Sunday, August 23, 2015

Ladakh Diaries - Day # 4

Since we had saw most of the things on the Leh - Uleytopko route the day before, I faced the prospect of being in my Leh hotel room by as early as noon. This was a problem, as I had just spent all that time acclitimising and I didn't want to be indoors so soon in the day. So over breakfast, I came up with this whacko idea: why don't I go river rafting?????

Even before I could finish my breakfast, I could feel the rush of adrenaline. But first, Alchi Monastery. This is- if I remember correctly- the oldest monastery in Ladakh and arguably one of the prettiest. It is the only monastery that is not situated on a hill top. The village is pretty and full of al-fresco restaurants. The main temple is a very run down building with paintings going back a thousand years. It's very delicately preserved. Alchi monastery is a must- see place in Ladakh and if you don't wish to stay in Uleytopko, you could also try and find a motel here in this village. Do spend a few hours, atleast at this place.

Next stop: river rafting. We drove a few kms ahead at the meeting point of Zanskar and Indus rivers. I was getting nervous. I don't know swimming and I had never done rafting before, so I had little idea of what to expect. But one step at a time. This is one of the most famous rafting spots in Ladakh. Rafting starts at about 10 am here. The best time to do rafting is first half of the day. By the time I reached, only two couples had come. We need a minimum five people atleast on a boat (excluding the  guide). One couple (the husband was an army man and so was stationed in Ladakh itself) backed out because the wife was scared and wasn't convinced. The other couple stayed put, though this wife too was scared. But they stayed put till the end and finally did rafting with me in my boat and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. We were also joined by a boisterous group of about 7-10 boys from Nashik, who kept the atmosphere lively by their constant jokes and chattering.

Once we enrolled, we were made to sign a declaration that we knew the risks (if any) we were taking. We were given body suits, helmets and life jackets. We were then taken in a car (in our own vehicles) to the starting point, 14 kms away, upstream. The Zanskar - Indus confluence was actually the end point of the rafting trip.  We were given safety instructions and very soon our rafting began.

There were about 7-8 rapids but the first two rapids and the last I think were the most ferocious. The guide was very good and apart from clear instructions, he guided us all very well. There were two boats in our group; I was in one of them obviously. For a moment in one of the rapids, we were caught in a whirlpool. Our boat was caught in a merry-go-round incessantly but our guide told us to just sit tight and do nothing. There isn't much to do when caught in a whirlpool, he says. Once the rapids were over and the water became calm, the guide gave us the ultimate shock: Now, jump in the water!!! I was like, are you mad? I don't know swimming. He reassured us and told us to just jump and hold the ropes that surround the boat. Our life jackets would also help. I hesitated and asked myself what should I do.

Well, I had never planned to do rafting before I went to ladakh, despite knowing of the possibility. But I did it, didn't I? I said to myself if I didn't jump in the water there and then, I would regret for the rest of my life. Especially, since the guide had said nothing would happen. So I did it. I caught the rope tightly and my guide nudged me in the water. At first, I was shocked. The water was icy cold and I could feel no support from the bottom. I felt like I was hanging for my life with that rope. But slowly, the more experienced guys and the guide on the boat encouraged me to stay calm and just start to float. I tell you, the experience was divine! I felt like I had conquered a big fear, though for those who do rafting or swimming regularly, this would be nothing. Still, for me, it was something very big. Then, the couple who were also first timers like me, also took the plunge. It was real fun.

Then, the guide pulled me up in the boat. And lo behold: I took the plunge again. Yes, yes second time. Man, this was awesome!!!

Before you know it, we reached the end point of our trip. This was an experience, I'll never forget. As I said in my previous post, God indeed has been very kind.

After the rafting, we made another surprise halt at the Gurudwara Shri Patthar Sahib, yet again. But this time we stopped by for their traditional lunch (langar). Since it was a Sunday and since we also had to have our lunch, we decided to eat the Gurudwara. The elaborate and lip-smacking vegetarian meal was prepared by the army people and they served us. It was very humbling experience of being served by the Indian army people. No wonder the Sunday langar (mass meal) I was told- and I could see- is a well attended one.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Ladakh diaries - Day #3

We hit the road on our third day. On the way to Uleytopko- a popular camping site on the banks of Indus river- we head past Magnetic Hill, Basgo Fort and Likir Monastery. Our first stop, though, is at Gurdwara Shri Patthar Sahib. This is a Sikh place of worship but a popular spot for all travellers passing by. The place is maintained by the Indian Army. The story goes that once upon a time Guru Nanak meditated here. One of his enemies threw a huge rock at him, but when the rock hit him, it made an impression of his posture on the rock. Nothing, of course, happened to Guru Nanak; he escaped un-hurt and the enemy got convinced by Guru Nanak's powers and became his disciple, thereafter. That rock- with Guru Nanak's impression- is still here at this Gurudwara.

