Mumbai to Pune

A couple of weeks ago, I got notified by Rakesh about an ISRO exhibition at VJTI in Mumbai. I got the same message forwarded from multiple sources other than Rakesh as well – in WhatsApp messages, Tweets, etc. The message seemed to have gone viral.

The other option was to visit IUCAA in Pune for a National Science Day event on Sunday, March 26.

I decided to visit Mumbai for the same and take along my daughter by bus. Over the next week, this plan expanded to include my wife and our son. The mode of transport also changed to our car.

We underestimated the time it would take to prepare for the ride, the time to travel, and the time for all things in between. The decisions change so much with just a 2 month old kid who has to be carried. We reached late on Saturday and I saw messages from my group that it was better to avoid the ISRO exhibition than go there. Hence, skipped it.

It seemed to have been serious enough to make the news the next day.

We spent the Saturday and Sunday in Mumbai and returned to Pune by Sunday evening. Son was cranky a bit in the end stretch of the travel to Mumbai. Else he was good on the way from and to Mumbai. All in all, we enjoyed the weekend drive.

For ISRO, it shows the demand for exhibitions like these north of Bangalore/Bengaluru.

Book World

Although I have lived in Pune for two-and-a-half years, the Pandemic meant that I have not explored the city.

I was looking for book stores in Pune. There are many of the ones that play an academic role. Many shut down during the Pandemic. Pagdandi seems to the city-wide favorite. However, I was not happy how they treated my wife and daughter when I was inside the store. I have not returned there since.

The search for another bookstore began. A search revealed Book World. This is a bookstore on Pune’s Fergusson College Road (FC Road). The Google review says they have a good manga collection.

I went there on the two wheeler expecting parking to be an issue. I left my two wheeler a little way off and walked on FC Road. I loved the vibe on FC Road. There were road side shops selling clothes and books. There was place to sit and hang out. There was a Kalakar Katta where artists were seen drawing portraits. I am not sure if there were writers or readers there.

I went down the steps and to Book World to see books on a center table and spread from floor to ceiling on the walls around. I spotted some of the latest books on the shelves there including some old copies of famous books. They had a really good collection of books there.

I bought a copy of Ryan Holiday’s The Daily Stoic for myself. I bought a copy of Mahabharatee by Shruti Hajirnis Gupte for my wife. I bought a few children’s story books for my daughter.

We’re bad at communicating our cultural history

During my visit to Gandhi Ashram, Ahmedabad, I noticed that there was a major thrust towards showcasing how this was a very vital part of our cultural history. There were notes everywhere, painted, pictures etc about how we aimed to create an equal and casteless society. We’re really bad at communicating this history to the large population who visit the Ashram – the young and the foreigner, especially, who have only seen a resurgent India.

This is the picture that greets you outside the toilet block. What is written in Hindi, translates into English as, “I asked for water, not your caste.” It is a one-liner that informs one about the caste system, the untouchability and various other practices that did exist once in India and still does exist in some form or the other in India. Yet, this is not properly communicated and hence it continues to remain a problem.

Many people just walked by this mural. Even if you did not see any other thing in the Gandhi Museum – the Ashram rules, the letters Gandhi wrote, the various sayings pasted on the walls (which one could easily read in a book!), missing this is a crime! Yet, foreigners had no way of reading the Hindi script, the kids were just scampering – more intent on getting to the toilet. Many just avoided this space because it was a toilet block. This still smells a bit, doesn’t it? How we look down upon our civil sanitation spaces? Before we wipe out corruption and other evils from Society, the first one we must wipe out is our lack of civil sanitation. The rest will be “cleaned up”automatically, in my opinion.

Visting all National Parks in India by 35

National Parks in India are not as famous as they are in the United States, where there is a good National Park Service. However, this is not surprising given the fact that most national parks came into existence in the 1980s. They did not exist in the youth of our parents. They now exist and travelling pioneers are visiting these national parks and slowly word is spreading among the general public about their existence.

As per Wikipedia, India has proposed 166 National Parks. Of these it had established only 96 by the year 2007. You see the hidden potential?

In contrast, the US opened national parks in 1872.

