A trek to Trikuta Hills – for the umpteenth time

30.09.2018

Boarded the train no 22461, Shri Shakti Express, a fully air-conditioned train from New Delhi to Katra which commenced the journey at 5.30 pm. The reservation was initially in RAC which got confirmed later. However, the berths allotted defied all established norms and claims by the Railways. We were allotted two side upper berths. Railways claim to allot lower berths to the woman above 45 years of age. My wife is 57 and I am 3 weeks short of 60 as on date. Don’t know how the berths are allocated.

As the coach slowly filled in, many a passenger faced the same situation. Families are separated just not by widely allocated berths but also to separate and distant coaches. We were in coach B9, berth nos. 48 and 56, both side upper berths. The berth no 55 was allotted to a family whose all other members were in coach B5.

Similar were the allotments with many such passengers. The passengers were trying to accommodate one another which was not possible in all cases. There were kids with mothers who needed the lower berths. For us, it was difficult to climb the uppermost berths. So it was really difficult to accommodate every request. We stayed put at our berths since the alternate proposals were not beneficial.

Those who could accommodate, especially the lone passengers, were praiseworthy. They helped families to travel together sacrificing there own comfortable berths. I saw a couple of such examples.

It is beyond my comprehension as to how the berths were allocated. If it is computer driven, there is a serious flaw in logic built in the software. If it is manual, then God is the only saviour. When I had booked the tickets, I was allocated RAC 80 and RAC 81. Obviously, there was heavy booking and the railways must have added extra coach/s. If that is the case, and I am sure about that, such haphazard allotments cannot take place without a certain malfunction either in the computerized system or in the manual intervention. I discard the manual intervention since the entire railway reservation system is computerized since so many years. Therefore the system logic needs a relook. So many people can not be inconvenienced due to some stupid logic. The railways must look into the problem. I will definitely lodge a complaint with the authorities.

There were kids galore in the coach of all ages right from infancy to teenage. Naturally, there was lots of noise. I was thinking about my younger daughter Tanu who is allergic to small kids. Once, on her flight to London, she could not sleep for entire flight as there were a number of kids around her seat.

The family opposite to our side berths was quite noisy and with high gastronomic tendencies. Every 15 minutes, they were munching something since the boarding. Some people are quite hungry once they board the train. From my childhood days, I have seen people devour as if with the end of the journey the world will come to an end.

Bhavani could watch her favourite serials in her iPhone using the Tata sky app. I used the opportunity to write this blog. Right now I will stop for dinner as I am feeling hungry more because of various aromas invading my nostrils from all sides.

Dinner is over. Bhavani had the puri subzi packed at home and that came very handy. Delicious and homely.

The opposite co-passengers (4 adults and 5 kids including an infant) are busy eating something or other since they boarded the train. Now they are having dinner. They have both home cooked food as well as buying from the sundry vendors. Whatever the vendors brought they bought. Insatiable appetite! In less than 3 hours they had homemade snacks and dinner plus assorted food items and beverages from the mobile vendors. No aspersions, simply astonishing.

In our next coupe another family of 8 members, 5 adults and 3 teenagers, were busy in various games and discussion. They were all very vocal and never really bothered about the noise they were creating. Their eating habits were disciplined. However, they continued hot debate unmindful of the irritation it caused to fellow passengers.

A college-going girl among the party had some mythological subject in her course. She debated and questioned the wisdom of mythological heroes like Rama and Krishna. Her parents could not really match her in her vociferous (however, half-baked knowledge backed) arguments. She questioned the wisdom behind destiny, Karma, rebirth, incarnation etc. I liked her inquiries and the eagerness to be responded logically.

We occupied our respective berths. Bhavani could manage to climb with great difficulty. I also climbed my berth but could not go for immediate sleep as the family opposite me continued their discussion. I am waiting. The girl seemed to be all knowledgeable and not amenable to any logic.

01.10.2018

The sleep last night was quite disturbed. Anyway, the side upper berths are least comfortable. The train stopped at some stations for quite a long duration. I think 12 hours for 654 km distance for a superfast train having just about 5-6 stoppages is a stretched time. The train can easily cover the distance in less than 10 hours. The departure and arrival timings are to be rescheduled.

The train arrived before scheduled time at 5 am. There was a slight chill in the air. We took an auto and reached our hotel The Grand Sharan less than a km away from the station.

The trek

We started the trek at about 8.15 am from the new route inaugurated in May this year. The route is about 7 km, called Tarakote Marg and wonderfully constructed. It is fully shaded, wide and very well paved. No ponies are allowed on this route. However, vans and tractors were seen plying laden with various materials.

The best part of this stretch is the horticulture work. There was a constant fragrance of assorted flowers on the entire stretch. The air was so pure that I remarked that one should cover this distance every month to cleanse one’s lungs and arteries with pure oxygen. Since the part of the total trek is newly constructed, there was less crowd which started swelling once the road merged with the existing route.

We reached in 5 and half hours. The ‘darshan’ was smooth as the crowd was not great. The auspicious days will start on 10th October and then the crowd will be very heavy.

While returning we noticed a few things:

1. The ‘piththus’ (the porters), who carry the luggage and small children, have improvised their work by introducing prams. They no longer carry the load on their backs.
2. There were no ‘langurs’ in the Bhairon Ghat area resulting in a proliferation of monkeys. The monkeys also have improved their drinking skills as I saw a monkey drinking coffee directly from the paper cup (check my Instagram account for the photo) in the same way we humans do. Their population has also increased considerably as we observed while trekking down.
3. There is continuous development work on the old trekking route where ponies are allowed but with less focus or urgency. Large stretches are not covered overhead and with poor lighting, the stretches are dangerous as trekking is allowed 24/7.
4. Though the battery-powered vans are allowed only for invalid and old/sick people, pilgrims of all ages seen using the facility and that’s why there was a long queue for booking.
5. The helicopter facility has caught up. Two helicopters were seen flying pilgrims non-stop. In fact, the booking window at the hilltop put up a board by 2 pm announcing no further booking for the day.
6. A ropeway is under construction which when completed, would help pilgrims to go to the Bhairon temple easily. At present the trek of just 2 km is quite arduous, steep, narrow and just about 10% of the pilgrims visiting the Vaishno Devi Shrine visit this temple.
7. A unique hand controlled improvised cart was seen ferrying people down. The unique part of the cart was it’s braking system. An old tyre, dragged by the cart, is tied with a rope attached to the front axle of cart beneath the wooden body. The cart is controlled from behind with another rope. To apply the brake, one has to press the tyre with the foot. What an improvisation! What a ‘jugaad’!

Our return trek was a bit delayed since we were now tired. To and fro, the trek is about 28 km if you include the Bhairon Ghat. Though the ascent was comfortable considering the new route and our legs were fresh, the descent was tiring as we had to take the old route where the ponies carrying pilgrims, ponies carrying sundry goods and all that is allowed. For the last 5 km, we literally dragged ourselves down. A trek of 28 km on the Trikuta hills (altitude more than 6000 feet) in less than 16 hours by a couple with the combined age of 117 years should be praiseworthy.

I used to visit this hill shrine regularly starting from 1983 till the first decade of this millennia. For the last 8 to 9 years, I have not been here. There is a whole lot of improvements since then. The railways has been extended to Katra, the base camp, the new trekking route is fabulous, the chopper transport is now stabilized with an added helipad on top, Yatra slips are now issued even by hotels where you stay, new route is only for trekkers (no ponies are allowed), continuous upgrade of facilities, etc. The Katra rail station is squeaky clean and with top-class facilities even with dorm accommodation at just ₹1210 which includes breakfast, drop and pick up from Banganga, the starting point of the trek.

Advertisements

Vishwakarma

Today is 17th September, a day when the civil engineer, architect, planner and executor of massive construction projects of our 330 million gods, Vishwakarma is worshipped. Typically the Vishwakarma puja is celebrated every year on 17th September whereas the dates of puja of all other Hindu deities vary every year. I don’t know the reason but it has been so as I have experienced over the years.

The idea of this blog is not to remind people about this particular puja. This morning, while cleaning my car, I remembered the day. On this day, the tools are given rest, the labourers enjoy a holiday and worship the god very enthusiastically. I remembered my childhood days. I have grown up in a place dotted with coal mines. All the coal mines activities were supported by a workshop where you could find ironsmiths, carpenters, painters, electricians, automobile mechanics, sundry mechanics and operators (who were called in the local language as ‘khalasi’). All these people worked with certain tools inseparable from their vocation. On this day, they used to put down the tools to rest. The tools were cleaned, polished and given sundry treatment as an army man cleans his firearm or a soldier, in medieval days, sharpens his sword or spear. After such a treatment to the tools, these are placed at the feet of the idol of the deity and worshipped along with the god. The tools would not be touched for the day and only after the puja is over and the idol is immersed, the tools would be put to use again.

The entire function used to be conceptualized and managed by the workers. There was some grant from the coal mine owner to organize the function. Over and above, the workers used to collect ‘chanda’ (donation) from all other staff working in the coal mine apart from contributing to the kitty themselves. The workshop employees would erect the ‘pandal’ inside the workshop itself. The entire workshop would give a clean look and it would be beautifully decorated. Those days, the Chinese lighting was unknown. The decoration was mostly with colourful paper flags cut in a distinct way, a shape of a scalene triangle. These paper flags used to be glued with a rope using homemade glue – mostly from wheat flour. The entire atmosphere used to be festive. In those days of gramophone records, the festival was highly charged with the continuous blaring of the mike and nobody really minded the ear-shattering noise.

