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Roadtrip: Pune

My sister had been calling me to Pune for a long time. Her husband in Airforce is stationed in Pune which meant I could go stay in their spacious bungalow for as long as I wished (and as long as I continued in her good books). The exams and the long journey kept pulling me back. However, having reached Mumbai and having my bullet with me, I decided finally that I will call on her. My friend  also agreed to come with me to Pune and finally we set the date for the journey as December 27th. We were to start early on 27th and reach Pune by 10 AM. I had googled on the route and what the main attractions on the route would be. We could stop at Lonavala and Khandala for a short break and photo shoot and then continue on our journey towards Pune. The Land of the Peshwas beckoned.  It was supposed to be a perfect trip. However that was not to be!!

We started at around 8 AM and within no time had passed Sion. We entered the Sion-Panvel Expressway and

Thane Creek

Thane Creek

immediately was atop the Vashi bridge.  When you are travelling on this route, do lookout for this long bridge which runs over the Thane creek. The large expanse of sea that intrudes into the small gap that lies between mainland Mumbai and the southern island and the mangroves and the bushy trees that surround the land on either side lend beauty to this stretch of the highway. We paused for some pictures and then within no time were on our way. However after thudding for some time, I started to notice that there were no other bikes on the road. It was all cars and they were cruising at scary speeds. At times the blast itself was scary. Within a short distance a policeman asked us to stop. We realized our mistake only then. We had entered the expressway which was closed for motorbikes.  Needless to say my pockets were a lot lighter with that short encounter with the traffic police. This should ideally be the place where I go on about the corruption in India and how it is eating away at our society, but you know the drill!

We took a detour and then entered the Old Mumbai-Pune Highway which is the National Highway 4. Since most cars opt for the expressway, the NH was not at all crowded.

NH4 merges with expressway before Lonavala

NH4 merges with expressway before Lonavala

The ascent from the Mumbai side

The ascent from the Mumbai side

On both our sides flat hills typical of Maharashtra stood tall. The travel through the region was a lesson on Deccan traps. On our way we saw a large number of container lorries. My friend, who works with Maersk Line was more than eager to share her knowledge on the whole shipping industry and container business and this kept us engaged and within no time our conversation started veering into all sort of topics.

As we go from Mumbai to Pune, other than the topography the most noticeable change is in the temperature. Since this was winter time, this was a welcome change and by the time we reached Lonavala it was really cool even though the sun was shining bright over our head and it was almost noon. We stopped at Lonavala to have some Lonavala chikki and also to try our hand and Lonavala jelly.

Lonavala Chocolate

Lonavala Chocolate

Lonavala chikki

I was not particularly impressed by the famed Lonaval Chikki

We also bought some chocolates which too seemed to be a specialty item. For any of you who would like to try these out, I recommend only the chocolates. I was not particularly impressed by the Chikki and the jelly.

After Lonavala and Khandala it sort of started to get monotonous as there was hardly any change in the relief and not much population too was to be scene until we had reached the suburbs of Pune. This is one thing which is in stark contrast to Kerala, where every now and then you are faced with a small stream, or paddy field or lush green coconut groves and shops and population. It is like one large city and village combined together to form a state. Maharashtra doesn’t seem so densely populated and the geography here doesn’t allow for paddy fields or coconut groves. To each state its own, right.

NH4 is full of container lorries like this

NH4 is full of container lorries like this

My 'Loyal' Enfield

My ‘Loyal’ Enfield

We reached Pune at around 12:30. By the time we reached, I was starting to get back pains. I like to attribute this to my weight and conveniently ignore that being 26 is a lot different from being 22. I remember my one day drives from Bangalore to Hampi or Trivandrum, where I clocked more than 300 kilometres in a day without breaking a sweat. Once we reached Pune, we drove through the city, passed Yervada jail and then reached the air force station at Lohegaon.  I should say, the bullet really makes for a  really good bike to travel around.

Mumbai: Elephanta Caves

Caves hold some attraction for me! May be I have the vestiges of the cave man gene that evolution has failed to wipe off. Be it the prehistoric sites like Edakkal in Kerala or the historic Ajanta and Ellora, these monuments are, for me, living testimony to man’s willpower and endurance. Needless to say Elephanta caves topped my priority when I decided to visit Mumbai.

Elephanta Island

Elephanta Island

Elephanta caves are a group of caves located on the Elephanta Island, which is approximately 9 kms from Mumbai. To reach there you have to board a boat from Appolo Bunder, which is the boarding point next to The Gateway of India. I, therefore decided to couple the two into one trip. Reaching Elephanta caves is quite simple. There are boat services run by the State tourism department for which tickets can be purchased next to the Gateway of India. The tickets are two way and when you can very easily spot the queue lined up for getting into the boat. I would suggest that you take an umbrella with you if you are visiting during summer as the queue tends to get big during peak times.

Toy Train

Toy Train

Once you board the boat, if you want to get a balcony seat, you will have to pay an extra 10 rupees to the boatman. However, usually this would mean all the sun on your face in summer, or getting drenched in the rain during monsoon. I, therefore opted for the bottom seat and sat opposite the winds. As luck would have it, it rained heavily when the boat started and my logic proved me right. I was saved from all the downpour while being able to enjoy the Mumbai coast even while it rained.

Roughly one hour into the boat ride you reach the foot of the Elephanta hills. Locally this village is called Gharapuri. The island is dotted with mangroves all around. However, one can see that tourism has started to take its toll and the coastline of the entire island is filled with plastic containers or solid waste. So much for sustainable development in a world heritage site.