I wanted a challenge in my life that combined geography and the challenge for travel. I have enunciated it in my expectation of visiting all the National Parks in India before I turn 35. This is a strange claim for me to make – a person who has not visited a National Park which was less than 20 km away from me – the Borivali National Park. However, when I go to a National Park I would like to explore several things – interactions with villages and towns in the peripheries, the attitude of the current generation of Indian Forest Services officials, the flora and fauna of these parks and above all, enjoying the whole Park experience – knowing I am among the first few exploring these areas.

Going to Ahmedabad

On Friday, 29 December, 2011, when most of the staff from my office left after half a day of work to ostensibly cast their vote in the local Panchayat elections, I asked myself how I would spend my New Year’s. For all the New Year’s till date (I’m 25 now) that I can remember, I have spent it with my family. This would be my first New Year’s alone.

I was speaking to my boss when I shared with him my intention of visiting the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad. This came out of the blue. The only rational explanation I have is that sub-conscious mind had provided me the answer for my question about where to spend New Year’s eve. Almost with whole-hearted conviction, I announced that I was spending my New Year’s at Ahmedabad at the Gandhi Ashram. This, without knowing where exactly it is, not knowing how to get there, not knowing if I will get tickets. In short, without answering any of the “practical” questions that arise when one suggests a trip.

That night, I worked on cleartrip and got my train tickets. The next day I remembered that I had no place to stay during New Year’s. I contacted Manoj Pai, mentioned in my last blog post, and asked him if a place called Ellis Bridge would be a workable distance. Having ascertained of this fact, I also had the hotel room booked.

It is on these facts alone that I left on the afternoon of December 31, 2011 to Ahmedabad.

Gandhi Ashram

I walked from my room at Ellis Bridge, past the Town Hall to the Gandhi Ashram. The road had a wide sidewalk on one side of the road. I walked here. I walked a little more than 4 km with just Gmaps to give directions and using the amazing tracking service to spot where I was. The roads were empty. There were very few cars.

I reached Gandhi Ashram, visited the place where he stayed till about 1930. I saw the Sabarmati, now embanked with concrete on both the banks. It was somewhat representative of the rest of Gujarat. They have not let nature be. Rivers are dry, canals are full. But, where they have let nature take its course, the beauty is unparalleled.

There was lots of water all over the stoned walkway that leads to the Gandhi Museum. Artificial lawns, the trees with a low wall built on their base so that people could sit. Clearly not necessary. The lawns are so clean that it does not invite one to sit there. The whole atmosphere seemed more artificial than it should have been.

I visited the Store, purchased three books – two related to local government and one related to vegetarian diet. I have no idea when I will get around to reading these, though.

I was here for a reason – self-introspection. I sat there and wrote for an hour – maybe two. Then, I packed up and left. The only part of the Ashram that I loved was the river proper. It looked more like a canal now but somewhere it had some part of its natural beauty left.

I was disappointed by my self-introspection. It was not as fulfilling as I hoped and it got over rather too quickly. But, I had reached the conclusions that I wanted to and so in that respect, it was successful. Like the Ashram now, my life too is more artificial than natural. This is a thought that could have come only in that Ashram. It was the correct place to reach the conclusion. It stands up, all-in-all.

E-ticketing and New Age Travels

I plan to spend New Year’s in Ahmedabad. I will have a separate post for what I did there after I return. But, preparing for the trip itself deserves a blog post. I prepared for the trip solely on phone calls with Manoj Pai, an amateur astronomer in Ahmedabad with whom I am in touch with since 2004 but have never met a single time and, a site introduced to me by Kirk in December, 2010.

The Indian Railways earlier this year introduced the concept of having electronic tickets (the official note is here). This meant that you could show tickets on your mobile phone and you did not need to carry an actual paper ticket in your hand. They claim they can save 3 lakh A4 size papers if this idea is implemented. A worthy environmental effort and I support it. I have travelled paper-less on Indian Railways.

The problem arose when I book a ticket through a travel agent such as cleartrip. I love the formatting that cleartrip does for the ticket of Indian Railways. However, they sent me an .html attachment of the ticket and I did not have a .pdf document printer on my laptop nor did I want to buy from Adobe.

To solve this problem, I installed CutePDF writer and Ghostscript. With their powers combined, I got a .pdf printer for my computer. The CutePDF website has pretty straight forward instructions on how to use and set it up. This solved my .pdf printing problem.

asked the question on Twitter on whether the email from cleartrip could be used as an e-ticket. @MumbaiCentral@akisaxena@girishmallya and @basrur replied and provided answers that ranged from yes to maybe. I did not get a convincing answer based on real experience. @MumbaiCentral suggested that I try this out but carry a .pdf backup – just in case. This is what I hope to do today.

