Sunday, November 22, 2015

Chennai Metro Rail (CMRL) - Simply the best !

"Showstopper" ... this is the term that you'll use to describe the rains in Chennai, which is continuously pouring for the last few weeks. The rains have brought the entire city to a grinding halt including schools, hospitals and shops. If there is one thing that keeps moving without any hiccups
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for the last few weeks, amidst intense rains, it is the Chennai Metro Rail (CMRL).

(Also read: Heavy rain turned Chennai to Venice)

It was the Diwali eve. I packed my stuff from office and headed to the parking lot to take my car to home. When I got into the car, I was shocked to see that my car's gear box wasn't functional. That is when I realized that the reason could be the car's small dip in the morning, in the stagnant pool of water near my office. I decided not to spoil my Diwali mood, left the car in my office garage and decided to take CMRL to home. It is about 6 months since CMRL started its service in Chennai. I never had a chance to take a ride, even for pleasure. I thought it is a good opportunity for me to experience the CMRL service.

I walked to the Ekkatuthangal station near my office. The moment I climbed the stairs to reach the 1st level, I was astonished. The infrastructure was world class. They had a security checkpoint similar to the airports. The security guards scanned all the people and their belongings before letting them in. There were representatives at the ticketing counter who helped me to get a token (ticket) for my ride to Arumbakkam station. The ticket costed Rs.40 for a single ride. I went to the 2nd level to board the train. The 2nd level was as clean as the first level. There were security guards placed at several places. The monitors in the 2nd level clearly indicated the time duration for the next train to arrive. The count down clock in the monitor started showing "5 minutes for the next train to Koyambedu". 5 mins became 4, 4 became 3 ... finally the clock showed 0 minutes for train's arrival and I saw the train entering the station. The doors of the coach opened without making any noise, as smooth as the doors of the elevators you see in a 5 star hotel. I entered the coach and took a seat.

The coach interiors were air conditioned and very clean. There were 2 stations between Ekkattuthangal and Arumbakkam. Whenever the train approached a station, there were clear announcements made inside the coach with a clear digital sign board. It reminded me of the light rail journey that I used to take in US in 2002, to go to office. In about 10 minutes I reached the Arumbakkam station and got down from the train. I waved a bye to the CMRL and started taking the stairs to the road.

When I reached the ground level and got to the road, I felt as if I jumped from a western world to the local Chennai, with just a flip of a switch. I was amazed by the quality of the service and the CMRL infrastructure. I wish our Chennaiites continue to support the government in maintaining the infrastructure in its current form. Our Chennai CMRL is simply the best.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Sixth R2I Anniversary - Still going strong !

We just celebrated the 6th year anniversary of our R2I (Return to India). If I have to summarize the our R2I experience in one word, it is "Transformation". My life has dramatically changed in more than one way since my R2I. (Read: First R2I Anniversary: The journey continues)

I'm still continuing with my corporate career. When I returned back, I was working as a "Technical Marketing Engineer" at Ankeena Networks (which later got acquired by Juniper). Now, I'm the Director Technology for Aricent. It was a progressive career and I enjoy doing what I do. The work environment in India hasn't changed much in the last 6 years. But, if you are clear about "what you really want to achieve" and "what is important to you in life", you can easily strike a balance between work, family and social life. (Also read: The need for more money never ends)

My daughter got adjusted very well to the culture in India. In fact, she got adjusted faster than my wife and me. She is studying well and I can see that the schools are focusing on grooming the person overall, as opposed to just focusing on marks. Recently, she got pneumonia and was hospitalized for a week. We went through the fire drill for a week and we were back to our normal life after that. My support system at home (my dad/mom) was of great help. My wife is now working as a teacher and she has a busy life too.

My dad and mom are extremely happy that we are back. We attend a number of weddings and family events. We get to meet our relatives very often... it helps to stay connected with them. These days, our relatives treat us like "Indians". Immediately after our return, some of them thought that we will lead an American life in India. They don't have that doubt anymore :) Technically speaking, except for the infrastructure, you can lead an American life in India (KFCs/McDs, iPhones, BMWs/Audis, Porch Villas in good communities, Hotels/Restaurants, Online shopping, Shopping malls, International Schools with A/C etc.,). The life style in India has changed much that people don't peak into your personal life anymore (actually, they don't have the time for it).

Also read: Driving in Indian roads - pleasure or pain?

We visited California for a vacation, last year and had a great time visiting a few friends and going around places. In fact, we were constantly on the run and could meet only half of my friends during the trip. During my recent trip to US, I realized that US has become more "automated". Automated toll collection, automated parking lots, automated ticketing systems... these services used to be there before, but now they are seen "everywhere".

What do I miss the most from my US life? It is the ease with which you can plan your travel / vacation. In India, you would still need the support of people (travel agents, taxi wallas etc.,) to have a nice vacation.  The scenario is changing somewhat, but still have a long way to go.

