At 104, his passion for driving remains undiminished

C.R. Robert Michael D’Souza
C.R. Robert Michael D’Souza
Driving has been a passion for C.R. Robert Michael D’Souza ever since he was 18 – which was way back in 1932. It continues to remain the focus of his life, but sadly, deteriorating driving conditions, a growing number of motorists with deplorable habits and rapid urbanisation of cities have deprived him of the joys of driving.
Says the still sprightly 104-year- old, living in a quiet area of Mangalore, the vibrant hub of south Karnataka: “I have driven all kinds of vehicles including military ones, buses and trucks. But now I just use my car.” He now provides services to a family living near his home.
Michael was born in Ooty on a plantation on October 16, 1914. His father had, over his lifespan, married five times and had about 30 children. “I could study only up to standard VIII,” recalls the ageing Michael.
He joined the British Indian Army after getting his driving licence and worked for a decade as a driver and mechanic. “Those were tough days,” recalls the centenarian, speaking in a mix of Kannada and English, when this journalist met him at his Mangalore home last month.
Later, he joined a power company before getting into the public works department (PWD) in the erstwhile Madras Presidency (Mangalore was part of it then), and had continuous service of 37 years, mostly driving vehicles around the state.
Mangalore as home
In 1949, his job brought him to Mangalore, which has since become his home. Michael married and lived with his wife for several decades, though the couple never had any children. “I have a younger brother in Ooty now and many children and grandchildren of my other siblings come often to Mangalore to meet me.”
His wife, who passed away about five years ago, was hard working, recalls Michael. “One night she vomited and I took her to a hospital. Fortunately, she did not have to struggle and passed away soon thereafter,” he adds.
Michael was a heavy smoker – up to five cigarette packets a day – but gave up smoking nearly a quarter century ago. And after his wife’s death, he also gave up alcohol. “Earlier, I would shower with some little brandy added to the water, take a peg and then go to sleep,” he says.
Of course, he’s grateful that he’s had a hassle-free life for the past more than a century. “I’ve only gone through one operation, for cataract,” elaborates Michael. “I never took English medicine or got admitted to a hospital in those days.”
Sadly, his first stay in hospital was one after completing his century. “Many television and print journalists had come to Mangalore to interview me,” recalls Michael. “I went to a function in the morning, but couldn’t go to the evening one as I couldn’t sit or even stand.”
He was hospitalised for a fortnight – and was slapped with a hefty Rs 49,000 bill. “But after that the videographers and journalists were not seen,” he says.
No interviews, photographs
And when he turned 102, many called him up again, asking him whether he would pose for pictures. “I warned them not to come home,” says Michael. “I do not give interviews to any journalists now.” (The exception, fortunately, was this one).
The centenarian driver continues to be a busy man. Living in a small house, he only has a dog, cats and a few birds as company. “Of course, God is always there,” he remarks. “I get up at around 4 in the morning, and start cleaning the house.”
Michael is multi-lingual and speaks Kannada, Tulu, Tamil, Telugu, Hindi and even English.
Asked about his favourite passion – driving and cars – he recalls that cars and even roads in the past were much better than today. “I still remember taking just 30 minutes to travel to Udupi from Mangalore,” he says. “Today, even after widening of the highway, it takes more than 90 minutes.”
He bemoans that not many motorists follow rules or traffic signals. They overtake arbitrarily from the right or the left. “I ask policemen to take action against such motorists, but they are helpless.” And when motorists blow their horns at this ageing driver sitting behind the wheels of his car, he tells them to fly off.
When he was young and in the military, he had bought a motorcycle for a mere Rs 200. Of course, today cars and other vehicles are prohibitively priced. His driving licence was renewed for five years, and the officials at Mangalore transport department told him that next time when he comes, they will renew it for a lifetime.
Michael has not travelled abroad and also does not have a passport. Has he taken flights? “I aim to go on the last one, which will soon take me away forever,” he quips. The centenarian prays to God daily, pleading with him not to hospitalise him for a month or two, but to take him away quickly and painlessly.
Nithin Belle
Nithin Belle
Nithin Belle is a journalist who has worked with several publications including Indian Express, Mid-Day, Bombay magazine and Gentleman magazine. He also worked with the Khaleej Times in Dubai for several years, covering both regional and international news. He has been writing extensively for many Indian and international titles since his return to the country. His other passions include photography.

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Recipes: Assorted Pakoras, classic tea-time snacks

Assorted Pakoras
Cabbage pakoras are a very tasty snack and also easy to cook. There are varieties of pakoras available in India, but the most common and favourite of all the vegetarian people are onion pakoras and cabbage pakoras. Pakoras are usually served as snacks which are available in all of India but in the south, people also call it as bhaji.
There are numerous Indian snacks recipes that can be prepared easily at home and one such classic appetizing tea-time snack or a rainy day treat is a pakora. It is easy to make. We will show you a few easy step-by-step recipes to make a few different varieties of them. 
Turmeric powder - 1/2 Tsp.
Chili powder - 2 Tsp.
Salt to taste
Ajwain/Carom seeds - 1 Tsp.
Besan/Gram flour - 2 cups 
Oil for deep frying
Take a few cabbage leaves and cut off the center thick stalk. 
Roll up the cabbage leaves together and cut them up. Make sure they are not too thin. 
Put these cut up cabbage in a large mixing bowl. 
Add turmeric powder, chilli powder, salt, ajwain, gram flour (Besan) and mix all the ingredients together. 
Gradually add a little water and mix well. 
Meanwhile, heat some oil in a pan. 
Drop these coated cabbage leaves into the oil. 
Deep fry it until it is a crisp golden brown colour. 
Now, carefully remove the pakoras from the pan, draining all the oil. 
Beetroot - 1 grated
Carrot - 1 grated
Onion - 1 thinly sliced
A piece of Ginger chopped
Green chilli - 1 finely chopped
Ginger & Garlic paste - 1/4 tsp.
A few chopped Coriander leaves
A few Curry leaves
Salt to taste 
Red chilli powder - 1 tsp.
Besan (or) Gram flour - 2 tbsp.
Rice flour - 1 tbsp.
Oil for frying
In a mixing bowl add all the ingredients, i.e. beetroot, carrot, onion, ginger, green chilli, ginger-garlic paste, coriander leaves, curry leaves, salt and red chilli powder. Mix all the ingredients together until they are blended nicely.
Now, add the besan (or) gram flour and mix gently. 
Now, add the rice flour to the mixture and mix again.
Heat some oil in a kadai. Once the oil is hot enough, drop the batter mix gently into the kadai, a little at a time.
Deep fry the Beetroot Carrot Pakoras until they are nice and crispy. 
Crispy Beetroot Carrot Pakoras are ready to be served!
Bread slices 
Paneer - 200 gms
Mint & coriander chutney [Recipe]
Date & tamarind chutney [Recipe
Oil for frying
For Batter:
Besan/Gram flour - 1 1/2 cups
Turmeric powder - 1/4 Tsp
Salt to taste
Chili powder - 1 Tsp
Ajwain/Carom seeds - 1 Tsp
Make Batter: In a mixing bowl add besan/gram flour, turmeric powder, salt, chili powder, ajwain/carom seeds and mix well.
Gradually add water and mix well. It should be a thick batter. Keep aside.
Cut the paneer into a thick slice. 
Take 2 bread slices, spread mint & coriander chutney on one slice. On the other slice spread date & tamarind chutney. 
Place the paneer slice on top of the bread slice and close it with another slice. Cut the sandwich into quarter size.
Heat oil for deep frying.
Dip the bread paneer sandwich into the batter and gently drop into the hot oil.
Fry till it turns golden brown color.
Enjoy the bread paneer pakora served hot.

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Creativity has no age limit, says 70-year-old self-taught photographer

At an age long past retirement for most people, who would prefer to lie down on a planter’s chair on the verandah, 70-year-old Professor (Dr) Rama Bharatha Varma is on the move, in constant pursuit of his latest hobby, photography.    
‘Moments and Movements’ is the title the professor has given to the exhibition of 60-odd photographs and paintings now on display at the Lalit Kala Academy here.
What makes the exhibition interesting is that Varma, now 70, had taken to photography only three years ago. Having decided to take it up as a hobby, he lost no time in walking into the nearest photography equipment store and demanding a “good camera”.
Having selected a Canon 550D that then cost Rs. 90,000 including original lens, he ventured forth, happily clicking away at anything that caught his fancy. However, he found to his dismay, that nothing has been captured in the camera. Off he went to the shop again to complain, only to be told that a memory card needed to be inserted first!
He then decided to read up a few books and armed with the knowledge gained and the camera, he gradually built up quite a big collection. The camera became a part of his body whenever he went out or even while sitting at home.
Fascinated by the crows fluttering about, he managed to capture quite a few shots of them sitting on electric wires, pottering about the ground in search of food and the like. Once, standing outside a shop, he looked up and found a tangle of wires overhead and took a picture that he likens to human life, with innumerable connections, cross-connections and confusions.
Some of the photographs on display, like the one about the Vivekananda Memorial in Kanya Kumari, at first sight, looks like a finely-crafted painting. It has colourfully painted boats, in various shades of reds, blues and yellows in the foreground and the memorial, with its saffron domes, set against cloudy skies on the rough brown rock with a small patch of green lawn, floating in the light blue waters of the sea.
Nature forms a major theme in the collection. Water bodies like serene deep blue lakes, the sea with gently rolling waves, sun rays turning the water into molten gold, sunset at Kanyakumari are on display. One or two photos are of elderly bulls lying down, their skin scarred with a lifetime of hard work and cows nuzzling each other.    
Varma has been an academician for the past 48 years. “After being a professor of English in Tamil Nadu for 32 years, I switched to management studies after taking a few PG degrees in that discipline. I worked in a management institute in Bangalore and later joined DC School of Management Studies promoted by DC Books in Vagamon and Thiruvananthapuram. Later, I became its Group Director and Chief Operating Officer,” he says.
He retired from service about a year ago after having met with an accident that resulted in a major head injury, He credits his recovery to his passion for photography as also to poetry and painting. Throughout the recovery stage, he says, his mind was full of plans for new projects.
(Dr) Rama Bharatha Varma
(Dr) Rama Bharatha Varma
About his foray into poetry, he says, “I have been writing poems in English for the last 35 years and published 500 poems that have received favourable reviews from national and local dailies.” So far, he has published four volumes of poetry titled ‘Spark and Fire ‘In Love with Life’, ‘Loom of Life’ and ‘Let Us Face the Facts’. The last mentioned book has a preface by renowned Malayalam poet Ayyappa Panicker and an endorsement by eminent novelist and filmmaker M T Vasudevan Nair.
Varma is a self-taught painter who picked up the brush rather later in life, at the age of 50. Similarly, about photography, he says he became interested in it three years ago and started studying more about it from books and experimenting with a good camera. The display at the exhibition includes 22 paintings, mostly abstracts, executed in vibrant tones of reds, yellows and white, radiating positive energy.
“The exhibition is the result of these activities. I am very passionate about all these things even at the age of 70. Creativity has no age limit. This exhibition is also intended to inspire the visitors to take up some hobby and pursue it to discover something new within you,” he adds.

Mexico should be among your top travel destinations, will remind you of India

Panoramic view from the Pyramid of the Sun - the Pyramid of the Moon can be seen on the right
Panoramic view from the Pyramid of the Sun - the Pyramid of the Moon can be seen on the right
Mexico is not quite on the radar of most Indian tourists who end up travelling to the more popular destinations  in Europe, the United States or the Far East. But I got to travel to Mexico City on a short business trip recently and enjoyed every bit of it.
In many ways, Mexico will remind you of India. It is close to the equator, and at the same time, shows extremes in climates; both our cuisines are spicy and use similar spice blends; both have long coastlines of about 7,000 km; both have ancient civilisations in their history and have rich cultural traditions.
(In fact, the chilli came to India from Mexico. Pop quiz: Do you know which fruit went to Mexico from India? - Answer at the bottom of the article.)
So, when I arrived in Mexico City, barring the jet lag from the 28-hour long journey, I felt almost at home. I reached late at night and after a good night's rest, the first order of business was to order a proper Mexican breakfast.
I stayed at the Wyndham Garden Hotel in the Polanco area, a decent budget business hotel in the heart of the city. The rooms are expectedly average, the service is efficient, and the food, although limited in options, was excellent. A light breakfast, consisting of fruit, toast and coffee, was included with the room - which was not what I was expecting when I was told continental breakfast was included - and anything more had to be ordered over and above.
A major issue that non-Spanish speakers will face in Mexico is that there aren't many people, especially in shops and restaurants, who know English. So, one has to rely on translator apps and dictionaries to communicate or use sign language generously, along with sporadic use of English words and hope the other person understands.
Fossilised mandible of large mammoth like creature(Museum of Anthroplogy)
Fossilised mandible of large mammoth like creature(Museum of Anthroplogy)
Back at the breafast table, I decided to dive right in and order Chilaquiles  from the breakfast menu. I had, of course, no idea what it was -  the waiter just said, "tortillas, queso" (tortillas, cheese), and then asked "Con pollo?" (with chicken? I said, okay), "Salsa verde, roja?" (I said, green), after which he took off to get the order.
I was, of course, completely intrigued. Not long after, my order came - and I quickly understood why the waiter had been so sparse in his description. The dish was literally a shallow pool of green salsa, in which tortilla chips and chicken strips were swimming, with a sprinkling of cheese all over, and a blob of refried beans on the corner - and tasted amazing!
I had come to Mexico to speak at a business event. On the way to the event, I was struck by how some neighbourhoods of Mexico would not have been out of place in Delhi, the only difference being that the signs were all in Spanish. Another thing that stood out was that Mexico City has a predilection for the bright pink colour. The logo of Mexico City is in pink, and all the city vehicles (taxis, trucks, buses, vans) are painted pink. Many houses have also painted their outer walls in pink. One would imagine all this pink would look garish, but somehow, it all fits in, and looks natural.
Head dress(Museum of Anthroplogy)
Head dress(Museum of Anthroplogy)
The event was catered by a local Indian restaurant, called Bukhara, run by a genial Sikh gentleman, who had come to Mexico in the early 1990s. The food was traditional Indian catering fare - chicken tikka, seekh kebabs, fish tikka, pulao and dal makhani, rounded off by rasmalai and cardamom chai - and, was surprisingly good. The crowd had almost polished off the entire stock of food available.
That evening, the jet lag finally caught up with me and I crashed early for the night, without having any dinner.
The next day was to be another packed day and, because it had been a good 14 hours after my previous meal, it was no surprise that I was at the restaurant early morning, waiting for it to open up. After I finished my allotted fruit appetizer, I turned my attention to what was going to be the main act that morning. Mexican Scrambled Eggs, it was, with Chorizo. The Mexican bit was the fried beans and a tortilla chip
Mexican Scrambled Eggs
Mexican Scrambled Eggs
Wyndham Garden has a restaurant on their top floor, which overlooks the Chapultepec Castle, and the surrounding park - which makes for a wonderful scene, as the sun streams into the restaurant when it rises from behind the palace, and the scrambled eggs were a perfect complement to the view.
Chapultepec Castle, located on top of Chapultepec Hill in the middle of the Chapultepec Park at a height of 2,325 meters above sea level, has served as an Imperial residence, the Presidential home and is now the National Museum of History. The castle was a film location in 1996 for Romeo and Juliet, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.
During the day, we grabbed a quick bite at McDonald's - where the local options are lathered in salsa and habanero sauce. The evening was hosted by my colleague and his wife, where they treated me to some great home-cooked Indian food.
After the meetings next day, I had about half a day remaining in Mexico City, and I decided to explore the sights. (Tip: If you are going out in the city for a meeting or sightseeing, keep at least an hour's margin for travel time, as Mexico City's traffic is famously unpredictable, and your schedule can get out of gear quite rapidly, if you are not prepared.)
Since, I had limited time, I decided to first see the most popular place in Mexico City - the Pyramids of Teotihuacan.
The Pyramid of the Sun
The Pyramid of the Sun
The Meso-American civilisation that grew near Mexico city established itself in the valley of Teotihuacan, and built their famous flat-topped pyramid temples here. Teotihuacan is about 50 km from the city, and it takes about an hour by taxi to reach here. Mexico City is surrounded by hills, and combined with its latitude, makes the drive out to Teotihuacan a natural scenery treat. I would describe it as very similar to the drive from Mumbai to Lonavala, interspersed with many fields and structures reminiscent of North India.
Once there, I finally understood what the fuss about the pyramids were, and why everyone I had met had recommended that I spend some time to visit them. The Teotihuacan pyramid complex has two large pyramids - the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon and many smaller ones around it in neat lines. I was struck by the near precise angles at which the pyramids are constructed, restricting and framing views at strategic positions. Both pyramids have tall, narrow, steep steps cut into the side, where one can climb all the way to the top, and see the entire valley in one view without any obstacles.
Pyramid of the Moon
Pyramid of the Moon
The taller of the two pyramids is the Pyramid of the Sun, and the climb is about as high as about 10-12 storeys, and barring one super-athlete, who ran all the way to the top, and skipped circles around all of us, everyone there found the climb extremely strenuous and scary at times. If you are planning to climb the Pyramids, you must have good walking shoes, and stamina.
These pyramids were discovered, much like the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, many centuries after their original creators and inhabitants had abandoned them. However, unlike the Pyramids of Giza, these were used as temples and residences for the society's elite, and the rest of the society grew around the Pyramids. Similar pyramids and structures exist throughout Mexico, which indicate many such societies had developed in parallel.
The gift shops nearby have many intricate items on offer, especially various articles made of obsidian, which was apparently the preferred traditional material for many objects from Mesoamerican era, and local liquors, including tequila and mezcal.
After making the arduous trek to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun, and back down, I ambled across the entire complex, admiring the various buildings and their symmetry. Another remarkable fact: the acoustics in this complex are so perfect, that sounds from one end echoes sharply to the other without losing much coherence.
After spending about an hour at the Pyramids, I then headed back into the city, and went to the next hot spot for tourists - the world famous Museum of Anthropology
The Facade of the Museum of Anthropology
The Facade of the Museum of Anthropology
Set up in the 1960s, the Museum attracts many visitors to its extremely well-designed exhibits, covering the history of homo sapiens, starting from Homo australopithecus all the way to the modern-day American. The museum requires at least 3-4 hours to cover it properly, and has some amazing artefacts, including fossils of, possibly, a mammoth, and many, many objects of use from those times. The museum is a veritable archive of Mexican heritage, and it is highly recommended to get a guide (or an audio guide), as most of the exhibits are in Spanish.
While going back to the hotel from the museum, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a fairly large and quiet park commemorating Mahatma Gandhi and his contribution to humanity. The park has a large statue of him, but I, unfortunately, did not have much time to spend there - next time perhaps...
What I was able to see and experience, was a just a tiny portion of what Mexico (or even, Mexico City) has to offer. Just like India, there is much more than what I have written about, and if you have a week to spare, Mexico City should definitely figure among the top of your list of travel destinations.
Although there are no direct flights to Mexico City from India, there are many one-stop flights from India via France, Germany, Netherlands and the US.
There are any number of options for stay in Mexico City. Wyndham Garden Hotel, a budget hotel, is where I stayed and it is a good economic option for tourists and families. 
Taxis are quite expensive - Uber is a recommended option, or else, one could also look at buying tickets to the Hop-on Hop-off buses.
(Answer to pop quiz: Mango)
Panoramic view of the temple buildings in front of the Pyramid of the Moon.
Panoramic view of the temple buildings in front of the Pyramid of the Moon.

