Happenings at Book houses. Part 1

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I do buy books, most of the times, online. However, I end up buying more number of books in stand alone visits to book houses. Here is a series of random happenings at various book stalls. Some are quite mundane. But these are the things that happen only at book houses, and only to book lovers.

Sapna Book House, Jayanagar 3rd block, Bengaluru:

The Kannada literature section is a narrow corridor with two lines of shelves. I ask the sales person if he could find me the book ‘Carvalho’.

“Who is the author, sir?” He asks.

*Face Palm*

Same day, I go from one shelf to another, picking up books. Soon, both my hands are full. I bend my legs slightly, to balance the weight. A senior sales person takes pity at my plight, and hands me a basket. To my surprise, he takes out a small form where he asks me to write my contact information so that I get updates when there are events happening at Sapna. I feel privileged.

Gangarams Book Bureau, Church Street, Bengaluru:

It is 9:30 am in the morning. I am supposed to meet my friends at The Bookworm but I have reached the place early. I can see the Gangarams board on the next building, which I duly enter. The shop is yet to open. However, the employees are all waiting outside the glass doors. One of them tells me that a person with the keys is about to turn up.

He then asks, “Have you come here to buy books?”

Me, “Yes”

He asks me “Which book?”

No bibliophile would like to hear that at a bookstore. When is it ever one particular book? I get confused and leave the place before it opens.

The Bookworm, Church Street, Bengaluru

I and two of my friends are having a feast at the Bookworm. We have already picked up quite a few interesting used books, when I see a fresh copy of ‘A book of simple living’ by Ruskin Bond. It is a rather thin book. I point at the book and tell my friends “A book of simple living and it costs 350INR”. One of the shop workers who is passing by us also picks up our conversation and smiles at us. He gets the irony. He says “It is available at a discount price” and grins.

(More to follow….)

Two Uber drivers and Science

Recently, I visited my Alma mater. I met a few people and interacted with the undergraduate and postgraduate students. The meetings all went very well except when I was asked what I worked on. People expected a one word/sentence answer but I needed at least a lecture.

It is a common struggle for PhD students to explain the highly specialized work they are doing, even to those from the same field. It is especially so in high energy physics. To explain to laymen then, is such a laborious task that there are only a few successful science communicators. Many of us, usually, try not to be noticed and almost pray that no one asks us what we work on. For if we do succeed in communicating, we would then have to answer the unanswerable: “How does this help the common man?”

This Uber ride proved to be a different experience.

I was picked at the Banaswadi railway station in Bangalore by a driver named Peer. I had to get to BTM layout, about 14kms from the station. A few moments passed quietly, before he asked me where I was from. I explained and reluctantly, asked him the same. It seems, he hailed from Trivandrum (Where I currently stay). But he was born and brought up in Bangalore as his family moved here thirty five years ago. Soon enough, he asked me whether I work or study. He then wanted to know more specifically what I work on. It was the familiar pattern.

I told him that I work on particle physics. This is the best I can do. I tell people I work on what is inside an atom, what is the nucleus made of etc. I hope that they know what an atom is, and most of them seem to or pretend to. Only a few days ago, another Uber driver had asked me the same question. He frankly asked me what an atom was. When I told him everything is made up of atoms, the car seat, glass, our body, he was astonished. He asked if atoms go inside when we breathe and was shocked to find out the answer. He said that now he doesn’t even want to breathe knowing all those atoms will get inside. I gave up.

But Peer was a different kind. I told him I work on particle physics. He asked “They are still discovering new particles, isn’t it?” Except, he didn’t say particles. He said ‘matter’. So I understood that he has learned it himself. He told me that it is indeed important to know what the world is made of. We can see only so much with our bare eyes, he said. His perspective seemed to extend beyond science as well.

“To be human is not just to live taking everything for granted. When we sit under the shade of a tree, we should remember that someone has planted it, that they would have faced many hurdles in doing so; we should know what is inside the tree, what it is made of. All that, helps us to receive that shade and hence we must make effort to understand them”

He was so happy to have met a researcher that he spoke about science for the next forty minutes of the car ride. He asked me if alien life is possible. To my shock, he knew what Goldilocks zone meant. He told me, that he often wondered whether there could be life forms elsewhere that we can not conceive of. In gaseous planets for eg, may be there are forms of life that are not at all similar to us in any sense. I agreed. I told him that to the form of life we know, presence of water is crucial and hence we look for water. He told me then, that black holes are very important objects. Because after all, it is a blackhole that keeps our galaxy together. It seemed he explained ‘what is a galaxy’ to a friend over a drink, few days ago. “Imagine five seers of rice in a vessel. Did you? Now, take eight grains of rice in the vessel. That is the eight planets around the Sun. The vessel, is the galaxy” (It seems the friend made a leave soon after).

In between all these discussions, he suddenly asked me who do I think is right in the debate. Stehen Hawking or the physicist who used to be a plumber (That’s Leonard Susskind)? To borrow the term used by Susskind, he was speaking about the ‘Black hole war’. It is a debate on whether a ‘quantum field theory’ is unitary in the presence of a blackhole. So, apparently, the blackhole war has now come to the streets. (Credits to Leonard Susskind.)

He told me his story, in brief. It seems he had never been to a college. He had a beef with a few seniors in school and discontinued his education. It seems his parents put him as a technical assistant in a garment factory. There, he became curious as to how things work. One of his uncles then took him to construction business. Sometimes when there was no work, he would be home for a month or more. TV was new then, and he started watching the Discovery channel and the National geographic. He told me that he used to buy the National geographic channels books, paying hefty amounts. This is how, he learned what he knows about science. To be clear, he is aware of an astonishing amount.

He asked me how I became interested in Science. I told him that I had some good teachers and that I used to read books of Poornachandra Tejaswi, which were wonderful. He was happy to hear both.

The science discussion continued, but then the destination was approaching. He told me that he has a son studying Upper KG. Even though he is interested in science, he doesn’t want his kid to do it for his sake. “He should do what his interests tell him to. With enough interest and effort, anything pays off” he said adding that he has seen parents in reality shows saying that they wanted to learn singing but they find consolation that they made their kids learn music.

