Thursday, January 24, 2019

My New Inning

I have just received the office order from the office of Dean of Faculty Affairs, IIT Kanpur that my leave (deputation) has been approved. That has prompted me to write this.

I was remembering my first ever visit to any engineering colleges. Two score years ago, my brother had applied for admission to several engineering colleges. One day in June, there was admission "counseling" in two different colleges. In those days, you had to be present in person, show all your certificates, pay some fee, and you get admission. No Internet. And the technology had not yet advanced to the level that he could be present in two colleges at the same time. So it was decided that in one college, I will go with copies of his certificates and the required money to confirm admission.

I was scared. I had never traveled outside Delhi alone. And I had never had more than a 10 rupee note in my pocket, and I was to carry several hundred rupees. I was scared to talk to my own school principal, and here I was supposed to talk to many people, fill up forms correctly, pay at the right window, and what not. What if I fill something wrongly. Reject the admission in a discipline that he wanted or accept in a discipline that he did not want. And, of course, there were no mobiles, not even the STD booths that dotted Indian landscape in the 90s, and even if I could find a phone to call, we didn't have a phone at home. So there would be no connect with home till I return.

But there was no choice. I had to go. Unknown to me, a larger cosmic plan was being hatched and it will only be revealed to me in 2019.

So in the evening, I went to the Inter State Bus Terminus (ISBT) at Kashmere Gate. Took a bus. The Grand Trunk Road was not yet a divided highway all the way, and I was sitting in the rickety bus for the entire night to reach the city beautiful. It was 5:00 AM. Our neighbors in Delhi had called up their relatives and told them to expect me in the morning. But it was too early, they may still be sleeping. I waited at the bus stand. At 6:00 AM, I went to their home, got ready, had breakfast and at 08:00 AM, left for the college. That was the first time I was seeing an engineering college. I really don't remember anything about the campus from that visit, and my brother wasn't interested in the disciplines in which he could get admission there. After a few hours on campus, I came back to the bus stop, took a bus to Delhi, and by night, was at home.

My fate was sealed that day. I had to return to this place.

Of course, I have visited them several times in the last 20 years, giving talks on security, IPv6, and on topics related to teaching/learning processes. And it has always been a pleasure. But this will be the first time I will be spending more than 2 days on the campus.

I am wondering if I had not visited PEC then, would the universe have still conspired to help me get there for a new inning. One will never know.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

How missing an 'A' grade was a blessing

Grades don't matter in life, Right? Well, actually, they don't. No one has ever asked me for my transcript. But that only means that grades don't matter to others. But some grades mean a lot to yourself. I still remember a couple of my grades since there are stories behind those grades.

My first semester in IITK as a student. I was doing well academically, and was looking forward to a CPI of 10.0. But in the month of November, I fell ill. The illness lasted about 3 weeks. My favorite course that semester was "Engineering Drawing." I was doing extremely well. There was a question in first mid-sem which was solved only by me in the whole class. I drew all those top views and front views so neatly that I will get not only 10/10 but also a comment from the instructor that I deserved 11. (Why he didn't give 11 then will remain a mystery.) So it was the day of the end-sem. And I had 100+ fever. Had no energy to stand for 3 hours drawing all those views. I was debating with myself. Should I go to Health Center, get a medical certificate and take the make up exam a few days later, or should I just go and do whatever I could. I only needed a few marks more to get an 'A' grade in the course. I decided on the latter.

However, luck was not with me. I could not stand even for a few minutes. I requested a chair, but I was told that I had to take the exam in the same condition as all other students. Fair enough, but my body was too weak. I fell down. Got up, took another paracetamol, kept sitting on the floor for some time, then stood up and tried again, and finally gave up. Next day, I went to UG office to request a makeup. Sorry, your name is not in the list of absentees. So no, makeup. I missed getting an 'A' grade by a whisker.

I remained sad for some time. I even tried to apply for repeating the course as an overload so that I could get an 'A' grade. This was the course that I owned, and a 'B' in this caused more hurt than 10 other Bs that I will get in future semesters. In fact, other Bs I didn't care about at all.

But a couple of months later, it dawned upon me that a 'B' grade in the first semester is the best thing that can happen to any student. It liberated me. If you were not in the race for PGM, then how does it matter whether your CPI is 9.9 or 9.7 or 9.5. I wasn't thinking of doing MS/PhD then. And the next seven semesters, I enjoyed life. I was in every council, both at hostel level and institute level. I attended more Students' Senate meetings than any Senator (and I was not a Senator). I was in Institute Hockey Team. Attended every cultural function. Watched every movie. Read books. Did a lot of programming. Read old journals in diverse topics - Economics, Philosophy, and Computer Networks. That helped me in figuring out that I wanted to study Computer Networking. That one 'B' grade had changed my life and I remain thankful to God for that.