The City of the Taj is a good option for a short getaway

We wanted to take a short break from Delhi recently and, after considering various options in the region, zeroed in on Agra. Most of us had been there before, but not together as a family. And one of us had not visited the place,  and that was  good enough reason to make the trip to the city of the Taj -- the monument of love.
Summer is  not the best time to visit Agra, but we had no choice as far as the dates were concerned. 
The Taj Mahal
The Taj Mahal
Our last trip was about a decade ago (and that, too, was in June!). Since then,  the 165-km six-lane controlled Yamuna Expressway from Greater Noida, near Delhi, to  Agra has opened, cutting the travel time considerably. That is the route we took, and it was one of the smoothest drives we have had in India, with the journey taking about three hours. We made sure the driver of our Toyota Innova stayed well within the speed limits and stuck to his lane, and that made the trip enjoyable, without the tension associated with travel on wide highways.
This is the expressway on which an Indian Air Force (IAF) Mirage-2000 successfully landed near Mathura on May 21, 2015 as part of the IAF's plans to use national highways for emergency landings by fighter aircraft. That will give you some idea of the quality of the highway and you cannot help feeling a sense of pride as you race ahead.
From Delhi, we drove through Noida and then Greater Noida and before long we were on the Yamuna Expressway. We left around 1 pm on a Sunday afternoon, after brunch, but the efficient air-conditioning in the car meant that we did not suffer on account of the heat outside. Our aim was to reach Agra long before sundown, and that we did, with more than a couple of hours to spare.
A view of the mosque at Fatehpur Sikri
A view of the mosque at Fatehpur Sikri
Once you leave Greater Noida, there is not much to see on the way to Agra. The expressway does not pass through any towns and there is hardly any inhabitation for long stretches, unlike the National Highway (NH)-2, which is the older and longer route and passes through towns such as Faridabad, Ballabhgarh and Mathura.
It may not be a very wise decision to drive in the night on this route, given the stories you read in the newspapers about crimes on the highway. Ideally, you should leave early in the morning and try and reach Agra by noon. Winter is the best time to visit Agra, but you have to be very careful because of the thick fog that is likely in these parts and the consequent traffic risks.
Fatehpur Sikri
Fatehpur Sikri
There are three toll plazas along the expressway at Jewar (38 km), Mathura (94 km) and Agra (150 km). Jewar, by the way, is the place where a new international airport has been planned, one which will bring Agra even closer to tourists from other parts of India and abroad. All three have good food courts and other facilities, including reasonably clean toilets. We are the sort who like to stop for short breaks on road journeys and we did this at Jewar on the way out and just outside Agra and Mathura on the way back. There is a wide choice of food and drinks, especially at Mathura and Jewar, and there were lots of families enjoying themselves in these food courts.
There are any number of options at Agra as far as hotels are concerned -- from luxury properties to modest ones. On our previous trip, we had got a good deal from the Taj. This time, we  booked ourselves rooms at Sterling Holidays' Agra Regal Vista for our stay. It is small hotel but quite exceeded our expectations. The check-in was a smooth process, the rooms were comfortable, all the fixtures worked, and room service and housekeeping were effficient. We took the breakfast-dinner package and enjoyed the food at each of the meals. The spread was limited, but the quality was good and consistent. What we appreciated even more was the restaurant's and the hotel's willingness and ability to respond to our requests. A good place to stay for those travelling on a budget and well located on Fatehabad road in the city.
What many people try and do is to make a day-trip to Agra and squeeze everything into a few hours. But we think it is much better to stay in the city for a couple of days and enjoy at leisure what the Taj and other monuments have to offer.
Based on our experience from the previous time, we asked the hotel to arrange for guides for us, and they found us two -- one for Fatehpur Sikri and the other for Agra on the following day. These guides were slightly more expensive but much better than the ones we would otherwise have ended up picking at the monuments. 
The Angoori BaghEntrance to Agra FortA view of the Taj Mahal from Agra Fort
The Angoori Bagh; Entrance to Agra Fort; A view of the Taj Mahal from Agra Fort
After a quiet evening and a relaxed dinner, we set out early next morning for Fatehpur Sikri, a fascinating city built by Mughal Emperor Akbar in the 16th century about 36 km from Agra. Legend has it that Akbar, then 26, did not have an heir and went to a saint, Shaikh Salim Chishti, who lived at Sikri. He blessed Akbar, who had three sons after that. As a gesture, he built a whole new city in Sikri and named it Fatehpur Sikri, the City of Victory. It is a superb example of the splendour of Mughal architecture and has featured in many Bollywood movies. It was meant to be a joint capital with Agra, but was soon deserted because it did not have a proper water supply system. 
Fatehpur Sikri is a fine example of a combination of Hindu and Muslim architecture and attracts thousands of tourists from around the world today. There is a fair bit of walking to do to see all the structures, but they are worth every bit of the effort you make. In particular, the Diwan-I-Khas, the Panch Mahal, a five-storeyed building which offers a panoramic view of the surrounding areas, the tomb of Salim Chishti, Buland Darwaza, the 54-metre high gateway built in 1575 and the Diwan-I-Aam and the Jama Masjid are some of the major attractions. Listed as a World Heritage structure by UNESCO, Fatehpur Sikri is clearly one of the places people must visit at least once in their lives.
We were back in Agra by noon and, after a quick lunch, went to the Taj Mahal. Again, there is a lot of walking involved, and it would be a good idea to equip yourselves with a bottle or two of drinking water. 
Even if you have been to the monument before and have seen hundreds of pictures, nothing quite prepares you for the majestic beauty of the structure when you first set eyes on it from the gateway. You will be overcome by a variety of emotions as you enter the complex and slowly walk towards the mausoleum.
Before that, we hired the services of a photographer, who took pictures of us outside the entrance and then at various points inside the complex. At the end, when you come out, you get an album of pictures.
As is well-known, the monument, often described as poetry in marble and one of the wonders of the modern world, was constructed by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in 1630 A.D. Its construction began in 1632 and was completed in 1648. More than 20,000 workers were said to have been employed to build the mausoleum. It stands on a raised, square platform (186 feet x 186 feet) and is a part of a vast complex that includes a large garden, a mosque and several other grand buildings. 
As things turned out, Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb in the Agra Fort for nine years, which he spent just gazing at the Taj Mahal across the Yamuna.
A part of the Agra FortA part of the Agra FortThe Diwan-e-Aam at Agra Fort
A part of the Agra Fort; A part of the Agra Fort; The Diwan-e-Aam at Agra Fort
Agra Fort, which we visited next morning, is also a UNESCO World Heritage site, about 2.5 km northwest of the Taj Mahal. It was built by Akbar in red sandstone and served as his residence and military strategic headquarters. The vast complex has splendid palaces in red sandstone and marble, built by Akbar and later Jehangir and Shah Jahan. Among the buildings that have survived are such exquisite structures as the Sheesh Mahal (Glass Palace), the royal dressing room adorned by mirror-like glass-mosaic decorations on the walls; the Diwan-I-Aam, where ordinary people could communicate with the rulers and which once housed the Peacock Throne; and the Diwan-i-Khas, a private hall where the emperor met kings and other dignitaries.
There also the Anguri Bagh, Khas Mahal, a white marble palace, various mosques, and Musamman Burj, an octagonal tower with a balcony facing the Taj Mahal.
Other places of interest in Agra include Sikandra, the mausoleum of Akbar; Itmad-ud-daula, the tomb of Mir Ghiyas Beg, a minister in the court of Shah Jahan and the first tomb in India that was entirely made of marble; and the Red Taj Mahal, the tomb of Dutch soldier John William Hessing built by his wife Ann Hessing in his memory after his death in 1803. 
Tourism is a major contributor to Agra's economy but the city has a lot of manufacturing units, too. Among other things, it is known for its leather industry.
An important fact we noticed was that the city appeared to be a much cleaner place as compared to what it was on our earlier visit. Also, there are now any number of good restaurants. We tried one of them, Pind Baluchi, and enjoyed the experience.
All in all, thanks to the expressway, Agra is a good destination for a weekend getaway from Delhi.
Photographs: Kevin Verghese Sam

Review: Malayalam movie Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum is a winner all the way

Fahadh Faasil , Suraj Venjaramood and Nimisha Sajayan in a still from the movie Thondimuthalum Driksaakshiyum
Fahadh Faasil , Suraj Venjaramood and Nimisha Sajayan in a still from the movie Thondimuthalum Driksaakshiyum
Dileesh Pothan's Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (The Evidence and the Witness), starring Fahadh Faasil and Suraj Venjaramood, is one of the most watchable Malayalam movies of recent times,
The second directorial venture of Dileesh is amazingly realistic, on the one hand, and remains entertaining throughout, on the other.
It is the story of a theft, in which the paths of Prasad (Suraj), his wife Sreeja (a superb debut by Nimisha Sajayan), the thief (also Prasad, played by Fahadh) and the cops at a police station, including assistant sub-inspector Chandran (Alencier Ley Lopez) cross.
The story starts out in the backwaters of Alappuzha and then moves to a village in Kasargod, and soon develops into a gripping and realistic police drama.
There are no heroes and villains here, and by the end, the audience can empathise with almost each  one of the characters. A winner all the way, by any standards.
In the Delhi theatre where we saw the film, there were English sub-titles, and that should encourage non-Malayali moviegoers to watch it.
The movie marks the return of the Dileesh-Fahadh pair after the hugely successful Maheshinte Prathikara, and fully lives up to expectations. There are moments when the film seems to lag, but, on the whole, it retains audience interest all the way with several moments of situational comedy even while addressing larger issues.
The film's strong point is its casting, with a host of newcomers, led by Nimisha, who have come up with commendable and mature performances. Fahadh and National Award winner Suraj are, of course, brilliant but each one of the minor characters, including each of the policemen in the film, is convincing in his or her role, and that is what sets the movie apart. 
Rajeev Ravi's photography brownish frames, Bijibal Maniyil's music and, above all, Sajeev Pazhoor's screenplay have also played a major part in turning the movie into a veritable work of art. Clearly, this is one of the best films to come out in India in recent times.

Even minimal physical activity can lead to happiness: Study

People walking about in Shimla, India. Photo: NetIndian
People walking about in Shimla, India. Photo: NetIndian
Even minimal levels of physical activity can have a positive effect on happiness, the largest-ever smartphone-based study examining the relationship between physical activity and happiness has revealed.
The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Cambridge and the University of Essex, is based on reports from more than 10,000 individuals.
It found that physical activity, whether or not it is classified as exercise, can have a positive effect on emotional well-being. 
The results, reported in the journal Plos One, also demonstrate how smartphones can be used to collect large-scale data to examine psychological, behavioural and health-related phenomena as they occur in everyday life.
Using data gathered from users of a mood tracking app for Android phones, the researchers found that modest levels of physical activity – even if it could not be classified as exercise – can increase a person’s reported emotional well-being, regardless of their baseline level of happiness. They also found that people reported being happier when they were physically active.
Earlier, studies in this area have focused on the relationship between exercise and happiness, with mixed results. Some studies have found that happier people report exercising more, while others have found no relationship between happiness and exercise. Much of this past research has relied solely on retrospective self-reports, on data collected at only one time period, and on small samples.
For the new study, data on physical activity was passively gathered from smartphone accelerometers, and participants were also sent a short survey at two random intervals throughout the day which asked questions about their emotional state.
Users reported their emotional state on a grid, based on how positive or negative, and how energetic or sleepy, they were feeling. Users were also asked a handful of questions about how their mood compared to normal.
The activity data was then averaged over the course of the day, so while the researchers could not pinpoint what participants were doing at any given time, they found that participants who had higher levels of activity throughout the day reported a more positive emotional state.
“Our data show that happy people are more active in general,” said the paper’s senior author Dr Jason Rentfrow, from Cambridge’s Department of Psychology and a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College.
“However, our analyses also indicated that periods of physical activity led to increased positive mood, regardless of individuals’ baseline happiness. There have been many studies about the positive psychological effects of exercise, but what we’ve found is that in order to be happier, you don’t have to go out and run a marathon – all you’ve really got to do is periodically engage in slight physical activity throughout the day.”
“Most of us don’t keep track of all of our movements during the day,” said study co-author Dr Gillian Sandstrom from the Department of Psychology at the University of Essex.
“A person might track whether they went for a walk or went to the gym, but when asked, most of them probably wouldn’t remember walking from the desk to the photocopier, or from the car to the office door,” he added.
“This study shows how mobile and wearable technology really can allow social psychologists to perform large longitudinal studies as well as open a direct and permanent connection with the users for advice and intervention,” said study co-author Professor Cecilia Mascolo from Cambridge’s Computer Laboratory.
The research was supported by the UK Engineering and Physical Research Council’s UBhave (Ubiquitous and Social Computing for Positive Behaviour Change) project.

Filmmaker Biju rues lack of concern for nameless people like municipal sweepers

Physician turned film director Biju is deeply disappointed at the lack of concern among the people and the authorities for the faceless, nameless people like municipal sweepers and those belonging to marginalised sections of the society.

Suraj Venjaramoodu in a still from the film Perariyathavar
Suraj Venjaramoodu in a still from the film Perariyathavar
Physician turned film director Biju is deeply disappointed at the lack of concern among the people and the authorities for the faceless, nameless people like municipal sweepers and those belonging to marginalised sections of the society.
He took up this issue in his National Award winning film “Perariyathavar” (Names Unknown) that depicts the plight of a sweeper, whose services were yet to be regularised, through the eyes of his son. They are forced to vacate their makeshift home next to the rail tracks as the colony was bulldozed for redevelopment work. 
It won two awards at National Film Awards 2013--for Best Film on Environment Conservation/Preservation and the best actor award for Suraj Venjaramoodu. 
Suraj, usually known for his comedy roles, plays the lead role with conviction and brings out the pathos and suffering of a single parent trying to bring up a small child in the absence of his dead wife. 
The film, commercially released in August, 2016, was screened by Clone Cinema Lovers, in association with Kerala Union of Working Journalists at Kerala House on September 25.
At a question-answer session that followed the screening, Dr Biju said the residents of Brahmapuram in the vicinity of a designated open air garbage dumping yard in Kochi had abandoned their houses and shifted elsewhere following unbearable stench and filthy conditions. 
These houses, situated among dust covered trees and stunted vegetation, were being rented out to migrant labourers from the eastern and North Eastern states, he added. 
Meanwhile, almost on a daily basis, Kerala newspapers carry full page advertisements about multi-storied housing projects offering every sort of luxury, tennis courts and swimming pools, including full compliance with ‘Vastu’ principles. However, they seldom talk about waste disposal.
In the absence of any system of garbage removal on the part of promoters of the luxury villa/flat projects, residents in almost all cities and towns in Kerala are forced to pack the household waste in plastic bags and take it in their cars to be thrown on the roadside or vacant plots.
Then it becomes the thankless task of the faceless, nameless sweepers, employed by the city corporations, often on temporary basis. In the film, the main actor is seen picking up garbage tied up in plastic bags, abandoned on the footpaths and roadside and carefully depositing in waste bins.
Even while taking a bath in a polluted stream near his house, Suraj, who remains nameless in the film, collects all the plastic waste and deposits on the banks of the stream.
Dr Biju, in the making of the film, had drawn upon various incidents reported in the newspapers and his own experiences. Thus, the viewer gets glimpses of the protest by local residents against a garbage dumping yard, rape of a little girl, the protest by tribals in a forest area, being sought to be displaced in the name of development. The last mentioned incident provides the climax in the form of police firing on the protestors.
The filmmaker said several people, after seeing the film, had asked him questions like “where in Kerala can you find people sleeping on the pavements and bus stands?” In fact, the shots appearing in the film are from footage recorded by the film unit during their travels across the state.
A controversy had erupted over remarks Dr Biju made in a Facebook post against renowned film maker Adoor Gopalakrishnan describing the latter’s latest movie ‘Pinneyum’ as an amateur movie. Adoor, on his part, accused Dr Biju of jealousy and lack of knowledge about movie making.
Dr Biju said a filmmaker of Adoor’s standing should have at least watched his movie and pointed out the flaws before making such a statement.  
He also regretted that most of the film critics, who could write realms and realms about commercial films, chose to ignore “Perariyathavar”.  
While the film had undoubtedly succeeded in raising awareness about the issues, it fails in bringing an emotional connect with the viewers. Unlike a commercial film, there is hardly any drama or neatly tied up conclusions.
There are no negative characters, except the unseen hands of powerful vested interests in the form of the government and the industry. 

Coal to acetylene - the pit stop fixes

The manufacture of acetylene from coal is a path-breaking production route for the Indian chemical industry.
The manufacture of acetylene from coal is a path-breaking production route for the Indian chemical industry.
Coal, found in abundance in many countries, is a wonder feedstock for several major industries and utilities. During the early industrialisation era, coal was used as feedstock in the manufacture of most chemicals, which were derived through mainly the coal-to-acetylene route. 
However, the abundance of crude oil and natural gas has led to these replacing coal, and this proved beneficial for large-capacity production of polymers and petrochemicals despite the process being a complex one — a process using steam crackers. 
This production route requires significant unit sizes in order to realise economies of scale, and remain viable. It is indeed a good option when crude oil is available in plenty and at low cost.
In the case of relatively low volume, ’fit for purpose’ chemicals, the crude oil and natural gas route may not be a viable option especially when such feedstock is imported and the ‘mother’ feed molecules are obtained from mega scale plants that require considerable capex outlay. 
The last decade has seen significant volatility in global crude oil prices. However, even at falling prices, dependence on imports for feedstock poses a risk especially when large production setups are built around such imports. 
For several countries like India, China, Australia, Indonesia, etc, coal as a feedstock is available in abundance and at low prices. It makes sound business sense to exploit this feedstock instead, with due processes plugged in for efficiency.
Acetylene is a very versatile and reactive molecule and is known to be the ’mother of organic synthesis’; many chemicals can be derived from acetylene with relative ease. Manufacturing of relatively low-volume chemicals — for example VCM/PVC, VAM, acrylics, BDO, etc — can be potentially considered through the coal-acetylene route, which is a relatively low capex option more suited for distributed production. 
Further, this process facilitates the capture of the carbon content as a valuable chemical product and hence contains carbon emission.
The manufacture of acetylene from coal can be made efficient and cost-competitive through integrated process interventions at every stage of the production life cycle:
Managing the quality of coal: Coal drying, coal beneficiation, de-ashing of coal, efficient coal handling, and feedstock management and coal conversion.
Managing the conversion process: The process involves conversion of coal to carbide, carbide to acetylene, and conversion of acetylene to product molecule.
Energy integration and optimisation
Plant and process efficiencies
Managing the carbon fototprin: Coal ash management, carbon capture and re-utilisation.
Effective project evaluation, design and execution through the entire project life cycle.
Mahesh Marve
Mahesh Marve
Tata Consulting Engineers, through its wide knowledge base and expertise in coal, chemicals and logistics systems, can provide holistic support for this potentially path-breaking production route for the Indian chemical industry and contribute to the ‘Make in India’ campaign in a truly meaningful way.
Courtesy: Tata Review
Mahesh Marve is senior vice-president and chief technology officer, Tata Consulting Engineers

Nita Ambani becomes first Indian woman to be nominated to IOC

Nita Ambani becomes the first Indian woman to be nominated into the International Olympics Committee (IOC). Her roles as Reliance Foundation founder, FSDC founder, Mumbai Indians IPL team owner backs up her nod.

