Friday, December 18, 2015

Why Travel?

I had planned to stay with a friend in Kolkata. I met him in Jaipur. I was in the city for the literature festival. Between one of the sessions, I decide to go to the festival bookstore. I see another boy, about my size, round spectacles, short hair, standing in front of the poetry bookshelf at the store. He was looking at a collection of poems I had recently read. I commented,

'That is a great book'

'Yeah, it sure looks like one.'

Your first time at the festival?


Mine too. Where are you from?

Guwahati. You?

Why cook?

That was a question worth pondering over again. I recently learned how to cook some basic meals at home. This included rice, indian bread, pulses, sandwiches. But this is not cooking in the true sense.

Michael Pollan, the food writer, In his book, 'Cooked - A Natural History of Transformation' listed out four basic processes that have evolved over time, to transform the stuff of nature, into delicious things to eat and drink. They are further documented as follows:-
a) Grill with Fire
b) Cook with Liquid
c) Bake Bread
d) Ferment everything from cheese to beer

Chennai Stopover - Beaches, Motels, Rajnikanth and Street Shopping

I have just spent at week at the Sadhana Forest (volunteer community) in Auroville. I now have to leave. I have a 3 hour morning bus ride from Pondicherry to Chennai. I ask one of the volunteers going into the city, to drop me off at the highway. I then jump into a bus, heading towards Pondicherry at the Toll Gate. I get down at the bus station in Pondicherry, and then purchase a ticket on the next bus to Chennai. I had a train from Chennai to Kolkata in two days time. I had a day to spare and decided to spend it exploring some parts of Chennai. When I reach Chennai, the first thing I need to do is to find a room, to keep my luggage in. So I walk towards some hotels near my bus station. 

How to choose the right motel?
The first motel, I checked, had all the basic necessities. It had a bed, table, T.V and bathroom. I see a bunch of cockroaches under the bed and the paint chipping of one corner wall. I walk into the motel next door, and this has all the basic necessities minus the cockroaches and chipped walls. I hire the room for the night, freshen up and then walk out to explore the city. I carry only my purse and wallet and they fit easily into pant pockets. It is so nice, to not have to carry, a heavy bag around with you. I've had enough of luggage carrying for a month.

Train to Kolkata

I had a train from Chennai to Kolkata at 9 am. My alarm went off at 6 30 am and I shut it off to get a few more minutes of sleep. How stupid of me. Fortunately, I woke up at 7 30 am, and ran to the station to catch my train, to Kolkata. Bye bye South India. Hello Kolkata.

On the train, I share my coach cabin with a computer engineer. He was from Kolkata, but he worked in Chennai. He was visiting his family, back in Kolkatafor a week. We spoke about Kolkata, the city he had grown up in. I read him a passage from my diary that I had noted recently. It was a Guardian Article by Amit Chaudhari about a city, he adored and grew up in. Here are a few sections of the article that I read out to him,

'India changed rapidly, often disturbingly, after 1991; Calcutta remained resistant to globalization and the new world order, cultivating their irrelevance to itself and its own to theirs.'

I went on,

'outside of India it was hardly known except, occasionally, through the luminous cinema of Satyajit Ray and through translations of Tagore, that teetered between the parodic and perplexing.'

Kolkata Darshan

I had a full day Kolkata Darshan trip planned for the day. The west bengal tourism department organized this. I knew it would be hard, for my friend, to take me around to every place in Kolkata, so I decide to go on this trip. Another important learning from this journey was in store for me. When ever you travel, find a way to entertain yourselves. Your host had a life, before you came. All that will not stop, to take you around and entertain you, when you are in the city. Ask for help when needed. Don't be fully dependent. I did some research. The west bengal tourism department organized the full day tour of the city. It was a full day tour with an ambitious schedule. It started at 8 am and ended at 5 30 am. These were the places listed out,

Starts at Kolkata Tourism Center
a) Raj Bhavan
b) Akashvani Bhavan
c) Bidhan Sabha and High Court
d) St Johns Church
e) Writers Building
f) Belur Math
g) Dakshineshwar Kali Temple
h) Raja Ram Mohan Museum
i) Town Hall
j) Eden Gardens
k) Princep Ghat
l) St Pauls Cathedral
Ends at Victoria Memorial

Sadhana Forest - Thursday and Friday - Last days at Auroville

It is my fifth day at the Sadhana Forest Auroville. I don't feel too good. I think I miss home a little bit too. I ask him if I can take a break and skip the morning seva. He tells me to take the morning seva off. I spend the morning, at the library. I pick up a book and lay on my back on the floor, drooping off and waking up, from periodic slumbers in between reading a few pages. For the second seva, I volunteer at the Breakfast kitchen.