The workers took a special interest in this puja just because this festival was something on which they had complete control. The other festivals, like Durga Puja or Kali Puja, were in the domain of the upper class of people. In those festivals, they were mute spectators or at the most, helpers. However, the Vishwakarma Puja was entirely theirs. Right from organising each nuance of the puja to arranging funds to transporting the deity to decorate the place to arrange sweetmeats or a feast (if finances permit), everything was managed by them. The workers were managers and supervisors of this function in all respect. And they were good managers as far as the function was concerned as I don’t remember any untoward incident. They took pride in successful organisation of the function and encouraged in the act by their supervisors, mostly the engineer and the manager of the particular coal mine.

I do miss such festive atmosphere in the city I now live and definitely miss the ‘laddus’ that used to be distributed right after the puja and for which we, as young onlookers, loitering around the ‘pandal’, waited infinitely.

Book Launch – Gandhi…

Attended a book launch titled ‘Gandhi, the years that changed the world, 1914-1948’
By Ramachandra Guha, at India International Centre, Max Muller Road, New Delhi on 11.09.2018.

The gathering consisted of the most elite class of people. I saw Mr Nanadan Nilekani, Prof Apurvanand of JNU and some other dignitaries whom I could not identify. Before the launch, the talks among the people gathered were in hushed tones and mostly anything other than the book. I was seated on the 9th row and was waiting for the writer to arrive. Some overheard discussion was like:

‘So you landed Chennai from Dubai yesterday?’ someone asked the other in the row behind. The answer could not be heard clearly.

Lots of Hi’s and Hello’s. Seats were blocked by keeping bags while sipping tea with cookies in the adjacent corridor. Aged people asked for the seats which were reserved with bags.

The seats were all taken fifteen minutes before the scheduled time. Many stood around the side corridors and behind. The number of people standing seemed to me more than the people seated.

The author arrived shortly and took his seat among the audiences before being formally invited to the dais. He was dressed in a white kurta-pyjama and a black Khadi jacket. He is a famous writer, a celebrity author and also controversial for he is known for his oratory skills with oblique remarks to the government in power. Some people were keen on their books signed by the author. I am sitting on the 9th row. I went ahead and asked the writer if he would sign the books later. He said yes and I returned to my seat.

Shortly the book was launched by Ms Nidhi Razdan, a TV anchor. The author gave a short speech as to how he could write the massive book, the size of a brick.

He started with the date 11/9 – two incidents happened on this day. However, the terror attack in the US is more known than the Gandhi’s fight against apartheid spearheaded on this day in South Africa. Traversing through the various points in his life, the author remembered a few incidents which were worth mentioning.

In 1931, a British journalist wrote to him: “you may not be the architect of Indian constitution but your contribution to that is the concept of non-violence form of protest.”

People know of 3 movements unleashed by Gandhi. Many do not know his 4th movement trying to remove untouchability when he visited the countryside again. Fundraising skills of Gandhi were unique. He would sell signed photographs of himself and also a shaving razor used by Nehru. An advertisement about Gandhi (who never visited the US) in the US, selling suits – “Gandhi does not wear our suits, but that is his choice.”

When Gandhi visited the UK in 1931 to participate in the Round Table Conference, someone asked what he thinks about Western Civilisation. Gandhi had said ‘It would be a great idea’.

Mahadev Desai, the secretary of Gandhi was greatly remembered in this book who famously said ‘it is easy to be a devotee of a saint in the heaven but it is equally difficult to serve a saint on this earth’. Obviously, he was referring to Gandhi.

The author took certain questions in the Q & A session later. One particular question that I remember was about the assassination of Gandhi by Nathuram Godse. The question was whether RSS really involved in the conspiracy to assassinate Gandhi or it was solely the act of Hindu Mahasabha. The author did not give a direct reply as this was a matter of great analysis. But he emphasized the fact that both RSS and Hindu Mahasabha hated Gandhi like anything. Another question was about the leadership creation by Gandhi on which the author was certain that Gandhi could create leaders like Nehru and Patel, an attribute solely lacked after his death. Right from Nehru, till date, no leader of any party could create leaders who would take the baton forward. The author also lamented the fact that many prominent leaders got lured by the power and position and forgot the idea of Gandhi in the nation building. In fact, Gandhi wanted the Congress party to wind up after independence and to immerse itself in nation-building in the grassroots. He also talked about the positive and negative impacts of the assassination of the great soul.

The launch ceremony, the speech, the conversation and the Q & A session went for about 90 minutes. There was a queue formed to get the book signed by the author. Soon the queue was long as the book was being sold outside the auditorium and those who purchased wanted the book signed by the author. Fortunately, I was ahead in the queue and got the book signed by the author. I had two more books of the same author purchased about 7 years back. I got them signed too.

When I left the venue, it was already past 8 pm. I took the metro and came home by 9.30 pm. It was an evening worth remembering.

Our 25th Wedding Anniversary..the concluding part.

02.08.2018

Our visit to Pune was en-route to Bhimashankar, a place at an altitude of 3500 feet above sea level and an abode of Lord Shiva as He has manifested here in the form of a Jyotirlinga. With the visit to Omkareshwar, I had completed the visit to all the 12 Jyotirlingas in the country. I had visited Bhimashankar in 2011 with my colleague and friend Mr Manoj Dikshit. However, Bhavani had not been to this temple and with this visit, she too would complete visiting all the 12 Jyotirlingas. Hence the plan.

Bhimashankar is situated in the Raigad District of Maharashtra state. The entire hill range is known as Sahyadri. Numerous villages and small towns dot the range. My first visit to this place was by trekking through the forests in the valleys of the range. A separate chapter is devoted to that thrilling trek. The road route was not known. We had returned by bus to Pune at that time and did not really remember the road. All I could remember that it had taken a little over 2 hours to reach Pune through hilly terrain.

Naturally, we depended on Google map to guide us on the route. We had started at 8 am after breakfast and hit the NH 48. The Google guide showed us relatively clear roads. Soon we were out the congested part of the city. We passed through an old area of the city and then entered a cantonment area (Dehu). The road was good so far though just two-lane which did not hinder the progress as the traffic was sparse. So far so good.

I was a bit sceptical about the road as I was not finding any bus plying on that road neither any tourist vehicle. The accompanying traffic was mostly local. Google was showing the same route and the distance to the destination was also decreasing constantly. Hence we continued on that route.

At one particular point, when the Google indicated us to take a narrow road going downhill, I stopped. My initial apprehensions are now deeper. I asked one passer-by if this road indeed leads to Bhimashankar. He was affirmative supported by another biker, a milkman, passing by. The road ahead was just a single lane, well made as far as I could see and with hardly any traffic. We had no choice. If we turn back, we don’t know where to go and Google will re-route us to the same road. So, though reluctantly, we decided to move on. Let’s see what lies ahead.

For the next 5 km, the road was steep downhill, narrow but in good condition. But the honeymoon with the road ended there. Soon we hit a very rough patch and Google informed us that we needed to move on this patch for 3 km. The road was completed damaged due to rains and was passing through small villages. We saw school children walking down the road. There were crater-like potholes and there were mounds where small vehicles could tilt dangerously. Driving the car through that uneven, bouncy and potholed path (it can hardly be termed as a road) was a nightmare for me. I was feeling terribly sorry for my car which is not made to negotiate this kind of treacherous road. The stretch seemed never-ending. I had no choice to reverse, such as the worst condition of the road. The only silver lining for the car was that it was not fully loaded. There was no one in the back seat nor there any luggage in the boot. Slowly and carefully (as far as possible), I manoeuvred the car through that difficult patch. A school bus passed by raising some relief that vehicles do negotiate this ‘road’. It was truly remarkable how I managed to cling on the left to give way to the oncoming bus.

About 2 km in that ‘road’, I saw a car coming from opposite direction. I signalled the driver to stop and lowered the window. I asked him how far the bad patch was and if we were on the right direction to Bhimashankar. The driver, a young local boy with his mother in the passenger seat understood my agony. He reassuringly told me that that bad patch is just another 700-800 meters, the road is better thereafter and we were, indeed, on the right direction. I felt better as one feels better after taking a pill in case of a headache. He was right. The bad patch ended in about 800 meters on a T-junction. Now Google guided me to take the right turn. I stopped the car, came out and tried to understand the road condition ahead. It seemed better than the previous stretch but still quite bad. The potholes were stark, the road was narrow, just a single lane, the asphalt work has worn out and it seemed that the road would lead me to a harrowing patch again and through village roads. Towards the left, the road was better and shortly a bus turned towards that. Google insisted that I have to take the right turn and to stay on that road for next 8 km.

By now, I was a little vexed and annoyed about my decision to take this route. This is certainly not the road I had taken in 2011. That road was broad enough and there was a reasonable movement of traffic on that road.

A young man on a bike appeared shortly and I waved at him to stop and asked for his guidance. As usual, he also affirmed that this road indeed goes to Bhimashankar. About the road condition, he said it was better than the last stretch but still not good enough. He assured me that after this stretch, state highway would be there and that is a good road. He went ahead and I followed him.

The road was still bad. A couple of trucks and bus passed by. Except for the road, the hilly surrounding was beautiful. We passed through small villages, minor streams coming alive in rains and lush greenery all around. The guy kept leading us and in a couple of road junctions showed us the correct turn.

In about 20 minutes, the 8 km ordeal was over. We could see a small town and a T-point. The biker waved us to stop. He told us to take the left turn at the T-point. We thanked him profusely for guiding and paid him Rs.100 as a small token of gratitude.

