How's my Luck now?

Reflections, views and descriptions during my stay at IIM Lucknow from July 2004 to March 2006

Name:
Location: India

Monday, January 31, 2005

Safin triumphs

I watched the Australian Open mens' final too. It was another very good match, although not at all comparable to the Safin-Federer semi-final. After frittering away the first set to Lleyton Hewitt, Safin showed who's the boss. Hewitt played his normal game (which consists of running all over the court and trying to return every ball into the court), but was far outgunned by the Russian's powerful and precise groundstrokes.
As I feel after watching any great sports performance, here also I would quote a line from an excellent Mukesh song, written by Hasrat Jaipuri:
'kitanii hii taariif karuun, rukatii nahiin zubaan...'

Building trust

Two days ago, we played a management game as part of the PMIR course. It was held in the MDP (Mgmt. Development Programme) block, called Manthan. The game was held in two sessions by splitting the class into two sections of around 30 people.
The game was called Building Trust. The participants were paired, and each pair was to have one Guide and one Traveller. The Guides were shown five kinds of obstacles in the Manthan atrium, which they had to help their blindfolded partner pass, with as small a number of fouls as possible.
I was a Traveller, and incidentally, Samrat was my Guide. His verbal instructions were very clear and because of our familiarity, we didn't have any problems passing all obstacles (like walking over a narrow plank, making five rounds around a fountain, walking over bottles and wooden boxes) without making any fouls.
Finally, we had to fill in a questionnaire asking us about how we felt going through the exercise, did we learn anything from it, and how do you relate this game to real life.

Expectedly, all the pairs had had a different style in going about the game. Some guides were totally nonchalant about their travellers, while some actually carried their travellers on their backs to cross obstacles! This, and many other points, were noted by the professor.
In working life, the closest that anything can come to this exercise is mentoring. Organizations increasingly have mentoring programmes with the mentor giving career and work guidance to the mentee. However, the aim of mentoring is not handholding, which was also pointed out by the professor.
There is another thing which comes close to this game in terms of the 100% dependency that a traveller has on his/her guide. It is the predecessor-successor relationships between project tasks. The successor is totally dependent on the predecessor task to finish on time to have any chance of completing his/her own step in time.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Hanuman's reward

A few days ago, the PMIR class discussion was on rewards and incentive schemes. The professor narrated a relevant joke, which was as follows:

After bringing the sanjeevani bootii to revive Lakshman, Hanuman raised his travelling bills to the accounts section. The clerk refused to reimburse Hanuman's expenses. Unhappy, Hanuman went directly to the CEO of Ayodhya, Lord Ram, and told him this. Ram called up the accounts clerk and asked him the reason why Hanuman was not reimbursed his travelling expenses.
Clerk: Because the Constitution of Ayodhya - our set of rules - does not permit it. And the Constitution was framed by your forefathers, Lord.
Ram: Ok, but what provisions are there in the Constitution?
Clerk: Well, Hanuman was sent to bring only the herb, but he brought the whole mountain. That's excess baggage for us!
Ram: Oh...but can't I exercise my discretion and reimburse him?
Clerk: You can....but there is another problem.
Ram: What?
Clerk: In the organization structure, Hanuman is a Grade 4 employee, and they are to be reimbursed only road and rail expenses. Hanuman is demanding airfare!!

Finally, Ram gives Hanuman money from his own pocket. The joke was meant to show that you can't be very rigid with your reward policies. You have to judge the achievement of the person and give rewards accordingly.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Marketing assignment

There are days on which everything goes perfectly. Today was one such for our group in Marketing Mgmt. - II. An assignment in this subject was to study the distribution structure of one product (or category) of a company, that of its major competitors, and suggest relevant improvements.
We have selected HLL toilet soaps as our company and category, respectively. As part of primary data collection for the assignment, we went to the city today. We went straight to a wholesale market near Purania Chowk, called the Dandaiah Market (on Kursi Road). We had a great time there as we talked to wholesalers, retailers and an HLL agency (redistribution stockist) who were all located there. So, we actually met and covered three distribution levels. All of the people interviewed were really co-operative and we now have valuable data for the assignment. And we went from start to finish (including commute time) in just 4 hours. We are quite happy with our performance today.

Count Godzilla!

Last Sunday, we had the HR Head of Hero Honda - Mr. N. N. Akhaouri - visiting us. He was supposed to take a session on Recruitment and Selection as part of the subject PMIR (Personnel Mgmt. and Industrial Relations). But instead of that session, he organized a two-hour game testing consensus-building and problem-solving in large groups.
Our class of 61 students was divided into two groups, with a few students taking on the role of independent observers. The groups were made to sit in different classes and were both given the same problem. The aim and the basic data of the problem was there with both groups. However, additional data was split, with one item of data with one group and its complementary item with the other group. There were to be three or four meetings between one representative each of both groups, where each one could ask the other just one specific question, to which the other had to give a specific answer (if that group had the information asked for). Both groups had to independently solve the problem. The one which arrived at correct solution first would be the winner.

The problem was an odd mix of Dracula, Godzilla and Frankenstein. It was this: You are in London and have to kill Count Godzilla who lives in a castle in Transylvania. You start on a Monday, and have to draw up a schedule of traveling to the castle and killing that Undead creature by driving an oak stake through his heart. There were many constraints relating to transportation, holidays, opening and closing times of the church where one would get the castle keys, and the time of day during which the Count could be killed. The data on the constraints had to be equally split between the groups.
Our group was pretty chaotic in its approach. But a few people took the lead and used the blackboard of the class to draw up the schedule and decide on the questions to be asked to the other group based on the missing data. However, eventually our answer turned out to be wrong, the only reason being that the information about holidays was only given to the other group, and was not equally split. But the other group's answer was also wrong, so nobody won.

Finally, the observers commented on both the groups in terms of their approach in solving the problem and building consensus. They also picked four members from each group who showed leadership skills, analytical ability, etc.
It was a fairly interesting game, and would have been very good but for the one flaw.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Safin gets the better of Federer

Finally, Roger Federer's 26- (or 27-) match unbeaten run came to an end in the semi-finals of the Australian Open tennis tournament with the Russian Marat Safin beating him in an epic match, lasting 4 hours and 28 minutes. The scoreline at the end read (in favour of Safin): 5-7, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6 (8-6), 9-7. What a match! It was a privilege to watch it on TV (in the TV room of hostel 4). Safin played out of his skin to save the match in the fourth-set tie-breaker, and then Federer did the same in the fifth set. In the end, Safin just proved too good for the classy Federer.

I watched a great tennis match after such a long, long time. It felt really good. Federer is the rightful heir to Sampras. In fact, his game is more complete than that of Sampras. However, the key lies in the ability to raise one's game in the crucial matches, something at which Sampras was a past master. It also remains to be seen whether Federer can match Sampras' consistency of the mid-'90s. And of course, how well he can do at the French Open. To be sure, he seems to have a much better chance of winning it than Sampras ever did.
Now I hope Safin wins the tournament. I did not want Federer to lose, but then, I wanted Safin to win, seeing the way he played. And I don't think much of either Lleyton Hewitt or Andy Roddick - the other two semi-finalists.

Manfest - III


Day 3 events:

Talk by Mr. Ravimohan, CEO, CRISIL

This talk had be to be rescheduled several times due to last-minute timing complications. It was a talk on finance-cum-pre-placement talk. It was interesting primarily because we got to know a lot more about CRISIL than our first impression of a company known for its credit
ratings. I realized that it would be quite an exciting place to work for people with a quantitative bent and interested in finance and economics.

