Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas, Christians & Christianity in India

Christmas and Christianity is becoming popular in India. There was once a time, when only a few houses in an entire area, that hang "Christmas stars" outside. Today, there are few houses in every street, with glittering "Christmas stars" hung outside.

Christmas is getting celebrated in a big way, in India. Since it is a government holiday, many party halls and restaurants are filled with people. It isn't just common man who is celebrating Christmas, in India. Even commercial establishments and eateries make Christmas, a big event. They announce a lot of sweet deals and offers around Christmas. News papers are filled with Christmas related advertisements.

Santa Claus is getting popular in schools, these days. My daughter in KG, came home with a small toy car and some candy. She said "Santa Claus came to our school today to give gifts to everyone !!". She was very cheerful on getting a gift from Santa Claus. 

My uncle is a Christian for several decades now. A couple of my relatives converted to Christianity, recently. Though I'm not a strong believer of one particular religion, I'm quite surprised by the conversion rate. I learned that Christian missionaries help folks who are in "need". In fact, one of my
relatives got an aid to set up a petty shop. Needless to say that he became a Christian.Christian missionaries run several schools in Chennai - many of them provide free education to the needy and to the bright students. One of my neighbors died unexpectedly and the Christian school in which his sons studied, took care of the kids' educational expenses.

There is a church in every other street, now. When I say church, don't imagine a Roman style church. Folks have rented out or converted large halls into churches for their regular prayers. Just take a morning walk, you would notice a number of people attending early morning prayers/mass in the churches.

Sundays are very special. You can see a number of Christians, well dressed up and with a bible in their hand, visiting churches. People of different age groups, different gender, different race, different economical status attend the mass on Sundays. It is nice to see people getting disciplined. Christians do organize processions on special days such as Christmas. Of course, when there is crowd, there are beggars. Beggars gather outside the church, eagerly waiting for the mass to be over, to get alms.

I did some Internet search to find numbers to substantiate my observations, on the growth of Christianity. However, I could find none. Christians constitute only 2.34% of the overall Indian population (based on census data published in 2004). The growth rate of Christianity in 2004 was 23% (when compared to 21% in 1991). The numbers don't add-up to justify my observations. I'm very curious to see the results of the census data being gathered now, in India.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Panambur Beach in Mangalore - Extremely beautiful !

I had been to Mangalore a few weeks back to attend a wedding. The wedding happened in TMA Pai Convention Center. My friend & I stayed in Hotel Deepa Comforts, near the convention center. After the wedding, I had a few hours before catching the return flight to Chennai. My friend and I decided to go out and spend a few hours. (Also read: Night stay in Bangalore airport - rethink)

We checked at the hotel reception desk - "What are some good places to see in Mangalore?". The receptionist swiftly said "Sir ! Mangalore is famous for temples. There are lots of them. However, most of them would be closed at this time. You can visit a beach, if you like". "What is the closest beach", I asked. She said "Panambur Beach. That is just 12 kms from here". "Do you know how much auto wallas charge?", I asked. She said "No sir ! But, in Mangalore, autos go by metered fares. So, you don't have to worry about the fare"  (Also read: Chennai Marina Beach - Free recreation for everyone)

My friend and I checked-out of the hotel, came out to the road and stopped an auto rickshaw. He said, "Sir! You've to pay me 1.5 times the meter fare to get to Panambur Beach. I've to return empty - nobody boards from there to here". We didn't want to bargain/argue in a strange land - especially, without knowing the local language. It took about 20 minutes, to get to Panambur beach.

Panambur beach is located in an industrial area, and close to the Mangalore Port. There were a couple of "coal" factories near the beach. The access to the beach was through a polluted road - the area completely soaked in black by the nearby coal factories. However, we were pleasantly surprised when the auto rickshaw dropped us near the beach. The beach was maintained very well. There were play structures for the kids. They had small gardens in the area. The sand was "crystal clear" and "clean" - no trash, and no dust. There were a few eateries nearby. The beach itself was small. However, there were many people even at 3 o'clock, when the sun was shining bright and hot. I thought we were the only jokers to go to a beach at that time. But, there was enough company for us :)

Some folks were riding water scooters. There were people (government appointed?) to monitor the safety of the folks entering the sea. There were small tents providing shade for the people. We spent nearly 2 hours in the beach. On our return journey, we stopped at the nearby auto rickshaw stand. The guys in the stand demanded 1.5 times the meter fare, again. Their rationale was "Sir ! We aren't from the city. We have to come back to this place empty. So, you have to pay 1.5 times the meter fare". We didn't have much choice and ended up paying 1.5 times fare (Rs.150).

Panambur beach is extremely beautiful. If you are in Mangalore and looking for a place to kill couple of hours, Panambur beach is a must-see.  (Also read: Chennai Marina Beach - Free recreation for everyone)

Night stay in Bangalore airport - Rethink

I had been to Mangalore a few weeks ago, to attend a friend's wedding. I had booked my travel in Kingfisher airlines (one of the budget airlines in India). The flight tickets were booked at least 3 months in advance. It is a direct flight from Chennai to Mangalore and I got a good deal - the round trip cost only Rs.8K. But, the actual fun(?) started only 2 days before the trip.

I got a call from Kingfisher airlines, 2 days before the trip. I was told that the direct flight to Mangalore was canceled and they've to put me in a different flight. Since there were no other direct Kingfisher flights to Mangalore, I decided to take a flight to Bangalore, stay there at night and reach Mangalore, the next day morning. (Also read: Panambur Beach in Mangalore - Extremely beautiful)

After reaching Bangalore airport, I went to the Karnataka Tourism Counter to find out if there are any hotels nearby, for an overnight stay. The guy in the counter gave me a brochure from the nearby hotel, which said "Rs.2700 for a room". In a country where people pay "Rs.2700" as monthly rent for their house, "Rs.2700" for an overnight stay sounded too much. I asked him "Are there any other hotels in the vicinity". He said "No Sir ! This is the only hotel that is close to the airport. You have to go to the city which is 30km away, to find a hotel". Since I didn't travel with my family, I decided to stay in the Bangalore domestic airport overnight.

Bangalore domestic airport didn't have a proper lounge for overnight stay. I ended up sleeping on the chair, in sitting posture. The chairs in the airport didn't have any cushion and they aren't comfortable at all. Somehow, I managed to spend an entire night in the airport. In the morning, I got up and took the early morning flight to Mangalore. Thank god, I didn't travel with my family. Otherwise, I would've to take the hotel room for Rs.2700.  (Also read: Traveling near restrooms isn't fun)

The new Bangalore airport is 30 - 40 kms away from the city. Most of the hotels are located at least 20 - 30 kms away from the airport. Since the airport is new and is in a remote place, there are not many hotels around for a "common man" to stay overnight. Of course, "common man" in India doesn't fly :)

Saturday, December 04, 2010

R2I Change of Address - Checklist

One of the key things to do during your move from US to India, is providing "Change of Address". Should I be giving change of address to Post Office, Bank, 401k Provider, Social Security Administration, etc.,? Can I give foreign address to institutions in US? Can I setup mail forwarding from US to India? This post is intended to address some of the commonly asked questions on R2I Address Change.

(Also read: Return to India (R2I) - 25 things to do)

When returning from USA, you should have given the change of address to all the concerned parties, so that they can mail you the income tax statement. Otherwise, you may have to chase each of them to send you soft copies by email. Hopefully, you gave the address of a friend who lives in his/her own house. That way, you don't have to worry about change of address when your friend shifts his/her house. Inform/remind your friend that he/she may receive your income tax statements from different sources. This will help them to keep an eye on it.

Post Office - Giving "Change of Address" to your post office is one of the important things you should do. It is recommended to give the address of a friend who owns a house (A friend who rents a house may move around). Also, the friend has to be very reliable. He/she shouldn't miss important mail communications to you.

(Note: There are services that provide you a local P.O Box address in US and does international mailing of shipment to India. I don't have much details on them and I'm not sure how reliable they are)

Employer - Your employer would have to send your W2 statement at the end of the financial year. You would need that to file your tax returns. You need to give your employer the address to which they've to mail your W2 statement. You can give your India address or ask your employer to ship the W2 statement to your friend's address. Your friend can courier it to you or scan it and send it to you, for filing the tax returns online.