Shiva Cave

Shiva Cave

From the end of the pier to the base of the hill you can either take a walk. I preferred to take the toy train which would carry you for a minimal charge of 10 rupees. There is a tax that you have to pay for the village once you get down and along with that the ASI ticket too can be bought. From the base of the mountain, to the top is a huge flight of steps. It is dotted with numerous shops on both sides. It is better you carry cash with you before going to the island as there are no ATM counters in the island. There is a good chance that

Shiva and Pavathi on Kailash

Shiva and Pavathi on Kailash

you would want to buy something from the island as a souvenir and many of the handicrafts in display are pretty and cute. The hawkers, like anywhere else in India, quote absurd prices, which is extremely negotiable. One guy from who I wanted to buy a Matroska doll quoted thousand rupees at first and then when I walked away yielded to fifty rupees. So before you make a buy, make sure you bargain, and you bargain good.

I bought a guide book, which proved to be helpful. However, almost all the information available on the guidebook is freely available in wikipedia and elsewhere on the internet, so if you would prefer to do your on research then that is advisable. Cave no.1 is the main attraction which is also called the Shiva Cave.

The Elephanta caves which gets its name from a huge monolithic statue which used to be in front of the caves, got juggled through many hands and finally came under Portuguese possession. The Portuguese caused much disfiguration of the statues, which they even seemed to have used for shooting practice, without appreciating the value of these caves. Finally when Bombay passed into the possession of the British, these caves also shifted to their control.

Trimurti Statue

Trimurthi Statue

Many of the cave temples in India actuallly feature an monolithic elephant statue in them. This is true of Elephanta caves, Kailasnath temple, which has two huge monolithic elephants in its facade, Jain temple 32 in ellora etc. The main attraction of Cave one however, is the group of sculptures inside the cave. I was particularly enthralled on seeing the Thrimurthi statue, Ardhanareeswara and the Andhakasuravadham. If you plan on going to Elephanta caves, make sure to read on these stories as they will help you appreciate the sculptures more.

Of all the sculptures in Elephanta caves, none is as imposing and masterly as the Trimurthi stature. All of the other sculptures are in some way or the other mirrored in Ellora, I felt. But what makes Elephanta caves a competitor to Ellora caves is the presence of this single sculpture with the three faced Trimurti. If you look closer you can see that the faces are of different ages on each side representing creation, protection and destruction.

If you plan on visiting Elephanta caves make sure you dedicate one entire day for the trip, if you are into sculptures and history. It is not just the caves alone, but the whole trip to the island that makes Elephanta caves, one of the most memorable places in Mumbai to visit.

Mumbai: Prince of Wales Museum

I stand in the middle of the central hall. The open hall which provides a fantastic view of the whole interior  inspires awe in the onlooker. Eight Rajasthani  pillars seperates the Octagonal courtyard from the aisle that leads to the side halls and the upper storeys. Exquisitely decorated wooden arches can be seen on the first floor of the building. On the second floor the design of the lotus petal that holds the dome can be seen.The huge dome which spreads above the third floor of the

La Source

La Source, replica of the 19th century painting of the same name

Indo-Saracenic style building gives the hall a much more expansive and spacious look.  But none of these caught my eye as I entered this hall. Instead they rested on a sculptural replica of a 19th century painting. It is that of a a nude woman standing upright with a pitcher in her left hand. Her right hand crosses above her head to hold the base of the pitcher.  She casts a glance which is at the same time inviting and innocent. I was immediately enamoured by her.

This white marble beauty who adorns the Central hall of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), previously Prince of Wales Museum, is a replica which was commissioned by Shri Dorab Tata. It is a marble replica of a painting called La Source by Jean Auguste Dominiqe Ingres which was done in the 19th century. Till then, I knew the Tata’s as a business family, but after visiting this museum, I was impressed by the contribution that they have made to preserving art and cultural heritage, both of our country and the world. CSMVS houses the private collections of two Tata’s, Shri Dorab Tata and Shri Ratan Tata among others.

After having spent more than two months in Mumbai, it dawned on me that I haven’t visited the famed Prince of Wales Museum. I should say,  I absolutely abhor the practice of Indianising all monuments. Mumbai (Bombay), is now flooded with Shivaji named monuments starting with the Victoria terminus, International Airport, Prince of Wales museum and what not. It would even have been okay if this was done with the aim of evoking the our cultural icons’ image in our people’s memory. However, Maharashtra seems to stake claim to only the legacy of Shivaji, while conveniently ignoring the contributions of other rulers and dynasties that have added to this magical land’s history.

CSMVS is  located near the Victorian & Art deco ensemble of Mumbai and is housed in an Indo-Saracenic building designed by George Wittet. Wittet had already designed the General Post office building in

Chathrapathi Shivaji Museum

Chathrapathi Shivaji Museum

Mumbai and in 1911 would go on to design the most famous landmark of Mumbai, The Gateway of India. While the Gateway of India was built to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary in 1911, Prince of Wales museum was commissioned in 1905 to commemorate the visit of Prince of Wales, the future King George V, to Bombay.  It was a time when Victorian architecture was inspired by Asian exoticism and these elements, particularly Indian and Persian elements, continued to inspire the European architects. Thus Wittet would go on to incorporate many of the Indo-Islamic elements of design into his design of this building. When you visit the museum do not forget to look out for architectural elements like the huge dome, the overhanging eaves, minarets, pinnacles and vaulted arches.