Nita Ambani
Nita Ambani
Nita Ambani, the Founder and Chairperson of Reliance Foundation, was on Friday nominated as a candidate to be a member of the International Olympics Committee (IOC), the supreme authority of the Olympic Games, by its Members Election Commission.
Part of a list of eight members who were selected by the Commission, she is the first Indian woman to be nominated to the IOC, and will go on to create history if she gets elected in August 2016 at the 129th IOC Session.
Reliance Foundation is the philanthropic arm of energy and petrochemicals major Reliance Industries Limited (RIL).
Ms. Ambani, the wife of RIL Chairman and Managing Director Mukesh Ambani, has been involved in promoting different sports in India with focus on young talent through her grassroots programs, which has reached over 3 million children around the country. 
This proved to be a defining point for the Commission to enlist Mrs. Ambani as an appropriate candidate and as India’s representative.
Her nomination comes at a time when a new procedure was followed to select the candidates. 
“It is recognition of India’s growing importance on world stage. I believe in the power of sports to shape the future of our youth. Sports bring communities and links cultures and generations together, so I’m really excited about this honour,” Ms. Ambani told a News18 correspondent.
The new approach also involved integrity checks by the IOC Ethics Commission which further strengthens the appeal of Ms. Ambani’s nomination. She was selected based on her illustrious career. 
Nita Ambani is also the Founder and Chairperson of India’s Football Sports Development Limited, through which she has shown extraordinary commitment to developing sports talent in India.
Led by Ms. Ambani, the Reliance Foundation Jr. NBA Programme has reached out to nearly 2 million children across 2,200 schools in India. She is also the owner of Mumbai Indians cricket team.
As a member of IOC, Ms. Ambani will participate in various sessions where the core elements of the Games will be discussed. Selecting the host city and discussing issues will be some of the responsibilities that Ms. Ambani will assist in as a member.
The IOC’s role is to supervise, support, and monitor the organization of the Games; ensure that they run smoothly; and make sure that the rules of the Olympic Charter are respected. 
As a member, Ms. Ambani will be at the forefront of this supervision for Indian players who will participate in the Games.
The Executive Board (EB) of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will propose in all eight new members, including Ms. Ambani of India, for election at the 129th IOC Session ahead of the Olympic Games 2016 this summer.
The addition of eight new members would bring the total number of Members to 99. The 129th IOC Session is scheduled to take place from 2 to 4 and on 21 August 2016.
Once elected, Ms. Ambani and the other new members will continue to be members until the age of 70.
"The list is the result of the first targeted recruitment process for IOC Membership as outlined in Olympic Agenda 2020, the IOC’s strategic roadmap for the future of the Olympic Movement," a press release from IOC said after a meeting of its EB at its headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland on Friday.
It said a new set of criteria was applied by the IOC Members Election Commission, which proposed the list of candidates to the EB. The Commission devised a procedure aimed at targeting new members with skills and experience needed by the IOC. The new approach includes integrity checks by the IOC Ethics Commission.
"The proposed candidatures represent a cross-section of expertise from the worlds of sport, culture, medicine, sociology, business, law and management. Gender equality is guaranteed with four women and four men on the list," the release said.
Apart from Ms. Ambani, the other candidates are athlete Sari Essayah of Finland, who is chairperson of the Finnish Christian Democratic Party; Italian bobsleigher Ivo Ferriani, president of the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation; Luis Moreno of Colombia, President of the Inter-American Development Bank; Auvita Rapilla of Papua New Guinea, Secretary General of the Papua New Guinea Olympic Committee, ANOC and ONOC Executive Committee Member; film producer Anant Singh of South Africa; Tricia Smith of Canada, Olympian, rower, President of the Canadian Olympic Committee; and Karl Stoss of Austria, Chairman of the Managing Board of Casinos Austria AG, President of the Austrian Olympic Committee.
“These eight candidates that we are proposing to the next IOC Session are a strong and varied group of individuals that are experts in their respective fields and will make great contributions,” said IOC President Thomas Bach. “They have been vetted by new criteria in keeping with the recommendations of Olympic Agenda 2020. These candidates will add extra strength and diversity to our already universal orchestra of IOC Members.”
The International Olympic Committee is the supreme authority of the Olympic Movement. It acts as a catalyst for collaboration between all parties of the Olympic family, from the National Olympic Committees (NOCs), the International Sports Federations (IFs), the athletes, the Organising Committees for the Olympic Games (OCOGs), to partners and United Nations agencies. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) shepherds success through a wide range of programmes and projects. It ensures the regular celebration of the Olympic Games, supports all affiliated member organisations of the Olympic Movement and strongly encourages, by appropriate means, the promotion of the Olympic values.

'Single anklet' once again chimes on Kathakali stage

Kannaki grieves over Kovilan -- a scene from a Kathakali performance of Chilappathikaram in Thrissur on December 27, 2015.
Kannaki grieves over Kovilan -- a scene from a Kathakali performance of Chilappathikaram in Thrissur on December 27, 2015.
The story of Kannaki, who threw down one of her anklets before the Pandya king to prove innocence of her husband, unjustly accused of theft of the queen's anklet and killed on the King's orders, destroying the kingdom in her rage, was once again staged on the Kathakali stage here after a gap of several decades.
Kathakali, the famous classical dance drama theatre usually features a set of stories from the Mahabharata and other texts about divine characters and their valorous deeds.
There have been, time and again, exceptions to the rule. One such is the adaptation of “Chilappathikaram,” one of the five great epics of Tamil literature, authored by Ilango Adigal in the Sangam period (second-­third centuries AD).
It depicts the deep love between Kannaki and Kovilan, a rich man of Kaveri Poompattinam.
Madhavi, a beautiful dancer, comes between them, divesting Kovilan of all his wealth. He returns, in an utterly dejected and defeated state to his faithful wife. Kannaki, who has been pining away for him not only offers words of consolation but also one of her gold anklets to sell and raise some money.
The couple then goes to Madurai where Kovilan approaches the King's goldsmith with the anklet.
The evil goldsmith, who had stolen one of the queen's anklets, goes to the king and portrays Kovilan as the thief. The king orders to kill Kovilan. A distraught Kannaki, on coming to know of 
his death, rushes to the palace, confronts the king and proves her anklet contains emeralds unlike the queen's anklet filled with rubies. She then curses the king and in her rage, transforms herself to the angry goddess Bhadrakali.
The 'Atta Katha” (Kathakali play) by Prof. K Marumakan Raja was staged by Kathakali Club, Thrissur here on December 27 to commemorate his 25th death anniversary.
Raja, who belonged to the Kodungallur royal family, was a multi­faceted personality straddling the world of mathematics, his field of choice for a career, and that of Akshara slokam (recital of slokas 
in Sanskrit and Malayalam, like 'Antakshari'), Kathakali and Melam, the traditional drums and pipes musical ensemble, an integral part of Kerala temple festivals.
Prior to the performance, a meeting was held in which several speakers lauded Raja's contributions to Kathakali and to the club itself. Prof. George S Paul said art forms like Kathakali needed to be preserved and propagated, not as static, ancient art forms, but as dynamic, growing entities.
“Kathakali was ideal in this respect that it, like Carnatic music, appeals to people across cultures and continents, without the burden of language,” he said.
Thus, William Shakespeare's “Tempest” and “King Lear” found ready audience at several performences across Europe and the United States of America (USA), he added. In both cases, Raja played a part. He translated David McRuvie's adaptation of King Lear into an 'Atta Katha' in Malayalam on the request of noted French choreographer Annette Leday. 
Chilapathikaram has been adapted to Kathakali stage by Kalamandalam Krishnan Kutty Poduwal.
Apart from Chilapathikaram, Raja had also authored “Shishyanum Makanum' (Disciple and Son), Dharma Sashtha and “Tempest”, based on the famous play by Shakespeare.
The first scene opens with Kovilan, a rich man in Kaveri poompattinam very much in love with Kannaki, a pretty lass whom he had just married. The happy couple engage in a conversation 
extolling the virtues of each other.
The second scene features the court of the Chola King. A Nattuvan (dance master) arrives with Madhavi, a dancer whom he had trained and seeks permission for a performance. Her dancing 
skills impresses the King so much that he presents her with a necklace.
Madhavi then announces that whosoever buys the necklace will have her hand in marriage. Kovilan is the only one who has enough money and she marries him. Entranced by her beauty and 
other charms, Kovilan forgets all about his wife and starts living with her.
However, soon fed up with her spendthrift ways and avarice that makes him a pauper, Kovilan returns to Kannaki and they have a tearful reunion. They leave the city and on reaching Madurai, 
the capital of the Pandya kingdom, Kannaki persuades Kovilan to try and sell one of her gold anklets.
Kovilan approaches a goldsmith, who is shown boasting about his clout in the royal court. While even Ministers and other dignitaries have to seek prior appointment and wait to get an audience with the King, he is the onlly one who could directly walk into the King's presence any time of the day and be welcomed.
On seeing the anklet, the evil goldsmith decides to put the blame on Kovilan for one of the queen's anklets that he had stolen years ago. So on the pretext of getting an assessment of the value of the ankllet from experts, he leaves asking Kovilan to remain there till he returns.
The goldsmith then goes to the palace and informs the king that the thief who stole the queen's anklet was in his workplace and he could be caught and the stolen property recovered. The king 
despatches two of his guards with instructions to kill the thief and get the anklet.
The goldsmith points out Kovilan to the guards who promptly slit his throat and takes the anklet to the king. In the meanwhile, Kannaki, searching for her missing husband, finds her husband's body in the goldsmith's shop.
She then approaches the King who tells her that Kovilan was killed because he had stolen the queen's anklet. Kannagi then tells the king that her anklet was filled with emeralds and throws it down. The anklet bursts open and emeralds spill out on the floor.
A repentent king realises his mistake but not before Kannaki flies into such a rage that she curses the king and his kingdom resulting in the burning down of Madurai. Kannaki assumes the form of Bhadrakali, who is appeased with puja and other rites by saints and Brahmins.
Raja, according to experts, had managed to adapt the classical work to Kathakali without deviating from the text and following all theatrical conventions of the dance drama. Both the uninitated and 
discerning audience would find enough dramatic high points to keep their interest alive till the last.
The latest staging, after a gap of decades, featured Kalamandalam Balasubramanian as Kovilan, Margi Vijayakumar as Kannaki, Haripriya Namboothiri as Madhavi, Kalamandalam Suraj as Chola King, Kalamandalam Hari R Nair as Nattuvan and later as Bhadrakali, Pishapilli Rajiv as the goldsmiith and Kalamandalam Arun Warrier as Pandya king.
Singers were Kalanilayam Unnikrishnan and Kalamandalam Harish. Percussion instrumentalists were Kalamandalam Krishnadas (chenda), Kalamandalam Narayanan Nair and Kalamandalam Srijith (mridangam).
Chutti (make­up) was by Barbara Vijayakumar and Kalamandalam Ravikumar.
On several occasions Thrissur Kathakali Club had staged 'Chilappathikaram' on several stages across Tamil Nadu to much acclaim.
Raja, son of Kodungallur Kunjikavu Thampuratti and Attuprath Raman Bhattathiripad, was born on July 11, 1926. After preliminary education at Kodungallur, he graduated from Maharaja's College at Ernakulam. Moving to Madras, he joined the Presidency College and passed MA and M. Sc. (Maths) with University rank.
Starting his career as a teacher under Madras Education department, he switched over to Kerala service following formation of the state. Having held teaching posts at Brunnen College, Thalasseri, Victoria College, Palakad, Engineering college, Thiruvananthapuram, he retired as Professor of Mathamatics from Engineering College, Thrissur.
His book 'Bharatiya Nyaya Shastravum Adhunika Ganithavum' (Indian logic science and modern mathematics) that illustrated and simplified complex mathematical principles with examples derived from Indian mythology, poetry and folklore has been published by Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad. In 1991, it won an awad in popular science section, instituted by the state Science and Technology department.
After retirement, he also earned a name for tution classes at his home in mathematics for everyone, ranging from school students to those appearing for Chartered Accountancy, engineering and other specialised courses. He was also a pioneer in entrance coaching classes for engineering colleges, in Thrissur.

UK dancer Marina Collard: From performances to craniosacral therapy

Marina Collard
Marina Collard
Amongst the many pleasures of life, dancing must be near the top of almost everyone's list. Be it on the stage, on the dance floor, or simply in the confines of your room, dancing has that capability to transform and lift moods. A professional dancer is able to turn that pleasure into a life­long passion and career.
Marina Collard, a contemporary dancer from the United Kingdom, is one such professional who dances with a passion not many of us can pinpoint, but one with which most of us will be able to identify.
Marina was in Delhi recently to mentor six dancers from Asia as part of the annual dance residency programme with Gati, a dance forum based in the national capital. Gati has been inviting several dancers and dance educationists from around the world to propagate the world of professional dance beyond the realm of pure classical and traditional within India. As part of their activities, they provide support and guidance to several dancers of various styles to build their art form.
During the residency programme, artistes and mentors like Marina are invited to provide guidance to dancers selected from across Asia. The result of the residency is a culmination of their progress into individual performances.
Marina, being one of those mentors who are also performers, was invited to showcase one of her own performances independent of the residency programme.
I met her during her stay in Delhi and had a chance to watch her performance, performing style, and her mentorship ­ amongst her other work.
As part of being mentor, she was invited to guide the residents in the final stage of their residency – the point where they finally piece together everything they have learnt from the time as a resident into one cohesive performance.
Her performance, “Still Going”, was staged at the British Council in New Delhi. “Still Going” is a collaboration between Marina’s movement and the film work of Tom Paine. She performs with the question of retiring from her dance, and yet still feels drawn back. She ultimately performs the state of suspension between dancing some more and attempting to change activities.
Contemporary dancers across the world have the unique disposition of dancing a style that is as different from each other's style as apples are to oranges. Unlike most styles, where there are rules and a specific language to their movements, contemporary dance is better known as a vision and not style.
Marina was born and raised in London, and soon moved to Italy which provided the space for the beginning of her dancing imagination. She started with ballet lessons at the age of 4 years, since those were the only kind of dance classes "that were around me at the time, or rather what we knew of at the time".
Marina Collard with her mentees at the Gati Summer Dance Residency, at the Gati Studio in New Delhi.
Marina Collard with her mentees at the Gati Summer Dance Residency, at the Gati Studio in New Delhi.
Till she became 12 or 13 years old, ballet lessons occupied her after school hours, three to four times a week. After that, she began to experiment with other dance forms, including jazz. "I enjoyed dancing these forms, but I was not comfortable with them. It felt like these forms were not compatible with me. I knew I wanted to dance, but 
none of it felt right." So, she continued with only ballet, which was at that point the most comfortable movement form for her.
"By the time I was 15, I was still committed to only ballet. It was where I felt at home. Then, I went to watch a contemporary dance show, and I knew then, this is it. This is what I wanted to do. So, I continued with school and ballet till I was 18, after which I went to Trinity Laban, which was then just called Laban, to train in contemporary dance."
At Laban, Marina trained for three years, completing her BA degree. She trained mostly in the Graham technique and some Limon technique, named after Martha Graham and Jose Limon, respectively, and both "very different schools of thought". This difference becomes apparent in her practice, later on.
Marina is now also a therapist in Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy. "In Britain, it is very common for dancers involved in contemporary work to be involved in somatic practice. It goes with the territory. You end up covering a huge amount of practice and approaches to the body. I always had a very strong interest in the body, so much that I thought I would one day become an osteopath or something like that. But I ended up choosing craniosacral therapy, which is very different in approach from a medical practice and is more hands on."
Though she found her path to craniosacral therapy through dance, it has very little to do with dance and dancers alone. It is her understanding and increasing interest in the physical body as a dancer which led her here, and it certainly is a plus when she works with those who are from a dancing background for she is able to relate to their physical issues. However, most of those she works with have little or nothing to do with dance.
"They're very different and separate territories, dance and cranio. If I'm engaging in an artistic practice, I will work from the body. So, somatic information is very important. But, in my artistic practice, I have no interest whether I feel good or anyone else feels good. It's what we're doing in terms of art, what we're trying to make, which is of interest to me. Whereas, in therapy, in a one-­to-­one, it has everything to do with how they're feeling physically. When I'm a therapist, I'm just a therapist. My dance is irrelevant here. It certainly informs when I'm treating those who dance, but my therapy is not only for dancers."
I ask if there was any one thing or event that drove her passion for dance and movement through the years, or if she had any theme to which she was more likely to perform than any other.
“Themes and things are of no interest to me. Art practice, however, I’m interested in. I see contemporary dance as an art form. I feel it has a relation to contemporary visual art and other contemporary works. The fact that it's an art form is much more important to me than the fact it's about moving. It just happens to use the body. While I'm very interested in involving movement in my art form, I would not dance about for the sake of movement."
She insists on having no interest in inspirations either. "The whole notion of inspiration is very romantic, with having to sit about waiting for it to drop out of the's all fantasy. I have no interest in that."
"However, from when I was young, I've always been interested in various kinds of art and art forms ­ sculptures, paintings, movement or dancing. I think I've never stopped the inquiry, or that curiosity, around making or thinking about art, trying to unpick someone's work that interested me. So, it's never in isolation. It's a continuum of activity ­ that activity might be going to see someone's work, being in a studio working on something, or might just be somewhere noticing a surrounding ­ and a lot of it has to do with seeing and receiving information. I could sit here and think that I love the light lands on that wall in that way. It's all a bit of a constant awareness and little 
ramblings. Through these ramblings, something might start to surface and then you follow that, and it turns into a work. It gets clarified in the process." 
When she agrees that her dance is covered by the "large umbrella of contemporary dance", I encourage her to provide me her view on how one could and should define contemporary dance. "It's not a form. Its form, instead, emerges from the ideas you have rather than having a form and theme beforehand. It's contemporary in terms of how the work is approached and talked about, more than anything to do with style."
Reminiscing over the struggles of thought process in my dissertation, I asked her opinion on the usage of traditional dance and other movement forms in Indian Contemporary Dance, and whether she felt using those traditional forms in their currently purest known form defeated the purpose of calling it contemporary.
"While I wouldn't want to say that any one approach is not alright, from what I have been witnessing with the residents here, their influences and who they are is in their work but they don't start from any particular form in their making. There's room for many different ways of working. Every country will have a kind of contemporariness that is specific to them, partly because, culturally, you can't help it. You can't deny the cultural influences that emerge in their work. Contemporary work is true to those who start to work differently, without denying them their Indianness."
So, has she, in the past decade or so, drawn upon her ballet and other dance lessons to create her work? "I stopped dancing ballet at the age of 21. I'm now 45, that's a lot of years of not doing ballet. I guess the training is visible in my body, but I don't think I draw upon it now." Does she, then, pick out certain movements from her daily observations and practise them in the studio? "Not at all, it's all about improvisation. It's the practice of just being in the studio, working and improvising."
Does that kind of working then help her create meaning in her work? "I'm not interested in meaning, either," she chuckles. In a developing culture of contemporary work these days, where audiences seek to relate and understand a certain meaning from these performances, how would she then expect her audience to see her performances? 
“I’m interested in the audience liking what they see, yes. But I’m not really bothered if you get some meaning from my performance, and the person next to you gets another meaning.”
There is a break in the conversation as she’s urgently called to help out a girl with a stiff back. I witness Marina in her therapist role; it is as I had imagined Marina the performer to treat her patient – with the intimate knowledge of how the muscles should move and feel against each other. The look on her face is of concentrated concern. Soon, the “patient” is recovering well and Marina changes roles again, back to being the mentor. 
A quick chat with the mentees reveals that Marina is the mentor they all feel fortunate to work with at the final stage of their residency. For each of them, she has managed to mentor them into creating a smooth performance from their chaotic ideas and movements. The difference in dance styles of the mentees did not faze her; rather, she knew how to carry forward each style into representing their ideas as best as they might.
True to her concepts, she even convinced one of the mentees to dress down the performance and focus on movement rather on embellishment.
This interaction with Marina left me with an impression of having met someone who practised, preached as well as went beyond fulfilling her ideals, rather than simply just talking the talk.
Vinita Abraham
Vinita Sonny Abraham is a post-graduate in Performance Studies and has trained in piano and ballet.

