Wimbledon – My Pilgrimage

It just so happened that my project and my client decided they wanted me in UK in a week when England was on the brink of elimination from the Football World Cup 2010 and when John Isner and Nicolas Mahut produced an 11 hours 5 minutes long monster marathon in the first round of Wimbledon.

I had spent close to 8 months in London from early October 2001 to late May 2002. But my main regret from trip was that I had no photographs from the more touristy places of London thanks to a rather debilitating bout of illness that killed my will to venture outdoors for the last few weeks of my trip. So when I got the opportunity to travel again, I was determined to fill up the missing pictures from London in my photo album.

If you know me well, the only sport I enjoy following more than Tennis is Cricket. Since India doesn’t have any matches scheduled in Lord’s next week, I accepted Wimbledon, the Mecca of Tennis with open arms. A couple of colleagues from work, Gaurav and April picked today for the visit. The plan was to get there after 5:00 PM when ticket prices go down. I was apprehensive, however, since today was a Friday and last year’s Champion Roger Federer and the runner-up Andy Roddick both had third round matches. I was expecting long queues.

Given that I was changing hotels today after an unsatisfactory experience at Hilton Croydon, I decided to first drop off my baggage at Hilton Euston. The journey from Croydon to Euston took me time because I had to familiarize myself with the Oyster ticketing system that did not exist back in 2001/2002. After checking into the hotel it took me some more time to top up my Oyster card so that I could travel to Wimbledon. It didn’t help that the queues were long at rush hour and my credit card got rejected for some arbitrary reason the first time I tried to buy.

Anyway, I reached Wimbledon station at about 5:25 PM. By then Gaurav and his brother Saurabh were already in the queue for tickets, which by their estimate was at least 500 people long. I still hadn’t gotten to the stadium, so this was depressing news. But I anyway decided to take a shuttle from Wimbledon station to the park. After I disembarked I asked one of the people there as to where I could buy tickets. Thinking back, his directions were eerily similar to what the bystanders at Surat Railway Station had told me when asked where the bus stop was. I walked a good amount and at a pretty brisk speed, passing the stadium on my way.

The Stadium from outside

The Stadium from outside

The price list

After walking seemingly endlessly I finally reached the entrance of Car Park 10, where the queue started for the tickets. Actually the queue started at least 200m inside the car park. By the time I joined the queue, though, it was 6:00 PM and Gaurav and Saurabh were already chugging along. To give you an estimate, right about the court entrance where you purchase tickets, the queue index is A, where I was standing was K9 and Gaurav was probably around F. It had taken him an hour to get there.

Continue reading Wimbledon – My Pilgrimage

Saving for a Bicycle, Ending up with a Harley

If the title sounds familiar, you must be watching Smallville with great attention to detail.

A lot of us, growing up have fond desires that we are never able to fulfil. As a kid I had numerous hobbies – reading, badminton, tennis, philately, numismatics: you name it. But in each of my hobbies I stopped short of having what would be uber-cool, mainly because of my upbringing. I was always taught to save money and spend with caution and never to have my grasp exceed my reach. Coming from a middle class family I couldn’t really afford expensive hobbies. To cite an example I had a Badminton racquet (a DSC Colt, to be specific) that had cost me Rs. 135, which as per the conversion rates of those days must have been worth around US $4.5. This was the most expensive racquet I had owned and more importantly, it was bought with money I had earned. I had always dreamt of a better racquet like a Yonex or a Carlton with a graphite shaft or with a graphite body, but such racquets never cost less that Rs. 1000. Heck, even the high-end models of Silver’s seemed out of reach. So it was my desire to buy one when I grew up.

Ditto for tennis, where I had a Symonds’ wooden racquet that I really liked. Tennis balls in India used to cost around Rs. 50 each, which was very expensive. Whenever I played tennis with my friends we did so on a clay court where it was a struggle to see the lines and we played with threadbare tennis balls that had been handed down by my friends’ fathers after weeks and weeks of play. But we still had fun. My dream those days was to have a Silver’s Headley, an Indian racquet that cost around Rs. 700, because I simply couldn’t dream of getting a Wilson or a Dunlop that would cost no less than Rs. 2000.

