibited in the Museum. There is an efficiently run cloak room to keep the prohibited articles while on tour of the Museum. The ‘Veiled Rebecca’, a 1876 masterpiece sculpted by the Italian, GB Benzoni, is the most famous work in the Museum. The ‘melody in marble’, is based on a Biblical reference to the visit of Isaac to approve of Rebecca as his wife. There is so much life in the statue that you can almost feel the tassles of the veil swaying to the rhythm of a light breeze. Salar Jung II, on a tour of Italy in 1876, saw the work of the master craftsman and had it shipped to India after settling on the compensation. Anyone would have fallen in love with the 178 cm, beautifully proportioned masterpiece.
Dante’s Faust is immortalized in the single wooden statue of Mephistopheles and Margareta; viewed from the front is the former and a mirror reflection of the rear shows the latter - artistry at its very best. There are many sculptures worthy of mention – ‘The Smile’, ‘The Veiled Lady’, Cleopatra, Atlas, Cupid, Venus, and many, many more. The collection of porcelain is equally impressive, particularly the Chinese, the French and the English. The carvings on Ivory, especially the paper cutters, are depictions of consummate and exquisite artistry. The period furniture, the paintings, the bidri works, the clocks, etc keep you amazed and wonderstruck for hours. A full day would just about suffice to do justice to the collection. It is unfortunate that photography is prohibited, for the Museum shop does not offer either a book of the photographs or postcards of the more famous pieces in the collection. However, a must buy from the Museum Shop is a replica of the Jacobs diamond, the original of which is part of the Nizam’s jewelry collection. The food court in the Museum has a good selection and is efficiently run.  
It must be the chillies. The madness on the roads is unbelievable. I returned in one piece from a daring foray into the city at night! Young and old alike, two wheelers and four wheelers without discrimination, choose the roads to show off their dare devilry, which would have been better appreciated in a circus show. And in the show they would have only endangered their own lives without putting at danger the life and limbs of others, as they do on the public roads.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

DAY 12 - In Hyderabad

Friends,
This is where it all started. I was in Hyderabad on 1st September to evaluate an employment opportunity. During some spare time I went to ‘Landmark’ to browse. I chanced upon an excellent Road Atlas by TTK. While leafing through the atlas my mind regurgitated the plans I had made in the year 2000 to tour all the State Capitals of India. On the blink, I bought the atlas. Over the next few days an outline of a revised tour emerged. Later, with further inputs from friends and well wishers the program was given its present status. So, it was Hyderabad that sparked the old flame once again.
The Officers’ RH, where I was staying, has an IRCTC Catering Unit attached to it. When I ordered a cup of tea in the morning I was told that they will not be able to cater today as they have a major function to cater to elsewhere. Thus the morning tea and breakfast were sacrificed – had to make do with some biscuits as a substitute. By noon, the growls of a hungry stomach resonated even in the Golconda Fort. Therefore, a suggestion from a friend to have lunch in one of the outlets of the Hyderabad House met with a growl of approval from my stomach rather than any verbal output from me. The ‘Hyderabadi Kodi Mamsum’, Dal and crisp tandoori rotis made peace with the deprived stomach. The food was excellent, as usual.
I visited a railway official in the Divisional Railway Manager’s Office, Hyderabad to obtain the testimony of the visit. The rear side of the DRM’s office building faces the main road. It has manicured lawns and a well maintained garden. However, the front side of the building, which is the official entrance, is bare and unattractive. This building, like many other things in life, derives its aesthetic appeal from an attractive posterior!
 Late in the evening I went for a walk on one of the roads leading from the Sangeeth Crossing. The attractive offers for T-shirts and other cotton garments were like a magnet – every now and then I walked into a shop and rummaged around for a while; fortunately, the non availability of either the required color or the appropriate size retained the currency notes in my wallet. The traffic is chaotic during the peak hours and I had my share of a close call.
The walk took its toll and I had to have a juice to replenish the ‘lost’ energy. The Baker’s Den made eye contact and I walked in. While waiting for the Moosambi Juice I could not help overhearing three girls on the next table discussing something animatedly and with a lot of gusto. I did not have to strain my ears too much to discern the reason for the excitement at the next table. It was the discussion of a love letter written to one of the girls by a ‘cute’ guy. They were reading out from a sheet of paper and I thought they had printed out an email. Through all the oohs and the aahs over the contents of the letter from the next table I finished my juice with a whoosh and got up to leave. I then realized that the ‘cute’ guy had actually handwritten the romantic piece in his own stylized manner – no technology for this hopeless emotional wreck, whose personal letter was being dissected in public!