Many things about the way CSMVS is administered is impressive. First off, the staff is pretty co-operative. They point you in the right direction if you are in need and are very eager to help. There is an audio guide that is provided if you pay an extra forty rupees, which would introduce you to some of the attraction of the museum. However, I do not recommend this to any Indian visitor since this guide is mainly targeted at the foreigner who is not familiar with our culture. As far as Indians go, all the basic information that is provided in the audio guide will most probably be known to us. The museum charges separately for using a still camera and video camera. While in this age the distinction between the two is blurred, it is better you get a ticket for still camera and not video camera because video camera charge is a hefty thousand rupees. This practice of charging a hefty fees for video shooting is prevalent in almost every tourist place worth visiting in India. In many places like Ajanta and Ellora there is a ban on shooting movies. I don’t know what benefit these restrictions bring, given that video documentaries of all these places are already available in Youtube and hence preventing private people from shooting movies is not going to provide any extra security.

CSMVS has sections on Natural History, Gandhara sculpture, Pre and Proto history including a very

Natural History Section

Natural History Section

impressive section on Harappan civilisation, Assyrian Palace reliefs, numerous sculptures and inscriptions from various parts of India, miniature paintings of India, Krishna gallery, Tibetan-Nepal gallery especially Buddhist art, European paintings, Arms and Weapons Gallery, Chinese and Japanese art. Some of the collections in these sections have been contributed by the two Tatas, Dorab Tata and Ratan Tata.

As for me I particularly enjoyed the sections on Harappa, Gandhara and Miniature paintings. War gallery is impressive given that it has some impressive pieces like Emperor Akbar’s armour, Emperor Shah Jahan’s sword, Sultan Alauddin Khalji’s sword etc.  To the observer who is academically

Miniature of Harappa, Prince of Wales museum

Miniature of Harappa, Prince of Wales museum

inclined, I recommend an entire day at this place. There are all facilities that a person needs to spend a day in this building without going out, including a cafeteria.

The section on natural history with a huge collection of stuffed birds, animals and reptiles is impressive but leaves a lot to be desired. There is a lack of information on the species on display and you end up seeing a lot of animals whose name or features you won’t remember by the time you walk out of the door. It is very important that interesting information

Sculpture section with exquisite pieces

Sculpture section has exquisite pieces like this Uma Maheswaramoorthi

is coupled with items on display to evoke the curiosity of the lay observer, which is where the CSMVS falls behind. The same can be said on the sections on China, Japan and European paintings. This is especially true for an Indian visitor since we get little exposure to these items as part of our curriculum or daily life and hence are left out of the opportunity to truly appreciate these items or understand their value or view them in context.

The museum is pretty crowded with a lot of kids coming there as part of their academic visits. One thing that is really sad is that these children end up touching the artefacts which might cause damage to these items. This happens even with families who simply view these items as something with which a photo can be taken. Indians really lack in this department and view these items with such a casual attitude that we

Shiva in the scultpure Gallery

Brahma in the scultpure Gallery

end up unconsciously damaging our heritage. Lack of awareness or conscious cockiness is on display all the time at places like this. It is this same attitude that results in Indians vandalising national monuments by etching names on it.  If we fail to appreciate these cultural centres like they should be and refrain ourselves from adhering to the etiquette that is expected in such places, we would be in an unenviable position as far as preserving our cultural heritage and projecting ourselves as a civilised people to outsiders goes.

In many cases the security guards kept on pestering me telling me videography is prohibited when what I

Miniature paintings section is very informative

Miniature paintings section is very informative

was really doing was capturing a photosphere. This kept on happening throughout my visit. At one point one guard went to the extent of saying “Flanorama” is not permitted as it is a video. I asked him to report me if he thought so and that I would explain myself to the concerned people if the need arose. He simply smiled at me sheepishly and left the scene.

Museum visits are tiring and amusing at the same time. As you visit more museums you also begin to see certain patterns and motifs that keep repeating in our culture. For example, one such theme is the Mahishasuramarddini. This particular story, where goddess Durga slays the demon Mahisha ( bull shaped demon) can be seen in a lot of depictions. I saw more than one Mahishasuramarddini sculptures in the halls of CSMVS and same can be said of the Dinkar Kelkar Museum, Pune or Soneri Mahal, Aurangabad. It is also the case with mudras (hand gestures) of many of the deities like the Varada mudra or the features of deities like Shiv, Ganesh, Krishna and Balaji. It would be unfair to write off a museum because you are unable to appreciate these factors on your first visit. Keep visiting them with an open mind and slowly these factors will start to seep into your mind and who knows, one fine day you might turn out to be the expert on Art and Architecture of India.

If you found something amazing about Prince of Wales museum that I missed out on, Please leave a comment. Remember, Sharing is caring :)

The Scenic Konkan: A Railfan’s dream

I have always loved travelling. Be it the midnight euphoria induced bike trips during college or the weekend getaways during my engineering job, I have always found ways to keep myself open to new experiences. However last year my career took a new turn. I decided to switch paths and quit my job. I wanted to give a try to the reputed civil service examination and hence travel took a backseat. Well, it wouldn’t be fair to say travel took a back seat, since I relocated to a new city and had my CL-500 with me and hence every place within a 100 km radius had my footprint laid. However these trips were often poorly researched and with friends and hence taking the place in was not the aim.

This December I wrote the mains exam. Before I gave the mains itself I had decided to travel for the coming three months till my results would be out. Thus the first thing I did once my exam was over was to book my ticket to Mumbai.

