Monday, January 31, 2011

DAY 123 – Chennai to Salem

Friends,
The bags were repacked once again, hopefully for the last time before touching down in Cochin tomorrow. Rose, Avirappi’s wife, returned from Kerala just in time to give us a warm send off. After discussing alternate routes I decided to take the NH45/68 to Salem. As it panned out, the road from Ulundurpet to Salem was not good as work to four-lane the stretch is still on. Ajay assumed the role of the Navigator from Chennai. His skills settled any doubts I may have had about doing the journey all alone. If I had depended on such skills I may have ended up back in the North East! Mercifully he discarded the road map and made himself useful by sleeping after a while.
The CONCOR terminal in Salem Market was a personal contribution and an immensely satisfying experience in project management. The terminal was given on a franchise to a leading client of CONCOR. The model was innovative and successful leading to it being cloned in some other terminals of CONCOR. Right from the first day of operation at Salem Market, even before the terminal was formally launched, it was Jayachandran who spearheaded the development in the location. Exceptional customer service was the watch word. The business at the terminal prospered till the model was tinkered with much after I returned to the Railways. Jayachandran insisted on taking us for lunch to the newly opened Ragas Hotel for Chicken Biriyani and Fish fry. Since the premises were new, we were the first customers in the Hotel for lunch.
Yesurathnam was a colleague in the Railways. He heads the Commercial department in the newly created Salem Division. This commercially important unit was a part of the erstwhile Palghat Division. Whenever I needed help in the area I turned to Yesurathnam and he obliged always. So was it when I wanted an ORH booking to spend this evening at Salem. I called on the Divisional Railway Manager, the Sr. DOM and Sr. DCM in their offices to understand the developments in the BU after the bifurcation of the erstwhile Division. It was wonderful to meet up with some old associates. The Division presently functions from a temporary shelter. The new Office and residences are under construction.
Jayachandran took us to the ‘Sarathy Classics’ for ‘Tiffin’. Ajay and I were yet to fully recover from the lunch and hence, settled for idlis and dosas for dinner. The idlis were soft and the dosas yummy; the ghee added a special taste to them.
I first met Manickam nearly a dozen years ago on the Salem platform. He operated a couple of stalls there. He used to give me excellent coffee and idlis whenever I visited the Station. He used to sell mangoes in one of his stalls during the Season. On special order and payment he would send consignments to Trivandrum. When we returned to the ORH from dinner Manickam was waiting for us. He came to know that I was halting the night there and visited us only to respect the relationship we enjoyed. He spent some time with us recalling the old days and giving me an update of his business and family. His was the only stall untouched by the IRCTC intervention. Manickam has been operating the stalls at Salem since 1961. Manickam has taken personal tragedies in his stride and constantly thanked God for His blessings. He is completely at peace with himself and all around him, which gives him contentment. He told Ajay many times that I was the only one who ever called him a ‘Muthalali’. I will never forget the disarming smile of Manickam and his love and respect.

DAY 122 – In Chennai

Friends,
I was on track to complete my journey in Cochin on the 28th of January, as scheduled. The invitation from K. Allaudin IAS to attend his daughter’s wedding in Chennai changed my plans. I decided to extend the journey for 4 days and accommodate the function. Allaudin has been a dear friend from our days as probationers in the Academy in Mussoorie. Hailing from Tamil Nadu and having spent most of his student days there he had a tough time adjusting to the cold and chill of the Hill Station. I will never forget the ‘monkey cap’ which was the trademark of Allaudin in the Academy.
After reaching Chennai I called up Allaudin to tell him that I will be at the venue by 11 am. He ‘ordered’ that I be there at 10. I had come to Chennai only for this and hence I readily agreed to meet him early to chat. I landed up at the venue with Abraham and Ajay and was immediately sucked up by the vast humanity that thronged the marriage venue. With strong connections of either parties to the political and bureaucratic circles of Tamil Nadu, the marriage was like an open social function. The marriage and the reception were attended by the CM of TN and very many high officials and politicians. It took Ajay and me an hour to reach the newly wedded couple on the dais. I feared a stampede. The crowd was so large that I did not get the time to greet and chat up batch mates. I had to be content with shouting a hello to some of them from a distance.
Savio is my Uncle but is younger to me by three months. He has been in the Apollo Hospital with diabetes related illness for the past few weeks. Abraham, Ajay and I spent some time with Rani and Savio in the Hospital. We were happy to be told and note the definite progress being made.

DAY 121 – Bangalore to Chennai

Friends,
MC Tom was introduced to me by PG Thyagarajan in CONCOR. If first impressions were anything to go by I would have kept Tom as far away from me as I could have. But I am glad that I got to know this lovely human being; a bundle of energy and a storehouse of information on the Shipping and Logistics Industry. A person completely unafraid to recount his failures and losses, he has learnt his lessons from them all. Tom is a doting father and a loving husband. Tom and Lizi, the God-fearing couple, have provided an ideal home for their children. Before I started the journey Tom told me that they were moving into a new flat and wanted me to visit them when I was in Bangalore. Then he came down with a heart problem and was in a critical condition for a few weeks. I called him up on arrival in Bangalore. He suggested that I vacate the ORH and spend a night with them in the new flat. I did just that and enjoyed every minute I spend with Tom and Lizi that evening. The flat has been so tastefully done up that I have ‘contracted’ Tom to help me with my flat in Cochin. A few shots of vintage Glenlivit and home cooked Kerala food provided the background for a good night’s sleep. Before setting out for Chennai this morning I had two cups of piping hot tea.
I evaluated NH4 and 7 for the travel to Chennai and settled for the latter. For the first time during the journey I had a co-passenger. Siva Shankar was my colleague in CONCOR. He is an outstanding professional in the Logistics Industry and has recently changed jobs. His ability to connect with people and stay in touch with them is exemplary. SS can telephonically connect you to anyone you want to in this country or elsewhere. Such are his skills. His natural team building skills have fetched his cricket team numerous trophies, which are on display at his residence. What is remarkable about SS is his ‘size zero’. Bebo will have a new target if she comes across SS! As he had some business to transact in Chennai and I happened to be travelling to Chennai SS requested to accompany me. He had specifically told me that we would have breakfast en route. SS introduced me to Adyar Ananda Bhavan (A2B), which is located 7 kms after Soolagiri on the NH7. All tables are invariably occupied and I found a couple of spaces only after hanging around for some time. The sweet Kesari was the best I have ever had in my life. The Pongal and tea were superb too. SS kept a constant conversation going right through the trip. The 5 hours to Chennai went by quickly. However, I could make out that my driving made SS a bit nervous.
Johny of Mathrubhoomi, Chennai, who wanted to do a piece on my journey, contacted me and asked if I could drop by at his Office. We had a chat and took some photographs upon my arrival into Chennai. Most of the Press coverage during the journey were the initiatives of Thulasi and SCJ.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

DAY 120 – In Bangalore

Friends,
RSP Reddy is the 23rd IRTS batch mate I met during the course of this fascinating journey. We were a batch of 42 who joined the IRTS following selection in the 1980 Civil Services Examination. Since the late 1950s such a large number in a batch was unique. However, in the next two years the number got trimmed to 34 following the resignation of 7 who joined the IAS and another who joined the IPS. A death, a resignation, a superannuation, 2 movements to PSUs and 4 Voluntary Retirements over the past nearly 30 years means 24 serving batch mates. I tried to meet as many as I could during the journey; I missed some due to poor information and a few due to non-availability in their HQs. I took particular care to meet the serving batch mates for I derived immense delight in thanking them for my daily bread – it is their labor and the sweat of their brows that put monthly pension in my bank account!
RSP Reddy holds a unique position in the batch in that he resigned from the organisation without ensuring the golden parachute of pension. Meeting him last evening gave me the opportunity I had waited for – to ask if he ever regretted his decision to leave the Railways. I was happy to hear that he enjoyed what he did outside the Railways and hence was a contended person. It was remarkable to hear from him that he had very little need for money and was engaged in meaningful service to society. It is people like him who should populate the political highways so that society and its constituents get their fair share. Four hours waltzed by sharing side splitting anecdotes and personal experiences.
I met Mr Krishnamurty at the security desk in an airport nearly 10 years ago. I was amused to hear him telling the security guards to keep the chocolates he was carrying for his grandchildren when he was told to open the wrappers to prove that they were not security risks! We got talking thereafter and I learnt that he was returning to Mumbai from London, where his daughter, Suchitra, and son-in-law, Shekar Kapoor, were based. I called on Mrs and Mr Krishnamurthy, who spend most of their time in Bangalore, and discussed at length the problems and concerns of parents as they grow older and the children move on to establish their own nests. When I took leave Mr Krishnamurthy presented me with a fashionable watch, which he felt my wrists were ‘built for’.
Anita produced a fabulous spread for lunch. I am amazed at this lady’s efficiency and the number of tasks she juggles. She has time for everything and everybody. You want to shop, Anita is there for you. If you want to move house, Anita is again there. You want a shoulder for comfort, Anita once more. The way she keeps her house could be a matter of envy to many. Three cheers to you lady. Ajay and I feasted as if there is no tomorrow and demolished some chocolates too before we left.
I think it was Lin Yu-Tang who famously said, “All women’s dresses are merely variations of the eternal struggle between the admitted desire to dress and the unadmitted desire to undress.” When I see youngsters in shopping malls I think that fashion these days is all about the inverse of the famous quote: ….. it is the admitted desire to undress and the unadmitted desire to dress. The brazen public display of branded lingerie is a case in point. To showcase one’s ‘high brow’ fashion designers trimmed the shirt, dropped trousers to just above the unmentionables and created a statement with branded undergarments. I feel the fashion statement would have had greater punch if the undergarment had been worn as an ‘over garment’.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