Monday, October 11, 2010

DAY 11 - Bangalore to Hyderabad

Friends,
I was told yesterday that the journey to Hyderabad would take between 10 and 12 hours. As I try to avoid driving after 4 pm, as much as possible, I decided on an early morning start. A strong glass of coffee from Hare Krishna helped to kick start the day. I started off at 0630 hours on the NH7, which is reportedly the longest National Highway in India, running from Pathankot in J&K to Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu.
The Bangalore–Hyderabad stretch of the NH7 is a beauty to drive. I was in the vicinity of Hyderabad by 1400 hours, after stopping thrice for 15 minutes each for tea and refreshments and a nap of 30 minutes. I had mentioned in a previous post about the Chennai-Bangalore road. The surfacing and finish of the NH4 section is definitely superior to the NH7 stretch. But what makes the difference is that there aren’t ‘village towns’ to slow you down and the traffic is less and more disciplined. The 580 kms was covered at an average speed of about 80 kmph, with the stoppages! The distance can be covered faster and in more comfort once the highway construction work is fully completed. Since there are many stretches yet to be completed along the route the toll that I had to pay for the Bangalore-Hyderabad NH road (Rs. 198) was less than the Chennai-Bangalore NH road.
Despite the excellent run on the NH7 I came across many instances of two and three wheelers driving on the wrong side of the road, particularly on the Ananthapur-Gooty section. If one is not careful, it is a recipe for disaster. At many places, due to incomplete construction, the NHAI has diverted traffic. Even such diversions are not properly indicated resulting in traffic converging headlong! At Anathapur I found a couple of signages which said ‘Crime Prone Area – Drive Slow’ – probably a warning for drivers in the night.  I am glad that I did not make the trip at night.
During one of my stoppage I decided to have breakfast - Anita had handed me a package saying that it contained breakfast. What was in there was surely not only for breakfast – Muesli Rusk (yummy), Blueberry Muffins (gorgeous) and Butter Salt Cookies (surely my calorie counts can wait). Now you know why I took so many breaks on the way; what Anita had packed was too tempting to be kept till I reached Hyderabad. Many thanks, Anita.  I had to skip lunch (to balance all the calories already input) and stretched out in the decent Railway Officers’ RH in Hyderabad for a few hours.
Dinner had to be at Paradise – I had heard so much about the place and it did not disappoint. The now flourishing Hotel started out in 1953 as a small café. I dined at the ‘Persis Gold’ in Paradise. The ambience was perfect for a sumptuous Hyderabadi Mutton Biriyani followed by a delightful Falooda.
The enthusiasm for the ensuing Dusshera festival is there for all to see – the streets are full of happy people decked in colorful fineries and the shops are full of customers trying to buy what they want at the best bargain. I will be in Hyderabad for the next two days, calling on friends and relatives.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

DAY 10 - In Bangalore

Friends,
Mathew Philip has been a family friend since my days with the Railways in Palghat in the late 80’s. He volunteered to be one of the ‘back office’ guys working out of Cochin to support my journey. He provided some critical inputs while planning the journey and has promised to travel the Dehra Dun to Amritsar leg in December. Mathew had dispatched a BSNL data card and a few other stuff I need for the journey by train through the Area Manager, Ernakulam. When I went to collect the package from the AC Coach attendant what surprised me was not that the package was delivered intact, but that the train arrived bang on time at the City railway station.
Hare Krishna is a small restaurant near the Bangalore City railway station. Once you get over the challenge of getting there one will relish the food. The place is crowded most of the time, but the service is quick and the turn around of customers is impressive. The idlis served there are a delectable fare (I suspect they are the best in the world) and the strong coffee is excellent - a must if you visit the railway station.
I had gone with a couple of friends on a business related visit to a suburb of Bangalore. On the return we dropped in at the Sudarshan restaurant for a quick bite and a cup of coffee. After the rava idli coffee was ordered. One of my friends did not want sugar in his coffee. So when the order was taken it was 2 by 3 (portion) and ‘one less, two plus’! I am used to tea and coffee being served ‘without’, but this was the first time it was served as ‘less’ (without) and ‘plus’ (with).
In the evening the skies opened up and nearly flooded the city in a short time. Anita, my cousin, and Ajay came to the Rest House as we had planned to dine out. I chose to have a steak and ‘Millers 46’ was the destination, as Anita mentioned that it is the best Steak House in Bangalore. The choice was fantastic as the food was excellent and the ambience quite different. A monstrous portion of beef steak was ‘washed down’ with an equally enormous portion of Apple Pie!
The Station Manager of Bangalore City provided the testimony of my visit to Bangalore. My stay in the Officers’ Rest House (Maples) was comfortable. I will leave early morning tomorrow for Hyderabad, a distance of nearly 600 kms – it will be one of the longest drives planned for a single day during my journey.