Crossword

Along with a batchmate, I hosted the crossword competition. We had prepared the crosswords in advance. We had scheduled a prelim round in three waves at a spacing of one hour each. The prelim had one standard quick crossword. We selected the top ten teams from the prelims and had the final round in the evening. The final consisted of four rounds - quick crossword, grid word search, word jumble and cryptic crossword. It was an elimination round
with the structure 10-5-3-2. It was quite enjoyable to host a crossword competition - something I have only participated in so far in college.

Besides the above, there was also a talk by Mr. Dilip Chhabria, head of DC Designs, best known as an innovative car remodeler. I couldn't attend it because of schedule constraints but it must have been quite interesting.

Night concerts

Manfest concluded with performances by two well-known bands - the Pakistani band Strings, and the Indian Euphoria.
I found one of the Strings vocalists really good. He had a voice with a good bass which he used very well. His voice modulation was also good. He sang a song mimicking Hariharan's voice (a song they have recently recorded with Hariharan) and he did it very well. Some of their songs were trashy, but many had a distinct element of melody and good lyrics to make them good to listen to.
Euphoria is a good band who now have several hit songs to their credit. While their instrumentalists are quite good, it is their vocalist - Dr. Palash Sen - who commands the most attention. He has a voice which reaches incredible pitches. I call him the Mahendra Kapoor
of Indipop. He is also similar to MK in the sense that he overuses that ability :). Many of the Euphoria songs have been set at uncomfortably high pitches, which makes them sound devoid of melody.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Manfest - II

Day 1 events:

Tata Business Quiz

This was a well-attended event whose finals were to be hosted by Derek O'Brien. Samrat, my usual quiz partner, and I did not make it to the finals. The prelim questions were a mix of too-easy questions and fact-based, non-workable questions. This can be expected from an O'Brien quiz.
Anyway, one team from IIML topped the prelims and thus made it to the finals. It consisted of a second-year student and an alumnus. The finals were a continuation of the prelims in terms of the kind of questions asked. In terms of content, the quiz was not really very enjoyable. But the big crowd was given a lot of entertainment by the quick-witted O'Brien. True to his reputation, he kept passing humorous comments on everybody - the teams, the audience (including faculty), the sponsors. Sitting on the other side, it was good fun, but I'm sure being the victim of those comments wouldn't be very pleasant :). The IIML team won comfortably in the end, so we were pretty satisfied in the end.

Day 2 events:

Tata Motors Case contest

I had volunteered to be a member of the Operations team of Manfest - looking after routine operational things. As part of this job, I had to look after operational details in the final presentation round of the Tata Motors case contest. It was a strategic management case in which participants had to analyse the Tata Motors acquisition of Daewoo Commercial Vehicles and tie-up with Rover, UK, in terms of their strategic fit with the company and their success/failure.
Participants from 5 different B-schools, including two teams from IIML, had made it to the finals. This was a presentation round and it was interesting to sit through the case analyses. The presentations varied greatly in style and content, as well as in the recommendations made. But the common mistake that every team, without exception, made, was of not anticipating questions. This was evident from the way the simple but fundamental questions from the judge, a professor of strategic management at IIML, confounded the teams. The IIML teams again took the first two places, but none of teams were really convincing, I thought.

Murugappa Brainwave - the General Quiz

We had a lot of anticipation for this event, but it turned out to be a total anticlimax. It was conducted by Mr. Simantha Mohanty. The prelims consisted of true/false questions with school-level questions. Thus, it was a lucky draw in which the teams who guessed correctly went through to the finals. I didn't attend the finals, but the questions were similar to those in the prelims. Wonder what the quizmaster was thinking...

Tycoon - the Strategy Game

One of the events was a game on managing a business, called Tycoon. It was an online game with 40 teams, who were all competitors in the same market. I participated in it along with a classmate. In each round (there were 8 rounds, each representing a period of 1 month), we had to make decisions on raw material purchase, production, facility development, and selling. Raw materials were available on an auction basis with the highest bidders getting the limited material. Similarly, products were sold on a reverse auction basis, with teams bidding for the lowest sale price getting their products sold (the market demand was limited).
The winner, of course, was the team which made the highest profits at the end of the game. Teams had a fixed overdraft facility from a bank, and they were disqualified if they exceeded that overdraft limit.
We began badly and could never recover, not being able to sell our products and incurring huge fixed costs. Eventually, we were disqualified in the sixth round. The game did represent real life to an extent. In the initial rounds, there was brutal price undercutting to sell products, with teams bidding ridiculously low (much below costs) to win orders. This caused a major shakeout and most of the teams were out by the 4th or 5th round. Thereafter, the bids became much more rational as the remaining players now concentrated on extracting profits. We had a suspicion of a software bug in the game which contributed to our downfall, but it was a well-designed game.

So, day 2 was a day of disappointments for me. I wanted to hear a talk by filmmaker Dev Benegal, but eventually he didn't turn up. Again, the Tycoon game clashed with a panel discussion on Corporate Social Responsibility, which had people like Arun Maira of BCG, Prof. Vishwanath Baba of McMasters Univ., Canada and Chandan Mitra (editor, Pioneer) participating.

The day ended with live performances by the bands Silk Route and Taan-trikz, which I didn't attend because I wasn't feeling very well. The performances could, however, be heard in the rooms. While the former band was pretty good, the latter didn't sound very good at all. They tried their hands at every kind of song, leading to a jack-of-all-trades situation.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Manfest - I

IIML hosted its annual inter-college management festival - Manfest - last week (14-16 Jan.). It had its moments in terms of information and entertainment. I'll briefly describe some events that I attended.

Day 1 events:

Talk on Communication by Muzaffar Ali

The famous filmmaker (best known for 'Umrao Jaan'), poet, fashion designer Muzaffar Ali was here to give a talk on communication. He is a Lucknowite and so this was a welcome occasion for him too. He was dressed in a suit though I expected him to come in traditional attire.
He possesses a quite gentle personality. After a brief introduction, he started off showing a 45-minute film that he has made on the poets Rumi and Amir Khusrau. The film was filled with images of UP on the one hand, and Afghanistan on the other. He was himself the narrator in the film and he sought to show how communication of the two poets through their creations was so much in step with one another, despite being separated geographically. After the film was over, he spoke for a while on finding such common bases for communication across the world and using these to create harmony among the peoples of the world.
He also briefly dwelled on Lucknow's history and how the real Lucknow had gone with the 1857 War, and then further with the 1947 Partition, as it lost some of its best culture to Pakistan.

He had said that the written word was the greatest of communication media, and there was a (rather stupid) question from the audience: "Don't you think the written word was one phase of a series of phases of more and more advanced communication media? Don't you think with audio and cinema, the written word has become a primitive communicaton medium?" The simple answer was: "In order to make meaningful cinema, won't I need a good script? Try converting your thoughts directly to cinema without a script, and see the results for yourself.
Another question was on popular Hindi cinema, whose language, he had said, was meaningless. The question was: "Popular cinema reaches the masses while art films do not. So how is popular cinema meaningless?" The answer was that with the gradual diminishing of dedication among the filmmakers and other members of a film unit, the stuff they churn out is simply horrible. "The other day I watched Swades", he said, "and it's a crazy film! It claims to be about UP but more than half of the things it shows are typically Maharashtrian (including the heroine)!" An art film may not get a large audience immediately, but an 'Umrao Jaan' is still alive today and people still want to watch it.

One of our professors gave him a vote of thanks, saying, "Sometimes in order to conduct a great orchestra, you have to turn your back to the audience." An apt comment!

