Saturday, September 19, 2009

College... Bliss...

Its been five days since my college days restarted. I last attended a college back in April 2007 - and those were days of fun and enjoyment - far from the burdens of life. After two years of freedom (as some may call) that a job gives, its back to the world of classrooms and assignments.

The first day at College - September 15, 2009 - went about without much fuss or work. There was a long drawn "inauguration" function - welcoming the second batch of M Pharm students to the college (in fact, it was the first batch in two specialisations), peppered with speeches and advices from a range of experts who occupy the highest offices at the Health Care campus of Amrita Vishwavidyapeetham. The Principal discussed our syllabus, and also gave some clue of what lies in store for us. The day ended sitting at the library searching for volumes that I remember seeing at my old college.

The second day was no different - just as the function wasn't there. Lectures started on the second day of college itself - and as if to spice up the day, we even had a guest lecturer from the United States. Days rolled past in quick succession, and all that echoed though our campus (which has more of hostelers than day-scholars) today was, "Are you going home?". Anxious souls were ensuring that no-one from the class remained at their hostel rooms - lest more assignments reach us!

To not disappoint souls looking at continuing education - Its fun to be back at college. One should enjoy trying to hide away from teachers searching for answers, or from friends waiting to take away your assignments. The College is celebrating the Graduation day of its first batch of B Pharm students, and the new batch of M Pharm students have already been given charge of different jobs at the venue - right from inviting guests to ensuring their accommodation at their venue. There's just more to come right here - but, College life rocks :)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Back to college....

After a long two-year break from studies, I am finally back to college. I am pursuing Masters in Pharmacy (specialising in Hospital & Clinical Pharmacy) at Amrita School of Pharmacy (under Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham, deemed university) Edappalli, Kochi, Kerala. Its a two year programme, with one year for theoretical studies and one for thesis/research work along with an internship at the Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences (A 1200-bed super-speciality, tertiary referral hospital in Ernakulam).

Ours is a batch of 10 students (there are two more specialisations, with 10 students each). There was a long inaugural session, and a mandatory visit to the Library. The inaugural session was interesting - and boring - in every manner.

A few words about the institution - the institution is affiliated to Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham Deemed University. The University was recently accredited with an "A" rating by the NAAC. The University was founded by Shri Mata Amritananda Mayi (fondly called Amma). The Pharmacy school was established in 1997, and currently offers Bachelor and Masters programmes in Pharmacy. The Institution is also in the process of starting a Pharm.D (Doctor in Pharmacy) programme, and also a full-time research PhD programme. The college is located within - but a while away from - the AIMS campus.

What makes life interesting for the student in me, is that the access to the institution is across a railway line! On the very first day, my arrival at Edappalli was celebrated by WAP4 #22617 of Arakkonam rushing through with the Dhanbad Express! The daily grind has just begun - expect the blog to become more irregular (perhaps could be the opposite as well), and more interesting content would be on this way...

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Private Buses finally gets cut to size...

The City bus service in Ernakulam - the Commercial Capital of Kerala - is handled almost exclusively by Private buses. Official records show that there are over 900 buses serving the city and its suburbs - extending from Thripunithura to Cheranalloor and Thevara/Fort Kochi to Aluva. The sheer number of buses provide an amazing connectivity within the city, with frequencies as good as a minute between two buses! However, the amazing frequency has led to unhealthy competition among bus operators - and finally ends up in buses running at speeds putting even F1 drivers to shame.

It is no secret that these private buses run on a mix of Kerosene and Diesel (obviously for saving on fuel money - only to spend more on engine repairs). In addition to cutting costs, the mix also allows buses to pick speed much faster than a bus running purely on diesel. Each bus runs with about 3-4 crew members manning it - including one driver and two conductors. The crew are usually at tenterhooks, because any dip in collection would lead to a confrontation with the bus owner. In their attempts to ensure that competition does not run away with the passengers, they tend to overspeed and drive dangerously.

On all my visits to Ernakulam, I have sadly been witnessing atleast one accident - thankfully none were fatal. In one of my visits, I even witness crew of two buses fighting it out in the middle of the road - because the bus ahead was running too late, eating into the next one's revenue. In a gruesome incident recently, a person lost his life in the city after a bus ran over him. If reports are to be believed, the driver was overspeeding. It would be partiality to blame only the bus owners or the crew for the competition - the government had a blind eye when it came to regulating the number of services. As a result, the government is now at a tricky spot - its attempts to introduce KSRTC services on many routes drew flak from operators.