Why am I remembering this today. Well, one of the things that I have tried to do in the last 25 years is to help students who have been ill during the end-semester exam. IIT Kanpur allows instructors a lot of freedom in dealing with any issue in the course, and I make full use of that autonomy. And, this semester, one of the students, who was in the top few in my course till the end-semester exam, fell ill and missed the exam. The rules required him to get a medical certificate from Health Center, and then take the exam on a specific day on campus. But he was in no situation to come to campus. Senate had recently passed that if someone is unable to give both the main exam or the make up exam, instructors can assign a 0 in end-sem and assign an appropriate grade (earlier, the language was confusing and some believed that missing an end-sem would get you an F grade even if you were the topper). He needed just a few marks in the end-sem to get an 'A' grade. So I made use of the instructor's autonomy and arranged his exam at his hospital. Assigning him a 'B' grade would have caused the same sadness in me that I had faced 35 years ago.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Remembering my primary school

Today, thanks to the 6th pay commission, I consider myself rich, but I was born in a family with modest means. My father was a school teacher, and this was the time when it was believed that the compensation package for a teacher should be primarily in terms of respect and paying him a decent salary would only convert teaching profession into a commercial activity. So he did get a huge amount of respect, but it meant that when it came to deciding which school I should go to, there was no option but to choose a municipal school in Delhi.

This was a better endowed municipal school with its own building, with separate rooms for different classes, and even a playground, since most of us would want to be in the playground anyway. On any given day, the number of teachers present would be less than 5, which meant that a teacher would be teaching two classes simultaneously, if at all. And we would sit on the floor to listen to him (it was always "him") or watch him write stuff on the blackboard.

By the time I completed my first grade, my father was sure that this was not the place I should hope to get educated. My brother was already going to a nearby private school, but the issue was to afford the tuition of two kids (and later, two more kids, my sisters were younger to me). One day, he visited that private school with me, and talked to the principal and with great diffidence asked if it was possible for me to study there without paying the tuition. My brother had been doing very well in the school. And my father was promising her that I too will do academically very well. The great lady immediately agreed to the proposal. Not only that, she told my father that when my sisters are ready to enter the school, even they won't have to pay the tuition. Only the eldest sibling will pay tuition as long as the younger ones do academically well. She did warn that even without the tuition, it would be expensive as they would expect me to be better dressed, with a coat and tie in the winter and black leather shoes throughout the year and things like that. My father told her that he would be able to afford that much. So I got admission to the "Children Home School." (Don't try to look it up. Sadly, it no longer exists.)

However, she did not agree to admit me in class 2. Her argument was that there is no education in a municipal school. My father pleader with her that he has taught me at home. So finally, she said that if I do well in the first quarterly exam in September, I would be promoted to 2nd class in the middle of the session. The exams happened. I was the topper. My father came to school to remind the principal of her promise, and she told me to sit in the class 2 from the next day.

This was a disaster. The classes 1 and 2 had a history of having a fight every day during the brief break. This must have preceded even the wars in Panipat, and when I had joined class 1, being the eldest, I was the natural army chief. I was the one to whom the other kids looked up to to save them from the attacks from the top. We were at ground floor, and class 2 was on the first floor. We would keep an eye on the staircase and had strategies to delay their barging in to our classroom, and all that. We would be ready with chalks and whatever else we could gather for the counter attack. How could you ask the Army Chief to join the enemy army and restart the career as a soldier.

So, without telling my father or the principal, I continued sitting in Class 1. I was enjoying myself. I knew the subjects, could play all day and still be topper. Why would I change. Next month, when the monthly report card had to be signed by the father, he noticed that I was still in class 1. He came to the school next day, and this time, the principal came to my class, asked me to come out, and go with her to class 2.

In class 2, the maths period was going on. The teacher was very upset that someone is going to join the class after so many months. He started arguing with the principal and finally said that if I could solve the problem that he will give me on the board, then I can stay, otherwise I had to go back to class 1. I still remember the problem. He asked me to add two 8-9 digit numbers. And I was like, this is all they teach you in class 2. I could have done this in my mother's womb. I took only a few seconds to solve this on the board in front of the entire class. And I was allowed to stay.

Now, there was another problem. All the teachers wanted that I copy all the notes of their subjects in my notebooks within the next few days. And all the boys decided that they aren't going to help the commander-in-chief of the enemy army. I didn't know what to do. But as would happen in my life repeatedly in future, whenever I would need some help, some angels would appear and ensure that the job is done. The top three positions in the class were held by three girls, and India had not allowed females to be part of combat duties till then. They were sympathetic and what is more they had the best notes, and an amazing handwriting. So it was a blessing in disguise that all boys refused their notes. Every day, I would take a notebook of one subject from one of the girls.