401K Provider - Depending upon the provider, you can give a foreign address. For ex., Vangaurd would allow you to maintain a foreign address for your 401k account. (Also read: R2I - 401(k) closure FAQs)

Bank / Credit Cards - Many banks allow you to provide a foreign address for communication. However, it is recommended to call the banking institution to confirm the same. In todays "hi-tech" world, you can do most of the transactions online and even get your monthly statements online. You can also give your friend's address in the Bank for communication.

Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) - You can give a foreign address in some of the DMVs. For example, Oregon DMV allows you to do that. Call & check with your DMV directly.

Jury Duty/Voters List - If you are a US Citizen, you can do the address change on voters list, in your DMV office itself. You're called for Jury Duty based on the records in Secretary of State offices (which they get from DMV) & Voters list. You can call your "State Election Offices" to do the change in Voters list (if DMV doesn't offer that service)

Social Security Administration - No address change required. However, you need to keep IRS informed about your address change. You should fill Form 8822, to notify IRS about your address change. SSA doesn't maintain your address records if you are not getting benefits currently (i.e., until you reach your retirement age). SSA gets the information from IRS (Internal Revenue Service). So, keep the IRS informed about your change of address. You can notify IRS regarding the address change by using Form 8822.

SSA would start tracking your address (on its own) only after you reach your retirement age. You can refer to the following FAQ on SSA website that provides additional information:

(Also read: How can I get my Social Security benefits/money?)

Post R2I - Once you returned to India, there is no "formal" process to notify India government about R2I. If you have a PIO you may need to get it registered, at the FRRO. If you have an OCI, you don't need any registration.

In general, I would recommend you to give a friend's address for all the institutions in US, from whom you would receive correspondences. That way, the mail doesn't get lost/missed during international shipment.

US Citizens - US Citizens should let the consulate or nearest embassy know that they're residing/traveling in a foreign country. They should let the consulate know about the change of address -

The following website provides additional address change instructions for US Citizens.

Note: This blog post provides a list of common places where you have to change your address. This isn't a comprehensive list.

Also read:

R2I Planning Guide
Returning to India - 25 things to do

Raw Vegetarian Diet - Experiment scaled down

I started experimenting "raw vegetarian diet", a few months ago. I liked the idea of eating uncooked vegetables and they really tasted good. However, I couldn't sustain my experiment for more than couple of months. There were several challenges that I faced during the experiment:

(Also read: Why am I a Vegan?)
  • Vegetables that we get in the market/shop aren't "fresh" most of the times
  • It takes lot of time to eat raw vegetables
  • It also takes a lot of time for us to "digest" raw vegetables
  • Raw vegetables generate lot of gas and stomach is always 'heavy'
  • The craving for 'cooked' food is hard to control :-)
To add to all the above issues, I faced a severe indigestion problem for a few days and I decided to scale down my experiment significantly. Instead of trying to become a 100% raw vegetarian, I started to include more raw vegetables/fruits in my diet. Now, I'm getting the best of both the worlds - cooked as well as raw food. For the last several months, I'm able to sustain this diet model without any issues.

Also read:

A journey from non-vegetarian to raw-vegetarian
Why am I a Vegan?
Sunday - a day of mass murders in India

Canon Camera Service Centers in Chennai - Scarce & Costly !

I have been owning a Canon Powershot A630 for nearly 4 years, now. Recently, the camera needed a service. The lens door wasn't closing or opening properly. I started looking for service centers in Chennai. I took the camera for service to a 'mom & pop' service center in Parson Complex (near Gemini Flyover). The shop was called V.V Camera Clinic. It looked very much like a 'watch repair shop' that you see on the road sides. After seeing the camera, he said, he'll charge Rs.950 for the repair. I was completely thrown away when I heard the price. I asked him - "Are you going to replace th entire lens". He said, "No sir! I'm going to just fix the lens door". I asked him "Can you just remove the lens door for me? Technically, I don't need a lens door as I'm keeping the camera away from dust all the times". He said "No sir ! It isn't possible". I was hesitant to leave my costly(!) camera there for service. I decided to check with a proper "Canon Camera Service Center" in Chennai. (Also read: Goods in US market - lots of options & cheaper prices)

One of my friends told that there is a Canon Service Center opposite to HCL Technologies, in Vadapalani. I took the camera there and came to know that the Service Center is taking care of only printer repairs, these days (They used to service cameras before). It looks like they've consolidated all the Canon Camera/Camcorder repair services to one location in Chennai.

The Canon Camera Service Center is located in Mylapore - right opposite to Thirumayilai MRTS/Railway Station. It is a busy area with buses flying left and right. and I had to park my two wheeler on the road near-by. The service center itself is a small shop and had neat interiors. There were atleast 3 people waiting before me. There was a board in the shop displaying the rates for various services. The minimum charge for any service is Rs.827 (Rs.750 + tax). They do a pre-inspection and will tell you "how much it would take to service the Canon camera". They'll give you a ball park estimate. After inspection, they'll tell you the exact amount for the service. If you think, you don't want to do the service, you can get the camera back. However, they charge Rs.200/- for inspection.

One of the service reps did a pre-inspection and told me that it would take Rs.950 for the service :-) [Thats when I realized why the "mom & pop" guy asked for Rs.950]. I asked the service rep "Why does it cost so much to just replace a small lens door?". He said "Sir ! Any time we open a camera for repair, we charge Rs.827. Charges for the parts will be extra". I thought "Hmm ! These guys are getting more than what I get paid for an hour of job". I didn't have much option. I decided to leave the camera there for service. They called me in an hour and asked me to collect the camera back. I couldn't go on the same day and collected the camera on the following day.

It costed me $20 to get a small lens door replaced, in Chennai. Of course, the same job would cost more in US. But, $20 still looked high for Indian standards. Considering the fact that many guys own Canon Camera/Camcorders here, having only one service center for Cameras/Camcorders was still surprising to me. Not sure if there are many mom & pop guys who are stealing "service" business from Canon. Or, the Canon cameras may not be getting faulty often :) Anyways, it was an interesting experience to me. Just thought of sharing the experience with others.

Here is the address for the Canon Authorized Service Center in Chennai. NO. 7 RK MUTT ROAD, 1ST FLOOR, MYLAPORE, CHENNAI, TAMIL NADU, Pin : 600028, Tel : 044-42101331/64602423. You can look at Canon India website for the latest details.

Also read:

IP Phone - Magic Jack vs Vonage vs Skype
Goods in US market - lots of options & cheaper prices

How much money do you need to R2I?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Anna Tower Park - A boon for Anna Nagar residents

Recently, I had been to the Anna Tower Park (also called as Dr. Visveswaraya Park), in Anna Nagar. The park was simply gorgeous. The dense trees giving a fresh green cover, the chirping birds, colorful playing structures, well-laid walkways, sound of the fountains, ponds filled with lotus flowers, and the majestic tower ... made the place to look like heaven. Anna Tower park is a boon  for folks who want to spend their evening hours. The last time I visited this park was nearly 10 years ago. It was in a pathetic situation, then. Thanks to Chennai Corporation's increased interest in constructing, renovating and maintaining parks in Chennai. Anna Tower Park looked very young and colorful.

(Also read: A visit to Arignar Anna Zoological Park - Vandalur  A visit to Children's Park & Snake Park in Guindy

The 135ft tower in the center of the park, painted in fresh orange, is an eye catcher. I was curious to take a peek at the Chennai city from the top of the tower. However, access to the tower was closed. I was told that the access is restricted due to increased suicides and "pairs" using walkways as a "hangout" place.

The entire park was very busy - folks who are exercising, readers who are buried into their books, students hanging out with their friends, elderly couples chit-chatting, families relaxing, and kids playing. Despite the "busyness" engulfing the park, everyone gets their privacy.

The park had a meditation court, a small pond, kids play area, walk-ways and grass land, an arena for dance/music, cricket pitch, skating rink, and water fountains. In the night, they switched-on fancy lights, which made the entire place to look very colorful. The park also had well maintained rest room facilities. There is enough parking available along the road side for both two wheeler and cars. There is also a constable standing outside the park, to maintain some order. (Also read: Semmozhi Poonga - A Greenway in the heart of Chennai) 

It looks like kids are taught "skating" lessons in the mornings and evenings in Anna Tower Park. Also, the park is used for hosting week long annual celebrations of "Chennai Sangamam", a Tamil cultural festival. You can easily spend two or three hours in the park. There is lots of entertainment for kids. Adults can also spend time peacefully in the park. 

Anna Tower Park is definitely a boon for the residents in and around Anna Nagar.