Stage play

Two people - Ms. Neelam Gupta and Mr. Rakesh - of the National School of Drama, Delhi, had directed a play - 'Khamosh! Adalat jaarii hai' - a Hindi translation of the original Marathi play by Vijay Tendulkar. The play was performed by IIML students of the dramatics club ('Abhivyakti'). They had rehearsed for three weeks for this performance.
And let me just say that the performance was beyond what any one of us expected. Truly impressive. These people reeled off lengthy and complicated dialogues with appropriate intonations and emotions.
The play is a very serious one with a social theme. In our country, whenever a few people meet socially, they start criticising and passing innuendoes about another person who is then absent from the scene. The plot of the play is pretty unique. A set of people gather to create a mock court with a lady schoolteacher being put in the dock for infanticide.
Now, even though these people are supposed to be doing a mock exercise, the 'witnesses' who testify in the 'case' speak out real truths about the lady. As the play progresses, we transition from a comic to a dead-serious tone. The play ends with a monologue by the lady schoolteacher on the injustices meted out to women in our society.
All in all, a very mature and professional performance.

'The da Vinci Code'

I read this bestselling book of 2004 a few days back. It is written by Dan Brown (Doubleday, 2004). When I came to IIML, I had resolved not to read fiction for the time that I am here. But I simply had to make an exception for this book. It is an astonishing thriller. Brown has used some fundamental facts which are little-known to construct the plot of the book. And he has done it masterfully. It's a must-read.
I am very interested in history, but not really political history - basically the history of wars. I am interested in the history of religion, of science & technology, of culture, of philosophy, of arts, music & architecture, of mythology, and so on. Hence this book interested me from the outset.

The book is basically about the history of Christianity. Some fundamental things that are generally accepted as facts about the Christian religion are untrue. The greatest of these truths has been protected by an ultra-secret society called the Priory of Sion, starting from around the 11th cent. A.D. (I won't write what that truth is, otherwise it will kill the interest of the reader. I also won't write anything about the plot or characters.) Some great people have been Grand Masters of this society, including Sandro Botticelli, Isaac Newton, Victor Hugo, and Leonardo da Vinci.
Of all these, da Vinci was doubtless the most mischievous and he cocked a snook at the Catholic Church by including several subtle and not-so-subtle hidden clues in his most famous paintings. In fact, such concealment in art and classical music has been the only way this truth has been propagated to this day. The book is about unraveling these and other clues cleverly constructed by the present Grand Master of the Priory to finally reach that great truth. Can the protagonists reach there? Can they do what no one else in history has been able to do? Read the book for answers to these questions.

Friday, January 21, 2005

ek yaatraa - XIII

Day 6: Lucknow, 2 Jan. 2005, Sunday

The Residency
The main place we were yet to see was the British Residency. It is located not far away from Aminabad and Parivartan Chowk. On the way, we saw the Bhatkhande Sangeet Sansthan, from which many eminent musicians (including the music director Roshan) have graduated in the past. The Residency complex is much bigger than what we had imagined.
The Residency is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, under the charge of the Archaeological Survey of India. The entrance to the main complex is through a big gate known as the Baillie Gate. Just inside the gate is an ASI map showing the various structures in the complex.
The British established this Residency after ousting Nawab Wajid Ali Shah from Lucknow and annexing the city. It has some buildings built by the nawab-s also. The main event that this complex was testimony to was the First War of Indian Independence in 1857. Sir Henry Lawrence commanded the Residency at the time. Indian forces, led by the brave Begum Hazrat Mahal, attacked and besieged the complex. For 87 days, heavy cannon warfare took place. Finally, after receiving reinforcements under Sir Havelock, the British drove back the Awadh forces and kept control of Lucknow.
As the ASI signpost said, "every wall of every building of the complex bears a scar of that time in the form of cannonball marks". Except the main Residency building and an Imambara and a mosque, all other buildings are in ruins - the resident doctor's house, the soldiers' quarters, the huge banqueting hall (built by the nawab-s), the Begum's house, the treasury, etc. A few buildings, like that of the Church, were razed to the ground in the conflict.
After viewing all this, we entered the main Residency building, now converted into a museum. Inside is a huge clay model of the entire complex as it originally was before 1857 (made by the British). Photos of the nawab-s, Begum Hazrat Mahal and Rani Laxmibai adorned the walls. The passage walls were covered by beautiful and extremely detailed lithographs of the Residency complex and Lucknow in general, made on the spot by British Army officers of the time. This gives us an idea of the meticulousness of the British as historians. One relief in a room showed the killing of a certain Miss Susanna Palmer by a cannonball which had invaded that room.
A cellar could be accessed by means of a spiral stone staircase. This was huge and housed several galleries of exhibits. From letters written by Hazrat Mahal to the weapons used during the war to modern models by artists, there was a lot to be seen.
We had spent 2.5 hours here, much more than what we had expected to. After resting awhile on a bench, we took a tour of the huge lawns behind the main building and then made our way out.

Aminabad
We climbed into cycle-rickshaws and went to Aminabad - the city's large discount market. It instantly reminded us of Ahmedabad's walled city markets of Manek Chowk, etc. Aminabad seemed to consist of a lot of squares, with 4 or 5 narrow roads emanating from each one. Each road was lined with shops and hawkers. We just took a cursory glance around some of the streets and then went to Hazratganj.
Our lunch consisted of samosa-s and gulab jamun-s, which were excellently made. We spent the rest of the afternoon and the evening resting in the hotel, until it was time my parents left. We had some south Indian fare in a nearby restaurant for a change - our last meal of the tour. From here, my parents and I took opposite routes - they to the railway station and I, back to the institute. The Awadh Express that my parents took was running three hours late, just late enough to make them miss the connecting train at Vadodara station. So, while I settled in for another term here, they reached home after a 2-night, 1.5-day gruelling journey.

Overall, the trip was most enjoyable, albeit with a few negatives here and there. I concluded that I am not cut out for a purely religious tour. There must be history thrown in to make a place truly interesting. All in all, a memorable tour.

(concluded)

ek yaatraa - XII

Day 5: Lucknow, 1 Jan. 2005, Saturday

Bauli

The last structure to be seen in the Bada Imambara complex was the step-well or Bauli. It was a brick structure, but the bricks were of very small thickness compared to those used today. This structure was designed and built by an engineer imported from Iran specifically for the purpose - Kifayat Hussain.
As our guide took us through the entrance, the damp smell common to structures with stagnant water hit us. About 25 steps below us was the water. Two floors of building were above this ground level. The guide took us up to the first floor through winding passages similar to those in the labyrinth. Here also, you could view the entrance directly from a few perfectly aligned gates, while those coming in from the entrance had no chance of getting a clear view of you.
More intriguing were two facts. One, that there were three floors identical to the one we stood on, submerged completely. The water level rose and fell with that in the river Gomti and this first floor was also submerged in water on occasions. Because of the labyrinthine structure of the floors, it served as a hiding place. It is said that the nawab's treasurer once took the extreme step of plunging into the water with the treasure map. The British, pursuing him, sent many professional divers behind him, but none returned, trapped in the labyrinths below.
The second thing was that, squatting directly opposite the entrance and looking into the water below, one can get a clear reflection of the gate. Soldiers used to be in position here and used to aim at enemies looking at their reflection in water. It was a remarkable sight.