I left the school after completing class 5th. Thirty five years later, one day, I received a phone call on my landline number, which was on the website. "My name is Ranjana. Does this name ring a bell?," she asked. "Are you from Children Home School?" was my immediate reply. I try not to forget those who have helped me in the past. She was one of the three girls who had helped me immensely in class 2. Internet and social media had made it easy for people to search for long lost friends.

From Left to Right:
Rashmi, me, Anurag, Ranjana
Since that phone call, I have met her twice in the last 10 years. She is running an NGO called India Redefined, visiting lots of campuses, trying to attract students to nation building. Today, the TechKriti team had invited her to IIT Kanpur, and I thought of writing this.

Monday, February 12, 2018

BRC2018: A Convention on Campus

I remember my first visit to what was then called "Railways Staff College." I had been invited to tell the young Railway officers what is this technology called Internet. I had taken the Avadh Express from Kanpur. In the AC-2T coach, my neighbor was a young girl studying in some college, and a person with guns and all with her. We were going to be together for 24 hours, so it was natural that I tried to strike a conversation with her. But once the bodyguard proudly told me how many murders he had done, conversing with her did not seem like a great idea. There was no food vendor throughout the journey. So when the train reached Kota, it was supposed to stop for 15 minutes. I jumped out, ran to Platform 1, ordered some food, and when I was still on the footbridge, the train had started moving after only 10 minutes. Somehow managed to get on to the running train. Age was on my side then. Late night, I reached Vadodara. A car was there to receive me. Was taken to RSC campus, and I was in this palace.

An attendant opened the door and it was nice. Large room, with good paintings. Good sofa, and a table. Nice electrical fittings. But very soon I realized that a bed appeared to be missing. But before I could ask, the attendant had opened another door. This room was only for people to wait for the person living in the other room. I could immediately guess how Maharajas would have lived. Everything was the best it could be. A king sized bed, a dining table, a sofa, TV, refrigerator, two ACs, the finest crockery, chandeliers, and all that. The path to bathroom was through a walk in closet which could have been a room by itself, and the bathroom was bigger than most apartments in Mumbai. I had never lived in such luxury. I kept going back every few months to give lectures to the next batch, and the next batch and so on, and every time, I stayed in the same room. (It is another thing that when I was checking out, the person asked for my basic pay. I was deemed too junior and not eligible for Air conditioning, and since I had used ACs, I had to pay for it a royal sum of five rupees or so. The room which could easily fetch a rent of Rs. 5,000 was free for me as an RSC guest, but I had to pay for the AC. I was so amused that I told some folks during my next trip. The Director General came to know of it, and he decided that as a special case, I could use AC without paying those five rupees on all my future visits.)

 In recent times, I have been to National Academy of Indian Railways (NAIR, its new name), but with Ahmedabad as my base, go there by morning train and come back by evening train. So I was going to stay on campus after more than 2 decades. I knew they had converted those rooms into offices, and in any case, as a delegate to Indian Railway Fan Club 13th annual convention, I would get the same type of room that everyone else will get, but frankly, the association of NAIR with those rooms was so strong in my mind, that it wasn't going to be easy living in their hostels, even though I must admit that they are quite fine and meant for railway officers.

The convention, for me, started at Ahmedabad Station when I met Bappa Da and Zeeshan Fatmi in the Chair Car of Gujarat Queen, and by some stroke of luck, we three had consecutive seats. We started talking and the time flew, and just after 08:00 PM, more than 10 minutes before its scheduled arrival, it was standing on PF#1 of Vadodara Station, as if it was keen that we reach the convention venue as soon as possible. We had not even left the station that more delegates arrived. Every train coming to Vadodara was carrying delegates for the convention. The Whatsapp group of the delegates was buzzing with messages, more than 1000 of them in a day. Everyone telling others which train, which coach they are in. Who are others in that train. Where is that train right now. Which engine is hauling it. Which train they overtook or which train overtook them. That activity had started the previous day itself as people were traveling long distances to reach Vadodara.

Formally, the convention started next day. Director General of NAIR, Mr. Gupta, welcomed us. This was a rare occasion that NAIR had allowed a private gathering on its campus. All the rail fans, were, of course, very grateful to him for this. We had two of the founding members of IRFCA attend the convention (besides me), Mani Vijay and Pushkar Apte. After the welcome speech by DG, he and Pushkar hit the gong. The person who should get the maximum credit for founding it, Vijay, was with us for the first time, and he is seen handing over the IRFCA calendar (and rest of the kit) to DG. The calendar is a beauty, and the best part of it is that it is always February to January. I always get calendars as gifts in January. So if I need to look up a date in the beginning of the year or I need to mark something for the future in the month of December, the only calendar at home that allows me to do this is the IRFCA calendar. And this time, it is really special with so many old restored railway photographs. The inaugural ceremony also included a beautiful song on harmonica by Deepak Modgekar.