Also read:

Semmozhi Poonga - A Greenway in the heart of Chennai 
Skywalk Ampa Mall - Multiplex++
Mahabalipuram, Muttukadu & Crocodile Park
American Library in US Consulate - for History Lovers
A visit to Children's Park & Snake Park in Guindy

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Self adjusting Traffic - Miracle on Roads

According to studies, people are afraid of public speaking, more than the fear of death. Thanks to Toastmasters. I'm not afraid of public speaking. But, I was afraid to drive on Indian roads. Uneven roads, rash drivers, congested traffic, dysfunctional signals, worn-out sign boards, pedestrians all over the road scared the hell out of me. How am I going to drive a car in India? It sounded like a million dollar question to me.

Also read: Shared van/shuttle services in Chennai - hard to find!?

The few days of traffic lessons that I took early in the morning (at 6.30 am), wasn't helpful at all. It was like getting trained in your house's stair case to climb Mt. Everest.  Roads are almost empty, at 6.30 am. There is only a few vehicles and countable pedestrians on the road. However, during the peak hour, there is hardly any space for even bicycles to move around - let alone a car.

Driving the car from the dealership to home was a nerve-wracking experience. It is still fresh in my memories. There were motorbikes, bicyclists and cars all around my car. There was just 1 inch gap between my car and other vehicles. I wasn't sure if I would be able to take the car home, without a dent. The car stopped at least 5 times in the short ride from the dealership to home. You can imagine the number of honks I would've got. I was sweating inside the car (though the AC was turned-on). Heart was beating fast and I could sense the adrenaline gush. I managed to successfully get the car to the home. (Also read: Brought a new car - Maruti Swift Dzire)

After reaching home, getting the car on the ramp to the parking lot was another comical experience. The car stopped in the middle of the ramp. I had to wait for the road traffic to clear to come back to the road, from the ramp. I had to do this a couple of times before successfully getting the car on the parking lot.

Considering the fact that I drive the vehicle in city interiors 80% of the times, I should've gone  for a car with automatic gears. In the 30 minutes commute to work, I had to change gears at least 50 times. Changing gears isn't difficult, but pressing the clutch was. With bumber-to-bumper traffic on the road, you should be an adroit driver. A vehicle that stops on the road isn't treated  courteously by other drivers. The honks from all the vehicles will drive you nuts. I started going to work very early & returned home early to avoid traffic.

Also read: Talking on mobiles when driving is prohibited in India

It took me exactly 3 days to get comfortable with the Indian roads. When you drive the 1000 Kg iron on the road, the traffic gets self-adjusted. Way gets created for you automatically. You have to see it to believe it. Though we don't "study" traffic rules, there are lots of "unwritten" rules that we learn through experience.

  • On seeing a car, pedestrians move to the curb, 2 wheelers driving on the middle of the road go to the sides. If they don't, then you should :-)
  • Car/Truck drivers need to just focus on the front. The side/rear traffic would automatically get adjusted to your moves.
  • In a street where only an autorickshaw can go, a car can squeeze through. At times, a huge truck can also go through. Parked vehicles along the road side gets moved, road side shops/carts are moved to create way. A friend of mine managed to go from one end of "Ritchie Street" to another end, in his Honda City, on a busy day. It is hard to imagine, how someone can do that.
  • When there is a traffic jam, volunteers pop-up from the street corners. Most of the times, it is the autorickshaw wallahs, who play the traffic regulators role when there is a traffic jam or an accident on the interior streets. In general, the citizens are very co-operative for large vehicles (cars/trucks/buses etc.,). They help you create space/way when you are stuck - especially when you are driving a brand new/hi-fi car, or if you are a lady driver, or if you are dressed-up well.
  • People don't expect a "flooded" sign-board when there is a pool of water on the road side :)
  • Even when someone parks the car in the middle of the road, the traffic finds its way around the parked car. 
  • Emergency vehicles manage to get through congested roads & crowded streets (of course, with some delay)
  • When you see a passive driver in front of you, you should become aggressive & when you see an aggressive driver behind you, you should become passive
  • Everyone on the road stays alert (pedestrian, 2-wheeler, car/truck/bus drivers etc.,)
  • Everyone have to cover/secure their base, by staying alert
  • Meaning of signals:
              Green - Take turns or move forward with some attention
              Yellow - Take turns or move forward very carefully
              Red - Take turns or move forward very very carefully

Vehicles cruising through our roads in India is indeed a magic. I'm still enthralled by the way in which traffic moves everyday. But, I can proudly say that I'm a certified Indian driver now.

Also read:

Heavy Rain made Chennai into Venice 
Driving on Indian roads - Pleasure or Pain?  

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Bought a new car - Maruti Swift Dzire

I made my decision to buy a car in Feb 2010. I haven't driven on Indian roads much - other than the few days of driving lessons that I took in 2002 (just before going to US). The thought of driving a car on Indian roads, was very scary. I still wonder how people drive these giant vehicles on the road, without bumping into each other. I consoled myself when I saw these huge buses and trucks maneuvered on the roads with ease, by our dexterous drivers. (Also read: Driving on Indian roads - pleasure or pain?)

The following are some items that influenced my decision to buy a new Maruti Swift Dzire. The parameters given here should be useful for others, as well. Of course, the actual values others apply, may vary :)

Used vs New

When I made my decision to buy a car, I started looking for used cars. Since I haven't driven on Indian roads, I thought it is a good idea to buy a used vehicle - so that, I don't have to worry about the wear 'n tear or damages. Religiously, I looked at the "Classified" section in Hindu to get some understanding of the models available in the market & the price range. I visited even a couple of "Maruti True Value" exhibits to find out the "quality" of the used cars available in the market. Used cars are REALLY USED in India. Either, the cars have become very old (or) there is lot of miles on the car in a short time. If the car is relatively new or used very less, they charge you almost equivalent of the price of new cars.

Buying used cars directly from "known" people is good. Otherwise, buying used cars directly from a third-party has its associated risks. When you want to play it safe by buying used car from a dealer, you should be ready to pay the extra price. For example, Maruti True Value used cars sell you cars with 1 year warranty. However, they charge you nearly 10 - 15% more than the open market. In essence, used cars aren't very "attractive". Well, actually the smell of brand new cars mesmerized me more !

Small vs Big

Should I buy a small/compact car or should I go for a big/sedan car? Should I buy a car or should I go for a SUV/minivan? There were lots of questions.

Small cars are easier to drive in Chennai streets and city interiors. Taking a 180 degree turn in crowded/congested streets is easier, too. It is convenient for ladies & short people to drive a small car. Even from a budget point of view, small cars are very attractive and there are so many models/options available in that segment/category. But, it would be extremely hard for a 6.2 ft person (like me!) to squeeze into the driver seat. Also, it would not be convenient for a family of 5 members to sit comfortably - especially, when you have to go on a long drive. So, I ruled out the option of buying a small car.

I decided to buy a sedan, because it is spacious & at the same time, it is NOT as BIG as a SUV/mini van. So, relatively it is easier to drive on Indian roads.

Financing vs Paying by Cash

This is a "no-brainer". I straight away went for "Financing". The interest rates are very attractive and they're hard to resist. For example, for a 3-years fixed deposit banks give you an interest of 7.5%. However, for a 3 years car loan, they charge you just 8.5% interest. You are better-off investing the money in an 'appreciating' asset - instead of throwing the money on the car. I would recommend you to check with the bank where you have salary account (instead of going with the creditor that the car dealer arranges for you). Also, it is always recommended to check with multiple banks before finalizing on one creditor. Remember "When banks compete - you WIN" :)  (Also read: Loan application process in India - very simple)

Banks may force you to buy an extra 'insurance' for the loan amount. Don't ever do that. It is not a must to get insurance cover for your car loan. Car, by itself is an asset. Moreover, you would be taking insurance for the car. If something happens to you, the banker can always come and take your car. If something happens to the car, you'll get the car's insurance provider pay for it. So, don't buy a separate insurance from the banker/creditor. On instances where you have to take delivery of the car "soon", bankers/creditors may force you to get insurance for speedy processing. Don't fall into the trap.

Automatic vs Manual

Cars with "automatic" transmission are very easy to drive. In fact, some of the modern automatic cars are even 'optimized' for fuel consumption. However, I wanted to be a Roman in Rome. So, I joined the "herd" :) Honestly, there were two reasons why I didn't go for a car with  "Automatic" transmission. First, they were pricier than the "stick-shift" ones. Second, I wanted to be able to drive a "manual" transmission car. That way, when I have to drive other(s') cars in India, I would be able to drive them with ease.

