Monday, August 03, 2015

An Invite to Tirupati

It is quite unimaginable how out of 365 days, we find it difficult to plan a trip to a world famous Vaishnavite shrine just three hours away. It has been my plan to visit Tirupati, the hill temple, atleast once every month, but I realised even making a trip once in a year is a bit of challenge. Most spiritualists say while you must have the will to persevere, it is only on the Divine's bidding can you ever make a visit.

The trip to Tirupati happened out of the blue. My aunt called and mentioned her family was making the one-day trip over the weekend and they had seats for two more. So we jumped in. It is usually believed that when you return from Tirupati, your life also experiences a turning point. We saw Lord Venkateshwara dressed in such beautiful jewellery and adorned with flowers that the sight still sits fresh in my mind's eye.

The temple authorities have been trying to optimise the visiting process for sometime now. You have to make your booking online and visit the temple for the allotted time slot. It was all fairly well organised. We had darshan in 1.5 hours where it usually takes a minimum of three hours or more. As you edge closer towards the deity, the sense of emotion is heightened. You are allowed a fleeting minute to see Him, while some quietly snuck in money to volunteers for a few extra minutes.  From there, we drove back down the hill to visit His wife, Sri Padmavathi Ammavari, and experienced such bliss sitting in her presence, of course we took the INR 200 Kumkum seva ticket to sit close to the deity. 

The language and lack of discipline is a huge problem in most places in India. Tirupati is no exception. There is lot of corruption, language barriers and absolute lack of civic sense or respect for fellow devotees that will get to you eventually. It is surprising that the Temple authorities who had done such a fine job organising the pilgrims in a single file decided to open it up into one deluge at the main temple entrance, bringing utter chaos and frenzy. It is still not late to put their thinking to good use. Keep the single file all the way out. You can do away with volunteers and corruption. 

Temples make a lot of money by cashing in on crowds and the spiritual fervour advertising special darshan, special offerings and so on; but while they retain some of the money, most can be put to good use for temple maintenance and offering real service to the devotees. Bringing in elephants to bless devotes while made to stand for long hours  in chains should be banned. Priests asking for money from devotees for giving holy water should be reported as much as devotees slipping in money to volunteers asking for favours.

Ironic that the very place we go to for healing the soul is a treasure trove of everything one should not be. When do we rise above this?

Friday, July 31, 2015

Calvin's CLoud

If a man achieves victory over this body, who in the world can exercise power over him? He who rules himself rules over the whole world.
Vinoba Bhave

Monday, July 27, 2015

RIP Dear Dr APJ Abdul Kalam

Our beloved Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, you will forever be missed. Also known as the Missile Man, he is India's pride and joy, a great scientist, leader, 11th President of India, a man who gave children wings to achieve their dreams, and above all a humanitarian, who rose from the humble fisherman community to great heights. The United Nations has declared October 15 as International Students Day.

To me he is a Yogi - a man of great ethics and principles, loved students, cherished their dreams and never encouraged the defeatist attitude. I have never met him though I desired it, having heard so much about his extraordinary humility and strength of character. 

Rather than the tweets and the coverage, the only way we can remember Kalam is by practising his values and supporting the cause of education and keeping his dream alive.

Calvin's CLoud

To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice your gift.

Steve Prefontaine

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Dream Runners Half Marathon July 26 2015

I completed my second half-marathon this morning in Chennai, well organised by the Dream Runners in support of the Freedom Trust. The funds collected is used for amputees, so they can walk. I was happy to leave my footprint on the Finish line, but my timing was way off mark, almost 30 minutes more than my earlier run which was 3:20. 

Amidst all the self-doubt because of lack of training for a month, I was pretty sure I will collapse somewhere during the run. I had briefly joined a running group to train, but within a short period had to travel on work. Nevertheless, I had found a warmth in my fellow runners united by a common love for running and reaching the miles.

VIji Swaminathan has been an excellent leader and motivator for the group and I learnt a lot of positive reinforcement under her guidance. Group members were encouraged to say I will and negative messages were strictly restricted among the group. The can-do attitude and belief in the group and each runner was pivotal in helping us reach our goal. 

Infact, there was a suggestion to reconsider the half-marathon and instead join the 10 k run. I was reluctant and decided to put my best foot forward and finish the distance. I hit the sack at 9:00 pm the previous night and woke up at 3:30 am since I had to pick up a fellow runner and head to the ground. I was nervous and excited at the same time. It was judgement day. After a few warm up sessions, the race was on. I met Venkat, a 70 year old (thats my guess) pacer from  Mumbai, who had come to help us runners with the 3:00 hour pace run. He is also the owner of the you too can run site. It was his encouragement for the first couple of kilometers that helped my mental conditioning. While along the way, I felt dizzy, I continued to plough on and stopped water breaks at every station and kept my body hydrated. There were many moments during the run when I felt I could go no further, but the running with the group, commitment to myself and my support system from fellow runners was immense. 