As we took the left turn, the road was suddenly broader and better. It was a concrete road till the outskirts of the town and thereafter it was asphalt. The usual route (which we came to know later and by which we returned to Pune in the evening) is by NH 60 and SH 54. However, the Google map showed us a different route. The distance was just over 100 km and time to be taken was around 3 hours. Google map always shows the fastest route as also the least congested route. However, from our experience so far, we understood that Google does not take into account the road conditions and the motorability. The route we took as per Google was through NH 48 to Dehu Road till Chas where we got on to SH 54. Up to Chas, it was all village roads passing through various villages such as Khalumbra, Bhamboli, Kivale, and Argadeshiwar etc. From Chas, the road was better and to our relief, we could see some tourist vehicles. The road winded uphill along a huge lake called Chas Kaman Dam. The dam was always on our left and gave company for almost 15 km to a village called Valad.

Though we were climbing all the time, the hills never seemed to commence as we were passing through villages and plenty of agricultural fields. The climb slowly became a bit steeper after a village called Mandoshi.

About 20 km after Mandoshi, we took a left turn near a village called Taleghar and shortly we entered the wooded area of Bhimashankar Reserve forest. About 2 km from Taleghar on the road, sharp upward turns were aplenty. We faced the subsided road at two places where the road has suddenly caved in creating a gap of 2 feet at least displacing the top cover and exposing the loose soil in that gap. Some locals have tried to fill the gap with loose soil and boulders but the incessant rain had thwarted their efforts. I had great worries about negotiating the car in those two gaps considering the low ground clearance of my car. Fortunately, I could negotiate unscathed and heave a sigh of relief.

Till now we had faced mostly cloudy weather with little drizzles at short intervals. The moment we entered the wooded area, the dark clouds descended and engulfed us. The visibility diminished, slow initially but then rapidly as we drove further. The headlights were on long beam along with the blinkers. About a couple of km from the parking, there was absolutely zero visibility. I drove dead slow, kept all my attention to the curving of the road and just guessed the road by looking for the tiny square signals embedded on the road at the bends. Soon the silhouette of human beings and vehicles came alive in that severely limited view and we knew that we have arrived at the destination.

The entry to the hilltop of Bhimashankar was nothing but spectacular. We were literally on cloud 9 as they say. We were engulfed in rainy clouds, wet yet no rainwater, no sun and a heavenly feeling in a hundred per cent pollution free environment. The visibility was just a few meters. We carried umbrellas but there was no rain, just dark and misty clouds hovering over you, enveloping you, embracing you and welcoming you into its heavenly refuge.

I wanted to show the forest and the trail that I had taken with Manoj 7 years back while trekking to Bhimashankar. There is a welcome gate now towards the reserve forest. But beyond that nothing was visible. There is also an observation deck at a cliff. But that too was unapproachable.

The temple is 140 steps downhill, sitting amid a small valley. In fact, the temple is in the deepest part of the valley whereas all other constructions are on higher slopes. The steps are not too steep and well-spaced till the very end. Now there are some improvements and the path is mostly covered to save the pilgrims from rain and sun. There are shops selling puja items, eatables and sundry. We observed a particular flower called ‘Gaurimallika’, not seen elsewhere.

There was not much of crowd so to say. A small queue of around 50 people waited patiently for the temple gate to open and constantly chanted ‘Om Namah Shivaya’, ‘Bol Bom’. It has rained throughout and coupled with the wet weather the premises was slippery and many of the devotees were drenched.

We entered the sanctum sanctorum by 1 pm and was out in next 5 minutes. This happens in almost all the temples where you make months of preparation to go and the reverence lasts only a few minutes. The floor was wet and slippery. By 1.30 pm we were out of the small temple premises. From a vantage point, I took some snaps of the temple which seemed a very old structure. I complimented the people associated with its construction hundreds of years earlier in such a challenging spot.

The public convenience facilities near the temple are deplorable. We wanted to visit washrooms which are constructed a little ahead of the temple. The male section was open while the female section was locked. There was no water. Two 1000 litre capacity plastic tanks were empty. We had to buy a water bottle to wash our hands.

Since we saw a sparse crowd at the temple, I asked a temple employee the reason thereof. On my last visit in 2011, I had followed the trail left by the villagers while trekking in that forest. It seems that the ‘Shravan’ month as per Hindu calendar has yet not commenced for the locals. By next Saturday, it would begin. The local villagers would then throng the temple and there would be a huge crowd by then.

It started raining when we were having lunch of Puri Bhaji in a shack sitting on plastic moulded chairs. The raindrops on the tin roof sounded hoarse and scary. Soon our lunch was over and so was the raining.

Nothing much has changed in these 7 years since my last visit. I could locate the three-room hotel where we had stayed for the night at a tariff of Rs.150 per night. There were two such hotels and I did not see any addition. There were, of course, some resorts have come up a couple of km from the temple which we saw during our return.

The cloud cover was stagnant. While buying roasted corn from a woman vendor we were informed that the weather remains the same for four months. She was using a manually driven bellow to fire up the charcoal to roast the corns. Vendors elsewhere can use the technology instead of using hand fans. Roasted corn is a delicacy in such damp weather.

Our vehicle was parked just outside the bus depot. This time I was not taking any chances with Google. There was no network also. I asked a driver of a commercial vehicle about the return route. He understood the road we had taken while coming up. He advised to take the straight road near Taleghar and not to take the right turn there. To make us understand more clearly, he informed that today there is a weekly village market and the right turn would come just after the market ends. We needed to drive straight past the market. We noted to be cautious while negotiating that stretch lest we might stray into that treacherous road all over again. We thanked him.

Our journey was now complete. We felt a divine satisfaction. Both of us have now completed the visit to all the 12 Jyotirlingas in the country. The last one was more special due to the timing – our 25th wedding anniversary, the period – Shravan month as per Hindu Calendar, the weather – clouds covering from all directions and above all, the exhilarating road trip, started on bad roads but ended smoothly. We have reached the farthest point of this road trip. Now it is return time. This evening we would be back in Pune. Tomorrow we would be at Indore and the day after, we would be back home.

Feeling content and happy, we resumed our return journey. For the next two km, there was the same cloud cover. We drove cautiously and soon we were out of the clouds. It was still cloudy and there was no sun. However, it was clear on the ground level. Visibility was now not a problem. At one particular point, we stopped the car to have a better view of the valley down below. However, the clouds descended again with high winds and blocked the view in all directions.

We found the weekly market from a distance and were alert. We drove straight past the market and now we’re on a decent road. A road sign announced Pune 120 km. The driver had told us that on this road, we may have to drive 20 km extra. Never mind! We wanted to reach safe, especially not hurting the car anymore. In the rainy season, the entire hill range comes alive. It is grinning with various hues of green everywhere. The grass is lime green, the trees are of various hues – ranging from emerald to parakeet to seaweed to moss and all that, the paddy fields swayed with pear green lustre. As we come down – this time without being flummoxed with road conditions, we enjoyed the surrounding natural landscape more. There was a huge dam in a place called Dimbhe. On this road, the localities were better developed than the other route. We passed through small towns aplenty.

The SH 112 took us to Manchar where the road merged with NH 60 which eventually took us to the city of Pune. By 5 pm we were back to our hotel. What a day! We had all the thrills of a road trip – bad roads, no roads, bad technology, elegant views, helpful people, terrific weather, good roads, beautiful vistas, a very satisfactory temple visit and a very safe return. Such a trip would remain forever etched in the memory. My both trips to Bhimashankar – the first one by trekking, and the second one by car are now truly memorable.

 

03.08.2018

Today we would be commencing our return journey to home. Noida is about 1500 km from Pune by road. We had planned the return journey in two phases. Today our destination is Indore, about 600 km away. We had checked the Google map. The route would be NH 60 till Dhule, about 350 km and then NH 52 till Indore. The time to be taken to cover the journey was guessed at a little over 11 hours as per Google, though I had covered the similar distance in about nine hours – from my Noida home to Chittorgarh. The difference is, of course, the road condition. From the Pune city, the NH 60, for the next 100 km or so is just a two-lane road with a lot of patchworks and voluminous traffic. Over and above, getting out of the city itself was going to take a hell lot of time.

We had checked Google for the route to NH 60 from our hotel. It seemed congested. Last evening we had gone to the local market in an autorickshaw. I had asked the auto driver the route to NH 60 from our hotel. He guided me properly and advised me not to take the road suggested by Google.

Today, we left the hotel by 8 am. We took the road as suggested by the auto driver last evening. About a km on NH 48, we took a right turn through an underpass and reached Wakad Chowk where we took a right turn again and kept on moving till Kokne Chowk. Just to be sure that we were on the correct path, I stopped before a circle and asked another auto driver about NH 60, Bhosari and Manchar. He was munching breakfast of Poha, a local delicacy and smilingly offered the same to me before guiding me. A great soul indeed. He told me that we were on the correct route. Just ahead in the circle, we need to take the 3rd exit and …… we would be on NH 60. I thanked him, got back to the driver’s seat and vroomed ahead.

The city remained with us for the next hour. We faced a huge traffic congestion at Chakan which took us 15 minutes to cross. Passed by Manchar, Narayangaon and still, it was just a two-lane badly maintained road. By 11 am, we had covered just about 100 km. 3 hours since we started and just 100 km! However, soon the 4 lane road began when we paid a toll charge of Rs.75 at Hiwargaon Panda in Khed. Now the road was better. But for the rumble speed breakers, I was cruising at 100 kmph. I wanted to cover the lost ground as far as possible.

In this road trip of 3600 km, I was stopped only once by the traffic for checking documents. This happened about 50 km before Nashik. There was a road barricade. The constable asked for my papers which were shown to him duly. The RC card, my driving license, the insurance policy document and the Pollution Under Control (PUC) certificate. The PUC was issued from Delhi and was bilingual with Hindi on top. The constable could not understand that and repeatedly asked for PUC. I had to explain and finally, probably he understood.