NAIR had not just opened its hostels and conference room, but had also opened its heart. They allowed access to its famed model room, where a passionate instructor told us all about signaling and train movement with actual working models.

And it wasn't just NAIR, but the entire Railways establishment which wanted its fans to go back home happy. We went to the Carriage and Wagon workshop at Pratapnagar, the museum next to it, the Electric Loco Shed at Vadodara and the Electric Training Center right next to it. Only in a few conventions we have had so much outdoor activities (namely, BSL2011 and MGS2013).
Chennai gang in their traditional attire

No railway journey is complete without lots of good food from the places that you are passing by. How can you go past Agra and not eat its famous Petha. The food is an equally important component of our conventions. And this time, the officers' mess at NAIR, provided the best that Gujarati cuisine had to offer. I can not show any pictures because I don't want my family to know what I have eaten these two days.

The convention also included an exhibition of railway
Ticket for 1KM
memorabilia. Old tickets, old timetables, even the tender document for the Victoria Terminus station (now Mumbai CST). A reservation for exactly one KM of journey is possible, it seems. A lot of old and rare photographs. It was a treat for any railfan. I had carried the working timetables of all the divisions of the country, which I had for the last 25 years. At the end of the exhibition, it was decided that I won't be carrying them back to Kanpur, and we should auction them and the proceeds will go for maintaining the server for our website and forums. The auction could fetch about Rs. 20,000. I think Railways should think of putting up such items on sale online. There is perhaps a small market for such things which may not justify giving them shelf space in the National Rail Museum shop (and other such shops), but giving online shelf space would be a hit with the rail fans.

Five who have attended all conventions
The quiz is the most awaited event year after year, even though most of us know that by getting close to 0 correct answers in the preliminary round, we stand no chance of getting to the finals. It is not just the thrill of answering a question, but learning so many new things about Indian Railways through those questions. In fact, people like me get no chance to be thrilled, but are only happy learning new things. But this time, they made a change in the selection process. If in the top 8 in the preliminary round, there are more than 4 who have won the Quiz in any of the past conventions, then only top 4 of them will be selected and 4 more such persons will be selected who have never won the quiz. A great idea, but when you are ranked 100 out of 125, no such idea will help you get to the finals.

Mani Vijay, myself and Sachin Sharma
A fantastic presentation by Sachin Sharma, a fine Railway officer, on "Romance of Railways." This is a lecture he gives to new officers at NAIR, and we enjoyed it so much that it went way beyond its allotted time, and seeing the interest of the audience, the organizers could not really ask him to stop. A detailed discussion on a Railway Accident in the Ghats between Mumbai and Pune several years ago showed the depth of knowledge that some of the railfans have. And an excellent presentation on laying a new line.

Convention Hall
Then the time for the bids for the next convention. Two groups wanted to host it in 2019. One group wanted to host it in Siliguri, the land of DHR, while the other group wanted to host it in Hubli, the land of EMD locos. The young Anubhav gave a very passionate presentation trying to convince the delegates to come and visit Siliguri, but the delegates went with greater experience. After a group photograph in front of the majestic palace building and the sumptuous lunch, we departed with a promise to meet again in Hubli next year (UBL2019).

Beautiful green campus

While the support from NAIR obviously helped, but organizing a convention is not just about infrastructure. Having organized one in IIT Kanpur where we had received tremendous support from the campus, I know that the success depends crucially on planning everything in great detail. Registration process went very smooth this year. All the directions to the delegates were crystal clear. Proper arrangement about who is going to stay where. No confusion in anything. The menu was superb. The kit, including the calendar, the mug and the backpack, is just awesome. Transport arrangement for all the outdoor activities were nice. You think of it, and they had planned it. If it had taken a huge amount of time and effort, it didn't show on their faces. Always cheerful, always smiling, always willing to help further. At the end I told Khalidbhai. There is only one complaint. How dare you do things in a way that over two days, one cannot find even one negative thing to complain about. Complaining is our birth right, and you cannot take it away from us.

Three cheers to Khalid Kagzi, Sachin Buddhisagar, Nitin Master, and Raghavendra Rao and all other volunteers and members of organizing committee.

Monday, February 5, 2018

On IITK duty: Experiences with JEE/GATE

Just returned from Varanasi where I had gone as IITK representative to an examination center for GATE. And I thought it is a good time to record how things have changed in the last 25 years that I have been involved with JEE and GATE (only with respect to the arrangements for the Institute representative, I have written lots of times about the exams per se, and this post is not for that). This is written under the "Stories" blog and not "Musings" blog, for this reason.

