Words are all I have…

Capturing my response to the FB book list challenge here. I should make it a live list. Also, should pick from lists of others for my to-read list.

Thanks Vijay, Debanjan and Shubhra di for the nudge. Books have always been my favorite retreat. I have often read books whose name I forgot the very next day- not because the particular book was not good, but because I just wanted to finish it before returning and didn’t bother to look at the cover page long enough to absorb the details.

Here goes a sub-set of the long list of titles that I really enjoyed, books that taught me varied things, took me places I haven’t been yet and to times I can’t live. In an almost chronological order of reading. 

  1. Balhans, Nandan and Champak fortnight editions- My first friends. How greedily I used to wait every week throughout primary school, switching between Hindi and English editions.
  2. Enid Blyton’s books- Middle  and high school. Probably finished every book present in school library.
  3. Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy- Douglas Adams. Don’t Panic!
  4. Mrityunjaya- Shivaji Sawant.  Mahabharat written from Karan’s viewpoint. I read the Hindi version.
  5. A Thousand Splendid Suns- Khaled Hosseini (and his other works).
  6. Sea of Poppies- Amitav Ghosh. Pre-opium war story set in and around Bengal.
  7. The Emperor of all Maladies- Siddhartha Mukherjee. A biography of cancer, as the sub-title reads. Biology is complicated. And then you mix all sorts of engineering to it.
  8. Sky Train: Tibetan Women on the edge of history- Canyon Sam. Redefined resilience for me.
  9. The Storyteller- Jodi Picoult. Life after “the” holocaust. Guilt, forgiveness, and many other facets of human nature.
  10. American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company- Bryce G. Hoffman. A business book that kept me up at nights.


And we drive on

So, it looks like I have driven more km (or miles, if you prefer) in the US than in India. What does that deserve a mention, you wonder!

– I have been a sole owner of a car in India for last 2 years.
– Time I have spent in the US with a car, till date, is just around 2 months.
And I have not been going for road trips in the US every possible weekend. It was just a couple of times.

Since the first time I drove in the US, every time I find myself in middle of a discussion about “Driving in the US after driving in India”, almost everyone disagrees when I say- “It’s pretty easy. Just follow the rules and the signs on the roads.” (Please excuse the bad statement construction.)
But I still stand by that. Back home, I have to continuously guess which direction the car/bike/truck/bus/auto-rickshaw in front, on the left or on the right wants to go (and multiply that with the number of vehicles around), where a pedestrian might jump out from, what exactly does the vehicle behind want to communicate by that loud, continuous horn when there is a stop traffic signal and it goes on. Information processing taken to its limit!

Chandigarh was relatively better in these and some more aspects (but that’s an exception, not a norm). In Hyderabad, there are no potholes, but the sheer number and sizes of speed-breakers make up for that.

Worry not, am not fuming at the status in India. I will continue to drive there, still a little defensive may be. The fact that I haven’t have had even a brush with another vehicle or person on the road acts as a motivation and a confidence booster.

Just that,  I have a huge respect for the people- friends, family, strangers- who drive safely in India, without cursing, without faltering, with good control. I now understand how much effort it requires.

The point of this post was to self-applaud for safe driving and wish myself- Happy driving, in many more places and for many more miles!

P.S. My flatmate told me last week that car back home has a flat tire et al. Looks like someone (/thing) is unhappy with me.

Dialogue in the Dark

Ever spent time in dark? Absolute dark, without a candle, or a cellphone, or stars, or moon, or fireflies… any sort of light around you? When whether eyes are closed or open did not make any difference at all? If yes, where was it and for how much time?

You must have guessed that Dialogue in the Dark is something of that sort. Else why would I ask that sort of questions!
If this is the first time you have come across DiD, I suggest you quickly check their website, especially the description of the exhibition and be back here to read more. If you have, lets continue our conversation.

So, this place was on our (my Hyderabad group’s) to-visit list for a long time. It appears on Tripadvisor’s Things to do in Hyderabad at # 17 (as of this post being written) and at # 6 in Hong Kong. I am sure it would be highly rated at other locations too. Before you dismiss it away at a touristy place, let me mention- it was anything but a touristy experience.

6 of us made reservation for a fine evening and reached well before time. The courteous reception staff gave us tickets and led us to a dark room after we deposited our cellphones, watches and everything that can emit any light. We met our host-cum-guide there. He gave us basic instructions, handed a cane each, asked our names and off we started on our journey.

Walking in a park, taking a boat ride, visiting a canteen and ordering chocolates while counting money in dark, playing cricket, guessing spices by their fragrance, “seeing” architectural wonders using finger tips… And the seemingly endless corridors…

One word that would describe the entire hour: Overwhelming! The entire experience was pretty smooth and safe. The guide was super talented, cheerful, understanding and patient. Still, I was overwhelmed. It was not easy to accept the darkness. Whether I opened the eyes or closed them, it felt exactly the same. I over-relied on my sense of touch and hearing. Didn’t take a single step till I could feel the wall or the shoulder of the person in front in addition to tapping the cane. I kept seeking audio clues and verbal assurances. Took me time till now (almost 2 months) to admit that I was overwhelmed. All my friends were much calmer.