DAY 119 – In Bangalore

Friends,
When I visited the Shan-e-Bhopal restaurant in Bhopal I found a framed reproduction of the landmark letter written by Okhil Chandra Sen to the Sahibganj Divisional Railway Office in 1909. The contents of the letter were as follows:
“I am arrive by passenger train Ahmedpur station and my belly is too much swelling with jackfruit. I am therefore went to privy. Just I doing the nuisance that guard making whistle blow for train to go off and I am running with ‘lotah’ in one hand and ‘dhoti’ in the next when I am fall over and expose all my shocking to man and female women on plateform. I am got leaved at Ahmedpur station.
This too much bad, if passenger go to make dung that dam guard not wait train five minutes for him. I am therefore pray for your honour to make big fine on that guard for public sake. Otherwise I am making big report to papers.”
The letter revolutionized on board passenger facilities in that it led to the provision of toilets on trains. During my visit to the SWR HQ a coupkle of days back I came across a letter addressed to the General Manager of SWR by an Officer of the Railway on behalf of the Officers’ Association on 24th March 2008, nearly a hundred years after Okhil Babu’s letter. The impassioned plea which is the content of the letter will, most likely, redesign Officers’ accommodation in the near future. This masterpiece of official appeal will continue to sound bugles of mirth and laughter wherever it is read long after its author retires from active service. Since such pieces are not so common and are extremely difficult to compose I thought it inappropriate for it to be confined to a dusty file in a dark recess of the office, where such magna opera often end up. Hence, reproduced in its entirety, without the permission of either the author or the organization, is the letter printed on the SWROA letterhead and circulated to an impressive array of senior railway officials in March 2008.
“Respected GM/SWR
Sub:       Toilet/Washbasin facilities in SAG Officers Chambers in
New GM Building
****
                SWROA is requesting GM/SWR, PCE and CAO/CN for consideration of Toilet/Washbasin facilities in the SAG officers chambers in new upcoming GM Building, in view of the prevalent health conditions. As the officers are working in a modern atmosphere in tight schedules of working hours which have no specified timings and officers are prone to take their diets at irregular intervals generally thereby officers are facing gastric problems by which they feel like using toilet frequently. Senior officers cannot pay attention to his job, staff and visitors when such inconvenient health conditions are prone to them and the same officer can pay better attention if he can discharges his nature call provided in his chamber itself. The general toilets meant for officers are not practically maintained as per standards and often misused without any control. I need not emphasise the importance of the person who finished his nature call and comfortable himself on the chair or to attend his job, maybe thoughtfully realize and consider the above request for overall improvement.
                Since New GM building is under rapid progress of construction and at this juncture the competent authority can review as a special case and advise the concerned construction organisation for the above simple facility which will go a long way for the officers appreciation towards the kind act.
                Prayed for GM kind consideration.”
Those unfamiliar with the bureaucracy and/or the Offices from where the Nation’s future is directed will now be able to appreciate better as to what propels a vast sea of humanity to the Government Offices every working day – it is either to find joy from reading such masterpieces in an otherwise dreary world or to use the restrooms of the Offices after interacting with the authors of such gems of Official prose!!

DAY 118 – Bellary to Bangalore

Friends,
Tapping alternate energy sources is a must to optimize the use and allocation of scarce resources. At the same time it should also ensure that it does not engender waste of other ersources. I remember the heated debates we had in Hubli in 2003/4 at the time of setting up the facilities in the new ORH, where many of the Officers were resident. The Chief Electrical Engineer, Mr. Bajwa, swore by Solar Power to produce the hot water requirement in the ORH. He even harnessed it to meet his cooking needs. The arithmetic he produced in favor of energy saving carried the day and solar panels were installed in the ORH. The enormous waste of water before the Solar Power heated water flowed through the tap was considered inconsequential in comparison to the saving in the energy bill. What was not accounted for, deliberately I feel at times, is the cost to entire society by way of wastage of another precious resource, water. When I wanted hot water in the Hubli ORH yesterday all I got was cold water as the Solar Panels were not functioning properly. This morning in the JSW GH I was alarmed by the amount of cold water that had to be run through the tap before hot water became available by the ‘cheaper source’ of Solar Power.
 I had decided to take the Bellary-Ananthpur-Bangalore route but thanks to a wrong turn I ended up on the Bellary-Challikere-Hiriyur-Bangalore route. I had decided to take the former route due to the excellent NH7 between Anathpur and Bangalore. As it turned out the SH up to Hiriyur was quite good except for the frequent speed breakers that often sprang upon you unannounced.  The NH4 from Hiriyur to Bangalore was top class. By and large, I have found that the tolled national and state roads are maintained far better than the non-tolled highways. I reached the outskirts of Bangalore city in less than 5 hours from Bellary.
As a resident of Cochin and Kerala I have come to believe that a city would be ‘closed’ on a National Holiday. However, as I drove into Bangalore I realized that such experiences are limited to within the borders of Kerala. A large number of shops were open, even the government operated liquor outlets. Kerala has a large number of ‘dry days’ enforced by the government in an apparent bid to reign in the ‘evil’ of drinking. By now there is enough evidence to prove that liquor sales are brisker on the eve of designated ‘dry days’ and ‘hartals’. Thus, the daily average consumption is maintained as per the trend of the year despite such closures.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

DAY 117 – Hubli to Bellary

Friends,
As I was completing my blog post for the day I got a call from Baskaran who wanted to meet me before I left for Bellary. He bounded into the ORH room with a packet in hand. My ‘Guru’, Amreetha, had sent a boxful of candles through her father to be given to me. It was overwhelming. By this time we were joined by Mohan Menon. He came to wish me luck for the rest of the journey and had also brought breakfast of dosa, ‘Kerala’ chutney and sambar. Last evening’s session resumed with a discussion on Baskaran’s affinity for and proficiency in Golf. He is as passionate a golfer as can be found, but with a difference. He claims that he can coach anyone, with the right intent, to play a decent game of Golf in 15 days. He narrated many examples of his coaching prowess. By the time we parted Mohan was quite inclined to wield the clubs under the guidance of Baskaran.
Last evening, while taking a round of the Officers’ Colony with Baskaran and Mohan, the former showed us a tree with many natural Ganeshas on them. While the very obvious could be seen in the fading light I wanted to closely observe the tree in the morning. Hence, after leaving the ORH and before heading for Bellary I drove through the Colony to the tree. The natural formation of Ganeshas on the tree tunks is most striking and I could make out at least 4 of them. I was engrossed in taking pictures of the tree from various angles when Gagarin happened along. Gagarin is a HoD in the Commercial department of SWR. His first working assignment was in Palghat in 1990 as my understudy when I was Senior Divisional Operations Manager. Over the past two decades Gagarin has beaten a fresh path wherever he has been posted and whatever responsibilities have been entrusted to him. His style may not have been appreciated by many of his bosses but that never cramped him. A highly socially conscious individual with excellent moral fibre, he kept me in splits with his version of Railway ‘news’.
The drive from Hubli to Bellary was largely eventless, except for a small ‘takkar’ after passing Hospet. The city is enveloped in dust and debris. Buildings have been ‘shaved’ of their facades, roads have been dug up and traffic is diverted through a labyrinth of chaotic and dusty by lanes. Just past the city a massive traffic holdup saw me fretting for more than a half hour. Traffic was regulated on the busy two lane highway to facilitate blacktopping. In and around Hospet there is considerable movement of dumpers transporting iron ore. One such dumper, in a bid to squeeze through the convoy, brushed the right side of the car causing damage to the right side mirror, right wheel guard and the front bumper. I tried to chase the dumper but the chaotic traffic let him ’escape’.  
I had requested the Director HR of JSW to facilitate my stay in their GH. The ‘Hampi House’ is a tastefully constructed and practically furnished GH. I first visited the premises of JVSL, now JSW, in 2000 as part of a Concor team to study containerization of finished products from the Steel Plant. Thereafter, as part of the SWR management I used to visit the Plant and interact with the management of the Company quite regularly. The 1.6 million ton Plant had now grown to 10 million. It is the largest single Steel Plant in India and moves are afoot to scale up to 18 million. Acquisitions have made JSW the largest steel producer in the country. I also met the ebullient and handsome CEO, Dr Vinod Nowal, and he took me through the happenings in the Plant and in the Group over the past five years and the path that it wishes to tread in the future. Dr Nowal invited me to the ‘Husband’s Night’ on the Club lawns, an enjoyable evening got up by the wives to treat their spouses.
With the visit to Hubli I have ’technically’ completed the tour of all State Capitals and the 17 Railway Zonal HQs. A dream has been realized and I have achieved what I had set out to do. Today I can claim to have friends in all parts of India. Today I know my country a little bit more than I did prior to 1st October 2010. Today, after having travelled the length and breadth of the country, I appreciate the diversity of our land, its rich traditions, its wonderful people and the fabulous foods. Incredible India. Bharat Mera Mahan. Jai Hind.
PS: The blog posts will continue till I return to Cochin