What do I enjoy the most in my R2I life? It is the time that I spend with youngsters in India, in helping them to groom their career and personality (through Toastmasters). I get a sense of satisfaction that I'm able to contribute something back to the society. Of course, I enjoy meeting & spending time with my relatives at weddings / family functions :)

Today, a few of my friends have already R2I'd and I'm quite sure that the count will continue to increase.

Gingee (Chengi) Fort - My best hike ever in India !

Last month, we had been to Pondicherry for summer holidays. On our way back, we visited Gingee Fort (pronounced as "Chengi" in Tamil). Gingee Fort is at about 1.5 hours drive from Pondicherry and 3.5 hours drive from Chennai. If you love to hike, this is the place that you should visit. We reached there on a holiday weekend (May 1st, 2015) and wasn't sure if it would be open for visitors. We were positively surprised to learn that Gingee Fort is open throughout the year. This information isn't publicly available anywhere. There was one employee at the tickets counter. He mentioned that Gingee Fort comes under the Tourism department and hence, we can get information about Gingee Fort from Tamilnadu Tourism Development Corporation (TTDC) in Chennai. There was enough parking space in front of the fort and there was a nominal parking fee.

We reached one of the 3 forts (yes! there are 3 separate forts) and learned that the hike to the top will take about 1 hour. My dad/mom weren't very motivated to climb (in fact, the hike is strenuous. I wouldn't recommend it for folks who are old and having knee problems) . My wife, daughter and I took about 1 hour to complete the hike with multiple stops in between. We carried just 1 water bottle and realized at the end of our onward hike that it isn't sufficient. There was a guy selling some snacks + water bottles at the top (Hey! Its India...). If you are lucky on your day of the hike, you may find one also... but, don't bet on it and carry a water bottle with you. There are no shops near / on top of Gingee fort. By the time we reached the top, we were gasping for breath. But the view at / from the top was amazing. At the top, there were some leftover remains of the fort. I saw groups of youngsters carrying their lunch packs and having their food there. Like most attractions in India, Gingee Fort was also polluted with water packets, plastic bottles and plastic covers. Thanks to the common sense of our people who litter wherever they go.We spent about 30 minutes at the top of the fort and started walking down. We were able climb down very fast (it took just 30 minutes).

There were 2 more forts near by. But, we were told that the hike to those forts may take 2 - 3 hours. We decided to do those hikes some other day. If you are in/around Chennai and looking for a hiking place, consider visiting Gingee Fort.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Swachh Bharat - Just a Dream?

A few weeks back, I was returning in the evening from my office in Thoraipakkam. I saw a Honda City car driving past me. In a few seconds, I noticed the window glass from the Honda City getting
rolled down. A small hand popped out of the car's window, threw a dairy milk chocolate wrapper and rolled up the window glass, again. Out of curiosity, I drew a little faster to see who is inside the car. There were two kids sitting in the rear set of the car and a gentleman in his early 30s, wearing a cooling glass, driving the car. I got a little annoyed and I wanted to pull my car in front of the Honda City, stop them and give them a piece of my mind. I refrained from doing that, just to avoid creating a nuisance to the public, by creating a traffic jam.

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

Our Prime Minister Narendra Modi rolled out the Swachh Bharat program on 2nd Oct 2014 and nominated a few folks from across the country to propagate the message. We immediately saw a number of "photo-ops" from stars and celebrities. Social and print media was filled with such pictures. Many citizens complained that this initiative doesn't have wings and lacks a solid plan of action/budget. However, I was somewhat positive about the initiative. At the minimum, the initiative would at least raise the awareness and importance of maintaining our surroundings clean. Well, the incident that I ran into a few weeks back can be treated as an exception.

I have noticed some visible changes in our country, since Swachh Bharat campaign was launched. First of all, you can see trash bins in every coach in trains. There used to be trash bins in certain coaches in trains, in the past. However, now they are present in every coach. I'm a regular visitor to the Chennai Marina beach. I noticed that the trash bins have popped-up again in our Marina beach. Also, I heard that the enforcement officials are mandating the proper disposal of waste created by the stalls that sell food in Marina beach. Despite this, I continue to see broken wine / beer bottles in the sand. You can't imagine running on the sands of Marina beach with bare foot... since the sand is filled with glass pieces. I read in the newspaper today that some kids have come up with a robot that can clean-up garbage from Marina sands. I feel that automation of garbage collection in Marina is the only scalable and sustainable method to ensure a clean Marina (of course, in addition to trying to change the behavior of people). Happy to see that Swachh Bharat is triggering some innovation, too.

I believe Swachh Bharat campaign is a step in the right direction. In fact, in my recent train journey I saw an elderly person in his 60s throwing trash out of the window. I politely told him that there is a trash bin now in every coach after the Swachh Bharat campaign. He apologized for his act and promised to throw trash into bins, in the future.

Together, let us make Clean India ... not only a dream, but also a reality.

Chennai Book Fair - More time, the next time !