Having driven a stick-shift car in India for a month, I feel that it is painful to drive them in "stop 'n go" traffic. So, if you are buying a car that will be used mostly in city interior roads, do consider "Automatic" ones.

Diesel vs Petrol

Petrol cars provide more driving comfort than Diesel cars. Diesel engines are noisier. If you have driven Petrol cars before and trying Diesel cars now, you'll notice the difference right away. From the point of mileage & cost of fueling, Diesel cars are very attractive. However, the cost of Diesel cars are 10 - 15% higher than Petrol cars. You should go for Diesel cars only if you anticipate driving long distances, frequently. Otherwise, it would take a long time for you to "break even" the premium that you paid for Diesel car. I did order a Petrol car initially. However, I had to change my order and settle for a Diesel car, due to the long wait time for the Petrol version of Maruti Swift Dzire.

Why Maruti?

There are so many brands available in India, today. The prices are very attractive/competitive. Almost all the car manufacturers (that, I know of) sell cars in India - Mercedes, Volswagon, Ford, Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, Chevrolet, Tata, Maruti and the list goes on ! I wanted to avoid 'premium' cars. Based on the information that I gathered from friends, maintenance costs of 'Premium' cars are HIGH. Also, the resale value is LOW. Maruti Cars provide low cost maintenance and also high resale value. The maintenace cost of Tata cars is also LOW. However, Maruti's post-sales service (for maintenance) is considered the BEST.

In fact, I did consider TATA Indigo MANZA, before settling down for Maruti SWIFT Dzire. Honda City was also very attractive in terms of features & convenience - however, it went above my budget and I also heard that the cost of parts replacement/maintenance is high.  Hence, settled for Maruti SWIFT Dzire. I like the features and convenience of Maruti SWIFT Dzire (for the price that I paid!). No wonder, why Maruti is still the #1 brand in India.

How did I get adjusted to driving a car on Indian roads? How did I learn to drive a stick-shift/manual car? Lots of interesting experiences to share... wait for my next blog post :)

Also read:

Self Adjusting Traffic - Miracle on Indian Roads
Two wheeler service - Can't escape from those long lines and hours of waiting
Heavy Rain made Chennai into Venice

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Filing Tax Returns in India - Made Easy !

I'm phobic to "standing in queues" - be it a theatre or a government office. I hate to stand in long lines, especially when things can be done from your home, over the internet, with the click of a mouse button. The thought of standing in long lines to file my tax returns made me nervous, in July. Thank God ! Indian government has brought a number of e-governance initiatives and "filing tax returns online" is one such initiative. (Also read: I love IRCTC.CO.IN)

I didn't have to file tax returns in India for the last several years, since I didn't have any income in India. The last time I filed tax returns in India, I had to stand in the queue for at least 2 hours to just submit the application and to get a stamped acknowledgment. I was thrilled to hear about the online service for filing tax returns. I initially envisioned it to be an equivalent of Turbo Tax or Tax Cut - but, it is no where close to those services. However, it is lot better than the hard copy "Saral form" that I filled years ago.

I got some tips from my colleagues and decided to file the tax returns online. All you need to do is download an Excel Spreadsheet, fill the relevant information from Form 16 and upload it online. You'll get an acknowledgment right away. In addition to doing this, you need to "mail" the hard copy to NSDL processing center. The process involved is very simple and you can complete it in just an hour or so. The refund amount gets automatically deposited in your bank account, if you provide bank account details. I was not eligible for any refunds and hence, couldn't validate that work flow. But, I heard that you DO get refunds from the IT department :)

In the past, I had to rely on my friends to understand the different fields in the Saral form. Having filed tax returns in US on my own, several times, I could now understand the fields easily. Moreover, the Excel Spreadsheet has lots of 'intelligence' built-in. It does all the basic checks that prevent you from entering wrong data.

Overall, I liked the online interface for filing tax returns. Someday, I want it to be as intuitive and easy as Turbo Tax / Tax Cut.

Also read:

Filing tax returns in US after your R2I - Some tips
Getting a PAN card in India - Not Easy!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Getting a PAN Card in India - Not easy !

What does it take to get a PAN card in India? A lot... I had some interesting experiences in my quest to get a PAN card, in India. The experiences that I had proves that you need lots of patience, whenever you are dealing with Indian government. Here is how the story goes...

The first time I applied for a PAN card was in 2002. There were long queues in income tax offices, especially working class/employed folks waiting to submit their PAN card application. As a true citizen, I stood in line and applied for my PAN card. After nearly 3 months, Income Tax  department returned my PAN card application saying that my photo in the application was "damaged". The leftover glue from another application has completely damaged my photo. I was frustrated to see that my application was rejected due to no fault of mine. I was about to leave to US for my job and I ditched the idea of getting a PAN card. (Also read: Can't escape standing in long lines   Got the two wheeler driving license - after hours of waiting)

Years later, Indian government made it mandatory for DEMAT account holders to furnish PAN card details. Though I was not using the account, I had to furnish PAN details to prevent the account from getting locked. In 2007, I went to UTI services to apply for a PAN card. They got my money, application, & photograph and said that I'll receive my PAN card  in just 2 weeks. I liked the fact that I didn't have to stand in long lines to apply for the PAN card. In two weeks, I got my PAN card, but... my birth date wasn't correct in that. My frustrations grew up again. But, I didn't bother to apply for a correction or to get a new PAN card. I started using that & nobody noticed/complained about the incorrect birth date.

In 2010, when I applied for a loan, the loan processing agent promptly noticed the mismatch in my birth date. They didn't make it a big issue - but asked me to correct it soon. So, I thought I should get my birth date corrected in the PAN card. I applied for a "correction" online from NSDL website & couriered all my documents to NSDL processing center. NSDL provides status of the processing, online - which is good. Though I wanted to just change my birthdate, they had asked for an address proof. The address proof that I gave had my name as "Saravanan V". I was asked to mail an address proof which contains my "full name". They had an option to send a soft copy over email. After I sent the scanned copy of the address proof, they changed my application status to something like "Processing complete. Request forwarded for PAN card change". The department that does the PAN card modifications, changed the status to "Mismatch between birthdate in the database and the birthdate in the application". The jokers have ignored the fact that my application itself was to change the "birth date" in the database. I tried to reach the NSDL Customer Support number in the website/application form. Unfortunately, the number itself was NOT in service. I sent an email to them saying that the purpose of my application itself was to change the birth date in the database and I had provided all the relevant details/proofs for it. Thank god, they realized their mistake on seeing that email. They didn't ask me to send any other documents and issued me a PAN card with the right birth date. Atlast, I now have a proper PAN card.

Though online services are available for many government transactions, the quality of such services is still poor. Mailing a 'hard copy' is a must, though you submit your application online. However, it is "way" better than having to stand in long lines for just "submitting" your application. On that front, our government has made great strides !

Way to go, India.

Also read:

10 things to know if you are thinking of Returning to India (R2I)
How much money do you need to R2I?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

World Classical Tamil Meet 2010 - Semmozhi Maanadu

I didn't get a chance to write in a long time. There were lots of exciting things happening at personal, work & social life. Hardly found time to even breathe :) So, expect to hear a lot from me in the following weeks/months. I decided to do a post on my visit to Coimbatore to attend the World Classical Tamil Meet (aka Semmozhi Maanadu), last month.

I never imagined that I would ever attend an event like the famous World Classical Tamil Meet. But I did. I got galvanized by the Classical Tamil Meet's theme song "Piroppokkum ella uyirkkum". I was following the developments in Coimbatore for World Classical Tamil Meet, and got very excited. I decided to do a flying visit to Coimbatore.

I wasn't sure if I would get any train/bus tickets because of the last minute trip. To my surprise, there were tickets available in popular travels such as KPN & Parveen. I booked my trip through Parveen travels and reached Coimbatore on the 2nd day of the Tamil Meet. I reached Gandhipuram and rented a hotel room for an hour, to get ready. I got ready, had breakfast and took a bus from Gandhipuram bus stand to Codissia. There were several special buses to Codissia (bus fare Rs.9). I reached the Tamil Meet venue by 9.30 am or so.