Feeling Low
I feel really low. I think I should call my parents back home, later in the night. I miss my mother and her cooking. I miss my friends and our afternoon games of cricket. I miss the movies I would go for, with my dad. I miss the pointless walks around my neighborhood, exploring abandoned bungalows and new retail and food outlets. I wish I could just go back in time and freeze time forever. I could be ten years old for life. Those days, when all I had to worry about, was getting a good grade at school and developing a good perception of myself among the adults in my life. If I could do the above, I was a good human being. Even if I was a messed up individual on the inside. I was a good human being, if I got high grades. It was so simple. That was all that was expected of me. I hate growing up. Suddenly, you realize, you can do anything. That is horrible. There is so much to do, that you do not end up doing anything. Aaaaahh.

Sadhana Forest - Wednesday - Living a full day

Days are so much more complete for me at Sadhana Forest in Auroville. I feel like I am able to pull more life out of every moment of the day. You get up early, work in the mornings, relax in the afternoons, converse in the evenings, and sleep early for another day of this cycle. The routine is good. You work for four hours only, but in those four hours, you are completely present. You are not distracted. You have to be involved. A simple activity like cutting fruit, needs to be done with full concentration if you do not want to cut your hand. 

Sadhana Forest Auroville -Tuesday - 'Sometimes I am weak too'

Cutting Fruits for Breakfast
After the morning circle, I spend my first shift in the kitchen. I join the breakfast team and am given the responsibility, to cut fruits. Lots and lots of fruits. I could not go into the forest two days in a row. I was not as fit as many of the other volunteers in the camp. I thought I would go back into the forest the next day. But cutting fruits was fun. Papayas and Pinepples were on the menu today. I like papayas. Pineapples are a little harder to cut. It sure is a different feeling, to be part of the breakfast team and then to eat the breakfast you have made. The fruits on my plate were real delicious that day.

Making Idli Batter
My second shift was with the cooking team ( idli batter) again. Only this time I was alone. I never would take the idlis I had for breakfast lightly again. It was such a pain to make the idli batter from scratch. I knew, because I had to do it two days in a row. This time I was smarter. I setup the equipment and after starting the grinding machine, decided to go into the main community hut after every 15 minutes for a 5 minute break. I started making the batter at 9 30 am and by 1 pm, it was ready. This time I was less tired. I had some leftover energy for the rest of the day, unlike yesterday.

Sadhana Forest Auroville - Monday - Forests and Food

It is 6 am. I walk into the forest with my fellow comrades. We are on a mission. To build bands that conserve water and to plant trees. I am wearing a half torn t-shirt and an old pair of shorts. For the next two hours, we are walking the forest near the Sadhana community. We divide responsibilities. 

Building Forests
Every individual is given two water cans. Past volunteers have planted little trees and plants all over the forest. Next to these plants, there is a small bottle, that is inserted into the soil. At the end of this bottle, is a long tube, that is connected to the deep roots of the plant. This ensures that whatever water we put into this bottle, will go to the very roots of the plant. This is a much more efficient way to water the plant, than merely sprinkling it all over the plant. The water tank, is placed at one place and once the water in your can is over, you have to walk back to the water tank, fill your can and go back to the plants again. Two filled water cans would carry at least 4-5 litres of water. It was quite tiring carrying these cans back and forth. Fortunately the sun was on our side and it was not too hot. Now i know, why they start off so early in the morning.

But this whole exercise, is quite engaging in a whole different sort of way. I had to carry the soil in my hand and feel the earth. Sweat dripping over my forehead, I would fall down often or trip over my water cans. Also the realization, that you are helping a fully alive organism, grow and sustain itself, by simply watering it, makes you feel more connected to your roots. It made me think about where my food came from. How this was the process the farmer, had to undertake to make the vegetables and fruits that I eat at home. How easily, I would throw away a piece of fruit, not realizing the time and care behind every fruit that emerged from the soil. I think I will go back home and start gardening. Maybe adopt a plant. Maybe adopt two...

Sadhana Forest Auroville - Sunday - Reading and Children at Play

I love my cot. It is so comfortable. The morning bell is hit in the distance. It is time to get up. I get up. This was my first day in Sadhana, I could not spend it sleeping. I look at my watch and it is 5 30 am. This is when I normally sleep on some days back home in Mumbai. We meet up in an open space near the main hut, and then do some stretches and funny dances. Then we were free

Sunday was still a holiday at Sadhana. So I had another day to just do nothing. It is quite the skill. The ability to do nothing. To just be with yourself, for hours at end. It was 5 30 am, and I had nothing planned for the day. This was rare. I have a specific set of goals I have to complete on most days, back at home. Today, I had nothing. I had nothing planned for the whole day. It was liberating and yet kind of scary. Liberating because, I had the option to do absolutely anything on this day. I could read, or walk, or talk, or cook, or just observe a tree. Nobody would care. Nobody looking over me. This seemed like the autonomy, I was in search of my whole life. School, parents, friends always had a say over how I spend my time growing up. Now I had full control over this decision. It was scary because I would be alone with myself. There was always the possibility to think too much. There was always the possibility of this thought process turning negative and turning against myself. I could also get bored, so that was definitely another worry. It has been a long time, since I last got bored.