A few months after I joined IITK faculty, I volunteered for JEE duty. I was asked to go to a school in Lucknow along with two staff members, and three really heavy trunks. The only thing JEE office would do is that an IITK bus (non-AC, of course) would take all teams to Lucknow, and drop us in front of the Railway Station at Charbagh. We were completely on our own from that time onwards for the next three days. We had to arrange two tempos (couldn't fit 3 trunks in one tempo), take all the material to the school, and deposit it with the principal. After that, the search for a cheap hotel will begin. We can't stay with friends/family since all three of us had to stay together. We were given certain amount of money which was not enough for any decent hotel. Our school was 10-15 KM from Charbagh. They told us we can't get any cheap hotel nearby. So we came back to Charbagh and went from hotel to hotel. Finally, I convinced my colleagues that we can go to a slightly expensive hotel. They could share a room and thus, their portion of bill will be within the amount allowed to them jointly. I will take a single room and pay the difference from my pocket. In the morning for the next two days, find a tempo which has at least 3 empty seats and going in the direction of the school. Hiring a taxi from hotel to the center would have been way above the budget allowed. Using public transport in hot summer wasn't the most convenient thing to do. After the last exam, find two tempos and bring those trunks which are slightly lighter now (since we don't have question papers anymore) to Charbagh where the IITK bus will be waiting. And with no mobile phones, if anything happened to you, you were on your own. Teams going to longer distances were dropped at Station, and they had to find a way to board the trains with those heavy trunks. From the stay perspective, GATE exams were easier, since they invariably were held at colleges, and colleges would have a guest house.

Contrast that with today. An AC taxi takes you from Kanpur to your center. The taxi would be with you all 24 hours. A good hotel would have been booked for all team members, with everyone getting a single room. The breakfast would have been arranged. The lunch would be arranged by the center. And they will give you enough "daily allowance" to have dinner in a good restaurant. And, of course, with online exams, no trunks to be carried. Anything that you can think of would have been arranged and taken care of.

Things drastically improved in 1996-97. We started using AC buses for a couple of cities and AC taxis for some. AC buses came from Agra. JEE could not find in the entire city of Kanpur, AC buses on hire. Yes, one of the 10 largest cities of the country had no AC buses for hire, just 20 years ago. Today, it may be difficult to hire a non-AC bus. We also started booking hotels centrally for all team members. As highways improved, we discontinued buses completely, and even centers as far away as 300-350 KM would be served by a taxi. The quality of hotels improved. The daily allowance for food improved, and so on.

I was telling these stories to my colleagues over the weekend, and their reaction was, why would anyone agree to volunteer for JEE/GATE under those circumstances. Well, part of the answer is that that was life at that time. On IITK campus, there was hardly anyone with an AC at home, now most people have. There was hardly anyone with a car on campus, now most people have. What JEE/GATE was offering was similar to how we lived. Now that we live more lavishly, we expect JEE/GATE to provide facilities that we are used to at our homes. But I believe, there was also a greater sense of belonging at that time. We "owned" IIT Kanpur. Today, we are mere employees of IIT Kanpur. As "owners" we are more willing to face hardships. As employees, we  want whatever best is possible.

Bonus stories: If you are still interesting in continuing, here are my favorite stories, one from JEE experience, and another from GATE experience.

It must have been 1998 or so. Mobile phones had come in, but very few of us had a personal one. (I got mine in July, 2000.) JEE would rent mobile phones for a few days and give one to each team with the instruction to use it only when necessary, since it would cost a bomb. (I think it was 16 Rs outgoing and 8 Rs incoming. So talking to another team would cost 24 rupees per minute.) Before the first exam, I received a phone call from Prof. Manohar Prasad, who had gone to another center in Jhansi. When they opened the question papers, they found the wrong QPs packed in one of the bundle of 50 papers. While everyone carried a few extra papers, they were still short by some 25 papers. The school did not have a photocopying machine, and he was not comfortable with the idea of getting QPs copied at an outside shop. I told him that he should postpone the exam by 15-20 minutes, come to my center, and I will give him 25 papers that I had extra.

After the phone call, I explained the situation to the Presiding Officer of the center and told him that I would be giving 25 papers to my colleagues. He plainly refused. He said that custody of papers is his responsibility and he does not know this colleague of mine, and what if there is a leak. I explained that I can give whatever he needs in writing and take full responsibility so that no one raises any fingers on him, if indeed there is a problem. But he was not happy. I then proposed that one of his trusted person can go with Prof. Prasad to his center and if he is convinced there that these papers would only be used to conduct JEE there, then he hands them over, otherwise brings them back. But he was adamant. He kept saying smooth conduct of exam is his responsibility. I told him that while his responsibility was only to ensure smooth conduct at his center, my responsibility was to ensure smooth conduct of JEE in the entire country. Finally, I called up Prof. Prasad who was about to reach my center. Told him that I will give him paper outside the control room and he should just rush back before the center folks realize what has happened. I got a packet out and did exactly this. Came back and told the Presiding Officer that I have given the papers. Now he had two options. One, he reports this to JEE Chairman. Two, he files an FIR, and I face the police. Better sense prevailed, and he preferred to not make it a police case.