The place of worship is very popular among tourists and army people alike. It is a revered and respected place; you could see the devotion. You could see rows and rows of plaques being engraved in the walls by various army people, army generals, and so on, thanking the Gurudwara for looking after them during their military postings in Kashmir, Kargil and such border areas.

After paying our respects to the Gurudwara, we continue and head past the Magnetic Hill. We didn't stop at Magnetic Hill because my guide tells me it's not as big as it is made out to be on the internet. Sure- he claims- there is some magnetic power in the area, but not enough to pull a car up without being driven, as many claim on the internet.  A few meters ahead is the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar rivers. The Indus river comes from Tibet and flows to Pakistan. The meeting point of both the rivers is visible as the colours of the two rivers are very different. The difference in colours is more pronounced in the month of September. This is also a popular river rafting point.

After a half hour's halt at magnificent Basgo Fort that is very delicately perched atop a hill, we stop by the Likir monastery. We were fortunate to go there when the prayers were on. The monasteries are very welcoming towards tourists so we sat there for a good half hour and shot videos of the prayer ceremonies. From elders to middle aged men to young kids, monks come in different age groups. It's a pleasant experience to attend a Buddhist prayer ceremony. Despite a large gathering of monks, chants, drums, conch shells, those long trumpets or Dungchen, there's a sense of calm that prevails upon us. About 45 minutes of prayers, listening to chants and paying our respects to a tall Buddha statue and admiring the house of the Dalai Lama (he has a house at most monasteries where he stays when he visits them, across Ladakh), we move on.

We arrive at our Ule Ethnic Camp at Alchi, Uleytopko. This is a lovely resort that offers tented accommodation, but with all modern facilities. It's an eco resort so usage of electricity is at its minimum. They use solar heaters for hot water. Food is organic and grown mostly in-house. Being in a Buddhist region- as is entire Ladakh- they serve only vegetarian fare. You do get non vegetarian in Ladakh, but many resorts in remote locations serve only vegetarian. But food is good and prepared with lots of love. The whole property is full of apple and apricot trees. And the location is so beautiful; the resort is in a valley surrounded by tall mountains. At the far end lies the edge of the valley where the Indus river flows in full force, below.

I drop my bags, have some light lunch, rest for an hour or two and head off to Lamayuru monastery; one of Ladakh's most breathtaking monasteries. Purely for its location. The drive up to Lamayuru- about 60 kms one way- is beautiful with moonscape landscape. The rock formations that you get to see on the way is amazing and I doubt you'll ever see anywhere else in India. The whole of Ladakhs mountain ranges is unique and gives you the impressions that the mountains come in various shades of blue, green, violet, pink, orange. But the landscape leading to Lamayuru is something else; something even more unique. The rock formations reminded me of Bryce Canyon of the US. We were fortunate that the new road was shut and the old road, instead, was open. The old road offers more panoramic views than the new road. Lots of hair pin bends, but thanks to God, I was good. God has been very generous. End of a very profitable day.

Ladakh diaries - Day #1 and 2


A very interesting and memorable trip starts off on a very boring note. The one thing we have to do after reaching Leh is to acclitimise to the high altitude. Since Leh town is situated at about 11,000 ft above sea level, the air is thin. And since most of us fly there directly from low levels, it's absolute;y necessary to spend day- preferably two like I did- by doing ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.

So my Day #1 went by just watching television and doing practically nothing else. I had forgotten my iPad, Kindle and headphones, so at the Mumbai airport I had to buy a new pair of headphones. That was my companion as well for the better part of the first two days at Leh.

On day#2, I went to Sanchi Stupa, a Buddhist monument perched high up on a hill that gives magnificent views of the Leh valley. That's the place to go if you want good sunset views at Leh. Photographers start lining up their cameras and tripods here, from 5:30 onwards. I found a good spot for my tripod and waited patiently. The magic in the sky starts at about 6:45 when the sun starts to go down slowly; the town becomes darker, skies become grey, snow-capped peaks starts to shine as the sun rays hit them and the sky's colour starts to change. At 7 pm, magic happens. Just about two peaks hidden behind the massive mountain ranges turn bring orange; while other peaks remain darkish brown. A few minutes later, the sky turns on its character. It's beautiful. All this happens in a matter of just few minutes, so you got to be alert. Meanwhile, the monument's lights get turned on and against the blue sky, a lit up Sanchi Stupa- at dusk- looks very photogenic.

The Grand Dragon hotel, Leh is a great hotel. Service is top notch and its location is also nice. Food is good, though I found their vegetarian better than their non vegetarian.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Kabaddi, Kabaddi, Kabaddi

This was a surprise. A phone call from an aunt with free tickets to the premier of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) in Mumbai was not an opportunity I'd have missed. Although I don't completely understand Kabaddi (though I get the gist of it), it's a good way to spend a weekend evening.