Travelling to Mumbai meant a lot of things had to be considered. This was not my first Mumbai visit. I had already been to Mumbai and the last time I stayed like a pampered idiot at the Taj President in Colaba. The last stay lasted almost a month and that Mumbai experience was breathtaking. Mumbai is farely well connected with local train networks, cabs that charge per the metre and even the recent mono rail. Thus travelling in Mumbai was never going to be a problem. However, this would mean that I would not be able to understand the city like a local and would not be able to travel at any odd time to my convenience. Hence the first thing I decided was to parcel my bike to Mumbai ( After seriously thinking riding my bullet cross country, I decided against it since I wanted to reach Mumbai before Christmas).

First Consideration : Which train to book

I was to start my journey from Trivandrum. This meant I could opt for two main routes. One was the famed Konkan route and the other the dry and drab Palghat-Salem-Bangarapet-Dharmavaram route. Konkan being such a famed route and often recommended as a must travel route for the railfan, I decided to opt for

Konkan Railway Map

Konkan Railway Map

the former. Now this was not the first time I would be travelling by Konkan rail. Having been to Mookambika temple frequently meant that I had technically traversed in Konkan Railway, but missed out on the experience. I opted for the Gandhidham express which plies through the Konkan to Gujarat. I was already getting excited.

Sending the Bike

Sending my bullet reminded me yet again why our country is still struggling to develop and why the middle class has so many grievances against the government. I went to the Trivandrum parcel office on 22nd of December. The parcel office is located next to the Trivandrum Railway station building in Thampanoor. Since I had not sent my bullet by train before, I did not know what procedures had to be followed. At the counter sat a lady who was busy with some file. I decided to ask her for information. When I approached she rudely asked me to go ask someone else for the information. I was taken aback by this attitude. I asked her politely yet again whom I should ask for the information and she told me to wait for sometime. After I waited for around ten minutes I again asked her what should be done. This time she said that she was busy since it was Christmas and everyone else was on leave. I reminded her that this was a public office and if she refused to give me the needed information I would have to lodged a formal complaint against her. I don’t know if it was the threat or if she just wanted to get rid of me, she pointed me to another officer. He helped me fill the form. By the time I was done, came the union worker’s who demanded 500 rupees for packing the bike before sending it. Finally once everything was done, the officer who had helped me fill the form asked me for 50 rupees as a goodwill gesture for filling the form. The union worker too was adamant that I give him this 50 rupees. Finally for sending the bike I had to pay 550+3000 rupees as railway parcel charges. To take the delivery in Mumbai meant again going through such an ordeal where the officers asked me to pay octroi amounting to 1500 and then asked me a 300 rupee bribe instead to avoid paying the octroi.

Gandhidham express

My train was in the afternoon. The train started from Nagercoil and there was a Tamilian who sat in my compartment. He introduced himself as Karnan and said that he was going to Khandla port as he had received posting there as a port pharmacist. Karnan used to be in Qatar and was a native of Madurai. He also was looking for a career change. Karnan and I easily struck up a conversation and made ourselves comfortable.

Both Karnan and I sat opposite to each other occupying a window seat. That was when a Konkani family came to our compartment. They were a family of four with a girl of around 23-24 age and a boy who was around 19-20 and their parents. They were soon to  pick up a quarrel with us. The Indian Trains usually have the sleeper system from night 9pm to 6 am. In the mornings usually the sleeper berths are used as seats and no one usually adheres to the marked seating system. Moreover the trains journey being long and taking two days, there is no point in sticking to a fixed seating as there is bound to be plenty of vacant seats. Now this family wanted to immediately occupy the window seats that Karnan and I were sitting at. I asked them whether it was ok if we switched after some time since we were settled and was about to have food. This somehow drove the girl into a fit of rage and she started with the speech on their legal entitlement to the seat. We simply shifted from our seat and told her that it was a long journey and there was no reason to shout.

I soon retired to my copy of Naalukettu, a novel by M. T. Vasudevan Nair. The Malabar Coast is no less beautiful than the Konkan. If anything it is much more scenic with serene backwaters and throbbing activity. I felt the main difference was in the type of soil and the density of population that you see. Malabar coast is much more densely populated with houses very next to the rail track. At night I had the IRCTC catered vegetable biriyani and then climbed up to my berth to get a good sleep. When I woke up , the train had already started on its cruise through the Konkan.

The Konkan railway stretches from Thokur near Mangalore to Roha in Maharashtra. I felt a little proud that E. Sridharan , the man behind the Konkan Railway Corporation, is a Malayali. The Konkan railway is

Konkan Scenery

Konkan Scenery

an engineering marvel given that it traverses to some of the most difficult terrain for rail travel. What adds to its glory is the fact that the engineers had to lay these tracks through hitherto unsurveyed land. The Konkan Railway Corporation met with some humongous challenges in land acquisition, adhering to timelines and the like. There were technical challenges. Given that the slope of the rail track had to be kept

Konkan Country side

Konkan Country side

at less than 1 foot per 150 feet and a curvature of 1.25 km radius was to be maintained for achieving speeds of 160 km per hour meant a near flat track had to be maintained. This meant boring through mountains and bridges above rivers.

The engineering team had to apply themselves creatively to bore through both hard rock of the Sahyadris and soft soil at many places. The soft soil had to be bored through manually. Finally when the construction was over, 2000 bridges and 91 tunnels had been built and for the first time in India a government project had been completed in time.

Murudeshwar

Murudeshwar

When I woke up the train was halting at Murudeshwar station. I washed my face and swung into action. I took my spot near the train door. Travelling at the footboard of the train is one of the most rewarding experience while travelling in Indian trains. You can feel the country breeze on your face and take in the whole country side as if on a carousel. The Konkan experience was not a bit underrated. The Karnataka side is filled with

Honnavar-River Sharavati

Honnavar-River Sharavati

beautiful rivers and paddy fields and slowly rising hills. The lazy country side is visible and everynow and then a herd of cattle can be seen. The Sharavati river near Honnavar is a treat to the eye.