Another interesting incident happened during GATE duty in 1995. I was assigned the center at Pantnagar University. I convinced our team to go a day early. I had recently married, and I went with wife with a plan to visit Nainital. So GATE office dropped us by a bus at Lucknow. We took the overnight Meter Gauge train to Lalkuan. No porter there. So had to lift heavy trunks to come out of the station and thankfully, university had sent a car to pick our team, and they had rooms booked in their guest house. GATE was always more convenient than JEE. Soon after breakfast, we headed for Nainital. Took a bus. But after a couple of hours at Nainital, the weather became bad. It started raining, almost freezing rain. The temperature had gone to 0. And both of us were only wearing a sweater. How can you guess that in February, it can get so cold. And we certainly weren't in the habit of checking weather before traveling. We rushed to the bus stand to go back. But we were told that the road was too dangerous to drive, as it had even snowed at places. Just a couple of hours ago, it was 20 centigrade. We even decided to afford a taxi, if one was available, but no one was willing to drive. It became too cold, and we started searching for hotels. There were thousands of tourists stuck and all of them looking for hotels, and Nainital is a small town. No luck with anything. I was wondering if we had to spend the night under the sky and whether we would be alive by morning. I was hoping that the rest of the team-members would be able to successfully conduct GATE, if such a thing happened.

Then, one person told us of this house where they rented a couple of their rooms to tourists once in a while. It was on height and needed climbing large number of steps. I was debating whether to go there since we were already too tired to walk, and if we reached the top and they told us that there is no room, what would we do. But the other option of staying outdoors was too scary and we climbed. Thankfully, they had a room, but they told us that there was no heater, and it would be bad in the night. They promised to give us two blankets each so that we can survive the night. We really had no option. I still remember the hot Aloo Parathas that they cooked. Absolutely heavenly. In the morning, the weather was clear. Came down to the bus stop, took the bus and reached Pantnagar. Our team was very concerned for our safety and were glad to see us.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

BKN2016: The Unconventional Convention of the Indian Railways Fans

They are so generous and free with all they have, that no one would believe it who has not seen of it, anything they possess, if it be asked of them, they never say no, on the contrary, they invite you to share it and show as much love as if their hearts went with it.

  -- Christopher Columbus, 1492, about Arawaks, the inhabitants of Bahamas where he had landed in his quest to find a western sea route to India.

I like studying history. And one mystery that has never been answered satisfactorily is, "why did Columbus believed that he had reached India or Indies." He was looking for spices and he didn't find them. He was looking for gold and silver and he didn't find that. He was looking for a society organized as kingdoms and he didn't find that. So why did he believe that despite all these contradictions he had reached India.

I got the answer this weekend. Bikaner was founded in 1488, and the tales of its legendary hospitality must have reached Europe by 1492, and Columbus must have been confused because as he described in his log book, he received hospitality beyond his imagination. I got to enjoy the same hospitality over the weekend.

The occasion was BKN-2016, the 11th Annual Convention of the Indian Railways Fan Club. We name our conventions after the station code of the nearest large station and the year of the convention. The organizer, Shri Giriraj Bissa (co-founder of and his entire extended family had only a limited set of goals - at no point in time should we have any experience of hunger and we should not eat the same dish twice, at no point in time should we feel bored and there should be nothing at this convention which has happened in an earlier convention, and of course, we should not be able to guess what is in store for us in the very next minute - schedule was not distributed till most of the convention was over.

The day started with an expert making us wear a colorful Rajasthani turban. All of us then walked from the hostel to the museum at Lalgarh Palace. We were led by two camels in the procession. The museum had among other things a coach of the erstwhile Bikaner State Railways.

The convention planning was to ensure that every delegate was involved in some activity. So we were divided into five groups to discuss one particular issue among ourselves and make a presentation to everyone at the end. The topic discussed by the group in which I was present was how to improve passenger revenues of Indian Railways while recognizing that there is a social obligation and raising fares is politically difficult. (We discussed lots of things: to make dynamic pricing work better - it should not result in fares exceeding air fares, for example, even for fixed fare services, the fixed fare should be higher for trains with convenient timing, the AC1 and AC2 passengers in overnight trains can be charged higher and provided with a shower facility either in train or at destination station to avoid checking into a hotel just for getting ready for the meeting, Entertainment through WiFi and Bring your own device technologies at some cost, access control at stations to check ticketless travel, and many many more.)