The whole city had a festive look. The roads were neatly laid; walk ways were built on both the sides of the road; bus stops had proper shelter; temporary rest rooms were available along the roads; the walls on the highways were painted to indicate the classical Tamil culture & heritage. The venue also had all arrangements to accommodate the massive turnout of people. The venue had proper drinking facilities, clean restrooms with water, lots of options for dining and enough security arrangements. There were policemen deployed in large numbers along the highways and in the venue. (Also read: Traveling near restrooms isn't fun)

The weather on the 2nd day was also very pleasant. I visited the "Iniyavai Narpathu" tableaux, first. It was spectacular. The artists had done a stupendous job in crafting those tableaux. Then, I spent some time under the shyamiyana watching a dance performance by Lawrence's troupe.

Though the meet was dominated by DMK party cadres & pro-DMK tamil enthusiasts - there was enough things for other people to enjoy, too.

The 2 key exhibits (Ancient articrafts exhibit & Internet exhibit) were opened only on the second day. People had gathered in large numbers in front of the exhibits. This was my first time in a huge crowd like that and the experience was simply amazing. There was hardly any space for even breathing and you get pushed/pulled in all directions. Surprisingly, there were families with kids in the crowd and they were getting crushed. Policemen were trying to do their best in controlling the crowd - but in vain. After waiting for nearly an hour, I got entry into the exhibit. I liked the exhibit that had collection of ancient articrafts. Internet exhibit just had a bunch of stalls trying to promote/demo their Tamil software.

For lunch, I went to the 'subsidized lunch stall'. For just Rs.30, they served two rice varieties, 1 bottled water, 1 laddu, chips & pickle. I heard that the other 2 lunch stalls had more options and were pricey.

As time went on, people started to pile up in large numbers. The whole Tamil Meet venue was flooded with people, mostly the localities from Coimbatore. I was wondering what would happen, if there is an emergency situation and how would people evacuate from the venue. I was in the Tamil meet venue until 4 pm and started heading back to the bus stand to catch my bus to Chennai. It was hard to find a public transport to get to the bus stand. I was afraid that I have to end up walking 3Kms. Luckily, I managed to get hold of a 'share auto' which charged Rs.100 for a ride (shared by 3 people). I took a couple of hours nap at the bus stand and boarded by bus at around 7 pm. (Also read: Share autos - boon or bane?)

Tamilnadu government had spent crores & crores of money on this spectacular event. The arrangements for the event were flawless and there was a huge turnout of people. However, I'm still wondering whether the event was conducted for really promoting Tamil or it was just a DMK party get together/publicity campaign.

 Also read:

Infoquest 2010 in GCT, Coimbatore 
Kovai Trip - Maruthamalai/GCT visit

Saturday, May 29, 2010

PVR Cinemas in Skywalk, Chennai - Worldclass

I had been to PVR Cinemas in Skywalk to watch the new movie, Singam. The theatre complex was spectacular. PVR cinemas is located in the 4th floor of Skywalk, the newest multiplex in Chennai. They have 7 movie halls. The ticket price was Rs.120 (+ Rs.15 per ticket for online booking). You can book your tickets online and pick them from a kiosk by just swiping your credit card (that was used for booking tickets online). For the first time in theatres, I noticed security checks and bag screening for people.  (Also read: Skywalk in Chennai - Multiplex++)

The movie hall was HUGE. A single movie hall can accommodate nearly 400 people. The movie hall had carpet flooring, well lit seat rows & numbers, cushion/pushback seats. They had left sufficient space between the screen & the front rows. If the movie isn't good, you can just go to sleep lying down on the pushback seats. Fortunately enough, Hari & Surya didn't give us that opportunity today. Singam is a very fast paced movie - the hero, camera man, editor & director has done a stupendous job ! Kuddos to them.

One thing worth mentioning about PVR cinemas is the quality of rest rooms. You'll be caught in surprise when you open the door of the restroom. It looked like a restroom in 5 star hotel. Compare it to the restrooms in other theatres where there is smell of urine or pan spit all over. (Also read: A ban on spitting pan in public places - who enforces it?)

They also have a food court serving all kinds of snacks in the world ranging from hot dogs, sandwiches, nachos to popcorns and coffees. There were even small lobbies with designer sofas where you can sit comfortably to sip your cup of coffee. My wife & daughter enjoyed the large popcorn pack (Rs.60) that I bought during the break. Believe it or not, the theatre is "smoke free".

When the show was over, the housekeeping people were eagerly waiting to get into the movie hall to clean it up !

Skywalk has a good parking structure for vehicles (2 & 4 wheelers). Of course, they charged an exhorbitant amount for parking - Rs.30 for 4 hours of 2-wheeler parking. There were enough people to guide you, along the way (right from the entrance all the way to the theatre).

Overall, PVR cinemas provides a wonderful movie watching experience. The experience was similar to watching movies at an IMAX theatre in US. I didn't repent spending Rs.500 for watching a movie in PVR Cinemas at Skywalk.


Skywalk in Chennai - Multiplex++
Unnai Pol Oruvan - Short 'n Sweet
No No Samy - Kandasamy

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Danushkodi Trip Experiences

A trip to Rameswaram will not be complete without visiting Danushkodi. After our visit to Rameswaram Temple, I checked with a few tour operators about Danushkodi. All of them unanimously said "There is NOTHING TO SEE in Danushkodi. Why do you want to go there?". In fact, one of the tour operators even showed me a newspaper article describing Danushkodi as the ghost town. (Also read: Rameswaram & Danushkodi Trip Planning Tips)

When all my fellow family members were sold on the 'NOTHING TO SEE in Danushkodi' mantra ... I wasn't. When you ask a child "Not to do something", it will immediately do that out of curiosity. Similarly, I was so determined to visit Danushkodi, when everyone said "Don't go there... there is nothing to see in Danushkodi". The next morning, we (my wife, kid, a cousin & I) left Rameswaram to see Danushkodi. All the other family members decided not to join us. We boarded the Danushkodi bus in the stop opposite to Rameswaram temple. Bus services to Danushkodi start as early as 5.30 am. We boarded the bus at around 7 am. The bus was completely packed with people who are going to Danushkodi to setup shops, to swim or to fish. Smell of fish was coming from even the empty baskets carried by the fishermen/women. The road to Danushkodi was along the sea shore and hence, the breeze was very pleasant. The bus reached Danushkodi check post by 7.40 am. The local tempo van operators in Danushkodi who are running the "tours" haven't started their service. They were waiting for at least 20 people to assemble. In about a few minutes, we gathered significant mass and started our journey to the interiors of Danushkodi.

The 4-wheel van drive to the interiors of Danushkodi was very exciting and adventurous. There were few instances where I thought the van is going to topple-up. The tempo van cruised through damp lands, sea shores and regions with thorn trees. Along the way, we saw jeeps carrying tourists and tempo vans carrying supplies to the fishermen living in interior Danushkodi. During our trip, our van had to stop a few times to help lift other vehicles that got stuck in sand/mud. A 10Km drive to the interiors of Danushkodi took nearly 45 minutes. We reached the tip of India which was covered by sea on all the 3 sides. On one side, the sea was very calm and the other side it was rough. The sangamam of both the seas (place where they both merged) looked remarkably beautiful. There was continuous sand storms in that region - no wonder why all the old buildings/structures were almost buried into the sand, in Danushkodi. I heard from the tempo van driver that the spot was used for shooting films such as Sura, and Nanda. There is a small shop selling snacks and drinks in that location. We spent nearly 20 minutes in that spot.

The van then took all the tourists to the real 'ghost town'. You can see destroyed houses, church, railway station and other government buildings in that region. Many houses were almost buried into sand. You can see only the roof of such houses. There were a few shops selling snacks, drinks & souvenirs in that area. We spent about 20 minutes in that location. The van then took us all back to Danushkodi check post. They charged Rs.60 per person for the round-trip tour which took about 3 hours.

If you are visiting Rameswaram, I would definitely recommend you to visit Danushkodi. It is definitely one of the MUST TO SEE PLACES near Rameswaram. You'll definitely like the roaring seas, sand storms, fresh air, peacefulness, scenic locations and adventurous ride. So, don't miss it !