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Modi visits Tesla Motors -- Will its E Smart Car make its bow in India?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, in San Jose, California on September 26, 2015.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, in San Jose, California on September 26, 2015.
The Narendra Modi government is committed to promoting alternate fuels and green technologies as part of its long term strategy to ensure sustainable development in keeping with the millennium goals, post 2015 UN development agenda and the latest 2030 Agenda.
So, one should understand the underlying significance of why Mr. Modi is visiting the Tesla factory in San Jose in California, better known for its IT software firms in the Silicon Valley. 
It is apparent that the team that works with Prime Minister Modi has done its home work well on green automobile technology. Mr. Modi is tech savvy and is far ahead of his peer group in his vision for the future. Consider this, Tesla is ushering in a quiet revolution in the United States and elsewhere in green technology . It has got over the problems that a normal battery car usually faces -- space, size, style and speed. 
Usually, battery-operated cars, like Reva, for instance, are known to be small, unconventional in looks , lacking in speed, considered a snail’s pace by most automobile enthusiasts, and not much boot space as the available room is taken by batteries.
But Tesla Motors has disproved all of this – it has the style and elegance of a BMW or an Audi, large boot space, stylish interiors and is an intelligent car, completely controlled by an onboard computer with a 17-inch large screen to view the actions. No wonder it is gaining in popularity not only in the USA but also the world over. They have now a Netherlands facility in Europe.  Don’t be surprised if Modi gets Tesla to open a facility in India and a manufacturing centre in his home state of Gujarat.
If they do, India would be able to solve much of its automobile pollution – the only inhibiting factor is the price as it is upwards of US$ 35,000 for a small car and US$ 123,000 to US$205,000 for the bigger ones (which means in Indian rupee terms it is about Rs 22.75 lakhs excluding duties for the small car and Rs 79.95 lakhs to Rs 1.31 crore for the bigger versions). It’s a stiff price to pay for an E Car.
But, consider this; it’s a one-time price for a car. No gas filling, no petrol/diesel price, no maintenance charge, no servicing charges . It’s the car of the future. 
What made Tesla famous in the world? Look at the pictures of its interiors and its size – it can not only give the latest in the series of BMWs and Audis a run for their money in sheer stunning looks, but has sensational performance for a battery-operated car, say its initial batch of users. It can race upto more than 100 miles or 160 kms an hour in city driving.  
Here is the growth story of Tesla Motors, Inc. It was basically incorporated as an American automotive and energy storage company that designs, manufactures, and sells electric cars, electric vehicle powertrain components, and battery products. 
It’s a public company that trades on the NASDAQ stock exchange under the symbol TSLA. In the first quarter of 2013, Tesla posted profits for the first time in its history, claim its sponsors.  
Tesla Roadster is the first fully electric sports car that attracted global attention. Its second offering was the Model S, a fully electric luxury sedan, and its next two vehicles, the Model X and Model 3, set the trend for its assembly lines.  Global sales of Model S passed the 75,000-unit milestone in June 2015.
Tesla also markets electric powertrain components, including lithium-ion battery packs to automakers including Daimler and Toyota. 
Tesla CEO Elon Musk says he envisions Tesla Motors as an independent automaker, aimed at eventually offering electric cars at prices affordable to the average consumer  Pricing for the Tesla Model 3 is expected to start at US$35,000 before any government incentives and deliveries are expected to begin by 2017.
In 2015, Tesla announced the Powerwall, a battery product for home use. 
Tesla Motors is named after the electrical engineer and physicist Nikola Tesla. The Tesla Roadster uses an AC motor descended directly from Tesla's original 1882 design. 
The Tesla Roadster, the company's first vehicle, is the first production automobile to use lithium-ion battery cells and the first production EV with a range greater than 200 miles (320 km) per charge.
Between 2008 and March 2012, Tesla sold more than 2,250 Roadsters in 31 countries. Tesla stopped taking orders for the Roadster in the U.S. market in August 2011.It unveiled the Tesla Model S all-electric sedan on March 26, 2009. In December 2012, 
Tesla employed almost 3,000 full-time employees. By January 2014, this number had grown to 6,000 employees. 
Tesla Motors was incorporated in July 2003 by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning who financed the company until the Series A round of funding.  Both men played active roles in the company's early development prior to Elon Musk's involvement.
Musk led the Series A round of investment in February 2004, joining Tesla's Board of Directors as its Chairman. Tesla's primary goal was to commercialize electric vehicles, starting with a premium sports car aimed at early adopters and then moving as rapidly as possible into more mainstream vehicles, including sedans and affordable compacts. 
Musk took an active role within the company and oversaw Roadster product design at a detailed level, but was not deeply involved in day-to-day business operations; Eberhard acknowledged that Musk was the person who insisted from the beginning on a carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer body and he led design of components ranging from the power electronics module to the headlamps and other styling. In addition to his daily operational roles, Musk was the controlling investor in Tesla from the first financing round, funding the large majority of the Series A capital investment round of US$7.5 million with personal funds.
Musk maintained, since his induction into the company, that Tesla's long-term strategic goal was to create affordable mass market electric vehicles. He  received the Global Green 2006 product design award and the 2007 Index Design award for his design of the Tesla Roadster. 
Musk's Series A round included Compass Technology Partners and SDL Ventures, as well as many private investors. Musk later led Tesla Motors' Series B, US$13 million, investment round that added Valor Equity Partners to the funding team. He co-led the 
third,US$40 million round in May 2006 along with Technology Partners. Tesla's third round included investment from prominent entrepreneurs including Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, former eBay President Jeff Skoll, Hyatt heir Nick Pritzker and added the VC firms Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Capricorn Management and The Bay Area Equity Fund managed by JPMorgan Chase. The fourth round in May 2007 added another US$45 million and brought the total investments to over US$105 million through private financing.
By January 2009, Tesla had raised US$187 million and delivered 147 cars. Musk had contributed US$70 million of his own money to the company. On May 19, 2009, Germany's Daimler AG, maker of Mercedes-Benz, acquired an equity stake of less than 10% of Tesla for a reported US$50 million. In July 2009, Daimler announced that Abu Dhabi's Aabar Investments bought 40% of Daimler's interest in Tesla. 
In June 2009 Tesla was approved to receive US$465 million in interest-bearing loans from the United States Department of Energy. The funding, part of the US$8 billion Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program, supports engineering and production of the Model S sedan, as well as the development of commercial powertrain technology. 
Battery Technology
Unlike other automakers, Tesla does not use single-purpose, larger format cells. Tesla uses thousands of lithium-ion 18650 commodity cells. 18650 cells are small, cylindrical battery cells, which are usually found in laptops and other consumer electronics devices. Tesla Motors uses a unique version of these cells, designed to be cheaper to manufacture and to be lighter than the standard cells. The cost and weight savings were made by removing some safety features which, according to Tesla Motors, are redundant because of the advanced thermal management system and a protective intumescent chemical in the battery pack. This chemical is intended to prevent battery fires. Currently Panasonic, a Tesla Motors investor, is the sole supplier of the 
battery cells for the car company.
Tesla Motors may have the lowest rates for electric car batteries; the estimated battery costs for Tesla Motors is around US$200 per kWh. Currently, Tesla Motors charges US$10,000 more for the 85 kWh battery than the 60 kWh battery, or US$400 per kWh. At US$200 per kWh, the battery in the 60 kWh Model S would cost US$12,000, while the 85 kWh battery would cost US$17,000. The price increase is closer to US$ 8,000, as supercharging is included in the higher price. It is a US$ 2,000 option for the 60 kWh version.
In the Model S, Tesla Motors integrated the battery pack into the floor of the vehicle, unlike in the Roadster, which had the battery pack behind the seats. 
Because the battery is integrated into the floor of the Model S, no interior space is lost for batteries, unlike in other electric vehicles, which often lose trunk space or interior space to batteries. The location of the battery pack and the lower ride of the Model S does put the battery at a higher risk of being damaged by road debris or an impact. 
To protect the battery pack, the Model S has 0.25 in (6 mm) aluminium-alloy armor plate. The battery pack's location allows for quick battery swapping. A battery swap can take as little as 90 seconds in the Model S. Tesla's first battery swap station is located at Harris Ranch, California, and is operational as of December 22, 2014.
T. N. Ashok
T. N. Ashok is a freelance journalist based out of Delhi, writing on finance, economics, and commerce. Automobiles are a passion with him and he writes extensively on the latest trends in the industry.
A former Economics Editor with wire service Press Trust of India (PTI) and contributor to leading economic journals and newspapers, he has travelled widely. He has also done a brief stint as a corporate communications professional with leading multi-nationals.

Kerala priest's short stories offer fascinating insight into young minds

Rev. Kurien George
Rev. Kurien George
Having been immersed in academic concerns for a while now, I was not able to pay attention to the little joys of life like reading for pleasure. One of the first books I read after having ploughed through heavy, academic texts was the collection of short stories, "Thank You, Dear Snake!" by Ben Koryun.
Ben Koryun is the pen name of Rev. Kurien George, a priest and psychologist with the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of India. Koryun, he says, is a reference to his Armenian ancestry. This is the Reverend's second book, the first being a collection of poems called "Echoes from Life", published in 1996 under his official name, 
Having read "Echoes from Life" years ago, as a young kid, I looked forward to what he had to offer with his second book. What ensued was a fascinating journey.
Beginning with the first story, titled "Thank You, Dear Snake!", we are given a glimpse into the childlike mind of Balan and his adventures with his companions. The story addresses the issues a young boy faces when thrust into a world where his judgement and wit are his only saviours when it comes to peer pressure. 
Introducing Balan as the recurring protagonist in the stories that follow, we can see that they have a certain pattern of coursing through the boy's growing up years, from the earliest memories of his childhood onwards. We are faced with several instances of events a boy might face while growing up, be it the little adventures that result in triumph or lessons in life, or major events like the loss of a friend to sickness. Some stories also provide the boy's point of view towards adult life and activities, focussing on those around him. In doing so, Rev. Kurien brings in the new and not necessarily pleasant experiences of the young ones while interacting with adults.
However, not all stories revolve around Balan and his boyish feats.
Several stories that form an integral part of the book are anecdotes from the perspectives of several other people, who do not feature pointedly in Balan's life at all. The nature of these stories range from humorous to thought-provoking, each of them capable of standing on its own.
Rev. Kurien finds his inspiration in several instances from his growing up years, as well as in his experiences from within the seminary where he trained to be a priest.  
We must take cognizance of the writer's history, if we are to comprehend the depth of a story - what about the story makes it believable, and how does the writer provide that unmistakeable tone of truth? In Rev. Kurien's case, as is wont with several other great writers, the stories in this collection are a window opening into his past, not without the pinch of salt for the sake of the readers.
Rev. Kurien was born in 1953. He came to priesthood late in life. After obtaining a degree in Zoology, Rev. Kurien trained to be a chartered accountant, and also worked as an accountant in firms in Saudi Arabia and Delhi. 
Towards the late 1980s, he pursued a degree in Divinity, after which he then broadened his focus to psychology and counselling. As an ordained minister with the Church, his responsibilities varied and took into account his psychology training. Although he was the vicar of parishes in Mumbai and Kerala, his main contribution to the Church has been in the form of reformation and rehabilitation projects for different sections of society. 
Amongst the most notable of his contributions include his reformation and rehabilitation project for the children of sex-workers, as well as their mothers, especially those infected with HIV, in an initiative called Navjeevan in Mumbai.
Well-liked and fine at oratory, he has also been popular as the students' chaplain for dioceses in India as well as North America.
Rev. Kurien's recent work involves the rehabilitation of those with mental illnesses, while also providing counselling for all kinds of people, including those with learning disabilities. He has provided counselling for de-addiction centres, as well as with a Half-way Home in Kerala.
His areas of special interest are, unsurprisingly, Rehabilitation Psychology and the neurological understandings of psychology. With these interests and approach to the various programmes in Kerala and Mumbai, he has helped hundreds of people find a new and firm footing.
From the style of writing, it becomes clear that the stories are a set of narratives that form a large part of personal experience as well as second-hand experience from being a psychologist. His experience as a psychologist can also be seen from the way the stories invoke introspection and understanding towards the various characters, as if to almost share with us the seeds of therapeutic knowledge from the stories of this book. 
This has been executed exceptionally well, and it proves that the collection of short stories, while not all suitable for the very young minds, are perfect for those who feel like they need a walk through their lifetime along with reminding them of the little things that make them who they are today.
The collection stands out for its eclectic selection of stories which are not all connected by a singular theme, but are connected by the reality one faces in every day situations. While situated mainly in Mumbai (then, Bombay) and Delhi, the stories have a unique quality of universality with the nature of human interaction that has been penned down.
Rev. Kurien's love for writing stems from his fondness of literature which was cultivated while he grew up reading the classics. From each of those, he holds dear the essence of great story-telling - the opening out of minds towards the innocence and thrill that lies within the "non-descript" lives of people, and the discovery of new and meaningful within the ordinary.
If one were to find a purpose for the book in today's society, it would be instrumental in understanding the psyche of the child which extends to the domain of adult behaviour through the child's eyes. Episodes of trauma and misunderstanding between an adult and a child are not uncommon in any part of the world, and this book opens another path towards gaining a better footing in tackling a child's issues as a responsible adult.
Rev. Kurien has carefully written and put together these stories over extensive years of conception and curation, keeping in mind that the world today has a need for a different kind of story-telling - a story-telling with a purpose to further human relations and interactions positively. It would be limiting to assume an entertaining perspective of the stories that provide a childlike insight to the world, but it does much more than just entertain. It reminds the reader of a time when they went through similar issues, bringing them closer to a certain closure and justice for themselves.
It's a must read for anyone and everyone, and is available to buy online on Flipkart, Amazon and Google Play, amongst other retailers, in paperback, hard cover, and e-book/Kindle editions. 
Vinita Abraham
Vinita Sonny Abraham is a post-graduate in Performance Studies and has trained in piano and ballet.

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Vani Kaushal makes a mark with debut novel

Vani Kaushal
Vani Kaushal
On a bright and cheerful Saturday morning, I am headed to Connaught Place, the heart of Delhi, to meet Vani Kaushal, so far known to me as the author of a book with the intriguing title, The Recession Groom.
I have been fortunate enough to read the book -- Vani's first, and I am looking forward to the meeting. The book portrays a Punjabi boy, Parshuraman Joshi, living the enviable NRI life as an IT consultant in Canada, at the ripe-for-marriage age of 27 years. 
As is with any Indian boy ready to get married, he has a posse of relatives, in both Chandigarh as well as San Francisco, all eager to pitch in with their best in the enjoyable task of getting their beloved boy married off. Ranging from the protective elder sister and youthful-minded grandmother to the self-assured and loud aunt, each of them has several ideas on the ideal bride and wedding. Meanwhile, Parshuraman tries to keep up with their grandiose plans as he juggles his extremely busy work schedule with the demands imposed upon him by the family.
Then, suddenly, all plans are in total disarray when Parshuraman loses his job in the recession of 2008. The job having been the only thing that kept attracting the "right" sort of brides, he goes in a flash from being the hot bachelor on the Indian marriage market to the man to whom no father wants his daughter to be married. It doesn't get easier when his colleague, the white-therefore-off-limits Jennifer, confesses her undying love for him. 
Resorting to any job available to him, irrespective of the respectability it offers an Indian boy, Parshuraman matures almost overnight into the man who stands up for what is right for himself. After a series of incidents, hilarious and serious both, Parshuraman discovers himself and what he needs and wants in life, and seeks them out with little fear. The book offers an unusual yet happy ending, leaving the reader unsettled with a looming uncertainty.
The novel has me intrigued thoroughly. A refreshing change from the stories flooding the popular Indian fiction market, it has me questioning the choices Vani made while writing the story.
I walk into Oxford Bookstore, in the Outer Circle of Connaught Place. Having been in touch with her over the telephone for a week and also having read about her, I have made acquaintance with a friendly sounding and pretty looking Vani. I find her in the innermost room of the bookstore, a space set aside by the good folks at Oxford for book launches and readings, poring over a few papers with another lady. At first glance, I see a smartly dressed woman sitting with an easy elegance, chatting professionally with the lady. Must be the business journalist in her, I think to myself. I make my presence known to her, and I'm rewarded with a warm greeting and a request to make acquaintance with her friend while she wraps up the task at hand.
A few minutes later, Vani approaches and settles herself next to me, and a friendly chat ensues. Her younger brother, Rahul, approaches and we are introduced. He assumes the responsibility of her event manager with little difficulty. Clearly, Vani has her family support throughout the endeavour - it is a collective front, as is expected from the author of a family-oriented novel. 
A little while into the chat, I bring the conversation to her growing up years. Brought up in Chandigarh, Vani, like most Indian children, was faced with the daunting dilemma of choosing a career. A dilemma, since the conventional routes of medicine and engineering were of no interest to her, which found her leaning towards humanities. She pursued Economics at both undergraduate and post-graduate levels while studying journalism on the side. A student of Bhavan Vidyalaya and Panjab University, Vani excelled academically, going on to top the university and winning a gold medal. 
Having studied journalism as well as Economics, it became a natural choice to make a career in business journalism. Vani went on to work with Financial Express, Chandigarh and the Times of India, Delhi, till she felt a calling to write more than the compact articles she was turning out for the paper.
"Journalism became the point where I began to gravitate towards writing more. I wanted to write better stories; I could do better than a 500-word article," she said.
A novel felt like the obvious progression, and she began writing drafts of a chick-lit story. Unhappy with the results and lack of energy in the story to make it last a full-length novel, she changed track and pursued an MBA at Kingston University, London. Expecting several dreamy job offers on completing her MBA, Vani was, however, faced with a brutal reality as she graduated around the time of the global recession of 2008. With several companies on a hiring freeze, she taught at a college in London with the MBA department, as well as in Mohali.
Driven to write about the recession making a huge difference to one Indian family, out of the millions affected across the world, Vani began weaving and writing her story as she taught. "I could see my friends around me taking up jobs they would rather not do at all, and buying groceries of lower quality than they were used to consuming under normal circumstances. I wanted to write about this, from a perspective of an Indian. I wanted to write about the macro changes in the big world affecting the little world, where the Indian family sees their child in a plush international job and cannot wait for him or her to settle down. The job makes the person much more valuable to prospective grooms and brides, so what happens when this job is suddenly taken away?" 
Catching the knowing look in my eyes, she reaffirms that this is a story that is sure to resonate with millions of Indians across the world, and equally fascinate the rest who are privy to this side of the Indian family for the first time.
Writing out her first book took as long as two years, after which she was introduced to yet another new - getting published. Upon receiving several rejections, she enlisted the assistance of international editors and writers to shape her piece to be better suited for the tastes and sensibilities of the English reader across the world. Finally, she submitted a much revised draft to various publishers. This time, she was presented with an offer within a week of submitting - Leadstart Publishing had decided to publish her book.
For Vani, the responsibility of getting the book published did not end there. She continued to revise various passages, especially the ending.
She was also presented with a completely unfamiliar task of publicity - she had to go out there and create an image and presence in the terrifyingly large world of new authors. "Around 100,000 books are published every year in India alone. It was a daunting task to make myself visible amongst them," she said.
As a comfortable loner, this was probably the harder part of publishing her book. However, attesting to her stereotypical Punjabi nature, she accomplished the task and made her presence known with little difficulty.
Sipping on masala chai, we allow our conversation to take us away from the book altogether, and I find her an easy conversationalist.
Asked whether it was a conscious decision to write in the style of the popular Indian romantic ­comedy fiction, Vani hesitates slightly before saying that, though she would have loved to write fantasy and crime fiction, her maiden book is based on what she knows and is comfortable with - something that is a jumpstart for any first-time novelist.
However, she does intend to write fantasy and crime next. "I have my phone on my person all the time. I keep getting ideas of what to write next, and I keep saving it as little notes on my phone as and when they come to me. I already have an idea for the sequels - two of them - to the Recession Groom, as well as for a crime fiction novel." 
She brings up her digital column on the Huffington Post, where she writes regularly on the mistakes one should avoid while writing. True to her nature of collecting ideas, she dispelled skepticism from friends about being able to find 100 mistakes while writing - the column is set for a series of 100 notes on the mistakes of writing - and collected close to 80 mistakes she was aware of within the first night of brainstorming.
Though desirous of writing beyond a singular genre, she also states that while she does adore authors such as George R. R. Martin, she would not want to emulate him or anyone else in writing stories that are unfamiliar to her own life. 
"I would rather inject a comfortable note of what I know in a healthy mix of said genre, and make a completely new storyline, than stick to what fantasy has always been written like," she says as she laughs at the thought of a Punjabi protagonist in a fantasy novel. "As a writer, at the end of the day, I want to be known for my own kind of writing, not for adopting someone else's writing. It should be as imaginative as theirs, but fresh and from my own perspective."
Speaking about the creation of her worlds in her stories, "It is a process of stepping out of my comfort zone, and figuring out individual characters from within their shoes. I run it past several people known and unknown to me to understand if I have truly captured the sense of the character I am aiming for - whether they are believable people, and whether they are situated in believable places. However, in doing so, I was aware of not completely fulfilling this criterion in the Recession Groom since I became more mindful of making the book suited for international tastes and appeal, apart from cutting down on descriptive notes in order to stick with the word limits."
Moving to a subject that plagues all first-time writers, I ask her how much she criticized her own words and whether she ended up trashing her work more than going forward? 
She agreed that this is an issue that affected her.
"It is hard today to make a mark in this industry, unless you have the right promotions and your story and writing are absolutely wonderful. While writing my first book, I felt my first draft was ready to be published. It was only after I faced a few rejections from publishing houses that I began to critically look at my work and rewrite. I sought the help of international editors as well. Each dialogue has been worked on for at least two days, and finally after two years and many drafts later, I felt I was bringing out the perfect script," she said.
The Recession Groom faced multiple revisions even after it was accepted for a publishing contract, and Vani felt the ending deserved a less-than-cinematic and more intriguing finish to what she began to view as the first to a series of books.
So, at what point was she satisfied with her book, and when did she leave the draft to its final words? "I had difficulty in accepting the draft was perfect, and felt a compulsion to rework the writing over and over again. It becomes easier with the second book onwards, as you begin to write with a critical eye, always assuming what the reader is going to see when they read what you write, and progressing positively - as opposed to tearing down something you've written out completely and then editing that to pieces. I have become a little more independent in this respect, not constantly requiring the need of an outsider perspective. The first time my draft was sent for analysis, the editor trashed more than half of what I'd written, citing that as nonsense. I cried and felt she was a horrible person. Now, I'm a far more evolved writer than when I began, for knowing better what is good and internationally saleable writing."
As a first-time writer, did she ever feel that her writing should have a particular serious literature style to it, or did she aim for what the readers would connect with popularly? "Neither. I have always wanted to write the way I feel and think, and that is exactly what I have done. I feel like I am an entertaining person, and I want to write entertaining books. People have enough seriousness going on in their lives. I would rather be true to who I am, and write in a lighter vein."
Carrying forward this discussion in the subsequent Talk with the Author session at the bookstore, Vani maintains an image that appears true to herself. Effortlessly moving from a personal conversation to a public chat, Vani might be the shy girl from Chandigarh, but she has definitely made her mark as a likeable and popular debutante author. 
From penning down her penchant for entertainment for contemporary readers of Indian fiction, she has gone on to create a niche for herself and we will hopefully read many more delightful books from her.
Vinita Abraham
Vinita Sonny Abraham is a post-graduate student of Performance Studies at the Ambedkar University, Delhi. She has trained in piano and ballet. 