We reached Nashik by 1.30 pm. The road led us near the Nashik Road rail station and immediately, I recognized the surroundings. I have been here a number of times before. NH 60 passes through the city just like any other city road – congested, slow and ill-maintained.  In the next 20 minutes, we were out of the city and were on our way to Dhule. For the first time, a road sign to Indore was noticed and I heaved a sigh of relief. We were on the correct course. Mumbai was just 180 km away and I was apprehensive that were we going towards Mumbai?

It was 2.15 pm when we stopped for a cup of tea. The restaurant was entirely made of bamboo which was brought from Assam. There was a beautiful white rose garden inside the courtyard.

The NH 60 is on and off either 2-lane or 4-lane. In my entire trip, I found NH 60 a bit neglected and not maintained as NH 48 or NH 52. We continued our progress. We passed through Malegaon and then Dhule by 3.30 pm. We had covered the last 350 km in 7 and half hours, at an average speed of roughly 60 kmph out of which the first 100 km was @ just 35 kmph. Indore was still 250 km away. We reached the MP-MH border by 4.45 pm. By 6 pm we passed through Khalghat ring road and by 7 pm we were at our Hotel Grand Bhagwati on NH 52 in the outskirts of Indore.

It took 11 hours exactly to reach Indore from Pune, a distance of 600 km at an average speed of 55 kmph. The Grand Bhagwati (TGB), is a 5-star property with great facilities and fabulous rooms. We found the hotel, constructed in sprawling premises, very tastefully done with lawns, ballrooms, fountains and an array of mural works. The dinner was a buffet. The hotel offers only vegetarian dishes. The dinner was sumptuous with at least 3 dozen varieties of dishes. We enjoyed the dinner and after that strolled around the property. We knew that the next day’s road trip is going to be tough. It would 900 km and about 16 hours. We must have proper sleep tonight.

 

04.08.2018

I had kept the window curtain drawn open last night so that the early morning rays come in and I could get up early. Our window was in the eastern direction. I was awake by 4 am. I left the bed by 5 am and by 6 am I had gone down to clean the car windscreen. The car was dirty but there was not much I could do about it. By 7 am we were ready and went for breakfast. By 7.30 we finished breakfast, came back to our room, took our luggage, came down, settled the hotel bill, checked out and by 8 am we bade goodbye to the hotel staff and the city.

We set the Google map for direction to Ujjain. It completely bypassed the city and showed us the way to Ujjain through a well-maintained road meandered through villages and through fields where mainly the soya crop was swaying majestically. The Indore Ujjain road is a 4 lane road. We were yet to get on that road and we thought that Google misled us yet again. Fortunately, this time, it was not the case. The road shown by Google was superb, sparse traffic and the village surrounding on a cloudy morning made the drive enjoyable. About half an hour in that road, we came upon the highway to Ujjain. Now we did not really need Google guidance. This road, till our home at Noida, is now known to us. I had kept a sharp eye on the milestones while coming from Chittorgarh to Indore on 29.07.2018. On that day the route was new to me. Not today.

The distance to be covered was approximately 900 km and Google had estimated the time to be taken as 15 hours and 30 minutes, non-stop, which was of course not possible. We need to stop regularly for washroom requirements, tea and refreshments and to stretch the limbs. I expected that we could reach home by midnight. By the end of daylight, I wanted to reach Jaipur. The road from Jaipur to Delhi is like the back of my palm. The stretch from Ujjain to Jaora, a known stretch now, was just two-lane winding through fields, villages and small towns. Once this stretch was taken, we were on NH 52 which was fabulous all the way to Chittorgarh where we would take NH 48, another fabulous road till Delhi via Nasirabad, Kishangarh and Jaipur. We could maintain a decent speed and passed through the milestones on expected timelines.

By 6 pm we were past Ajmer and now looking for a decent tea joint where we might find proper washroom facilities. However, none was in view and we had to stop at a petrol bunk to fill the tank and we found the washroom facility at that bunk ok.

At about 7 pm we stopped for tea at Highway Junction, a recent facility in sprawling premises just 30 km before Jaipur. We passed Jaipur through the by-pass before 8 pm. It was dark by then. However, it was a known road. We have been to Jaipur a number of times. Shortly after 9 pm, we stopped at another branch of Highway Junction to have dinner. Our estimated arrival time at home would be past midnight. In an hour we passed Pataudi. The traffic now increased as the ‘Kanwaria’ trucks, with loud music, started appearing. We passed the Manesar toll by 11 pm. The home was just an hour away.

We faced a traffic jam in Delhi near RTR flyover (under construction) and near AIIMS roundabout which extended our journey time by half an hour. By 12.30 night we entered MM society and we were at our home after a gruelling drive of 16 hours with stoppages at 4 places.

Conclusion

A long cherished dream was fulfilled. The endurance capacity was also tested and I think I passed that test convincingly.

The road trip cost me Rs.18000 in fuel expenses and Rs.3000 in toll charges. The toll charges came almost one rupee per km. 90% of the toll charges seemed to be fair as the concerned roads were maintained excellently. Roads in Rajasthan and MP were in very good condition whereas in Maharashtra, our Road minister’s own state, the road conditions need a lot of improvement.

The car, a 2012 Honda Civic 1.8V Petrol gave excellent service without a single breakdown – not even a tyre puncture. The fuel efficiency was about 16 km/litre. The ‘Caravan’ by ‘Saregama’ proved to be an outstanding companion. I plugged it into my car audio system. The old melodious songs made the journey a memorable and smooth affair. Bhavani learned to be an able navigator and handled the Google map with ease after initial hiccups. I reinforced my confidence to drive long distances. Now I desire to visit all those places by driving down where I have been on public transport, air and rail. I am confident that I would be able to fulfil my desire in near future, God helps me.

Our 25th wedding anniversary.. contd…

31.07.2018

Indore to Shirdi – 406 km – NH 52/NH 60/Manmad Shirdi Road. Started at 8.30 am; reached 3.30 pm.

At Indore, just outside the hotel premises, there was a petrol bunk where we filled the tank to the capacity and also got the air pressure checked in tyres. It is always advisable to check the air pressure when the tyres are cool. It gives an accurate value. Checking the air pressure after driving 20-30 km is not worth it as the air inside gets hot and gives an inaccurate reading.

We switched on the Google map for directions. The city of Indore is on NH 52. The road passing through the city is world class. It is six-lane as far as the boundaries of the city is concerned. Each part of the city is very well connected to the highway. Beyond the city limits, the highway is four lane and very well laid. The drive was smooth till Dhule, a city in Maharashtra, approximately 250 km from Indore. After Dhule, we had to take NH 60, NH 16 and NH 10, most of which were just 2 lanes. Driving was obviously not as pleasant as in 4 lane highways. Though the 2 lane road was well maintained, vehicular movement was heavy, especially the multi-axle trucks which were slowly progressing mostly because of the heavy load taken beyond their capacity. The road from Indore to Shirdi also passes through some low altitude valley roads where sharp turns and bends interspersed with rumble speed breakers reduced our speed considerably. The saving grace was the green scenic surroundings which were more than compensating the slow progress. The rain washed trees, the lime green grass cover on the hill slopes and fresh swaying crops on the small patches were a treat to the eye. Though I was driving, I could steal the views from the corner of my eyes all the time. The Sahyadri range of hills are of low altitude going max 4000 ft. however, these ranges are not rocky or barren. A kind of grass which covers the range comes alive during the rainy season creating awesome meadows and breathtaking vistas. This is the primary reason I like to visit places like Shirdi or Nashik during the rainy season. There was one more problem faced in this route and that was the proliferation of rumble speed breakers. Till the time we were on MP roads, the speed breakers were few and far between. However, in Maharashtra, there were a lot more, all rumble strips, without the painted strips and very bumpy. For long stretches, these speed breakers were regularly appearing on every 3-4 km or even less when the villages were nearby. The condition of the highway was pretty bad whenever it passed through a small town.

After passing through Dhule and Malegaon, we were on a two-lane highway, with heavy traffic of heavily loaded trucks and congested stretches whenever passing through a small town or bazaars. The upkeep of the road was not uniform. A lot of patchworks which made the ride bumpy.

Still, with all the speed breakers and patchy roads, we could maintain an average speed of 60 kmph by driving 100+ kmph wherever good and relatively less congested roads were available. As we approached Manmad, the Thumb Hill was visible on the horizon. It is a unique hill on top of which a thumb-shaped giant boulder stands. I don’t know since when it has been there. I had seen it for the first time two decades back when passing through Manmad by train and since then it is kind of a landmark to me whenever I look for it.

Shirdi was 60 km away. The two-lane patchworked road and the congestion at Yeola town took us 90 minutes to reach our hotel Golden View at Shirdi by 3.30 pm.

The road trip experience has been mixed so far. While the driving was smooth and less strenuous on 4 lane highways with central verge, it was daunting on the 2 lane roads with no dividers. The roads in Maharashtra so far had more speed breakers than in Rajasthan or in MP.

The hotel at Shirdi, selected from options given in the app turned out to be a smart choice. It is located just across the temple, has its own parking area (paid parking was Rs.80 per night), has a good restaurant and above all the room was spacious. We noted to come back here on our future visits.

Surprisingly, there was hardly any crowd in the temple. In my all visits so far, I have witnessed large and sometimes unmanageable crowd. A simple visit to the main sanctum sanctorum had taken anywhere between 2 to 4 hours, that too with a lot of efforts and jostling in the queue. This time it was smooth sailing, literally. We went to the temple around 5.30 pm and by 6 pm our visit was over. The evening Aarti, a much sought after the period, was at 6.30-7 pm. We waited inside the temple compound for the Aarti to begin. By 7 pm were out of the temple premises. There are two more auspicious places adjacent to the temple and are must visit. The Dwarkamai (hut of Saibaba) and Chavadi (sleeping place of Saibaba whenever he felt like). There is also a Hanuman temple between these two which is revered by devotees due to the idol’s unique direction. As there was hardly any crowd, we could manage to visit these places with ease. For the first time in my numerous visits to the Shrine, I received a handful of special dinner served to the Baba after the evening Aarti. Similar experience at Hanuman temple where I received Halwa, my palm was dripping ghee.