Thankfully the weather was also on our side, otherwise the humidity could have slowed us down further. Sports helps you with mental conditioning and pushing the boundaries, which you never thought you can achieve. A good trainer or a leader is key to ensuring the team realises the vision and that was evident among each of us who ran the distance with the sweat running down our faces, beet red, exhausted but with a permanent smile that said it all.

For someone who suffered a multiple ankle fracture and feared a permanent limp, and was only known to be a sprinter through school and college, running has been a salvation. I never dreamt I would run a marathon, never thought I could do long distance and never thought I could pick up on building my health.

Now I know I can. You just have to will it.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Month Long Glutonny - Chennai to Jersey City

The Burratta
Pink Vodka Pasta

The Indomitable Cheese Cake
A delicious view to devour
Balsamic Vinegar anyone?

Warm water with Lemon

Tomato juice - a Bloody Mary?

Calvin's CLoud

Nothing could be more important than that the work of a soldier is well done. No tools will make a man a skilled workmen, or master of defense, or be of any use to him who has not learned how to handle them and has never bestowed any attention on them.

- Plato

Sunday, April 05, 2015


I have a long way to go - perfecting my well bent lines into perfect verticals, but it is a journey into your soul. When I do get into my zone, I'm transported to another world. Art does that to you - she draws you with such power, it is seductive.

I love line works, but it is mentally taxing and with my level of competency, makes it arduous and draining. For now, I have decided to concentrate on getting my basic drawing and tones to an acceptable level.

The following sketch is from my travels,  Kerala, one of my favourite destinations. 
I will post the next one soon, realised there was a lot of corrections when I verified my sketch against the original photograph.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Luncheon Reunion at The Kitchen, Raintree

We had been planning this for quite a while. But like every other plan, this simple luncheon was taking its own sweet time to materialize because of our own individual commitments on weekends. The choice of venue took the greatest time since we both lived on opposite ends of town. So finding a middle ground on a restuarant that appeals to our food taste, price and transport was tricky and terribly time consuming. Finally, we decided to meet at the Raintree - The Kitchen for a lunch buffet. Reviews seemed good and the spread was great. 

We were meeting after almost seven years and we had changed a bit physically, plumper than before. We got past that quickly and caught up on our good old days which was refreshing and nice. I was not aware how talented my friend was until she gifted me a beautiful painting of Jesus carrying a lamb in bright watercolors. I was blown away by her thoughtfulness - it felt like a blessing. 

For appetizers and starters, we were served a lovely warm soup followed by vegetable grills and non-vegetarian menu for my friend. We had a variety of chaat items and salads as well. One of my favourites was a delicately done stuffed brinjal in tomato sauce, which was fantastic. We were already feeling full and the thought of missing a beautiful and colorful dessert me
nu felt unforgivable. She loved her seafood main course while the vegetarian course seemed just alright - there was no Wow factor. After a good meal, we walked over to the dessert counter to see the choices for ourselves. A decision was made to give our gluttony a break over a good conversation and other plans. 

The dessert selection was fantastic and we shared every piece so the calories can be evenly spilt. Everytime I think I do not have a sweet tooth, an event like this comes along to remind me how inaccurate I am about myself. On that note, we wrapped up the bill and went outside to see her new car. It was a limited edition with a nice body in an navy blue. She then mentions that the valet ran over to the Audi coming up behind her and left her with her car
in the driveway. So we marched over to the lobby manager to bring this ghastly behavoir to his notice.  

Overall lunch was good and priced on the higher side which is expected. The interiors are bathed in white with a natual light and glass door panel flooding through. So when you step in to the Kitchen, it feels gorgeous. Nevertheless I thought they could pay much better attentions to the furniture and cutlery. Service was great and brownie points for dessert.

Over a warm hug, good memories and a promise to meet again, we drove away to into reality.

Call of the Hills, Ootacamund

My colleague's wedding was coming up and the venue was a great excuse for a few of us to escape to the hills. Her wedding was in the plains,  but the drive to Ooty-Conoor was just a few hours away at the hills. Chennai's rising mercury was an excellent need to climb over 7500 ft above sea level and chill out.