The first match was played between Mumbai and Jaipur. Entrepreneur Ronnie Screwvalla owns the Mumbai team and Abhishek Bacchan owns the Jaipur team. NSCI is a huge complex. Once you step in, you get a feel of the Indira Gandhi Sports Stadium in New Delhi where I had gone last year to cover the Indian Premier Tennis League for my newspaper. We were fortunate to reach there as even though we had the VIP seats, the crowd began to swell as time went by. The place was teaming with celebrities; from chief minister Devendra Fadnavis to Amitabh Bacchan (AB), Aishwarya Rai, Aamir Khan. Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Sunil Shetty and many m
ore. Fadnavis was interviewed on the court about why likes and supports Kabaddi. Later, AB kicked off the proceedings by rendering the national anthem.

Soon, the match started and U-Mumba ran ahead. Just when it looked like the home team was running away with the match, Jaipur made a strong comeback and almost took away the match. But Mumbai retorted strongly and won the tie in a thriller. We didn't attend the second match, but al in all, was a fun-filled evening.

Chai in the Dining Car

Train journeys fascinate me. But none quite like the Deccan Queen (DQ). Especially the Mumbai to Pune leg. Years ago, I shifted my loyalties from the Indrayani Express (which leaves for Pune in the morning) to the DQ (which leaves in the evening). And even though Pragati Express leaves a good 50 minutes before- and reaches few minutes sooner than- the DQ, the Queen has her own charm. And I like the C4 coach particularly because it's right next to the Dining Pantry car. By the way, the Queen just got a refurbished dining car, with new lights, new seating, curtains and very swanky. The Dining car has been the DQ's highlight for years. It's half kitchen and half restaurant. The new dining car has two new wash basins as well. They had just introduced it days before my last visit, so the decorations were still on. That's also another reason why I love the DQ. Unlike other Mumbai - Pune trains, this one has a pantry car, so food is freshly prepared. Leaving home in the afternoon and walking into the Mumbai CST station that time- as also reaching Pune late evening and then crashing to bed after a delicious dinner- has its own charm for me, which I can't quite describe it, so let's not bother.

The DQ chugs out at Mumbai CST at sharp 5:10. I think it's the only train where the air-conditioned coaches still have wall clocks in them. And one of the very few trains that don't stop at Dadar. By which time, it picks up good speed, but not quite its top speed I think. The best part of DQ is when the staff from the pantry car starts coming in offering tea / coffee at first, followed sometimes by soup and then they take orders for evening snacks. Bread/butter toast or sandwich (you can order it with cheese), omelette, vegetable cutlets, chicken cutlets, baked beans and perhaps a few other items. My favourite: bread, cheese, butter toast and omelette. I wish they could offer chai along with the toast sandwich, so that I could dip my toast in tea and have it. But since preparation takes time, they serve the beverages first.

I like food that's freshly prepared. Other trains have readymade snacks that are already prepared in their station canteens. I don't like that and prefer to carry sandwiches from home on such trains. Onboard the DQ, the pantry staff is top rate; very courteous, hardworking and they are always running and on their toes to serve. There is this particular charming old man, who's the pantry staff, who I've been seeing on the DQ for years now. Fortunately, he was in charge of C4 this time, so we were well looked after.

I like to follow a pattern when travelling to Pune by train. Apart from my snack and what I must have all the time, I have to alight at Karjat station for some time. Here's where all trains heading to Pune- fast or slow, long or short- get a few electric locomotives attached at the back to push it up the ghats. The engines then detach themselves away at Lonavala (here again, I must step out briefly) and return back to Karjat for the same routine, all over again. Except for a few passenger and freight trains, Karjat is a technical stop for most fast Mumbai - Pune trains. This means that you can't buy tickets for Karjat. But the train stops there for technical / operational reasons. Which is also why, on return, most of these trains don't stop at Karjat because when the train comes down the ghat, it does not need locomotives to push it. Slower trains have a commercial stop here.

Karjat station is also famous for its vadas. I don't care for the vadas but I like the atmosphere of Karjat station. It gives a village station feel as there's quite a lot of greenery that surrounds it. Once the ghat section starts, I ventured into the new Dining car. Now usually, the dining car gets full at the Karjat station itself, as this is the best place any Mumbai - train can has to offer. You have your food, relax and enjoy the view the ghats. Especially in the monsoons, where you get see many waterfalls and beautiful scenery. I don't get a window seat, but since I am determined to get a seat, I wait patiently till I see an empty seat. Since I am full, I order just a cup of tea.