A day in Baroda

This article originally appeared on my blog I recovered the post using Wayback Machine.

I have been thinking of visiting the Planetarium at Vadodar/Baroda for the past few weeks. I have either overslept or haven’t been in the mood over the past few Sundays. A power cut early today morning woke me up and didn’t allow me to sleep any longer.

I reached Baroda a little after mid-day. An amateur astronomer and friend, Manoj Pai from Ahmedabad, had advised me to walk it up from the railway station since it was only a kilometer away. As I walked down a road (I just chose one randomly), I spotted the grand building that was the M S University. It blew me away. No photograph I took did it any justice (a repeating theme on this trip). I did not take any. I had admired the buildings that stood on the grounds and then had totally forgotten the reason for my being there. I took a right turn and reached what was a bridge. A small bridge made grand by ornate Mughal (I think) guard rooms. Below the bridge was a canal, now transformed into a nullah, an open drainage stream. A bunch of steps ran down a steady slope. They widened a little at the bottom. My mind almost got into the mode of reprimanding India’s lack of concern/respect/preservation/conservation of these beautiful structures but stopped myself.

Crossing roads in Baroda is more tricky than in Bombay. Here, vehicles don’t slow down and the turns are graceful. Such was the chaos on the roads that I was surprised that they moved aside for a passing ambulance. I had a sumptuous meal at Aangan restaurant. Now full and armed with the location of the Planetarium, I went towards Sayaji Park.

[The original blog post contained photos that I am not sure if I have or not. Will try to locate and recover.]

Sankalp Bhoomi

On my way back in the train I saw an awesome instrument – made of a brown coconut shell and a stick. It seemed like an instrument that Kirk Kittell purchased from India when he was here earlier this year. It made an awesome monotonous and lonely music.

Visit to Shirdi

The last time I had been to Shirdi was as a 9 year old. I don’t remember much about that place and when my friend Pranav mentioned that he had plans to go there, I decided to join him. This was last Sunday. The plan was to leave on Friday night, reach there on Saturday morning, have an audience at Shirdi with Sai Baba and then head to Shani Shingnapur and then return back to Mumbai on Saturday night.

Pranav and I met at the private bus hub near Diamond Garden, Chembur to board the bus. The Dolphin Volvo bus arrived and boarded the bus and we departed at 10.45 pm. At 1.30 pm we arrived at our first stop and I woke up after trying to sleep. There were seat bugs (for want of a better name). My elbows were swollen with seat bug bite and it seemed that it was a general experience among passengers and not a particular experience with me. After a general patting down, I had a bite-less night.

We reached Shirdi at 5.55 am and we got a room that allowed us to bathe and change for Rs. 60. It was the top of someone’s home which was being lent for a daily or for bathing purposes. Since Shirdi is a holy place, it is general practice to be bathed and fresh. The room and bathroom were clean and also had a provision for hot water. The hot water was flowing through a plastic pipe generally used for electric purposes – which concerned me a bit but I used cold water.

Pranav led the way to the samadhi. There is as usual a very long line. The early hour and some smart maneuvering meant that we could make some time and only had to wait for about an hour and a half. The serpentine line went through a hall, down a flight of steps, up another flight of steps and suddenly we were inside the samadhi. When you reach in, the first thing that strikes you is how Hindu the place is for someone who had practised both Hinduism and Islam. Second was the amount of gold the place had for the man who believed in simplicity. We then went to some adjoining centers which were places where Sai Baba stayed, prayed, cooked etc. We then went to the shrine of a person who worked with Sai Baba and began the search for a jeep that would take us to Shani Shingnapur.

It is an interesting experience to discuss travel plans sitting inside a temple. We planned here on whether to go to Shani Shingnapur after breakfast or not. The decision was to head to Shani Shingnapur, a temple dedicated to Shani, the god Saturn, without breakfast. Pranav had been going on about this temple since the day we decided to head to Shirdi. He told me about the idea behind wearing orange clothes and a wet body while entering the temple and had even suggested I carry my orange clothes with me. He then helpfully pointed out that the orange clothes were available there on rent.