Chhota Imambara complex

Leaving the Bada Imambara complex, we went to the nearby Chhota Imambara complex. This was built by Nawab Muhammad Ali Shah in 1837. It is fully white in colour. Two structures resembling the Taj Mahal flank it on both sides. These are tombs of the nawab's daughter and son-in-law. To the left of the entrance is the royal bath - the Shahi Hammam. It has typical stone tubs of various sizes where the royals must be having their baths.
The Imambara itself is white with a golden dome. Inside, there is a silver throne where the Quran is read during Muharram. A huge taziya was also kept inside. The inside was full of beautiful glass chandeliers made in India, Japan, China and Europe. The famous Belgian glass chandeliers are also present here.
In the central hall are two graves - those of Muhammad Ali Shah and his mother. Among the curiosities here was a painting which, on close look, was found to be the Quran written in minute letters with blue ink. The elderly guide told us, "gustaakhi maaf kiijiye, par aaj ham kahate hain ki ham bahut aage hain, mujhe sirf itanaa bataaiye ki ye Quran kis pen se likhaa gayaa", to which we indeed had no answer.

Having seen two major attractions of Lucknow, we bought some chikan saari-s outside the Chhota Imambara complex, and came back to the bank, completed our work and went back to the hotel.

In the evening, we went for a long walk to Sewa chikan shop at the Burlington chauraha, which is a private shop stocking chikan saari-s, kurta-s, etc. The variety and colours here were very eye-catching. Some shopping done here, we walked back to Hazratganj. This area was packed with people - especially the eating joints. We finally ate a special pav-bhaji at a joint, which,we serendipitously found, was quite excellent.
Only one day now remained of our tour.

(continued...)

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

ek yaatraa - XI

Day 5: Lucknow, 1 Jan. 2005, Saturday

We started the day with some work that I had in the bank. The particular branch was pretty far off and my work remained unfinished at that hour of 10am. Since we had to come back to the bank by 2pm, we asked the auto-wallah if there were any sightseeing spots nearby.
The auto-wallah gladly took us to the main attractions of Lucknow.

Bada Imambara

The auto-wallah took us from Aliganj to the old city area. We crossed the Gomti on a red-stone-parapeted bridge which was built by Lucknow's last nawab - Wajid Ali Shah. We arrived at the Imambara which stands at right angles to the Rumi Darwaza - a gateway into Lucknow made in the Roman architectural style.
The Imambara complex houses a mosque (the Asafi mosque), the Imambara and a labyrinth, as well as a step-well.
We took an elderly guide named Azhar Hussain to show us around the Imambara. On the ground floor of this huge 4-floor structure is the Imambara itself. It was built by Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula in the year 1784 (it took 11 years build - from 1773 to 1784). It is a place where the taziya-s of Moharram are kept. We saw a few of those here, and they were extremely artistic, with models of the Karbala mosque. In the middle of the hall on the ground floor is the grave of Asaf-ud-Daula.
According to our guide, the building materials for the Imambara were many and miscellaneous, and homemade. He showed us four walled-in tunnels which used to lead some distance towards Agra, Faizabad and other places in order to escape from the enemies.

Bhulbhulaiyaan

Starting from the first floor was the famous labyrinth or bhulbhulaiyaan, whose primary purpose was to get the enemies (primarily the British) confounded and losing their way. The guide took us up to the spot where it began. A very narrow stair led down. The funda of the labyrinth is that 4 sets of stairs lead out from each landing. Three stairs lead deeper into the labyrinth and only one leads out. Most people get confused in picking the right stair because, since they had descended the first stair, they think the upward stair would take them out. The trick is that it is really an alternating series of up and down stairs that leads one out.
All along the outward wall of the first floor are very small lookout windows where armed soldiers used to stand. From these windows, the entrance to the Imambara can be perfectly seen, while the person entering can obviously not look inside. This was aimed to shoot down the enemy at the entrance itself, which is probably half-a-kilometre in front of the Imambara.
The inside is lined by a narrow passage looking out into the central hall on the ground floor. Here, the guide went to one end, while we stood at the opposite side of the huge hall. He then lit a match at his end with little sound, but that sound was heard by us on the opposite side.
The second floor has an open terrace with large lookouts - a more conventional arrangement. Here the guide went down a corridor and then into another at right angles to us. Then he stood and whispered along his passage. By repeated echos, we could whisper to each other and hear the other. It was because of structures like these that the saying 'diivaaron ke bhi kaan hote hain' became prevalent.
Similarly, the top floor had a terrace giving a terrific view of Lucknow city and the Gomti river. We did not attempt the labyrinth due to paucity of time, and came out. It was a great experience which was just going to be added to.

(continued...)

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

ek yaatraa - X

Day 4: Allahabad/Lucknow, 31 Dec. 2004, Friday

Anand Bhawan
The next place to visit was the famous residence of the Nehrus - Anand Bhawan - witness to many meetings and movements during the freedom struggle, host to great leaders of that time. The complex has big grounds with lawns. The Nehru planetarium is directly visible from the gate. The Anand Bhawan building is quite big. It is made of white stone, with blue domes and top.
We began our tour with the ground floor which mainly belonged to Motilal Nehru. The rooms have been kept as they must have been during the time of actual residence. Glass partitions have been made at or just inside the doors, so each room is like a viewing gallery. The furniture was made of superb polished wood all through the house - four-poster beds, dressing tables, almirahs, study tables, etc. Bookcases dominated the house and there wasn't an inch of space left on any one. The family were voracious readers.
One of the rooms had been given away to the Congress for meetings, and this had white gaadi-takiya-s on the floor. All three walls had filled wall-to-wall bookcases. Rooms belonging to Swarup Rani Nehru and Indira were also there on the ground floor. Right opposite Indira's room was a square porch where Indira and Feroze Gandhi were married. One of the rooms was often used by Gandhiji.
The first floor belonged to Jawaharlal and Kamala Nehru. It housed various odds-and-ends of the family like cutlery, letters, showpieces, clothing, etc. On a ground floor showcase was also the original will of Indira Gandhi, signed by Rajiv & Sanjay. As the drawing room's opulence showed, this family also had had its show-off side (not that it is all over now).
Opposite this main building was another building converted into a museum, in which we couldn't spend much time. It contained a pictorial and annotated life-story of Jawaharlal Nehru. The photos were fascinating.

Nehru Planetarium
We decided to watch a show at the planetarium - something I had only done once before in Mumbai. The planetarium is pretty small compared to the Mumbai one, and the show was standard fare, but quite enjoyable. Outside the theatre, we also weighed ourselves on a machine which gave out moon-weights of things.

Swaraj Bhawan
Behind the Anand Bhawan and separated from it by a wall is the huge building of Swaraj Bhawan. This cream-coloured building was originally owned by Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan, from whom Motilal Nehru bought it. Inside, the house has dark corridors and tall ceilings. The big drawing room was witness to several birthday parties of Jawaharlal. Here, too, we had rooms belonging to the different family members. Kamala Nehru's room was where Indira was born.
There was also a great cellar where secret Congress meetings happened. Overall, a humongous building. It was quite generous on Motilal's part to give this building away totally to the freedom movement.

Having spent 2.5 hours seeing all this, we decided to go back to the hotel, have lunch and catch a bus to Lucknow.

Chandrashekhar Azad Park
On the way to the hotel, we passed a great park. It was not particularly green, but was vast in size. As our auto-wallah told us (incorrectly), Chandrashekhar Azad was arrested by the British in this park. The fact is that Azad actually died in a gunfight with the British in this park. It is a sad commentary that while the Nehrus' residence is a celebrated sightseeing attraction, no particular importance has been given to the place where this hero laid down his life.