Sadhana Forest Auroville - Saturday - Cycling and Pondicherry Walks

Saturday and Sunday were holidays at Sadhana Forest. I could spend my first two days just exploring the camp, which I was quite excited about. Most volunteers from the camp, visit the other communities in Auroville or catch a bus to Pondicherry from the highway. I had not visited Pondicherry up to then. I had a french professor in high school, who was from Pondicherry. He taught me French for four years. I still can't speak much of it. He was real nice. He taught us the subject really well and made learning French an interesting adventure. He told us about French cuisine, music, monuments, literature. It was beautiful to listen to somebody, that was so passionate about his subject. 

So I wanted to visit PondicherryIt was a former French colony. I remember my professor, telling me about cafes and buildings that looked exactly like the ones you had in France. How cool is that? So that saturday, I wake up early and then catch a bus to Pondicherry. I walk around the city. Visit the public library, notice that a street there was called, 'Rue de la street' and eat a baguette at a bakery nearby. It was quite hot, so I caught a 1 pm bus back to Auroville. I thought I would spend the rest of the day exploring some parts of this city. I visit the Auroville Visitors Center and just walk around with no specific purpose. I think that is the best way to explore a place. To just walk around and observe. 

Sadhana Forest Auroville - Friday - Listening and Volunteering

I am waiting at the highway toll gate for a community member from the Sadhana Forest, Auroville to come pick me up. I look out into the distance. A man and a little girl ride towards me on a bike. They notice that I have a backpack and drive towards me. Their bike stops in front of me. The man introduces himself. Then the little girl introduces herself. I tell them my name.  I sit on the bike and we are off. I wish that was how most introductions went. All you need from another person is their name. I wish people did not ask you about your work, background, family life, and then would judge you based on how you answered these questions

 A few kilometers down the highway, the bike then moves onto the dirt road. Bump - boom - bump -boom, goes our bike. I just hope I don't fall off the bike and embarrass myself. Slowly the trees, become less and the desert like shrubs start appearing. The dirt road seems endless, and then the houses also start disappearing. Five minutes later, we are at the entrance of Sadhan Forest. A broken down door, with a, 'Welcome to Sadhana Forest' sign is observed at the entrance. I was finally here.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Bus Journey – Chennai – Pondicherry - Auroville

The bus stops at a toll gate, on the outskirts of Pondicherry. I am in Auroville. It is a small town inspired by the philosophy of Sri Aurobindo.  It was founded by Mirra Alfassa (also known as "The Mother"). She spoke about the vision for this township with her first public message as such, "Auroville is meant to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity." It is a collection of properties located some 12 km north of Pondicherry.  These properties mostly comprise of alternate communities that have their own philosophies and approaches to living. Vegan Communities, Musical Instrument Shops, Environment Protection Communities, Organic Food Shops, Yoga Centers are some of the objectives of these alternate communities. I was here to spend a week in one such alternate community, called the Sadhana Forest.

The Temples of Madurai and The Driver that Swindled Us

We move from one temple city to another. Madurai is the third largest city in the state of Tamil Nadu. It is well known for its historical monuments and temples especially the Meenakshi Amman temple. It is dedicated to the Hindu goddess, Parvati (Meenakshi) and her consort, Sundareshwar (Shiva). It houses 14 gopurams or gateway towers. The temple attracts 15,000 visitors a day. There are an estimated 33,000 sculptures in the temple. This is our last destination, so aunty books a really nice hotel for us. We enter the room and it is like a King's lounge. A dressing table and mirror on one side, a huge king size bed, a transparent tub in the washroom, dim lighting, 10 pillows and soft towels and toiletries on the bed. 

This was more than heaven. I lay flat on the bed with my hands stretched out for a long time, like Leonardo's Vitruvian Man. The ceiling is also painted. It looks like a fresco. I could look at this ceiling wall all day. I am pushed aside by my aunt's daughter. Not fair. I then go and explore the room further. The view from the window of our room is not too bad. You cannot get everything right. Some huge buildings cover our view of the city landscape. Stupid huge buildings. But back in the room, we were in seventh heaven. We order in with room service and spend the night, dancing to bollywood songs and chatting. One of those nights, you wish never ended.

