Archive for India

Farewell to TIFR

Posted in Art, Biographical with tags , , , on October 15, 2017 by telescoper

I got up early again this morning to travel back to Pune for the final few days of this trip. Last night I had a pleasant dinner with my host Subha Majumdar at the Indigo Deli to round off my short stay in Mumbai. The food was nice, but it was a tad overpriced in my opinion. We passed by the Leopold Cafe on the way home; that was the scene of a terrorist atrocity in 2008 I remember having tea there in 1994, after returning from a boat trip to Elephant Island.

I went sightseeing yesterday morning but forgot to take my camera with me then. I left reasonably early so that I could wander around before it got too hot – the afternoon was sweltering on Friday – but when I arrived at my main destination (the National Gallery of Modern art) I found it didn’t open until 11am, so I had to find somewhere for a cup of tea (which wasn’t difficult). When it opened I found a pricing strategy that is common in India: 20 rupees for Indians and 500 rupees for foreigners! Still, 500 rupees is only about £6 and though small the gallery is well worth seeing.

When I returned to the TIFR `Colony’ I picked up my camera and took a few snaps of the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research before spending the afternoon in the office. As you can see, TIFR is set in lovely grounds with some gorgeous trees. It’s also right next to the sea, but the view wasn’t great yesterday as it was misty. Later on there were heavy thunderstorms.

Now I think I’ll take a short nap. It’s just after 10am, but I was up before 5am after just a few hours sleep. I hope I wake up in time for lunch!

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Memories of Mumbai

Posted in Biographical with tags , , on October 11, 2017 by telescoper

My first trip to India was in early 1994 and I passed through Bombay (as it was then called) on my way to and from Poona (Pune). My flight from London to Bombay arrived at about three o’clock in the morning and I was greeted outside the immigration area by a young man holding a sign with my name on it who had my train tickets for the next leg of the journey. The train didn’t leave until 6.30am so he asked me what I wanted to do until then. I said I thought I would just go to the station if it was open and wait there. He looked surprised, but said that, yes, the station was open all night. He then kindly offered me a lift in his car as he was heading home and would be going roughly in that direction.

When we got to Bombay Victoria I realised why he had been surprised. I had assumed the station would be fairly empty and I might be able to sleep on a bench or something. When I walked into the concourse it was jam-packed with people sleeping all over the floor. I wandered in sheepishly, the only westerner to be seen, and started to look for what platform my train would be leaving from. Immediately I was surrounded by beggars – women with small babies, cripples, people with gruesome scabs and sores – all pushing me around and pleading for money. Then a teenage boy tried to lift my walkman from my pocket and I started to feel not just uncomfortable but scared.

Pretty soon, though, an official from the State Railways saw my predicament and came to my rescue. Delivering numerous clips around ears he speedily liberated me from my oppressors, took me to into a small kiosk situated on the platform, and offered me a cup of tea. It had far too much sugar in it, but I drank it gratefully anyway. He asked me where I was going, and I told him. He was initially suspicious, I think, because the primary place westerners tended to visit in Pune those days was the Ashram run by Bhagwan Shree Rasjneesh where his disciplines were encouraged to participate in unrestricted sexual activities. When I told my friend from the railways that I actually going to visit IUCAA, which at that time was run by the famous Professor Narlikar, he beamed with relief. I think he wasn’t unique amongst Indians who thought that Rasjneesh was a fraud and his disciples gullible idiots.

It turned out that the train I was to take to Pune was actually already in the station but was being cleaned. Since they cleaned the first class compartments first, I was allowed to get on the train early, about 4.30, and immediately nodded off. I only woke up when the train pulled out of the station and started on its journey up towards the Deccan plateau.

I enjoyed the journey enormously, partly because the train was slow enough to allow me to take in all the sights, and partly because I was sharing a compartment with a very friendly Indian couple (a professor of engineering and his wife). They had done the customary thing when on a long railway journey in India, which is to consult the list of passenger names posted on the platform before the train left the station. When I woke up as the train left the station, they greeted me by name and introduced themselves. It was a refreshing change from the United Kingdom, where it is apparently forbidden to talk to strangers on a train.

I stayed about a month in Pune working with a colleague, Varun Sahni, on a lengthy article for Physics Reports. When that was over I had been invited to visit the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research in Bombay for a few days on my way home, so I got the train back to Victoria. Arriving on time, I left the train to be confronted by a crowd of small boys who tried to convince me that there were no taxis but that they would arrange one for me for a price of 200 rupees. That was way over the odds for a taxi (at the time) so I laughed and said no thanks.