“We shouldn’t enforce out interests/dreams on them. What do you say?” He questioned.

People, as individuals, are often interesting. Their stories are often unique. But only so often do we meet people who invoke a sense of disbelief, a suspicion that the universe may be trolling us. This encounter was definitely one such.

Dreams of a theory

Here I am, hundred or so years after quantum mechanics was formulated, realizing a deep and a disturbing truth. I am compelled to share it with others before they become any more deluded with theories of nature that defy common sense.

Before I do that however I should describe what quantum mechanics is, for the layperson, even though  it will soon be shown to be irrelevant. Quantum mechanics may be defined to be the theory that begins with the standard postulates stated in any good textbook of quantum mechanics. A more useful definition, however, is that quantum mechanics is the subject which nobody is supposed to understand (Because Feynman said so. He often said sensible things). People do agree however that it has predicted the outcome of all experiments done so far to a great accuracy. Here lies the problem. Since no one understands quantum mechanics, everyone would like it to be replaced by a common sense theory. However since it satisfies all experimental tests, people try very hard to suggest a different theory and fail. Until yesterday, I had thought all their efforts were in vain.

Here is my proposal to explain the occurrence of experimental results that suggest a theory that defies common sense. The world, as we know of since 1900 or so, is someone’s dream[1]. It is then natural that the world defies common sense [2]. In fact, the real world is really common sensical and there is no violation of Bell’s inequality (never mind what it is). Classical mechanics is the theory of the world and it is definitely a nice theory and everyone’s favorite.

My proposal is also robust because if anyone comes up with a fact earlier than 1900s suggesting it to already indicate quantum mechanics we could push the start dreaming part to the past of that event. The theory also has a consistency check. That is, if someone shows that the amount of computation that needs to be done to have such a dream requires infinite energy, then the proposal would fall apart. We leave the consistency check to future work.

Let me also add that I think this proposal is surely one of the new ideas that will revolutionize science as a whole. If someone wants my autograph on a printout of this article, feel free to visit me.

[1] I would like to add that similar ideas if not the same idea were suggested much before we encountered quantum mechanics. Shakespeare: “All the world is a stage”, Adi Shankara thought much before Shakespeare that all the empirical world is an illusion.

[2] Of course, quantum mechanics is not the only thing that defies common sense. Other indications are out there. Nobel Prize in literature awarded to a musician, Nobel prize in peace awarded to the American president are other examples. I am sure many will hold some of the other recent events as defying common sense.

Misery and majesty: At Jaipur in solitude

She was either a Japanese or a Chinese woman. She wore a clothing that I remember from In the mood for love. We were almost at pace in seeing the City palace and exiting it, she a little ahead of me. As she crossed the road, I saw two men approach her from a motorcycle and eve tease her. I couldn’t hear what they said from the other side of the road nor was there any time to stop them. It all happened in such a short period. At the blink of an eye they teased her, she walked ahead without any response, and they had left. How little time does it take to shatter our pride! It made me bend my head in shame and all the impression those monuments had created melted at the irony of the present.

Bus station at Pilani is close to any bus station I had seen a decade ago. Its paint faded, enquiry rooms empty and seats to rest broken. It is there, as we asked a private travel agent for bus to Jaipur and Loharu, that I and Ms A got yelled at.

“Didn’t I tell you the bus is at 2:00 am? Why are you bothering us? You even look like well-educated people. Go, get out now!”

The bus that suited me did not belong to his travel agency. All he told us was the time and that I had to catch it somewhere on the main road.

Bewildered, but still determined to find a way out of Pilani, we asked a few more travel agents if we could reserve a seat. I learnt during this process that the people there had greater difficulty in speaking Hindi than us. The formula, it seemed, was that they spoke Rajasthani without blinking an eye, and hoped it was close to Hindi. I did manage to book a bus ticket to Jaipur. Ms. A couldn’t get any info on a bus to Loharu.

The bus started from Pilani at 7:00 pm. I had opted for a sleeper seat. But the seat resembled a luggage rack and had curtains and glass doors covering it. It stank. I crawled in and submitted myself to the situation.

I had hoped that our bus would stop somewhere for dinner as it was a long distance journey. However, the weather got colder and time kept running but our driver seemed to have no intention to stop for dinner. As I was getting worried, my friends Mr B and Mr A  called up. They did not forget to tell me the delicious dinner they had at the Rohtak railway station. Ms A was in her train too waiting for the pantry to serve her meals. It seemed as if the whole world ate happily as I starved.

Morning in Jaipur was kinder than the bus, as it greeted me with the complimentary breakfast. Hot Puris with Alu Sabji and hot tea. In fact, it did not matter what they served. Rajasthani cooking is nothing less than wizardry. From delicious lemon rasam to burgers available at roadside, every taste was unreal, too perfect.

One day while at BITS Pilani, I and Ms A were eating at the institute guest house. We were served a curry which had Paneer and Alu, a very unusual combination. It was so tasty that I asked the person who served us for the name of the dish.

“Yeh Alu hai”(This is Alu) he replied, a bit puzzled.

It must have been an improvisation. I had concluded that Rajasthanis could make anything work.

I had to get going now but had no concrete plan to tour around Jaipur. The closest tourist place from where I stayed was Hawa Mahal. Receptionist at the hotel told me that Jantar mantar is just a few paces away from there.

I took an auto rickshaw to reach Hawa Mahal and the auto driver offered me for a full tour of Jaipur as he dropped me at the place. He suggested that it might be too expensive to travel from one place to another by separate means. However, I and my very light backpack convinced him that I want to travel alone and free.

Hawa mahal is not too large a place but it has ample air circulation and has a feeling of vastness to it. It’s the first major tourist place I have visited alone. That, and the openness of the structure makes me feel that I can see much more. Also, the colours get to you in Rajasthan. The walls inside aren’t pink for once, and the colours are the ones nearest to the different colours earth can take. It sets a mood, and as I go up the tower at Hawa mahal, I’m humming Chadariya jheeni re jheeni. The video of Mukhtiyar Ali singing at his home plays in my mind. I think that must have been Rajasthan. The colours seem to match.

