India Report: Peanuts and 100-Year Rains

Traveling around India for a few weeks is as colorful, entertaining and intimidating as attempting to sample the entire menu at Khan’s Indian Restaurant in Bayswater, London. Some of it is truly amazing, certain parts you don’t really want to experience, some you genuinely shouldn’t, and in the end you realize you’ve only skimmed the surface leaving much for future exploration. This was my first trip back to India in about ten years, and I was told matter-of-factly upon arrival that it had changed significantly.

I suppose it had—one of my many travel e-books was the rather dull McKinsey Institute’s India’s Urban Awakening, which laid out all the scary growth statistics on charts far too small and cluttered for an iPhone 6 Plus. One of my takeaways is that India is on course within a few years to have six megacities each with over ten million inhabitants. These cities will have larger populations and GDPs than many countries. And all the other growth and consumption indicators are equally staggering, e.g., close to 70 cities with over one million folks and so on.

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Anyway, I’m pleased to report that I was here for the 100-year rain in Tamil Nadu, which shuttered airports and trains in the region. I didn’t experience one of those ten years ago. Not quite up there with seeing the Hale-Bopp Comet but memorable nonetheless.

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Complete with my bindi third eye I attended the annual peanut festival at the 16th Century Bull Temple in Karnata. The bull was the mount for Lord Shiva, one of the three main Hindu gods.

I went to see a fascinating exhibit by the Delhi born artist Radhakrishnan who specializes in bronze figure sculptures.

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Unbeknownst to me I smudged my bindi, but continued to pose proudly for photos. No one had told me. I guess the show must go on.

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The Shatabdi Superfast Train to Madras

I’ve always loved trains: looking at them, riding on them, eating on them, even sleeping on them. Anything about them except for the unusual hobby of trainspotting—that I never understood; seeing grown men all bundled up at five in the morning on a platform’s edge taking notes fastidiously in the rain as trains hurtle by in all directions. Railways lost their luster for me somewhat in the 1980s when I commuted everyday in and out of London on British Rail. The rolling stock was fine, it was the whole commuting experience that was soul destroying. I’m reminded that I once met a man by the name of Jack on that commute who would tell you how many rail miles he had travelled thus far on any given day and how many remained until his planned retirement.

The Ghan is a long slow train

The Ghan is a long slow train passing through desert for days on end, but in a good way

Apart from my commuting woes, I’ve been most fortunate to take many exciting and memorable train journeys in numerous countries, including the Australian Ghan, United States Auto Train, Japanese Shinkansen, Chinese Jinghu, Canadian VIA Rail, South American Hiram Bingham and many high-speed train journeys throughout Europe. European high-speed trains nearing on 300 km/h are not to be confused with the inappropriately titled Indian superfast trains, which amble at a modest 55 km/h. Nevertheless, my odd lifelong fascination with railroads has led to the present desire to take a train journey across the Indian subcontinent, notwithstanding my mental outdated images of crowds hanging precariously from roofs and windows. While not the world’s largest rail network, India has by far the highest ridership measured in annual passenger-kilometers. As of 2014 it had over one trillion passenger-kilometers, equivalent to a per capita usage of over 1,000 passenger-kilometers—the same order of magnitude as per-capita usage in Europe, but with a lot more people of course.

The single rooms on the Ghan are cosy

The single rooms on the Ghan are cosy

While I enjoy an occasional challenge on my travels I had not anticipated the inexorable tests of my on-line skills in attempting to secure tickets for India’s railways. The singular company responsible for the world’s fourth largest rail network is state owned and known as the India Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC). Generally, with all the traveling I do I will happily use the services of a travel agent and pay a fee to assist with these types of things but there was no apparent easy go-to company in this instance and therefore I persevered tout seul in my railway arrangements. However, when I tried to obtain tickets from IRCTC I was defeated immediately: merely attempting to search for tickets was a non-starter, as the webpage appeared completely unresponsive. Subsequently, i.e., after what seemed like an age, I realized that the site was designed to ignore incorrect entries with impunity. Absent any feedback whatsoever the site apparently requires the user to correctly guess an exact combination of correct entries. Perhaps obvious to the seasoned Indian rail network traveler, required inputs include the dates, class of service, and connecting stations, which was not anywhere near obvious to the first time user. If a train and class did not exist between stations on any given date one could not proceed. Sensing some continued trouble a quick Google search revealed legions of folks encountering the same issues. On one of those useful last resort forums, some guy called Larry boasted that he booked the train with no problems using a site called cleartrip.com.