We were very satisfied with the visit and felt very elated. Tomorrow we are supposed to get up early as we had planned an early morning visit to the temple. Hence we had an early dinner, went back to our room and retired early.

 

01.08.2018

Today is ‘the special day’ around which the entire road trip is centred. Today is the 25th wedding anniversary for us. We had planned for this day almost 4 months earlier. The road trip was planned, replanned and finalized. Our children made their decision not to accompany us and to leave us on our own. The itinerary was, of course, made in consultation with them. Ishani helped in selecting the hotels to stay.

We had planned to be at Shirdi on this day and to have the ‘darshan’ of Saibaba first thing in the morning. I had booked two special darshan tickets online anticipating crowd. However, it was not necessary as we found out later as there was hardly any crowd.

We got up early and congratulated each other for having completed the peaceful coexistence for the last 25 years of our marriage. After completing the bath etc. we were at the temple gate by 6 am and were out of the temple by 6.30 am. We thanked God for His blessings and the good luck that He has been showering on us.

By 7.30 am we had breakfast in a Udupi style restaurant where the idli, vada, sambar and coffee tasted distinctly South Karnataka. By 8 am we had checked out of the hotel and then we were on our way to Shani Signapur, another temple town 75 km away on Shirdi-Ahmednagar-Pune road. Today our road trip would be around 250 km. We were expecting to reach Pune before 3 pm.

Shani Signapur is famous for the Shani temple, a Hindu god, dreaded by all Hindus, known mostly for his anger, curse and wrath on the non-believers. The place is also known for unlocked houses as no resident of the town put lock in his/her house. No one dares to steal lest he would invite the wrath of the god.

After driving for about 50 km on the highway, a detour for 25 km is taken on a district road, partly good and partly bad to reach Shani Signapur. The temple had certain strict rituals to be followed by devotees wishing to pay their tribute to the god a few years back. Women were not allowed near the sanctum sanctorum. Men were supposed to take bath clad in a saffron dhoti only, the upper body would be bare. After the bath, no towels to be used for drying and one had to walk and enter the temple in that drenched status. Sesame (til) oil is the main offering to the deity. Earlier the devotee would queue up and could pour oil on the idol established on a raised platform. The entire system has undergone a radical change.

Now the bath is not required neither the saffron dhoti. Women are allowed near the deity. The offering of sesame oil is to be poured in a tank. The tank is connected with a pipeline which opens over the head of the deity. The pipeline is powered by a motor and the oil is thus poured mechanically on the deity continuously. Last year I had asked a temple employee as to why the practice of pouring oil by the devotees was stopped. He replied that pouring oil made the place very slippery and there had been few serious injuries. Hence the practice was stopped. And recently some women groups protested against the practice of barring women. The temple administration and the govt. relented. So it is free for all. True democracy and welcome development.

The road to Shani Signapur from the highway is flanked on both sides by villages and agricultural fields. There is an agriculture college also. The most notable crop is sugarcane. We have seen a market (Mandi) for sugarcane sale. Onions are also a favourite crop and we have seen onions stored in open enclosures and sold in 5-10 kg bags on roadsides. The next favourite crop is pomegranate. It is produced on a commercial scale and in the season you may find vendors selling different sizes of pomegranate on roadsides every 50 meters. The prices vary according to size. We could see the low height pomegranate shrubs plenty. While returning we bought 2 kgs of the fruit. Such was the size that only 5 pieces weighed more than 2 kgs. We observed people buying in excess of 5 kgs. The prices also vary as per supply. This year it seemed that the produce is plenty and hence the drop in prices.

By 10 am were back to the highway to Pune. As we approached Ahmednagar, the Google map guided us towards a route which was bypassing the city. However, the bypass road was still under construction, pebbled and not pucca at certain stretches. Google map doesn’t know the road condition and the extent of development. We followed the Google map directions and shortly we were on narrow, potholed village roads. For the next 10 km, we were on that kind of road. We asked a biker who affirmed that this road would take us to Pune. I was very sceptical but had no choice at the point. There were very few vehicles seen on this road. No buses and only a few trucks. This could not be the road to Pune. After quite a few lefts and rights as directed by Google lady, we came upon a proper road which was a temporary relief as after a couple of km, we were directed to take the two-lane road, very badly maintained, on our right. This road, after a couple of km, finally led us to the 4-lane absolutely superb Ahmednagar Pune highway. We had suffered miserably for the last 45 minutes and about 15 km on various kinds of roads which were termed as ‘by-pass’. We thanked God that the ordeal was finally over. My vehicle, a Honda Civic 1.8V petrol is not an off-roader and has a very low ground clearance. I was afraid of getting stuck somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Thankfully, mercifully and fortunately the car gave superb service throughout the road trip of 3600 km.

The road to Pune, henceforth, was one of the best highways that we travelled. Surprisingly, there were no toll gates on this road for about 200 km. Since we have left Shirdi this morning, we have not paid any toll charges so far. We have been paying toll charges so far almost at the rate of Re.1 per km. This was a pleasant surprise on this road.

The surroundings on this road were beautiful. Lush green valleys and the ever winding road along the valleys presented an awesome scenario. I love rainy season and love to visit this part of the country during rains and hence I was all the happier.

Since the stop at Shani Signapur, we made no further stop till our hotel at Pune. Our guess was that we would be able to reach Pune by 2 pm hence we did not stop anywhere in between.

The congestion on the way to Pune started at least 50 km ahead. There were quite a few suburbs on both sides of the highway. There were many cuts, most of which were without traffic signals. We Indians, anyways, do not follow traffic rules and the absence of such a system gives us full freedom to create our own rules. Hence the progress slowed down as we approached the city. From the city limits, the Google map showed our hotel at 24 km but time to cover the distance showed more than an hour.

We entered the city on the road having BRT corridor, then moved to the right of a fork towards Deccan college road. A few km on that road, we turned towards Rangehill road wherefrom, after few red lights and a flyover (which had two exits), we were onto Baner Road for 8 km. Soon we reached the underpass over which the NH 48 zoomed past. Google map took us to the closed entrance of the hotel. We had to take a U-turn to reach the entry gate of the hotel. It was 2.30 pm.

It was so far the shortest distance in our road trip, just about 250 km. But driving through the city traffic was very tiring with the added hazard of speed breakers typical to the city. Immediately after check-in, we went for lunch as the restaurant closes at 3 pm. We were tired and hungry.

Our room was on the 6th floor of the Hotel Orchid. The hotel is in Balewadi area of Pune. From the hotel window, there were two great views. The first one which attracted immediate attention was the Balewadi Sports Complex. There is a football stadium where big matches (Indian Soccer League, etc.) are played. There is also an athletics stadium where we observed sportsmen and women were practising running on the track. The second attraction was the NH 48 where a continuous flow of traffic, especially at night when it seemed that the headlights of vehicles were connected to one another to form a chain of lights as seen in Diwali days. Pune city has a hilly terrain. A great swath of the city with its skyscrapers was visible from the hotel window. It was, once upon a time, a very quiet city with a beautiful weather and neat and clean localities. However, all that is lost with so-called progress. Now Pune is just another big city with the usual negatives, chaotic traffic, overloaded infrastructure, unending flow of immigrants and resultant pollution despite a very favourable weather.

I have been to the city on occasions of just passing through or to just a day’s stay to a week’s stay since 1984. On my first visit, I had to change a train to Kanpur and I had 12 hours at my disposal. In that 12 hours, I had visited Aga Khan’s Palace where Gandhijee was held captive with his wife Kasturba who died there. I am a history buff and liked to use the available time to see this remarkable place. I visited Pune thereafter a number of times. One of my close friends was from Pune and I had visited his house at Rastapeth area of Pune. In 2008, during Mumbai terror attack, I was in Pune for a week doing a course at National Institute of Bank Management. There has been a colossal change in the city’s skyline. There has been tremendous ‘development’ in the city which is known for its excellent educational infrastructure. It is also known for many industrial activities, two wheeler and four wheeler manufacturing industries. Now Information Technology has also made inroads in the city and the city is an IT Hub catching up with Bangalore and Hyderabad. The cool climate of the city also attracts people from all parts of the country. Besides education and industry, the city is house to major army related activities and has a couple of cantonments. The city has grown exponentially without the matching infrastructural development. The roads are traffic heavy and the average speed within the city is hardly 10 kmph. The speed breakers are unique as I have not seen such kind in any other city. In the evening, we had gone out to the Hinjewadi area. Till 10.30 pm we were in that area and the traffic was miserable.

I had wished to visit Rastapeth in the old town to inquire about Mr Vinod Kulkarni, a very old friend of mine. However, I had to abandon the idea due to time constraint and considering the pitiable condition of traffic.

It was drizzling all the time since we had entered the city. The slush and the muddy roads added to our woes and hence after spending a couple of hours at Hinjewadi area for some shopping and dinner, we returned to our hotel and called it a day. The drive today, though short as compared the earlier ones, was tiresome. We needed a good rest for the drive tomorrow on hilly terrain.

Our 25th wedding anniversary..contd.

29.07.2018

Chittorgarh to Indore – 335 km approx.