Once the train reached Madgaon (GOA), I was surprised by something. Indian railways has a complete ban on cigarettes and liquor. On the other hand Goa is the liquor paradise of India. When the two met, it was Goa that won. Hawkers kept coming into the train selling gutkha, cigarettes and Kingfisher (beer). A can of Kingfisher cost Rs. 100,

Lorries being transported

Lorries being transported

which when compared to Goan rates was expensive while it paled when compared to Kerala standards (Kerala has some of the highes liquor rates in India, thanks to the high taxation by the State Government)

The Maharashtra country was every bit what I had always read in books. Rough, hilly terrain. During my last trip I had travelled to Maharashtra by flight and hence was not able to see this for myself. And this was tunnel country. By the time the train was past Ratnagiri, slowly the sun had started to descend. Slow flowing rivers, beautiful Ghat section and never ending tunnels marked the Maharashtra stretch of the Konkan Railway. Also cold had started to set in. This year being one of the coldest winters in North India, peninsula too was not completely shielded from its effect. Coming from Kerala, meant I have always

In Goa even irctc serves beer ;)

In Goa even irctc serves beer ;)

experienced a uniform climate and this was a welcome change for me. It was just pleasantly cold and not the chilling frosts of Delhi. I stood by the door and took in the cold winter air.

Konkan was every bit a journey worth taking. Once the journey was over the only thing I wished was that I had clicked more pictures. If you have had a wonderful experience travelling the Konan, please feel free to share it below in comments.

Naalukettu: Malayalam Novel Review

MT Vasudevan Nair has a way of getting into your mind. His novels are not fast paced or surprising at the turn of every page. Events unfold at their own slow pace and slowly you start to fall in love with the plot. Finally, when you turn that last page, you wish there was more.

Naalukettu

Naalukettu

Naalukettu gave me such a savoury experience that by the end I was reading it so slow so that I would not end up finishing the book. Probably belonging to the last generation which can understand the importance of terms typical to Nair families like Tharavadu ( ancestral home), Ammavan (Uncle), Karanavar (Elder of the house), Naalukettu ( A house built around a courtyard and divided into 4 sections), this novel certainly rang more than one bell to me.

Before moving on to the plot, I must emphasize that last point more. Naalukettu deals with a theme that is losing relevance in present day Kerala society. As our youngsters lose touch with the yesteryear matrilineal culture, they will identify lesser with the story of the novel or with the life of Apunni, the protagonist. Given that our society has more or less witnessed a transformation into patriliny, it would be safe to say there are no more “Karanavar’s” who has a commanding hold on anyone’s life. Today’s nuclear families are much more closely knit and identifies just the authority of Mother or father. There is no role for uncle or Karanavar. The only stage where the vestiges of our declining culture plays out are in religious festivals, marriage and funeral rites.

Naalukettu deals with the issues of the matrilineal system which is in decline in post independence Kerala. It is a coming of age story of Appunni, a member of a once powerful Naalukettu, whose mother was stranded from her family owing to her choice of marriage. Appunni’s mother, chose to marry the person whom she fell in love with, despite the Karanavar’s wish to marry her to someone else. However misfortune strikes early as Konthunni Nair, Appunni’s father, is poisoned by his closest friend Seithaali. The novels rovers around the widowed Parukkutti, and Appunni and the characters who come and go in their life.

MT deftly deals with a lot of themes that are relevant to the Nairs and Malayali society in general in this novel. The stigma attached to love marriages, hierarchy between families of the same caste, caste as a discriminating factor, changing economic conditions in our society, economic changes driving the social factors, suppressed sexual urges and feelings, teenage love and sexual experiences etc. All these themes are smartly woven into the life fabric of Appunni and initially, as a reader, you find it difficult to make sense of the dynamic of the spider web you have fallen into. I found myself reading the initial pages so fast so that I could make some sense of the story. Slowly you realise that the lesser movement you make the better equipped you will be to understand the dynamics of the web.

The magic of Naalukettu lies in how much you are able to identify with Appunni or Paarukkutty. I found many of my relatives coming to life through the novel. My mom who read it before me, felt that the novel was wonderful. Perhaps her experience was much stronger than mine, given that the novel is rightly set in her time. Reading Naalukettu is imperative if you want to know how the Malayali society, especially Nair’s a once strong social group find themselves losing power, prestige, political and economic clout.

Naalukettu has been translated to English by the following authors.

  • Celine Matheu (1975). The Legacy. Vikas Publishing House.
  • Gita Krishnankutty (2008). Naalukettu: The House Around the Courtyard. Oxford University Press.

UPSC Mains 2014

This post is a continuation of the previous post where I dealt with the general experience of writing this years mains exam. Here I expound how the Mains 2014 exam was paperwise.

The mains exam is a 9 paper format spread over four and half days with most exams having a day gap between them. This year there was no gap between the first and second exam dates. The nine papers are Essay, English, GS-I, GS-II, GS-III, GS-IV, Optional I, Optional II, Regional language paper. Each of these paper required a different strategy. However there is a certain overlap between many topics too.