Following the recent death atErnakulam, the City Traffic Police (of Ernakulam City) have commenced a drive to ensure that buses do not overspeed. Newspaper reports suggest that the city police have formed teams of policemen, who observe buses and issue a warrant on the spot for irregularities. The Police have also deployed interceptors - equipped with speed sensing radars - to check overspeeding in the City. The allowed speed for City buses is only 35 kmph in city limits (A very unrealistic speed indeed!). Although a small move, this move would surely reign in errant operators, and perhaps restore some peace in the city.

The wait for the swanky buses from KSRTC just got longer, with the entire project hitting roadblock after roadblock. Hopefully, those buses would really cut Private buses to size. Private buses are necessary evils - but they need to cut down to the level that they are necessary, and not a bit more.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The 'RailKerala' meet: At Pattambi

It has been a tradition of RailKerala - a group of Railfans in Kerala, often called a 'sub-group' of the Indian Railways Fans Club (IRFCA) - to have a get together every year, since 2007. We usual get together in October every year, usually at Ernakulam. We decided to have something different this year - meet in September, perhaps at a different location. Long discussions later, Kozhikode was chosen as our place of meet. However, attendees started withdrawing one by one, and a spot closer to Shoranur was chosen. Pattambi got the toss.

Pattambi is 12 kilometres from Shoranur, on the Shoranur-Mangalore Railway Line. The station is located on the banks of the river Bharathapuzha and is in the middle of a couple of nice curves. The location was studied using Google Earth, and we checked for connectivity in detail. So Pattambi, it was! RailKeralites were to assemble at Shoranur Station at 9 AM on Saturday, September 05, 2009. I planned to take the 6305 Kannur Intercity to reach Shoranur at that time. During the planning stages, we had as many as 8 confirmed attendees - this came down to 4 the night before the meet. No matter what, we were determined to go ahead with the meet.

Certain family matters kept me occupied till 2AM on Saturday morning. After everything settled, I hit the bed. I had set an alarm for 0530 on my mobile phone. It was raining intermittently that night, and it was very cold. I slept in parts and I did not get enough rest. I woke up suddenly hearing a loud clatter of rain water splashing on a fiber-sheet that we had on my home's roof. The noise was so loud that I almost jumped out of my bed - thanks to the state of trance that I was in. I casually checked my mobile, and found that it was already past 0610. What followed after this was a hard put effort to get out of my house on time.

At 0640, I was walking at a brisk pace towards the bus stop to get onto a bus that would leave me at Thrissur. About 50 metres before the bus stop, I saw a bus already approaching - thankfully, the driver stopped for me. What followed was a nail-biting run on a rainy morning. The bus stopped about 500 metres from the railway station at 0730. I tried to get an autorickshaw, but none of them seemed to be interested in ferrying me to the station. I had a rush to the station - and reached there at 0735. I was least amused to see a very long queue at the ticket window. I selected one window that was a little 'less' crowded.

While my palpitating wait for the ticket continued, the Trivandrum bound Kerala express rushed in to the station. Quite a lot of people in the queue appeared to want to travel by that train - and were rushing to the window. What ensued was people shouting at each other for cutting the queue. My train was scheduled to depart at 0800, and the clocked ticked past 0750 now. I was still about 10 people away from the ticketing clerk. By the time I got my ticket, it was 0759. I walked on to the platform, with a sigh of relief. Just as I reached the FOB, the PA system blurted out the information about the arrival of my train.

Earlier that morning, I had received a couple of messages about my train - the loco that was working, and the position of one of the Railkeralites traveling on the train. I walked down to the position where my coach was to arrive - the eight coach from the loco. My train - 6305 Ernakulam - Kannur Intercity Express - appeared around a curve a while past 0800. The loco in charge was WDM3A #14054 of Ernakulam. The train arrived at 0806, delayed by 9 minutes. With huge relief, I got into a coach of the train - the coach was already crowded, and there was no chance that I could go anywhere beyond the door.

My Ernakulam-Kannur Intercity entering Shoranur.... WDM3A #14054 of Ernakulam was in charge...

The run from Thrissur to Shoranur was eventless. We crossed trains at pretty frequent intervals - but I had no way of finding out more details. We were detained for some time at Shoranur Home, and were later admitted on Platform 4. I headed off to the loco after the train stopped - our scheduled meeting point was at the Loco. When I reached the loco, Prof Venugopal, Vibin and his cousin Dany were waiting. By the time we exchanged hellos, Dr Sandeep turned up. He too was in the same train - we were meeting for the first time. The Intercity showed no signs of moving even after 10 minutes from arrival. Later, the Ernakulam bound Mangala Express turned up from the opposite direction - WDM3A #14126 of Ernakulam did the honours.