Even the IRFCA Quiz, the event that usually involves 100 percent of delegates and is easily the most popular event, was a very different type of quiz this time. In the last 10 conventions, I have often received marks which are non-negative, and I have never, as a result, moved to the finals. This time, the quiz master, the venerable Sridhar Joshi, had advised us that it will be a very different quiz and would be based on numbers. But having full faith in my own competence, I decided to give prelims a miss this time. I was out of the conference hall for only one hour in the entire convention. And when the finals of the quiz was conducted, I could answer as an audience more questions than anyone else. Alas, I was not at the hot seat. If I was not out for that one hour, who knows, the person who has steadfastly come last in the quiz for so many years, could have been the champion this year. There is an important lesson in this. Students should not be filtered for JEE Advanced based on JEE Mains. Who knows, someone who hasn't even given the JEE Mains may top the JEE Advanced.

One of the huge surprises was a large scale working model of trains. Mr. Virender Kumar, the Locomotive man was himself present from Decibel Scale Models to control the trains as they moved giving out exactly the same sounds as real trains would. He was also the guest for the "Coffee with Kuvelkar" with the difference that in this year's edition, everyone actually had coffee while Ashish Kuvelkar grilled Mr. Kumar.

Presentation on Bhore Ghats by Ashish based on research done by Apurva was excellent. I wonder how many Railwaymen would know so much of its history. Apurva deserves a PhD for all that he has found, but alas, he could not be present at the convention himself. May her mother's soul rest in peace. Another Pune gangman, Ranjit Pendse, enthralled the audience with the Indian additions to the Microsoft Train Simulator that he has made. His simulations of Konkan Railway route, Shindawane Ghats and several other locations looked so realistic.

But it won't be unfair to rail fans, if I were to admit that the most entertaining part of the convention was actually a non-rail event. The post-dinner cultural program was out of the world. How the hell Bollywood not know about these great talents from Bikaner. The person who presented the first dance gave a mesmerizing performance. And then they broke everyone's heart by announcing that the dancer was a "he" and not a "she." And yet, when he gave another dance, this time balancing a big pot on his head carrying 40 litres of water, it was hard to believe that he was actually "he." The performance was unbelievable and just had to be seen, can not be described in words. And the little girl who danced on the nails, on the swords, and the broken glasses, amazing show. And of course, not to belittle the master who sang three wonderful songs in his mellifluous voice, including the one in which he welcomed everyone to Bikaner (Padharo Mhare Desh).

The convention ended with all the awards being announced - the best railway photograph, the best railway album, the best trip report, the longest journey to the convention, the winners of the quiz, the best presentation, and so on.

Each of the last 10 conventions have tried to do better than the previous ones. But this one takes the cake for the most innovative convention, we called it the unconventional convention. Thank you Bissa ji.

Of course, it is not often that one goes to Bikaner. So I ensured that I reach a day in advance and had an extra half day after the event. So we decided that we had to look around, and what amazing treats Bikaner has to offer. Somehow, in India, we understate everything. Even when I asked a native Bikanerian before going there about the tourism opportunities, I was told that there aren't many things to see. They couldn't be more wrong.

The Camel Research Center is one of its own in the entire Asia. We learnt a lot about camels, and saw a one day old baby camel. Just before it is time to milk the camels, they will release the baby camels (8-12 months old) and let them come into the area where the female adult camels were kept. The baby camel would search for the mother camel in that horde with eyes that were almost crying and when they recognized each other (by smell, we were told), the meeting would often be very emotional, not unlike how a human baby would behave on reuniting with his/her mother.

We did not do justice to the splendors of Junagarh Fort, spending only a couple of hours, where as this definitely deserved at least half a day, if not more. But I realized one thing. While the erstwhile Maharajas obviously lived in luxurious settings of the day, what they experienced was nothing compared to what an average person enjoys today on this earth. Standing in different rooms, I could hear their conversations. I was taken back a few centuries. We went to the top, and looked around at the Bikaner city. And guess what defines the skyline of the city. In every direction that you look, the only thing that stares back at you were the mobile towers. I know development is necessary and this development has ensured that a common man today lives better than a Maharaja of previous centuries, but I am sure we can find a way to not have so many eye sores all over the place. We could have smaller towers that may require a larger number of them, but we shouldn't let a bit of cost issue kill the beauty of a wonderful city. (I was reminded of my first and perhaps the only letter that I ever wrote to my wife where I described the rural landscape of Bihar as my train rushed towards Assam in which I said that the beauty of the countryside is marred by all these monstrous electricity transmission towers.)

We went to the Karni Mata temple at Deshnok, about 30 KM from Bikaner. The temple is very famous for its rats. Frankly, this was a place, you want to tick so that you can have some bragging rights of having seen such a place. I was expecting that I will find out some natural reason why rats are there in that temple and not in other temples of Karni Mata (or other deities), and I couldn't find any. I will happily go and pray in other temples of Karni Mata in future.