I got up early to clean the car. I like to have the car always clean and gleaming. A 30 minutes effort turns the car from a shabby one to a sparkling one. We were ready by 8.00 for our breakfast. Soon after breakfast, we checked out, paid the bill and left the hotel. By 9 am we were on the NH 48 again after filling the tank in a petrol bunk just 500 meters before taking a left turn to be on the highway.

The road to be taken was NH 48, NH 52 and MP SH17 for this 335 km sojourn. The road was superb as long as the NH 48 and NH 52 were concerned. The first 180 km or so was on the NH 48 and NH 52. We left NH 48 just about 10-15 km from the city. It turns towards Mumbai from there. We took a left turn to be on NH 52. Barring the stops at toll plazas, the drive was smooth. We passed through the towns Nimbaheda, Pipaliya Mandi and Neemuch. Shortly we passed through the checkpost at MP-Rajasthan border. It took about 2 and a half hours to cover the first 180 km when we stopped for tea at a restaurant named JOYO. It had a clean and neat washroom facility which we always preferred while stopping at any roadside restaurant or dhaba.

The NH 52 leads to Ratlam from this point whereas we had to leave the highway and enter the SH17 from here turn left. The SH17 is a 2 lane road winding through villages and small towns for about 85 km via small towns named Unhel and Nagda. Greenery all around. Fields are lush with soya crop, corn and sugarcane. Our speed was considerably slower on this road as the traffic was heavy and the stretches passing through the small towns and villages were badly maintained. We had to pay the toll on this road also though I could not understand what for the toll was collected as the road was not at all properly maintained. Lot of patchworks, potholed and rough stretches. It took us nearly two hours to negotiate this stretch of 85 km.

Soon we reached Ujjain ring road which bypasses the city and leads us to the 4 lane Ujjain-Indore Road. By 1.45 pm we were on that road and by 2.30 pm we had reached Indore. We could locate the hotel with the help of Google map though it gave confusing guidance initially. It happens in busy city roads where one may sometimes misunderstand the guide.

The hotel Country Inn & Suites by Radisson is in the heart of the city. There is an 8 lane road in front of the hotel having a BRT corridor, 2 service lanes and 2 pedestrian corridor. The check-in was smooth and after dumping our luggage in the room we went for lunch as the restaurant was to close at 3 pm. After lunch, we came back to our room and rested for the afternoon.

In the evening, we took a stroll along the road. It was a busy marketplace. A few malls and some showrooms of branded clothing are situated on this road and hence there is a crowd always. One more thing we noticed for the crowd to thicken is the mushrooming of ‘golgappa’ vendors every few yards. The locals thronged around the ‘khomcha’ (a makeshift platform to hold the basket) and the vendors did brisk business. Pedestrians, bikers and cars were all there looking for space to have ‘golgappa’, a very popular Indian snack. There are benches on the road to sit and watch the traffic and the assorted hoopla. One could cross the road either at the traffic lights or at the bus stands on the BRT corridor. This is the second city I saw after Ahmedabad where BRT was working. It failed in Delhi. The city of Indore is the cleanest city in the country and it was evident. So many street vendors were there in that short one km stroll that we took, however, we did not find anyone littering. A place is clean as long as the inhabitants show the willingness. It is incorrect to blame the civic agencies all the time.

We returned to our hotel and had dinner. The restaurant is fabulous and apart from a la carte, it offered a buffet dinner at a very attractive price. The staff were courteous and prompt in their service.

 

30.07.2018

Indore to Omkareshwar – 75 km on Indore-Khandwa road – NH 27.

We left our hotel by 8.30 am after breakfast and headed towards the NH 52. Google map showed the way. After few km on the highway, we took a left turn and we were on Indore-Khandwa road, a two-lane road, passing through villages, small towns, and through steep hilly roads where curves were quite dangerous. The road was also breached by manned railway level crossings at 3 places. There is no toll on this road hence the truck traffic is quite heavy. This information was given by one fellow driver when we got stuck in a traffic mess near a railway level crossing. The jam was massive on either side of the track, more than 2 km long on both sides. As usual, the cars, jeeps, SUVs and some local buses were unruly and formed another line on the right side of the road making it impossible for the oncoming traffic to pass. Everyone wanted to surge ahead. The road was just two-lane. The roadside is not paved and due to rains, the soil has turned loose. No heavy truck would dare to leave the road. There were few policemen but for them maintaining order and clearing the jam was a herculean task. Some good Samaritans played their role and the jam started loosening slowly. We were stuck for more than an hour.

Though the distance is just about 75 km, the narrow road aided with heavy traffic, sporadic rains and potholed stretches passing through the small towns made the speed really pathetic. All the traffic was moving at 30 kmph on an average and for the heavy trucks, this was half the speed. The ghat road portion – about 15 km – is really dangerous with sharp curves and steep slopes/inclines. At one particular turn, the vehicles needed to climb or decent using the wrong lanes. Since this was a toll-free road, trucks use this route to save on toll charges, which they pocket themselves.

Since the road is just two lanes with no central verge, there is no chance of maintaining even average speed. A hardly two hours’ drive took more than 3 and half hours. Starting at 8.30 am from our hotel, we reached Omkareshwar around 12-noon thanks to the last stretch of 15 km which was beautifully maintained and was a breeze.

The main temple is on an island and a bridge is constructed to walk across. There are boats and boatmen who woo you relentlessly to take their services. From the parking slot, the temple is just about a km road flanked on both sides by shops selling puja items and shops for sundry purposes. The boatmen tried to scare us by telling that the walk is about 2 km. We just brushed them aside and proceeded towards the temple. Shortly we crossed the bridge. The River Narmada was flowing in the deep gorge below. There were solid rock formations on both the sides of the river and these posed a very imposing view of the riverbank. There is also a dam on the river on our right while going to the temple. Still, the residual water in the river was deep enough for navigation. The tranquillity of the surrounding was shattered by the constant sound of the diesel engines attached to the numerous colourful boats on the river.

I had booked online tickets for special darshan. So it was easy to visit the sanctum sanctorum. There was a huge rush in the free darshan queue. We avoided that. There is a huge menace in the form of the priests who, from the time I had entered the city, followed me and tried to thrust upon their services in the puja, darshan etc. They were everywhere, right from the entrance to the very entry gate of the temple. I was approached by more than a dozen of them. The boatmen had tried to dissuade me from walking as the distance would be more than 2 km whereas it was not even 500 meters. The boatmen, cunningly, did not mention the steep stairs down towards the jetty and up to the temple from the other side. This is a pity in every temple town. For them, pilgrims are business opportunities and they try to encash it using even nefarious means. Since we are accustomed to such practices, we ignore their advances.

We returned to the mainland walking back through the bridge to visit the Mamaleshwaram temple, the twin Jyotirlinga site along with Sri Omkareshwar. A very old temple, maybe a thousand years old, is in very dilapidated condition. The ASI has put up a notice board declaring the temple as a protected monument, but that’s it. There is no sign of repair or protection of the temple from decaying. Here the crowd was thin. We could enter the sanctum sanctorum easily and offer our puja to the deity. In this particular month of Shravan, as per Hindu calendar, worshipping Shiva assumes special significance. In the temple complex, there was a sizeable number of devotees doing various pujas and the priests were busy.

With this visit, I have completed visiting all the 12 Jyotirlingas in the country. This year I visited 3 such places – Somnath and Nageshwar in Gujarat and now Sri Omkareshwar here.

The first part of our road trip was over. We had lunch in a shack type eatery near the bridge and soon we were back to the road to Indore. While exiting the small town of Omkareshwar, we observed surging of a crowd. Dozens of buses, people on tractors and sundry vehicles were seen approaching the parking lot. We thanked God for being able to avoid the crowd.

The return experience was the same. It took more than 3 hours to be back to the city due to heavy traffic and also due to a massive jam in the same railway level crossing. The only saving grace was the greenery all around and the dense forest on the ghat road. The Sagwan trees were a plenty – a very expensive wood used in manufacturing furniture.

The car was very dirty from outside due to rains and slush on the road. I went to a car wash facility nearby and got the car washed and cleaned. Next day’s trip was over 400 km to Shirdi and I wanted to start with a clean car and a clear mind.

Our 25th wedding anniversary

Our 25th wedding anniversary was due on 1st August 2018. For last few months, there was talk in the family how to celebrate the day. My daughters, now grown up, had divergent views. I had a different plan and Bhavani, my wife was totally nonchalant. She is busy in her office as well as in managing her home. She didn’t have time to plan nor the energy. She had left the matter on me and on her daughters. When I put forth the plan before my daughters, Tanu, the younger one, immediately exclaimed in disbelief. ‘You are planning a pilgrimage on your 25th marriage anniversary? That is ridiculous! Go to a hill station or abroad, instead.’ That was her refrain. I tried to reason with her. ‘Our anniversary falls during the rainy season and there is no point in going to hill stations in that season.’ She chuckled, frowned and was still in disagreement. Ishani, the elder one, is mature beyond her age. She saw the point and agreed. This would a mix of both, an outing for a week and sort of pilgrimage as well.

I had made the plan keeping in view the season. In the rainy season, I visit Shirdi, almost every year. The month of Shravan, as per the Hindu calendar, is very auspicious and a month especially devoted to Lord Shiva, one of the Trinity Gods. I had wished to pay a visit to Sri Omkareshwar in MP, with which I would complete visiting all 12 Jyotirlingas – the abodes of Lord Shiva in the country. That will leave only one Jyotirlinga to visit for my wife and that is Bhimashankar near Pune. Bhavani wanted to be at Shirdi on the day of our wedding anniversary i.e. on 1st August. Accordingly, we decided to visit all these places in a span of one week. The most dominant wish of mine was to make a road trip to all these places. The total distance was about 3500 km. Bhavani was a bit scared that I would be driving all the way and we two would be only there. She has been with me on all my long drives where I drove alone. Still, she was anxious about the tiresome road trip. I was enthusiastic from the time I was planning and hence comforted her that nothing to worry. We would make the plan in such a way that there would be no long distance drives, no night driving and above all no rash driving. We are not to compete with anyone. The roads would be covered in leisure and on our terms. She agreed.