Monday, January 24, 2011

DAY 116 – Vasco (Goa) to Hubli

Friends,
The day started with a breakfast invitation. Bhanu P Tayal, MD KRCL, had evidently tried to contact me after I hit the sack last night. As he found no response to his telephone calls he sent me an SMS asking me to join him for breakfast in the KRCL GH in Madgaon, Goa. I responded in the affirmative as soon as I saw the message. This also meant that I opt for the NH63 to Hubli, which I was informed, is a better route than the one through Londa. While working as Chief Freight Transportation Manager of SWR I was also ex-officio Trustee of the MPT. The Board meetings used to be held almost every month and I took the opportunity to interact with the MPT officials as well as to inspect the Londa-Vasco section. Such visits also strengthened the network with customers. As ex-Trustee I settled the bills in the MPT GH at concessional tariff. I was in the KRCL GH ten minutes past the agreed upon hour of 8 am.
I had informed BPT that I would not be able to stay for more than half an hour for breakfast. As it turned out I stayed for more than an hour with a wonderful batch mate and his excellent team of Officers who were in Madgaon for a meeting with the Petitions Committee of Parliament. BPT and I were regulars in the Squash Court of Railway Staff College as probationers. He broke his collar bone one day when his shoulder smashed into the side wall while chasing a down the line shot. I feared he may not venture into the Court anymore. How wrong I was. He was back as soon as the doctor certified that his collar bone had healed. He retains the passion for the game and is now getting a Court ready in the KRCL Residential Complex in Mumbai. KRCL is steaming full ahead under his stewardship. The most important project it is engaged in is the construction of the railway line in J&K. He mentioned about the engineering challenges in the project such as building a bridge 370 meters above the water table of the River Chenab. KRCL is engaged in using their tunneling and ventilation expertise for metro rail systems and building Road over Bridges. I had to make an effort to pull myself away from the informative and interesting interfaces to take the highway to Hubli.
I travelled on the excellently surfaced and maintained NH17 till just short of Ankola. Short of Karwar I was stopped at the Karnataka border by Inspectors carrying out checks to ensure that liquor is not ‘smuggled’ into the State. I lowered the car window on the passenger side and one of the Inspectors thrust his rather sharp bovine features (!) into the car to make a nasal and visual check. I was tempted to operate the power window to check how his features would enhance when additional blood is supplied to them. I restrained myself with a Boman Irani (Munnabhai MBBS) laugh and showed him the copy of Lonely Planet to explain that I am an All-India tourist. He was impressed enough to tell his Senior that I need not be ‘strip searched’. He was further impressed when I asked him directions to take the highway to Hubli. I was waved on. I am sure you are curious to know if I had liquor in the car. Let me confess: I hate breaking rules, but I also do get thirsty after 7 pm!!
The drive on the NH63 was excellent. I had left Madgaon at 9.15 and entered the city of Hubli at 1 pm. While the city had changed in many ways the hordes of buffaloes being herded through the busy city roads signaled that some things don’t. I parked at the Idgah Maidan and went into Kamat Hotel for Upma and Rose Milk, a luxury (it was pre 6th Pay Commission days) I indulged in during some weekends in 2003-05. My accommodation was arranged in the ORH, where I had stayed during my entire stint in SWR. I had wonderful memories of the stay and hence, I was greatly disappointed in the manner in which the ORH is being maintained now. The room was dirty and dusty and the ORH does not have drinking water supply. I switched on the TV and could not view any channel. The ORH attendant told me that the connection has been severed due to pending bills. It was disappointing to see an excellent facility slowly, but surely, turning into a modern day Hampi.
The SWR was taking its initial steps as a Railway when I joined it in September 2003. All departments, including that of the General Manager, functioned from temporary shelters. It was almost impossible to get furniture and other office requirements. My office room was furnished with only a table and a chair with a side table to keep the computer. When visitors came calling it was the duty of the peons to shuffle personnel in the department and fetch chairs for visitors. During an inspection of a station near Hubli I came across comfortable station benches belonging to the MSMR (Madras and South Mahratta Railway) era wasting away. The Traffic Inspector got 2 of them over to Hubli, had a carpenter clean and polish them and set them in my room for visitors. They are still retained by the CFTM in the new office complex.
U Krishnamurthy and I were co-participants in a Management Programme at the Management Development Institute in Gurgaon. A brilliant student, an excellent shuttler and a warm human being he is presently the Senior Deputy General Manager of SWR. I spend considerable time with him and AS Rao, the CFTM, to appreciate the changes and the way SWR has shaped up over the years. The meeting with staff was an emotional one. These are the ones who had made my stay in Hubli memorable and comfortable. We were practically the project team and had weathered many tricky and critical situations under adverse situations. One gets very attached to such teams. I was and I continue so.
SWR is in a unique position today. It has constructed excellent residential facilities for Officers and staff, which has not happened in many of the other new railway systems. But it still does not have a permanent office, which all the others have. Only a portion of the new office is functional and I went there to meet the Chief Personnel Officer, Mohan Menon, a colleague and a good friend of many years. In his room I also met Baskaran, the Chief Communications Engineer, another friend of many years. Thanks to the efforts of Mohan I was able to meet my former Bungalow Peon, Pradepan, who is a Senior Head Clerk in the Personnel Branch.
Baskaran, a teetotaler, insisted that we retire to his house in the Colony to sample an unopened bottle of Scotch, which otherwise would have vaporized in a few years time. We spent a couple of hours discussing all matters ‘not official’ with Mohan and I gradually reducing the contents of the Scotch Bottle. Mrs Baskaran markets Tupperware. I had the occasion to see the wide range of the products in their home. By the time I left their house I had accepted their daughter as my ‘Guru’. Amreeta gave me the initial lessons in candle making.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

DAY 115 – Rathnagiri to Panjim/Vasco (Goa)

