Seven Days in Rangpur

More than a decade ago, way back in 1995, I was a graduate student in my final year at St. Xavier’s College, Bombay. As a part of our Honours’ project, we embarked upon a 7-day field trip to the interiors of Gujarat, thanks to the good graces of our Professor – Dr. Vlidakar – who had worked extensively in the Amba Dongar region. Soon, five young students (including myself) found ourselves in a location that was 100 kms from the nearest big city, armed with nothing but a map and a compass! It was on that trip that I first encountered Rangpur and the “Ashram”…

2016 Update: It has come to my attention that certain irregularities have been reported regarding “Rangpur Ashram” in the online and print media, including violations of a legal nature.  The author would like to clarify that this post is, in no way, an endorsement of the Ashram or its management. It is merely a first-person account of an experience lived during the author’s college years – a time preceding these controversies…

 

It was way back in 1995, when I was just a graduate student in my final year at St. Xavier’s College, Bombay. As a part of our Honours’ project we embarked upon a 7-day field trip to the interiors of Gujarat, thanks to the good graces of our Professor – Dr. Vildakar – who had worked extensively in the Amba Dongar region.  Soon, five young students (including myself) found ourselves in a location that was 100 kms from the nearest big city, armed with nothing but a map and a compass!  It was on that trip that I first encountered Rangpur and the “Ashram”.

The Anand Niketan Ashram was run by Shri Harivallabh Parikh, lovingly referred to as “Bhai Ji” by his followers.  And, I had never seen any thing like it…

The sprawling tree in the middle of the compound under which evening discourses were organized, the buzzing activity of villagers helping out with routine tasks at the ashram, the single telephone instrument on site labelled “Telephone Exchange”!  It was all too quaint and charming to be true… at least for “city boys” like me.

Our job was to map a segment of the Narmada river and collect some rock samples from its river bed.  We also needed to collect a few rock samples from the local hill – Phenai Mata.  The hill was more than a 1000-feet high, as I recall, and was surrounded by a river.  And, we had no means of finding our way to its top.

Not only did the Ashram provide us with a place to stay and meals to eat, but when we mentioned our challenge (of Phenai Mata), just in passing, to Bhai Ji, we found a local “guide” waiting to escort us to the top, the very next morning!  In fact, since there was no public or private transport in the region, in those days, each day, we would walk to a place some kilometeres away from the Ashram, only to return with a bag full of rocks in the evening, and do it all over, the following day.  But, on the day we were to go atop the Phenai Mata hill – a good 7-8 kms away from the Ashram – not only did Bhai Ji arrange for a local guide who knew the quickest way across the river and up the mountain, but also arranged for a jeep to drive us to its foothill!  And, all this, without even asking for it!

Even today, after all these years, images from that week-long-trip come rushing to me, as if it was only yesterday… The little school we passed by where all the children rushed out to greet us, the friendly villagers in the surrounding region that we could hardly communicate with, the hospitality of the Ashram, and the brief but everlasting encounter with Bhai Ji…

Air Worthy

Airports have always fascinated me. They way they buzz with activity all the time. The operations and logistics they deliver on, night and day. The amount of traffic a large airport can manage, in a single shift. And, of course, all the airplanes! Having enjoyed a visit to Thailand several times in the past, I was quite looking forward to touch down on the new Suvarnabhumi Airport in Thailand…

Airports have always fascinated me.  They way they buzz with activity all the time.  The operations and logistics they deliver on, night and day.  The amount of traffic a large airport can manage, in a single shift.  And, of course, all the airplanes!

Having enjoyed a visit to Thailand several times in the past, I was quite looking forward to touch down on the new Suvarnabhumi Airport in Thailand.  While I’m thoroughly impressed with the scale of the new Suvarnabhumi Airport of Thailand, I am left quite disappointed with my first visit to the mega aerotropolis.

I’d heard so much about its size and grandeur and its convenient location in between Bangkok and Pattaya.  I’d also heard frequent flyers complain about how it does not live up to the standards expected of it. Frankly, there was a whole lot of curiosity, and not knowing what to expect.  But my experience of a flight in and out of Suvarnabhumi, last month, has been a complete let-down.

Now, I understand that building a modern international airport is no mean task.  Moving operations from one major airport to another, with minimal “down time”, is equally challenging.  But, an international airport, today, is more than a functional transit facility – It is the first impression that a nation has to offer to the entire world!  If managed well, it can be a country’s pride and joy.  (Think, Changi!)  That’s why it was disappointing to see such lacunae in planning and delivery at Suvarnabhumi.

On the morning of my arrival, more than half the immigration counters were unmanned, in spite of a number of international flights arriving in a short span of a few hours.  The signage was inadequate and confusing.  There was no clear indication of where one needs to go for baggage claim, or where the exit was.  The cielings and walls looked unfinished – They wore a look of bare cement, not even paint.  I am not kidding! 

On my departure, there were rows upon rows of immigration counters, separated by partition walls.  While some had serpentine queues, others were virtually empty, with no one to guide unsuspecting passengers to the free counters!  In spite of having a car park that can accomodate 5000 cars, the duty free shops were cubby holed – the size of shops in small, domestic airports… Definitely not the stuff that makes for pride and joy.

Contrast that with my arrival back in Mumbai’s CS international airport, which is presently undergoing rennovation. 

There was a time when the thought of landing back in town from another country would be frightening for frequent travellers.   The queues that would form at the two or three immigration counters would take several hours to clear.  This July, 42 counters were ready to take on all that the international world had to offer.  An extremely well-managed system of a single feeder-line and a manned resource to direct passengers to any available counter, ensured that my immigration process took less than 15 minutes!  Jetsetters I have spoken to subsequently have confirmed that the system is comparable to the best in the world, today.

Surely, there are other things that need to improve in our airports and in our cities.  But that night in Mumbai, it definitely looked like the city was poised for take off!

Universal Magic

The “universe” has always fascinated me… not only as a child, but also as a grown-up. As long as I can remember, I have been in awe of what’s ‘out there’…

I don’t know about you, but I grew up wanting to join NASA as an astrophysicist.

The “universe” has always fascinated me… not only as a child, but also as a grown-up.  As long as I can remember, I have been in awe of what’s ‘out there’.  In school and college, Physics was my favourite subject.  After all, Physics and Mathematics was the language in which the universe was written!

Over the years, I have tried to maintain my interest in this vast and intriguing body of work.  The world wide web only made it easier to access real footage from official sites like those of NASA.  What was once only available to geeks and nerds roaming the corridors of Princeton or JPL, was increasingly accessible to any one with a dial-up connection and Google on their browser.

Yet, over the years, you also lose touch with some of your interests, as you get caught up in the rat race.  That’s why, I am grateful to have come across one of Atanu’s posts reminding me of the wonders Life has to offer… to any one who has a few minutes to spare :

… the Hubble Space Telescope pictures. Check them out and even download them as wallpaper, but don’t stop wondering how magical the universe is and how fortunate we are to be able to observe it.

Thanks, Atanu.  For reminding me that the magic is still alive.