The best moment was seeing the guide at the end of the tour. He looked very different from what my mind had imagined. But when I tried to recreate the mental picture of him, I failed. He has done a PhD, has a lovely family, takes public transport and travels one hour each side to get to and back from work every day and loves his job. I was inspired.

It is one thing to sympathize and a very different thing to even try to empathize.

I highly recommend that you visit any of the DiD exhibitions whenever you get a chance. The one is Hyderabad is just INR 300! They have a dinner in dark too, which I hope to try some day. I promise to myself that I will be calmer the next time. The entire design and set-up is extremely safe, with the guides and support staff well-trained and groomed. All I need is a bit of trust- on self and on them.

What similar experiences have you had and would recommend?

Only your best friend can…

After a few failed attempts of trying to find a tasty, yet hygienic pani puri place in Hyderabad, a place that would meet criteria of the entire group, flatmate S and I decided to prepare it at home.  An invite for Sunday evening was extended to the group. An elaborate menu of pani puri, cheese fondue and chocolate fondue was prepared.

While preparing the pani, there was a moment of confusion! In what container should we store it? There wasn’t anything big enough to contain 4-5 l pani. Suddenly, it dawned on S that we have a water storage container lying somewhere. Perfect!

It suited the job way too perfectly. There was an uncanny resemblance to the hawker’s pani container. Creativity sparks flew and taking inspiration from a morning msg about evening at S&S, we decided to name it S&S Special Pani Puri. Paper and pen were looked around for. Fevikwik was used due to inability to locate cellotape. We were rushing around the house ensuring food is ready and set on time, yet, our brains were racing to make the presentation more cheesy. Last min ideas about branding our differentiating factor struck. Result was the following…

S&S Special Pani Puri
S&S Special Pani Puri


… along with S and I wearing hear gear to resemble the road side bhaiya.

Friends arrived. There were praises all around. Compliments on how the spelling mistake was authentic and how the presentation had made the food even tastier etc.

I had asked T to join us. She made a late entry. With excitement brimming over the edge, I presented our art to her. And the candid response was what only your best friend can dare to say (without the fear of getting banned from all future parties):

Seriously! How jobless are you!

Uber cool!

That’s how I would describe Uber. UBER COOL!

Heard about the new cab services in Hyderabad a couple of months ago and tried their services a month ago. I had not even heard about the company prior to that. At first instance when I heard about how they operate, I found it a little weird. After all, how they can have only immediate booking and no advance booking! How can I rely on their availability in the last min? It sounded like a classier auto-rickshaw.

So, I tried it once. And then spent some time on their website. And rode a second time. This time, I engaged the driver in small talk. Soon, he was proudly explaining to me that he gets a 5 digit salary (on the higher end of 5 digit numbers. He told me the actual number), that he owns the car, and the “IPhone” with an Airtel connection has been provided by the company, and the salary is paid to his account weekly, and every cab is checked and only new cabs and good drivers are provided contracts by the company, and that every driver in Hyderabad nowadays wants to be an Uber driver. He also told me about flexibility of working hours, shift time on and off road, fixed salary irrespective of demand (and he repeated his salary with pride) etc.

I often ask cab drivers in different cities and of different cab companies questions regarding their work pattern etc. Hardly any drivers have ever sounded so cheerful about their job. When the Rs. 21 to 23 per km jump happened, drivers said they had not received any salary hike. Most of them were earning in 4 digit per month. The Govt. regulation was on the upper limit of per km cost (similar to MRP of a product) but the cab companies told us through their automated systems: Due to new govt. regulations, our tariff has been revised to Rs. 23/km. Bleh!

In fact, many cab vendors with corporate contracts, charge their customers for extra hours and night duty etc, but the drivers do not get paid even a penny extra for days when the customer retains the car 14 hours vs the usual 8-10 hours. And trust me, these contracts are pretty costly.

The only other driver I recall being happy with his job was with Ola, Mumbai. He was proud of the health insurance he and his family had been provided and was working hard to get the company scholarship for his kids’ education.

Am sure, an Uber driver, after paying his cab’s EMI, maintenance, fuel cost etc has at least 2.5 times what most other drivers get paid. And oh, there is a feature in the app to rate drivers. I need to ask next time the link between the rating and incentives.

So… I am truly impressed by Uber. Their cost structure is pretty reasonable. The app is very neat and precise. I do not need to explain my location over a call. I do not need to carry any cash or swipe my card etc. Cab route can be tracked remotely if required. And above everything, I do not feel guilty or sorry for the driver and wonder at the end how much tip!