Friends,
Room No. 1 in the KRCL ORH in Ratnagiri is designated as the MD’s Camp. It is primarily meant for his stay while on tour and for his special guests.  The room is comfortably fitted out and the service is excellent. Wherever I have stayed during the journey, except in accommodation provided by the Police in the North East (not the one with bars, of course!) and while staying with friends, I have insisted on being given a lock to secure the room when I move about. However, last evening when I was told that the GH staff will take care of the belongings when I am out for sightseeing, I agreed on the arrangement. I had asked for a cup of tea at 6 am and it arrived promptly a couple of minutes before the appointed hour. With the tea in hand I opened the door to the huge L-shaped balcony and was greeted by a jet of fresh, cool breeze. The ORH is surrounded on three sides by trees, which is dense in the North face. I luxuriated in the salubrious environment and watched the Sun rise in full glow. Such pleasures are not one’s fortune often. The early morning start was summarily dismissed from the schedule and replaced with one after sating the inner self.
Late starts also have their benefits. Because of it I was in time at the Raymonds shop, in close proximity to the main road, which had a sale going. I experienced that late starts could empty your pocket too. The heavy breakfast from the ORH digested on paying the bill at the store. Initially, as I left Ratnagiri, I decided to savor the countryside and drive slowly through it. This resolve lasted less than a half hour. Though the road was winding, undulating and in some places not too well surfaced I did the 250 kms in about four hours. The road condition on NH17 was quite good, particularly the Goa portion.
I had not tanked up fuel in Maharashtra as I thought that there was enough of it to get across the border, where it would be cheaper. I was desperately in need of fuel when I spied the border post. My racing heart calmed. After crossing the border there were Wine shops and Bars all over, but not a single Fuel Station was in sight. It was nearly 50 kms to Panjim and I feared I would run out of fuel if I were to drive on to reach the capital. My heart started racing again and I suspect it is that which provided the necessary momentum to reach the Fuel Station nearly 20 kms into the border. When I parked at the BP outlet I did not mind the rusted dispenser or the grouchy attendant. Fuel was the only focus. I was reminded of a scene from ‘The Party’ in which Peter Sellers sheds copious tears when he finds an empty loo to relieve his burdened bladder (which was later copied by many movie makers in India).
I stopped in front of the Secretariat in Panjim and quaffed water to signal my visit to the last State Capital during my journey of the country. Thus, all the 28 States of the Indian Union have been accounted for, their capitals visited and recorded. In fact, even though I covered the capitals of two States by visiting one location (Chandigarh) I had to travel to two locations in J&K (Jammu and Srinagar) and Maharashtra (Nagpur and Mumbai) to cover their capitals. Now I have only one Zonal HQ to cover before the journey ‘technically’ ends. The HQ of South Western Railway is Hubli, which was my last place of posting in the Indian Railways. Therefore, I consider it quite appropriate that the ‘technical’ part of the journey ends in Hubli. When I embarked on the journey the number of Railway Zones was 16. I learnt in Mumbai that Metro Railway, headquartered in Kolkota, was recently declared the 17th Zone in the Indian Railway firmament.
After a late lunch of Rice and Fish Curry (Goan style) I went to Vasco Railway Station to meet the Area Officer, Rajkumar, who worked with me in the SWR HQ in the Commercial department. He was recently promoted to Group B and posted to Vasco. After exchanging info on the railways and the journey Rajkumar suggested a fix of coffee in a Café near the station. On the way I picked up four slabs each of Costaz Bebinca and doldol, the local delicacies.
My accommodation was arranged in the Mormugao Port Trust GH by the CME, Mr. Kuncheria, who had worked in Cochin Port Trust till a few years back as Assistant Traffic Manager. This is one of the most impressive GH locations in the Government Port sector. It affords fantastic views of the harbor and excellent walkways to keep one fit. But for me it was a couple of bottles of Baccardi Breezer.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

DAY 114 – Mumbai to Ratnagiri

Friends,
There is a standing joke in the Railways that the wife of a Railway Officer can stay without the husband but cannot without the Bungalow Peon. Besides the privileges of free travel, well located accommodation and excellent medical facilities the Officer and his family get used to the ubiquitous BP. With domestic help becoming scarce the value of the BP goes up. The BP is an extremely useful person to have around in the house, especially when the lady of the house is employed. She/He becomes a confirmed railway employee often after 3 years of ‘probation’. In a Railway the ‘duty list’ of BPs has been published, apparently to prevent ‘misuse’! When I was to leave the Railways the BP thankfully did not enter the equation as my family and I had, by then, got used to a life without one for 10 years.
Girish had asked his BP to stay over so that I could be sent off with a cup of tea and breakfast. I insisted on having breakfast on the way and had a cup of tea after settling the luggage in the car. The car has become ‘over crowded’ with rocks and what not. Over the past three days I used Girish’s house as if I had owned the house. I left for Ratnagiri at 7 am. At the traffic junction in front of the VT railway station I rolled my window down and asked the driver of another car for direction to reach Vashi. He smiled radiantly and asked me to follow him. The guy weaved his way expertly through the traffic to get to Vashi in about an hour despite the movement of heavy vehicles. From there on the route to Goa/Panjim was sign posted adequately to lead me to the NH17 via the NH4. The two lane highway is well surfaced, but the congested movement of slow moving vehicles can test one’s patience. Accidents on this route are not uncommon with many road signs warning the user of either ‘accident site’ or ‘accident prone area’. I passed a ‘live’ accident site where a motorcyclist had lost his life ‘on the spot’ in a hit and run case.
Kanakasabapathy is a legendary Station Superintendent of Madras Central railway station, the most important rail terminus on Southern Railway. Located just beside the SR HQ office and the Madras Divisional Office further contributed to the stresses and strains on the official wearing the mantle of the SS Madras Central. Kanaka, as he was fondly called, was the SS when I was a probationary officer in Southern Railway. His flair for Public Relations, his amazing ability to trust his subordinates and build a responsive team provided lessons in management that I imbibed in a practical environment during those impressionable days in the Railways. The stories of his management of the Station are legion and a blog post is insufficient to even narrate one of them. Now 72, and threatening ‘not to go off in a hurry’, he has remained a good friend despite his superannuation and my Voluntary Retirement. While recapturing the events of the past few days I remembered a missed call from Kanakasabapathy. When I stopped for breakfast after Nagothane I called him up and was entertained for almost the whole of the next hour with anecdotes, humorous recap of some past events and liberal doses of praise. I had hoped to meet with him in Chennai on the 30th but he informed me of his impending travel to Tirunelveli, his home town.
Ratnagiri is one of the two Regional Offices of Konkan Railway Corporation, the other one being Karwar. The KRCL is a brand built and nurtured by the ever youthful and effervescent E. Sreedharan. Bhanu P Tayal, my batch mate, is the MD of the Corporation now. Due to his many engagements I could not meet him in Mumbai. But I am enjoying his hospitality in the ORH of KRCL in Ratnagiri. Nagadath, the Regional Railway Manager was in office despite it being a holiday and I spent some time with him. He was kind enough to depute one of his Area Supervisors, RK Shete, to show me around the places of touristic importance.
The King of Burma was interned in Ratnagiri from 1885 by the British. He was permitted to build his own dwelling and he designed and supervised the construction of the Thibew Palace, where he and his family moved in by 1910. He lived there till he died in 1916. The Palace is built in Burmese style. Its upkeep is below par. The premise also houses a small Museum and some 6th to 10th century artifacts. It was Bal Gangadhar Tilak who gave the rallying cry for the freedom movement with his soul stirring slogan “Swaraj is my birth right and I shall have it”. His birth place within the city of Ratnagiri is preserved as a Museum and contains many interesting photographs. The photo of Lal, Bal, Pal (as the triumvirate of Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipinchandra Pal were known) and another of Tilak with MK Gandhi in 1915 during their first meeting adorn the walls of the Museum.
The Ratnadurg Fort offers magnificent views of the Arabian Sea and the jetties that service Ultratech Cement. The horse shoe shaped fort was built by the Bahmani kings but was a strong hold of Shivaji. The local administration is doing its bit to promote it as a tourist centre by developing a stepped garden on the slope of the Fort. The Bhagwati Temple inside the Fort is a place of worship. While exiting from the Fort Shete and I had an ice candy. This is the precursor of the modern day duet and ice stick. The ice candy is made of expertly shaped ice shavings with sugary syrup of one’s choice poured over it and into a glass. a stick is stuck into the shaped ice shaving to serve as a handle. I chose to have Kala Khatta, a grape flavor. The alternatives were Mango, Pineapple and Orange. One can even have a combination of flavors.
The Ganapatiphule Beach and Temple were the next in sight. The drive to the Beach through the new coastal route is heavenly, particularly at sunset time. SCJ had told me about the Aarey Varey (the names of two adjacent villages) Beach and I stopped at a view point to appreciate the breathtaking beauty of the Beach and the setting sun. The Konkan Coast, Goa and the Malabar Coast are very similar in landscape, food habits and construction. The coconut tree fringed beaches, predominance of fish and rice in the diet and use of laterite bricks for construction of tiled houses provide the database for such comparison.
I drove like a maniac to reach the Ganapatiphule Beach just in time to digitally capture the final moments of the ‘Sun being devoured by the Dragon’. The dynamic natural art on the sky and the beach is a treat that one can never forget. Being Sankasthi Chaturdi there was a steady stream of worshippers to the Temple. The Ganesha idol in the Temple is believed to have been discovered over 16 centuries ago. Mouse is the vehicle of Ganesha. Just outside the Temple gate is a large brass statue of a mouse paying obeisance to the deity. It is believed that one’s wishes earnestly whispered into the ears of the statue are realized.

Shete took me to the MTDC restaurant for a typical Maharashtrian non-veg Thali. While waiting for it I made myself comfortable with a bottle of Beer. Shete was on fast due to the festival. When the Thali arrived I forced him to have a bowl of soup. The special preparation of Dal, Chicken and Cocum juice was polished off with Rotis and Rice. With Beer cooling the insides the drive back to the ORH was negotiated effortlessly!