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I Think I Need A Wife!

Preparing for a small party at home --- all in a day's work for a wife.
Preparing for a small party at home --- all in a day's work for a wife.
"If I am not misunderstood..............I think I need a wife!”
That was my response to a question thrown at me at a recent interaction. What is the one thing that you would ever want in life?
I thought for a moment and realised I had everything. I had a beautiful house, a home, a loving husband, two wonderful children, an absolutely handsome golden retriever, a garden, enough money, everything was so perfect. I had nothing to wish for, nothing to complain about. No one else could replace anything that I had.  
I thought for a while. There is something, probably. Yes! I need a wife.
Having looked all around me, interacting with different women, they all had one thing in common. They took a sabbatical and managed their home. Some of them were doctors, lawyers, lecturers, all from different professions. What is it that made them give up their dreams of being independent and career-oriented? 
It was the love they had for their man and children. They didn’t want a member in their home to feel lost. So many ‘what if’ situations to take care of. No one else could handle them better than her.
6. 15 am-  wake up time. Keep milk on stove, boil water, boil eggs, leave the dog, get the newspaper, switch off the light outside, make coffee for husband, milk for kids, wake them up, keep reminding them to get ready, see them off (did you take the water bottle?), see off husband (have you taken the wallet, mobile, office keys, office id?). Close the gate and wave with a smile ….Thank God! The house is all mine. 
What do I do? Tidy up the house, dusting, water the plants, sort out clothes for ironing and wash, put clothes for wash, hang out the clothes, make dinner, an evening snack, finish off all my freelance projects for an hour or two, bathe, and do I hear the doorbell??? 
Well! The kids are back. Keep your shoes on the rack, change, wash up, have your snack, they either go to play or they go for a class. Light the lamp. Sit for a while enjoying the evening peace for half an hour (what’s running through my mind is what’s left to be done), go back to the freelance work, kids are back, sit with them with their studies and the doorbell rings again! 
Husband is back!…….dinner time, wash the vessels, keep all arranged for the morning, switch of lights, kiss kids good night and collapse.
Feeling stressed out reading this, or is it boring? Well! That’s the life of a wife.
Only a wife can multitask. While you are away, she takes care of every aspect of your home. When you return, you have a tidy home, warm home cooked food (with the secret ingredient- Love), kids will be taken care of and the most important fact - She is just there! ................ so guys! I think I NEED A WIFE! 
This statement triggered several questions in the minds of men we know. Was I leaving my husband? Whereas, others thought, Wow! Lovely idea. The lucky guy would have two wives!  Obviously, Men will be Men! 
My thought was more or less based on the depth of the person she is.  I need to experience the same assurance and care. I want to give her abundant love for just being there for me and setting things right. And trust me! I would be so possessive of my wife. 
When other husbands jokingly made the statement, that every man would want a wife, an interesting thought went through my mind. A husband would never think he needs a husband...because a wife offers so much support to the family whereas a husband increases the work load (He would never want a replica of himself, would he?).
A wife means so much. She is the most efficient person, so caring and definitely with an amazing presence of mind to handle difficult situations. She with the ability to multi-task, the only thing she would probably need was to be like an octopus. At times, a doctor, a plumber, an electrician, the finance controller, a chef, takes care of the housekeeping, a motivator, a counsellor, a consultant, and several others.
I have been on both sides of the world. The working woman and a home maker. Either ways, I managed the home. With growing responsibilities, a woman has to make her choices - a choice between responsibilities and self-growth. 
As husband and wife, the decisions are made together. So much thought goes into the discussion.  Well, is there a choice? It takes two people to discuss for hours and come up with the obvious conclusion -  the woman stays home.
I never think it is a male dominated world, the fact is men think they should dominate and women too think men dominate. But we need to understand that we depend on each other, one's survival depends on the other's existence. So look after each other, acknowledge each other, respect each other, and consider each other. Society puts responsibilities and duties into compartments, this duty is for a man and that for woman. Why not help each other so each individual lives life to the fullest?
A wife has no personal gain other than the happiness to see her husband and children return to a comfortable home. 
Come to think of it,  men are really lucky. As men relate to technology, let me put it this way: in a wife they have several applications to set their world right and more efficient. The one person in their life with several features. Yes, there are times when there could be a virus attack and the system crashes, but, trust me, the anti- virus is probably a simple solution -- a hug and a question, “ How was your day?” 
So, "If I am not misunderstood..............I think I need a wife to just be there for me!” 
Anita Peter
Anita Peter
Anita Peter is a corporate trainer by profession and a dancer and actress by passion. She has acted in two Malayalam films, several Malayalam and Tamil television serials and in plays. She has compered shows and programmes and modelled for several print ads and television commercials for popular brands. She was among the top 10 finalists of the Haier Gladrags Mrs India 2011.
She is an active member of a non-profit dance school in Bangalore that promotes art and culture. She is also a certified grade "B" artist by Doordarshan Kendra for Mohiniyattam and has performed in several dance festivals and events.  Among other things, she won the Kerala State Championship in Artistic and Figure Roller Skating. She is currently based in Hyderabad.

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Life with Lions

Sher, Singh, Babbar, Cheetah etc were the first, middle or family names of many of my colleagues while I was posted in New Delhi many years ago.
These names meant lion. Well, Cheetah may not exactly mean lion but it also belonged to a similar species.  There were a number of them in the office like Ram Singh, Sher Singh, Kushal Singh, Darshan Singh Arora, Kuldip Singh Kapur, Bikram Singh Cheetah, Satish Babbar and so on.  In addition, we also had a South Indian gentleman- Narasimhan or “Human Lion”.  I was, thus, virtually surrounded by lions in the office.
As is normal with all human beings, these people also were different from one another in many ways.  One was a do-gooder while another, a nasty schemer.  One was taciturn and reserved while another was a wind-bag.  One was gentlemanly and polished while another was crude and boorish.  Some were good workers while quite a few others, shirkers.  
One was a master of vulgar expletives, especially those two nasty ones in Hindi and Punjabi which if hurled at a person accused him of having illicit affinity with his mother or sister, as the case may be.  If he was happy or unhappy he would let out one; if he was angry or pleased, one would come out of his mouth. I found that he could not utter a single sentence without the prefix and suffix of expletives. To my utter surprise I found that an expletive was a must for him even while referring to himself!
Another person was looked at with awe by all. This chap carried very expensive foreign cigarettes with him always.  Smuggled foreign brands like State Express 555 or Dunhill were available at some places in Delhi those days in the early 1970s but these were very costly and hence only the very affluent could afford them.  But here was a clerk in possession of these all the time It was a mystery for all as to how he could afford these as he was known to hail from a very modest background. 
The secret was out one day - the office sweeper got a stub from his ash tray and it was of the cheap Charminar!  Only the packets were foreign in which he stuffed the local ones!!
Mr. Cheetah would never come to office on time.  Our office started at 10 am and this guy would land up only around 10.20 or 10.30 everyday.  All sorts of methods like persuasion, friendly advice, warnings and threat of disciplinary action were tried to make him punctual.  Nothing worked and the office was in a dilemma as he was a very good and responsible worker.  His output was almost double that of others even after the late arrivals and the quality of work, excellent.  As a result, there was tremendous goodwill for him and nobody wanted to take any extreme step.  
Then a proposal came up that, in the summer months of April to June when the heat becomes unbearable in Delhi, the office timings may be changed from 0800 to 1500 hours so that people can reach early before the high heat and they could leave early for rest.  It was welcomed by most of the people and then came the issue of Mr. Cheetah. How can this fellow who cannot reach even by 1000 hours be made to come by 0800 hours? The senior managers called him and told him about the proposal and they thought he would express his difficulty.  To their utter surprise he readily agreed and said “By all means you change the timing to 0800 hours sirs - I shall reach by 0830 hours"!
Life in the company of these people had many interesting asides and experiences.  One day a customer walked into our office and the receptionist asked him to meet Ram Singh for his work.  Ram Singh, after listening to him directed him to Cheetah.  Cheetah heard him carefully and told him that the job has to be done by Bubber who in turn sent him to Narasimhan.  He told him to go to Sher Singh.  By now the customer, totally exasperated, yelled “Hey Bhagwan! Mein kis jungle me gus gaya?” (Oh God! In which jungle have I landed up!)
My seat was the second one from the main entrance to our office and the first table was occupied by another “lion” Prem Singh.  He was quite polished and had good manners.  Like me, he also used to come at least half an hour before the start of office hours.  No wonder we started developing a friendship.  Noticing this, another colleague privately warned me.  “Be very careful and wary of this fellow.  He may look polished and sophisticated but he is a crook.  He can fool anybody and one cannot comprehend what he schemes.  You just keep a watch on how he deals with his visitors.  As soon as someone comes he will yell out to the canteen boy to bring tea urgently.  The visitor would be waiting for the tea and in between he will repeat his orders.  Finally, after waiting for long, the visitor would leave in disgust, without the tea.  This fellow has a code with the canteen boy- if he asks for urgent tea, it was not to be brought at all!  The poor visitor would never know it! If he really wanted tea to be brought, the adjective ‘Urgent’ would not be used.”
I noticed that he dealt with most of the visitors this way but even then I was not prepared to believe that there was any diabolic scheme in this as I was impressed by his manners.  If he did not want to spend his money on some strangers, what is wrong with that after all, I thought.  Then one morning I realised the significance of the warning I got.
We had one senior colleague Mr. Pritam Singh, who was very honest and straightforward but strict with everyone.  He would not tolerate any nonsense from anybody, especially on work matters. Earning his ire was easy and he was quite rough with people. As a result he had more detractors than friends in the office.
One morning, as usual Prem Singh and I were in the office early and a visitor turned up for him.  He narrated the purpose of his visit - he had received a marriage proposal for his son with the daughter of Mr. Pritam Singh.  The visitor had a friend who knew Prem Singh well.  He had advised the person to meet Prem Singh to enquire about Mr. Pritam Singh and his standing in society, before proceeding further with the proposal.
Prem Singh was all sweetness as he offered the visitor a chair.  He then eulogised their common friend and as usual, ordered “urgent tea” and then pretended to be a little busy.  By then other colleagues started slowly walking into the office.  Prem Singh stopped a known denigrator of Mr. Pritam Singh and asked in the sweetest manner “Do you know what time Pritam Sahib is coming to office today?”-  he uttered “Pritam Sahib” in the most deferential manner.  
“Whose name have you taken early in the morning?!  You have spoiled my day by uttering the name of this wretch as I enter the office," was the angry retort he got.
People were still walking in and Prem Singh saw to it that he picked and chose the worst slanderers of Pritam Singh to put some such innocuous questions about him and get nasty retorts.  In between the canteen boy was regularly reminded about the “urgent tea” which remained as elusive as ever.
Then walked in the expletive master.  Prem Singh put a similar question to him and what followed was an explosion of obscenities of all varieties- ancient and modern, rustic and refined, out-dated and latest, in Hindi, Punjabi and English!  The visitor, who was already feeling quite uncomfortable listening to the categorical castigations the name Pritam Singh would attract, had enough with the last round.  He made a quick exit and there ended the marriage proposal.  I could now realise how cunning Prem Singh was.  He did not say anything ill of Pritam Singh - in fact he was all reverence when uttering the name.  Yet he could totally demolish this honest, upright man before his prospective in-law.   I became very careful with him thereafter.
Now, almost 45 years later, when I look back or rather ruminate, life those days was very enjoyable. I have had the occasion to work in many places but life with these lions was the most interesting for the sheer mirth, fun and variety of experiences.
J Chacko
J Chacko
J Chacko served in different parts of India and abroad for 33 years as an executive in the general insurance industry. He took voluntary retirement in 2004 and has settled down in Kochi, Kerala, where he spends time reading, writing, watching films, travelling and so on. Interested in history, finance and humour. He can be contacted at 

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AICTE's CMAT opens up many options for MBA aspirants

File photo of students at a business school
File photo of students at a business school
Common Management Admission Test (CMAT) is an important management entrance test conducted by All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) for admission to MBA programs being offered by Colleges and Departments under State universities in 13 states of Chhattisgarh, Goa, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Nagaland, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.
Conducted twice a year, CMAT this year will be held during a five-day test window from February 20 to 24. Candidates are allowed to improve their scores through re-tests and better scores are taken into account. The results are expected on March 14, 2014.
Importance of CMAT
CMAT is a prominent entrance examination along the lines of CAT and XAT. Over 400 good business schools in India accept CMAT scores for admissions. Over 100,000 candidates will sit for the ensuing CMAT. MBA aspirants who did not fare well in the other two examinations can grab the opportunity with hard work and get into a good business school.
Exam Pattern
CMAT, considered easier than CAT or XAT, is an online computer based test comprising 100 multiple choice questions to be solved in 180 minutes. The test is divided in 4 sections and each section has 25 questions. The sections are Quantitative Techniques and Data Interpretation; Logical Reasoning; Language Comprehension; and General Awareness.
The examination allows students to attempt any question from any section till the test is over. While every correct answer gets four marks, each incorrect mark gets one negative mark.
Important Topics
Quantitative Aptitude and Data Interpretation: Questions in this section are usually single and are not based on sets. While topics like tables and pie charts in data interpretation section require basic calculation skills, topics from which most of the questions appear in quantitative aptitude are arithmetic (ratios, mixtures, work, averages, profit and loss, basic statistics etc), number properties, probability and counting principles with one or two odd questions from geometry and derivatives (i.e. maxima –minima).
Logical Reasoning: This section is a mix of topics from arrangements like linear, seating, sequencing and arranging with conditions to coding. The other questions are based on statement--conclusion, logical puzzle, numerical puzzle, Venn diagram, true or false statements, visual reasoning. The basic preparatory tip for Logical Reasoning is to attempt as many practice exercises as possible using basic logical instinct.
Language Comprehension: Questions like error correction in sentences, fill in blanks may be based on core grammar concepts like Usage of Articles, Non-finites, Dangling modifiers, Nouns, Pronouns (especially relative Pronouns), Adjectives, Adverbs, Prepositions, Spellings, Usage of punctuation, Verbs, Syntax, Subject-verb Agreement, Tenses, Conditional and Unreal past. The vocabulary questions consist of synonyms and antonyms; fill in the blanks, idioms. Use flash cards for synonyms-antonyms, one word substitution, phrasal verbs, idioms.
There are short jumbled paragraphs, comprising four to five sentences. Another question can be a statement with idiomatic expression and the correct meaning of the same is to be selected from the given options. Passage based questions can also be expected in English language. Reading comprehension passages are not very long. Other questions in this section are based on words or phrases. Difficulty level is moderate.
General Awareness: For the preparation purposes this section can be divided in three parts with equal weightage for each part. Conventional General Knowledge (GK) available in books; Current GK-based on current reading of newspapers and periodicals; Business and Economics GK - for example changes in Fiscal and Monetary Policy, CRR, Repo Rate, Devaluation and up valuation of Rupee. Please remember current GK - whether Business, National and International has an on-going preparation method with extensive newspaper reading to stay updated.
Prepare Well To Score 
You can prepare well in the next few weeks by following the quick tips below:
Use Flash Cards with words to be learnt. Read editorials in newspapers every day. Pick out difficult words in them and check out in the dictionary to understand the context. This use in context will become the part of your memory.
While answering the questions, you may go in for elimination round to zero in on the right answer option.
Try to attempt maximum number of questions on general awareness as they test your memory. There is no use wasting time on guessing the unknown. It won’t help.
CMAT provides the facility of navigating through the entire test paper and answer options from any section. However, you need to qualify in all the 4 sections. Take my advice and manage the time and be balanced. In case you answer three sections and leave one section, you may not qualify for final admission round despite scoring high. Take note of that.
Important Tip 
You may stop preparing GK questions a fortnight ahead of the forthcoming examination as the test paper is usually set about a fortnight in advance. However, continue revising whatever you have learnt.
Continue practicing multiple option type of questions in Verbal Ability, Quantitative and Data Interpretation, Logical reasoning till one day prior to the examination. Revision of GK questions should continue. Attempt and analyse the mistakes that you tend to make in mock tests. Keep your confidence level high. 
S K Agarwal
S K Agarwal

S K Agarwal is Vice President--Learning at and author of ‘Build your Basics First’, a comprehensive book on Verbal Ability for CAT/XAT.




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Our Tryst with the Queen of the Hills

Queen of the Hills, Summer Capital are some of the lovely epithets that come to mind when you think of Shimla, the capital of Himachal Pradesh, which was our destination for a short holiday recently.
We had booked our rooms well in advance and got them for the period that bridged the post-monsoon and early winter. Diwali was over and done with for the year and Delhi suddenly started feeling chilly. It had turned cold as if on cue. It was a lot warmer at this time last year and for many years before that.
This only meant one thing, if Delhi was this cold, Shimla would be at least 5 degrees colder, we calculated. This entailed detailed stock taking of woollens and buying new ones too. One really should not take the cold for granted however much one would like to and however much anyone else tells you. Be prepared, that was the motto.