Indian Coffee House
My father had asked the auto-wallah to show us the historic Indian Coffee House from the outside, at least. Akin to Calcutta coffee-houses, this one too has remained host to prominent UP politicians and witnessed several political intrigues being thought up. It is a dilapidated, but working, structure inside a street today.

To Lucknow
Finally, we had lunch and bid goodbye to Allahabad. We were on the last leg of our journey now. We caught an A.C. bus from the depot right next to the tourist bungalow. It took us a substantial 4.5 hours to reach Lucknow. They were showing the atrocious movies 'Ab Tumhare Hawale Watan Saathiyo' and 'Hulchul' in the bus. We ended the day watching some funny programmes on TV on occasion of 31st Dec., in Hotel Gomti, behind Hazratganj.

(continued...)

Monday, January 17, 2005

Holmes' greatest quality

I am a big fan of Sherlock Holmes (and Arthur Conan Doyle too, of course). I believe there are a lot of things to learn from the way Holmes conducts himself. He has great natural abilities, but even greater cultivated abilities. He possesses a quick mind and sharp intellect combined with deep knowledge of most things related to his profession. His logic and deductive abilities are legendary. He is doggedly persistent when on a trail. He does not shy of adventure. He has developed a keen sense of noticing the smallest parts of a scene and also the whole scene. He extracts out the most important details and weeds out the insignificant ones with remarkable accuracy. This list can still go on.

But why am I writing about these here? Because, of all these qualities, one stands out for its applicability to one's stay in a business school. But apart from just b-school students, it actually applies to almost every person who wants to be more productive and also find more fulfilment in his/her work. That quality is a near-karmayogic dedication to the one thing that he is doing at one time, to the total exclusion of extraneous things. The way he totally immerses himself in one task at a time (after identifying which is the most important) and also switches completely from task to another (or from a task to free time) in very little time, is amazing. If one can incorporate this quality in one's personality, it would be a great asset throughout life.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

'The Goal'

This is the name of the classic book that I read a few days ago. It is written by Eliyahu Goldratt and Jeff Cox (Gower, 1983). It is a terrific book on Operations (specifically, manufacturing) Management. But it is not just another management book. It introduced the world to the Theory of Constraints (developed by Goldratt), a way (perhaps, the way) to manage production in a plant according to the constraints of the plant.

Unlike other management books, this is a novel, which through the course of its story, shows the application of techniques of ToC. There are no formalisms in the book, only illustrations of the techniques. Basically, the theory behind the techniques must be that of Operations Research (specifically, linear programming, integer programming, etc.)

The protagonist of the story is Alex Rogo, a plant manager at the Bearington, USA, plant of a company called UniCo. His plant is down in the dumps, with a large pile of late orders and pressure increasing all the time. To add to his trouble, his long hours at the plant make his domestic life stormy.
Rogo accidentally meets Jonah, his physics teacher in school, now living in Israel. Jonah has transformed himself from a physicist to an expert consultant on problems with manufacturing plants. Jonah, by adopting the 'Socratic method' of asking pointed questions and leaving it to Rogo to find the answers, shows him the way out.

When Rogo first complains of 'productivity problems' at his plant, Jonah begins by asking what the goal of a manufacturing plant was. Rogo thinks about it for several days, before concluding that it must be 'making money'. Now, all indicators of a plant must be defined in terms of this goal, and this goal only.
Jonah tells him about three performance parameters of any plant, which he defines differently from their usual meaning:

1. Throughput - the rate at which the plant produces goods for sale
2. Inventory - anything in the plant which will be converted to throughput
3. Operating Expense - any expense which is used in converting inventory to throughput

Throughput must be attacked first and sought to be maximized. For this purpose, the plant's bottleneck(s) must be identified, and the entire plant centred around these resources (they may be machines or labour). Next, inventory must be minimized as far as possible since it represented a lot of tied-up funds. Finally, operating expense should be minimized keeping optimum levels of throughput and inventory. Rogo and his team falter around but ultimately achieve a turnaround using the suggested techniques. In fact, so good does the plant become, that Rogo becomes a hero in his company and ultimately is promoted to the position of divisional head. And after a lot of problems, his domestic life also falls into place and everything is well again.

A general 5-step process has been given in the book to achieve the above-mentioned goals:
1. Identify the system's constraints.
2. Decide how to manage and exploit these constraints.
3. Subordinate everything else to the decision in step 2.
4. Elevate the system's constraints (by adding additional resources at the bottleneck, for example).
5. If any of the constraints is broken by the above steps, return to step 1.

The book has a wonderful flow which makes the novel gripping. The language is conversational and easy to understand. Traditional methods of manufacturing performance management and cost accounting have been shown to be inadequate, and in fact, detracting from the goal of making money. All in all, a wonderful and must-read book.
Another thing. Throughout, the techniques described made me think this was the theoretical background to the Japanese Just-in-Time (JIT) techniques and perhaps, Activity-based Costing (ABC). I was wrong on both counts. JIT is considered to be incomplete by ToC experts and ABC is, in fact, considered fundamentally flawed. I will be reading up more on the Net to see why this is so.

ek yaatraa - IX

Day 4: Allahabad/Lucknow, 31 Dec. 2004, Friday

Sangam
We had hired an autorickshaw for going around Allahabad, and the auto-wallah first took us to the Sangam - where the Yamuna merges with the Ganga (and the Saraswati is said to join in subterraneally). As we neared the Sangam, we saw huge open grounds, presumably for the giant Kumbh Mela and other mela-s held here from time to time. We were astonished, however, to hear from the auto-wallah that the grounds over 100 sq. km. were used for the Kumbh and around 7 crore people had visited the last Kumbh. Starting tomorrow (Jan. 14), Allahabad will be hosting the annual (I think) Magh Mela. The city and district administration must be having to deal with a great many issues during such times.
We finally reached the bank of the green-watered Yamuna, from where we took a boat out on the river to reach the Sangam, around half-a-kilometre (I guess) from the shore. It was lovely to see a large number of ducks on the river. These ducks had been spoilt though, and people were offering namkeen to them, which they were pouncing on. The Yamuna was 60 to 70 feet deep at that point. The elderly person who sat with us was acquainting us with the surroundings in chaste Hindi, which was good to hear. He showed us the shore slightly far away from where we boarded the boat as that where people performed shraaddh and other ceremonies.
Finally, we were at the place. Here, the water is only 3-4 feet deep. The Ganga, with a more powerful flow and white waters, came from another side and the two met almost at right angles. Across the entire stretch of water, wooden platforms chained to the shore have been kept. Here, boats stop and most people get onto the platforms and into the Ganga to have a bath. The sangam was a great scene. We didn't have a bath or anything. After taking a few photographs, we returned to the shore. A pleasant ride, by all means.

Allahabad Fort

Right opposite the shore was a huge fort made of red stone, which (the auto-wallah told us) was built by Akbar. At present, there is a temple inside (I forget its name). We just entered the fort and went down some stairs to see that the temple was underground with the entrance opposite us. Openings on the surface let us peer inside, where we heard a lot of voices but couldn't see much because it was dark inside. We didn't want to go inside, so out we came and into the auto.

(continued...)