The view of Amer fort from Hawa Mahal is majestic and awe inspiring. I try to capture the essence of it through my camera and fail. Meanwhile, people have been taking pictures everywhere. Mostly pictures of them standing in front of one thing or another. I remember a friend telling me how we are deluded to think that we can capture the beauty of every moment. I’m amused at the scale of the phenomenon. Just then two boys, perhaps brothers, appear next to me. The window in front has a raised platform where you can sit and see outside. The boys aren’t too tall, they are may be around twelve years of age. The older one stands on the platform and tells his brother to take a picture. He is imagining some movie hero as he is posing for the photo, I think. The picture must have been a good one but he’s not satisfied. He tells his brother to wait. He then pulls out a cooling glass from his pocket, wears it in style and adjusts his hair. He orders his brother to take a snap now, and is very pleased at the outcome.

As this happens, I’m not alarmed that by these kids having cell phones at an early age. There is something very innocent about this.

You’d think that the Incredible India campaign by our ministry of tourism is in reference to exquisite monuments like these. What is incredible to me though is the path that I take from Hawa Mahal to Jantar Mantar.

Jantar Mantar is just behind Hawa Mahal, so I just have to circle the Hawa Mahal deviating from the main road. As I deviate from the main road, however, the scenery changes. I stand in a street where a pile of garbage is dumped at both sides. People are playing cricket a little ahead on the street.

In between the two piles of garbage, I see a little girl, may be of age two or three. She drags a can from the garbage and walks aimlessly. I notice that she is walking very slowly. She isn’t in the best health and this is no place for a child to be in. I stop there and think about calling children helpline but I see then that she is with another child but only slightly older. The tailor from a tailoring shop adjacent to the place is staring at me. I can’t decide whether I have to do something as these might be the children of a local family. I walk ahead in confusion and as I do, I feel I have left so much behind.

I do donate a part of my earning to causes related to children. But in this moment, I realize how little that is.

The street leads in to a dirtier pathway. I try to think how it was possible for such misery to exist in close quarters of such famous tourist attractions. Don’t we owe to these people decent living conditions? I think so but struggle to organize my thoughts logically. It’s not isolated but such contradictions rhyme as one travels in India.

I stand bewildered at Jantar mantar. It connects with all the things that were intimate to me in my childhood. The stars and constellations, different phases of the moon, the way days and years progress and the way they are counted, these were some of the so many things that lead me to Physics. Here is a bright young girl now, in the audio guide, asking similar questions to an elderly person who nurtures them. Jantar mantar represents to me the continuity of human curiosity. It convinces me more that the scientific questions that bother me every day are from an innately human curiosity.

There is a gift shop in Jantar mantar where I buy a poster – an old photograph of Hawa Mahal, in black and white. I buy a few post cards, and move to City palace which is just opposite to Jantar mantar. It is a medium sized palace with some beautiful door designs. Clothes and sports equipment used by the royal family is displayed. We are told that the royal family still holds a part of the palace and live there. As a security guard tells this to a few of us, we are all surprised.

I eat lunch at a small restaurant and walk back to Hawa mahal through the same route I had taken to arrive. At the bus stop there, I take bus no. 5 of the Rajasthan tourism which takes me after a long journey to Amer where the majestic fort stands.

Amer fort is a formidable structure. It’s built on a tall hill and as you look at it, you realize it must have forced rival armies to submission or retreat. There are stairs to reach atop as well as a road if you are travelling by car. There is also another interesting option. You can reach atop through an elephant ride. I walk. I didn’t see anyone riding an elephant as long as I was there. As I was alone, the tourist agents did not bother me but stuck to more profitable targets.

Even with a large number of people continuously pouring in, Amer fort is large enough to give me a sense of calmness. I have the audio guide plugged in my ears and it’s quite extensive. It gives me an idea of how people lived there and what each place stood for. I enjoy the solitude in midst of the crowd. I see people are taking photographs of their practiced to perfection poses. Are there more cameras clicking than eyes seeing, I wonder but proceed to take pictures from my camera.

The height at which it is situated; the nearby hills that one can see where the fort walls run from bottom to the top, they all inspire. It feels like a free place atop the world, though it’s not that tall surely.

I climb down the same steps after a couple of hours of seeing around the fort. My legs ache from the day’s travel and I find a garden that is next to the fort entrance. I travel to the farther segment where there are only a few people. It connects to the Amer town and these people seem to be the locals. I sit in a corner and at some distance from me I see a couple my age sitting and talking. They are in simple everyday clothes and seem to be content at the place. It is places like these, I think (not CCDs), that provide hope for love in a society that often suffers with self-imposed restrictions. I call home and speak for a few minutes. Even as I love travelling alone here, I wish they could see the place. Hopefully future allows that.

I take a late evening walk in front of the Albert Hall museum which is almost reduced to a silhouette in the dark.

I leave the next day morning by Air Asia flight to Banglore. I adjust in the very congested seats, next to a marwadi couple who are settled in Tamil Nadu. They speak Tamil and Rajasthani as if they are one language. They are elderly and the man sits next to me, asks me how is Rajasthan. I tell him it is good and that the food is excellent. He asks me with a smile, how are the girls in Rajasthan. I’m not sure I’ve seen many but I tell him they are good too. He suggests that I get married in Rajasthan. I tell him I’m only twenty three but it seems guys do get married there at that age. He tells me then that Rajasthani wives are better at looking after their husbands than south Indian ones. He turns to his wife (also a Rajasthani) and repeats the same. I don’t know whether he’s stating an expectation or paying a compliment. I grin and nod Zaroor Zaroor(Sure Sure) and slog through the rest of my journey.

