Sunday, 4 November 2012

City Lights - Part 2 : The city of joy

[...continued from Part 1]

Kolkata has been referred to the city of joy. For me, it will always be the city of special love and that is one thing I immediately associate with the city - just plain and simple love and the faith that love cures all things going wrong. Right from the times when I first visited Kolkata in my high school days to the special weekend visits during the two years of MBA life, Kolkata has always been something special – a city with a heart and soul of its own. It was lot of fun getting to explore the city and its nuances. For the to-be corporate grads like us secluded from city life at our institute, Kolkata was the city where we would all rush to escape from the dull life. Since Kharagpur lacked a passenger airport, malls, software parks or anything faintly related to urban life, Kolkata was the go-to city for all these luxuries once in a while. Also, all opportunities like sponsorship for fests, interactions with corporate world, etc had to happen in Kolkata. More importantly, exploring a new city with some special friends and relatives always gives good memories of the place and Kolkata is one where I have lots of it.

For me, the most striking of all memories in Kolkata starts even before entering the city. To someone who loves the railways like me, the 22 platform Howrah terminus is nothing short of a holy shrine. The mad rush on the platforms, the red painted towers, the non-stop announcements about arriving or departing trains, the red uniformed coolies, the aroma of Comesum’s biryani near platform 18, coaches in all colors and classes to carry passengers – ah! Never has any Indian railway station fascinated me so much. Whats more – my first glimpse of India’s fastest train – the Duronto express was in Howrah. Even the first double decker AC coach connecting Howrah to Dhanbad was first spotted in the Howrah station. I have so many lasting memories of the Howrah station and the numerous journeys I used to take from Kharagpur to Howrah and back. I have travelled on this route so many times and in so many classes of trains – ranging from the basic Rs. 19/ ticket local train to the super luxury Rs. 541 priced ticket 1A coach on the TATA-HWH Steel express. I have also made these 2.5 hour journey at almost all times of the day/night – the most frequent of them being the early morning 6:20 MDN-HWH local to Kolkata and return on the 1930 is HWH-MDN galloping train. The oddest hour when I made this travel was at 0230 in the night when my flight landed in Kolkata at midnight on a cold December night.

Most of these journeys were undertaken in anticipation of special moments – be it sponsorship amounts, travel back home on flights, job interviews, rigorous academic terms that lay ahead or spending time with special people in the city of joy – each of these had a flavor of its own. There was a time when I could easily list out some 20+ stations on this route even in my sleep. It was always the same pattern - the vast expanses of lush green fields while passing through Jakpur and Ballychowk, then some green forest cover while passing Radhamohanpur and Panskura, the thermal power plant at Kolaghat and the bridge across river Rupnarayan. We would then zoom past the suburbs of Uluberia and cover stations like Phuleshwar, Chengel, etc and land into Santragachi junction, only to cover the next 10 kms in such frustratingly slow pace that entering into Howrah would make you want to get out of the train and dance.

The station, river, bridge the city and trams are something very unique to this city. While most other cities of the world have combinations of the above, Kolkata is one which boasts of having it all! The vintage yellow ambassador taxis and wooden framed colorful buses on Rabindro Setu with the silently flowing Hugli below is like a picture postcard you can mail to dear ones for having travelled here. When you get into the huge streets with old angrez buildings on either side, you will realize that these are places which have survived the test of time – they could be easily a century old. Park Street, Camac street, etc are essentially where the midtown madness is. Esplanade and the market areas around it are places where you can shop for any item –old and new. Each landmark or area in Kolkata gives you some sort of thrilling feeling when you know that there is a lot of history and heritage associated with it. When I pass through the huge maidaan, I just imagine the sports Englishmen used to play here back then. Eden gardens still echoes the roar of the 100,000 people who were there to witness that epic test where Aussie pride was dusted. Passing through Kalighat, Gariahat via Rashbehari avenue makes me think of how Mother Teresa used to nurse the leprosy patients on the streets here. Passing through Nandan talkies somehow reminds me of gurudev Rabindranath Tagore and his legendary compositions. Victoria memorial stands in testimony to the glorious Fort William days. Kali temple at Dakshineshwar and the ‘across the river’ Belur math makes me bow in reverence to Paramahamsa and his famous disciple Narendra who carried the essence of Hinduism across the world. I just felt every place in Kolkata had a story to tell and tried to listen, see and experience it to the fullest.