As an aspiring philatelist every kid has a dream – owning a Penny Black. Unfortunately this was an even more ambitious dream than my other ones, given that I had never come across a person owning a Penny Black, so this was the stuff of legend for me. I had no idea how much it cost, but it surely couldn’t be something that years of pocket money could afford. Philately has a sister hobby, numismatics and though I had no specific dreams there, I had a fascination for coins of the old and rare variety. Here luckily I wasn’t so hard done and I had access to some outstanding Indian antiquities thanks to my grandparents. The numbers, though were quite small.

I was an avid book reader as a kid. It never was about novels, though. I could read anything you gave me – a book on general knowledge, a book about past civilizations, a book to study, a telephone directory, anything. This bibliophilism served me very well as I managed to read all my study material while preparing for my engineering entrance examination. That was no small feat considering that I must have had to read not less than 50 books for this. But if there was something that I lamented, it was the lack of story books as a kid. I really cherished the handful that I had won as prizes in different contests at school.

And so time went by and I joined my first job in June 2000. When my first paycheck came in July, here is what I did. I went to a sports goods store and bought myself a Yonex Carbonex 7000 DX, a graphite-bodied Badminton racquet that I absolutely love even today, apart from the fact that isometric racquets came up after I purchased this. I guess it felt so much better to buy it by myself rather than have my father buy it for me!

During those days dotcom startups were the in-things. There was one rather interesting startup called Ticklewit, whose business model I never succeeded in deciphering. Ticklewit published a variety of puzzles daily – crosswords, quizzes etc. If you succeeded in cracking those you got points. And you could redeem points once you had accumulated at least 1000. The redemption was in the form of gift certificates for an erstwhile company called Fabmart. Not one to let this opportunity go, I got started and made a significant amount of money by doing something I loved – more than Rs. 20,000/- in Fabmart gift certificates. Given the type of merchandise that Fabmart offered, I built up a significant collection of books with this money. Another dream fulfilled.

Given the expense of tennis in India I held off buying a tennis racquet. Moreover I wasn’t really sure that I would get a good racquet in India. But when I got a chance to travel to London in October 2001, I bought a Wilson Europa there. Unfortunately I never got to play with it very much, so I gave it to my brother so that he could make better use of it. When I moved to the US a few years later, though, I purchased a Wilson nCode n6.1 and boy! Did I use it!

Then it came down to philately and numismatics. With some rather smart hunting and judicious spending I managed to lay my hands on not only the Penny Black, but also the Two Penny Blue, the Penny Red (perforated and unperforated), the Bull’s Eye (30 Réis and 60 Réis) and the entire Trans-Mississippi Issue, including the rare Black Bull. And it sure felt good.

So I guess it is okay to have a ton of unfulfilled desires as a child. If you want something with a passion as a kid and that passion survives the test of time, when you are finally able to bring it to fruition the results are truly sweet to savour. I never regret not having any of these as a child, because when I finally was able to get them I got more than I had dreamt of and I felt it was well worth the wait!

A Unique Journey – Traveling with Murphy

In November/December 1997 I undertook a journey from New Delhi to Baroda (Vadodara, in Gujarat) through Durgapur, Kandi, Katwa and Kolkata (all in West Bengal). If you are familiar with the geography of India, New Delhi is in the North, West Bengal is in the East and Gujarat is in the West. This is an extremely weird route to take, since you can actually get from New Delhi to Baroda by train in just under 14 hours. The reason for this type of a route was:

  1. I was studying in New Delhi, hence the origin
  2. My parents and brother were in Baroda, hence the destination
  3. My cousin Shnaoli Didi was getting married in Katwa
  4. I had to also visit my native town Kandi, since it is pretty close to Katwa
  5. The easiest way to Kandi from Delhi was to disembark at Durgapur and take a bus
  6. The only way to go from Katwa to Baroda was through Kolkata

On a map this is roughly how my route looked. Note that this shows a route by road, while most of my travel was by train.