Sunday, January 09, 2005

ek yaatraa - VIII

Day 3: Allahabad/Chitrakoot, 30 Dec. 2004, Thursday

Sati Anusooya temple
The last place we visited was the temple to Sati Anusooya. Anusooya had, by her powers, converted Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesh to little children and their wives had to come to her and beseech the release of their husbands from this form. She also made the Ganga appear here in the form of the river Mandakini because her husband - Atri Muni - required holy water for his penance. Even Ram and Sita came and paid their respects to Anusooya. The powers of a pativrataa stree were thus to be noted.
The temple lies well off the main road and the road leading up to the temple is about the worst road I have ever travelled on. Not a second was the car steady throughout. The road just seemed never-ending. Finally we reached the place to see the green waters of the Mandakini cutting through a verdant forest. It was a beautiful scene. The temple had a lot of construction work going on. The temple has two floors over which exhibits depicting events in the life of Anusooya are shown. The sanctum is on the first floor where there are three cradles, supposedly to hold the child trinity.

Back to Allahabad
Finally, we made our way back to the car through people and monkeys and take the broken road back to meet the main road. By the time we dropped our boy-guide off at the bungalow, it was 3.15pm. We hadn't had lunch yet, and the driver of our taxi brought us to a nearby Rajasthani dhaba. We were reluctant to eat there at first, but then went in. We didn't regret it as the food was excellent - hot puri-s with two good sabzi-s.
Another 3.5 hours later, we were back in Allahabad in the tourist bungalow. We stayed in the room for the rest of the day and had dinner in the local restaurant. The next day, we would go for sightseeing at Allahabad.

(continued...)

Saturday, January 08, 2005

ek yaatraa - VII

Day 3: Allahabad/Chitrakoot, 30 Dec. 2004, Thursday

On the way to Chitrakoot

We had decided to visit Chitrakoot this day since it would be taking up practically the entire day. With the taxi (a Tata Sumo) arriving 45 minutes late, we began by around 8am. We were out of the city by around 8.30am and on the highway that would eventually enter Madhya Pradesh. Rewa is straight ahead on this highway, while we took a branch off this road for Chitrakoot. After driving through many villages (again with the road turning to a paved or brick road), we made a brief halt for tea at a relatively isolated tea stall.
The sun was out and it was not very cold at all. The mountains had shown up on both sides of the road, with green and yellow fields of wheat, sarson and other crops extending right up to the foot of the mountains.
We resumed and finally reached Chitrakoot at around 12 noon. We again went to the Rahi Tourist Bungalow here and took a boy with us as guide.

Kamadgiri temple

Chitrakoot, as the boy explained to us, is the place where Lord Ram, Sita, and Lakshman spent the first 11.5 years of their exile, before moving south to Panchavati near Nasik. The first thing Ram did after setting out on exile was to visit the ashram of Bhardwaj Muni in Prayag, seeking directions to a place where the exile could be peacefully spent. The muni, in turn, directed Ram to Rushi Valmiki, who told him that Chitrakoot was the ideal location for the purpose.
After 10 minutes of travel came a checkpost which separates UP from MP. Thus, the real places of religious importance in Chitrakoot lie in MP.
The first of these is the Kamadgiri temple, situated at the place where Ram supposedly offered puujaa every day of his stay here. The temple is very small but holds great religious importance. The pradakshiNaa around it runs through the mountains and is 5 km. in length. We did not have that kind of time, so we moved on. At every place we visited in Chitrakoot, there were a large number of red-faced monkeys.

Ram Darshan/Jaipuria Smruti Bhawan

We next arrived at a modern establishment - the Jaipuria Smruti Bhawan - built by a Marwari businessman of the same name. It is clean and grand. A huge statue of Hanuman tearing his chest to reveal images of Ram and Sita within is present inside the gate. Beyond it are several residential quarters for Marwari devotees that are part of the complex. The Smruti Bhawan consists of various beautiful and meticulously made exhibits depicting events in Ram's life. We spent quite some time looking at these exhibits and reading the descriptions. Another striking aspect of the Bhawan is the magnificent arrangements of artificial flowers in it. This is definitely a place worth visiting.

Gupt Godavari

The next stop was a place where two large natural caves existed in mountains. Water comes out of the mountains here and that water is said to be of the river Godavari, which, the boy says, 'had come north to be at Ram's feet'. This water has been arrested into 7 kund-s, where people take baths. From here, the water again flows underground.
We climbed up the steps to the first cave. We had to buy tickets to get inside the caves, and the caves are under government control. As the boy said, 'ye government ki gufaa hai'. That made me think that this was also appropriate in another way - here the water originated from no one knows where and went no one knows where - just like nobody knows where government funds really go :).
The first cave has a very narrow entrance but it opens out to a vast interior. There is a high platform on the left, where Ram was supposed to hold his court in exile. There are idols here too. We came out of this cave and went into the next. Now this is the cave into which the Godavari water comes and flows out into the kund-s. We had to fold up our trousers and walk in knee-deep (and later thigh-deep) water into the cave. The eroded cave floor was very uneven making it quite painful to walk. We didn't go into the cave fully, and came back out. It was quite an experience to see this natural cave.
We were done with the caves and were on the way to our last site in Chitrakoot.

(continued...)

Friday, January 07, 2005

ek yaatraa - VI

Day 2: Varanasi/Sarnath/Allahabad, 29 Dec. 2004, Wednesday

Sarnath archaeological museum
The Archaeological Survey of India's museum in Sarnath is a must-visit place. It holds relics of ancient and medieval times, excavated here. Almost all relics are Buddhist ones - statues and busts of the Buddha and other 'gods' and 'goddesses', the Ashok Chakra, etc.; but there are also quite a few relics of the Jain religion. As you enter the museum, the central hall has the Ashokan pillar mounted by the four lions. The descriptions of the relics are precise. Touchscreen terminals are also present to give information about Buddhism, the museum, Sarnath's history, etc. Also, multi-lingual guides seemed to be available for guiding foreigners around the place.

Back to Varanasi and thence to Allahabad
The auto-wallah then brought us back to Varanasi, and deposited us right next to a private bus going to Allahabad. Since the bus had some time before it left, we grabbed a quick bite of samosa chhole and bread pakoda for lunch at a joint in the bus depot.
The journey to Allahabad was on the historic Grand Trunk Road, which passed through several villages and small towns. As it passed through these villages, it just became a paved road or brick road, instead of a tar road. Also, numerous repairs and construction were going on along the road. Consequently, even the non-stop journey took us three hours to reach Allahabad

In Allahabad
We had booked our room in the Rahi Tourist Bungalow of UP Tourism, on M.G. Road. There was a bit of a confusion on where to alight from the bus. Eventually, we got down at Civil Lines and hired two cycle-rickshaws, only to find that the tourist bungalow was only two minutes away from where we alighted.
Our room here was a high-ceilinged one on the first floor. Consequently, it was not cosy and was quite cold. It was also mosquito-infested, and these mosquitoes left their marks on our hands and faces over the two nights we stayed here.
We made our travel plans for the next day and then, as night fell, we went for a walk through Civil Lines. But as it turned out, we took the wrong route and did not see any market area. We visited a Hanuman temple, which was quite as large as Varanasi's Sankat Mochan temple, and crossed a street housing a 'Ludhiana market' - a market where cheap woollens and jackets, etc. were available. We didn't do much else for the day as we came back, had dinner in the bungalow's restaurant (a sumptuous and excellent 'yatri thali') and went to sleep, since we had to wake up early the next day.

ek yaatraa - V

Day 2: Varanasi/Sarnath/Allahabad, 29 Dec. 2004, Wednesday

To Sarnath

The weather in Varanasi was not very cold, it was less cold compared to Lucknow. It was another good sunny morning when the same auto-wallah picked us up from the hotel and took us to Sarnath - only a few kilometres and half-an-hour away, albeit with a stretch of very bad road on the way.
We took a guide to take us through the sights of Sarnath. This man was on the payroll of the Weavers' Co-operative Society of Sarnath, consisting of local people who wove and sold very light, handloom silk saari-s for a living. Sarnath, as the guide told us, is the place where the Buddha delivered his first preaching to his first five disciples under a peepal tree. The sites to see here consist of a historic stupa, a temple, the above-mentioned tree, and an archaeological museum. The way to the gate of the temple complex was lined by shops of all kinds, but the place was relatively clean.