The newer areas, read Salt lake, Rajarahat, etc dotted with all the technology companies, high rise apartments and malls are akin to any other metro. However, purely from an economic standpoint, Kolkata is much less expensive as compared to the others. I just might be wrong here. But this is just a personal opinion. Maybe it is the variety of options the city offers which presents the overall combination as being a little less expensive. You can use the buses, the trams, the underground metro, the rickshaws, taxis and the ferries or a combination of these to get to any place you want. You can eat at roadside thelas, carry carts, fast food outlets, or the big restaurants depending on your wallet size. And regardless of your wallet size, you must have chai samosa at local tea stalls and rossogollas at mithai shops at least once! :)

One thing that people say defines Kolkata is the pujo time. It seemed to me that the Bengalis have only one festival in the year – Durga puja! There are different flavors that the city offers and the pujo flavor can easily be termed as its flagship. Pandals at every nook and corner of the city, each one built with so much thought and artistic design put into it make the city look so beautiful during the times. The all night stalls, the dance and the rituals and the variety of food on offer during this time make it a very memorable one for anyone. However, since the college used to shut down for almost a week during the pujo times, I ended up missing the real pomp and glory of Kolkata during pujo, as I used to come back home for vacations during both the years. I just wish that I get a chance someday to visit the city during puja time and experience it.

Kolkata has been portrayed in so many movies in so many shades, the recent ones being Bidya’s Kahaani and Ashima Roy’s haveli in Vicky donor. But to me, the movie ‘Love Aaj Kal’ and especially the song ‘yeh dooriyan’ is one which immediately makes me recall the city and all its memories. ‘Love aaj kal’ was the first movie which I got in super high quality in the super high speed LAN at Kharagpur. The movie and the songs served as constant time pass when I travelled on the trains or stayed in the lodges at Kolkata. Whenever I listen to ‘yeh dooriyan’, my mind races back to the city of joy – to the train journeys undertaken, to the romantic rides on the SaltLake’s cycle rickshaws, to the time spent at Kolkata airport so many times waiting for people/flights. The song is one thing which defines Kolkata in my mind. When I used to travel back and forth on the KGP-HWH route, my mind would contemplate on the lyrics of the song ‘aa raha paas ya door main jaa raha jaane na koi yaha pe’. In retrospect, it is vividly clear on what the lyrics used to mean.

In any city, there can be good things as well as bad ones. One thing I deliberately leave out when I write this articles are the bad experiences. Also, along with all the good things a city has, there will always be some things which you don’t like at all. For example, the one thing which you’ll notice as soon as you get out of the Howrah station is the huge pile of debris and filth. But we can have a separate article dedicated towards infrastructure management which can get on all that. These articles are only about the pleasant experiences the cities have offered me and a recollection of all things nice which I got to experience in these cities.

In statistical experiments as well as in life, people always expect an ‘unbiased’ opinion when looking for insights. And that is exactly the opposite of what would happen if I wrote about the experiences and memories in namma Bengalooru – it would be highly biased because of the fact that over 90% of my life has been spent in this city – the growing up days of the 90’s, the PU college days of 2000s, the heavenly BMS days, the ‘new to industry’ Symbian Ltd. days, the ‘60km daily travel’ workdays and all other days in between. Nevertheless, the only word and emotion which I feel when I think of Bengalooru is ‘bliss’! In fact, if I had to start elaborating on why Bangalore gets associated with bliss, I would be writing an entire autobiography, which I plan to do sometime very soon :) But for now, let me just say that each and every experience that my home city has given me have been such that I always feel good about it. Even the bad ones seem not so bad because of all that they have taught me. Maybe I will write more parts of this article by sampling some of the awesome moments that define Bangalore for me.