Pranav described the experience in the jeep best by comparing it with NASCAR. We joked that the drivers were more of an expert in reminding people about God than a priest in the temple. Pranav got the jolt of his life when the jeep passed in front of the temple. People wearing ordinary clothes were walking into the temple. A passenger in the front seat seemed equally jolted and asked about it to the driver. The driver explained that the Government thought it was a waste of time for devotees to be following rituals and decided to do away with it. So it was that we visited the temple without Pranav’s “orange clothes and wet body”.

The temple here is much simpler. The God is represented by a black rock on which devotees offer mustard oil which is poured on the rock. Some brought small plastic packets of oil, some small plastic bottles of oil and some even brought a cannister of oil! At the exit, we found a medical camp being conducted by the doctors from Ahmednagar Govt. Civil Hospital. This was my first round of blood donation. After a round of weight checks and jotting down personal details I was asked to press a “Squeeze-me” ball for about 5 mins to drive out a packet of blood. For my squeezing, I got a certificate, a unique identification number and a medal.

I felt a bit tired on the way back where I and Pranav had to be squeezed in with an older gentleman from Kolkata. On return to Shirdi, we had lunch (a much needed one) and took our bus back to Mumbai. This bus too suffered with lack of passengers. Efforts to revive passenger count by waiting for a hour and a half at Nashik failed and so the bus left following an internal revolt by passengers. We reached Mumbai an hour later than we would have.

The Adventurous Untour

I was thinking of doing an untour for a very long time and finally got a chance to do it between January 4 and January 16 2009. This was perhaps the most unorganised trip that I have ever taken. A step ahead of what I did this time could possibly be a group untour where the group decided where to go together. That would be really cool to do. And, cooler still would be if the group is a bunch of strangers! Any takers? This would really amplify the concept of an untour.

Anyway, only two things became certain about four days before the trip. The starting date was to be January 4 and was to be a train to Secunderabad. The last date was to be January 14 and was to be the train back to Mumbai. With these boundaries set, I set out to Secunderabad on January 4. I decided not to push my luck too much and agreed to stay with relatives and friends during the duration of the tour – money saved, parents happy. :)

The train to Secunderabad took me on a  journey via Aurangabad. After Secunderabad, I hung out with Raghunandan in Hyderabad and had a glimpse into his hectic life. It is perhaps the most unorganised life that I have seen anyone lead. I went on a day long Hyderabad tour on a bus, the idea was to have an idea to say something that I did during this trip other than talk about and discuss about space – a sore point with my parents earlier and something I don’t bring up too often now. Anyway, I got a sub-10-degree-celsius-night sky observation junkett thanks to Raghunandan’s friends – Vaibhav and Partha on their cool 8-inch reflector scope. This was perhaps the highlight of the Hyderabad chapter of my trip.

I then moved onto Vellore on a private bus (Kesineni, for the details people). Got down at Vellore in the early morning and moved into a TNSTC bus to Katpadi. From there I took a rickshaw to Vellore Institute of Technology. I spent three days there meeting the teams that work to run the SEDS chapter there(disclosure: I’m the President of SEDS, India), caught the updates on the conference and perhaps for the first time met three members of my Exec Comm face to face. It was a great experience none the less. Here too, thanks to a guy, I found out about a direct bus from Vellore to Trivandrum. We went out and booked a ticket for the 741 kms to Trivandrum.

This part of the journey was largely spoiled by the fact that my stomach was upset with me. For perhaps the first time, I sat with out eating anything solid for about 24 hours. I broke that fast with a good lunch in the afternoon – home cooked food at Varkala. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. I came to Trivandrum Central and saw the famous Baker-style Indian Coffee House. I didn’t take a pic because my stomach was urging me to get home quickly. I took a bus from there to Varkala and covered the 41 kms distance.

A small side adventure on the way back to Mumbai on the large 2048 kms journey back home. I had a small tweetup with @kg86, who’s with the Navy and who rode all the way from his base at Willingdon Island, Cochin to Ernakulam Stn as I passed through. Thank you, man, it was awesome meeting you there.

The most important point of this untour was whether this is possible in India or not. If you’re adventurous enough, anything is possible. I really hope someone tries an all strangers untour of some region of India as suggested in the first paragraph and share their experiences on a blog.