DAY 113 – In Mumbai

Friends,
Prakash Tendulkar was a dear friend and colleague. I got to know him in Mussoorie, where we were probationers together and shared accommodation in Stapleton Hostel. He was a master at Yoga and gave demonstrations in the Academy. He was such an avid practitioner that he trained fellow probationers and the Academy accepted it as an alternative to the morning PT when we came to Railway Staff College. A very simple human being with an insatiable affinity for trekking and mountaineering he underwent a lot of physical and mental stresses to pursue them. I learnt with dismay that he had lost his life in a car accident in June 2007, while returning to Ratnagiri from a temple visit close to Mumbai. I have known his wife, who teaches in KG Somaiyya, since my days as a probationer.  I have been to their house for a couple of meals. I vividly recall meeting him in April 2005 when I visited Mumbai with my family. He had come to the ORH and spent time with all of us. He always referred to me as ‘Fatso’. He was passionately involved in building an Ashram, where he expected to retire to after superannuation. Dreams and plans, all shattered. However, I was glad to hear from Mrs Tendulkar that the children are settled well, with the daughter working as a Doctor in the Railways and the son pursuing his Post Doctoral studies in the US.
I have been to Mumbai N number of times in the past but had never visited Elephanta Caves. Despite having to meet close relatives and friends I decided to go to the Elephanta Island today. A short taxi ride from the Budhwar Park (the small fishing ‘village’ in front of the Budhwar Park is where Kasab and his wretched colleagues landed in a boat for their ‘mission’) and I was right in front of the Gateway of India. The place was swarming with tourists and photographers. The latter buttonhole the former and they normally succumb, just as I did. Gopal clicked thrice with different backgrounds and produced instant photos using the portable Epson printer. Almost all the photographers carry these portable printers and churn out prints for Rs 30 apiece. While departing from the Gateway one gets a good view of the Taj Hotel and the yachts and boats parked in the waters close by. The boat ride to the Elephanta Island lasts over an hour. It was incredibly hot and the walk from the jetty to the Caves can be tiring. The steep climb on steps to the Cave can be broken by stopping at intervals to inspect the trinkets on sale. It is quite amusing to see the vendors warding off intermittent invasions and mischievous forays by monkeys.
The rock cut caves of Elephanta were excavated between 2nd century BC (the Buddhist Caves) and the 6th century AD (Hindu Caves). Apparently the Portuguese tried to destroy the Caves but certainly caused severe damage to the sculptures inside the Caves. The most important is Cave 1, which depicts Shiva in his myriad forms. Prem was my guide during the tour of the Cave. He explained the monolithic Cave and its contents in great detail, got me to appreciate the themes, the positioning of the sculptures and took some good pictures.
Mrs and Mr SCJ, Girish and self met in RDT’s house for dinner. The revelation of the evening was the artistic skills of Mrs Tripathi (Namitha). The oils and sand paintings she has framed and put up in the house are fantastic. The paintings have a depth and play of colors that are more professional than amateur. I wish she does an exhibition someday soon so that the pieces are appreciated by a wider audience. The view from RDT’s house is what people in cities will die for. The Sea, which RDT says is glorious during sunset, provides just the right setting to start the day or end it. I felt less sorry that RDT is on a month long leave to accommodate his junior colleague for he can slurp up the views for as long as he wishes to during the course of the hiatus.

Friday, January 21, 2011

DAY 112 – In Mumbai

Friends,
Waking up later than usual with a heavier than normal head, the pre-noon session was devoted largely to ‘recovery’. Girish’s brother, Madhu, and I chatted for a while on developments in the Insurance Sector and the scrips that should seriously be evaluated for good buys. A sumptuous breakfast and I was ready by noon to visit friends in the Railways.
Mehboob Rab is a batch mate who is now posted in Western Railway as the Chief Claims Officer. He used to be an ace Bridge player while in the Railway Staff College, Vadodara. All his three children are well placed with the eldest daughter working as a Doctor in the Railways. A cup of tea and I was on my way to meet another batch mate RD Tripathi, Chief Passenger Transportation Manager WR. As it turned out, he was proceeding on leave for a month to ‘accommodate’ a colleague. This is a feature I have seen all over the Railways during my journey, with affected officers upset about the ‘coercive’ method employed by the ‘management’ to promote the juniors. With officers surplus in the cadre it is strange that VRS application of officers is turned down. Moreover, officers are recalled from deputations that lead to further imbalance in the cadre.
I took the Testimony of having visited the WR HQ from RDT and he gave me a drop to meet SCJ over lunch in the Central Railway HQ. I was happy to see the ‘Corporate’ environment in SCJ’s office. It was heartening to know from SCJ that the Claims procedure has been computerised over the Indian Railways. The pilot project for Claims computerization was done in Southern Railways and I was fortunate to be involved in the initial processes. Lunch was heavy fare. I enjoyed the parathas and sabjis with salad. Maaza was at hand to wash down the heavy meal.
Sunil Arya was Chief Freight Transportation Manager in Southern Railway when I was on deputation to CONCOR. We had become good friends over time and it was only appropriate that I call on him in the office of the Additional General Manager CR. We had a long chat about my journey and he succeeded in convincing me about planning a trip to Bhutan sometime in the future. In fact, I would love to do Arunachal and Bhutan in detail whenever I take off next. I left after wishing him all luck to be promoted as General Manager soon. He insisted on my using his car for my next appointment and saw me off in the portico of the CR HQ.
Dinner was to be with SCJ and his family. I dropped in a bit early to meet Mrs. Jethi, Mishita and Rishvin. Mishita has grown up to be an accomplished and confident young lady, who has chosen Law as her profession. Personally I feel that it suits her personality perfectly. Intelligent, probing and expressive with oodles of energy I am sure she will do well in her chosen profession in the years to come. Rishvin, with his overarching penchant for ‘mobiles and automobiles’ (as his father puts it), is a techie youngster who wishes to take the Civil Service exams to work in the Indian Railways. Welcome to the band, young man, in good time.
Considering the amount of short eats and food that Mrs. Jethi plied us with the dinner should have been scheduled over at least two days. Mrs and Mr RDT, Girish and I were treated to goodies at such frequent intervals that one had the mouth always open, either to take part in the conversation or to partake in devouring the excellent short eats. Dinner was such an elaborate affair that I thought I would require the assistance of Emergency Services to get back on to my feet. The Chicken preparation was a delight and so were the Paneer and other accompaniments. With utmost difficulty the centre of gravity was attained after a combination of will power and physical strength helped me up from the table. The final blow was delivered then – moong dal halwa cooked in a liberal environment of ghee. I was glad I had worn a T-shirt for dinner. The buttons on a shirt would not have withstood the severe strain the middle was subjected to.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

DAY 111 – Aurangabad to Mumbai

Friends,
Last evening Joe and Linu had brought me a Puran Poli, the local delicacy. I had ‘saved up’ a half of it for the morning. The Poli and a mouthful of water set my sights for the SH60 – Jhakre and Joe had coached me till I could have got to the highway blindfolded. The tolled SH60 is reasonably well maintained to negotiate it at decent speeds. The villages and small towns en route dampen the speed a bit. After Ahmednagar, which came within an hour of starting the trip from Aurangabad at 7.30 am, I stopped just as the ghat road began at a restaurant for breakfast. It was amply evident that they had not served a customer before I happened along. However, I was served a huge helping of Poha and a cup of tea.
Even the ghat roads on SH60 are wide and well maintained. The undulating roads that have been cut through short hill faces are a fascinating drive. The sun’s rays falling on the jagged rocks provide an ideal background for adventure sport. I was scheduled to take the Express Highway from Talegaon, near Pune, to Mumbai. For this one has to turn off at Shikrapur and reach the Urse toll booth via Chakan and Talegaon. This bit of road of over 50 kms is a rough drive. One has to cut across the NH4 and go across to the Express Highway toll booth. As luck would have it, the Expressway was closed and had remained so since 9.30 last evening. An LPG tanker had started leaking at the toll booth and the entire area had been cleared of vehicular movement. Police and personnel manning Emergency Services were all over. I was told that as the time of restoration of traffic on the Expressway cannot be estimated I should take the NH4 to Mumbai. I came back to the intersection of the NH4 and burnt rubber on the Mumbai route.
I anticipated heavy movement on the NH due to closure of the Expressway. Even then I reached Lonavala in good time and looked forward to picking up some Chikkies. I was reminded of the fantastically tasty Chikkies Mrs and Mr Gopal Mohanty had packed for me while leaving Kolkata. While the taste buds were reminiscing and sending salivatory signals to the mind I came across the access point to the Express Highway short of Lonavala. I took that and let rip on the fantastic Expressway, forgetting in a trice the tasty Chikkies. I rolled down the window and let the slightly cool breeze deliver a few rapid ‘slaps’ on the face. Mohammed Rafi and his classic renditions, accompanied by a mental treat of Shammi Kapoor gyrations, were the ideal ingredients to hit a high on the road and through the tunnels. In a short while I passed Panvel and felt bad that the Expressway was over.
I had set up an appointment with Jose Mathew, my erstwhile colleague in DP World and an excellent friend, to meet for lunch at his Vashi residence. From Panvel he ‘virtually’ guided me through to the Vashi market and his residence without any confusion. It was a treat to meet Mrs and Mr Jose, their daughter and son, Alan. I thoroughly enjoyed the company for more than two hours over a couple of alcoholic ‘stress buster’ shots. The short eats more or less filled the tank but the Appam and Fish Moilee, the Cabbage ‘thoran’ and rice, etc found their way unassumingly down my throat to meet their respective appointments with enzymes.
Girish Pillai is the DRM of Mumbai Division. The only bachelor of our batch and hence, the one with peace of mind when the rest of us have our minds in pieces, stays in Budhwar Park – the swanky uptown residential complex of the Western and Central Railways. Staying with Girish is a ‘habit’ I picked up many years ago in Chennai. These days I do not even ask him if I can, I just do. When I was transferred to Chennai in 1990 from Palghat I shacked up with Girish in his Sterling Road flat till I was allotted one in due course. His flat was the ‘adda’ (den) for all of us who wanted to spend a few peaceful hours or even days, feasting on Karupiah’s recipes. Karupiah was Girish’s granite faced Man Friday with exceptional culinary skills who served up short eats and main courses at lightning speed. When Girish was posted in Mumbai prior to the present assignment I was a regular visitor from Cochin. Over the years, Suo Moto, I had assigned myself space in his family!
Girish had invited a few batch mates for dinner. SCJ, Anup Prasad (apart from being a railway colleague he was also my course mate in Delhi University) and KP Bakshi (our batch mate in IRTS who joined the IAS in Maharashtra cadre in 1982) arrived as appointed and we had a wonderful time till well past the Cinderella hour. Personal experiences and anecdotes interspersed with serious discussions diluted the alcohol and digested the short eats. Dinner came and went in similar manner and I hit the sack just as the digital clock silently sneaked past the first hour after midnight.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