Reading up on Shimla and its tourist attractions was the next thing to do. Lots of friends piped in with their experiences and must-do things and must-avoid things. A confusing list that was luckily not jotted down. I can quite imagine the vigourously conflicting opinions that such a list would have produced. So, we just let Shimla happen to us, naturally and without any prejudice.
As far as getting to Shimla is concerned, there are many options. There are comfortable overnight bus services from Delhi. If you wish to travel by train, a ride on the Kalka-Shimla Railway - a UNESCO World Heritage site -- would be a great experience. Travelling on the narrow gauge section would give you some breathtaking views of the hills. One can travel to Kalka by broad gauge trains from Delhi and other places. Once the train leaves Kalka, it begins its climb and offers a panoramic view of the mountains all along, passing through Dharampur, Solan, Kandaghat, Taradevi and Barog. The route has 102 tunnels and more than 800 bridges, mostly viaducts with multi-arched galleries. On our way to Shimla, we did see the tracks criss-crossing the road and in many places hugging the cliff face through the mountains and out of them. Quite an interesting sight!
The Kalka-Shimla train takes about five hours to cover 96 km, and if you think that is too long, you can choose to take a taxi from Kalka, if you arrive by train there, or from Chandigarh, which you can reach by train or air.
Shimla has an airport, too, at Jubbarhatti, 22 km from town but only turbo-prop aircraft can land there. We could not find any flights, however, from Delhi.
We opted to hire a car from Delhi. Shimla is 384 kms from Delhi and the drive would take about 8 hours or near-abouts. There were six of us and we hired a Toyoto Innova that could seat all of us. We had to make sure the vehicle had a luggage carrier on the top, given the number of bags we were carrying. 
Of course, ours was not a non-stop drive, and we made it to Shimla in about nine hours, not bad, I thought.  We had left Delhi only around 9.30 am and stopped for an early lunch at Haryana Tourism Development Corporation's Oasis restaurant at Karnal on the highway, a place we had visited earlier and with which we were comfortable, as far as the food and other facilities, were concerned. The restaurant is spacious, the food was generally okay, the toilets were clean, there are shops to browse around and there is a large area for you to loosen your limbs.
For those who start out earlier from Delhi, another option for a stop for lunch is Dharampur, after Ambala, which has several restaurants, including the well-known Giani Dhaba and a McDonald's outlet. We had read mixed reviews about some of the dhabas there, and wanted to try Gyani out, but ultimately did not stop because we were running late and wanted to reach Shimla before sundown.
Leaving the wide and dusty roads of Delhi and later on, some towns of Haryana, had us wondering what the first glimpse of Shimla would be like. It got a lot more interesting once we reached the Trans-Himalayan Expressway. What a wonderfully exciting name!! That jolted all of us out of our slumber and the cameras got into action. The surroundings were no longer dusty. The winter sun was dazzling bright and hot and far, far, far away in the distance, we could see the shadowy outlines of the majestic Himalayas!! Utterly spell-binding to say the least.
We were now on a mountain road and the numerous curves on the road came sharp and quick that made some of us want to stop, to get our 'legs' back. After a few hours, we reached the place where we would be staying for the next four days. It was the Club Mahindra resort at Mashobra, about 10 km from Shimla, at about 8000 feet from sea-level. The whole place is covered with dense woods of pines and other evergreens. Mashobra is beautiful and quiet, away from the rush of tourists in Shimla. The resort is located just off the road and there are lots of little shops near the entrance. The resort itself is a bustling place with lots of guests walking in and out. The suites we were allotted exceeded our expectations and the staff at the resort went out of their way to make us feel welcome.
 It was already rather dark and we were tired after the drive. Looking forward to a restful night, we decided to relax and go downstairs for dinner. The temperatures were dropping to quite low in the night, notwithstanding the hot blazing sun in the day!  At last we were able to wear the woolies that we had so conscientiously taken with us.
The resort staff had arranged some games and music in a hall and we spent some time there. Some kids were playing table tennis in the background, even as the others played a few rounds of housie. Finally, we went for dinner. The buffet spread was quite good and the chef came out and talked to us, especially to find out if we had any special wishes or requirements.
At the Jakhoo Temple
At the Jakhoo Temple
One of us wanted to avoid sugar, and he ensured that she got beautifully laid out fruit salads every day of our stay there. Another talked wistfully of fish he had tasted somewhere long ago, and there it was, in the barbecue the second night.
On our first morning in Shimla, we woke up to some amazing views of the mountains through the picture windows. After a nice, hot and filling breakfast buffet, we hired a car from the resort to drive us around Shimla. Though this was an extra cost, we opted for a car from the resort because our driver from Delhi could not be expected to know the routes and also might not be able to negotiate the mountain roads well as a local driver.
The weather was very pleasant and the drive was enjoyable. Most of Shimla lies between 2100 m and 2300 m. It used to be the summer capital in the times of the British Raj, thanks to its climate and terrain. History literally seeps through its bricks and stones, in its architecture and ambience.
The town itself offers many walks, day-trips, shopping, entertainment and museums and can also be your base for forays into the interior districts. Above all, it has got the famous Mall, one of the longest stretches of pedestrian shopping in the world.
Today's youngsters may not quite realise it, but Shimla had a close connection with India's freedom movement. It was here that ornithologist and former civil servant Allan Octavian Hume created the Indian National Congress which spearheaded the freedom struggle. Stalwarts such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, C Rajagopalachari, Madan Mohan Malaviya and Maulana Azad were also regular visitors to the town.
The town was also host to maor events such as the Shimla Conference in 1942 and the deliberations which finally led to the difficult decision to partition the country.
While the nostalgic elements are all over the place, Shimla today also has a youthful vigour. Its many attractions and the ease of accessibility have made it one of India's most popular hill resorts. 
Our driver-cum-guide took us first to the highest point in Shimla which has the famous Jakhoo Temple at its pinnacle. It is best to go to this place in a four-wheel drive as vehicles with less power would not be able to climb the rather steep gradient. The road to the top is long, narrow and winding. So it is good to have a driver who knows how to manouvre vehicles on such terrain. Many people had to leave their smaller vehicles on the way and had to trudge up.
The highest point was quite a surprise. There were lots of people and monkeys galore too.  Pilgrims were doing their bit by feeding the monkeys and the monkeys were doing their bit by checking out the vehicles.
(In fact, our resort had bold signages for the guests cautioning them against leaving a window open here or there that would let in the curious simians, who could cause a lot of damage.)
The temple is popular with pilgrims and we saw many who were paying their obeisance to the very enormous vermillion Hanuman, the deity to whom this temple was dedicated.
After the temple, we proceeded to the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies (IIAS), which used to be the Viceregal Lodge or the residence of the Viceroy of India in the summers. The building is huge and beautiful. It houses the Institute and the sight-seers were cautioned against making any noise and touching any of the handsome period furniture and objets d'art that were so plenty there.
We were shown around and were able to see the different rooms where monumental decisions regarding the future of the then pre-Independence India were taken. We felt a sense of pride unlike any other before...seeing the table where important documents and agreements were signed and the rooms where they were discussed and debated. Here, amongst these very same things, history was scripted and the future of millions of Indians was sealed. Photos of many of the ceremonies featuring the founding fathers of our nation among others were starting points of curious questions from the youngsters with us.  And when you club that with the state-of-the-art computer centre for the scholars who work here now, you feel an awesome patriotism for our dear country.
The Indian Institute of Advanced Studies
The Indian Institute of Advanced Studies
For those interested in details, the Viceroys and Governors-General who occupied Viceregal Lodge included  Marquess of Dufferin, 1884-88; Marquess of Landsdowne, 1888-94; Earl of Elgin, 1894-99; Marquess Curzon, 1899-1904 and 1904-05; Earl of Minto, 1905-10; Lord Hardinge of Penshurst, 1910-16; Viscount Chelmsford, 1916-21; Marquess of Reading, 1921-26; Lord Irwin, Earl of Halifax, 1926-31; Marquess of Willingdon, 1931-36; Marquess of Linlithgow, 1936-43; Earl Wavell, 1943-47 and Earl Mountbatten, April to August 1947.
You cannot fail to notice the elaborate wood-work of the building's interiors, the paneling and pilasters and the staircases with newels and handrails, all made of teak procured from Burma along with local cedar wood (deodar) and walnut. The huge estate around has a collection of rare and exotic plants and all kinds of grasses.
It was a heady feeling, to be in those environs and we spent a long time gazing at and discussing the events captured by the photographs and the furniture and other items on display.
We spent some time on the neat and pretty grounds. There is a fire engine station too, a tiny one by today’s standards, and now converted into a lovely cafe and souvenir shop. We picked up a few postcards to mail to friends and family. Truly, this place is a must-see for everyone who comes to this mountain capital.
The Mall
The Mall
After, the Institute, we headed to the Mall. The Mall in Shimla is famous. It is a plateau like area which has many things going on at the same time. First and foremost, the sun was shining brightly and people were soaking up the heat with pleasure. The Mall overlooks a cliff. This is barricaded with a long and beautiful wrought-iron parapet. There were pony-rides, food stalls and photographers. We could take our pick. While, some opted for the ethnic wear photo-session, others were oohing and aahing over the sights and munching away at the numerous snacks on sale.  The walk is extremely pleasant and the sights were truly exhilirating.
There was an old and pretty church at the Mall and we went in and lit some candles. The Mall is a pedestrian-only zone and has to be reached using a couple of elevators. One has to queue up to use the lift. Once you are out of the elevators, you reach a path flanked on one side by shops and eateries. This path leads up to the Mall. 
Senior citizens might find the incline of the road a bit tough, and we had one in our group, who opted out of the walk and preferred to sit and rest on one of benches thoughtfully provided on the wayside. We discovered that there were people with wheel chairs and prams on hire and many people made use of the facility. Near the Mall is the Lower Bazaar, which is a typical Indian marketplace where you can buy trinkets, silver jewellery, shawls, garments, handicrafts and a variety of other things. The entire area has a certain vibrancy, thanks to the hundreds of youngsters, many of them honeymooners, walking around.
After our time at the Mall, we had lunch at a cosy cafe attached to a hotel called Combermere. The food was piping hot and tasty. It was really good.
Walking up and down those paths had tired us out and nightfall saw us returning to the resort and dinner there. Bonfire and barbecue are very good things in the cold. The resort had organised one such event and dinner was indeed a warm and very happy time.
The next day we decided to travel to Kufri which is at a higher altitude (about 2800 metres) than Mashobra, where our resort was located. Kufri is about 15 km from Shimla and the highest point in the surrounding region. It has a zoo, with rare antelopes, felines and birds, including the Himalayan Monal. Kufri is famous for its ski-slopes and the amazing views it offers of deep valleys and thick forests. The Mahasu Peak is nearby.
The drive again was a very pleasant experience and we reached a place in Kufri which had pony rides and rustic looking eateries. Souvenier shops abound here and I did buy a small keepsake. And lots of photographs were taken. There is a nature park and a zoo in the vicinity, but we had to give them a miss because we were running short of time.
The Wildflower Hall, one of the best-known hotels in Shimla, was on the way back, and we stopped there for a cuppa. Lots of our friends had stayed there and told us we must at least visit the place.
Inside the church
Inside the church
The Wildflower hall used to be the residence of Lord Kitchener, who was the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in India (1902-09) It is now an Oberoi property and they have maintained it well. The hotel is a stately place and evokes the times gone by. We had lunch planned elsewhere, so we opted to have some hot coffee and snacks. After a late lunch, we had a relaxed evening at our resort.
There are any number of places to see within Shimla, including the State Museum, the Lakkar Bazaar and the various temples and churches and scores of historical buildings. There also several day-tours that one can take to places like Chail, Narkhanda and Tattapani. One can also take longer trips to places such as Manali, Dharamshala and Kinnaur. We hope to go to all of these places some day.
For the present, we had to return home the next day. There was a strike scheduled by local taxi operators, and our driver said we had to leave before dawn the next day to avoid any trouble with the strikers. The staff at the resort offered to pack dry breakfast for us -- sandwiches, muffins, fruit and the such. We set our while it was still dark.
On the way, we took an impromptu decision to just drive through Chandigarh because two people in our group had not seen Le Corbusier's well planned city. That done, we were on our way to Delhi, stopping again at Oasis in Karnal for lunch. Later, we stopped at Pind Baluchi at Murthal, near Sonipat, on the highway.
By late afternoon, it was back again to the traffic jams in the national capital, making us wonder if Shimla was a dream. We decided that we needed to go there once again for longer next time.
Rachel Sonny Abraham
Rachel Sonny Abraham

Rachel Sonny Abraham works full-time at NetIndian. She is a travel writer, writes a food blog and runs a clothing business.

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Delhi music lovers enjoy magical evening with Verdi choruses, arias

It was a magical experience for music lovers in Delhi who got a chance to listen to some of the finest music by Verdi at the Kamani Auditorium here on Friday.
The evening of Italian operatic music was put together by Neemrana Foundation, the Italian Embassy and the Indian Council of Cultural Relations to celebrate the bicentennial of the world renowned composer.
Giueseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi (1813 – 1901) was an Italian composer of the Romantic Era, who wrote mostly operas. Starting out as a commercial musician, he found success and was hailed as a pioneer by the end of his long career in the music industry. 
Born the same year as well-known German composer Richard Wagner, he also rivalled the great musician in his popularity in the operatic theatre. 
Verdi’s best known works include La donna è mobile from Rigoletto; Va, Pensiero (The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves) from Nabucco, and Coro di zingari (Anvil Chorus) from Il Trovatore. 
The Verdi Bicentennial Gala Celebrations are being held alongside the same for Wagner all across the world.
Friday's concert, conceptualised by the soloist voice coach and renowned Indian soprano Situ Singh Buehler, was a collection of various well-known arias and choruses by Verdi. The music was played by a chamber orchestra that was a collaboration of both Italian and Indian artistes. While the strings - the violins, the violas, and the cello - with exception of the double bass which was played by Salman Mubarak of Spain, were all played by Indians, the wind instruments, consisting of the flute, the oboe, the clarinet, the bassoon, the horn and the trumpet, and the kettledrum were played by Italians.
The orchestra was led by Marco Balderi, a distinguished and enviably experienced conductor. Known for the productions of Madama Butterfly at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin and at the Opéra Bastille in Paris in January 2006, as well as Georges Bizet's The Pearl Fishers in New Delhi, Balderi is well versed with all the symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Mozart and Schumann, as well as over 200 operas, forty of which he has conducted. 
David Sotigiu
David Sotigiu
Apart from this, he has also studied 650 sacred and secular vocal works. He has conducted 16 orchestras across Europe, such as the Padova Chamber Orchestra and the Deutsche Oper orchestra in Berlin, and the New Symphony Orchestra of Boston and the Metropolitan Orchestra of Tokyo. He has served as the artistic director for 12 seasons at the Ongakoyoku Festival of Nijgata in Japan and two years at the Puccini Festival of Torre del Lago. Having gained deep knowledge in opera vocality, Balderi has performed with important singers such as Luciano Pavarotti, Jose Cura and Barbara Frittoli amongst many others.
The Neemrana Music Foundation Choir, trained by Nadya Balyan, served as the chorus for the evening. A registered, national, non-profit, non-partisan educational organisation in the field of classical music, the Neemrana Music Foundation debuted with the Fakir of Benares in Delhi (2002) and Mumbai (2003), before becoming an independent registered trust in 2004. Presently, the foundation organizes and performs various operas and operatic music regularly in India and abroad.
The evening began with the orchestra performing Sinfonia followed by the choir joining them for the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves (Va, Pensiero), both from Nabucco. Having grown up listening to Verdi's music, it was a delightful beginning. The programme progressed to the many solo performances of the evening. It was a pleasant surprise to listen to the strong, lovely voices of the soloists, each having an appealing timbre that made one want to hear some more.
Performing Saper vorreste from Un ballo in maschera was soprano Ashwati Parmeshwar, who delighted the audience with her loud, clear voice. Following her, tenor Prabhat Chandola sang Di quella pira from Il Trovatore with great gusto, as the chorus backed him up. 
Mezzo soprano Ramya Roy then rendered in her honeyed voice the Stride la vampa from Il Trovatore, and was followed by bass Avi who sang Di due figli vivea padre beato also from Il Trovatore, complete with actions and conviction. Petite and slender in form, soprano Tara Kumaravelu wowed with her powerful voice singing Tacea la notte placida from Il Trovatore. Right after, the chorus performed the Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore. 
Soloists and the chorus
Soloists and the chorus
Enchanting the audience with his quick smile and easy charm, tenor Toshan Nongbet wonderfully delighted with his rendition of La donna è mobile from Rigoletto and was followed by another choral performance from Aida, The Triumphal March. 
Moving on to the famous solos and duets from La Traviata, tenor David Sotgiu began by masterfully singing De’ miei bollenti spiriti. Following him, and deserving a special mention, was soprano Payal John, who came up with an exceptionally beautiful rendition of Addio del Passato. The final soloist of the night, young baritone Bhanu Sharma made many feel the conviction of a father that Giorgio tries to sell his son Alfredo with Di provenza from La Traviata.
Balderi drew appreciation from the crowd for not only his charming stage presence, but also his careful and fluid conducting which was carried out while he played the accompanying piano for the performances. As a pianist, there was a heightened sense of awe and respect at his efficient and exemplary performance as both pianist and conductor. It was fortunate that none of the musicians or singers faced any problem with the aural quality of their music, and it was reflected upon the happy mood of the Maestro.
The evening drew to a close with four of the soloists - Ashwati Parmeshwar, Prabhat Chandola, Toshan Nongbet and Payal John - performing Brindisi from La Traviata, accompanied by the choir. The Maestro pulled together an encore performance which included Situ Singh Buehler sharing a note or two with all the soloists of the evening. She, not only conceptualized the programme,  but also trained each of the soloists for their exemplary performance this evening.
The enthralled audience, having filled the auditorium to splitting capacity, filling aisles and sharing seats for this extravaganza, cheered on the artistes and clapped in time to their song before giving them a standing ovation.
Vinita Abraham
Vinita Sonny Abraham is a post-graduate student of Performance Studies at the Ambedkar University, Delhi. She has trained in piano and ballet. 


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Those Were The Days, My Friend, LaLaLaLaLaLaLa

Still going strong...file photo of senior citizens ahead of a half marathon in Delhi
Still going strong...file photo of senior citizens ahead of a half marathon in Delhi
You know your age has passed the half-way house and it is all downhill from now on when:
People tell you to take it easy, slow down, you are not getting any younger, lean back a bit - and you hate them for saying it. 
Everyone has advice on cutting out various foods. You never hear enough of it as they babble on about salt, sugar, coffee, tea, fried foods, cigarettes ...oh go away and leave me alone.
You actually read those "I am John's liver" type of articles in the magazines.
Your hypochondria gallops around like a young colt and every symptom you read about or see on TV you know you have it, no doubt at all. 
You actually have memories and talk about the good old days.
All the young people suddenly get very busy when you say, "Let me tell you when I was your age...".
You cannot believe what things cost as compared to your childhood and you can't wait to share the comparison if you can get someone to stay long enough to listen.
All the job ads are for people old enough to be your son.
Ads on herbal medicines and what they do to your system fascinate you.
Someone sees you jogging and tells you it is dangerous at your age.
Gravity seems to be winning hands down because now life is one big sag.
You wish your metabolism wasn't such a lazy sod.
You go around the house yelling about electricity bills and switching all the lights off. 
You meet some young guy whose swash hasn't buckled and he reminds you of what you once were, and you loathe him for it. Then you go home and sadly realise you'll never run the 400 metres again. 
Someone gives you his card and you spend a minute squeegeeing your eyes to read it; is that number a 6 or an 8 or a 5 squint, squint. 
You overhear someone call you that old eccentric.
Your kids tell you this is not your type of a movie, it is too `now'.
No one in this generation knows who Malcolm X is.
You find today's youngsters lazy, shiftless, spoilt, pampered, ill-mannered louts ...not much different from what you were.
You go to a party and yearn for a chair to sit in; then you don't want to get up every time a lady comes in.
All your food intake is on a quota system. The doctor talks about you in third person, like what does he like to eat or how was he feeling this morning and you want to say, hey, I am here, okay talk to me.
You can't open a lid and you go red in the face trying, and then some kid comes and yanks it off and, upstaged, you go looking for Deep Heat.
Your whole breakfast is a saga in roughage and fibre and you actually read the ingredients on the packet to see if you have had 60 per cent of your riboflavin - whatever that is.
You discuss the details of your flipping daily `walk' with others of your age who cares, did you ever think you'd do that?
If you do something young at heart your family is embarrassed, like not at your age...well, whyever not?
You actually find you bought a jar of anti-wrinkle cream.
You can't believe this is the generation which is going to inherit your legacy, 1 mean what a mess they'll make of it.
You get all sbmaltzy and gooey eyed in the movies, all that soppy sentiment for Mr One-time Tough Guy.
Your after-late-night morning recovery time is two mornings, and you like fizzy solutions like fiuit salt and Alka Seltzer.
You find yourself obsessed by your digestive system and its mysteries.
You wonder where the time went, there was so much of it just yesterday was yesterday. Itwasitwasitwas.
Bikram Vohra
Bikram Vohra
Bikram Vohra has been editor of Gulf News, Khaleej Times, Bahrain Tribune, Emirates Evening Post and helped in setting up Gulf Today.