While the drive from Chennai to Coimbotore was braving an unrelenting heat wave inspite of the air conditioner, as we eased into the hills, we had the windows down and enjoyed the blast of cold breeze on our sweaty tired faces. The drive is terribly scenic, with lush green foliage, tea gardens, and beautiful view points overlooking the catchment area. The bride suggested we visit the lesser know Avalanche lake and Emerald lake, which is slowly opening up to tourists. Some of my friends who had been visiting Ooty for over 30 years barely knew of these two beauty spots! I was excited to get away from the noisy city life and incessant work schedule. 

After a tizzy spell, we reached the very quaint hotel, which was cut away from the Ooty town. At any time, you can wake up to the sounds of the sparrows and mynas and other birds that visit the property for its innumerable flora and fauna. I knocked out for a few hours, grateful for a few hours of uninterrupted sleep.

We drove over into town to explore the place on foot. It was amazing to see how much Ooty had urbanised - Dominos pizza, Cafe Coffee Day, Subway and other famous food joints had cropped up. In the same breath, I might also add how appalling it was to see how dirty the streets had become with the influx of tourists. In India, the lack of civic sense and need for maintaining clean hygienic spaces is severely lacking. While people do not mind throwing garbage on their own streets, while abroad, they comply to every possible rule including segregating waste. Why this indifference?

For dinner, we headed over to the much talked about Shinkows, a Chinese restaurant in Ooty that has been around for a very long time. It is known more for its non-vegetarian menu such as crispy rabbit, so my vegetarian offering was not too great. The price was reasonable. After a long time, I had the Casatta for dessert, while appetiser and starters included the pepper soup and vegetarian spring roll. We split the main course with a dry vegetable noodles. After chatting around with the staff, we took a walk and then headed over to the hotel in preparation for the exciting visit to the lakes in the morning.

The next morning was misty and chill. It had rained the previous night, so the weather was cozy and cold. I was praying it would not rain. The drive to the lake was through the town of Avalanchi and took us almost 2 hours to get to the forest area, but it was a beautiful drive. You also need the Forest Department's permission to drive through the Forest and stop at the Eco-tourism pick-up point. You are better off getting there early since the tour takes another 2-3 hours into the Avalanche lake area. The government has worked with the Todas tribal community who inhabit the place to act as the preservers of the ecosystem. 

We drove past the Cauliflower shola forest, which gets its name from the tree bunches which look like the cauliflower from a distance. I thought we could even add broccoli to the description. We then stopped at the Upper Bhavani reservoir source. 

It is home to the beautiful Goddess Bhavani who is the protector of the area. Right by the temple, the river flows into the deep trenches of the forest. We got off the bus and offered our prayers and admired the pristine beauty of the place. I enjoyed the cold fresh spring water mingled with medicinal plants. We drove through fields of gold - beautiful meadows of yellow flowers glistening in the sun mingled with the rain drenched greenery of the forest. 

Finally we reached the beautiful Avalanche lake. The first glimpse gives you the impression of a miniature version of the Grand Canyon, though the latter is nature's great wonder. It was a breathtaking view - untouched except for the hoof prints of the wild animals that come to the lake bed for water. We were hoping against hope to experience an encounter in the wild, but our Toda drive Prabhu Raj gave us a knowing smile. He mentioned that the our presence does not go unnoticed in the wild and the visitors come out late in the evening when the sun goes down. One of the unique traits of the place is the presence of the trout fish which inhabit the lake. The trout fish jump up in water and thrive only in fresh cold water. This concluded our trip to Avalanche and we were dropped back at our pick-up point. 

We then drove over to Emerald lake which is enroute brought back memories of Pottstown lake in West Chester, which my friend took me to in the Fall - the lake was beautiful to watch over the sunset. The driver took us for a short walk through the wooded area to see the backwaters of the lake. That wrapped up the most important part of the stay. 

Misson accomplished, we headed over to Mohans Bhojanalaya, a Gujurati vegetarian place for dinner. While the rotis were good, the side dishes were soaked in oil and I made sure I expressed my unhappiness to the staff. Post dinner, we stopped to buy the famous Ooty tea snacks, Varki and home-made chocolates from Modern Stores. On the way back, we experienced the unexpected - a huge mammoth size bison in the night. We were a little freaked out since these guys are unpredictable; even the local folks on two wheelers were wondering how to get past him. Since we were driving, we honked to scare the big guy and drove past. It was a life time experience! My wish came true. The hotel staff had a hearty laugh since the bison was a regular feature in their life. They treat him like their pet poodle!

With all the excitement, we drove back to Chennai through Conoor-Wellington and drove through the oldest and prestigious Madras regiment. You are not allowed to take photographs once you drive into the secured area. We watched the officers training for the parade and it filled our hearts with pride.

On the way, we quickly made a pit-stop at our friend's wedding reception and were off to Chennai braving the heat once again.