Notes from the Southern Tip of India

That afternoon, we leave Trivandrum and head to our next destination, the southern most tip of India, Kanyakumari. We reach our destination, late in the afternoon. The heat was now getting to us. The car had become a boiling pot of sorts, with the rays of the sun entering the car and being reflected and refracted through us. I was glad this afternoon car journey lasted only three hours. Travel is hard work. Even though it is romanticized as the ultimate cool thing to spend your time doing. Sitting in a mode of transport for ten hours, staring out at an unchanging landscape, is travel too. It is not just monuments and good food and all fun. But every time you reach your destination, all the work you put into the long journey seems worth the effort. Just to be in a new place with new people is such an exciting feeling. The newness of the moment, the freshness of the experience are things you want to hold on to. Jon Krakauer wrote about this in his book, 'Into the Wild'. The protagonist of the book Alexander Mccandies is quoted here as such:-

'The core of mans' spirit comes from new experiences.'

Trivandrum – Peer Influence and Temple Blessings

As my two companions go off to sleep that night, I sit on the couch and play some light music on my laptop. It is 2 am, on the 5th Floor of a hotel in Trivandrum. How in the world did I end up here? Where did I go wrong? I don't even know what I did wrong. Why am I even thinking about all this? This trip has been the best thing that has happened to me over the past three to four years. These most uncertain years of my life, transitioning between late adolescence and adulthood. Family, School, Peers and Solitude are the four major influences in an adolescents life. The first three are external determinants. The last aspect an internal determinant. 

For a long time, most of my actions were largely based on what the external determinants demanded of me. Recently, I have realized that the internal determinant, is equally if not more important than the first three. I was very uncomfortable being alone. I was scared I would get bored and then would not know what to do. Boredom was a sign, of my engagement in tasks that did not engage me. But I had no autonomy and control over my time. I had to go to school, I had to be around family and I was largely influenced by the peers that surrounded me. I gave these aspects more importance, than who I actually was as an individual. Thus, I had to jump and often change identities. I had no set definition of who I was. I was a different person with my peers and a different person at home. 

Getting Lost on the Beaches of Kerala

We are in Kerala on a great south indian journey. We have quite the spread waiting for us at the breakfast table the next morning. These days most meals are like a buffet for a boy who was used to picking up meals at street side stalls. This was luxury times ten. My aunt had elevated me to a whole new lifestyle. Nights in hotels, buffet breakfasts, cars to take you around, it was insane. But I think the most special part of this journey was being with my aunt and her daughter. We had grown quite close over the past few days. The conversation over breakfast was about all the antics we engaged in the day before. The driver, then takes us to a possible starting point for a boat ride down the Kerala Backwaters. 

I wanted to do this my whole life. I had heard a lot of stories about the backwaters, growing up. About the natural beauty of the surrounding environment, about the calmness of life around you on the boat, about the people you get to meet along the way. Mr Muchad told us that we planned to take the daily, in his words, 'most popular and leisurely' eight hour backwater cruise from Allepey to Kollam. It was 9 am, when we left the hotel, with our bags. The boat ride across Kerala would start at 10 30 am and finish at 6 pm in the evening.

A Letter to my 17 year old self

I wish I judged myself less. I wish I let myself make more mistakes. I wish I was not always in such a hurry. There was something about the sea, and its vastness, its depth, its power, its control, that made me feel safe being close to it. I knew I would not be judged, if I expressed myself to the ocean. I would not matter so much to the vast sea. But in my head I would give this interaction full meaning. Meaning is a point worth considering.

But if I I am successful? Will it really mean anything?
What is success to me?
Money, Happiness, Fame, Recognition, Being Accepted. Is that it?

Being a tourist or being a back packer?

We arrive in Kochi and check in to our hotel. It has an exercise room and a terrace swimming pool.  We (Me and my aunt's daughter), explore all the floors and facilities. You know the normal stuff. Check in to a fancy hotel  and quickly explore all the facilities the hotel provides you. Then check all the free stuff you plan to utilize in your room. We open the fridge and it is filled with all the wonderful things in the world. Chocolates, Juice, Drinks are the various choices we have. We read a sheet of paper placed on the fridge and find out that these are not so wonderful anymore. They are paid goodies.

It is quite interesting to get the chance to be a tourist and a back packer on the same journey. When you travel as a backpacker, you are super careful with resources and a little stingy too. As a tourist you don't really care. Backpackers schedule a whole day in one or two places. 