DAY 110 – In Aurangabad

Friends,
Jahkre had promised to come by 8.30 am to do the Ellora–Daulatabad round. To get ready in time I walked to the entrance arch of the railway station for a cup of ‘bed’ tea and to buy a couple of newspapers. While returning to the ORH I found the distances to Ellora and Ajanta mentioned on one of the walls of the old ORH. What arrested my attention was the notice that Ajanta Caves are closed on Mondays and Ellora on Tuesdays. And today being a Tuesday meant that the plans so meticulously laid out and rehearsed many times over the previous evening have to be surgically recast. Jahkre felt miserable telling me the ‘bad news’ of the Ellora holiday. He suggested that we do Ajanta instead and I agreed to it immediately.
The Ajanta Caves are nearly 110 kms from the railway station and the road is passably good. We reached the ‘View Point’ in less than two hours. The magnificent location affords a panoramic view of the horse-shoe shaped caves, numbering 30, that overlook the Waghore River. It is from here in 1819 that John Smith and his party spotted a Tiger and pursuing it discovered the Caves that were lost to the world for over 1000 years. After drinking in the views with some tourists and students I was drawn to a few vendors hawking ‘rocks’. The vendors claimed to be farmers from the nearby area from whose land semi-precious rocks are ‘mined’, cleaned, categorized and sold. The semi-precious stones like amethyst, crystal, etc are found in plenty in the Basalt Rocks of the area. The Mountain Corals are elaborate and fascinating but lack the color and variety of the Sea Corals. I was hooked. I ended up buying nearly 20kgs of rock at what I thought was a bargain till the vendor told me his margin after the deal was done!
Jakhre had arranged with the MTDC to park the car in the VIP Parking lot. The journey of nearly 4kms to the Caves is covered in battery operated A/C and non-A/C buses deployed by MTDC. At the starting point to the Caves there are shops, restaurants and comfort stations. The Caves are reached by a fairly steep climb; one can either take the steps or the sloped walkway. For the elderly and the physically challenged there are cushioned chairs carried by 4 bearers. The key to enjoying the beauty of the art and appreciating the skills of the artists is to get a knowledgeable and patient Guide. Government approved Guides charge approximately Rs.700 for a two hour tour of the Caves. Thanks to Jhakre’s contacts we got one of the best in the business – the 67 year old Sikhle Patil, who has been a Guide for the past 37 years and has so far ‘guided’ 6 Research Scholars to their PhD on Ajanta Art.
The tour began with a short explanation of the method of construction – front to back and top to bottom – and the coloring agents used in the paintings – crushed colored rocks and vegetable dyes mixed with gum. The Caves date from the 2nd century BC to the 6th century AD spanning the Mauryan and early Gupta dynasties. These are Buddhist monastic Caves and the revival of Hinduism in the 6th century AD saw the abandonment of the site in favor of the Ellora Caves. Thus, among the 30 caves in Ajanta more than half of them are unfinished and some have collapsed due to seismic activity and weathering. The Caves depict both the Hinayana and Mahayana forms of Buddhism (based on the period of its development), the latter depicting Buddha in form and the former in symbols like Stupa and Wheel. The Caves are either Viharas (dwelling and meditation for the monks) or Chaityas (prayer hall). The Caves were not the work of Buddhist monks but those of artisans who inhabited the area. Thus, an elaborate group of designers, sculptors, painters, etc would have been based there for many centuries while working on the monolithic Caves.
One is free to visit the Caves (barefoot) that are open, but it is best to concentrate on those that are complete and have their paintings in better condition. Some of the paintings have been cleaned by the ASI and cement has been applied on some walls, but the paintings have not been redone. The paintings of Ajanta reputedly inspire designing of Sari, Bed Sheet and Curtain prints today. Fibre optic lighting has been installed in many Caves to appreciate certain details. Flash Photography is prohibited as it ‘harms’ the paint. Even the breath of humans ‘harms’ the art. Hence, the Caves are being replicated in modern structures being readied for the purpose, where the Cave art will be depicted using computers and modern software. The entrance to the Caves will be regulated by a combination of high tariff and special requirements like wearing of masks, etc. From among the ‘live’ caves, the Guides concentrate of Caves 1, 2, 9, 10, 16, 17 and 26. The statues of Buddha rising up to 8 meters and the reclining Buddha in Cave 26 are admirable for their proportions and detail. The sculpture and paintings indicate the life of the times in great details; the expressions and emotions of subjects have been minutely represented. Patil took us through the Caves unhurriedly explaining each and every detail till we understood them. He was seldom annoyed and even then only when our concentration was diverted to other groups thronging the Caves. The tour of the World Heritage Site which started at around 1 pm ended three hours later. In between the tour I was almost dehydrated – it was hot. Drinking water near the Caves saved me from collapse.
While returning to Aurangabad Jhakre insisted that I stay another day to visit Ellora Caves and Daulatabad. We were animatedly discussing various options when I took a wrong turn and travelled on the Jalna route for some time. An extra 40 kms meant that we got back to the ORH only by 7.30 pm. Dinner with Joe and family at the Rama International was the perfect ‘sun downer’.

