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 erail.in) 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 iitk.ac.in 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.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Rest in Peace - Sanjeev Kumar Aggarwal

I had visited BITS Pilani Goa campus for the first time just a month ago. I had received another invitation yesterday morning to come back for a meeting in February, and I was going to call up Sanjeev in the afternoon to finalize the plans. So when I finished my meetings in the afternoon, and sat in the car to take me to Ahmedabad airport, I took out my phone to call him. The phone had been on the silent mode for 2 hours. And I noticed an unusually large number of missed calls, mostly from people in IITK. Fearing that something really bad had happened at IITK, I thought I will call Sanjeev later, and first called a friend in IITK. The call ended in my telling the driver to stop, take me back to the guest house, so that I figure the best way to reach Goa at the earliest.

I reached the beautiful guest house of BITS Goa early in the morning. The sun was trying to come out. I could sense a hesitation. How would it see Vinita in her eyes. How would it justify or even explain that one of his colleagues, the Yama, had taken her husband away. What could Sanjeev have done wrong to deserve this. The birds outside my room were chirping, perhaps unaware that they will never see the face of one of the nicest persons on campus in future parties in the guest house lawn. Zuari river in the distance continues to flow. But the river can hide its sorrow easily. You can't differentiate between water and tears visually. The entire campus was quiet. But it wasn't the calm before the storm. It was the calm after the storm. Everything had changed in the last 24 hours.

After dumping the bag in the guest house, we went to meet Vinita. And the memories of the last two decades started coming live. I could see clearly the day I had joined IIT Kanpur, and met Sanjeev. He had immediately asked me to come home for dinner. Vinita, during the dinner time, told me in no uncertain terms that I wasn't going to cook at home. Cooking and eating alone is boring. I should just visit them every evening. I wasn't sure. But just a few days later, Sanjeev asked me if I was upset or something. Why hadn't I visited them again. And this became the routine. If I did not visit them for a week, I better have some good explanation. Vinita treated me like a younger brother, and Sanjeev would jokingly say, "You will understand after you get married. No husband can afford to not treat his brother-in-law well." That was my initiation to IIT Kanpur. Sanjeev and Vinita were just made for each other, and HE who has broken this alliance will have to repent one day. I am sure Yama too is answerable to the trinity.

Vinita was unconsolable. Sanjeev was the perfect husband, and not just a perfect husband, but a perfect father, a perfect son, a perfect friend, a perfect colleague. You could question Ram for letting go of Sita, but you couldn't find any such aberration in Sanjeev's character. That it happened so suddenly, was leaving too many questions unanswered. Just yesterday, he was there, with his fantastic sense of humor, and skills that went far beyond teaching Compilers. He was an Engineer in the truest sense, though he started his education to become a scientist. He could fix anything and everything, whether it needed just the screw driver or needed more complex tools. He was a cook par excellence, and I had the fortune of being a witness of his culinary skills on a large number of occasions. The only explanation, though completely unsatisfactory, one could come up with was that he was so efficient that he could achieve for what he was sent to this earth in the shorter time span than most of us would have taken.

Vinita reminded me that Sanjeev, after treating me as his brother-in-law for many years, had declared one day that henceforth he will treat me as his adopted son. He felt that the earlier relationship did not allow him enough freedom to be tough with me. But this turned out to be just a change in nomenclature. As Keshav and Anupama would surely testify, he never needed to be tough with anyone. The way he explained his ideas, there was absolute clarity. You couldn't disagree with him on many occasions. And on occasions where you did have a counter point, he listened to you patiently, with an open mind, and would be happy to revisit his ideas and opinions.

He had been at BITS Goa for less than six months, but he had won all the hearts on the campus, like he did at IIT Kanpur earlier.

I personally seem to be going through a very tough period of my  life. I have been to more cremations in the last 12 months, then in my entire life before that. Why the Gods have to pick up the nicest guys when there are enough of the other kind, I do not understand. But for now, I can only pray that the same God who has been so unfair to the Aggarwal family would now at least give them the strength to withstand this unbearable loss

Rest in Peace, Sanjeev. We will miss you.

Added on March 22, 2014:
Obituary by CSE Department, IIT Kanpur
Article by a student in BITS Goa

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Udit's revenge

There are numerous stories of Udit (my son) being crazy about cricket. I thought I will share this one.

One day, in July 2010, there was a report in the newspaper about Dhoni's wedding. When he read that, he started crying. Now, I could understand a 20-year old girl crying on this news, but a 6 year old boy. He was inconsolable. When he finally could speak, it turned out that he was really upset that he had not been invited for the wedding.

I tried to reason. MSD does not know you and you don't know him. Why should you expect a wedding invitation. "I know him. You ask me anything about him," pat came the reply. And with that, he rattled out all kinds of details about Dhoni, not just how many runs he had scored in a career, pretty detailed information about various innings. I knew he had started surfing the espncricinfo.com website, but how could he navigate a site in English to collect all this information without knowing much English, remains a mystery to me.

I continued my reasoning. "OK. You know him. But he surely does not know you." "Well, I am his biggest fan, and if he does not know me, that is his problem, not mine. He had to find out who is his biggest fan, and invite him to the wedding." And with this, even more statistics and information about MSD.

But the parents have a repertoire of tricks to deal with kids. If reasoning does not work, then let us try to convince him of the futility of it all. "We can't go back in time. Whatever has happened has happened. Crying will not help." That seemed to have a small impact. The decibel value of crying reduced. And then he stopped crying completely, but announced that he will take his revenge.

What could a 6-year old possibly do as a revenge against the mightiest of the Indian cricketers. "He would seek God's intervention in his revenge strategy," he said. The kid must have been really hurt by Dhoni not inviting him. Here was a kid who wouldn't go anywhere close to the small temple at home. Even on Diwali, when we do this little ceremony of worshipping Goddess Laxmi, it is extremely difficult to make him sit for just a few minutes. And the same chap will seek divine intervention in his revenge against the captain of Indian cricket team.

"I will pray to God that Dhoni should have a son." I did not want to tell him that India is a country where "May you be the mother of hundred sons" is a common blessing, and nobody will really think that this prayer is being carried out as part of a revenge strategy. But why would he consider such a prayer. For a moment, I felt that may be this is that rare instance of self realization that he is a naughty child, certainly more destructive than his older sister. May be he has realized how much trouble he gives to his parents, and perhaps is wishing that Dhoni's kid gives him as much trouble, if not more. But the explanation wasn't entirely satisfactory.

"I want Dhoni's son to be a good cricketer and become a part of Indian cricket team." This was getting too much. The revenge strategy was in complete shambles. Oh my God! Is this same Udit who as a 6 year old could prepare a credible business plan for starting a school, and who could beat people in chess twice his age. What happened to his logic and reasoning and planning. (By the way, I too can beat people in chess twice my age. I only find it difficult to beat people half or one fourth my age.) And then it dawned upon me that perhaps he wants his son to be so famous that people won't remember Dhoni Sr. But still it wasn't a convincing revenge.

And then he explained the last part of the strategy. "I will, of course, be the captain of Indian cricket team, when Dhoni Jr. joins the team. Around that time, I will get married. I will invite the whole team for my wedding, and a few senior cricketers too. But I will not call Dhoni Sr. or Dhoni Jr. to my wedding. Think how bad they will feel when everyone else will be invited and they will not be, and then MSD will realize how bad I am feeling today."