Other big cities that I have been to in India include Pune, Jaipur, Indore, Bhopal, Udaipur, Bhubaneshwar, Trivandrum, Hyderabad among others. However, I have not spent enough time in these cities to have a lasting memory or an incident linked to these places. I was just a tourist visiting only the must-see places or using the city as a quick transit point to get to other places. Of course, there have been experiences but nothing noteworthy of sorts. And then there are cities like Delhi, Chandigarh, Gurgaon, Guwahati, Srinagar, Shimla, Dehra Dun, Ahmedabad etc which I have always wanted to visit but never got a chance to. Maybe I will write more on these cities in the coming days. In the meanwhile I would like to hear from you all if you have any nice city memories/experiences. I know there would be bad points and cribbing about infrastructure, culture etc in all cities. But, no city if perfect in all senses that way. They are all in the development path and will take some time to improve. And the experiences which I shared were only subjective. Maybe someone else would have had the exact same experiences which I had in city A in other cities. The only thing which I want to state here is that people stop judging a city by the stereotypes and self-explore it. Take your own time and explore the city with the pace you are really comfortable. I wish you many more wow moments in your cities.

PS: 1. HWH - station code for Howrah, headquarters for Eastern and South Eastern railway divisions of Indian Railways
2. MDN - Station code for Medinipur. Local trains from Howrah run till Medinipur, passing via Kharagpur (KGP)

City Lights - Part 1

Books, clothes, accessories and most importantly memories of two great years were in those airbags and suitcases. They were getting crammed in the tiny space available in the air conditioned railway compartment of the 12863 HWH-YPR express. We were going back one final time and some of the closest friends in the two years had come to drop us off. The feelings were mixed – the joy of finishing a professional course, the sadness of having to leave such happy days behind, the excitement of the professional world that awaited us… it was all there. As the lights of the twin towers of IIT Kharagpur faded out far away, the city lights awaited us!

Having stayed in one city for almost all of my life, the answer you’ll get from me on which city I love the most is obvious. Even during most part of the two year MBA course that I stayed away, I kind of knew that I would get back to my city itself after the course. Also, during the summer internship, I had the privilege of staying at home. The joy was only compounded when I got an offer letter stating about the location of my new workplace.  Back then, it was placements season at college and the discussions would usually be around which city is good to settle down and make some money and the other things centered around them.  I used to listen to them with great interest. Some used to shout that Mumbai was India’s heaven on earth and some thought that Pune and Kolkata were great places to save money. There were some who wanted to be in Chandigarh and Gurgaon or NCR because it was closer to their homes and more “homely” than other metros. But the two southern cities they dreaded the most were Chennai and Trivandrum. Even some localites from Chennai had some sort of aversion to going back to Chennai. It was something which baffled me then. Why do some cities become a instant hit and bring happiness to people while others are feared so much that people spend days together crying when they get their work location as these cities?

I have given it some thought for quite some time now and realized that it is those strong memories which people associate with a city that make it good or bad in their perception. Consider for example, even if Gurgaon is one of the sophisticated and high-fi cities in India right now, just because I have heard a strong unpleasant memory /story relating to it, I never feel it is good. Even if all the other factors and surveys report the city to be good, it is ultimately the mind-set in the people which would go a long way in them liking/disliking the city. And then comes the familiarity angle. If you stay in a city long enough, you get used to the place, the culture and the way of life that you start loving the city. The more you get to know about the city’s history and why certain things are the way they are, there will be more appreciation of the place rather than contempt or disdain. Imagine having to land in an unknown city at night and having to speak an unfamiliar language to the local taxiwalas to take you to someplace which is not your permanent home. Now compare that to landing in your hometown at midnight and telling the local autowalah in your own language something like - 'guroo, Vijayanagar bartiraa?' Need I say more?

In the next part of this post, I list down few prominent cities in India which I have been to and the emotions/stories that I associate with them. There is also a lasting memory of the place which kind of defines the city for me. Of course, your opinions could be different based on your own experiences. You may feel free to add on to this list at the end so that even I get to hear about more city experiences and memories.
I have spent very less time in the financial capital of India, Mumbai to say anything about it but one emotion which I can immediately associate with it is HOPE. Some years ago, we had been there during the monsoons. Like most Indian cities, rains wreak havoc in Mumbai too. However, I was really amazed to find that nothing could deter the city from going on. We could always find some people on the streets busy with their work, regardless of the weather or the time of the day. We could always see that hope in people's eyes - be it the dabbawalahs who sang all the time they carried heavy lunch boxes in crowded local trains, the vendors near the railway stations who sold every possible item you can imagine or the people living in the slums alongside the railway tracks – they all seemed to have dreams with the hope that Mumbai would fulfil the dreams. One takeaway memory of the place is that of the monsoons. It is really amazing to see how people go about their work during this time of the year without caring for the downpour or the hardships it brings to them. The rains are perhaps the soul of Mumbai and the people's reaction to it - its true spirit

The next city on the list is one of the earliest British settlements - Chennai. I have not spent much time in this city owing to its proximity to my home city. Whenever I have been there, it was during transit to farther cities or for small works which would not last more than a day. However, the thing which I can instantly attach to this city is HUNGER for KNOWLEDGE. There is something about the city which makes you want to learn things. The feelings for this city can be best summarized with an anecdote about the city.