Sleeping arrangements with my first cousin once removed on the Amtrak Auto Train

Sleeping arrangements with my first cousin once removed on the Amtrak Auto Train

Once downloaded, a huge benefit of the Cleartrip app is that it identifies when you have entered incorrect information, and it is far easier to use. For example, Cleartrip helpfully allows you to select a city with “all stations” instead of leaving you to guess which station in one city matches another in a different city. For example, Chennai (Madras) and Bangalore each have 5 different stations although the trains between each city don’t run to all stations, leaving you to try up to 25 different combinations on the IRCTC site. Furthermore with 8 classes of service and not all available on each train adds a few more combinations for you to guess.

The Amtrak is a  double- decker

The Amtrak auto train is a double-decker

But my favorite nuance is the mandatory requirement to provide a cell phone number. The IRCTC asks for a 10-digit Indian phone number, which of course you don’t have. When you use Cleartrip it suggests that you enter a fake number. Now the fake number has to look real so, you’re told after you try 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and so on that Indian phone numbers must start with a 7 8 or 9. Considering the demographics you quickly start to realize that quite a few of the 3 billion remaining numeric combinations are already in use by the burgeoning Indian populous. Forget all 8s or all 9s and go with your inner random number generator. After a few tries I eventually had my fake Indian mobile number accepted by the system. But this is where it got even more comical – Cleartrip tells you in a congratulatory tone that a verification code has been sent to your fake Indian cellphone. After a bit of head scratching it appears that there is yet another workaround for the fake number workaround by emailing a copy of your passport to Indian railways. There were a few other little online challenges but it is fair to say that this process was not superfast taking a few hours of effort over a 3-day period, taking time differences into consideration.

Alice Springs seems like a metropolis after spending a few days on the Ghan

Alice Springs seems like a metropolis after spending a few days on the Ghan

Tombs of the Unknown

I was most fortunate this week to receive a private tour of Johann Sebastian Bach’s tomb, located deep in the bowels of the Thomas-Kirche (that’s the Thomas Church for those who don’t speak Scottish) in Leipzig, Eastern Germany. Bach has always captivated me, not principally for his huge catalog of over 1,000 linear, mathematical, and sometimes perfunctory-sounding compositions, but nae; for his incontestable longevity. Should Amazon or Apple even think to dream of such a popularity run – we are currently at 300 plus years and counting, and people still walk around whistling parts of the Brandenburg Concertos.

For the past 20 or so years, tombs have increasingly annexed a strangely available part of my attention. Ever since I tackled the inquiry, “who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?” as part of an extensive diligence process to assess my adequacy for U.S. citizenship, I have paid slightly more notice to tomb grandeur and legitimate occupancy. Other than a slew of asian kings and queens, including the Ming dynasty, Qin Shi Huang’s terracotta warriors and numerous Rama temples, perhaps the grandest tomb I have visited in the past several years is that of Napoleon. However, even with the magnificence of the Dome des Invalides, I suppose the Taj Mahal, hosting the grave of Mumtaz Mahal, gets a few more points, not so much for the catacomb itself but for the broader dedicated architectural triumph, as well as the arduous journey there and for braving the dodgy food and the beggars outside. But I do not have presently a rigorous scheme in mind for tomb rating, akin to the movie industry’s rotten tomatoes, thumb counts and so on.

In observing Bach’s tomb I was struck by some similarities to Lenin’s mausoleum in Red Square. I’m not referring to the Tussaudian bearded bloke lying motionless on top of the coffin as the proletariat cautiously shuffles by, as his identity is unknown. Indeed he is likely just a deceased soviet squatter. Moreover, the Russians don’t know who he is, but he strikingly resembles Lenin’s surviving effigies. At least in the United States if we have a few identity doubts we will inscribe it right there on the grave. We used to have the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington DC, guarded by an elite military unit, 24/7 in all weather conditions. But then after some grumbles that the grave may have other service members and so on the word “soldier” was removed leaving it simply as the revered Tomb of the Unknowns.

Back to Bach, I’m not wholly convinced he was in the box I was viewing in Leipzig either. If you read the stories in recent years, as we all do, I’m not even sure they disinterred the correct grave for Bach’s tribute. I think the exhumers presumed the casket was Bach’s because it (1) was made of oak, and (2) had a nice high-end belt buckle that could, kinda, maybe have belonged to the composer. I give Napoleon and Mahal a high score for legitimate tomb occupancy, mid ratings for Bach, and low confidence for Lenin.

A Very Composed JSB

A Very Composed JSB