Linguistic Diversity, Morning Walks and the Budhha in Nature

So many languages in India I don’t understand, yet we all belong to the same country. It also made me wonder, how even though I am an Indian, there are so many parts of my culture that I am unfamiliar with. Each of the 28 states has a unique language, unique literature, unique stories, unique rituals, unique ways of seeing the world and more. To come to this village, and expect myself to acclimatize in no time, because I was from Mumbai, was not a realistic goal. I would be a little out of place, in almost every place I visit over the next few months. How long does it take an individual to actually get used to a place? 

I have stayed in Mumbai for the last few years. I still am exposed to new sides of the city, I did not know about, almost everyday. That led me to another thought? What is a city? Is a city its buildings? Is a city its resources? Or is a city its people? The people that come and go. This I suppose is the same for a rural town. If there is one certainty at both levels. It is this idea of temporariness. That everything will not be here for ever. The buildings will stay. But in the next hundred years, every individual that is alive in the city or rural town, will be dead. New people will be born. New stories will develop. New Ritual, New perspectives on language, new ways of seeing the world will arise. Nobody will even know I exist, two hundred years from now. So much for my search of legacy. When I am dust and part of the earth that created me, will it matter to me if I was once famous? Maybe then human language will not be a barrier. My worth would not be determined, by what I do. My worth would be determined by who I am.

Driving into a Village in Kerala

The train arrives at the Kottayam station. I had completed another train journey complete (this one 7 hours long).  More golden travel advice. If possible make sure you have two things confirmed and sorted before you start your journey. This is relevant if it is a week long journey or a year long trip. 

These two things (Travel Tips) are:
-       Your mode of transportation (tickets for travel confirmed, multiple printed copies in your hand)
-       Your accommodation (where you will be staying on each night, contact details of the person, don’t be lazy with this that is if you are okay with spending a night on the street)

On Conversations that lead to nowhere

We were strolling around some back street of a village in Kerala. Jal Jeera Soda and some Indian sweetmeats were what we had for lunch that day. What dreams I had? I thought every meal in Kerala would be about eight variety banana leaf platters with chutneys from different corners of Kerala. But things don't always work out the way they have too. We settle for less. A lot less. My friend decides to take me to a well known local folklore museum. I get excited. Yes, let's do this. Time to explore and see cool places. Yay! At the entrance of the museum, an hour later, we find out that museum had been closed down for the day. I try being positive, but yes, this was bad. We sit by the highway outside the museum. We wait for a bus back to his home outside the museum. The next bus takes an hour to come. I ask my friend,

'So, how is college going for you? All Good?'

-Yeah, it's alright. Don't enjoy the classes too much though. I have a few friends. But yeah, looking back, I wish I chose another university now. I know it is hard. You know in the movies, they tell you, that the friends you make at college, will be your closest friends. Friends that you can call at 3 am in the night for any problem you have. You know them?

The Perks of Long Unproductive Walks

I love how inviting and welcoming families in India are. If you are their guest, they will feed you like you are from the royal family of some faraway SuperImportant Land. We were at the breakfast table at my friend’s home in Kochi. The conversation that night with his mother and grandmother, was mostly about, life in Kochi, their garden outside the home, the quietness of country life, the noise in Kochi and life back at our common old home country. After a light dinner, we go up to the terrace. My friend tells me that this is were most of the barbecue parties are organized. 

What to do in Kochi? - Fishing Nets, Shopping and Food

I reach the Kochi railway station, later in the afternoon. I am staying with another high school friend here. He studies at a local college and is from the same city. It is such a blessing to have close friends all around the country. Paying for a hotel room, would be way out of my budget. A few policemen see me walking out of the station with my bags. I catch their stare and they call me towards them. They tell me to place my bags down and to open the bag up. I am a little confused, but do as I am told. 

Train to Kochi and Meditating on Trains

What do you do, when you have four hours to your next destination and your phone, e-reader and all other equipment, are out of charge. Added to this the thought of taking out your chargers at the bottom of your backpack. To get to them, you will have to first go through six other bags of clothes and other luggage. Oh! the pain of pulling all those things out, just for a charger. Ah! I'm too lazy. I'm just going to find other ways to entertain myself.

I'm just going to meditate for the next four hours. Greatest idea in the world. I am focused for the next five minutes. This is how you start all those big goals you set for your life. Like becoming fit. Let us run a marathon. You put your sports shoes on and run outside your home. You then run the first hundred metres at the speed of light (in your head). Then you realize you have to run 10 kilometers. That is like 10,000 meters. Holy Shit. You stop. Sit Down. Whine for a while and then walk back home. So meditation on the train. You know the drill, close your eyes, focus on your breathing, slow down your breathing, and then slowly breathe in and breathe out. I do not know where I learned this, but the trick is too be an observer of your thought. 

Don't stop thinking.