Dhammik stupa

Ashok the Great built the great Dhammik stupa here, which was the first thing we saw. We looked at the stupa, located in a vast park, from a distance inside the temple complex. It is a huge structure, 160 ft. high and 100 ft. in diameter. As stupa-s go, this one too is closed from all sides, and has no entrance. There is another way into the park down the road, from where devout Buddhists enter and make circumambulations of the stupa.
Islamic rulers had later tried to break into the stupa, as it was said that Ashok's treasure lay inside. They were unsuccessful in breaking in, and the bottom part was rebuilt later, so the colour of the bricks is different in the upper and lower parts.

Bodhi tree

This is not the Bodhi tree under which Buddha gained enlightenment, of course (that is in Gaya). But the Buddha first gave his message to five of his disciples under the peepal tree here. And it was from here that Ashok's son and daughter - Mahendra and Sanghamitra - took the message of the Buddha to Sri Lanka.
Under the big tree is a circular roofed structure housed by big statues of the Buddha and the five disciples in semi-circular position around him. The message that the Buddha gave - called the Dhamma Chakka Pavattana Sutra (possibly in Pali; we would call it the Dharma Chakra Pravartana Sutra in Sanskrut) - is spelled out on granite plaques around the tree in all the languages which the major Buddhist communities speak - English, Thai, Vietnamese, Sinhalese, Burmese, etc. Also, small statues of Buddha in little shelves are present around the tree, each bearing a different name of the Buddha (e.g. Dipankar).

Temple to the Buddha

This is a modern temple built in 1931 by a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk - Anagarika Dhammapala, whose statue is also present in the temple compound. The temple's inside walls are fully covered by murals depicting incidents in the life of the Buddha. The statue of the Buddha is gold-plated. A book counter was also present where there were several good books on Buddhism, but they were quite expensive.

While seeing all this, we constantly felt the difference between the temples we had visited the day before in Varanasi and this complex. Here, there was so much order and quiet. There, chaos reigned. Here, there is no extortion of money in the name of offerings or panda's fees. It is not difficult to see why the Buddha must have thought that the Hindu religion, even as it existed in his time, needed a new path.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

The danger of incomplete sentences

I just had an extraordinary experience. I opened the Rediff India website and saw the headline: 'Balaji on life after injury', and it was in bold type.

Now, the first thing that came to my mind was the Raman Lamba incident. Coupled with the recent Cristiano tragedy in football, I interpreted the headline phrase as: 'Balaji-on-life after injury', meaning that L. Balaji was on a life-support system after facing a grievous injury (possibly in a Ranji trophy match).
I became genuinely worried and clicked on the link, and what do I see? It is an interview of Balaji and how he has coped with his injury! So the intended interpretation was: 'Balaji on life-after-injury'.
Notice what danger ambiguous words or incomplete sentences hold. Though I don't have any data, I think this must be the leading cause of misunderstandings between people - the lack of precision in communication.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

ek yaatraa - IV

Day 1: Varanasi, 28 Dec. 2004, Tuesday

Vishalakshi temple
On the way back through the alleys from the Kashi Vishwanath temple, we paid a quick visit to a temple to Goddess Vishalakshi, which held more significance for South Indian devotees of Goddess Kamakshi, according to the boatman. The idol was invisible being behind a curtain, and so we just made a quick pradakshiNaa and came out.
We made our way back to Lalita ghat and into the boat, and the boatman rowed us back to Kedar ghat, where we got back into our autorickshaw.

'Ye PSPO nahin jaanataa!'
My father asked the auto-wallah if he knew where Ustad Bismillah Khan's house was. Far from knowing the house, the auto-wallah did not know who the Ustad was :(. He had to call a passerby who informed us about the way. But ultimately, we did not visit the place.

Kashi Hindu Vishwavidyalay
We were now very wary of temples, so we asked the auto-wallah to take us directly to Banaras Hindu University. After a while, we entered the imposing archway of the famous place of learning. The entire campus is huge and we noticed a lot of departments, including Sanskrut,
Hindi, botany, chemistry, the Institute of Technology, etc. The central library was also a big building. The library had been built by Sayajirao Gaekwad of Vadodara.
Here, the auto-wallah led us to another temple - the new Vishwanath temple. Here there are no panda-s and so we went in. In the centre of the huge compound of the temple stands the statue of the founder of BHU - Pt. Madan Mohan Malviya. The temple is also an imposing structure. Inside, it has a vast hall with the ling at the end and a big nandi outside the right door. The marble flooring inside was very cold to the touch.

Ramnagar Fort
Our next halt was on the other side of the river Ganga, where Varanasi gives way to Ramnagar. The road on either side of the river-bridge was extremely bad. In fact, there was no asphalt road. It was just a brick road that gave an exercise to every bone in the body inside the autorickshaw. The bridge is a historic one constructed by the king who ruled from the Ramnagar fort. It has stone railings with the floor consisting of iron sheets supported below by wooden sleepers. Now the entire bridge has pontoons below for support. Here the Ganga is
very wide indeed, for the bridge is easily more than a kilometre long.
The fort made of red stone is a prominent sight in rustic Ramnagar. It is vast inside, housing numerous structures. One of the buildings has been converted into a museum. It houses the usual regalia - numerous weapons of all kinds (guns, daggers, swords, arrows), royal clothing, palanquins, foreign and local-make clocks, portraits, etc. One room had portraits of friendly kings including those of Gwalior, Patiala (the infamous Bhupinder Singh) and the Rao of Kutch. The king of Ramnagar had bowed to the British and many photographs of British
gents and ladies were present.
The other buildings are all closed to the public and so we made our way back to the auto.

Sankat Mochan temple
The auto-wallah next brought us to the Sankat Mochan (Hanuman) temple. This temple also has very large grounds with a large number of red-faced monkeys. There was quite a crowd in the main temple and so we just made one pradakshiNaa of the temple and came out. There were a large variety of sweets available as prasad here and we bought magdal from here. Now we just wanted to go back to the hotel as we were tired and hadn't had lunch. The auto-wallah really wanted us to see the Durga-ji temple and the Tulsimanas Mandir, but we just asked him to go on. He also wanted us to see the market for Banarasi saari-s, but we were not
interested in that as well.
The auto-wallah took a route from the lanes and bylanes of Varanasi. The whole maze seemed never-ending as we were tired. But we got the real view of Varanasi. It is cramped for space and very dirty, as most Indian towns and cities are.
The rest of the day was spent in the hotel and we just got out in the evening to buy some wool and have dinner. Ultimately, it had been a good day in which we had taken in a lot of sights and sounds.