On the other hand, I wish I could have eaten my evening snack here, as they prepare all sorts of eggs (I saw someone eating fried eggs, sunny side up) and also serve us in glass plates and stainless steel cutlery. But I have my chai and enjoy the view as the train meanders its ways up the ghats, through the tunnels, over the bridges, some of them as old as about 50 years I suppose, occasionally honking and trying to speed as much as possible. I could hardly spot any waterfall because it hadn't rained in a long time. But the scenery is still beautiful. In just 30 mins, DQ chugs past Khandala and arrives at Lonavala.

At 8:30, we reach Pune in style. And into familiar surroundings. Past the Vaswani ashram, Dorabjee's shop, Kayani Bakery, Moledina Road, touching MG Road, East Street, the white-washed church and cozy cottages on the Napier Road, Pune Camp

Saturday, June 27, 2015

My interview of Stan Wawrinka

Stan Wawrinka is in danger: from his hideous, chequered pink shorts.
If there’s something that can bring him down, despite beating the World No.1 Novak Djokovic to win the French Open earlier this month, it’s his choice of shorts. Last week, he put up a message on Twitter saying he will give away one pair of his “lucky shorts” to “a lucky follower” when he reaches 500,000 followers. We asked him if he was serious. “Of course, I’m serious! There has been so much talking about the shorts, so many people wanted to get one. There were also some funny cartoons in Switzerland. All of a sudden it was all about the shorts,” he said in an email interview.

I interviewed Stan Wawrinka, the French Open champion 2015 for Live Mint.

Here's the link to the story:
http://www.livemint.com/Leisure/vUthczokWpMdF9UsJLZ35O/Stans-the-man.html

End of the road for the Big Four?

"We’ve got teenagers and young guys coming now; I see change is coming,” says American coach Brad Gilbert over the phone. Gilbert has trained the likes of Murray, Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Nishikori. “I don’t know when it’s coming but there is change coming. This is an exciting time for men’s tennis where we’ve got the older, established players, the challengers, and a good mix of new young players,” said Brad Gilbert. 
Men's tennis is changing. How long will the Big 4 continue to remain the Big 4? You have the challengers to the crown and then you have the young turks, under 21, who are potential leaders. My story in today's Mint on how the men's tennis landscape is changing.

I have also attached the graphics that wasn't carried in the story. But I am attaching the same here for my reader's reference. 

http://www.livemint.com/Leisure/L2pyk3ElzCsP6PAt8tWVgP/End-of-the-road-for-the-Big-Four.html


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Flipkart Wish Chain advertisement





Arguably, the best advertisement in recent memory. And my favourite ad- I think- of the decade. The story is beautiful and told like a story. You may or may not like Flipkart, but the product positioning is brought out beautifully through the advertisement. Background music is lyrical and haunting, but in a good way, of course.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

A Visit to the Rashtrapati Bhawan

There's something about Delhi that gets me. My love affair started in 2000 when I camped here for three and half months when I started my first job. I had got home sick by the end of that tenure, but not before I had some of the best time of my life while staying there. A day trip to Agra (my first visit to the Taj Mahal), new friends, countless movies, lunches and dinners; I had a great time back then. It's a place where I cannot stay for months, but an occasional visit- even once or twice or thrice a year- is always looked forward to. The affair continues. Safdarjung Enclave, ITO, Delhi Gate, Connaught Place, Janpath, Khan Market, Patel Nagar, Karol Baug, Tughlak Road, Lodi Estate....these are just some of the Delhi corners tattooed in my brain. All my life I have worked for publications headquartered in Delhi, so I've been fortunate enough to keep going there. Plus if you have friends there, all the more reason.

So after a massive delay of 10 hours and embarking to 45 degrees temperature at New Delhi Railway station, I quickly take my Uber ride to the Bahl residence at Patel Nagar. Metro station pillars are the new landmarks; only in India. You turn right or left when you come to a certain metro pillar; how convenient. Saturday is wasted but there's pretty little you can do in such heat, anyway. But a nice get-together with old friends and colleagues is enough to end the day on a high. A-glass-of-wine-and-beer high as well!

Sunday dawns and Rashtrapati Bhawan (the President of India's house) beckons. We have a walking tour to take at the Rashtrapati Bhawan. With effect from September 2013, the Rashtrapati Bhawan is now open for public through guided walking tours on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Ofcourse, only a section of it, not the whole facility. Online booking is allowed but we went through a group that specialises in- and what I am told are brilliant- walking tours (Intach Heritage Walks conducted by Ms. Priya: email her at walks@intachdelhichapter.org) for historical places in Delhi. We meet her- and the group assembles- outside at one of the many gates to the Rashtrapati Bhawan. Cameras, mobile phones, eatables are not allowed.

The tour starts and Priya hands us all over to a charming and very knowledgeable in-house guide. Only in-house guides can take you inside the President's palace. The flag at the centre of the massive complex was hoisted, which indicates that the President of India is in the country.  If the President is travelling abroad, the flag does not get hoisted. We went past the massive entrance at the outdoor seating area where our Prime Minister, Narendra Modi and his cabinet was sworn in, in May 2014.