In the last 6 years since I returned to India (yes! It is almost 6 years since I R2Id :)), I have seen advertisements/promotions for the Chennai Book Fair, every year. In fact, I have crossed the book
fair venue several times in the past (when the book fair was happening) and I never got a chance to make a visit. 2015 broke the spell ... Thanks to my close friend who visited me on January 10th, 2015.

We were talking about work, family etc., and literally ran out of some productive topics to discuss. We had two easy options at hand... watch television or take a quick nap. The thought of Chennai Book Fair suddenly came to my mind and I bounced it with my friend. He also got excited with the idea. We immediately jumped into my car and traversed our way to YMCA, Nandanam. They had good parking facilities there. The whole place was in "festive" mood - there were sellers of toys for kids, a number of eateries and picnic areas (actually, our people made open space into picnic areas). The entire YMCA ground was filled with people like bees in a hive. There were literary discussions/debates happening in another side of the ground. Chennai Book Fair was much more than just a "Book Fair" for a nominal entry fee of Rs.10.

Also read: Vandalur Zoo - Infrastructure is World Class, but people's behavior is still local class

We got the tickets and entered the place where the books were displayed for public to purchase. I was taken by surprise when I entered the large venue. There were several 100s of book sellers and several 1000s of books in each shop. I got reminded of the popular phrase from our Tamil literary "Kattradhu Kai Mannalavu... Kallaadhadhu Ulagaluvu" (meaning "What you've learned is as small as the sand in your palm, what you've not learned is as big as the world"). I went to the first book stall and spent some time glancing at the books in the stall. I was amazed by the number of Tamil books at display - covering all the subjects under the earth. I bought some books written by Dr. Irai Anbu from the stall and we moved to the 2nd stall. By the time we covered 15 stalls, we had already spent 2 hours and bought nearly 5 books each. My friend had a return flight in the night and we had to leave the venue soon.

I realized that 2 hours isn't just enough for you to cover the entire book fair. You can easily spend 1 full day at the Chennai Book Fair. I didn't take my wife and daughter to the book fair, this time. I decided that I should take them also along, next time and spend at least 5 hours at the Book Fair. While I was thinking that the number of hours people spend on reading books have diminished, Chennai Book Fair challenged my thinking. I read from the newspapers that Chennai Book Fair had record collections, this year. I learned that on an average, a seller makes 20% of his yearly sale at the Chennai Book Fair. Happy to see that our Chennaiites are continuing to buy and read books. This is definitely a trend to welcome. Happy reading... folks !

Also read: Semmozhi Poonga - The Greenway in the heart of Chennai city

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple - Well maintained & managed

Last month, I had been to Madurai with my family. I had a chance to go to Madurai Meenakshi Srirangam Temple and Tirupathi. So, I was expecting a similar experience at Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple.

The temple amazes me everytime that I visit. It has been nearly 4 years since I last visited the temple. Whenever I visit large temples, I get annoyed by the way in which they are maintained/managed. I had bitter experiences during my visits to

They say "first impressions are the best impressions". The management of Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple has done a remarkable job of creating the best first impressions. There is good parking facilities closer to the temple. You'll have to walk for 100 mts or so to get to the temple from the parking lot. Vehicular traffic closer to the temple is restricted. So, you can comfortably walk to the temple without getting bumped by an autorickshaw or a two wheeler.

There is a facility near the temple to collect your foot wear and that too, the service is provided for free. They've clearly mentioned the amount given to the contractor for taking care of the foot wear of the visitors. If I remember it right, the government pays Rs.14 lacs or so per year to the contractor for taking care of the visitors' foot wear.

The temple had clear directions / sign boards. The booth that sells tickets for darshans was located near the entrance and in a visible location. They had a good infrastructure for managing the queues. I should appreciate the tremendous job done by the policemen in managing the queues. They don't allow anyone to bypass the queues (unlike Srirangam Temple where I saw people continuously bypassing the queues and policemen were supporting that).

After a 30 minutes of waiting in the queue, we got a glimpse of the deity for a few seconds and came out finishing our prayers. The temple tank was filled with water, which was a rare sight. I was told that they had filled the tank with water for an upcoming function/event.

When we came out and collected our footwear, one of the employees working in the footwear collection facility quietly asked for "tips". I just smiled at her, collected the footwear and walked away. I got reminded of Actor Vivek's dialogue in one of the movies ("Neenga yellam ethanai Periyar vandhaalum thirundha maateenga da..." meaning, "You folks will not change... no matter how many Periyars come into existence").

I believe that the reason for going to Temples is to reinforce your beliefs on your goals/ambitions/needs and to get some peace of mind, more than anything else. I lean more towards atheism than spiritualism. When a visit to temple is not peaceful and enjoyable, it defeats the fundamental purpose of visiting the temple. Thankfully, the visit to Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple was more enjoyable / peaceful than my visits to other temples in the recent days.

Also read:

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