Also read:

Rameswaram Trip Experiences
Rameswaram & Danushkodi Trip Planning Tips

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Rameswaram / Danushkodi Trip Planning Tips

I learned quite a few things during my recent trip to Rameswaram & Danushkodi. Here are some tips/data points that will help you to plan your Rameswaram/Danushkodi Trip:
  • Take a train to Rameswaram that reaches after sun rise. You can see the beautiful & majestic Pamban Bridge. Also, you can admire the water on both the sides of railway track, when the train cruises through the sea.
  • Auto rickshaws charge Rs.40 to take you from Rameswaram railway station to the temple
  • There are pay & use toilets/bathrooms near temple (suitable for bachelors, who don't need an accommodation)
  • TTDC rooms are available in Rameswaram and can be booked online
  • There are lots of hotel rooms/accommodation available near the temple at various price ranges
  • Temple opens very early in the morning (at 5 am). So, the hotels/commercial establishments near temple are open very early, too
  • If you are interested to take bath in the '22 theerthams' inside the temple - there are people who charge you Rs.75 (including the Rs.25 fare) and provide express service. Also, they pour one bucket full of water on you instead of just 'showers'.
  • Do not take any cameras when going to take bath in the '22 theerthams'. If you are taking cash/valet, do take a high-quality polythene cover with you
  • There are adequate bus services from bus stand to the temple (once, every 10 minutes or so)
  • There are number of buses that operate between Rameswaram & Madurai
  • There are regular bus services between Rameswaram & Danushkodi (once every 30 minutes or so). You can board these buses in front of the temple, near the post office.
  • There are NO good restaurants near the temple. Hotel Vasantha Bhavan (located outside the temple) is OK for a quick meal. But hygiene in that restaurant is questionable. Hotel Aryas restaurant (in the Goswami Madam complex) looks decent. But, you need to walk quite a bit to get there. 
  • Usage of plastic bags & plastic cups is banned in all commercial establishments in Rameswaram
  • There is a fee of Rs.25 for taking camera inside the temple (to take pictures in 'moondram pragaram')
  • Tour operators within the city charge Rs. 250 for auto rickshaws, Rs.750 for Maruti Omni or similar vans, & Rs.1000 for Mahindra Tourister like vans. They'll take you to the "popular places to see in Rameswaram" such as Ramar Theertham, Setha Theertham, Lakshman Theertham, Ramar Patham, House of Kalam (view from the street), Kothandaramar temple. They'll also show you the floating rock. If you want to include Pamban Bridge and other locations, you may be charged extra. I heard that Vivekanandar Mandapam in Rameswaram is good. Danushkodi trip is not covered by this.
  • There are jeeps that take people from Rameswaram to Danushkodi (all the way to the end). They charge Rs.900 per jeep, which can take about 7 people. Alternatively, you can take a bus from Rameswaram to Danushkodi checkpost (Rs.5 bus fare per person). You can rent a tempo van for Rs.1200 (for a group of nearly 15 or 20). If you are a smaller group, you can pay Rs.60 per person to share the ride on the tempo van.
  • There are small mom & pop kind shops/restaurant near Danushkodi checkpost/beach. There are small shops towards the end of Danushkodi selling cool drinks & snacks. Fishermen are still living in huts on the old/destroyed Danushkodi.
Also read:

Rameswaram Trip Experiences
Danushkodi Trip Experiences
Tirupati Tirumala Visit - May be the last?
Tiruchendur Temple - Poojari's demanding money  

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Rameswaram Trip Experiences

Last week, I had been to Rameswaram with my extended family members (nearly 15 people). Rameswaram is not only a popular destination for South Indian pilgrims but also for North Indians because of its historical significance. I was eagerly waiting to see various places in/around Rameswaram, because of their legacy. (Also read: Rameswaram & Danushkodi Trip Planning Tips)

We took Rameswaram express from Chennai (at 5 pm) and reached Rameswaram early in the morning (at 4.30 am). We did a mistake of not booking hotel rooms in advance. The roads around the station weren't maintained well and there were hardly any hotels, near the station. Looks like people/devotees typically stay closer to the temple. We took 4 autorickshaws to go near the temple to look for rooms. Rameswaram isn't a developed city, despite the huge crowd that visit the temple city everyday.

We managed to find an accommodation in Siva Lodge near the temple (for Rs.500 per room which can accommodate 4 - 5 people). We dropped our luggage in the hotel room, took a short break and went to the sea to take the holy dip. I was surprised by the quality of sea water in the location where people take the holy dip. It is heavily polluted because of the crowd.

We then went to the temple for '22 theerthams'. We paid Rs.75 per person (including the ticket fare), for an intermediary to quickly take us through the '22 theerthams'. After the '22 theerthams' we went back to the hotel room to take bath and change our dress. We had breakfast in Hotel Vasantha Bhavan opposite to the temple and then visited the temple again. (Also read: Golden temple in Sripuram, Vellore - Marvelous)

Rameswaram Temple was not maintained very well. There were broken pillars, peeling cement/paint layers, and spider webs all around the temple. The exteriors of the temple are painted well. The 'moondram pragaram' had a number of pillars on both the sides of the walkway for nearly 1200m. The view was simply amazing and a feast for cameras.

We went back to hotel room, took rest and hired a couple of Maruti Omnis to take us around the city. They took us to the 'famous spots' in the city and charged us a hefty Rs.1000 per van, for 3 or 4 hours of ride. The places they showed us include such as Ramar Theertham, Setha Theertham, Lakshman Theertham, Ramar Patham, House of Kalam (view from the street), and Kothandaramar temple, Floating Rock, Pamban Bridge and Jothilingam temple. We had lunch at Hotel Aryas in Goswamy Madam. The food quality was good. We finished the tour and came back to hotel by around 6 pm. We spent the rest of the day in the hotel. The breeze from the sea nearby was very pleasant and hence many of us decided to sleep on the corridor of the hotel room for the night. The corridor had an open balcony from where you can get the ocean view.

Certain pockets of Rameswaram is well developed, but majority of the city isn't maintained well (including the streets near the temple & the roads near 'House of Kalam'). The restaurants near the temple aren't adequately staffed and there is a long waiting time to find seats. Majority of the people who visit Rameswaram include old people and people of middle/low income category. So, the commercial establishments are targetted at such customers. If you are expecting 'luxury' you'll be disappointed very much.

Also read:

Danushkodi Trip Experiences
Tirupati Tirumala Visit - May be the last?
Tiruchendur Temple - Poojari's demanding money  
Kovai Trip - Maruthamalai Visit 

Monday, May 17, 2010

First R2I Anniversary - The Journey continues ...

We just celebrated our first year R2I anniversary. It feels like just waving final good bye to US. But, the clock moved very fast to ring the anniversary bells. It is a significant mile stone in my life.

When I decided to R2I last year, I wasn't sure if my decision would withstand the tsunamis from day to day life in India. But, my R2I journey is standing tall and strong like a light house.

What do I miss the most? The first thing that pops out of my mind ... is my friends. Almost all my friends are in US and I miss their company. The regular get togethers, the potlucks, the birthday parties, the joint outings ... I miss them all. A quick call to a friend to ask "Hey! Did you file your tax returns? How did you do it?"... "How do I apply for my kid's passport?"... There are not many friends around, to ask such questions. 

What do I enjoy the most? The liveliness of India. Take a short walk outside your home and you'll meet at least 10 people that you know. They may not necessarily be your friends. But, they all wish you "Good morning!" or at least say a "Hi!" to you. India is filled with people. Parks, beaches, railway stations, tourist spots... there is people everywhere & I love it.

My wife and daughter are enjoying it too. My wife gets to meet her parents often, she gets household help from maids, she can do all her shopping in just a few minutes of walk (instead of having to drive miles). She is loving it. My daughter enjoys the company of my parents and their pampering. In fact, my daughter got adapted to the new life, faster than we had thought. (Also read: 100 reasons to R2I)

The last one year changed our life significantly and we picked up new skills along the way. We learned to navigate through the day to day problems. We learned to negotiate with people in India (though we haven't mastered it yet!). And more importantly, we learned to live without a car. (Also read: Driving on Indian roads - Pleasure or Pain?)

The last one year has made us stronger, wiser and super motivated to continue our R2I journey. We are deep into the woods now and there is no looking back. Definitely, there are miles to go... but, our batteries are charged with enthusiasm to take us through the rest of the journey.

