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Showing posts from October, 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…

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 hea…

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 Ka…

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 sho…

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 set…

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 …

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. …

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…

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…

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 …

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 i…

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 …

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 cou…

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!! O…

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…

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 we…

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 theolo…

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…

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 Go…

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…

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 i…