A story of contradictions: what I was told about Gandhi and Bhagat

It was a fiery speech. It was a competition conducted by the Karnataka Student Federation (KSF). I spoke mostly on Gandhi, on how he was deluded into thinking that non-violence would be a good way to obtain freedom, how the British had looted the country by the time we got our freedom and how revolutionaries held a better outlook towards freedom. Did I also speak on how Gandhi took the ‘wrong’ step of asking the promised money to be paid to Pakistan? I might have. Could I have also praised Nathuram Ghodse somewhere along the speech? I might have. I am sorry, even as I try, I cannot really reproduce the tone my speech had that day. As the competition ended the KSF secretary announced the results, I had won the third prize. He said “The speaker had good skills. However he should study history”.

I was offended. After all, I had read plenty of books on history. I was a ninth grader but since my fifth grade, I had read many historic novels, thousand pages a piece. I understand our history, I thought.  I did not collect my prize the next day. As you can see, I was so full of myself.

What confused me was that the KSF too had posters of Bhagat Singh. A few days later, when I attended a quiz by the Student Federation of India (SFI), they too displayed posters of Bhagat Singh. But they all spoke a different language than that of the books I had read.

Somewhere in the middle of these confusions, I found a little book. A Kannada translation of an essay by Bhagat Singh titled ‘Why I am an atheist’.

“Till that time I was only a romantic revolutionary, just a follower of our leaders. Then came the time to shoulder the whole responsibility. For some time, a strong opposition put the very existence of the party into danger. Many leaders as well as many enthusiastic comrades began to uphold the party to ridicule. They jeered at us. I had an apprehension that someday I will also consider it a futile and hopeless task. It was a turning point in my revolutionary career. An incessant desire to study filled my heart. ‘Study more and more’, said I to myself so that I might be able to face the arguments of my opponents. ‘Study’ to support your point of view with convincing arguments. And I began to study in a serious manner. My previous beliefs and convictions underwent a radical change. The romance of militancy dominated our predecessors; now serious ideas ousted this way of thinking. No more mysticism! No more blind faith! Now realism was our mode of thinking. At times of terrible necessity, we can resort to extreme methods, but violence produces opposite results in mass movements” (Why I am an atheist)

I had heard the history of India many a times and it started with a glorious Vedic period followed by invasion of Ghajni. There were heroic rulers of India who tried to save Hinduism from the tyranny of Muslim rulers. There was Shivaji, the Vijaya Nagara dynasty, and there was Sepoy mutiny, Chandrashekhar Azad and Bhagat Singh. By the time one gets to the half of the story, you no longer ask how one went from a dynasty to Sepoy mutiny to Azad or Bhagat Singh. It is ironic, that what was so skilfully planted at such impressionable years, crumbled with contradictions as I read Bhagat Singh, as I studied following his advice, as I became an atheist.

I started wondering only very recently on why the republic day is celebrated also for our freedom fighters rather than as a celebration of our constitution. There was resentment about partition and deep regret that we did not become a Hindu nation. Caste oppression of course was a thing of the past.

A number of years after the whole story had crumbled in my head, I joined Madhwa Hostel in Mysore for financial reasons. It is a hostel for Brahmin students run by mutts and Trustees. On one evening during my first few months at the hostel, a person from the RSS shakha visited the hostel for an interaction.

“Who are Brahmins?” he asked. We were supposed to answer in our own words.

“Brahmins are the learned people”

“The polite”

“The well-mannered”

“The kind”

One after the other adjectives poured out.

“Brahmins are people who are full of themselves” I interrupted. I had backed my statement on, of course, solid evidence right behind me.

The interaction did not last for long, and as it ended a ten or so of the seniors, some of them the most talented told me and argued that I was wrong and I should not have made that statement.

The story keeps breaking with contradictions.

 

A walk to remember in Rajasthan

In a very amusing Indian accent, the audio guide narrated to me story of early Indian astronomy. It began with an orientation for the tour and then proceeded in a conversational tone. The setting was such that it is a young girl asking questions about the monuments, and an elderly man answering them. A daughter and a father, I thought. Might be a teacher with a pet student. A father nourishing a daughter who aspires to be an astronaut or a teacher delighted with a curious student both are the healthiest of situations that could be chosen. I was impressed.

I was at Janthar Manthar, an astronomical observatory built by Raja Sawai Jai Singh in the 18th century. It is a reasonably large complex with quite a number of sun dials and other structures used to locate celestial objects. In the audio guide, the elderly man was delighted to hear the various questions posed by the young girl. He explained how sun dials worked, how azimuth of different stars were determined, how the entire night sky could be mapped by interposing a pair of hemispheres, how the staircases that ended nowhere were pointing to the different Zodiac constellations or the north star, as with the biggest of the staircases. She caught on very quick. The audio guide ended with a twenty minutes introduction to astronomy in ancient India.

A melodious Sanskrit hymn, which I could not understand, was played. And then the narrator quoted from the Vedas “Sarve dishanam Sooryaya Sooryaya Sooryaya” which was translated as how ancients realized that the stars were like the Sun and how numerous they were. Standing in the blazing Sun of Rajasthan, I wanted to quote the same albeit in a different context. It best described one’s affair with the Sun in Rajasthan.

Birla Institute of Technology and Science(BITS) Pilani’s oldest campus is located at Pilani, Rajasthan. Pilani, a small village, is a few kilo meters from nowhere. But it is the birth place of Shri GD Birla and hence it accommodates one of the earliest private owned national institutes in the country. We were there for a workshop on theoretical high energy physics sponsored by the SERB. On our first day, we were welcomed by the director of the institute who was beaming when he told us that one could not go out of BITS Pilani, since there was nothing outside.

He was more or less right. However, outside is a very big distance, area and volume. Most of us knew that it would be lame to visit Rajasthan and only see BITS Pilani. Our new friend Bala declared that he wouldn’t stay on the campus on a single weekend.

Mr B searched on the google maps for places to visit nearby and came up with the first suggestion, Churi. Churi was about 80 kms from Pilani. It had a fort and a few other interesting looking walls as per the google image search. We all liked the images that we saw. It was decided that at least five of us, would hire a cab and visit Churi on the first weekend of the workshop. We went around telling people that we would be visiting Churi. As for planning for the trip, we had succumbed to inertia.