The final plan was charted as under:

Date of Journey From To Distance (approx.)  
28.07.2018 Noida Chittorgarh 600 km Night halt
29.07.2018 Chittorgarh Indore 335 km  
30.07.2018 Indore Omkareshwar 150 km To and fro
31.07.2018 Indore Shirdi 400 km  
01.08.2018 Shirdi Pune 235 km Via Shani Signapur
02.08.2018 Pune Bhimashankar 230 km To and fro
03.08.2018 Pune Indore 600 km Night halt
04.08.2018 Indore Noida 900 km  

 

Except for the last run, all others were perceived to be day trips and less tiring. The last run, from Indore to Noida, without any halt for the night en-route, was planned since we would come back home, even late night arrival was not an issue and we would reach back Saturday night so that complete rest can be taken on Sunday. Seemed to be a perfect plan and we decided to stick onto it. Eventually, it turned out to be the perfect plan when we completed the road trip and safely returned to our den at Noida.

 

Once the dates were fixed, the next point on the agenda was to book the hotels where we would stay. We had to stay at Chittorgarh for one night, at Indore for two nights while going and one night while returning, at Shirdi for one night and finally at Pune for two nights. This was a relatively easy part. With the help of an App of a popular travel portal, we managed to book our places of stay at very reasonable prices. For Chittorgarh, we booked in Hotel Padmini, for Indore it was The Country Inn by Radisson (for the onward journey) and The Grand Bhagwati (for the return journey), for Shirdi we booked in Hotel Golden View and for Pune it was The Orchid. All these were 3 to 5-star hotels, seemed to be nice as far as can be checked on the internet and rest we left to our destiny. All set and we waited for the saga to unfold, me especially, as a long-awaited road trip was to begin.

 

28.07.2018

Noida to Chittorgarh – 600 km approx. We left our home at Sector 78, Noida by 6.30 am. It was cloudy in the morning. The tank was half full. I got it filled at a petrol bunk on Rao Tula Road and hit the road. The traffic was not much in the morning though, due to the widening of the RTR flyover, there was some congestion. We passed through Gurgaon shortly and the first toll was paid at Manesar. The six-lane road was superb till Kishangarh, 70 km further to Jaipur. At about 9 am, we stopped for tea and refreshment. Visiting the loo was also important. By 9.30 am we started again. Jaipur was just about 120 km away. We passed Jaipur via the bypass. As we were cruising at 80 kmph, the speed traffic police were at work and I felt that I was being waived to stop. I did not. Very confusing speed limits at several stretches of the same highway – at some stretch it is 60 kmph and in some, it is 90 kmph. I don’t understand the concept of the speed limit on highways. You don’t realise when you have hit 100 kmph, especially high powered cars like mine, a Honda Civic 1.8V petrol. However, I became a bit cautious and looked for signs for the speed limit. It was 90 at the Jaipur Ajmer Highway, a six-lane superbly maintained road. At least 3 more speed guns were observed on the way till Ajmer. Fortunately, none signalled me to stop and pull over.

For me, the road is known up to Udaipur. However, there are always constructions and reconstructions. After the turn towards Nasirabad leaving the Ajmer city on my right, there were plenty of diversions which slowed down the speed. The road was now four-lane. Potholes were there aplenty, some of which were filled up while some were yet to be attended. We passed through Bhilwara, an industrial town famous for textiles. We passed by the factories of Mayur Suitings and BSL Ltd.

We did not stop for lunch anywhere. We had some snacks and fruits with us with plenty of water bottles. After starting at 9.30 am, we drove for 6 hours continuously, stopping of course for paying the toll charges, and reached Chittorgarh by 3.30 pm, a drive of roughly 450 km in 6 hours, pretty good. Google map showed us the way to the hotel which was just about 4 km from NH 48.

The hotel Padmini is in sprawling premises on the banks of small river Berach. There was ample parking space. The room was so-so. The hotel was not well maintained. It was not the travel season. Hardly 12 rooms were occupied out of more than 200 rooms. The owner seemed to be a very wealthy person. There was huge lawns on the right, front and back side of the property. There were stables having four thoroughbred horses. The gardening was pretty good though the lawns needed immediate mowing. We went to the river bank. The river, with it’s almost still and clean water, was flowing silently. The banks were lush green which great tree cover.

We returned to our room for rest. The idea of halting overnight is to take proper rest so that the drive on the next day is a fresh start. The restaurant attached to the hotel was good. Our dinner was nice with tawa roti and ‘lababdar paneer’. The hotel owner maintains his own cowshed and the milk and milk products are supplied from there. For dessert, we had chocolate ice cream. It was a satisfactory dinner. We retired early to get up early. This was only a stop-over. Our real road trip and an unknown road start tomorrow.

Rataul

It was one of a kind day trip. We came to know about the trip from social media and got hooked on the idea immediately. The famous academic, historian and film director of Delhi Mr Sohail Hashmi is the organizer of such trips. The idea of such trips is to bring you closer to the roots and also to introduce the outsiders of a certain culture of this great country.

Rataul is a village in the district of Baghpat in the state of Uttar Pradesh, about 40 km away from the capital city of Delhi. It is just like any other nondescript village among the half a million villages in India. So what makes it so special that a day tour is organised, now almost every year, by Mr Hashmi and his team? It is the mango and the mango orchard. The village has ascribed its name to a particular variety of mango which is not only very beautiful to look into but also carries a distinct taste and aroma. The trip is also important to propagate the fact that Rataul mango is very much Indian and not originated in Pakistan as claimed.

Such a backdrop would definitely evince interest. Further, I and my family hardly miss an opportunity to travel, however far or near the place is and never mind the duration. The idea was unique, the day chosen was a Sunday, travelling and refreshment arrangements were taken care of by the organisers and except for the humid and sultry weather, it was perfect to venture into a mango orchard in a village on the fringe of a megapolis that is Delhi.

On 1st July 2018, four bus load people assembled at Mandi House just outside the Sri Ram Kala Kendra building.

The buses trudged through the Eastern part of Delhi crossing the Yamuna through the Shahdara bridge. It passed through the most densely populated, filthy, dirty and cramped for space part of the metropolis. People living in the area seemed unmindful of all these maladies and were busy in playing cricket on the landfill, the river bed and whatever space they could carve out, going about their daily chores as usual. We crossed Delhi by 10.30 am starting at 9.45 am from Mandi House, the assembly point.

As we crossed Delhi and entered UP, a short while later our bus took a turn towards Baghpat. The road narrowed as we progressed and at a tri-junction near Banthala, no one was willing to budge an inch. A flyover was under construction. We were still some distance away from our destination.

Soon we entered the rural geography interspersed with small bazaars and pucca houses of the rural folks. There were fields being made ready for Kharif season and some were whispering with early saplings of sugarcane plants. Our purpose of visiting mango orchards soon appeared and we entered the area by 11.25 am by taking a very sharp turn from the highway, at 30 degrees. The bus had to reverse once to get on the narrow road leading to the village.

In a few minutes, we reached the outskirts of the village. The coal tar road ended and cement concrete road started signalling the beginning of the periphery of the village. The four buses were parked just outside a boundary wall of a cemetery and a mango orchard. On an average, a bus carried about 35 passengers (should I designate them as tourists?). There was a black SUV all the way from Delhi which was our pilot and also carried the organisers of the tour. In all, there were about 150 people who paraded through the only street of the village for about 100 meters and reached a premise which housed a primary school, the residence of the family which ran the school and also a heritage level haveli built in Mughal style. There was also a sprawling lawn, some outhouses, a very old peepal (sacred fig) tree whose one branch ran parallel to the ground below just about a meter above and was so thick that a dozen people can sit on it. This was the outer courtyard of the house. There was another inner courtyard which leads to the arched verandah of residence of the owner Mr Zahoor Siddiqi, an octogenarian who was seen welcoming the guests, interacting with them, asked for their wellbeing and reminisced about the history of the village, the school that he and his wife started and of course, the history of mango in the area.

The group was welcomed by the host and his family members with all warmth and enthusiasm. The welcome drink was ready and personally served by one of the family members. Tea was also served.

It was about 12 noon. Our guide and the tour organiser, Mr Sohail Hashmi, an academic, a historian and a filmmaker explained in detail the purpose of the visit, the history of the village Rataul and the fame attached to the particular variety of mango which is named after the village. It was very interesting to hear him about the history of the place, how the mango orchards came up and how these were nurtured for centuries. There were more than 40 varieties of mangos on display and of course, the Rataul variety was the cynosure of all eyes. The Rataul variety is of small size with a tinge of yellow near the stem when ripe and does have a distinct taste and aroma.