Travelling in Buses and Rickshaws in India

I catch a bus to Mangalore outside the university entrance. My friends drop me till the entrance. Now the bus driver spoke Tulu, which was the local dialect. When I uttered a word to two in Tulu, they all said,

'Ah, aae nama nae'

Which translated into, 'He belongs to the same region.'

It was a public bus, and I was sitting in the front, with a group of men. My Tulu was not very good. But I told them I had to get down at the station. I asked them to help me out and to tell me where to get down. They nodded their heads. For the next thirty minutes, I just listen to their conversation and try understanding their world. I did not pick up too much. Eventually we reach and they urge me to get down with one of the other co-passengers. Trusting their counsel, I go along. It is 11 am, on a deserted street somewhere in mangalore. The co - passenger starts walking away. I run behind him and ask him where the station was. I thought he was going to help me. He pointed in one direction. I looked and it was this opening to a long road in front of us. There was not one soul in the street. 

Life in an Engineering College in India

I was in one of India’s best engineering institutes. My friend gave me his building number and room number and told me that he had left the room open for me. He had classes that morning and would meet me later in the afternoon. Once inside the university campus, I have to walk another kilometer or so, to find the right hostel building. I see some students, but I assumed most of them would be headed to their classes at this point of time. On reaching the hostel, the guard thinks I am a new student and directs me to my friends room. My friend turns up. Has he changed. Sure he has. College does that to you. College does that to everybody. You always want people to be the same. Especially friends you have grown up with. I wonder why people, change all the time.  I wish people never changed. They stayed the same. But that is not going to happen.

Train Journey from Bengaluru to Surathkal

I have to catch an evening train out of Bengaluru to Surathkal today. I decide to leave my friend's home early. I am glad I spend the day at home yesterday. The best travel advice I ever got, was that when you are on the road, get a lot of rest. You need all the energy you can muster up for life on the road. If you are tired, take a day off. You do not have to do everything that the guide book tells you to do in the city. Sometimes, a simple conversation with a local can expose you to all the experiences you need to explore around the city. I remember traveling with my family as a child. We would often just visit archeological sites and click pictures in front of these structures. No one knew the significance of the building, its historical context and more. We just wanted the picture, then we could go home and tell the world how cool we were and that we had seen the world. I leave my friend's home early and thank his mother for her hospitality. M next destination was an engineering college in Surathkal. I had to sneak in and maybe also attend a few classes.

My friend studied at a university in Surathkal. I decided to go and visit him there for a few days as Surathkal was not too far away from Bangalore. But today, I had no specific plans. I decided to go to the Forum Mall and just spend the afternoon there before heading to my next destination. Walking around malls has been one of my most cherished pastimes for a long time. I spend a lot of time at the bookstores and music stores and then just observe people and window shop for the rest of the time. It is a real fun activity. There are so many different types of retail stores at the mall. Sometimes, I am just fascinated by how retail stores advertises and markets their products differently. 

The use of colors for branding, the way the products are displayed, the discount and pricing strategies. Some products were not just products. They were communicating so much more. Also when you observe the people in some of these product ads, it seems like the purpose of their life is to use this company's product. They have no other worry. It is like they are part of some distant land, where everyone looks just right, and there is always joy. Why don't we have ads with sad people on them. I never understood marketing and advertising. By making a product look better through promotion and marketing, you do not make the product better. It seems like every store is out to loot you. How do we extract as much money as possible from this customer? But some brands tell stories. They don't just sell products, they sell human emotions too. I often feel like fiction book writers and advertisers tap into this vast reserve of human concepts and ideals. Most humans remember things through concepts. Everyone has an image of what a chair must look like at the back of their mind. Everyone has an image of what being in your early 20's is like. By a simple trigger, of a familiar human concept, through an ad or a book,  (an image or particular statement) various emotional centers of the human mind can be stimulated. Then we connect to these ideal notions of life. Everyone wants to be fit. Everyone has to look good. Everyone has to eat healthy. Everyone needs to enjoy life. Everyone need to go to Mauritius for a vacation. If you do not adhere to these standards, you are missing out on something. Something important. Something really cool. I walk into another fashion retail outlet, as these thoughts cross my mind.

"What are you looking for sir. How may I help you?" asked the salesman at the store.

On the 9 hour train ride from Bengaluru to Surathkal, I am told to shut my laptop and go to sleep. The ticket collector tells me that laptops cannot be used at night. You must only sleep at night. Stupid ticket collector. Grr.

I wake up and the train has reached Surathkal, I pack all my things quickly and jump out of the train. Gosh I was lucky there. I set my alarm for two hours before the arrival time. I overslept. If I did not get up, when I did, the train would have carried on to the next destination, which was somewhere in the middle of Kerala. Phew. Imagine getting up in another state, and not having any place to stay, or anywhere to go to. My mother, had got me quite paranoid about interacting with strangers on train journeys.