A couple of days before travel, one of us(Arghya – Mr A) called up the driver who had picked us up from Delhi. A nominal rate of Rs 1500 was fixed and the driver then asked us where did we want to go in Churi. Mr A asked him how long would it take to visit interesting places in Churi. To our surprise, we were told that there wasn’t any place worth visiting in Churi. So much for us telling everyone that we were visting Churi!

In desperation, we asked him if there was any other place nearby that was worth visiting. He suggested that we could visit Mandawa which was nearby Churi and then possibly visit Fatehpur which was also nearby. We trusted the local’s wisdom more than google images and decided to visit Mandawa. However, we did not confirm him the tour details as we weren’t sure how many more would join us.

Finally, the night before our visit, it hit us that we should be booking the cab. However, on calling the driver, it turned out that there were a number of marriages happening on the next day, and hence all the cars were booked. Mr A didn’t give up. He pleaded to our driver that we did not know anyone else in the place, and we were free to roam only on Sundays. Somehow, with this craftsman like sugar coating, the driver’s heart seemed to melt. He called us back in a while that we could get a Swift Dzire, which could accommodate five of us. Thus, not out of meticulous planning and perfection, but after multiple instances of stupidity and several strokes of luck, we were setting out from BITS Pilani.

We were to leave at 8.30 am on Sunday and being the PhD students we are all of us woke up at around 8.30. We managed to finish breakfast fast enough and started for Mandawa. If we had gotten the worst car with a rude driver, we would deserve it. But our driver was an elderly gentleman, who would be one of the nicest people I have ever met. His face showed not just his age but also his maturity. We found out during the travel, that locals seemed to respond to his requests with utmost sincerity.

IMG_4435We reached Mandawa in about one and a half hour. On the way, we rode through what should be the narrowest road in India. It was a two way road with width of one four wheeler. As we entered this narrow road, we saw a car coming straight at us. It occurred to us that if we both followed the tarred road, we could have a nice head on collision. However, both our cab and the other car placed half their wheels on the mud part outside the road, and managed to smoothly escape each other. The road appeared to me as absurd as any incident in a Kafka’s novel. One could call it corruption, poor infrastructure, lack of planning etc but what lied in front of our eyes was certainly pure absurdity.

Mandawa is a small town or a large village, one could not say. It was a nagar panchayat. On arriving at the place, our driver parked the car in the center of the town and told us we could roam around the place. As soon as we got out, we found an old building besides the road, with beautiful paintings on its walls and intricate designs on its doors. It was not big enough to be a haveli, but perhaps it used to be one. After wondering why it wasn’t kept in a better condition, we went ahead to explore the town.

IMG_4460A board told us the directions to the local fort. On reaching the fort, we found out that it had turned out into a hotel. We were told that we could pay 200 Rs for breakfast and a sight seeing of the fort. As we had resolved not to have any tailor made experiences, we left it there and visited the temple besides the fort. It had colorful paintings on the walls depicting the story of Shri Krishna. It was here where we discovered for the first time a unique feature of Rajasthani buildings. While it was blazing Sun outside, inside the temple it was pleasantly cold. We found out, on walking through Mandawa that this was true wherever there was shade. It was only here that most of us had seen such a temperature difference between the Sun and the shade. Hence, most buildings were designed to let in ample Sun light without directly facing the Sun.

While still on the way to Mandawa, our driver had told us that we could see wells about 200-300 meters deep in these places. “200-300 feet” I had corrected him. However, as we were walking in the town, we saw a large complex which was perhaps used for bathing in the past and in the center was a well at least 300 meters deep, maybe a lot more. With difficulty, we could see where it ended. As we gaped at the structure, the very first scene of Alice in the wonderland was being played in my head.

Not just the fort, but a number of havelis had become commercial places, as time passed by. We found a few which still hosted its owners. In one of them we were told to pay a hundred rupees to see one room of the haveli. We didn’t. A few paces ahead, one haveli which was being renovated was open for us to see. The owner told us that we missed seeing Vidya Balan by only a couple of days, as she was there for an ad shoot. Needless to say, we all lamented.

IMG_4478It was one heritage walk in Madawa. Our experience was fulfilling and not tailor made. Thanks to our friend Amrutha(Ms A)’s observational powers, we found out plenty of interesting views that we would have otherwise missed. This combined with Mr B’s excellent intuition in navigation we traversed the town rather smoothly and without worries. We stopped at the main road for a chai and headed towards Fatehpur, with images of Mandawa still being played through our minds.

In less than an hour we were in Fatehpur, another small town with a similar number of havelis. We stopped at a haveli, which was beautiful with it’s marble walls but we were denied entry. The owners of the haveli were living somewhere outside and they had a person to look after the house. He was afraid to let any of us in, lest he lose his job. We let it be and set out to find other havelis. There was a haveli managed by a French culture center. We were told by a beautiful French lady to pay Rs 2000 per person. We moved ahead, content at having seen the outside.

By this point, I had gotten hungry and declared that the first thing we would do in Fatehpur was lunch and then we could visit whatever we wanted to. After my actively discouraging people who wanted to see some of the buildings that were on the way, everyone got the message. We traversed the length of Fatehpur, hoping to find a restaurant. We ended at the bus stand where we found a place which sells burgers, sandwiches etc. We ordered burgers whose taste exceeded our expectations. However, it was only consistent with out experience so far in Rajasthan. If you ask me to say one word on Rajasthan, I would say ‘delicious’. The land is blessed with the most excellent cooks.

During this lunch, we found out on Wikipedia, that there was the Sita Ram Kedia haveli nearby which allowed visitors at a reasonable cost. It was just a few paces away, we paid 20 Rs each as tickets and walked around the medium sized haveli. There wasn’t any other tourist there and the person in charge of the haveli spoke to us in the nicest way. On the roofs of the haveli, we took our only group photograph to mark the visit.