As the lunch was under preparation, Mr Hashmi suggested that we should walk to the mango orchard of the family and take a look. The party followed him and it was again a spectacle for the villagers, especially young children for whom the various attires of the urban gentry are seen only in movies or in TV soaps. We reached the same compound outside which our buses were parked. Mr Hashmi was assisted by a bearded gentleman Naser, a caretaker of the orchards and so knowledgeable that he can identify the variety of a mango tree just by observing the leaves. The speciality of the orchard was that it had hundreds of varieties of mango trees beside some rare variety of wood apple tree, a ‘Kachnar’ (Bauhinia variegata – courtesy Google) tree whose flowers are of great medicinal value, a huge ‘Maulshree’ tree, again of great medicinal value (also the abode of ghosts as per some belief) and a 250 year old ‘Khirni’ tree. To enhance our knowledge of mangos, Mr Hashmi informed us that the names of the various varieties of mangos are attributed to the villages wherefrom these varieties were originated. Most of the mango trees are the result of large-scale grafting experiments by the planters. To see an original mango tree one may have to go to the Andaman Islands. Here also the visitor may find it difficult to recognize the tree simply for the reason that the mango trees are grown vertically like a palm tree and after attaining certain height the tree branches out which is not seen in the plains. The life of a mango tree can be theoretically endless due to grafting. Some of the very old trees are still surviving for the last 800 years in Delhi. With the age, of course, the fruit bearing capacity of the tree diminishes so also the size of mangos. The stories were very interestingly narrated by Naser and translated by Mr Hashmi in English for the benefit of some foreigners who were also part of the party.

About an hour was spent in the orchard. Many of us were benefited by the practical lesson given by Mr Hashmi as for us all the mango trees are the same.

The party returned to the haveli-cum-school premises. Lunch was being cooked still. We waited under the cool confines of a large room with a high ceiling of at least 15 feet. In fifteen minutes lunch was announced. The menu had mostly vegetarian dishes except for the chicken biryani. Everybody liked the ‘puris’ most as this the best item in the menu. The curries were delicious and so were the chapatis made from ‘besan’ (chickpea flour) soaked with pure ghee.

The dessert was the mangos. Four large containers were kept under the peepal tree where the mangos were immersed in water. There were at least ten varieties of mangos. One can eat as much as one wants. The ushers were there to help you identify the varieties and how to eat them. The party kept itself busy in eating mangos for the better part of the lunchtime. The arrangements were meticulously planned and executed, the credit for which goes to Mr Hashmi and his team.

There was a ‘karonda’(Carissa carandas – courtesy Google) plant which was full of the berry. I was seeing the plant for the first time and asked my wife to visit it. This was in the inner courtyard of the house. We met the principal of the school (Salma Public School) Ms Sheeba Sultana and chatted with her for some time about the school and its students. The school is open to both boys and girls and is up to class V. There are about 500 students and the family is trying to impart modern education to the children of the village. Later, when I spoke to Mr Zahoor Siddiqi, he was quite vocal about the importance of primary education, especially in villages where the religious schools get prominence (he was referring to the madarsas). Mr Siddiqi, with the walking stick in one hand, moved among the guests, enquired about the lunch, introduced the cook to some of the guests and generally talked about his family, the village and the need for peaceful living among all. The mango orchard that he owns is actually a legacy he is carrying through his heart lies in education. The school is a small effort in that direction.

Around 2.30 pm, Mr Hashmi enquired if everybody had their lunch and finished eating mangos. If this was done, he urged everybody to proceed towards the buses. Every visitor was given 5 kg mangos of assorted variety complementary. I was thinking what to do with 20 kg of mangos (all four of my family were part of the tourist party). Ishani gave her share to one of her friends who hailed from a joint family.

The village seemed to be well-off one. Plenty of cars, bikes, SUVs were seen plying on the road. What pitied us most was the filth strewn around the village. At the entry point of the village, there was garbage thrown of all types. The only village road was never swept clean, it seemed. The gully leading to the school was clean but the open drains flanking the lane were never cleaned. Blaming the authorities is easy. I felt that the cleanliness is something the villagers themselves can manage. Every year busloads of tourists visit their village for the fame of the particular variety. But when they leave, they leave with the foul smell from the stench of the garbage which seemed to be kept there from eternity. The villagers are themselves to blame for this apathy. It requires little effort to keep the surrounding clean, especially in a village.

But for this negative impact, our trip to Rataul was memorable. The organising skill of Mr Hashmi and his team was commendable, the food was sumptuous, the host’s generosity was praiseworthy and the mangos were simply delicious enough to forget the humid and sweating weather.

 

A Tale of Apathies

I was on a tourist visit to the state of Gujarat last month. My tour started with a visit to the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad and ended there a week later. In the sprawling premises of the Ashram, the main attraction was the house of Gandhiji. A simple house without a single sign of any luxury. It was evident that locally available material was used to build the house. The house has two entry points through one of which is closed all the time. The closed entry seems to the main entrance when the house was constructed. The wooden gate of the house is covered with bougainvillea creepers blooming all the time with colorful flowers. However, the entry in the back which faces the Sabarmati River is now abuzz with visitors. As you climb two small steps (shoes must be taken off), you are in a large verandah. The entire flooring is in square slate tiles. The roof, covered with baked clay tiles, is supported by solid wood frame. On the left of the verandah, there lies the room used by Gandhiji to receive visitors and to spin the ‘charkha’. The room is closed for visitors and one can just peep into the room through the small opening in the door to see the mattress used by Gandhiji to sit upon, his ‘charkha’ and a wooden desk used for writing. The room has four windows, two in the front wall and two in the back wall and two doors. There are just about 4 rooms in the house, all ten by ten feet size except the room used by Gandhiji which is a bit large. There is a single and simple door for entry in each room through the inner verandah and two simple iron grill windows. For Ba and Gandhiji and their skeleton support staff, it seems to be adequate. The house, its plan, the verandah (both outside and inside) and simply grilled windows attracted most of the visitors for its simplicity which was very much vivid in every corner. I found the house to demand very low maintenance. The plastered walls required whitewashing once in a year. The flooring required no maintenance except for the daily cleaning. The solid wood frame supporting the roof tiles would stay so for hundreds of years. The roof tiles are made of baking locally available clay. A befitting example of the simple lifestyle that Gandhiji professed and practiced.

The ambiance of the Ashram as a whole was very solemn and every tourist, I am sure, is touched by the simplicity of the whole atmosphere and the beautiful setting on the banks of the river Sabarmati which, thanks to the efforts of the local administration, is maintained immaculately clean.

Now come to Delhi. There is a replica of Gandhiji’s home at Sabarmati Ashram at the Gandhi Museum opposite to Rajghat in Delhi. I chanced upon the house when I entered the museum from the back gate. In fact, there was no back gate. A narrow pathway, cut across the boundary wall of the two adjacent buildings, leads from the office of the Gandhi Peach Foundation building to the museum and as directed by the guard I took the pathway to enter the museum premises. As I entered and followed the paved trail to the front of the museum, on my left, I noticed the house. For a moment, I stood still. The house is just a replica of what I saw in Sabarmati! Same size, same proportions, same height and same material, at least from the look of it. But deserted. There was not a single visitor. Dried leaves are strewn all around. The doors are closed. The gate is closed. There is no sign of life in the house. A stark contrast to what I had seen in Sabarmati. Gandhiji has long ceased living in that house. But his presence is felt in every corner of the house. There the verandah was abuzz with tourists, who especially looking with rapt attention to the spinning ‘charkha’ by one of the Ashram workers. Some are learning how to use the machine from the lady who seemed to be so adept at spinning the machine that she was simultaneously guiding and spinning threads from the cotton ball held at her left-hand fingers. The verandah of the house at Delhi was just desolate, empty and seemed to be abandoned by everybody. It hurt me. The situation at the museum was no better. When I went in (the entry is free), I found just about four visitors.

The apathy in maintaining two modern-day memorials was stark. At Sabarmati, the original place of the Ashram was agog with activities. Even if you do not follow his philosophy, the surroundings at Sabarmati compels you to think for a while about the philosophy of the great man. At the Gandhi Museum in Delhi, the atmosphere is just missing. The Rajghat, where he was cremated, is just opposite, just across the road. But it fails to evoke any such sentiment associated with the man and his Ashram at Sabarmati.

 

In search of Employment

In our recent tour to a western state of the country, we met a bunch of young men and women who were from some remote corner in the state of West Bengal. Frankly speaking, we were surprised to find them here. At the first sight, they seemed ordinary folks who evoke not much interest. They were busy in their duties, doing their jobs, smoothly, efficiently and silently.

We were engaged in our chattering and savoring (or devouring!) the dinner as served by the boys and the girls. The girls were more attentive to our table and did take care of our demands (not tantrums). At last, after the dinner was over, the girl attending our table politely handed over a feedback form and a pen. The form contained usual stuff. I am a bit averse to divulge personal details (hypocrite! Such details are divulged in social media platforms gleefully). So whatever could be avoided was avoided and some morbid boxes on the form were ticked off. The girl was interested in getting her name mentioned in the form. We asked her name.

“Tanushree”

We smiled. My daughter’s name is the same.

“Hmm! That’s a familiar name among Bengali girls.”

“I am a Bengali”. She replied promptly.

“We too.” We responded cheerfully.

“Wow.” “Apnara Bangali (Are you Bengali)?” She exclaimed.

“Yes, we are.”

With a wide grin, she was joined by three of her colleagues and they introduced themselves to us. All from Bengal.

“How come you people are here from such a far distance from your place? From East to West?”

“In search of jobs, Sir.”

Oh! But that sounds to be too simple for an answer.

“Sir, we are recruited for our culinary skills.”

Not very convincing reason. There must be some solid basis.

“Yes Sir, there is. In this part of the country, the local population, being mostly vegetarian, are not good at cooking non-vegetarian delicacies.”

“The owners could not recruit locals for this reason and scouted other places of the country.”

Ah! I got it. Bengalis are sort of synonymous with non-vegetarian dishes. At any part of the country, the Bengalis are deemed to be fish-eating population.

“So, that is the advantage for you, right?”

“Yes Sir, at least it (the tag) helped us in getting the job.”

I was amused pleasantly. Good that your food habit or rather the publicity attached to it sometimes works in your favor.

Long live my non-vegetarian Bengali brethren (sisters too, of course).