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Of biryanis, museums, monuments and other Deccan delights

The Charminar
The Charminar
We decided to take a much-needed break from the excruciating heat of Delhi in June and had to choose a the end it was a toss-up between the hills of Uttarakhand and Hyderabad.
With the rains approaching, my husband was not comfortable with the thought of going to Uttarakhand, and he also had some official work in Hyderabad. While we enjoy travelling to resorts, both of us also love visiting big cities. The rest of us had never been to Hyderabad and that clinched the issue.
Glad as can be, we set about getting things done for our five-day trip. We shopped around for the best offers that Hyderabad hotels had to offer by calling up several of them and finally decided on Marriott, because it offered the best value for money and also had a superb location.
Our flight from Delhi landed at Rajiv Gandhi International Airport at Shamshabad around noon and we were recieved by a man from Marriott, who was all courtesy as he helped us with the baggage and then guided us to the car from the hotel.
For travellers from Delhi, the Rajiv Gandhi International Airport  (RGIA) at Shamshabad will appear familiar. Not surprising, because both airports- Delhi's T3 and RGIA -- have been built at by the same company, infrastructure major GMR.
Where Hyderabad scores is the landscaping around the airport, which appeared so fresh and gave it a look very different from the usual scenery outside other Indian airports.
The drive from the airport was long but pleasant. On the way, we got on to a bridge which was well over 11 kilometres long! This bridge bypassed many of the crowded areas and gave us a panoramic view of the land and its distinct features.
Hillocks with enormous boulders balancing precariously, or so we felt, were skirted by neat expressways. Residential buildings stood tall with schools, institutes and offices amongst them.
Hyderabad has a unique landscape, consisting of spectacular ancient rock formations which dot the expanses on the outskirts of the rapidly expanding city. These delicate "balancing acts" are part of the Deccan Shield and geologists say they date to 2500 million years ago. Quarrying for building material over the years has taken its toll, but they still provide a treat for the eyes in many parts of the city.
We saw a metallic 'Fish' building that housed offices and not an aquarium as we initially thought. Our driver filled us in on these and other details as he drove us, and we discovered that he was fluent not only in Hindi but quite comfortable in English, too.
In the next few days, we were to discover that he was not alone in this respect. All the drivers of cars we hired, knew Hindi and a fair bit of English and, more importantly, they knew the answers to all our questions about Hyderabad. After being at the mercy of clueless taxi drivers in other places, including Bangalore and Delhi, this was like a God-send!
The Hussain Sagar
The Hussain Sagar
The Marriott is situated near the landmark and picturesque Hussain Sagar Lake, set between the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad. It is huge and the largest water body in Hyderabad. We saw the man-made lake first while driving past towards the hotel. The waters were choppy because of a very strong cool breeze. There is a large Buddha statue situated near the middle of the lake, one of the world's tallest monolithic statues. The statue is lit up with coloured lights in the evening. People use the wide sidewalk to stroll and spend some moments there, any time of the day. Indeed, it seemed a very pleasant activity and in my mind's to-do list, I added a stroll there, if possible. The lake was created by Hussain Shah Wali, during the reign of Ibrahim Quli Qutub Shah in 1562, and has facilities for boating.
After checking in and freshening up, we charted our actitvities for the stay. In the early evening we decided to step out for a drive around the city and ended up visiting  some pearl shops that I saw from the car and could not resist. It was not part of our must-do list but curiousity had got the better of me. Hyderabad is famous for pearls, which come from far off places such as Hong Kong as well as from nearby places like Kakinada. One can buy good quality pearls and other gems here at reasonable prices, I am told. Since I do not keep track of prices of gems, I can only say that the stuff we saw was very pretty and extremely desirable. I thought I would pick up a few strings of this and that later, but it did not happen this time. So, I have now pushed this forward for our next visit, hopefully in the near future.
Hyderabad is also famous for Bidriware, the most known of the handicrafts of Andhra Pradesh. It is a metal craft named after Bidar, the place of origin of this exquisite art, which involves inlaying silver on black metal.
Dinner time on day one and we went to 'Paradise'. Yes, paradise, it was! Almost everyone we had met before leaving for Hyderabad, told us to have at least one biryani meal here and we obliged all by having it on the first night out itself. There are many 'Paradise' outlets all over Hyderabad, many of them take-away joints. We went to the one next to Prasad's IMAX theatre, which by itself is a major attraction of the city.
The dining hall is well ventilated, spick and span, spacious and uncluttered. I thought to myself that if any restaurant in Delhi had this kind of space, it would have laid out another 100 covers easily! Diners came in a steady, unending stream. The turnover is huge and so the food served is always fresh.  We had their famed Hyderabadi mutton biryani and dessert. The portions are large enough and the three of us found two plates of the superb, fragrant biryani quite sufficient. The dessert was also large portioned. One order of  their succulent 'khubbani ka meetha' sufficed for two. This is dried apricot stewed and served with large scoops of vanilla icecream, a signature dish of Hyderabad. We also had 'Double ka meetha', another Hyderabadi speciality. It's a sort of bread pudding. It was difficult to choose between the two desserts as both were really good. But finally, my vote went to the superlative apricot pudding. 
The Salar Jung Museum
The Salar Jung Museum
What began as a small cafe near the now-defunct Paradise cinema in Secunderabad in 1953, serving tea and snacks, has over the years grown into a large chain of restaurants and a must-visit place for tourists looking to enjoy authentic Hyderabadi biryani.
Apart from the Charminar, which is synonymous with Hyderabad, one of the biggest attractions for tourists visiting Hyderabad is the famous Salar Jung Museum. It is at least one leisurely day's trip.
The museum houses the personal and household effects of Nawab Salar Jung III -- an amazing treasure house of antiques and works of art that is the largest single-man collection in the world.
Now, you see, everyone everywhere has  household articles.  But this enormous collection beats almost all others hollow. The tour starts with an introduction to the Nawab, his illustrious family and their collective history. Photos and paintings of members of the family, the ancestors and the great man himself took up walls and walls of area. Their elaborate bejewelled ceremonial clothes preserved in almost mint condition, spread-eagled along with the rest of the accessories were kept in clear glass cases. Room after room showed  different aspects of life in that bygone era. Pictures of the life that they led, their friends and grand ceremonies, the outdoor sporting activities and their travels, everything was always grand.  Every item was so well preserved! Even photos of their small armies of household staff were displayed.
Personal effects of all kinds, some even from his early school days were there too. Such lovely handwriting, the people of those days had! Rooms of furniture of all types, and all so handsome, will easily put most modern furnishing products in the shade.  A most interesting train set, in a glass case of course, drew kids and us adults alike. Statues, paintings and other handicrafts kept us interested all through. In the 'Ivory Room', I was fascinated by a mat made out of elephant did they do it? An answer still eludes me.  
However, the most famous exhibits are a couple of statues, one of the exquisite Veiled Rebecca and the other, the mysterious Double Faced statue. One should see these to understand why these are so famous. Looking at the 'Rebecca', you could almost feel the strong breeze blowing at her most diaphanous veil and pushing it back. One could write essays on each exhibit here. However, it is worthwhile to read up about this place before going there.
There is a short film show also which we skipped as we wanted to see the rest of the museum. It is good to come here with very light hand baggage as the walk around the museum is fairly long, while one gets lost in the beauty and cleverness behind each exhibit. The Salar Jung museum has to be seen in leisure and savoured if possible over a day or two. Another visit to this fine place will definitely not be amiss. 
Enroute the museum we passed the High Court and the Osmania Hospital. Both are housed in heritage building complexes. Being places of current use, there is a lot of activity here. 
Our next stop was the Charminar. A vibrant and populous place, it is mostly a large market area now. People were everywhere! Almost all had come to do some sort of shopping or other. There are areas here which sell only certain items like the famous Hyderabadi bangles, pearls, and other things. Here we also saw some shops selling huge metal pots and pans. These  vessels are traditional trousseau articles for the local Muslim brides, our cab driver informed us.
Built in 1591 by Sultan Muhammed Quli Qutb Shah, the fifth ruler of the Qutb Shahi Dynasty, the Charminar, on the east bank of the Musi river, is now synonymous with Hyderabad and one of the most recognized structures in India. Its name means "four minarets" and the four towers here are ornate structures supported by grand arches. The beautiful square monument has the signature style of Islamic architecture, with a lot of detailed work. Each of the minarets is about 184 feet tall with a double balcony and has a bulbous dome on top.
On the north-east of the Charminar is the Laad Bazaar and on its west is the famous Makkah Masjid. At scores of eateries around the area, traditional food like biryani, haleem, mirchi ka salan and double ka meetha is available. Charminar was all we expected but far neater than similar places we had seen elsewhere. One can take a tour of the monument and look out from the top of the monument to see the city from a different height. 
There are any number of places to visit in the city, including temples, churches and mosques, palaces such as the Chowmahalla palace, gardens such as the Lumbini Park and the NTR Garden, museums such as the Nizam's Museum and modern attractions such as the Imax Multiplex.
One evening, we went silk saree shopping. Andhra Pradesh is famous for pochampally, gadwal, mangalgiri and other silks. So, when my sister-in-law sent me a message to pick a few sarees for her, I thought it is best to go to a wholesale shop and pick up her requirements. Unfortunately, nobody knew of any particular shop and so we went to the nearby General Bazaar and from a retail shop picked up a few. Even at this retail shop, the prices were much lower than what we would end up paying elsewhere in India. 
When you are in Hyderabad in these times, the Telangana issue will loom large everywhere, and it was so during our stay there. A march to the government Secretariat, called by pro-Telangana groups, during our stay in the city restricted our movements. Our hotel, located very near the Secretariat, was right in the middle of all the action and there were heavy barricades all over. We decided to drive out of town to the famous Ramoji Film City on that day, since nothing much could be achieved in the city anyway.

Scenes while driving around
We are diehard Bollywood and South Indian movie fans and so enjoyed the excursion a lot!  We saw some glimpses of this industry here. To really enjoy Ramoji City, one has to leave one's prejudices outside the gate and enter a world of make-believe.  Set after set of movies past are still standing and in use, albeit with some variations. The estate is well over 1600 acres with gardens and caves and waterfalls and steps besides halls, making it the world's largest integrated film studio complex and one of the most popular tourist attactions in the country.
The complex has hotels, restaurants and guest rooms for the benefit of artistes, technicians and visitors. The studio is located near Hayathnagar and Peddamberpet in Ranga Reddy district, about 45 minutes away from Hyderabad.
Inside, there is a fair amount of walking  to do despite the nice bus rides and as the terrain is not level, it can be tiring, more so for older persons. Kids have a lot of things here to enjoy too. The enthusiasm to see this place is great and we did see a few people being pushed around on wheel chairs too. Do visit the place if only to understand some of the wonderful illusions, movies weave for us. If you are travelling with children, do take them there and they will surely not want to leave.There are different types of package tours available here. So one can choose a package that suits the pocket. 
There are historical monuments all over Hyderabad, and quite a few of them are still operational. Looking at some of them, made us feel as though we are in the early 1900s or even much earlier. Most of these heritage buldings are well maintained. They include palaces, museums, offices, residences  and other places of interest.
Working on the Metro Rail
Working on the Metro Rail
Among those is the imposing Golconda Fort, the place where the priceless Kohinoor diamond was found. It was originally a mud fort built by the Kakatiya kings of Warangal in the 13th century but attained glory under the Qutub Shahi dynasty (1518-1687). There is a sound and light show there in the evenings.
Hyderabad is also choc-a-bloc with reputed central government educational institutions and research centres. Several well-known important public sector, including in the defence sector, are located here. 
As visitors from Delhi, we were glad to see the Hyderabad Metro rail project coming up in several parts of the city. There are also statues of well-known people all over the city.
On one evening, we were invited to dinner by very dear old friends. We first went to the Hyderabad Boat Club for some refreshments. The club was like a throwback to the days of the sixties, all prim and correct. We enjoyed the ambience a lot. Our friends then took us to a wonderful Asian restaurant called The Mekong at the Marigold. Lingering over a fine pan-Asian meal, we caught up with each other's lives and work. So much had happened in everyone's lives and we lost track of time till the hotel staff had to finally drop some gentle hints before we decided to call it a day. What a lovely time it was!
The Marriott was the venue of a concert by the popular Bangalore-based folk-rock group "Swarathma" and we decided to attend that. It was a charity event and the price of the tickets included dinner too. The music was all that we expected from the band -- energetic, thought-provoking and entertaining. As the evening progressed, they had most of the audience dancing.  
The concert was held to raise funds for a well-known local NGO, Nirnaya, which does a lot of work for girls and women. We felt nice being able to contribute in our humble way. The foot-tapping music and the interesting and often light-hearted lyrics on a wide range of serious issues of the day took us a world away. It felt so good to attend a rock concert after a long time and I felt it ended too soon. Our friends, who were part of the organizers, introduced us to many of their friends, and we were touched at the way they went out of their way to make us feel welcome.
The dinner, which included, you guessed it, Hyderabadi biryani, was sumptuous. In fact, the food at the hotel was one of the highlights of our trip.
Cousins living on the outskirts of the city invited us over for dinner one day and so we got to see some more of Hyderabad. Their home is in a well-maintained housing complex and we enjoyed our time with them a lot. Revisiting old times and recounting old incidents had us in splits. Dinner was in a restaurant within the complex. A very pleasant evening with them had us longing for the rest of the clan.
The weather was excellent on all days while we were in Hyderabad. We had travelled to Hyderabad in mid-June. Sometimes there was a very light drizzle and almost always there was a cool breeze. It was hardly ever hot. We were glad to have escaped the famous Andhra summer and could move around without any discomfort.

More scenes while driving around
Like Paradise, almost everyone you will meet in Hyderabad will recommend Karachi Bakery, famous for their wide range of cookies and pastries. Like Paradise, the bakery is also an institution. Everyone said so many good things about the eats there. But, since we knew that even a casual visit to any bakery will have us bringing back loads of goodies, we decided to fight temptation. There were Karachi Bakery outlets wherever we went, and we had a tough time resisting the temptation.
Finally, it was time to pack up and return home. We had some time to spare, and we asked the driver to drive us around areas such as Abids and Banjara Hills, before we headed for the airport, using the newly-built highway. We saw many Karachi Bakery outlets on the way but did not give in. At the airport, there were some more outlets, but we were determined. Finally, after check-in and security, there was this outlet. It was just too much, and we finally gave in. We had to struggle a bit to catch the shop assistant's attention, given the small crowd there. We picked up quite a few of the packets there.
Back home in Delhi, as we savoured those cookies, we were reminded of those five wonderful days in Hyderabad, meeting old friends, making new ones, listening to the sounds of Telugu and Hyderabadi Urdu, and gettng to experience a bit of Hyderabad's famed culture, cuisine and hospitality. Clearly, there is much more to the ancient city than what our five-day holiday allowed us to experience. Yeh dil maange more!
Photos by Vinita Sonny Abraham


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B M Birla Centre to produce low-cost science exhibits

A view of the exhibit set up by the B M Birla Science Centre at Kadapa in Andhra Pradesh
A view of the exhibit set up by the B M Birla Science Centre at Kadapa in Andhra Pradesh
The Hyderabad-based B.M.Birla Science Centre, acclaimed to be among the best in the world for dissemination of science, has embarked on an ambitious  project to produce low-cost interactive science exhibits.
The centre has already developed, fabricated and installed such low-cost exhibits in Hyderabad at the Defence Research and Development Laboratories (DRDL) School, the Indian institute of Chemical Technology School, the Jawahar Bal Bhavan and six regional science centres in different parts of Andhra Pradesh besides in Jaipur (Rajasthan ), Bhopal (Madhya Pradesh), Raipur (Chhattisgarh) and Agra (Uttar Pradesh).
The centre, which has attracted more than 13 million visitors during its 27 years of existence, has also developed hi-tech World Bank-aided museums and a uniue Dinosaurium, which is one of the best in the world, according to Dr.B G Siddharth, director of the centre.
The fact that 26 Nobel laureates and scores of world class scientists of equal calibre have participated in its multifarious activities over the years bear  testimony to the laudable work being carried out at the centre, which has emerged as one of the most prestigious centres for dissemination of science in the country.
In February 2005 the Science Centre entered into a formal agreement for establishing the International Institute for Applicable Mathematics and Information Sciences (IIAMIS) with hubs at the Centre and also at the University of  Udine, Italy. 
The hub in the B.M. Birla Science Centre networks with Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (CDAC), Pune, the Department of Information Technology, Government of Andhra Pradesh and the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai. 
The hub in Udine, Italy networks with European Universities such as those in Genova and Valencia. The Centre provides opportunities for young Indian researchers to pursue doctoral work in Europe. It also provides post-graduate training in Information Sciences for selected candidates. 
The agreement to this effect was signed by Mr Kapil Sibal, then Union Minister for Science and Technology and Ms. L. Moratti, the Italian Minister for Science and Technology and Universities, in the presence of the Presidents of India and Italy in Delhi, during the latter’s visit. The MOU with the individual partners was also signed in Delhi.
The Centre has instituted the prestigious B.M. Birla Science Prizes for Indian scientists below the age of 40 for outstanding original contributions in the fields of Mathematics, Chemistry, Physics and Life Sciences. The prize amount is Rs 1 lakh per subject per year. The scientists are carefully selected by a distinguished award board. 
The prizes have been given away apart from Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, then President of India, by Mr. P.V. Narasimha Rao, then Prime Minister of India,  Nobel Laureates Lord George Porter, Ilya Prigogine, Roald Hoffmann, Klaus von Klitzing, Prof. ‘t Hooft, Prof. Charles Townes, Prof. Douglas D. Osheroff , Prof. Cohen-Tannoudji, Prof. Robert Curl, Prof. William D. Phillips, Prof. Anthony James Leggett and Prof. Ei-ichi Negishi.
The Centre also gives away the Lifetime Achievement in Science Award to the most distinguished scientists in the world. This award has been given so far to Prof. Yuval Ne’eman and Nobel Laureates Prof. Abdus Salam, Prof. Norman Borlaug, Sir Aaron Klug, Prof. James Watson, Prof. Ilya Prigogine, Prof. Roald Hoffman, Prof. Klaus Von Klitzing, Prof. Gerard ‘t Hooft, Prof. S. Chu, Prof. Charles Townes, Sir Harold Kroto , Prof. Douglas D Osheroff and Prof. Cohen-Tannoudji, Prof. Robert Curl, Prof. William D. Phillips and Prof. Anthony James Leggett.
The B.M. Birla Memorial Lecture Series was instituted by the B.M. Birla Science Centre, Hyderabad about 20 yeas ago. The idea was to give an opportunity to the larger scientific community to hear some of the greatest scientific minds in the world. The eminent scientists who have delivered the B.M. Birla Memorial Lecture include Sir Fred Hoyle, Nobel Laureates Professors William Fowler, Abdus Salam, Lord George Porter, Antony Hewish, Norman Ramsey, Aarun Klug, Ilya Prigogine, Werner Arber, Kluas von Klitzing, Roald Hoffmann, Charles Townes, Gerard ‘t Hooft, S. Chu,  James Watson, Herald Kroto, Douglas D Osheroff, Claude Cohen-Tannoudji, John Kendrew, Robert Curl, Prof. William D. Phillips and  Prof. Anthony J. Leggett.
During the silver jubilee year of the B.M. Birla Science Centre, construction of the G.P. Birla Observatory and Astronomical Research Centre was started. This building is a tribute to one of the greatest visionaries and philanthropists of India, Padma Bhushan Ganga Prasad Birla, is an iconic landmark of Hyderabad atop the Naubat Pahad, laced with gardens and situated right in the heart of the city. 
The roof of this impressive building houses the Astronomical Observatory. The Observatory is an Indo-French collaborative effort and is one of the few public observatories in India. At selected times amateurs and interested persons could use the Observatory and see for themselves the marvels of the universe. Lectures, Seminars and other such events around the Observatory are also planned. The Observatory itself houses a very sophisticated compact telescope which is capable of even detecting exo planets.
The lower floors of this imposing structure have sections for Research, Educational Courses, and a Library. Research on High Energy Astrophysics is ongoing. These programmes have an international collaborative flavour.
In addition to astronomy, it is envisaged that there would be courses in Science Teaching for School Teachers, as also more advanced courses 
in Computer Science and Information Technology and Management and Finance. 
The annexe houses the Nirmala Birla Gallery for Modern Art, to give an artistic touch to the elitists of science.

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The misty mountains of Munnar

A view from the cottage that we stayed in- the river meandering in the distance, flanked by hills with tea plantations.
A view from the cottage that we stayed in- the river meandering in the distance, flanked by hills with tea plantations.

Last week, we finally made a long hoped for trip to Munnar, clearly one of the more beautiful spots in God's Own Country, Kerala.