'Don't talk to strangers. They will be dangerous and may rob you.'

Mothers. Aren't they the cutest things in the world. But I was in Surathkal now. The plan was to sneak into one of the best technological universities in South India, and to understand what learning and student life is like there. The other objective was to just spend time with some of my childhood friends who now were engineering students at the university. I catch a public bus after a long half hour wait and end up at the entrance of the university. I am not a student, so I had to sneak my way in. I have to walk another kilometer or so, on a hot afternoon in Surathkal, with 10 kg's of luggage. I wish had worn shorts today. All I want to do now is lie down on a bed, in a cold air-conditioned room, with a big jar of lemon juice placed on the table right next to me. Ah!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

What to do in Bengaluru/Bangalore?

I reach Bengaluru at 7 am in the morning. I was here for three days and decided to stay at a friend's house. He was in college now. Most of my friends were in college, except for me. But his family had a home in Bengaluru. His mother agreed to bear me for two days. His house was quite far away from the main station. I wanted to see the city. I was on the train for a good 24 hours. I did not want to sit on another mode of transportation again at least for the next 7-8 hours. Going to my friends home at the other end of the city, meant another 2 hour bus ride. So I decide to not go directly to my friend’s home.

I keep my bag at the train station. There is a room at the station, where you can keep your bag. You can then collect it later, but you need to show them your train ticket. I hate it when they have such requirement. I am very careless, with my tickets. If you tell me to take care of anything beyond my phone and wallet, I am always a little skeptical. I am in my head most of the time. Taking care of things is not my foray. But I find my train ticket, in my back pocket, and I am allowed to store my bags at the school. Now how do I go around the city? Should I book a cab? Maybe a bus. I don't know how to use the buses. I don't know where they go. Hmm. I should have thought about this before depositing my bag. How stupid of me. 
Monday, December 14, 2015

Travelling on Trains in India

I was on a train from Madgaon to Bengaluru. I stocked up on food and drinks for the train journey. I have a sleeper seat in the upper bunk, in a relatively less crowded coach. That is a good sign. Life is kind. As soon as you get into the sleeper coach, there is a ritual you must follow. You place your bag in one corner, lay out the bed sheet and pillow, and take all the things (books, laptop, food) you will need for the journey. Just before the journey starts, the coach starts filling up. This is when an experienced train traveler in India stays detached. It is chaotic and messy. Egos are hurt. Bags are thrown around. People fall. You just observe, or even better listen to music, so people do not know you are observing. If you try solving any of the train problems, then you will end up further aggravating it. You are no messiah. So shut up and stay seated.

"Sir, you are sitting on my seat."

Ma'am, can you please move your bags?"

"I have the window seat for this journey

"My family is here, do you mind taking a seat in another abandoned corner of the train, so that I can sit happily with my family here. It is only a 24 hour journey"

What to do in Panjim/Panaji, Goa? - City Walks, Libraries and Astronomy Centers

My friend in Panjim promised to take me around the city. He knew where the good places where. We start the morning at the Basilica of Bom Jesus, which is a structure that houses the relics of saint francis xavier. I remember reading up on the life of St Xavier. How he gave up a rich upbringing, to spread the word God. He had a deep adoration for life around him. I felt like he came from a place of love. Inside the church, it was interesting that nobody asked me my faith. I was allowed to come in and pray nonetheless. There were so many beautiful aspects about faith and religion. I always wanted to ask the leaders of each major religion of the world a question. These religions included Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and more. I assumed they were really wise and enlightened because of their deep study of the scriptures of their religious books. Why did they not find a way to learn from the good values and practices of the other religions? If they all wanted to promote the idea of respect, love, brotherhood, why did they not work together? Why did the wise religious leaders not cooperate with each other?

Later we visited the St. Cathedral Church and also visited a museum nearby that house a large collection of paintings. Many of these paintings were of the various leaders from Portugal that ruled over Goa. There were artifacts like coins, weapons, maps and other goods also present at this museum. Below the painting of each leader, there were the following details

Born ____
Died ____
Remembered For ______

Some of them were remembered for conquests, some of them were remembered for inventions, some of them were remembered for administration of the colonies. Most of them lived for sixty to seventy years. It made me think about death? When would I die? What would I be remembered for? I recalled the words of the artist, Aisha Chowdary who was suffering from pulmonary fibrosis when she made this comment at a conference, 'In 100 years time, everyone in this room is going to die. Not one person will be alive. We may die at different times. But we all will die someday.' Hmm. I was twenty years old that day. I may survive for another sixty years if I am lucky. That is about 525949 hours, 21914 days, 3130 weeks, 720 months. I have just 720 months left. Just 720 summers left in my life. Wow, that was not too much time. I had to change the world, get married, start a family, travel the world, read every book, make beautiful art, start a company and more. Oh man! I don't have enough time now. If I try doing everything, I will end up doing nothing. If I really want to be remembered for something after my death, I needed to focus on one thing. Just one teeny tiny thing I am crazily passionate about. Hmm, What is that one thing for me? Ah! That is what I am on this journey for. Very cool. But why do I want to be remembered when I am dead and gone? I mean how will it matter to me, if somebody remembers me, if I will never know that they remember me.