To start with, we were taken to the Marble Hall where, amongst other things, large portraits of past British Viceroys, Queen, King George and so on were there. A large replica model of the Rashtrapati Bhawan was also there. From there we went downstairs to the large kitchen and saw lots of gifts that were given by various foreign presidents and dignitaries to our Presidents, past and present. There were lovely crockery; tea pots, dining ware, cups and saucers and so on. We were told that although the President gets these gifts, they are not personal gifts. These are gifts that were given to a state head and hence the property of the Rashtrapati Bhawan.

We saw the Banquet Hall that had the longest dining table I have ever seen. Chairs were not laid out, but if they are, the President's chair is at the centre and has the longest backrest to distinguish itself. We were told about the very elaborate butler system there was. There were lights at the higher ends of the walls, with different colours. A certain colour light, if switched on, signals the butlers to serve. Another colour acts as a signal for the butlers to clear up dishes. Downton Abbey, anyone? Earlier, the walls had motifs of guns. But we were told that one of the former President Pratibha Patil didn't like it. She felt that there is no place for guns in a dining room, and so the gun motifs were replaced with- if I remember correctly- floral motifs.

The President's library has some very old books. But the highlight I thought was the magnificent Durbar Hall where countless functions have taken place, including the ones where the civilian awards (Padma wards, etc) are given away every year by the President. Did you know that the foot of the statue at the front of the room is of the same height as the tip of India Gate? Infant if you stand near the foot of the statue and look straight, you'd be looking at India Gate. The Ashoka Hall was also quite impressive.

Unfortunately, the Government isn't doing enough to promote the tours of the Rashtrapati Bhawan. It serves as a very good history lesson for our children if they're exposed to such places. Rashtrapati Bhawan has two gift shops; one outside in the garden and one inside the building. The former was shut because it was Sunday (we took a peak and it looks woefully inadequate) and the shop inside the building was an embarrassment. No salesperson to attend to us, the fridge was empty and only a staff's personal water bottle was in there. That was a pity because it was baking hot outside and we could have all bought cold drinks or water. There were hardly any curious, T-Shirts, mementos, etc on sale. If this had been US or Europe, the shop would be full of tons and tons of interesting items, bearing the Rashtrapati Bhawan logo. People would be queuing up to buy something, anything from there. We need to learn how to market ourself.

All in all, a pretty eventful day, thanks to my friend Himalee who had the vision to book a tour here when she heard of it. We must not miss such opportunities. Do visit Rashtrapati Bhawan if you get a chance. It's a trip of a lifetime.

(Picture courtesy: Rashtrapati Bhawan website: http://presidentofindia.nic.in/rashtrapati-bhavan.htm)

Business class on Vistara

It's not even been a year since Vistara was launched, but it has already got me excited. This brand new airline, a joint venture between the Tata group and Singapore Airlines, has managed to shake up the industry after a long time. It may not have cornered many passengers yet from competitors, but it has shaken up things, especially the full serviced carriers.

This particular Delhi - Mumbai flight was my third by Vistara and the airline has already upgraded me twice. This time, they bumped me up to Business Class, up from Premium Economy class. Coincidentally, this was also the first time ever that I had been upgraded to Business class.

To begin with, cold towels were given to us, followed by lime juice. Newspapers were already there in our front seat pockets, but magazines were also offered. But in a two-hour flight, there's precious little we can do, especially in full-service carriers when 3/4th of your time go in just eating food. Anyways, there was a bloke in one row ahead who, right after settling down in his seat and taking several selfies and selfie videos of himself in business class, chose some 3-4 magazines!

The flight was full. But they managed to pack us in pretty quickly and we left about 10 minutes ahead of scheduled time. Very soon, we were given our dinner menu. What I wanted was not available, so I chose something else in continental non-vegetarian. It was not very tasty, very passable. Dessert was good; I chose kulfi. Food at Vistara is generally good as it is prepared by the Taj kitchen. Ofcourse for certain items, you need to acquire a taste. Perhaps, for my conti dish, I hadn't yet acquired the taste. No matter.

They later offered us a Samsung Galaxy Tab and Sony headphones for entertainment. I don't know whether Jet Airways offers a similar service for their business class passengers because I have never travelled by their business class, but I was very impressed by Vistara's idea of tablets as entertainment. Not much of entertainment was loaded on it, but it was good enough. As I said, how much of entertainment can you take in, on a 2-hour fight. I could barely reach the halfway mark of an episode of The Big Bang Theory, when we started to descend and the air-hostess politely came and requested us to return the tablets and headphones. By the way, that guy ahead of me- who was already sitting with three magazines- had also taken the tablet!