Also read:

10 things to know before your R2I
R2I Planning Guide

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Shoe Trees - the life extenders for your shoes

Have you heard about "Shoe Trees"? It is hard to guess the application/purpose of this device, with just its name. Recently, I came to know about this device from a friend of mine, who has been there in US for 30+ years. We both were attending a trade show and our conversation led to my brand new shoes. I told him that this is the costliest pair of shoes that I ever bought. He asked  what do you do to maintain your shoes or extend its life? I was puzzled with his question. He continued to ask "Do you know that there is a way to keep the shoes from smelling bad?" He said, you should buy "Shoe Trees" and shared with me lots of interesting details about it.

Shoe Trees are very commonly used in US. The main purpose of Shoe Trees is to absorb moisture from the shoes and there by, extend the shoes' life and prevent the shoes from smelling bad. It looks like many young kids are forced by their parents to use Shoe Trees. Parents do not want to spend big bucks on high quality shoes and that too, not very often. Hence, they wanted the kids to use Shoe Trees to extend the Shoes' life. Moreover, kids get involved in intense activities and hence it makes sense for them to use Shoe Trees to absorb moisture from their shoes. Once you return home in the evening, you just need to insert these Shoe Trees into your shoes and leave them for the whole night. They'll take care of the remaining job.

On hearing about Shoe Trees, I was wondering, why "Shoe Trees" aren't very common in India. In fact, our feet get moist easily because of the hot weather in India. I guess the economics are making Shoe Trees unaffordable? In US, Shoe Trees are sold anywhere from $20 - $40. In India, many people cannot afford shoes. And the ones who buy shoes look for a bargain and end up buying shoes for half that cost. Also, because of the excessive wear & tear of shoes in India, you cannot technically "extend" the life of shoes. If you are using your leather shoes everyday, it may hardly last for a year or two. Also, during the winter season, you cannot avoid stepping into water clogged roads. So, the mantra of 'long life for shoes' doesn't hold good, here in India.

Anyways, if you have the practise of wearing leather shoes to work in US, you should definitely consider buying Shoe Trees. Based on what I heard from couple of people in US, these toys 'really' extend the life of shoes, if used regularly.

Also read:

11/45 - The rarest size
Goods in US - lots of options & cheaper price

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A ban on spitting pan in public places - who enforces it?

It was a beautiful and pleasant evening. I had taken my daughter to a nearby park. The park wasn't very busy, but had decent number of people. There were all kinds of people ... of different age groups and economical background. There were people sitting on benches talking to each other, people walking around the park to burn calories, and little kids playing on the play structures. My daughter enjoyed playing in the park ... on the sliding board, merry-go round, and swings. She climbed over all the play structures.

(Also read: Vandalur Zoo - Infrastructure is world class but people's behavior is local class)

We had spent quite some time in the park and were about to leave. Two teenage boys entered the park and sat on an empty bench. The guys looked somewhat rough and were talking in 'Chennai Tamil'. They were chewing pan, and constantly spitting near the bench they were sitting on. I was noticing this for a while. I was tempted to go to them and ask them not to spit in the park. The teenagers looked rough and hence, I was contemplating whether to do that or not. Finally, I developed some courage and decided to advise them. I went to them and asked "If you don't mistake me, can I tell you something?". They gave a puzzled look not sure about what was I going to tell. "I have been noticing that you were spitting in the park. I'm not sure if you are doing that intentionally or unintentionally. There are so many kids playing in the  park with the sand. In the best interest of the kids, can you please not spit in the park?" I was surprised on seeing their reaction. "Sir ! We didn't do it intentionally. We'll not do it from now on. Thanks for pointing this out".

The second instance happened in CBE (during my visit to Infoquest 2010). We were waiting in CBE bus stand for our bus to Chennai. There were long rows of chairs for the passengers to wait/relax. I saw a family of 6 people, occupying the row in front of us. The head of the family was a gigantic man, chewing pan. He was constantly arguing with his family members and irritating them. I didn't pay much attention to their conversation. However, the gigantic man got my attention when he spit pan over the tiled floor. He did it a couple of times and wasn't sensible to the menace he was causing. I took the courage to talk to him. I told "Sir ! If you don't mistake me, can I ask you not to spit here on the floor?". He immediately said "Sorry Sir ! I won't do it". He stopped doing that, after that.

Also read: Skywalks in Train Stations - What are they for?

Irrespective of where you go, it is very common to see people spitting pan on the streets/roads. It is very common to see that in shopping malls, cinema theaters, walkways and even in temples. People do not realize the health hazards of spitting on the streets. The educated folks do not even make an attempt to correct them. They just mind their own business and go on. Of course, "Not everyone is alike" and you may even run into people who may cause physical harm to you. I believe that "If told politely, and if you don't touch their egos, you'll get a proper response". You shouldn't try to prove that you are 'more socially responsible' than the other person. Your objective should be to just educate them. Today, smoking & spitting are prohibited in all public places. However, it should be enforced and followed religiously.

Also read: If I don't care, who'll care

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Loan application process in India - very simple

The last decade in India has brought a remarkable transformation in our society and people's spending pattern. A drive on the Indian roads will tell you that the number of ATM machines/Banks have increased many folds. The ATMs/Banks want you to withdraw cash or get loans and SPEND. From a 'savings' based society, India is trying to morph into a 'spending' society.

It is hard to find people in the salaried class, without a house loan or a car loan to pay. You are sure to run into representatives of Banks trying to sell Credit Cards or Loans... especially in places like shopping malls. You'll get a call from these 'hunters', right after you open your bank account or when you get a new mobile connection.. You'll even get marketing calls/text messages on your mobile about Credit Card offers or Loan offers. These offers are at times very tempting that you find it hard to resist.

Recently, I applied for a car loan in HDFC. The process is very simple. You can apply for a car loan through their web interface. All you need to do is just provide your personal details and select the loan amount you want. I got a call from the Service Rep, in just 5 minutes after pressing the "Submit" button for loan application. You don't even have to go to the bank. They'll send reps to your house to collect all the necessary documents.

Unlike in US, where loans are issued based on the credit history of a person, Indian banks go through a manual verification procedure. I think banks outsource the verification process to a 3rd party. They'll send Reps to your home, work place etc., to verify your records. This process is at times, very unpleasant/awkward. They make sure that all the information you had furnished is accurate. I was quite surprised by the time they took to process the loan application. In just 2 days, the loan application got approved.

The loan application procedure is more or less similar for other banks, too. I heard that government owned banks take a longer time to process the loan application. On the other hand, government owned banks provide you a better interest rate when compared to privately owned banks. You can even bargain/negotiate interest rates with banks. For example, I was able to negotiate the rates to bring it down by 2%. If you are a long-time customer of a bank, you get some special treatment on the interest rates.

When you apply for loans, it is better to check with 2 or 3 banks and pick the best offer. Since the whole process gets completed in a few days, it is worth the try.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Tirupathi Tirumala Temple visit - May be the last?

We went to the richest and the most visited place of worship in the world, yesterday. People all over the world come to this holy place, to get a few seconds of 'swami darshan'. Extraordinarily rich people come to this temple, with suitcases full of cash (unaccounted money?!) and dump them into the temple Hundi. Yes! After a gap of nearly 10 years, I visited 'Tirupathi'. May be, this is the last time that I ever visit this temple.

Also read: 

Tiruchendur Temple - Poojari's demanding money
Kovai Trip - Maruthamalai Visit
Rameswaram Trip Experiences 

We had taken the Tamilnadu Tourism Development Corporation (TTDC) Tirupathi Darshan package. They charged Rs. 1330 (which includes commute, breakfast, lunch, and Rs.300 for the darshan). They picked all the tourists who were assembled near the TTDC office in Central Railway Station, and took everyone to the TTDC office in Chepauk. The tour started at 6.20 am from the Chepauk TTDC office. The bus stopped at around 7.15 am for breakfast. The breakfast was decent enough (pongal, 2 idlis and a vada - limited meals). The quality of food was good. But, the breakfast was served in a not-so-clean marriage hall.

We reached lower Tirupathi by around 10 am. A local AP transport bus (in substandard condition) was waiting there to take us to Tirupati Tirumala. Before the bus departed, the tour guide collected all our mobile phones, cameras and camcorders. It looks like they weren't allowed to be used in the temple. I was quite amazed by the quality of roads that lead to the Tirupathi Tirumala temple. They've constructed a one-way road with 2 lanes, that are wide enough. There are safety gaurd rails on the side of the road that faces downhill. The safety gaurd rails are properly painted in black & white. There were proper road signs indicating sharp turns, bumps etc., I saw a number of jeeps, private cars and even two wheelers that drive up hill, to Tirupathi Tirumala. We reached Tirumala at around 11 am (roughly, 1 hour commute).