 

Essay Paper
UPSC set the ball rolling asking aspirants to expect the unexpected by setting the essay paper. This year’s essay paper was a marked departure from last years exam with two essays to be written instead of a single 2500 words. I was much relieved seeing the two essay format as I felt there was a much higher chance of scoring more marks at two essays than a monolithic essay that deals drably, a single subject. Moreover there is a good chance that you sway from the topic by the end if you write a single large essay.
I decided to attempt “Words are double edged sword” and “Tourism the next big thing for India”. I have to make clear that I had no seperate preparation for the essay paper. I felt that my English was upto mark and the only deficit I was running was in gathering my thoughts in a structured manner and lack of writing practice. Hence I dedicatedly used half an hour to structure my essay and then only started to pen down my thoughts. Once I was done with the paper, I did not get the feeling that I would have done better if I had done some more writing practice. However this is not an endorsement of my approach towards this essay paper. This is just my first feeling about the paper. It might turn out that I am wrong. Only the results can tell.

English
The English paper was Okayish in my opinion. I had not prepared at all for this paper. I guess only paper reading and a working knowledge of English should get you through this paper. If you had studied English till matriculation and scored average marks then you don’t need to prepare extra for this paper. I did not get all the grammar questions right, but I am certain that I will score enough to pass the paper; which is all you need since this is a qualifying paper.

 

GS-I, II, III

UPSC sure did have a lot hidden in these papers. I shall list down my observations on the paper here

bookish mugging up is not going to help anymore. UPSC is looking for aspirants with a deeper understanding and firm analytical skills rather than candidates with a superfluous understanding of issues at hand. This is a welcome step as the profile of Indian government and bureaucracy is changing both domestically and internationally.
Coaching institutes need to alter their strategy if they are to stay in the game. Many people suggest that coaching institutes are gonna go away given UPSC’s new paper setting format. I do not concur. I think the coaching institutes will now have to adopt a more dynamic approach to teaching and hence you will get every penny worth of what you are paying, if the institute is serious about their students.
Analyse, and analyse fast. You need to be able to recall, repeat and analyse by the time you are finished reading the question. This is a skill that need to be developed, In depth reading of the newspapers is the only solution that can be recommended.
Lesser importance to static subjects and more to current affairs. Even static subjects are asked in relation to contemporary issues. This means without newspaper reading you don’t stand a chance in making it to the final list.

Optional

This year’s optional would actually be the differentiator as far as ranks can be considered. Every serious candidate would have written more or less similar answers in the optionals. Therefore it would be the optionals where the game lies. I felt bad that I had dedicated more time to the GS papers during my preparation and had largely ignored the optional papers. This might prove to be my undoing in this years exam.
A word of advice to the history optional group. Believe me, the map study section can prove to be a life saver, if you really are serious. I studied maps on the morning of the exam. I simply took the DN Jha and Romila Thapar books and went through the major sites and maps mentioned in those books. With close to one hour of study I was fairly good with maps. I got half the sites that were asked in the paper. I regret that I did not dedicate more time to map study. However despite what many would have you believe, I think map study is really an advantageous section for the history buff.

Regional language

This years regional language paper had many technical terms that could not be translated very easily.
I would consider the paper to be one that is easy to get pass marks but difficult when compared to previous year papers.
However, the objective is to enunciate your working knowledge of a regional language and not to project yourself as a master and hence this should not be a matter to brood over.

My Overall perception of this year’s exam

I had a satisfying experience writing this year’s exam. I do expect getting an interview call. However there are many factors that do cast a shadow on my dreams. The exams really helped to expose the chink in my preparation. I was left in want of deeper understanding in many areas of my optional. It also brought out the mistakes in my revision strategy. I was left to think over the time that I had wasted during my preparation. Would I approach the exams in a different way given one more chance? Sure I would. Do I regret how I prepared for this year’s exam? No, I don’t.

A friend of mine has a quote written on his room door. I think that sums up my feeling about the whole experience.

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

Samuel Beckett

Writing the UPSC mains 2014

While I welcomed 2014 from the hospital bed, fighting my body, this December I was competing with around 16,000 youngsters from 21-30 years of age. I was one of the contestants in the Civil Service Mains Examination,2014 (UPSC Mains 2014) conducted from December 14-20th. Here I wish to share with you my experience of writing the exam, what my shortcomings were, some common myths that are propagated regarding the exam and ultimately what my expectation is regarding the examination.

Thrilling and Satiating

First and foremost the challenge was at the same time thrilling and satiating. You get a chance to pen down everything you have accumulated over the past and only those things you have understood thoroughly comes to your aid at those gruelling three hours. This year the paper was particularly analytical and hence only a deep understanding of the issues at hand could have enabled to deal with these questions deftly. For me personally, seeing the questions and being able to analyse them within 7 minutes proved to be thrilling and when I was able to write all the 25 questions in time, it was one of the most satisfying experiences (Though the quality of all 25 are not comparable)

  • Hope and Despair

The exam really gives you hope and despair at the same time. You see a question and if you had applied yourself thoroughly you are bound to know something on every question posed. However knowing about every topic deeply is out of question and hence it makes you feel despair.

  • Stamina/Application of mind

The examination is a real test of stamina as you have to keep writing once that bell rings. If you stop to take a breath or waste 5 minutes looking at the ceiling it means a loss of 200 words and hence 25 marks and you are already out of the race. Most of the days my knuckles pained like anything by the afternoon session and they were inflamed by the end of the day. UPSC also must be knowing of this condition which is why they rightly give one day gap between the exams.

  • Nothing like what people say

The exam is nothing like people tell you it is. You won’t be able to see the short comings in your preparation unless you have written the exam. I think people who have written the mains exams atleast once will be more determined than people who fail at the preliminary stage because the experience acts as a great learning experience and also instills you with the confidence that you need to crack the exam next time.

  • writing practice needed?