View Larger Map

The different points on the map are listed in the order of visit:

  • A – New Delhi
  • B – Durgapur, West Bengal
  • C – Kandi, West Bengal
  • D – Katwa, West Bengal
  • E – Kolkata, West Bengal
  • F – Bardoli, Gujarat
  • G – Surat, Gujarat
  • H – Baroda, Gujarat

First Leg: New Delhi to Durgapur
The journey started very well. It used to be a practice at IIT to try and find someone among our friends traveling in the same general direction, because we could coordinate the dates appropriately and completely cut out the boredom of traveling alone. In this case I had a pretty good friend Himanshu Khandelia going to Kolkata, so we decided to travel together. Durgapur was a stop on the way to Kolkata by train.

We were traveling by Poorva Express and looking forward to the trip. If you look at the map, you will see that the train had to pass through two states – Uttar Pradesh and Bihar (well, at that time Bihar and Jharkhand used to be a single state) en route to Kolkata. As luck would have it, we had people from both Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in the compartment. Now, people from either of these states don’t see eye to eye with the people from the other. After a lot of simmering discontent, things came to a head when the guy from UP said, “Kanpur aane de, phir tujhe dekhe lenge” (Let Kanpur come, then we will show you). Soon enough Kanpur (in UP) came, the number of folks from UP increased and a fistfight erupted. The neutral folks (i.e. the Bongs and the Delhiites) got pretty scared and some of them covertly pulled the chain. Actually it was Khandelia and me pulling it, but that is not the point.

Anyway, after the authorities intervened things settled down, though that did not prevent the adversaries from casting dirty looks at each other. Next afternoon at around 2:30 pm I reached Durgapur.

Second Leg: Durgapur to Kandi
At the railway station in Durgapur I was received by Dutta Kaku and Kakima, old family friends. This was a brief meeting – they made sure I got something to eat and put me on a bus to Kandi. At this point I should mention that on my trips from Delhi I would inevitably have a lot of luggage. There were a couple of reasons for this:

  1. My journeys were during the breaks at the end of semester. I used to have a trunk and a suitcase at IIT and our rooms needed to be vacated after every semester, even if we were to return to the same room the subsequent semester. We typically used to cram as much as possible in the trunk and dump the trunk and mattress in the cloak room. This would mean that all the stuff we couldn’t fit in the trunk would have to make the trip home and back even if there was no use for it.
  2. During winters travel by Sleeper Class trains would mean extreme cold at nights, given the range of temperatures in North India. This meant carrying a blanket and some warm clothing, all of which added to the luggage.

Anyway, back to the story. When Dutta Kaku and Kakima were putting me on a bus we had two choices: a private operator’s bus that would start earlier and a state-operated bus that would start later. Naturally I boarded the former, since a downpour had started. About 10 minutes into the trip the bus started lurching rather violently and came to a halt. The driver and conductor announced that the gear-box had broken and that the bus wouldn’t be able to go further.
Continue reading A Unique Journey – Traveling with Murphy

A Unique Journey

These days more than 95% of my travel between places more than 200 km (125 miles) apart is by flight. The remaining 5% is covered by car in the US and mostly by train in India. Growing up in India, though, the de facto mode of travel used to be a train. Most of my journeys were between my city of residence Hyderabad and my native town Kandi in Murshidabad, West Bengal, around 240 km from Calcutta (Kolkata).

Now, whatever the Communist Party of India (Marxist) might claim, West Bengal is indeed one of the most backward states in India with extremely poor infrastructure. Kandi has neither any access to trains nor a state-run bus connecting it from Kolkata. If you want to travel between Kandi and Kolkata you have 3 options:

  1. A direct bus run by a private operator up to Kolkata
  2. A long-distance cab
  3. A bus to Salar or Katwa or Berhampore, and then a train to Kolkata

My story begins in March 1988, when I was 9 years old. My maternal grandfather had passed away in February and my mother and brother Koke (who is 5 years younger than me) had gone to Kandi from Hyderabad for the last rites. I traveled there a couple of weeks later with my father, because of the exams that I needed to take at school in Hyderabad. Those days it was customary for me to fall sick during the last leg of my trip to Kolkata. Typically I would suffer from high fever and extreme nausea. This trip was no exception.