(continued...)

ek yaatraa - III

Day 1: Varanasi, 28 Dec. 2004, Tuesday

The Kashi Vishwanath and Annapurna temples

The boatman took us up the steep steps and then along a long and narrow alley to a shop selling offerings to be offered in the temple. Here we took off our footwear and were introduced to one of that (in)famous breed of people - the 'panda' (this species of 'panda' is far from endangered, unlike the red panda :) ). This man was elderly and resembled Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi a lot - both in appearance and clothing. We really were forced into taking him for a guide and also forced into purchasing two sets of offerings for two temples. This was turning out to be an expensive affair.
There were big crowds in those narrow alleys and we were made to hurry inside the temple since it was closing time (at 11.30am - surprising). Along the alley were people selling dhatura sap in earthen tumblers for offering on the ling, which we did not buy. We rushed into the sanctum sanctorum where we had to struggle in the crowd to come face to face with the jyotirling of Shiv. Hurriedly, we offered the bilipatra and flowers on the ling and came out of the garbhagruh. Even so, we had to be careful as the floor was slippery with people offering milk.
Inside the garbhagruh were security-men regulating (jostling, really) people in and out. One of the persons resisted the security-man, who was provoked and they came to blows - right there beside the ling. So much for maintaining the sanctity of the place.

Well, we moved directly opposite to the Annapurna temple, where again we were rushed into offering the second basket of offerings before being led out. The panda then led us out of the place, but before that, showed us the gold-plated top of the Vishwanath temple.
He took us through a cave-like passage, where my parents were made to offer sinduur to the forehead of the statue of the Goddess five times each (again, with some monetary offering). From here, we came out and the panda showed us the old residential quarters of sadhu-s, and then the site of the old Kashi Vishwanath temple, where now stood a mosque. This was the allegedly disputed site over which some politicians and other people with no better work to do were going to raise a ruckus, a la Ayodhya. So there was tight security all over with watchtowers and barricades.

Next up, we all three made two pradakshiNaa-s of a certain circular place of worship. Then we were made to repeat certain Sanskrut shloka-s and Hindi sentences to the effect that 'may our pilgrimage to Kashi be fruitful in terms of our wishes and familial well-being'. The man sitting there was not happy with the amount we offered and asked for more, saying that we had come all the way to Kashi and should give more. For once, we stood firm.

Then, we visited the old temple, where the actual Vishwanath svayambhuu ling resides, below ground level. At one time, this ling used to be washed with the waters of the Ganga when in spate. Here, we were made to buy another prasad, which we were supposed to keep only within the family, and not distribute to others.
We were finally led out of the complex back into the alleys. We had lost more than a thousand rupees inside an hour in buying offerings, remunerating the panda and keeping our belongings for safekeeping.

Ritualism is not for me, neither did my parents like any of this. Why should I be constrained to worship in a particular way? Why should I be made to pay through my nose to have a darshan of Shiv? The accusing eye which rests upon you if you do not shell out more money is disturbing - as if we are committing a crime. The blessedness one should ideally feel on visiting nothing less than a jyotirling was reduced a lot because of this kind of quasi-extortionist behaviour.

(continued...)

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

ek yaatraa - II

Day 1: Varanasi, 28 Dec. 2004, Tuesday

The Kashi Vishwanath Express ultimately reached Varanasi an hour and a half late, at 6.30am. Probably the fog was the reason, and we also did not mind it as by then the morning light had driven out the darkness of night.
So we were in Varanasi - the holiest of holy cities for Hindus. Our immediate concern was, of course, to get a hotel room. The autorickshaw-wallah, after one disappointment, deposited us at Hotel Gautam at Ramkatora Crossing. The hotel was a good one and we freshened up and geared for the day's touring. The TV showed news of the tsunami tragedy and that devastating event was our grim companion through the trip. The auto-wallah who brought us to the hotel was also to be our companion in touring Varanasi and Sarnath.

The ghats on the Ganga
So after a typical North Indian breakfast of aaloo paratha and puuri-sabzi*, we were off in a narrow autorickshaw to take in the sights of Varanasi. As we progressed, the roads narrowed to streets and the streets to mere alleys of which the auto occupied the entire width. Here we stopped and walked down the alley and down a series of steps to Kedar ghat. The first glimpse of the Ganga we had was, well, not quite breathtaking. The expanse of the great river (around half a kilometre) was wonderful to look at, but the water was polluted and black. The water also seemed very still, not flowing.
But the Ganga is the Ganga and we decided to take a row-boat trip on it, which would take us to the Kashi Vishwanath temple and show us the various ghats. The boatman was a young man who was knowledgeable and good-natured. He first rowed upstream and then downstream to show us the various ghats on the river. Some of the ghats that I remember now are: Munsi ghat (named after Munshi Premchand), Dashashwamedh ghat (where the Ganga aarti happens in the evening), Ahilya ghat (built by the Holkars of Gwalior), one ghat built by a Rajput king, one ghat which was frequented by Bengalis, one frequented by South Indians, etc. Thus we saw the high religious importance of Varanasi in the whole of India. The various communities in India had constructed their own ghats on the Ganga at this place.

The boatman, meanwhile, talked about the city's three names - Kashi (used most by South Indians), Banaras (according to the boatman, used most by Muslims in the textile trade) and Varanasi (used most by North Indian Hindus). The name 'Varanasi' originated from the two extreme ghats - the Varuna ghat and the Asi ghat. The latter is where Tulsidas is said to have written the Ramcharitmanas.
The most famous ghat in Varanasi is the Manikarnika ghat - a 24-hour crematorium. The flames of funeral pyres never cease at this ghat as Hindus from all over India arrive here to consign the dead bodies of their near and dear ones to flames. As we passed it, we saw quite a few pyres burning there.

The boatman anchored the boat at the Lalita ghat, from where we were to visit the Kashi Vishwanath temple.

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* Food might enjoy a regular presence in this account, because of the enjoyment I derive from it :)

ek yaatraa - I

This term break, my parents visited me here with the plan being to visit some places of religious and historical importance in UP. The main places visited were: Lucknow, Varanasi, Sarnath, Allahabad and Chitrakoot. The first part of a detailed account of the very enjoyable trip follows:

Day 0: Lucknow, 27 Dec. 2004, Monday

The last exam got over on this day. My parents had arrived the previous day. That they arrived without any significant delay amidst foggy weather was very fortunate. The previous day had been the first sunny one in a whole week or more of cloudy, foggy, gloomy days. We just had a round of the campus and a dinner of makke ki roti and sarson ka saag in the mess that day.
On day 0, we caught an evening bus to the city and went to Hotel Gomti near Hazratganj for tour inquiries and hotel bookings. Our programme got a more definite shape here as we booked hotel rooms in Allahabad and Lucknow (for the return). The tourist bungalow in Varanasi was full, so we just decided to find ourselves a hotel room on reaching Varanasi.
After we were through with this, we carried our luggage and roamed around Hazratganj, doing some window shopping of chikan saari-s and having a chaat at (what has now become) my customary chaat joint.

Since we had too much time on hand that evening, we finally gave up roaming and reached the Lucknow railway station where we had to catch the Kashi Vishwanath Express to Varanasi at 11.15pm. We met half-a-dozen IIML students in the waiting rooms at the station as most trains were running late.
Luckily and surprisingly, our train was bang on time despite coming from Delhi and we boarded a very comfortable A.C. compartment - a relief from the cold outside. We were on our way on the first leg of the journey, to the holy city of Varanasi...

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Sunday, January 02, 2005

New beginnings

Term 2 ended in a fairly happy way for me academically, as I did relatively well in the end-term exams.
The new term starts tomorrow, 3rd January. This is the last term of the first year. The whole course has gone off so quickly that it is difficult to realize that another rapid 3 months later, 'PGP-I' would be over.

I spent this term break on a semi-religious, semi-historical trip to Varanasi, Allahabad, Sarnath, Chitrakoot and good old Lucknow, with my parents, who had come visiting. It was a very enjoyable time. A detailed account of the trip would appear on this blog in parts over the next few days, while it is still fresh in my mind.