IMG_4549We returned from Fatehpur with content. We wanted now only to see a desert like region and head back to Pilani. In a cab with a Kannadiga, Two Malayalees one of who had grown up in Delhi, one Bengali and one Marathi, none of us remembered the Hindi word for desert. So much for Hindi contending to be our national language. We gave the driver a fifteen minute description of what a desert would look like. ‘Jaha pe khethi nahi hothi hai'(Where there is no farming), ‘Jaha pe paani nahi hootha'(Where there is no water), ‘Reth ka pahad hotha hai'(There would be hills on sand)… Our driver got the jest and on the way back took us to the only sand dune nearby. It was fulfilling to walk on a sand dune in Rajasthan, we took a few pictures and started back towards Pilani. When I narrated to do this incident to one of my friends, she pointed out that all we had to do is google translate the word ‘desert’ on our phones. We theoretical physicists have the tendency to complicate the simplest aspects of day to day life.

We stopped in between to have tea in an open chai place besides the highway. It looked almost filmsy. As the Sun started coloring the sky, we were all content of having seen Rajasthan in its originality. We were also grateful to have gone with a group of people who were not shopping crazy and not in for tailor made experiences.It seems Dhanya(Ms D), who was astoundingly quite during all this told Ms A that she loved the tour. It became established then that we all had a great time.

My exploration of Rajasthan didn’t end there as I had booked for a day’s visit to Jaipur on my way back from the workshop. “You’ll be looted there”, I was told. “No one would help you out”, “Janthar Manthar is not worth visiting as there is no proper information”, “Jaipur local busses are terrible” etc.. I was told. Also some useful information by people at the workshop who had visited Jaipur on the way to Pilani. This was to be a trip to be done alone so I was looking forward for it to be interesting. I have already told some bits of that tour in the beginning, I’ll save the rest for another post.

All the images are courtesy of P N Balasubramanian, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru

Separated with lines and curtains: A journey to Delhi

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It was 2013 summer. My second semester in MSc had just finished and I was set to leave for a summer internship at IIT Delhi. It was to be my first visit to Delhi, and I was quite enthusiastic about visiting the national capital. No matter where you are from India, Delhi holds a place in your mind. So was it in my case. I had just finished reading Khushwanth Singh’s novel Delhi. It had made me eager to see the place.

For a first, my parents had come to the Bangalore city railway station to see me off. They left when it was an hour to the departure time as they had to catch the last bus to our town. I sat on a bench in the platform and waited. I was sure I would soon get company. A slim built, trimmed hair person with a huge bag came and sat next to me. I learnt that he will be travelling to Delhi in just the next side upper seat to mine. I was happy that I had a fellow Kannadiga to travel with till the destination. He told me that he is a soldier in the Indian army who is reporting to Kashmir after a leave. It would be his first posting in Kashmir. I had never met a soldier before.

He told me that there will be an army coach in the train, he would use his identity to get someone in need get a seat in that coach. He told me to look after his bag and set forth for this noble cause. As the train doors had not yet opened, I waited. When there is so much to look forward to in the next few months, waiting is not hard. However a half hour later, the soldier was still not to be seen. I knew the train doors will open in a while. Meanwhile, some dark thoughts crossed my mind.

He had left his huge square bag with me. He had been perfectly reasonable about his cause but it is never reasonable to sit with a stranger’s luggage that long. I did not know whether he was really a soldier. I did not even know his name. I decided that I will wait for ten more minutes. If he does not turn up, I will inform some railway policeman about the bag and board the train. The train doors had opened.

To my relief, he did return in the next ten minutes or so. We boarded the train ten minutes prior to departure. I was comfortable now. We chatted.

Though we did not know each other’s name for a good part of the journey, we had shared a lot else to each other. He is a married man in his mid-thirties who had a few years to finish fifteen years of service in the Indian army. I learnt from him that in the Indian army one could take retirement after fifteen years of service and receive pension. He had a wife who was studying MBA in a town in Karnataka. He was proud that his wife is educated. He told me with that she had got a seventy percentage score in her BBM without any coaching. From the part of Karnataka he comes from education is rare and a seventy percentage should have been a well earnt result.

He was a BSc student when he was selected for the Indian army. He could not finish his degree then. He hoped to do it now. He said he has forgotten all that physics and maths, but would surely work hard to pass the degree. His wife would start earning soon, he would retire, finish BSc with his pension money and some small farm land. Then, he would secure a job through the ex-servicemen quota. They would live happily in Bangalore. In short, he had it all planned. It was a plan that had equal prospects for him and his wife. Perhaps even better for his wife.  They perhaps had about ten years of age difference, typical in those parts of Karnataka, but he cared about her a great deal.

She cared about him too. I got to see what is inside that big square bag of his. With his clothes, was a huge packet of rotis, chutney powder, curry, rice and so on. I had a packet of rotis as well, thanks to my friend Kiran’s mother and her care. We shared our food throughout the journey.

The journey in the Karnataka express was a pleasant one. There were just as many people as the seats, which is rare in the Sleeper compartments of the Indian railways. I had mostly travelled to Uttar Pradesh before, to see more people on the floor than on the seats during the night. But this time, as our train travelled through central India, ticket still had its value as an eligibility to be on the train.

We had boarded the train in the evening. The next day morning, our train reached the Solapur Junction.

—-

We were fresh from the breakfast when six men dressed in white kurtas and topis entered the train. They had booked twelve seats in the rain which were adjacent to mine and the soldier’s side upper seat. In the side lower seats that were below us was a Rajasthani family in RAC seats. They were of the kind who sell alternative medicines in tents to the poor. I had seen those funny looking tents in Mysuru. They were travelling for a wedding and for some reason, had their whole tent packed below the seat. I had no place to keep my suit case there, so I had kept it below the lower seat and had locked it with a chain.

One of the gentlemen with Kurtas surveyed the seats and found my suit case. He yelled out.

G:”Whose suit case is this?”

Me: “Mine. I have no space below the side lower seat. Let it be”

G: “Where are you travelling to?”

Me: “Delhi”

G: “You can take your suitcase in Delhi”

He gave me a quizzical look. I promptly said yes. I did not take it seriously. What was done next though surprised me and annoyed me to a great extent.