Anyway, given that the travel time from Kandi to Kolkata was in excess of 6 hours excluding journey breaks, things had to be timed to perfection. This invariably meant taking a bus from Kandi at around 4:00 in the night, then reaching Salar, then taking the train from there. The lag between the bus and the train was typically around 30 minutes. If your bus got delayed you ran the risk of missing the train, which would have a cascading effect since you could potentially miss the big train from Kolkata to Hyderabad.

Traveling on this trip was my family and my uncle Bablu kaku. As luck would have it, our bus to Salar got delayed. This left us with a margin of around 10 minutes to get the train. My father put me on the train with the luggage and went to fetch my mother and Koke. They had gone to get tickets. The trains plying between two towns in Bengal normally comprised of general unreserved coaches only. This meant that there would be no inspection of tickets on the train. There could be an inspection at the other end of the line, but such inspections happened only at the exit point of the station and we would be remaining within the station. In the off-chance that there is an inspection, we normally traveled with tickets.

However, given the extremely narrow margin there was no time to get tickets. Instead my father had to ensure that my mother and brother boarded. Within a minute of his leaving, though, the train started to move. Even at a young age I was termed calm and collected. So I went to the door of the coach. As the train picked up speed I desperately waited for my parents to show up. Then they came.

My father running with my brother in his arms and my mother close behind. They ran harder while I waited at the door. My father managed to get one hand on one handle of the door. My mother raised her hand to grab the other handle. And slipped. In her tumble she took down my father and brother as well. All three fell on the train platform and rolled towards the now fast moving train. This time I freaked out. And then a miracle happened. I had forgotten that my uncle was also in the coach. He was watching the action unfold from the posterior door. Sensing that something dangerous might happen he jumped out at the right moment and pushed away my parents and brother from the edge of the platform.

Nevertheless I had a full-blown panic attack, aggravated by the fact that I couldn’t see anything happening at the station beyond a point. The sad part is that the hand-brakes that exist in every compartment of a train in India failed to work in this case. After the panic subsided I started thinking. It would make sense for me to get off at a station en route to Kolkata. That way I could wait for my family. Going all the way to Kolkata wouldn’t help since it is much easier to get lost in a station as big as Howrah. Getting off the train at a small station wouldn’t help, too, since trains tended to stop for shorter periods at smaller stations. Then the answer came – Katwa. A slightly larger station, but nowhere as messed up as Kolkata.

It would be a grave omission to not mention my co-passengers, who were extremely supportive during the trip. One of them tried his best to stop the train by pulling the hand-brake. All of them kept telling me that everything would be alright and agreed with my plan to disembark at Katwa.

When the train reached Katwa there was an announcement on the PA system at the station calling out my name and asking me to get off the train. Obviously I had thought of the same thing as my father. About an hour later my parents, brother and uncle came in the next train and picked me up from Katwa. They were largely unhurt. We didn’t miss our connection in Kolkata. All was well.

That Really Stung!

I had bought a motorbike in Bangalore in mid-2000. If you are familiar with the lay of Bangalore, you will know that Brigade Road is one-way in its most glamorous section and two-way in a section that few people know even exists – the place in front of All Saints Bakery / Sparks / Urban Edge. My office happened to be in Raheja Chancery, the building opposite All Saints. To get there you would have to pass All Saints, take a U-turn and go about 50m. Or you could cheat and go about 10m on the wrong side of the road, thereby saving yourself around 100m of driving distance. So, with a new bike and nary a care, I cheated. And then a traffic cop stopped me. A lot of Indian traffic cops are out to make a quick buck and would not hesitate to fine you (or take a bribe) even if you have done no wrong. I was a clear offender, so I knew I had it coming. What ensued next was the most interesting conversation

Cop: What were you doing?
Me: I was in a hurry
Cop: So?
Me: So I thought that I maybe I could take the short cut…
Cop: And?
Me: Well, there was no traffic coming in this direction and it was only around 10m
Cop: Are you educated or uneducated?