After the Intercity left, we all headed to the Vegetarian Refreshment room on Platform 2 for breakfast. Me and Sandeep were the only ones left to eat - and we filled up our tummies here. After we finished breakfast, it was time for us to head to Pattambi - the place where we would railfan. About 5 minutes of wait later, a "Limited Stop" Voivo Coach turned up. The bus had very narrow seats, and its "two-seaters" could hardly contain "1.5 seats". The 15 kilometre bus ride took about 30 minutes, including two 5 minute "halts" to pick up passengers. The road was not in the best condition, and that made our ride a little rough.

We reached Pattambi at around 1030. Finding our way to the station was a little tricky, and we were guided by a "coach". We found a small exit besides the KSRTC bus station, that leads straight to the platform. As we entered the station, we found the Trivandrum bound Parasuram waiting for her starter, and a twin Golden Rock WDM2 hauled Tanker rushed towards Mangalore. Disappointed at missing the Golden Rockers, we walked along the railway tracks in search of a good location. A couple of trains were expected to arrive in quick succession in the next hour.

The approach to Pattambi, from Shoranur, follows an S-curve. The tracks run with quite a lot of space between them at this point. We walked down to a beginning of the S-curve and stood discussion everything from Politics to trains to movies to food. The first spotting were a pair of light WDG3As heading to Shoranur. The next train was the Coimbatore Mangalore Fast Passenger, followed by the Kozhikode Jan Shatabdi. The Jan Shatabdi had as many as 18 coaches today - including two CR coaches. After the JS went, I called up 139 to check the running status of 6345 - that train was to turn up an hour late.

We decided to call it a break, and we headed back to the station. The next on our agenda was - Biriyani eating. We headed out of the station in search of a good restaurant - we had a tough time finding one. Thanks to Ramzan, most of the restaurants in town were closed. We finally managed to one pseudo-modern restaurant. The restaurant was furnished with false ceiling and all modern accessories - but there was a power failure and there was no ventilation! We were left to sweat out the next 45 minutes, while we dug into our plates. Once we finished lunch, we headed back to the station.

The Nizamuddin bound Mangala express arriving at Pattambi.. the Trivandrum bound Netravati express can be seen to the left..

We were to have yet another miss here - the Chennai Egmore express was ready to depart towards Shoranur. A while after we reached, the arrival of Mangala Express was announced. I and Prof headed out of the station to get some photos of Mangala. The Netravati Express from Mumbai, and the Nizamuddin bound Mangala Express turned up together. After the photoshoot, we headed back to the station. Dr Sandeep left towards Kozhikode on Mangala. The rest of us headed to the bus station to get a bus back to Shoranur. We first checked the KSRTC bus station, but there were no buses to Shoranur at that hour. Later, we headed to the private bus station, only to be disappointed seeing only ordinary buses to Shoranur. Just as we were about to get into one of those small vehicles - that are passed off as buses - to Shoranur, a KSRTC Malabar bus rushed in.

Although we discovered that the bus was heading to Shoranur only after it crossed us, the driver was kind enough to wait for us to run quite some distance to get into the bus. There was enough empty seats for all of us to be seated. The bus was pretty new, and the driver was at his best. We were dropped outside Shoranur station at 1415 - just in time for Vibin & his cousin to get into the Coimbatore bound MEMU. The queue at the ticket counter was just humongous - leading to a lot of altercations between passengers. A lone RPF constable was trying his best to maintain peace and discipline. We got tickets at 1430. Vibin and his cousin rushed to the second coach of the MEMU, while myself and Prof stood outside the train chatting with Vibin.

We (I and Prof) were to take the Kochuveli Garib Rath (me alighting at Ernakulam, and Prof continuing to Chengannur). Just as Vibin's MEMU pulled out, the Kozhikode bound Jan Shatabdi pulled in to the station. Vibin called up to inform me of the loco and that there were enough vacancies in the train. I and Prof decided to check out if we could get seats on the JS. Just as we entered the platform where the JS had stopped (Platform #4), the Kerala Sampark Kranti pulled out, with a Ratlam WDMx in charge (From Platform #6). Although the JS had enough "vacant" seats, all of them had reservations. The TTE politely refused to let us in - and we decided to drop the very idea of traveling by the JS.