Proceeding out of the station to the taxi rank, I realised that they had been telling the truth. All the taxis in Bombay were on strike that day. I started to panic. How am I going to get to TIFR? Then I remembered that I was to have asked the taxi driver for “Navy Nagar Bus Stop”, which is right next to the guest house I was supposed to stay in.

I thought that if there’s a bus stop there must be a bus, so I found a policeman and asked him where the buses went from. He gave me very clear directions and told me I needed the Number 11. I found the stop without much difficulty, but then there was a hitch. The buses themselves were red double-decker Routemaster types just like those you could find in London. Unfortunately, though, the numbers were written in Marathi script which I couldn’t read. Only when a bus went past did I see that the arabic numerals “11” were written on the back. A few minutes later I was joined at the bus stop by an Indian guy so I asked him if he could tell me the numbers of the buses as they came into view. He asked me where I was going, so I told him and it turned out he was going there too. Sorted.

On the bus I sat with my luggage around me and the front of the lower saloon facing backwards. All the locals peered at me like I was an exhibit in a museum, but most of them smiled. A couple of stops into the journey an old man got on wearing a scruffy coat. He looked rather poorly and had some sort of skin condition. He sat facing me and started scratching himself through his coat. I started to feel quite uncomfortable because this performance went on for some time. Then he started to unbutton his coat as if he was going to take it off. It was then that I realised the cause of his discomfort as a chicken poked its head out.

The bus was quite slow and the journey quite long so, when I finally got to the TIFR guest house, it was quite late. When I found the building, I was pleased to see my host, a physicist called TP Singh, in the lobby talking on the phone. He had his back towards me and was in the middle of a heated conversation, so I waited until he had finished before introducing myself. After a few minutes he put the phone down and turned around, so I offered my handshake and said hello.

He had a look of complete confusion on his face which gradually gave way to relief. “Peter!”, he shouted. “How did you get here?”

I got the bus, was my answer. It turned out he had found out in the afternoon (when I had already left Pune) that there would be no taxis,  so he had sent the TIFR car and driver to meet me at the station. I hadn’t seen the driver amongst the crowds and wasn’t expecting to be met anyway. In those days I didn’t have a mobile phone so there was no way of warning me about it. After scouring the station, the driver had returned to TIFR and reported that I was missing. When I had arrived at the guest house, my host had actually been on the phone to the local police in order to report me lost.

It was during this short visit of three days or so before flying back to London that I behaved as a tourist although I was taken around by students and staff from TIFR which was nicer than the more usual guided tour. I visited the Gateway to India, had tea at the Cafe Leopold, and took a boat to Elephanta Island.

Mumbai (as it is now called) is an enormous, bustling city in which extreme wealth and abject poverty can be found in close proximity and where religious tensions are never far away. Riots are fairly commonplace and there are powerful grievances between the different social groups and claims of police corruption. The sheer scale of the place means that no casual visitor can hope to understand what it  is really like to live. But my visit there left me with an impression of a city full of energy and determination in which there is much kindness to be found not far below the surface.

 

 

The Lord’s Day

Posted in Cricket with tags , , , , , , on July 24, 2011 by telescoper

Time for a brief report on yesterday’s Big Day Out to London to watch the third day’s play of the First Test between England and India at Lord’s. The journey there passed off without a hitch, and I got into London a shade after 9am. It’s a fairly short walk from Paddington to Lord’s (if you know the way!) and the queue to get in moved pretty quickly, so  I was inside the ground well before 10am, scoffing a splendid bacon sandwich in the Warner stand, adjacent to the pavilion.

The weather wasn’t quite as good as I’d hoped – overcast most of the day, and not particularly warm – but we got started on time at 11am and had a full day’s play. The ground was full, and there was a good atmosphere, with a sizeable contingent of Indian supporters adding to that special buzz you get on the Saturday of a Test Match at Lord’s.

Conditions, being conducive to swing, were fairly helpful to the bowlers, although it took them a while to find their line (especially in the case of Tremlett, who also kept bowling no-balls). Of the two Indian openers, Mukund looked far the more assured; his partner, Gambhir struggled in comparison. This pair took the total to 63 without too many alarms until Stuart Broad was brought into the attack and proved to be the pick of the England bowlers. He quickly disposed of Gambhir for a slow 15 of 46 balls, managing to squeeze a full delivery between bat and pad.