Sunday, May 31, 2015

My first ever Rajdhani experiance

As a kid, the Mumbai-New Delhi Rajdhani Express used to be this legend that I dreamt often. Although train travel was an integral part of my childhood, Rajdhani remained a distant dream. A dream that only zipped past me at 120 km/hr overtime I saw it. A dream that announced it arrival from a great, great distance by the sounds of twin diesel locomotives and its generator cars at either sides of the rake. A sound that was as intimidating to rail enthusiasts like me as a Bullet motorcycle is to a biker. In those days, it used to be hauled by two diesel locomotives so that it wouldn't need to spend much time at Vadodra station changing its locomotives. One of the two diesel locos would detach itself from the train and the other one who simply haul it al the way to Delhi. When I used to go to Valsad during some of my summer holidays at my cousin's house, it was a ritual. Take a picnic basket, leave the house at sharp 6, go to the yard just before the station, position ourselves on the banks (the abandoned yard's platform), eat some sandwiches, make merry....till about 7:30 pm to welcome the king of Indian Railways zoom past Valsad at unimaginable speeds. Now, hauled by WAP7- India's most powerful electric locomotive- the Rajdhani still invokes the same sentiment in me as it did all those years ago. Last Friday- 22 May 2015- I took my first ever trip on this Rajdhani. One of my biggest childhood dreams come true.

(Photo courtesy: IRFCA; the Indian Railways Fan Club photo gallery. Picture was shot by Tushar Dhake)

Because I had never travelled by First AC, I decided to take the plunge and splurge (Rs.4,500). It's quite expensive and a few budget airlines could have got me a cheaper air ticket, but cost saving was not the purpose; experience was. The ride began very smoothly. I got allotted a cabin of four, so there was a lady with her 3-year child, her maid and another elderly gentleman who was a businessmen. The train now stops at Borivali and Surat. The ride soon began and the train started zipping part suburban stations. The amount of clearances this train gets throughout its journey is amazing, given how other trains can get delayed and piled up. 

Food is plenty. It starts off with a tray of snacks. Tea or coffee is served in glass cutlery, unlike paper cups served in 3-tier AC. Butter sandwiches, samosa, sweet and namkeen is part of the snacks tray. Newspapers are served and so is packaged water. You can have as many as you want throughout the journey.

Meanwhile, I keep checking the speed of the train on my new Speedometer App on my phone. The train hits a top speed of 135 kph, but easily averages at 120 kph. You can feel the speed if you sit next to a window and watch the train zip past stations. The LHB coaches are very smooth and you can feel the difference travelling in them as against the usual coaches we see in all other trains. But these coaches keep giving very ugly jerks when the train catches up speed. If you're in the toilet peeing, it gives you a nasty scare, all of a sudden. 

As soon as the train leaves Surat (about 8pm), dinner is served. By the way, unlike 3-Tier AC, food is served to you here in First AC. Each passenger gets an individual foldable table (they're kept hidden near every cabin's or coupe's entrance door), table mats are placed on top over them and then food is served. Just like in airlines. Tomato soup- with breadsticks and butter- to start with. Then, we get a choice of non vegetarian and vegetarian. The non vegetarian is either Indian or continental to choose from. I chose continental. Roast chicken, spaghetti with gravy and mixed vegetables was served. Food was okay, but not bad at all. Curd is served along with it. You can ask for sugar if you like it sweet. For desserts, there's ice-cream. 3-tier AC serves only vanilla, First AC serves a choice of vanilla and butter-scotch.

We reach Vadodara station at about 9 pm and the train has an approximately 15-minute halt here. As soon as the train leaves Vadodara, it's time to go to bed. Bedding is given to all of us. Besides, an attendant comes and does our beds; another only First AC thing. By the way, there is an attendant in the Rajdhani First AC coach. Every coupe or cabin has a bell, which you ring to call an attendant if you need him. 

Breakfast time in the morning and they serve you eggs, omelette, poha, etc and also Kelloggs cornflakes with either hot or cold mild. Tea / coffee is also served. My Rajdhani was delayed by more than 10 hours on account of the Gujjar agitation in Rajasthan. So all Mumbai - Delhi trains were diverted from Nagda towards Indore and Bhopal and then onwards on the North Central Railway to Bhopal, Jhansi, Agra and then to New Delhi. It was a tiring journey but we were very fortunate to be in an AC train. Imagine going through a furnace of a country side for second-class passengers. We reached Delhi next day at 16:30 hours to a 45 degrees C temperature, instead of 8:30 that morning! But to the credit of Railways, we got complimentary lunch that afternoon on our way to Delhi, because we were running late. Simple dal, rice and potato dish but very tasty.

All in all, my first ever Rajdhani experience was quite memorable. Coaches were just about clean though toilets could've been cleaner. Rajdhani trains have housekeeping staff that keep cleaning throughout. A recent trip to Surat on the August Kranti Rajdhani in 3-tier AC had left me very impressed; the housekeeping must have come twice or thrice- in a journey of three hours- to  clean up the coach thoroughly. 