Vishakapatnam's WDM3A #16054R with the Kozhikode-Trivandrum Jan Shatabdi

In the mean time, WAP4 #22550 of Erode pulled into Platform #5 with the Dhanbad-Alappuzha Express. We headed to check the loco of JS - and we awestruck at the sight!! That was Vishakapatnam WDM3A #16054R doing the honours!!! I hadn't heard Vibin's information correctly and went berserk clicking the loco from every possible angle - but bad light meant that most of those images came out unusable. After the entire photography exercise, we decided to take some rest inside the sheltered area. Prof headed for a tea, while I sat down reading the timetable. I decided to change my mind, and get on the Dhanbad-Alappuzha express instead. I had to head to Alappuzha that day, and that train would take me closer to my destination.

I informed Prof of my change of mind, and headed straight to B1 coach of the DHN-ALLP Express. The coach had hardly 8 passengers in it, and I got an entire bay all for myself. The train started from Shoranur at about 1600. The TTE came as we crossed Mullurcarai. I paid the difference, and got my ticket extended to Alappuzha - the TTE (one Mr. Ravi, CTI at ERS) was very honest and upright. He gave me the entire balance (I had tendered a Rs. 500 note), without eating any money. I was left wondering if such people still existed!!! I decided to have a short nap, and lied down on the berth. We crossed a twin WAG5 hauled freighter at Thrissur. I feel asleep after Thrissur, and woke up just as the train pulled out of Aluva.

A call from home made me change my program, and my new program was to alight at Ernakulam, and then proceed to Alappuzha with my brother (who was in Ernakulam for some shopping). By the time my new program was fixed, my train rushed past Idappalli station. We were made to stop at Ernakulam North Home signal for about three minutes. Later, we were admitted to the station, where we halted from 1740 to 1815 - for want of vacant platforms at Ernakulam Junction. There was one train running ahead of us - perhaps the 2677 Bangalore-Ernakulam Intercity. While we were at Ernakulam Town, the Alappuzha-Chennai Express, Ernakulam-Shoranur Passenger and the Kanniyakumari-Bangalore Express crossed us.

We crawled down from Ernakulam Town to Ernakulam Junction, and finally stopped on Platform 5 of ERS at 1825. I got off from the train, and headed straight to Platform 1 for a hot tea and some light refreshments. Just as I finished washing down some pazhamporis with hot tea, I got a call from my brother that we was closer to the station, and asked me to proceed to MG road, and wait for his car. I walked out of the station to MG road - only to wait for about 20 minutes for him to turn up. So there ended the annual RailKerala meet - although most members pulled out at the last moment, the meet was a success. We hope to have quarterly meets from now on...

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Happy Onam!!!

Thiruvonam is finally here! Putting an end to 10-days of festivities, Thiruvonam is here. Onam is celebrated to mark the Harvest season, and also to welcome the mythical king Mahabali is regarded as the best ruler the state has ever seen. History has it that Mahabali was an Asura (or Devil) and he ruled over all the three worlds, including the Devas. Annoyed by this, the Devas approached Lord Vishnu for help. It is said that Lord Vishnu approached Mahabali in his Vamana avatar. Mahabali was performing a Yagna at that time, and he had promised to fulfill the needs of any one approaching him. Taking advantage of the situation, Vamana said to Mahabali, "You need not give me anything great. It is enough if you give me that extend of land covered by three footsteps of mine".

Although Mahabali was warned by the sages performing the Yagna that Vamana was an avatar of a Deva and the statement was a trap. Mahabali, determined to keep up his promise, begged pardon from his Guru (among the sages) and disregarded his advice. On hearing this, Vamana grew in size until he towered above the heavens. He measured all of the earth with one Footstep. The second claimed all of heaven. With one more foot of territory still remaining, Mahabali requested Vamana to place the final step on his head as the third step of land, since had no other territory left. Vamana did so and in doing so, pushed Mahabali down to Patala, the underworld.

As a parting blessing, Lord Vishnu allowed Mahabali to rule over the underworld, and also visit his subjects once every year. Anecdotal evidences show that Onam was celebrated in as early as 800 AD. Onam is celebrated in the malayalam month of Chingam. Coincidentally, the Malayalam calender also starts with the month Chingam. Onam falls on the tenth day from the day, the star Atham is marked.

Onam is celebrated one and all in the state, irrespective of caste or religion. The spirit of the celebration is marked by Floral designs (like the one shown in the image above) and the sumptuous feast on Onam afternoon. There is a saying that one must have an Onam feast, even if that means one should sell his property. The other ancillaries of the festival are traditional dances and certain processions across the state. Before I end this long post, that would not be providing much of the history...

Happy Onam
to all Keralites