DAY 109 – Nagpur to Aurangabad

Friends,
Aurangabad was not originally in the schedule for the journey. With the inclusion of Jabalpur in the itinerary I decided on Aurangabad as a break of journey point and also since my nephew is stationed here. However, when I was told that the trip to Aurangabad from Nagpur will consume all of 12 hours and that the roads are not so good, I permitted certain misgivings to take shelter in my mind. I wondered if it was a good idea to take the route and if I was putting additional stress on the car, which has so far been at its best behavior. Taking heed of the preparatory warnings I mentally prepared for 12 hours over pot holed roads as I set out close to 7 am from the Nagpur ORH. Within the city I lost my way a couple of times. That is how strong I am with navigation. But what the heck – I have travelled close to 20,000 kms this way and I have loved it. I must say one thing about seeking directions from people on the road – they are so forthcoming and helpful; you find people getting off their cycles, parking their bikes, coming out of their shops, switching off their mobiles, lowering the car windows, emptying their gobs of distasteful red liquids, while at the same time surveying the baggage in the car and the registration of the car. After a combination of a few of the above I finally managed to hit the road to Amaravati.
The first hour on the road I covered 85 kms and I prayed that the rest of the 11 hours pass off as well as the first did. On the road to Akola I hit a fork on the road and I took the left. I stopped by a Highway Patrol further up the road and sought to clarify if I am on the right road to Akola. While telling me that I am not, the policeman was good enough to ask if I am headed for Akola or if my destination is any other. When I told him that I am en route to Aurangabad he said that it would be better for me to take the route via Karanja since it is less congested and the road condition is bad. He further said that the Akola route will delay me considerably. I took the suggestion of the kind policeman and thanked him for it during the entire trip to Aurangabad. The condition of the tolled State Highway maintained by the MSRDCL was really good and I made good time. The relief from not having to spend 12 hours over bad roads showed in the speed I drove at. I reached Aurangabad city before 2 pm. The distance was a tad less than 500 kms and much less than the 750 kms told to me in Nagpur.
I stopped for lunch in the city and reached the ORH near the Aurangabad railway station. My batch mate Arvind Kumar is the Divisional Railway Manager in Nanded and Aurangabad is within its jurisdiction. He had allotted a very spacious and newly constructed suite in the ORH and deputed the Station Manager Jhakre to assist me with the local sightseeing. Since time was not adequate for a visit to the Ellora Caves we settled for Bibi Ka Maqbara and Panchakki. The former is a take on the Taj and is a son’s memorial for his mother.  Azam Khan, the son of Aurangzeb, built the Bibi ka Maqbara in 1679. Much of the structure is completed in Lime and Mortar with the father objecting to his son squandering the coffers of the State. The proposed grandeur of the mausoleum can be visualized by the layout of the complex. Unfortunately the gardens and the fountains are not maintained and the place looks a bit run down. However, there is no dearth of tourists. The Queen’s grave is littered by the tourists by throwing the entrance tickets into the enclosure from the top.
The Panchakki complex stands near one of the 52 gates of the capital city of Aurangzeb. The bridge from the gate is now close to 400 years old and is still robust. The Waghore River flowed under the bridge in the past; this is now a dirty sewer. The water that flows into the Panchakki complex comes from Jatwada and is carried by earthen pipes over three filterations. It is considered a marvel of engineering and the fact that it is still functional goes to prove it. Some of the water is used to fill a huge tank in the complex, below which is a hall used to serve food for destitutes and fakirs. The water keeps the hall cool throughout the year. This part of the complex is almost dilapidated. The rest of the water operates a hydro-mill to grind grain, which was used for the feeding of the poor. The hydro-mill is operational too. Between the Hall and the hydro-mill is a huge banyan tree that is more than 400 years old. The water from the mouth of the Panchakki falls into a fish filled tank, which is dirty and unclean. Thus, potable water is contaminated and spoilt, which could have been piped for use by the community in the immediate vicinity of the complex. The complex also houses the Dargahs of two Sufi saints, uncle and nephew; the former was the spiritual guide of the Emperor.
As mentioned, my nephew Joe was one of the reasons for choosing Aurangabad as a stopover destination. He has been with the prestigious Vaccor Group for the past five years. Dinner was fixed up at his place and I landed up without missing a step thanks to Jhakre. As I entered Joe’s flat his daughter, Catherine, started a howl that lasted nearly 15 minutes. I am certain that the sight of the fictional Santa in flesh and blood must have scared her. After the initial scare she settled down and we became the best of friends over the next couple of hours. Chappatis with excellent Chicken Curry and superb Ghee Rice disappeared into a shamelessly bottomless pit. The desert, which had a dash of Rum and plenty of Milkmaid in it, was the ideal dish to wind up the calorie intake of the day. I did an Oliver Twist and was presented the entire dish in which the desert was made!

Monday, January 17, 2011

DAY 108 – Jabalpur to Nagpur

Friends,
NH7 is the longest NH in India covering a distance of 2370 kms from Varanasi to Kanyakumari. It covers 6 States with AP (750kms), TN (630kms) and MP (500kms) logging more than 500 kms each. Considering my experience with the NH7 between Bangalore and Hyderabad I anticipated that the Jabalpur-Nagpur route would be a lovely drive. The anticipation was belied and so were the reports from acquaintances in Jabalpur. The Jabalpur to Nagpur road condition was much like the curate’s egg - good in parts. Of the 280kms just about half of it was NH standard. The rest of it was quite bad. The roads that wind through Teak plantations and the Pench Forest are scenic. With precise directions from SCJ I reached the SECR ORH in Nagpur by noon.
SCJ had arranged a very comfortable room in the ORH. After lunch the Sr.DSO, Anoop Satpathi, deputed Niazi to show me around the city. Deeksh Bhoomi, the memorial where Baba Saheb Ambedkar renounced Hinduism and took the 22 vows to embrace Buddhism was the first on the list. The vows taken by the gathering on the 10th of October 1956 is considered to be the largest religious conversion in the world. The meditation hall has a few photographs of Baba Saheb in various meetings and events. The most prominent are the ones concerning the October 1956 function.
I had first visited the Orange City in December 1979, when I was a student in St Stephen’s College, Delhi. My God Father, ZV George, who worked with Hindustan Petroleum was posted then in Nagpur. I remember having a wonderful time cycling through the streets of Nagpur with my cousins, playing cricket, tennis and table tennis. When I drove through Nagpur city today I could appreciate the changes that have given Nagpur a modern look - the streets have become wide, four lane in most places, flyovers, signals that work,  new residential and commercial complexes, etc. All the erstwhile landmarks looked different in some way – the railway station, Ravi Bhavan, CMs house, the Vidhan Sabha, the Zoo and Park, etc. The only landmarks that remain almost unchanged are the Medical and Dental Colleges; it had the stamps of ‘Government’ and ‘neglect’ all over it.
Anoop came over to the ORH and we had a very good interaction. He was very active in Student Politics during his college days and held very high positions in the National firmament, including that of National president of NSUI. Bowing to his parents’ wishes to change his professional pursuit he took the Civil Service Exams and joined IRTS in 1993. Despite having experienced a lot of harassment and ‘victimisation’ Anoop remains cheerful and hopeful. Instead of leveraging the strengths of such bright officers the ‘system’ tries to mute their initiative and label them as deviants. Thanks to Anoop I was able to get in touch with a long lost friend, MAK Swain, who was a BJP MP from Orissa for 10 years. He has now floated his own party, Utkal Bharat, and is presently involved in building up the party in his home State.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

DAY 107 – In Jabalpur

Friends,
Dr. Shirish and I agreed to meet after 7 am to visit the Marble Rocks at Bhedaghat. Eager to be ready in time I woke up at when I thought it was 6 am. After I got ready I realized that I was an hour early even after being to the Railway Station for a cup of tea and the TOI. I informed Vijayee Ram later in the day that the absence of waste bins on Platform 1 forced people to throw them all over the place and requested him to suitably address this matter.
Dr. Shirish arrived as appointed and the drive to Bhedaghat went by quickly discussing tehcircumstances that led to my taking VRS from the Railways. We stopped at the ghat to enjoy the Marble Rocks by boat. While mulling over the options before us to get the best boating deal we decided on some Poha, Jalebi and Tea. Dinesh Barman and his team gave us a glorious guided tour through the magnesium-limestone rock formations that look like marble. The River Narmada is the Holy River of MP, akin to the Ganges. There are many bathing ghats around the area, where the devout come to worship and offer obeisance. The cruise on the River through the Marble Rocks to enjoy the colored marble like cliffs and the gorge is an unforgettable experience. Dinesh Barman kept up a steady commentary during the boating while pointing out many interesting features of the Marble Rocks, such as locations where famous movies were shot, peculiar  rock formations and the changing color of the Rocks from grey to white to pink to black. Raj Kapoor is known as Jabalpur’s damaad (son-in-law) for his wife is from Jabalpur. He picturised many famous sequences of his movies ‘Jish Desh Mein Ganga Bahati Hai’, ‘Aawara’, etc at the Marble Rocks. Dinesh explained how the water in the River was reduced for six days to facilitate the shooting of the SRK-Kareena Kapoor starrer Ashoka, when the public were not permitted into the area and the security forces had virtually sealed it. The boat ride goes up to the place where the Narmada comes gushing into the gorge. A small drive upstream brings one to the waterfall, a miniature Niagara. The height of the fall has reduced since the commissioning of the Bargi Dam. The droplets of water that rise from the Fall gives the impression of rising and cascading smoke and hence, the place is called Dhuandhar. Magnificent views of the Fall can be had from the overhanging platform built for the purpose. Boys offer to jump into the Fall for a fee of Rs.50! Between the Bhedaghat and the Dhuandhar is the Chounsath Yogini Temple, which is believed to have been built during the 10th century. The sculptures surrounding the Temple have been defaced, reportedly at the behest of Aurangzeb.
Standard Auto Motors is the Maruti dealership in Jabalpur. I was invited for an interaction with the CEO, Mr Deepak Arora, courtesy Dr. Shishir. After I shared the experiences with him I did so with a few journalists who had come to cover the journey for various newspapers. To the lournos I emphasized that the Maruthi experience was as similar across the country as its culture and traditions are different. BTV also took sound bytes for its evening news. The interview taken by Dainik Bhaskar yesterday was featured in its edition today.
VR and had lunch at the ICH outlet at Sadar. The three storey building belongs to the ICH Co-operative. The waiters in the ICH wear different colored bands around their waist and on the turban based on the number of years of service they have put in. The low overhead of the co-operative keeps the tariff low without compromising on the quantity and quality of food. The Biriyanis we ordered were quite good and the filter coffee every bit South Indian. The Madan Mahal Kila was a watch tower during the reign of Durgavati. The Kila is also supposed to lead to a 95 km underground secret passage to Mandla, the Palace of the rulers. The view of the city from the top of the watch tower is breathtaking. The city is reputed to have had 52 ponds/tanks/lakes in the past. Now only a handful survives as water bodies. The rest have fallen victim to the avarice of developers, many of them illegally. Works are in progress to spruce up the ruins of the Kila. The ‘Balancing Stone’ is an interesting sight at foot of the Kila. One gets the feeling that even the slightest breeze will tip the huge boulder over from its precarious perch.
Probably the most creatively named hair dressing salon is in Jabalpur. It is called the Men’s Head Quarters or MHQ, for short. I asked VR to drop me off at this fancy salon. At this L’Oreal franchise outlet the hair dressing is very traditional, no fancy strokes or equipment. After the hair cut the hair dresser tried to induce me to do a facial using the L’Oreal products. In the vicinity of MHQ is the Empire Theatre, now almost in ruins. The last owner of the Theatre was Premnath, the actor and brother-in-law of Raj Kapoor. The ancestral house of Mrs Raj Kapoor and her brothers is close to the imposing structure of the Empire Theatre. I understand that the properties are under litigation as they were taken over by the Army.
Dinner was at the Kalchuri Residency. The mixed veg, Chicken curry with crisp rotis were polished off during the course of interesting interchange of views with Dr. Shirish. His attention and assistance made my sojourn in Jabalpur thoroughly enjoyable.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