—-

The youngest of them opened a bag with purdahs and took one by one and covered the windows, the grills on the upper seats and the corridor with black purdah. Meanwhile women covered in Burqua, Socks and gloves came and sat inside it. I was annoyed because since I was in the side upper seat, I was left with no other source for air. It was hot in the North and I was going to feel it soon. If God had to choose a way to punish me for my agnosticism, he could not have chosen a more direct way of doing it.

They were evidently a muslim family going for a religious tour. The men sat in six open seats. The women sat in six seats blocked by purdah. The men had a mullah with them who read some hadiths to them from time to time which were interesting to listen to. They had brought their mats and performed namaz whenever it was time. It would block the corridor for some ten minutes since there were six of them. Pantry workers selling chai patiently waited for them to finish. A Sikh was walking on the corridor and realized he could not cross for a while. He looked at them and sneered. Some less religious muslim and hindu people travelling in the train looked at them with admiration. Some minded their own business.

I was amused by everything that was going on. It was very different kinds of people trying to adjust with each other during the journey. We are all from the same country but very unfamiliar about the lifestyle of each other inside our houses. I had seen the purdah system for the first time in the train. I was quite shocked to be honest, besides being irritated for lack of oxygen.

However, an opportunity presented itself. Two seats were vacant in a neighbouring compartment. The ticket collector told the Rajasthani family that two of them could go there so that they all get confirmed seats. Since they were a family, they asked us if we could go instead – me and the soldier. We were glad to do so. There was one small problem though. I had to get my suitcase from under the purdah.

I did not know which gentleman had spoken to me when they got on the train. So I went to the seat in which men were sitting and told them I needed my suit case which was behind the purdah. Some of them were furious. I could not understand the difficulty. Since when they had boarded the train in Solapur, men had stood in front of the purdah, with a toilet mug, once in every hour or so to ask if their women wanted to visit the loo. In case they did want to, they would emerge out. A similar request for suitcase, I thought, would be enough.

I was subjected to thorough examination however. The gentleman who had spoken with me earlier accused me that I had claimed that I would need the suitcase only in Delhi. I explained them the situation and told them since it was a family travelling for a marriage, they better be together and we would move instead of the Rajasthanis. Finally, the elder man among them told the youngest to take the keys from me, unchain the suitcase and fetch it to me. I gave him the key and wondered why I would have any bad intensions at all on those women from their family who must be at least a generation older to me.

I finally got my suitcase and moved to the next compartment with the soldier, whose name I later learned is Raju.

The rest of the journey was smooth. As soon as we entered the other compartment, one gentleman there easily recognized that Raju is a soldier. It seems he himself was in service for some time. It occurred to me then that merely based on haircut and shoes, people can recognize army men. Raju was a very good companion. He was happy about being a part of the Indian army. He once offered biscuits to someone and when they refused to take it, he jokingly said “It is definitely not poisoned. Trust me. I am from the Indian army”. The other person laughed apologetically and took the biscuits.

The tensions that I saw on the train made me think in the days to come. I wrote a poem and letters to friends. I wondered what part of that tension is due to individual lacking and prejudices, and how much due to the dogma of our religions or no religion. I also wondered how bad/good a system purdah is. I think that any practice that believes in separating human beings on the basis of some identity (gender, caste,..) as repressive. Some friends told me it is not repressive as it is shown to be. That might be. My own discomfort was largely due to my suffocation in the side upper seat. It hurt of course that they did not ask my permission to block air passage, whereas I had to ask permission to get my suitcase.

I have also travelled in the 3ACs with curtains a couple of times. So there was a whole section of people who had already happily had curtains between them. Except that there was AC and no person in a side upper seat suffered. So may be that was all the difference – my suffocation.

From Solapur to Delhi, it was so many tensions for the Train to handle. It quickly made it to Delhi and spit out all the hindus, muslims, Sikhs, agnostics and the rich in the AC compartments alike. It must have taken a day’s rest for the train to forget it all and make the reverse journey.

I had a fruitful stay in Delhi. I made some good friends and met a few old ones. I got to stay in IIT Delhi and in the more interesting JNU campus during the period of visit. I visited the Qutub Minar, Jamia Masjid, Red fort and the India gate during the period. I have included some pictures that I took during these visits. Delhi is truly majestic and did not fail my expectations.

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A journey with the pilgrims

As I lay on the upper berth, I peeped out to register a new passenger. It was an old lady, who was followed then by an older man. As she saw me peeping out of the upper berth, I hoped she would offer an introduction. Instead, she said “Beta, do you believe in miracles? They do happen!” Though taken by surprise, I smiled and nodded. I could see that the Tamil couple in the lower berth were nodding too, it was time to get down and listen to their story.

——

This was in 2012, on my second journey to Allahabad – A place that has one of the finest and happening centres of Theoretical physics, the Harish Chandra Research Institute (HRI). It also has triveni sangam, meeting point of Ganga, Yamuna and Sarasvati.

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Route map of the Sanghamitra Express/12995 (This is not a map of India) Courtesy: Cleartrip and Google maps

I travelled in the Sangha Mithra Super-Fast express. It is the only daily train from Bengaluru to Patna. Allahabad is an intermediate station, thanks to the zig zag route of the train. It is just one stop before Mughal Sarai, which is the nearest major railway station to Varanasi. The train has to traverse five states between Karnataka and Uttara Pradesh. It starts from Bangalore city to first reach Chennai Central and then heads north. It is during my first journey on this train I figured that Chennai is not located to the south of Bangalore. It is east, and is in fact slightly north. I was surprised by my poor knowledge of geography.

The train consists mostly of pilgrims, for there are various pilgrimages along the route, Tirupati, Sangam and Varanasi being the most visited. This is thus a busy route. You are guaranteed a confirmed ticket only if you book the ticket on the day booking opens. Allahabad is an intermediate station, not the destination. Therefore, if you are waitlisted, you will be in the Remote Location Waiting List (RLWL). RLWL is an indication that you should simply cancel the ticket and look for a flight as soon as possible, if you can afford it. In any case, that is the best you can do unless you want to hitch hike for two thousand odd kilo metres on road or travel in the general compartment of the train, the latter being worse than the former.