A childhood dream came true. Though I feel I was robbed of the speed experience on account of the excruciating delay. I feel I'll take this trip again, someday. 

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Red Ink Awards

Yesterday I attended the Mumbai Press Club's Red Ink Awards for journalism. In its fifty year running, I attended it for the first time. Railways minister Suresh Prabhu was the chief guest and gave away the awards. NDTV's Prannoy Roy for the Lifetime Achievement award. Caravan magazine swept away the awards winning in multiple categories across many of its writers. Scroll.com won the start-up media awards. Menace Doshi of the CNBC-tv18 was the host of the evening.

For me, the highlight of the evening was Prannoy Roy's acceptance speech. He said what I have been worried about for a long time. The tabloidation of media. He especially pointed out TV channels that appear to be tilting away towards that path; an example of which he said that he once saw a crime show where the lady anchor said, tripling her hair, "break ke baad ek rape dikhayange". Dr. Roy was  candid to point out the ugly crime shows on some of these channels. This is exactly what had me worried for the past few years.

While most English news channels are guilty of sacrificing real news in favour of debates (that are nothing but shouting matches), Hindi news channels may be accused of sensationalising. Ugly late-night crime shows appear to titilate the audiences. They are graphic and production quality is very poor. In highlighting such crime shows and TV channels' taboidation, Dr. Roy hit the nail on the head.

The show was very well organised. The venue was Jamshed Bhabha theatre at the NCPA. 

Friday, April 24, 2015

A walk on Pune's MG road

Taking a walk down the MG road in Pune camp area in the morning can be quite invigorating. Especially if you don't have any agenda.

I start from Golibar maidan end. First stop is the newspaper vendor. The elderly Muslim gentleman is such a friendly man; he recognises all his regular customers, even someone like me who go to Pune once in a month, two or even three. All newspapers and magazines are usually available with him; a very well stocked stall. There's something about a neatly organised newspaper stall. It just pulls you in, even if you know you are not that avid reader or may not have the time to read as much as you'd like. You want to read all the newspapers and magazines on display. Of course I can't. Plus, I carry my iPad these days so I prefer reading all newspapers on it. And if I like something that I can't read at that moment, I can always save the link. Most of my weekend reading these days are stories that I come across throughout the week. Or those that I come across in some exceptionally busy mornings. Pune is a different story. I still feel sentimental about stopping by my newspaper stall, pick up an occasional Business Line (only for BLink that's edited by the fabulous Veena Venugopal, about who ad guru Prahlal Kakkar once said "she is as sexy as she reads"), Mumbai Samachar (Asia's oldest newspaper) for Mother India and perhaps a Times of India for its so-what-am-I-supposed-to-do content but liked by Mother India nevertheless. 

Next to the paper vendor is one of Pune's biggest fruit and vegetable market. This is the place to go to if you want to buy the freshest fruits and veggies. These days, you can't miss all those mangoes lined up there. Stalls are nearly laid out and items are top quality. 


MG road has everything you need. Shoes, clothes, shops, crockeries, furniture, electronics, computers and everything you need and everything you don't. Pundole watchmakers stands tall further down the line. From one shop there years back, they have now grown to about four shops, with a separate watch-repair shop. They are the only shop I know that sells watch cases. The Parsi family is full of expert horologists. The gentleman who runs the repair section comes across as the guy who invented time! Once I asked him if they repair Omega watches. Aghast at me even daring to ask something like that, he immediately pointed towards one of two dozen certificates hung across the wall to one that said "official service centre for Omega". "We definitely do Omega watches, sir", he said, still not overcome with the shock he got from my question. With a soft voice but firm tone, he comes across as every bit knowledgable that he is. Our first and last stop for all our watch repairs.

MG road offers plenty of options for the foodies. A slight detour towards East Street takes you to the delightful Kayani Bakery for the world - famous Shrewsberry biscuits. But I want to try out something new there now. So I bought chocolate biscuits and Khatai. The former were not good, the latter was heavenly. Marz-o-rin is a long-time favourite; better than any of our Starbucks and Cafe Coffee Days of the world. Ice coffee, chicken sandwiches and Black Forest pastry and a table on the first floor verandah is all you need to spend a lovely hour and watch the world go by. Today though, we decided to visit age-old George restaurant further down the line for their chicken biryani. 



Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC) requires a monorail

Everytime I go to the Bandra - Kurla Complex (BKC), a business district in the middle of Mumbai, I feel blessed. I am thankful to my employers for now having chosen a place like BKC for our office. I think for those of us who use public transport, it's a curse to have an office at BKC. During peak hours, it is near impossible to find a rickshaw or a bus, in minutes. The buses that come from Kurla (and going towards Bandra station) are so crowded that they don't stop. Demand for rickshaws far outstrip their supply. And to make matters worse, the traffic snarls at Kalanagar make it worse. Only people with cars are better off working at BKC.  