I take this as an example of the fact that there can be a successful business model without exploitation of the employees. Win-win situations do exist.

Disclaimer: I am not related to or employed by Uber. This post is entirely based on my personal experience with Uber cabs and has neither been influenced by any external factors nor has any gains- monetary or kind- associated.

Goa. Again!

Life’s happening at a pace that taking a break to jot something down takes ample effort. A few awesome things still need a mention.

Goa never fails to surprise me. In addition to the well-maintained (by Indian standards) roads that I simply love, the trip recently offered me some more reasons to love the place.

Bike Rental @ Safe Special Services tops my list of great internet finds I pat myself for. It was the first time we received a vehicle with a commercial number plate, and in extremely good condition. This was over and above the friendly and helpful nature of the company owner.
Another was a breakfast place- Little World Restaurant. The search required effort no less than a treasure hunt but turned out to be more than worth the efforts.

Of course, the beaches and the company don’t need a mention.

I should have tried to catch up with Vatsa, nowadays recognized better as a candid wedding photographer. I didn’t, my bad. Hopefully, my insistence and recommendation to a friend to contact Shaadigrapher for his upcoming wedding will be a chance to meet- for the good old Shaastra days sake, as Vatsa puts it.

Note to self: Write more often.


Day’s high and low

I was staring earnestly at the laptop screen on Monday morning (OK, am lying. I was gossiping with my teammates) when office admin opened our team room door and entered with a security guard.
“Surbhi, there is a courier for you”- handling me a Ebay packed of the size of two Dominos garlic bread boxes stacked vertically.  “Umm… OK. What is it?” and I signed without waiting for an answer.

From: KS, New Delhi. The parcel read. The only person I know named KS is an insti junior with whom I worked for a writing project 3 years ago. Not really close or in regular touch, but someone who is capable of throwing a surprise out of the blue.

By now, my teammates were more intrigued than me. There started the guessing game, and I made the mistake of mentioning about the junior. “OMG! You have such stud juniors.” “But wait, he cannot be having this address. This being a new office, very few people have this address. I have given it only to my brother I think.”

The description read: “7 LED display…” This looks like some controls item.

LG: “Show me the address. H (another colleague) has asked for the address and I wrote it exactly like this.”
Me: “Oh, may be it’s for her, delivered in my name. Oh, the vendor xyz in Delhi is called KS.”

I had to look around for a cutter and then keys to be able to open the strong packing by Ebay. Finally, I managed to open it. All this while, I was trying to recollect who all have my address. A total of 3 people have it.

After removing the layers of packing, out came a nice table clock. Yay. Something that I indeed needed.
I was told a few days ago not to check my phone in middle of the night and my excuse was that I need to check time and I do not have a table clock. Also, a month ago, I had locked my phone inside a room (this should go in Hyderabad diaries series) and had to rely on laptop to wake up next morning.

Well… this made my day… although I might complain when that alarm goes off tomorrow morning. My teammates weren’t exactly happy though. Guess I should act as a secret Santa for them sometime.

Just in case you are still thinking about KS, that was just the name of the Ebay seller.

An email popped up in my inbox in 2nd half of the day: 30th April will be holiday due to elections in Andhra Pradesh. Interesting! 1st May is off. Taking 2nd off, I can have a 5 days break. Let’s see what I can do in these 5 days.

First thought: Visit home. Check train options.
I jumped onto Indian Railways website and checked train options from Hyderabad. There is a train from Hyd on Tuesday and a return train on Sunday. Perfect. Leave around 11 pm on Tuesday, reach home on Wednesday around 8 pm (18 hours train, 2.5 hours by road). Spend Thursday, Friday, Saturday at home. Start around midday on Sunday and reach Hyd at 9 am on Monday morning.

Sounded perfect.

30 waitlist for both sides. Not bad. High chances of it getting cleared. Else, I will try for a tatkal ticket a day before.

Called up Mom. Told her the plan real quick. All she understood was that I will take the train, I will take 1 day off and I will spend 3 days at home. And that she should not tell anyone right now, especially not Gran Ma. Surprise after all. I was grinning wide after the call.

Jumped to IRCTC website immediately. Entered all details and reached the booking page. Departure time. Arrival time. Travel duration.


Travel duration: 41.5 hours.

Err… what?

This looks like 18+24.

Oh! Oh!

The train takes a day extra vs what I had thought.

Of course that makes sense. After all, it is 1600 kms distance on a not-the-fastest-Indian train that we are talking about here. Suddenly, a lot of things made sense. A colleague was wondering aloud how come train option for him is taking more than 30 hours and for me so less when our homes are in similar range of distance. I was crestfallen. The 5 minutes were super exciting. I was just short of preparing a to-eat-at-home mental list.

Simply wrote an email to Mom telling how I had goofed up and that I’ll visit a month later. But I want to go home in 1.5 weeks and not a month later.

Am yet to work on an alternate plan for the long weekend.