The tour guide took us to the place where they do hair tonsure. He said that we cannot go through the 'normal process' because of the long wait time (which would affect the remaining tourists). He charged Rs.90 per person to get a 'quick' hair tonsure, without having to stand in queues (2/3rd of the money went to his pocket & 1/3rd of the money went to the barber). We had to pay Rs.10 to get a bucket of 'free hot water' from a lady servant there.

We were taken to the location where the "Rs.300 queue" starts. There were about 6 halls (actually, cages) in which people were locked. The cages had benches for people to sit. The cages were opened up one after the other. I was expecting that we'll get the darshan, right after the cage #1 was opened. To my surprise, after the cage #1 was opened, we have to stand in queue for nearly 3 hours to get the "darshan". Things haven't changed much in the last 10 years. The quality of treatment for people is still the same during the wait in queues. You are pushed, pulled, crushed, and even scolded. Also, you've to put up with the sultry weather and bad smelling people. My daughter, who wasn't used to such things was crying most of the times. Oh my god ! If god is really divine and has powers to do wonders, why should people suffer this much to see the god (infact, to see just an idol). At the place of darshan, there are volunteers/servants who push devotees (old or young) without mercy. You hardly get only a few seconds of darshan.

After the darshan, we returned back to TTDC cottage (which had 3 small rooms and two bathrooms) for the 65+ passengers. After a short break, we boarded the local AP transport bus. We had to wait for an hour there because one of the families didn't return back from darshan, ontime (we later learned that they went for shopping!). The bus reached down hill in about an hour. We had a good buffett lunch in AP Restaurant, at around 5.00 pm. They took us then to Padmavathi temple. We left Padmavathi temple at about 6.45 pm and reached Chennai at around 10.30 pm.

Though we were able to visit & come back from Tirupathi in a day, it was very hectic. I would not recommend taking the TTDC tour, if you are going as a family (especially, with kids). It is not a pleasant experience, at all. I wish Tirupathi Tirumala Management does something about the 'waiting process' and the unorderly queues. There are lots of creative ways to control the crowd. Considering the fact that Tirupathi is one of the richest temples in the world, they can implement crowd control mechanisms with ease. They have spent lots of money in improving the roads (which results in increased crowd in the uphill). However, they haven't made any significant infrastructure changes that can accommodate the growth in devotees. Hopefully, this pathetic condition changes soon. Until then, Good Bye to Lord Venky.

Also read:

Golden Temple in Sripuram, Vellore - Marvelous
Ayyappan Temple in Trichy - The BEST that I've ever seen
Rameswaram Trip Experiences

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

List of CBSE Schools in Chennai

You can find here the list of CBSE schools in Chennai, that have a website. I was quite surprised that many of the Chennai CBSE schools do not even have a website. You can go through the school website to understand the school's infrastructure, teaching system, core values, etc., Hopefully, this helps you in deciding the BEST SCHOOL for your kid. (Note: This list is not exhaustive/complete)

Also read: R2I school admissions - FAQ   Getting KG admission for a kid in school
  1. A School (Alwarpet, Anna Nagar East, Anna Nagar West, Ashok Nagar, Kilpauk, Perambur, Thiruvanmayur, Valarsaravakkam, Velachery
  2. Adarsh Senior Secondary School (T. Nagar)
  3. Amirta Vidyalaya (Saligramam & K.K Nagar)
  4. Arsha Vidya Mandir School (Guindy)
  5. Asan Memorial Senior Secondary School (Greams Road)
  6. Aspire Superkidz (Nanganallur)
  7. B V Bhavan's Rajaji Vidyashram (Kilpauk)
  8. Bala Vidya Mandir (Adyar)
  9. Bhaktavatsalam Vidyashram (Korattur)
  10. Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan (Kilpauk)
  11. Chettinad Vidyashram (R.A. Puram)
  12. Chennai Public School (Anna Nagar West Extn)
  13. Chinmaya Vidyalaya (Chetpet, Kilpauk, Anna Nagar, Virugambakkam)
  14. DAV School  (Adambakkam, Gopalapuram & Padi)
  15. Kendriya Vidyalaya (Anna Nagar, Selaiyur, IIT Campus, Choolaimedu, Anna Salai, Avadi, Ashok Nagar, Meenambakkam)
  16. Kola Perumal Chetty Vaishnav Senior Seconday School (Arumbakkam, Kilpauk)
  17. Maharishi Vidya Mandir (Chetpet)
  18. Manthan Vidyashram (Palavakkam)
  19. National Public School (Gopalapuram)
  20. P.S. Senior Secondary School (Mylapore)
  21. Padma Seshadiri Bala Bhavan Senior Secondary School (K.K. Nagar, T. Nagar, Nungambakkam)
  22. Pon Vidyashram School (Thiruvanmiyur, Virugambakkam)
  23. PSBB Millennium School (St. Thomas Mount)
  24. SBOA School and Junior College (Anna Nagar West Extension)
  25. Schram Academy (Maduravoyal)
  26. Sherwood Educational Society (Chetpet)
  27. Sindhi Model Senior Secondary School (Kilpauk)
  28. Unity Public School (Adambakkam)
  29. Vani Vidyalaya (K.K Nagar)
  30. Vidya Mandir Senior Secondary School (Mylapore)
Also read:

    Sunday, March 21, 2010

    A journey from Non-Vegetarian to Raw-Vegetarian

    What is in a diet? If you are conscious about your health, fitness, and environment, you should be conscious about your diet too. Recently, I started experimenting Raw Vegetarian diet and I'm loving it. The diet makes me feel more fresh, healthy, and energetic.

    My journey as a vegetarian started in 2000. I became a vegetarian for 3 reasons. First of all, I didn't have a desire for non-vegetarian food. Second of all, the horrifying scenes of animals getting killed in front of my eyes during my childhood days, had an influence on my decision to be a vegetarian. Third of all, when I read Mahatma Gandhiji's "My Experiments with Truth" in 2000, I decided to give up my meat eating habit, completely. (Also read: Why am I a Vegan? )

    People wonder, "How did you manage to be a vegetarian, in US"? If you are under the influence of your taste buds, it is hard, to survive in US being a vegetarian. Especially, when you are traveling to places or not having food at home. If you are ready to eat whatever is available, you can manage in US easily. In fact, every restaurant in US has something for a vegetarian. You can customize your food. You can go up to the extreme of ordering a Chicken Burger without the Chicken.

    A modern diet has deprived us from enjoying the freshness of hundreds of vegetables, fruits, and nuts that nature has provided us. Many of the things that I eat today were hardly part of my diet when I was a non-vegetarian. I have been practicing Vegan diet for the last 3+ years. I'm staying fit and healthy - no visits to the hospital, except for yearly health checkups. I've now started my experiments with Raw-Vegetarian diet, by reducing the intake of cooked food and increasing the intake of raw vegetables, fruits and nuts.

    People think that 'pure vegetarian' diet lacks Protein, Calcium and other Vitamins/minerals available in milk/meat based diet. If you are making conscious choices of vegetable based diet, you can eliminate the need for non-vegetarian food completely. For example, my everyday diet includes Soymilk, Sprouted beans/nuts, Spinach, and a variety of nuts, fresh vegetables, and fruits. It provides me enough protein, calcium, vitamins and minerals.

    I was once challenged by a friend of mine, who is a born vegetarian. He said pointing to his huge belly "I've been a vegetarian from childhood days. I get sick quite often and I don't feel healthy/fit". Being a vegetarian alone doesn't make you fit. What happens when you don't service your car/bike  for a long period of time? The vehicle loses its fitness - engine problems, brake/battery issues, clutch/gear problems and over a period of time gives you low mileage. Similarly, you need to service your body regularly. A good diet should also be complimented by a proper exercise program. Also, feeding your stomach with fatty/non-healthy vegetarian food is equivalent of fueling your car with a low grade petrol. The mileage/performance will also be low. Have you heard of "Garbage in Garbage out"? It holds good for your diet also :)  (Also read: Sunday - a day of mass murders in India )

    If you would like learn more about Vegan or Raw Vegetarian Diet, you can read/listen to the following:

    HappyCow - Becoming Vegetarian
    Veganism in a NutShell
    GoVeg - Podcast
    Raw Vegetarian Food/Diet 

    (Also read: Raw Vegetarian Diet - Experiment scaled down)