If you are wondering, the small font is not a formatting error. It is just that my deep baritone voice had become more mouse-like than I thought humanly possible. And after the last question I had no voice left. I have been called a lot of things in my life, but somehow this was worse than everything else put together. I could only look on sheepishly as the cop let me off without even a fine. After that incident I haven’t ever driven on the wrong side of the road – even if there is nobody watching.

At IIT-D we used to have a concept called “Socials”, which, to the uninitiated will appear extremely weird.It involved girls of some college in Delhi visiting a boys hostel for an evening of socializing. Several among us thought of it as a rite of passage. Several among us looked at it as an evening of unbridled ogling. And several of us simply felt it was a waste of time. Typically a person would have belonged to all three categories in the course of 4 years. I did participate in the socials once – during my fourth semester, when the visiting college was Indraprastha. I did manage to befriend someone and called her up the following weekend.

The socials happened the weekend before 14th Feb and we had exams from 12th to 14th Feb. So I happened to be calling her on the day right after Valentine’s Day. We talked for a while, then came the topic of what we did on our respective Valentine’s Days. I complained about being stuck in an exam. And then:

She: Oh, I did not do anything. I am not … Valentine
Me: Yeah, precisely.
She: (a long pause)
Me (thinking): Oh S***!! Did I really say that?

The “…” is because I could not understand what she had said at that point. This is often the case with old payphones in India – the slightest disturbance in the phone’s machinery can result in an onslaught of static. I responded with what seemed like an absolutely reasonable response. It is only during her pause that I figured out what was said in the ellipsis. She had said, “I am not anybody’s idea of a perfect Valentine”. It goes without saying that we didn’t have any further conversations after that.

Maria Sharapova once remarked regarding her clay-court play: “I am like a cow on ice”. You could probably apply the same analogy to my dancing. During a Deloitte party in Hyderabad I was asked by a lady to dance with her. In spite of my protestations regarding my complete lack of grace in this department, she dragged me on to the dance floor. Compounding the situation was the fact that I was wearing a kurta-pyjama and chappals. A little while later she burst out laughing at my discomfort and kindly accompanied me off the floor. Since she was a friend of mine I didn’t have to endure any embarrassing remarks from her.

Somehow the instinct that makes you want to dance is completely absent in me. As a result I have had to learn some typical dance moves that help me live to die of shame some other day. Folks might be familiar with the roti belna (where you pretend you are using a rolling pin to flatten out dough, then pretend to toss the flattened dough from one hand to the other), kite flying (where you imagine that you are holding the twine for flying a kite and tug at it over your head first on the right side and then on the left), toweling dry (where you think that you are holding a towel in both your hands and wiping your back dry) and some other such moves.

I was, however, certified a disaster on the dance floor long before I learnt the face-saving moves. During my first Rendezvous in 1996 I was generally impressed with the droves of young ladies paying a visit to the IIT-D cultural festival. My friends and I would hear some guy bragging about how well he it it off with some visitor and would privately wish that guy a slow, painful and girl-free death. Come the last day of Rendezvous, it was time for some drastic measures. My friend Ahuja and I were dancing at the podium, hoping to spot some unsuspecting girls whom we could subject to our torturous dancing. We did manage to find one such pair and danced for about 10 minutes, after which they excused themselves. We high-fived our way back to the hostel, finally having something to brag about.

The next day I bicycled to class, while Ahuja took the bus. Lo and behold! Who should he see there, but the two people who we danced with! One of the girls happened to spot Ahuja and immediately started talking loudly enough for him to hear:

You know ya? We were at the podium last night and these two guys came up to us and asked for a dance. Those two had no clue about what they were doing and were clapping their hands and pumping their fists as though they were happy to see us dance. Those dumbos didn’t know how to dance at all.

Naturally I heard this by proxy, but it was embarrassing enough to be told to the whole hostel. I remain a dumbo to this day – Tanuka will vouch for that.