In the afternoon, we catch a bus to the panaji library. I thought it would be another broken down building, with books from the last century. Mumbai, the city I came from, was the financial and entertainment capital of the world. This city of dreams, did not have many well resourced public libraries. There were a few in South Mumbai, but not everyone can travel two hours everyday to spend time there. If one of India's most prosperous cities did not have a good library network, what about the tier II and tier III cities. If people don't have access to knowledge, how would they explore human ideas, how they put forward well researched arguments.  A friend, I recently met in Mumbai, told me about a library in his village in Bihar. He grew up there. There was a retired civil servant that stayed there. He decided to hire a small room in a structure in the village and converted it into a public library. He bought new books and made many of his own books available. Because of his contribution, my friend, was able to spend his childhood, reading Gandhi, Tolstoy and Thoreau. It is mostly people like this that have to take a personal initiative to make such resources available to people in their locality. 

Here in Panaji, there is another such initiative, The Goa State Central Library. We decided to spend the afternoon here. The first floor was the children's section and had over 10,000 books. The second floor was the circulation section and had 70,000 books, both fiction and non-fiction. The fourth, fifth and sixth floors were for Rare manuscripts, a reference section and a portugese books collection respectively. It was open to the public and anybody could spend the day here reading and learning from the wisdom of the ages. Goa also has a very effective village and district level library system. There are well stocked libraries available in most major cities in Goa. I wish more states in India, learned from the example of Goa. The National Public Library in Kolkata is another example, of a well resourced learning center, with a collection of over 2.2 million books. In the colleges that I visited over the past year, I mostly found a collection of technical and subject specific books. There was much work to be done with regard to developing a more diverse collection of both fiction and non-fiction books. I think it is extremely important for both the government and private sector to find ways to make knowledge accessible to the masses. With the advent of the internet, there are questions about, the need of a physical library. But not every individual in the country has access to an internet connection in India.

In the United States of America, the most well resourced, library is the National library of Congress with over 34 million books in its collection as on 2015. The best academic library is the Harvard University Library with 16 million books in its collection. The Boston Public Library has nineteen million book and the New York Public Library had 16 million books in its collection. The New York Public Library functions as a private non-profit with majority of funding from the city government.  Beyond the public and academic setups, the private non-profit library can be another model, administrators can explore to make knowledge accessible to more people. The Harvard University Library, has 8 times the number of books available at the National Library of India in Kolkata. Harvard University has a large endowment fund, but the Ministry of Culture and Tourism in India can find ways to allocate a larger budget to the creation and sustainence of more libraries at the urban, rural, city, village and district level.

In the evening, we visit another learning center after Dinner. It is an astronomy and star gazing club that my friend was a part of. They had their own telescopes and would conduct periodic star gazing trips around the city. They organized public lectures, film screenings and events related to astronomy, physics and the universe. We have a goan dinner of prawns and beer, and then spend the night at one of my friends relatives homes. It was a good day. Goa seemed like a place, I could easily fall in love with.

We visit my friend's ancestral home in the morning. Family photos adorn the wall. At one point of time, over a 100 people stayed here. The puja room was still lit and a priest came every morning to do the daily rituals. The furniture is exquisitely designed. Portraits of family members who looked like members of a royal family were also on the wall.. There is a palanquin in the attic. The storeroom is filled with broken and semi broken toys. An open cupboard with over a thousand keys is spotted in the distance. The house was like a maze, one room leading to another and then we walk into a large lawn. As we walk out of the house, we meet a lady that stares us down and forces us to take notice of her. He notices her, because she is an old member of the house. They have a conversation about the good old times. I observe and wait. I hear a crackle under my feet. I have stepped on a dead leaf. Back at home, we were treated a delicious lunch of goan fish curry and rice. We catch a ferry back to his home in the evening. We spend the night discussing stories and people we have grown up with. This is my last night in Goa. After a heavy morning breakfast, my friend volunteers to drop me to the panaji station. I catch a bus back to madgaon and then jump on my next train. Karnataka, here I come.