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.


  1. Very well written, essence of the trip captured very appropriately.

  2. Lovely report. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Superb! I am sharing it on my social media pages.

  4. Wish could have hosted you home :(

    1. Well, if you remain anonymous, difficult to accept hospitality :-)

  5. Dheeraj Snaghi ji, Your reportage partially made up for my inability to attend the Bikaner convention. It brought the convention alive and gave a good preview of Bikaner too !!

    Many many thanks for taking the effort to pen down all the details.

    And congratulations and and salutations to Giriraj Bissa ji and his team for enthralling you and all the delegates with his arrangements.

  6. Thats a nice write-up doc - missed seeing Junagarh Fort. Post convention trip to the sand dunes and the temples was great.