Unfortunately, our state planning authorities have never really invested in public infrastructure. Nor do they understand the basics. Take for instance, the monorail and metro, what's the difference between the two and where we need them. At present, monorail at Mumbai goes from Chembur to Wadala. If you see its route, you'll realise that it goes in the middle of nowhere! I really wonder how many people use it for their daily use. 

Ideally, a monorail is required for a shorter route and where there is dense population. Preferably office-goers who the monorail can ferry to the nearest train station. Like BKC. Surprisingly, the monorail has plans to go all the way to Jacob's circle (Saat Raasta, near Mahalaxmi station). For such a route, a metro is more useful since it covers a longer distance. 

A monorail is an idea solution to BKC office goers as such a route from BKC to Bandra and Kurla train stations. Such a mode of transport will cut the road traffic in a jiffy, solve public transport woes that many office goers there face in present times and is also environment friendly. A BKC monorail will also serve people to move around with BKC area. Ideally, the BKC monorail should also involve the Kalina - Santacruz office area (where Kotak, Centrum offices and Windsor buildings are located) to make that office area  interconnectible. Property prices would likely zoom up in that area if public transport is eased up. 

There is still space of construct a BKC Monorail at the moment. But the opportunity is slowly slipping by as the vacant land is slowly being bought by companies to build their offices there. Once the space is gone, all we'd be left with, would be heavy traffic and terrible traffic woes. 

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Flamingo watch at Sewri

Early Saturday morning, I set off to see the Flamingos that come visiting Mumbai. These majestic migratory birds visit Mumbai every year between December and stay on here till about April. It was a long-time wish that finally got fulfilled. Birdy (appropriately called for the occasion)- an expert trekker and outdoor guide- had organised the morning watch. A colleague who is a regular with Birdy  pulled me in and off we went. We took the harbour line train- one of my favourite train rides in the whole of India- and landed at Sewri station at about 7:30 am; the appointed time. We joined the group there and began our 1 km walk to the Sewri jetty where Flamingos were waiting for us.
Sewri- and the first half of harbour line up until Wadala- looks like a Mumbai caught up in time warp. Development has thankfully (and also partly woefully) escaped this part of Mumbai. Large swaths of godowns dot the dockland area of Eastern Mumbai. The only visible sign of development here is the new Eastern freeway which runs parallel to the harbour line tracks for a long patch. A quick cup of tea / coffee outside Sewri station and we were on the way; amidst slums, dilapidated buildings, lots of large trees, dirty roads and dozens of tankers. We reached the jetty area that was dotted with tankers lined up for God know what, and what looked like a shipyard with broken ships. Birdy led us to the end of the jetty area where a large flock of flamingos were frolicking. 

Flamingo watch isn't as simple as it sounds; that you just go there and you'll find flamingos. Early mornings are the best time. Make sure you go there during low tides, so that the birds have a place to stand on the mudflats without sea water gushing in. We watched the flamingos for a good hour and the trip was worth it. Then, the high tide came and drove all the birds away. 

Then, we went to the nearby Sewri fort. More flamingos were visible from here- I presume it was a different bunch than the one we had just seen at the jetty- but they were very far away. Two kittens captured everyone's attention and I think the kittens quite loved all the attention. We were finished with the trip at about 9:30 am and then Joel and I headed for breakfast at Cafe Mondegar. Two fried eggs (sunny side up) with bacon, two glasses of orange juice, and toast was a lovely way to wrap up a wonderful outing.

 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Air-Cool is back

Thank heavens that Air-Cool- my hair saloon- has reopened. Arguably the best hair saloon this side of the town (Churchgate, Mumbai), it reopened after a hiatus of more than two months. In December 2014, it abruptly shut down its shop as I was told their lease ran out. Now they're back and have relocated at the Asiatic store, opposite Churchgate station. 

To me, Air-Cool is not just any barber. It's like a factory in there. Barbers in clean white and black uniforms, neatly attired go about doing their jobs professionally. They have speed yet most of them are quite good at what they do. Waiting time is usually minimal. Interiors are very simple, yet they look classy. There's the instrumental music being played in the background; always instrumental and not at al loud. All the barbers are assigned numbers. The one who I go to is No.4. 

Simple guy who always welcomes you with a smile, he cuts hair like he's been doing for centuries. I like my cut to be simple. I am a bit old - fashioned when it comes to getting a hair cut. I hate electric razors. I make it very clear to them that I must not be subjected to an electric razor. The other temporary hair dresser I was going to these past two months prefers to use electric razors. I just feel those barbers who use electric razors aren't so great at their craft. That's short-cut, in my books. 

Anyways, all's well that ends well. I hope Air-Cool doesn't have to shift in a hundred years now.  

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