The Premium on Life

When I was in London for around 8 months in 2001-2002 I used to marvel at the content of their news. An ordinary person like me being kidnapped or going missing would typically occupy the headlines on all news broadcasts for weeks at a stretch. But back in India a similar incident would have to really stand out to even merit a mention. Maybe it is due to the burgeoning population of India, but somehow the life of a person doesn’t seem to hold much value in the greater scheme of things. People get shot dead and the culprits walk free because they have managed to buy the witnesses out. Ask Jessica Lal or Priyadarshini Mattoo’s relatives. Or the relatives of the BMW hit and run victims. Vermin like Manu Sharma, Santosh Kumar Singh and Sanjeev Nanda are murderers walking free.

I had just started work on my first job in the erstwhile WebTek in Bangalore. Typically the first couple of months of one’s professional life are spent in finding one’s bearings. Things were no different for me: I used to sample different places to eat every evening (I did not know how to cook), I was saving up for buying a two-wheeler and I was trying to make new friends.

My friend Rohit Khandekar was visiting Bangalore for a couple of weeks for a conference in IISc. Along with my housemates Abhishek Saxena and Umesh Batra we made plans to do a day-long trip to Mysore. Roughly at the same time that we were returning from Mysore at night a veteran Kannadiga thespian called Rajkumar was kidnapped along the same route by the notorious sandalwood smuggler Veerappan.

The next day office closed early. The reason was that fans of Rajkumar had started rioting in parts of the city and our company’s management did not want to put us in a situation where we would have to brave riots to go home. Those days I was finalising the purchase of my motorbike. The bike was decided, registration was done and the balance amount needed to be paid. While I would have the entire balance amount when my salary came in, pay-day was still a few days away. So I had decided to take a loan from Abhishek for a few days to speed up the process. Taking advantage of the fact that office was out I decided to visit the HSBC ATM in Manipal Centre on Dickenson Road with Abhishek.

Abhishek put in his ATM card and withdrew Rs. 1000/-. After closing the transaction he realised that he was supposed to withdraw Rs. 5000/-. So he put his card into the ATM machine again. And then a mob appeared at the end of the road opposite Manipal Centre. And the machine started taking very long to process his transaction. As the mob drew closer we started to panic. The card was still stuck!!! The mob was around 30m away now. The card came out. We took the card and the money and fled the scene from another exit of Manipal Centre. That evening we learnt that the mob had torn down the ATM. We counted our blessings.

This kind of a tale has, I am sure, happened to quite a few people. Hell, I remember sitting in an autorickshaw as a 12-year-old not 20m away from a burning bus in Hyderabad during the Ram Janmabhoomi – Babri Masjid flare-up in 1990-1991 (when L. K. Advani was arrested during V. P. Singh’s regime). I also remember sitting in London when not far from my parents’ home in Baroda there was communal carnage instigated by Narenda Modi.

People talk of India’s diversity in glowing terms. Indeed there is no other country anywhere in the world that has such a rich blend of culture, tradition and people. Ironically it is this diversity that gets India into trouble every now and then. Just consider:

  • It is ridiculously simple to cause a riot between Hindus and Muslims. All it needs is a few miscreants.
  • The esteemed elected body of India managed to cause mass upheaval and subsequent massacre of the otherwise communally peaceful Sikhs.
  • You can give special privileges to one section of society (and be assured of its fealty) and make the other sections of society completely hostile to this one.
  • You can board a train from Delhi to Calcutta and be sure of a fight happening between people of UP and Bihar.

The diversity gets exploited by random freaks like Arjun Singh or zealots of the Sang Parivaar or bigots like Narendra Modi for reasons that rational thinking humans would have found to point solely to vote banks. It is indeed interesting that the politicians strive to keep people backward and divided just to cash in on their misery and differences. Sounds very much like anti-virus companies wanting Microsoft to have virus attacks so that they can fix them and make money!

পশ্চাতে রেখেছো যারে সে তোমারে পশ্চাতে টানিবে ।
(Paschatey rekhechho jaarey se tomarey paschatey tanibe … For people who cannot read Bengali or Unicode)

Rabindranath Tagore

It is indeed ironic that Tagore’s quote about people whom we are leaving behind pulling us back should continue to bite us 60 years after our independence. An Indian’s life seems to be just as valuable as its rulers deem fit!