The final resting place of the royal family of Bikaner had a sense of calm about it. Beautiful architecture of each cenotaph, but not lavish. Well maintained. One could go through each of them and understand a bit of history, not just of the royal family members but study how architecture has evolved, how usage of material has changed over a period of time.

Bajrang Dhora has a small area full of sand. There are hillocks of sand. When we went there, we forgot our age. There were those teenagers who could just climb up 30-40 meters, a very steep climb, and jump down on the sand. Looking at them, we got the courage to climb up in our pants and shirts. The legs did try to tell me my age, but I ignored. Went all the way up and down and all my pockets and my sweater were full of fine sand. The Hanuman temple nearby was spacious and a place where you could peacefully sit for some time.

We saw many other temples - the Bhairon ji temple about 30 KM from the city, Laxmi Nath temple in the city was grand compared to the size of the city. (By the way, the entire population of Bikaner is less than the population of Rohini, which is a small part of Delhi.) We saw so many sparrows and crows, which are impossible to spot in any large city in the country today, certainly I don't see any in Delhi. Hundreds or Thousands of sparrows would sit on the same tree, which from a distance would look like it has some kind of fruits all over, and then suddenly as if on a cue would soar in the sky making various formations. I know today, the Air Force planes would make some formations over Rajpath, but they would not be anywhere as elegant as those little sparrows.

The people in the city are simple and true believers of "Guest is God." The auto-rickshaws are cheap and all drivers would tell you the same rate. They won't cheat you just because you are from outside or speak a different language or dialect.

And finally, the city is unbelievably clean and disciplined. When we got down at the station, there was not a single plastic bag on the entire station. The locals did tell me that it was because the Chief Minister was going to visit them two days later. But come on, the whole city can not be spruced up overnight. At the level crossing, when the gate is closed and the train is about to come, you will only see two-wheelers get into the wrong side of the road. All cars, trucks and other vehicles would stand in a queue and wait patiently for the train to pass by and the gate to be opened.

A typical tourist trip in that part of the world would include Jaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer. I think one should seriously consider revolting against being jailed by "J" and flirt with other alphabets like "B". 

And finally, the combination of a city which had so much to offer a tourist, wonderful hospitality organized by Bissa ji, and the presence of so many railfans (many of them with families for the first time) made this unconventional convention an event one would never forget in one's life.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Perils of simple email address

When gmail had started, for the first few months, it was through invitation only. I was lucky (at least so I believed till recently) to get an invitation early on, and I could choose a really simple user name. When I tell my email address, many people are surprised, how did you manage this is a question that I have answered hundreds of times.

But over a period of time that simple user name has caused me to receive many interesting emails of others. I regularly receive requests to book airline tickets (apparently there is a travel agency called Sanghi Travels). I get asked questions on the prices and discounts on offer on various car models (apparently there is a car dealer called Sanghi Motors). I used to get invitations to a school party in Michigan. I later found out that there is one Ms. Sanghi teaching in that school. I even get threats to cancel my cable TV connection. There is one Mr. Sang Hi in US who perhaps has a dispute with his cable TV company. I get a daily feed on how my day is going to be from some astrology site, which is addressed to a girl whose last name is Sanghi. She or rather I also get many marriage proposals from boys. But regular mails from a fixed From address are actually easier to handle. Just a filter in google mail take care of that. Recently, I started getting many resumes for jobs which were advertised by a Chartered Accountant named Mr. Sanghi in Mumbai. Vodafone and Airtel believe that I am defaulting on their bills, and from Vodafone, I get about 15 bills every month, which should be going to someone in Gujarat. (But, again, google filter has taken care of this particular problem.) Thankfully, most mailing lists have now made it mandatory to verify email addresses. So I get a few such emails in which I have been added to the lists, and asked to verify. Earlier, I was directly added to mailing lists, and it would take time to get out. I get a receipt every month for payment of bills from Tata Docomo. For a change, someone is paying the bill regularly.

Another issue with a simple user id is that the same id on a different domain is assumed to be mine too. So a student in IITK who has the same user id in the domain get a pretty large amount of email which is meant for me, all sorts of stuff which I am sure he does not enjoy reading. So my simple user id is not just affecting me, it is affecting him as well.

When I get the offers of millions of dollars from folks around the world, I don't respond to them, because I am sure those offers are for some other Sanghi. May be one day, I will tell them that I am the right Sanghi, and see what happens.

And today, Aam Aadmi Party has thanked me for a donation. That prompted me to finally write this post. They would lose a supporter today when he finds that AAP does not send an acknowledgment for donations. It is very unlikely that he will blame himself for typing the wrong email address.

Added on 23rd March, 2014:

A couple of other examples. My bank gently warns me that it is not a good idea for different account holders to have the same email address. An airline's frequent flyer program insists that the email address of two separate flyers should be distinct.