Most people had told me that unless I write and practice everyday I’d be at sea when I go for the mains. However this is not completely true. Writing practice, I feel, is essential on the following counts.

1)  If you have trouble gathering your thoughts and arranging them in an orderly fashion very fast then writing is an unavoidable experience

2) It is extremely important to be self aware of your writing pace so that you are not caught unawares in the exam hall. For me writing 200 words used to take 9 minutes and hence I had to change my strategy to the whole paper accordingly.

3) It gives you an idea of how much you should write without having to count the number of words you have written.

However I don’t think that it is essential to write everyday. Infact, what I resorted to while my studies was penning down important points that I would write when presented with a question instead of writing the entire answer. This meant that I could attempt more questions without being bored.

  • Non stop writing marathon

6 hours of continuous writing means you should be well prepared. I had taken a bottle of water,  2 bananas and 4 pens with me everyday. Though my exam centre ( Women’s college, Trivandrum) provided water, it can’t be expected everywhere. Usually hunger hit me by around 11 and this time those bananas were a life saver. I used black ink pen, but I don’t think they are of any particular significance.

  • Innovation

Another important faculty that I felt is needed is the ability to think on the run. Attempting 25 question in under 3 hours means you get 7 minutes per question. This ofcourse is conditional on you wanting to attempt all 25 (this is why skimming through the paper in one minute at the start is imperative). Spending one minute before attempting every question seemed a poor strategy to me. Hence, I resorted to thinking on the run within a structured framework. For example, when writing an answer, I would in my mind construct three-four compartments viz.

1)Introduction, relevance

2) current scenario , Various aspects in the SPELTE (Social, Political, Economic, Legal, Technological and ecological perspectives)

3) Improvements,

4) Conclusion

Within this wide framework I wrote with complete freedom moving freely from point to point. However these boundaries in most of my answers were sharply demarcated.

  • Often the want for it to get over

By the day of optionals I simply wanted the exam to get over. It is a very exhausting and tiring procedure. It is extremely important to stay motivated throughout the exam. For me the solution was to pray and talking to my mom. She had come to stay with me once the exam had started. This made sure that I woke up in time, was never too stressed and felt the emotional support of family which highly kept me motivated.

  • dont think of the past exams

It is also important to not keep thinking of the past exams. Paper I being tough doesn’t necessarily mean you are out of the game. Like they say in cricket matches, this is a completely new game and on your day you are bound to pass it. It is very important to be in a very positive framework throughout the exam.

  • Regret over wasted time

For me, on most of the days of the exam, I was filled with regret over the time I had wasted sans studies. It is better you are aware of this feeling that will come over you and not waste time. For example after the optional paper I felt like bashing myself on the head for I had not got time to revise many questions that I had anticipated would come. This was not due to lack of time, rather a mismanagement of time.

  • Study till the last minute (contrary to advice rendered)

Many people would tell you that studying till the last minute is counter productive. I would like to say that my experience has been to the contrary. I always feel that the last day you get a gut feeling on what questions would come and more often than not this instinct turns out to be correct. For me this proved to be right immensely. I had revised questions like El Nino, Sultanate Kingship theory, APMC’s, antibiotic drug resistance etc the day before the exam and it proved really helpful. Therefore don’t stick to anyone’s advice. What suits you, suits you.

  • Handwriting is very important

I can’t stress this point enough. You don’t need a calligraphic handwriting but it needs to be very legible. Writing extremely fast means your handwriting is bound to suffer. However, however fast you write, if the examiner has to put in some extra effort to read your answer, the more likely outcome is he would skip the answer giving you below par marks than you deserve. Hence if you have an illegible handwriting it is time you set out to change this.

  • How to attempt the answer,  bullet points or paragraph has to be decided

I generally resorted to a mixed approach. Some questions desired a more factual answer and in such cases I resorted to bullets and in the analytical  questions I mostly stuck to a paragraph format. However this was not a well thought out strategy and I mostly went with my gut feeling and time constraints.

  • Should not get carried away if you know the answer – ex my drug resistance answer

It is very important to not get carried away by the question where you have very deep understanding. For example, on the question on Antibiotic Drug resistance in India, I was particularly aware of the usage of these drugs in the poultry industry and I overemphasized that point to the cost of other aspects of the question. How dearly this might impact me can be known only once the results are out. However I consider this a mistake that should be avoided at all costs.

  • try to write keywords when preparing notes as writing in 200 words means you will be in want of space.

Finally, a good vocabulary (not complicated, rarely used words) and use of Keywords can be extremely impactful given that you have to convey your opinion in less than 200 words.

In the next post I shall write about my experience with each individual papers of this year’s exam.

The Voluptuous Yakshi, Malayattoor and Feminism!!

Malayattoor Ramakrishnan has been one of my favorite authors ever since i read a chapter from his semi-autobiographical novel “Verukal”(വേരുകള്‍ ). And this time he impressed me with yet another gem, Yakshi. Malayattoor penned this pscychological thriller in 1967. The original was written in Malayalam and has been translated into Tamil, Hindi and English hence.  The English version was published by Penguin, so that should make it easy for any one to get hold of a copy. The BBC “Off the shelf” programme had in a 12 part series as part of BBC World Seies broadcasted a reading of the book. In the word of the publishers “Yakshi that leads the reader to psychedelic experiences and emotions is an example of Malayttoors skill in penning down his imagination”. And boy, how i agree!