DAY 106 – Bhopal to Jabalpur

Friends,
With little time in Bhopal for the local sights I had planned to deviate from the Jabalpur route to visit the Bhojpur Temple, which is reported to have the tallest Lingam in the world, and the Bhimbetka Caves, which house prehistoric cave paintings that are believed to be as old as 12000 years. With these deviations in mind I left early and reached the vicinity of the Temple, where I was asked to park in an open ground. Vehicular restrictions were imposed anticipating heavy rush for the Makar Sankranthi worship. Since the people manning the parking area looked a bit dodgy and I was the lone visitor I decided to skip the visit. This brought me too early to the diversion for the Caves and I had to skip that too.
While the initial part of the NH12 was just about okay, the road turned bad at Badi. The situation obtained thus till Jabalpur. The condition was extremely bad in some stretches. It was indeed a concern that when the SH18 was maintained beautifully, the NHs in MP are in such poor condition. Later I learnt that it has more to do with politics than anything else. The Central Minister under whose charge the NHAI is seems to be out to prove a point in his home State – but what a way to do it. Who looks at India as one and who is really interested in the clichéd ‘Aam Aadmi’?
After successfully negotiating the rough NH12 I got in to the ORH of the West Central Railway near the Jabalpur railway station by 1400 hours. A short nap later I went to the WCR HQ to meet my batch mate, Vijayee Ram, who is posted here as Chief Transport Planning Manager.  The DRM of Bhopal Division was in discussion with VR. The problems of the Railways seem to remain the same, irrespective of when they occur! After collecting the Testimony from VR we went to Indian Coffee House for a snack. I was taken in by the ambience, not the smokey, dim lit, coffee centre for self professed intellectuals. The interior was pleasantly modern and air conditioned. The popularity of the ICH is borne out by 5 busy outlets in Jabalpur. More than 95% of the members of the ICH Co-operative are from Kerala. Masala Dosa and a strong cup of filter coffee we decided on.
Sharat Chandra Jethi, my batch mate based in Mumbai, has been arranging my accommodation and other logistics needs in the Western and Central regions. SCJ is meticulous, painstaking and leaves nothing to chance. Dave told me in Jaipur of the incessant follow up SCJ had done to ensure my accommodation. Many of us unashamedly, and with a lot of gratitude, own up the fact that we got through many of our tests in the Foundation and Induction Courses at the Railway Staff College due to the coaching of SCJ. He was ever willing to take a ‘class’ and the manner in which he explained ‘interlocking’, ‘classes of stations’, features of wagons and coaches, made it look so ridiculously simple and straight forward. No he is not the conservative nerd. His sense of humor and is a tremendous raconteur of anecdotes. Whenever I visualize SCJ I do so with the tag MIT next to him. With his eye for detail and constant search for knowledge he would have been an invaluable asset in an institution like the MIT.
SCJ belongs to Jabalpur and his brother Dr. Shirish Chandra Jethi is a recognized paediatrician in Jabalpur. When we met up in the ORH to speak about the experiences we were joined by the local representative of Dainik Bhaskar, the leading vernacular daily in MP. In the next hour we discussed my journey, the challenges, the objectives, the learnings, etc. The ‘session’ ended with the photographer clicking a few pics.

Friday, January 14, 2011

DAY 105 – In Bhopal

Friends,
The first born is VVS, very, very special. The delightful bundle that arrived in the afternoon of the 13th of January, 1986 in the St Philomena’s Hospital, Bangalore was truly special. She kept all of us waiting for 10 days more than when she was due. We decided to call her Maya, for that’s what we are told the whole world is, an illusion. She meant the world to Beena and me. As she turns 25 years today I wish her, with Beena and Ajay, all the best during the years ahead. Children branch off and make their own nests in good time. Maya has with her Kiron, in far away Botswana. We understand our parents through our own life. I trust that she will understand her father sometime through her own life.
Hemendra Kumar is the Sr DOM of Bhopal Division. I fixed up to meet him in the office after the morning routines. I had wanted to get the Testimony of Visit from him and leave for a tour of the city. The interaction with this Engineering graduate from BITS PIlani lasted over an hour. He worked for a while with ABB before joining IRTS in 1998. Despite opportunities to travel abroad and work there he chose to serve Mother India. During the course of conversation he requested for my date of birth as numerology is one of his hobbies. He is deeply interested in the study of human behavior and psychology and recommended “The American Beauty” and “The Making of the American Quilt” as movies with a message. He made a few interesting observations after reading my palm. A man of many parts, such persons are a delight to interact with.
While waiting to meet Hemendra I met Rema, the Steno. She hails from Trichur and has been in Bhopal for over 25 years. She mentioned that most of the stenos in the railway office are from Kerala. Her own brothers and sisters-in-law are working in government offices in Bhopal. With such a large Keralite population she said she feels very much ‘at home’. There are many social organizations which facilitate regular interface among the Keralites in Bhopal.
The DB City Mall is among the biggest in Bhopal and offers a different shopping experience combined with entertainment and a wide choice of food stalls. Despite it being a working day the Mall was crowded, especially the food stalls. The Hypercity promotes value buys and its own brand of provisions. I found the prices quite reasonable given the ambience. I picked up some ready cooked chicken for dinner. The Chole Bhature i ordered for lunch was good and so was the Chikoo juice.
Hemendra deputed Om Prakash Pathak to accompany me to the Lake. What Pathak did was to use the available time optimally. Naturally the first visit was to the Upper Lake. The view of old Bhopal, the VIP road and the Mazhar on an Island in the Lake are sights to behold. The Bhopal Zoo is different in that one can drive through the zoo and watch animals in as close to its natural habitat as possible, albeit in an enclosed environment. While I had to be content with pug marks in Sunderbans and Corbett NP, and not even that in Kaziranga, I was fortunate to see three Royal Bengal Tigers here. Large numbers of migratory birds have made temporary homes on trees in the Zoo. What was interesting to note is that each variety had a separate tree; no two variety of birds could be found on the same tree – mohallas among birds? By the time we finished with the Zoo it was too late for the Museum of Man. The restaurant of MP Tourism near the Lake offers panoramic sunset views of the Lake and its surrounding from an elevation. The pink minarets with white domes of the Taj-ul-Masjid dwarf all other structures viewed from the restaurant. The Shan-e-Bhopal railway coach restaurant is unique and is the brainchild of Mr. Lohani, the then MD of MP Tourism and presently the DRM of Delhi Division. A passenger coach has been renovated and stationed in the ITDC Hotel. Inside the coach one gets a feel of being inside a moving train. There are many nuggets about the railways on the plaques displayed in the coach, both facts and jokes. For those who want an outdoor experience there are tables on the ‘platform’. The Jehan Numa Hotel is an erstwhile 19th century royal residence. The Hotel has displayed many priceless photographs on its walls which reinforces the importance of Bhopal in the British scheme of things. The passion with which Pathak conducted me around made me feel I should have had an extra day in Bhopal.