During my summer-time application for MBA, I got a call from IIT Madras, DoMS for a GD/PI at their campus. My initial reaction after seeing that call letter was indifference. Who would go to Chennai when most institutes would conduct their processes at Bangalore? That too, there was nothing motivating about the institute (ratings wise) or the city itself which made me want to go there for a day long process, let alone study for two years. After much deliberation, I decided to go and attend the process because getting a holiday to travel was easy. I took the KSRTC’s flagship Airavat Volvo to Chennai with a strong bias against the city. And as soon as I set foot on it, most of my initial feelings about the city were reinforced. The Autowalahs deliberately pretended not to understand anything other than tamil and dropped me off at the campus gate, while still taking the full fare till the hostel. I had to walk almost 2 km to reach the hostels in the morning heat and humidity of Chennai which further irritated me. I was made to wait for another frustrating hour outside the hostel till the admissions committee member came and allotted me to a tiny hostel room. By the time I finished the bland breakfast in the mess and came back to the room, I had almost decided that I could not study in such a place for two years.

A couple of other aspirants like myself who were there in the hostels kept discussing about pros and cons about doing MBA from institutes known for technological excellence. I was so biased that all the cons were taken in happily and the pros were conveniently filtered out. We then went to the DoMS in the afternoon for the process and were made to sit in a AC classroom waiting for the process to begin. A religious looking professor with vermillon applied to his forehead (a stereotype south Indian, especially the Tambrahm types) walked in to talk to us about the institute and the course they offered. It was the first time I was listening to a professor from IIT and even to this day, that talk for one hour remains one of the best talks I have ever heard in college. The way he was able to seek attention from disinterested people like us, describe the course and the institute’s legacy to us was totally out of the world. In his talk, he even described the beauty of the city and its culture, by quoting from the scriptures. It was an amazing turn-around for me.  My entire perspective of viewing the city and the institute had changed in a matter of minutes. The seemingly insignificant troubles I had to undergo to be there that day dint seem to matter for me. The city was offering me knowledge and it had induced the hunger in me to seek it. I dint care about the pros and cons or the rankings of the institute anymore. I just wanted a chance to be in a premier institute like that and listen to more of such professors. I had my own doubts on whether I could stay in a hostel after spending all my life living at home. But all that dint seem to matter anymore - it had given me that thirst. The special Friday night 'Pulav and seviyan' dinner at the hostel tasted even better that night. A friend I made there and I shared an auto back to MAS for our trains and even that autowalah seemed friendly. This one incident made me realize the power of perception. If you look at things in the right perspective, everything about the city feels good. And that is what Chennai taught me in a day. 

Every city has both a heart as well as a soul. A stay of a very long duration would be needed to experience the metaphorical heart of the city. But getting to and experiencing the soul of the city is something which takes more than that long duration stay. It happens to very few people who spend their lifetimes exploring cities and understanding its true identity. And the realization of having experienced this feeling is also too hard for someone to notice.  The next two cities which I want to write about are the ones which are very dear to me – both individually and collectively.  These are the state capitals of the two states (one a former national capital as well) where I have collectively spent almost my entire life. The cities are Kolkata, the city of joy and the awesome namma Bengalooru. I have had innumerable experiences/memories in these two cities such that narrowing it to one simple thought or incident would be very tough. I am still not sure if I have experienced the souls of these two cities but in the numerous experiences that I have had, I certainly have experienced the large, caring heart with which these cities have embraced me.

[continued in part 2]
1. HWH-YPR express: An Indian railways' superfast train that runs from Howrah, WB to Yeswantpur, KAR. It connects the cities of Kolkata and Bangalore, passing through the states of WB, Orissa, AP, TN and Karnataka
2. MAS - Station code for the 'Chennai Central' railway station - one of the oldest stations in India