——-

This time, I was travelling in 3rd AC. It is rare to find people speaking to each other in 3rd AC. This time was different however. In my neighbourhood, there were a number of friendly, talkative people of different age groups. There was a boy named Ranjeet Singh, who was visiting home taking vacation from his Navy training. There was a Tamil couple. The man had retired a few years ago from his Chief Engineer position at the Tamil Nadu Electricity board. His wife did not know English or Hindi, but managed to communicate quite well through him. There was a girl from Varanasi who was studying engineering in Madras. She was going home for a vacation. It was February though, an odd time for a vacation.

The old couple I mentioned initially got on the Train at Gudur Junction. They were going back home to Jabalpur after visiting Tirupati. The lady was gracious and looked quite young for husband. He was quite old, quite rich too – it seemed. She must have looked stunning in her youth, she seemed to be aware of it. She thought her husband was useless and nearly told us so.

What miracle she saw, she did not narrate. I did not ask. Conversations on trains have their own character. One should not ask in the trains, but should only listen what the other voluntarily shares. I have met some very interesting people and have had many good conversations. But many a time, we never asked for each other’s names.

——

It turned out that it was the Tamil couple who had stories of miracles to be heard. The Ex Engineer has travelled a lot, to a lot of temples. He told us that he has seen all of the Jyotirlingas in India. I did not know what a Jyotirlinga was. Even now, I do not. However, as soon as he told this, our Jabalpur lady fell on his feet. She told him that he was a great man, that she could see that radiance in him. His radiation seemed to pick up intensity from this and he told us of his adventurous journeys.

It seems that he had a kidney failure when he enrolled for visiting the mount Kailash. He told us that the government conducts fitness tests before allowing to visit the place. He miraculously passes the test. His wife claimed that it was Lord Shiva who enabled him to pass the test and walk in the mountain ranges with one functioning kidney. They reached Manasa sarovar in the evening, to see ancient rishis taking a dip in the sarovar to take bath, in the form of stars. He claimed it was not Earth’s rotation, but stars took a dip and came out of the lake. Everyone seemed to be elated and thrilled by this. They all nodded. I nodded too. Conversations on a train is like improvisation theatre. You must always say “Yes and…”

By the time he was back from Kailash, his second kidney was functioning. Whether it was the rishis who took care of the kidney or was it the Shiva, he did not tell us. Both seemed possible. As the conversation turned towards health, our Jabalpur lady declared that she had some psychological problems. She told us her husband did not keep her happy. He did not seem to notice any of this. Was he deaf, weak or did not care enough to bother, I did not figure out. The Tamil couple told her that their son studies MD in Psychiatry somewhere in Rajasthan. He had a bachelor’s degree in Homeopathy. The lady took the phone number of this supposedly genius homeopathy student, she called him up and told him that she will e-mail him about her problems. “These things are personal, you see.. “ she explained to us.

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Detailed route: Part 1

The zig zag route traverses seven states including Karnataka and Uttara Pradesh. It is a very interesting route due to the diversity of topographies. It goes through many interesting places. First is the Chennai Central. It is one of the busiest railway stations in India, as many trains from south to north, crisscross to pass through Chennai. Trains stop there for quite some time. While the train stops to reverse direction, you can have delicious idli and sambar at the Sarvana Bhavan inside the railway station. It is very popular among the regular boarders at the Chennai central.

As the train leaves Chennai central, Sanghamitra express/12295 meets the Sanghamitra express/12296 coming from the other side. For some time, people in both the trains get confused and wonder if the train has been changed, or if the coaches were joined somewhere else. It is not scheduled that way. The northward bound train should reach Chennai from Bangalore at 3 pm. It does. The southward bound train should reach Chennai at 1:30 pm. It arrives a few hours late, mostly due to erratic stops in Bihar. Hence the trains meet.

The train goes via what used to be Andhra Pradesh, now Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. You get to have delicious dal vadas in the railway station. You can rehydrate yourself at Nagpur where you get the famous Nagpur oranges.  As the train reaches Allahabad, it crosses the Naini Bridge from which you get the view of the new Yamuna Bridge. At 2 AM in the night, it is a sight to see. If you happen to visit there in February, like I did, you will get to see camps of pilgrims of Magha/Kumbha mela on the dried river on both sides of the bridge. The camps are lighted by a series of tube lights and it is a town by its own.

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Lighting near the Yamuna Bridge as seen from HRI

Ranjeeth Singh and I had become good friends as we journeyed from Bangalore to our destinations. He showed me photos of his navy training school and his friends. We tried to open facebook to connect with each other. But the network strength on our phones fluctuated too much. But then, it turned out that he had an RAC seat that did not get confirmed, meaning he had to share his side lower seat with one more person. I had a confirmed upper berth seat. He told me that we could share my upper berth instead. I refused.

Though I was going to Allahabad for a conference, on the first day I also had an important national level entrance examination (JEST) for admission to integrated PhD. The thought of sleeping in half the upper berth for a night and attending an entrance exam the next day morning did not please me. I told him to share the side lower which is allotted to him and the other guy. He was very disappointed with this. He did not speak to me after that. I did not understand the logic in sharing the upper berth which would not help him too in any way.

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Detailed route: Part 2

The Jabalpur couple got down after a night’s journey. It would be interesting to know if the Homeopathy graduate could help her with psychological problems. AYUSH ministry would be interested. The lady jotted down my name and phone number while leaving though she never called. The tamil couple were visting Varanasi, their destination was Mughal Sarai, a few hours later to mine. The girl was getting down in Mughal Sarai too and she recommended me to join the Banaras Hindu University for MSc. I got down in Allahabad an hour later than scheduled at around 3 am in the morning.

A driver was supposed to be there, sent from HRI, holding their placard. However, from my previous year experience, I knew that he would sleeping inside his car at a side in the railway station. I found him at the same spot as last year, sleeping. I woke him up and headed to the Harish Chandra Research Institute.