Being Malayalees who make regular trips to home in Kerala, we could have visited Munnar or the other popular tourist spots in the state any time, but we never got around to doing it. This time, however, we were determined to make it happen. Other places like Thekkaddy, Kumarakom and Ashtamudi also beckoned, but the sweltering heat in Kochi made the cool climes of Munnar the natural choice for a three-day break.
Munnar, located at a height of 6000 feet in the Western Ghats in the Idukki district of Kerala, has been attracting tourists from all over India and abroad because of its amazing natural beauty, great climate and unspoiled charm. For miles and miles all around you, there are tea and cardamom plantations, forests, hills, valleys and waterfalls.
The rolling hills carpeted by tea plantations
The rolling hills carpeted by tea plantations
The name Munnar means three rivers, a reference to the fact that the town is situated at the confluence of three rivers. The area was developed by the British as a plantation town and a summer resort, but has, over the years, grown into a hugely popular destination for all kinds of tourists, from honeymooners to those seeking adventure or wishing to enjoy nature.
We, of course, did not quite fall into any of these categories, and went about planning for the trip in some detail. The place is about 130 km from Kochi and we arranged for a car to drive us there and back. It is important to find a driver who knows the route as well as the area, and who preferably also understands English or Hindi in case you do not know Malayalam.
There are hundreds of options for stay in Munnar and surrounding areas, with scores of resorts, hotels and home-stay facilities. We opted for the Club Mahindra Lakeview Munnar, one of the better options in the area, located a beautiful 18-km drive (about 45 minutes) from the town. We wanted to make it as comfortable as possible for ourselves and booked two one-bedroom apartments -- two beautiful cottages overlooking a valley, with mountains in the background. But, as we discovered after checking in, one cottage would have more than sufficed for the four of us.
Periyar river, just before we reached the Ghat Road.
Periyar river, just before we reached the Ghat Road.
As part of the preparations, we had packed some light woollens, with the temperatures in Munnar around 6 or 7 degrees Celsius in the night and about 27 degrees C in the day time. As it turned out, we needed the woollens only when we went out for dinner in the evenings. 
For those who need to remain connected while on the move, it might help to check if your mobile phones and data cards will work in the area. We were told there would be difficulties on this score, but there were none in fact. Our phones and data cards worked throughout, though the internet connections were a bit slow.
Apart from a good camera (for pictures of all those beautiful places), we also got ourselves trekking shoes, maps of the route to Munnar and packed some snacks to eat on the way, not being sure about the quality of stuff we might get on the way. 
The day dawned bright and clear and hot and we could not wait to feel the promised cool climes at our destination. The check-in at the resort was 2 pm, and we therefore left only around 10 am, giving ourselves four hours for the trip.
We took the Kochi-Muvattupuzha-Kothamangalam-Adimali-Munnar route. It was new for us and we saw some interesting things on the way.
As we were leaving Kochi, we saw some huge oil storage tanks of three public sector oil companies at Irumbanam and scores of tankers carrying petrol and diesel as well as LPG cylinders on the way.
After a few minutes we were in Tripunithara where there were sign boards of the Hill Palace and a bird sanctuary. We passed by the palace and saw only a little of the grounds from the moving car. Then we reached Muvattupuzha and as the car sped by, the scenery too started to change. There were large gardens attached to impressive mansions separated by large tracts of greenery. Pineapple farms, banana orchards and coconut farms were becoming more common. Towns were giving way to the rural scene. The geography was becoming hilly. 
We reached Kothamangalam town and stopped for coffee at a bakery. The coffee and the egg puffs were good and fresh. But no restroom!
Adimali was the next town but we did not stop there as it was getting a little later than we envisaged. We hoped to reach Munnar for a late lunch but our enroute sight seeing ate into our travel time.
Photos were clicked left, right and centre and we were amazed at the foliage and scenery that sped past us. Cardamom plants were becoming more common. They were however not lush as the season was past and the next season would be only after a few months. 
There were a large number of churches of all sizes and wayside chapels to different saints. We also saw some little temples and some really grand and beautiful temples too. There were wayside shacks that sold fruit and some packed fried snacks and mineral water. People had stopped at such places for a break. 
Hilly regions by definition are difficult to travel because there are so many twists and turns, some really blind spots and also the rising gradient. So a 10km ride that would take 25 minutes on plain ground took us close to 45 minutes or more. 
It was after Adimali that we took a wrong turn and instead of going towards Munnar town we sped on to Anachal. Too many turns and some dead ends leading to stony dirt roads had us retracing our steps to the main road later. We were behind time. But the scenery was more than compensating. We chanced upon waterfalls, some that had water gushing down and others that were bone dry. Finally we got on to the right route and with a little help from a cellphone GPS, we were on our way.
Resorts were popping up everywhere and we could see the tea gardens in the distance. Munnar and its nearby areas house an impressive number of resorts and homestays and in peak season, they must be seeing a lot of traffic. However, this being the lean season, there was no hustle or bustle about most of them.
The track became more steep with each passing mile and there were so many sharp turns. It became very easy to understand the term 'hairpin turn'. We passed Bison Valley through forests that had warning signs of 'Do not scare the animals', 'Forest tree' etc. A few of the locals were seen, after long intervals, going about their work. Many houses along the way had pepper drying on large straw mats in the front yards. There were a few cows roaming free to graze on the green foliage around. Most of them had tags attached to their ears. 
The road cut through lush tea gardens and we could touch the plants as the car sped by. Finally we reached the Club Mahindra property. It chanced upon us suddenly as we were so very engrossed in the scenery. 
When we arrived at the reception, we were greeted with sandalwood paste tikka and a shot glass of something deliciously cold and sweet. There were exotic anthuriums in the lobby and some old traditional Kerala houseware like a wooden jewellery box and an old sitar in a corner. Bird of paradise blooms in the outer lobby were large and handsome. There were wooden chair swings outside and we made a beeline for it. We had left the hot and humid plains behind us and the slightly chilly winds made us pull our shawls and jackets tighter around us and thank the Almighty for such a welcome change. 
We were soon shown to our apartments which turned out to be very tidy, very stylish cottages with large bay windows and window seats overlooking gorgeous emerald tea gardens. So much deep lush green all around you and the breeze was cold. It truly felt like heaven.  
Since we had reached after lunch time, we decided on room service for a snack. After coffee and tea from the adequately stocked little kitchenette, we were raring to explore the property. 
From the quaint balcony of our cottage, we could see a river meandering between far away mountains. The resort is not exactly in Munnar but a few miles away at Chinnakanal, which would mean small river in Tamil.  The afternoon sun brought out the greens and blues in full relief. 'Gorgeous' comes to mind.
Dinner was in the Tea Room at the resort. We had opted for the 'breakfast and dinner buffet' that was available to members at a special price. As we hoped to move around in the day, lunch could be had in Munnar town or elsewhere. The large Tea Room was almost full but we were lucky to find a large table to hold us and our belongings with ease. The buffet spread was wide and inviting and as we were rather hungry, we ate more than our fill. The food was very good, especially in quality and variety. There was something for everyone, including those on diets and other medical restrictions.
The cottages being at a distance from the Tea Room, the walk back had us pleasantly tired out. We spent some time at a large swing near the cottage, gazing at the lights in the valley and the stars above. In the distance, cars were still moving on the mountain roads. We finally decided to call it a day. Sleep did not elude us and we were all dreaming away soon enough.
Day 2
We woke up late, glad that the weather was still very cool. After a filling breakfast, again at the Tea Room, and deciding on the day's plans, we set out in a car arranged by the resort. 
Our first stop was a spot where the tea leaf pickers were tying up their day's pickings in large sacks. These would be taken to the factory where each person's harvest would be weighed and wages calculated. The tea estates in these parts mostly belong to the Tatas and some to Harrison Malayalam. Thousands of acres of manicured tea gardens have been in production mode for decades. These estates are where we get our Tata 'chai' from. The estates have besides  tea plants, orange trees and silver oak too. Mixed cultivation helps in maintaining the eco-system. The orange trees provide small sweet fruit in season. The ubiqutious silver oak is more than a fancy name tree. It is integral to a tea estate and is the life line of the tea plants. What the silver oak does is something amazing. During the monsoons, the roots absorb and store large amounts of life giving water and during summer, these roots release the precious water to all the plants around them. When the trees are finally felled, the timber is useful for making furniture too. The estates are dotted with these useful trees.
The second stop was at Muthukad Mountain valley, where the far away river is now wider and cliffs overlook the valley. It is a touristy spot with many people, especially newly-married couples, busy with their cameras. A wooden hanging bridge, built when the British were around, is still seen there spanning the river in the distant valley. The climate is very pleasant with an occasional chilly gust. 
Soon after, we pass by the 'Peria Kanal' Tea factory. 'Peria' in Tamil means large. The urge to pluck a tea leaf is very strong and so we stop near a plant and pluck 'a bud and two leaves'. Here is also a little shed with a couple of local gentlemen selling ripe and not so ripe oranges. They assure me that the oranges are very sweet. I bought a kilo of oranges and found their claims way off the mark. Notwithstanding the quality of fruit, a lot of people stop to buy from them. 
Our next stop was the Anayirankal dam. We got down to look down at the lake on one side and the dry dam on the other. Nice spot for a photo session as there were hardly any people milling around.
Along the way later, we see an elephant-trail. This is a very special ancient trail that wild elephants use to pass from place to another. The elephants have been doing this route for centuries and will continue to do so in the future. They will, according to our guide, never ever deviate from this trail. These trails are rough, rocky, dirt paths winding through the forests and tea estates, uphill and downhill. The guide also mentioned that it is inviting trouble if you loiter around these trails when a herd passes through. The locals, who have a deep understanding of the forest and its fauna, respect these ways of the wild. Similarly, the bison too has trails that they have used since time immemorial. 
On either side of the road, we were constantly flanked by tea plants or the forest or cardamom plants. After using cardamom in the kitchen, it is very interesting to see where these little fragrant pods come from. The cardamom plants are large bushes with long leaves. The flowers bloom on stalks arising from the bottom of these plants. The  flowers turn into light green pods which when crushed give out the trademark fragrance. These pods are collected and dried to give the world its cardamom. Cardamom estates are fenced with electrified fences to discourage any wild animal from rampaging the crop. Since, this is wild elephant and bison country, the lookouts or 'yermadar' in estates and fields are small tree houses. Most are very basic and a few very ornately done with arches and seats! Looked very posh in the middle of nowhere!  Another plant that added dramatic colour to the landscape was the wild poinsettia. Forest  trees laden with lilac blooms were another pretty sight.
Our next stop was an organic farm called the Spice Garden at Poopara. It is a small farm but is packed with all sorts of spice plants. The USP of this farm, as the guide said, was the organic farming methods used here. This is the home of Mr. Chacko Simon and he has converted the farm into a viable enterprise. There is an entry fee of Rs 100. The guide showed us around this rugged farm which also boasts of a small brook and rocks sculpted by the flowing water in interesting ways. There were spice plants such as cardamom, nutmeg, pepper vines, cinnamon trees and different types of rudraksh trees. There were other plants that we had never come across like the tree that had fruit which drove away snakes and a sort of tomato that grew on trees. These fruits were used to treat stomach ulcers. 
Flaming orange anthuriums rubbed shoulders with exotic orchids and flox. We discovered a coop which housed not one but two large turkeys, a guinea fowl and a few different types of chicken, besides a languid rabbit and a very noisy rooster. The house cat, called Sundari, was nervously eyeing a rat snake that had got trapped in a net. The snake was the centre of attention till we came to a small dark shed. This was where raw cardamom was dried. It had a series of pipes running across slats to convey heat to different parts of the drying shed. It takes three days for cardamom to dry.Then the dried pods are packed for sale. The front of the house has a little verandah converted into a spices stall. Even though it was small, there was a variety of spices, teas, organic beauty aid lotions and other interesting things. We selected our stuff and lugged off a large bag of fresh spices and other what nots. The prices, we were assured, were lower than elsewhere.
It was becoming late in the afternoon and we decided to head to Munnar for a quick lunch. Munnar was only 13 kms away but it took us an hour reaching there. Opting for a light lunch, we got off at Silver spoon restaurant. After lunch we rushed to the Tata Tea Museum downtown. The closing time was 4:00pm and it was already half past three. Anyway, when we reached there, the place was inundated with tourists  and admissions were still happening. So we joined in the queue and trooped in with our tickets at Rs 75 each. This was the erstwhile Kanan Devan Tea estate offices now converted into a museum. Machinery used in processing tea leaves and other instruments including a slew of typewriters and a complicated looking calculator took pride of place. Furniture and personal use items like a 'bowl and jug' wash basin and a large wooden bath tub only a little worn were also kept there. A large collection of black and white and sepia prints too adorned the walls. A short history of the formation of these estates also was framed. We had reached just as a 45 minute documentary of these estates had started and as we were getting tired, we decided to attend the lecture on tea instead. A small tea factory of sorts was functioning in the premises for the benefit of the visitors and a floor above we listened to a lecture on tea and all about brewing it. Very interesting and informative stuff. Afterwards we were each given a paper cup of hot, sweet, milky tea. That concluded the visit to the museum. It was getting dark and we decided to call it a day. All that travelling on bumpy roads had given us a good appetite and we enjoyed our second dinner at the resort.
The third day started with a slight drizzle and fine mist rolling in. The far away mountains looked grey and blue with grey clouds hovering between them. It was perfect hill station climate. Hot coffee in the balcony while reading the morning paper was just the thing. The previous day's outing was a bit more tiring than thought, so we decided to stay put in the resort and enjoy some in-house activities. We played scrabble and table tennis. I wanted to try my hand at basket weaving but found some nice books to read instead. We tried out some ayurvedic treatments and felt a lot better after the session. All in all a lazy day. We were at the resort for lunch and a short siesta later, we explored some more of the resort. The grocery had bare minimum essentials like milk, toothbrushes, paste, soap, chips and biscuits and other small eats. Bought a few snacks and visited the souvenir shop too.  We took photos around the property and finally we went to have our last dinner at the resort. Many of the faces were new and a few new friends had already bid us goodbye the previous evening. Tomorrow, we too would be back in Kochi. All in all a holiday to remember and if possible to repeat. 
Breakfast and check-out saw us winding down the hilly path. We would first go to Munnar and thence to Kochi. As we left for Munnar town, we decided to see the Mattupetty Dam, which was just a short detour away. The reservoir was full. Tourists were there in droves and sellers busy trying to get them to buy their fresh garden produce  or to drink fresh tender coconut water. After the quietness of the forest, milling crowds seemed a bit too busy. You can go boating or horse-riding here. 
Mattupetty is the location of a famous Indo-Swiss dairy farm, managed now by the Kerala Livestock Development Board. It has more than 100 varieties of high-yielding cattle.
From Mattupetty, we could have gone on to Top Station for a great view of the Western Ghats, but we were running short of time, and decided to skip it.
We were soon on our way but stopped on seeing passion fruit strung at some fruit stalls. Delicious passion fruit is found aplenty now and the price at Rs 70 a kg was a steal. So I picked up few kilos of this fruit for gifting and use back in Kochi.
It was lunch time and after a bite at the well known Saravana Bhavan, in Munnar town, we were on our way. It was enroute to Adimali that we passed the Elephant Park.  We retraced our steps to investigate. We were so glad to have done that. It is a delightful enterprise where both man and beast enjoy each other's company. Here, elephants carry a couple of persons around a set path and at the end of the ride, the riders feed the elephant, fruits from a large basket. The elephant sees the basket and curls up its trunk to receive its 'fruity wages' from the excited riders. An excellent activity to take part in. There are other activities involving these giants, like bathing them or having them squirt water at you with their trunks. The popularity of these activities was brought home to us when we tried to get a ticket for our ride. We were pleasantly surprised by the long queue awaiting their turn.  Newly weds formed the largest contingent followed by small families with kids. Awaiting our turn would mean our return trip would be delayed inordinately. 
On the way to Mattupetty, you can stop at a Floriculture Centre run by the Kerala Forest Development Corporation to see an extremely well-maintained garden with a huge variety of flowers and plants.
Munnar is famous for the Neelakurinji, which flowers once in 12 years. This, however, was not "kurinji" season. We also did not see the 'varayadu', the striped mountain goat indigenous to this region.
There are several wildlife sanctuaries around Munnar, such as Eravikulam, Thattekad and Chinnar, and the hotel where you stay will make arrangements for you to travel to them. Hire a trained guide to accompany you. Many of the outings will involve back-breaking drives on dirt tracks. 
Apart from spices such as cardamom, you can buy aromatic oils (eucalyptus oil, lemon grass) and fruits at various places in and around Munnar. And, of course, tea at the outlets of the Kannan Devan Hill Plantations (KDHP), a Tata company.
There are hundreds of places to stay in Munnar...from cheap home-stays to budget and economy hotels and resorts to the luxury resorts. Prices could range from Rs 500 a day to Rs 9000, depending on what you choose. Many companies also have guest houses in the area. Malayalam and Tamil are the main languages spoken here, but many people understand English and Hindi.
Apart from Kochi (130 km), Munnar can also be reached from Madurai (135 km) and Coimbatore (170 km).
For those planning to travel from North India, it might be a good idea to combine visits to Kumarakom and Thekkaddy and, perhaps, Kovalam. There are any number of travel agencies which offer 5 or 7-day trips and take care of local travel, hotels, and so on. Friends of ours who took one such trip said they spent about Rs 40,000 per person (exclusive of the air fares to Kochi).
Verdant hills of Munnar
Verdant hills of Munnar
Before making the trip, it might also be a good idea to read up a bit about Munnar. The outside world did not know much about the place till the then British Resident in Travancore, John Daniel Munro, visited the place in the 1870s. Munnar fell under the jurisdiction of the Travancore kingdom but it was the "jenmam" land of the Poonjar royal family.
Munro fell for the beauty of the place and also found that the Kanan Devan hills had great potential for plantation crops. He negotiated with the head of the Poonjar royal family, who agreed to lease out the hills, comprising about 1,36,600 acres of land to Munro for an annual lease rent of Rs. 3,000 and a security deposit of Rs. 5,000.
Munro formed the North Travancore Land Planting & Agricultural Society in 1879, whose members started cultivation of crops, including coffee, cardamom, cinchona and sisal in various parts of the region. However these crops were later abandoned when tea was found to be the ideal crop for the region. 
Clearly, we could not do everything we could have in Munnar, and it looks like we will have to return to the misty mountains sooner than later for those experiences.
(Photos by Vinita Abraham)

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Pet peeves and other things that bug me...

Bikram Vohra
Bikram Vohra

Do you have hang-ups, like blind spots that make you see red? I do. 

Nothing gets me more riled up than someone not looking up from behind a counter when I speak to them. They’ll keep doing their work or talking among themselves and you are saying, excuse me, with that horrible ingratiating whiney tone and he or she isn’t even recognizing your existence. Like, that makes me mad. 
About as mad as those cretins who park their cars over two spaces, the tyres eight inches into the second square and you want to throttle them because it is so inconsiderate and what were they thinking when they parked their cars, couldn’t they see that big white swathe of paint, what did they think it was, art? And what vehicle is it, a 1.4 litre toy car not even the excuse of an SUV.
Then you have the world’s most annoying air passengers who entertain you from waiting lounge to doors closing with their mobile phone conversations, giving some poor sod at the other end a blow by blow account of the progress of his flight. 
Flight is announced. We are getting on. I am in my seat, it’s a window. Hurrah. I’ll be back Saturday (couldn’t you have told them that before leaving for the airport?). How are the kids (you left them one hour ago they haven’t run away)? Don’t forget to pay the electricity bill. 
And then the whole song is repeated when the plane lands. Frantic dialing even before the wheels have stopped smoking. I have landed. We are taxiing to the bay. We are getting off. I am getting up. Any news? What do you want from Duty Free? I’ll take a cab. See you in the hour.
Then you have the verbal tyrants. They come into a meeting and well into it they say, can I be honest? Say what? You’ve been lying all this time, taking us to the cleaners.
Otherwise, they’ll say, in my personal opinion…as opposed to what, your impersonal opinion? The pompous one who says, I am the sort of guy who calls a spade a spade. Yeah, really, what do you think we do, look at the spade and say, uhmmmmm, this is a trowel or a shearer.
Then you have that inevitable fellow who goes up your nose with his, I don’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings (yes, you do) but I have to be blunt (so all this time you were the sharpest tool in the shed) and there is nothing personal about it, totally subjective (hahahahaha).
Up there on the irritation factor is the guy who says we should all think out of the box. My point is why are we in the box in the first place. And what box are we talking about. The little attaché case, a wooden chest or simply a cardboard square?
My four favourite "can I scream" corporate verbal scams:
Are we on the same page? (I don’t know, what book are you reading?)
You have to hit the ground running (really, and what if I fall and break a leg, huh, ever seen someone hit the ground running when he jumps off a bus?
We need to get our ducks in a row. (What ducks, this is office, not a funfair, why should we get our ducks in a row, might as well get coconuts.)
We have to be seen to be going forward (like we have been going backwards all these months, who thinks these up?
Here is one I read from a business house addressed to all staff; 
"Thank you for your inputs. As we restructure and climb the strategic staircase, seeking granuality in the procedures to be adopted, we are assessing and mitigating immediate impacts and developing a high-level overview to help frame the corporate ethos with our customers and key stakeholders. In the meantime, please continue to raise specific concerns or questions about projects ensuring that as we reallocate our resources we have to tighten our belts and ensure that we achieve maximum potential. Until such time all initiatives are on hold."
I think he means no.
Bikram Vohra has been editor of Gulf News, Khaleej Times, Bahrain Tribune, Emirates Evening Post and helped in setting up Gulf Today.

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