To those of you who don’t know, Yakshi is the indian female counterpart of the Vampire. The male counterparts are “Yakshan” and “Gandharvan”. There are a lot of myths and folk tales about these beautiful super-human creatures. While Gandharvan is the divine singer, Yakshi and Yakshan are attendants of “Kubera” the lord of wealth. There are tonnes of stories in Indian Literature about Yakshis. Typically the modern tales and movies don’t care much to differentiate between the Yakshi, Brahmarakshassu, Raktharakshassu, Bhoot and sort. The present day films simply merge all of them into the simple, white saree clad category, while the literature is full of subtle yet clear descriptions which make some of them attractive and some repulsive. In the myths of almost all lands i think some gods or goddesses can be identified which bear a very close resemblance to the Yakshi, be it the Bactrian goddess Hariti or the pantheon of Greek and Roman Godesses that follow suit. However Yakshi should not be confused to be a single goddess.  Yakshi is just a category in which there are sub categories and each one of these are different. But one thing generally cuts across all these divisions(atleast in the Kerala version). They generally have long dark hair, amorous looks, broad shoulders, wide hips, heavy and spherical bosoms and the acrid smell of “Palappoo”(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alstonia_scholaris). Well, let us not divulge too much from the topic and get back to our Yakshi.

The novel unfolds through the thoughts of Sreenivasan, the protagonist, who is in a mental asylum. Sreenivasan was a handsome chemistry lecturer and hearthrobe of many a young women in his college. He was the object of envy of most male professors in his college too. A terrible accident in the laboratary leaves the left side of his face deeply scarred and horrible looking(In short he becomes an Indian Harvy Dent) This leaves him deeply demotivated and introverted and a shadow of his previous self. His lover Vijayalakshmi doesn’t meet him after the accident and the girls whom he had rejected now takes perverse pleasure mocking him. Sreenivasan, a teetotaler previously, is now consumed with lust and many a times he has to restrain himself from groping his students and women around him. He finds joy  in adult magazines and even has a picture of Terry Higgins framed and kept next to his bed. He also acquires a new habit, the study of Black Magic and Yakshi’s in Kerala. In order to satisfy his ever increasing lust ,Sreenivasan decides to go to a brothel and finds himself unable to perform at the moment. He attributes this to the repelling smell of the cyprian. On his way back home he meets a beautiful young woman ,Ragini, whom he finds more attractive than Helen of Troy,Venus and Terry Higgins. The relation takes off and blossoms into union of the two but Sreenivasanfinds himself unable to consummate his marriage and attributes this to his wife being a Yakshi.With each failed attempt he is more convinced that his wife is a Yakshi who is trying to drink his blood and every deed she does ends up strengthening this belief. His research about Black Magic starts driving him into delirium and he finds absurd explanation to everything happening around him that adds to his conspiracy theory. Sreenivasan plots to kill his wife through various methods and ends up in an asylum. The novel ends with a court room set in the protagonists mind, where the Judge asks if anyone has any objection to executing Sreenivasan and a beautiful, white hand is raised which is none other than Ragini’s.

Malayattoor has resorted to first person narrative of the story in Yakshi and the decision i believe has added immensely to the beauty of the plot. Sreenivasan, remembering his life from the asylum, is very clear on his thoughts and memories of his early life, but his memories become increasingly distorted and the thin line between reality and delusions slowly fades. The author has dealt with this very subtley and at times i was left confused whether Sreenivasan’s version of the story, that Ragini is a Yakshi, is true. This fabian approach to bringing in the increasingly distorted mental state of Sreenivasan leaves the novel simply gripping and it edges on the hope of transforming into a fantasy novel till the very end. In fact many a times i held my hopes high, and expected the heroine to turn into a deadly devil who would simply sip the last drop of blood from some of the characters of the novel.

Even though Malayattoor resorted to first person narration where the protagonists version portrays Ragini as the thirsty Yakshi, the maestro paints the most beautiful of pictures about her in the readers mind. Her smile reminds you of a thousand bangles clinking and when she cries it leaves you sad. The way Malayattoor explains her is simply breathtaking and leaves the imaginative mind gasping. Ragini is portrayed as the epitome of female beauty .Like they say well described female body is classicism whose counterpart is simply porn. In Malayattoor’s case he simply paints a picture before you so that every word she speaks, her walk, everything springs to life in your mind. You are left looking for her in the crowd and expecting her in the weirdest of places.

What makes Yakshi relevant today is Malayattoor’s portrayal of the male tendency of pointing fingers at women for their inablility to justify their deeds and incapability to admit their mistakes. The undertone of the novel is strongly critical of the deeply disturbing male chauvinistic attitude of finding reasons to blame his better half for his inadequacies. Sreenivasan, though criticized and explained to about his senselessness, fails to be self-critical and is firm in his belief that Ragini is a Yakshi and that is the reason for his impotence. To prove his point he even stoops so low as to persuade a very old woman to indulge with him. In today’s society where rapes are attributed to women’s attire, her freedom and her “stupidity” of trusting her friends and falling into the trap, Malayattoor’s work stays all the more contemporary. It also shows how the society has not evolved much from the 1960’s even though we claim to have made huge advances in terms of women’s freedom and rights.

Leaving all the undercurrents and subtleties aside Yakshi is highly recommended for other reasons. A small book which can be finished in 3-4 hours and can be read at a leisurely pace (even though you might be tempted to fast forward 3-4 pages to see what is coming ahead) Yakhi is the perfect read for the reader with a penchant for mysteries and Malayalam. If not for any of these read the book for Ragini, who will leave you in a trance at least for some hours :)

For the passive audience, Yakshi has twice been adapted to movies a 1968 version “Yakshi” starring Sathyan and Sarada and a 2011 version “Akam” starring Fahad Fazil.