That brought in Raul Dravid, who batted most of the rest of the day for a very fine century (103 not out). Mukund, who had scored the lion’s share of the runs in the opening partnership, got to 49 and stuck there for quite some time, held up by the accuracy of England’s bowling and, one suspects, nerves at the prospect of a half-century at Lord’s. Eventually he reached for a wide ball from Broad to drive and, rather unluckily, played on.

That brought in one of the all-time greats Sachin Tendulkar (to a warmly-felt standing ovation from the Lord’s crowd). I had been looking forward for ages to see him play.  One or two early alarms notwithstanding, Tendulkar and Dravid looked increasingly secure and began to score freely against the attacking field placings set by England captain Andrew Strauss. It was starting to look like  a mammoth Indian score might be on the cards when, somewhat surprisingly to me, Tendulkar edged one from Broad and a sharp chance was snaffled by Swann at slip; he was gone for 34 and India were 158 for 3.

There then followed a fascinating period of play, in which Swann (who hadn’t bowled before lunch) twirled away from the Pavilion End while a combination of quick bowlers (first Broad, and then Tremlett) steamed in from the Nursery End. England dropped two catches in one over from Broad, and Swann was posing problems but not making a breakthrough. Laxman, who had come in to replace Tendulkar looked all at sea and eventually played a rash lofted pull shot, which was caught right in front of us at deep backward square leg. India 182 for 4 was soon 183-5 as Raina went lbw to Swann, who deserved a wicket, although he did tend to bowl a bit short on occasions.

Mindful of the possibility of a collapse, the Indian batsmen went into their shells and there followed an absorbing period of attritional cricket, as Dhoni and Dravid steadied the ship. Then Dhoni was caught at slip of Tremlett – who bowled much better later in the day – to be replaced by Harbhajan Singh who survived one no-ball before playing a dreadful shot which resulted in him being caught at the wicket by Prior.

At 241-7 India were in real danger of being forced to follow on (which can be enforced if the team batting second does not get within 200 runs of the first innings total; England scored 474-8, so India needed to reach 275 to avoid it). In strode Kumar who made it quite clear what his strategy was going to be by clubbing his first ball for 4. He played  a variety of shots in his short innings – some authentic, some agricultural – not only adding entertainment value, but also taking India to 276 before skying a hook shot and getting caught.  Neither the injured Khan (batting with a runner) nor Sharma troubled to scorers and India ended up all out for 286, with Dravid remaining unbeaten until the end.

It was getting fairly dark at this point, about 6.30pm, and England couldn’t have been relishing the 5 overs they had to face before the close but they survived without loss, and I headed off back to Paddington. A thoroughly enjoyable day’s cricket and, I might add, quite a few beers. I also took a bit of time off the cricket to take a stroll around the perimeter of the stadium, which is an interesting thing to do as there are many shops and catering outlets around. The main shop at Lord’s is a bit of a disappointment, however, full of ugly overpriced tat, but  at least no hideous paperweights.

Anyway, many thanks to my genial host for the day – we were in the part of the ground reserved for members and their guests – old friend and regular contributor this blog, Anton.

Unfortunately the journey home wasn’t so enjoyable. I got the train on time, but we stopped just past Swindon where it appeared that all power had been lost on the signals between Swindon and Bristol Parkway. We sat motionless and then trundled back to Swindon, eventually setting off again via Gloucester, of all places. I’m glad I took a good long book with me, as the crossword didn’t take very long. I was supposed to be at Cardiff Central at 21.47, but didn’t actually arrive until 11.27, 1 hour and 40 minutes late. Columbo was most annoyed.

Mumbai Memories

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , on November 29, 2008 by telescoper

Like many of you I’ve been following the events in Mumbai over the last few days with a mixture of shock and horror. It’s terrible to see the levels of cruelty and inhumanity that people can descend to. I doubt if we’ll ever really know what this murderous gang thought they were going to achieve when they set out on their killing spree on Wednesday evening. I’d be surprised if any of them could actually articulate their reasons for being involved, any more than a typical British soldier could explain, if asked, what they thought they were achieving by their presence in Iraq.

It’s a matter of great shame that we have become relatively hardened to the news of deaths abroad. Practically every day we hear of killings of occupying troops, insurgents, or non-combatants in Iraq or Afghanistan but we pay them little attention now. The death toll in Mumbai is now at least 195, but this is just a tiny fraction of the number of lives lost around the globe. What hits us hardest in the west is when we can no longer keep such events at a safe distance in our minds but when they strike on familiar territory, such as was the case in the London bombings. Only then do we see the horror close-up and personal. But we shouldn’t forget that in small towns we’ve never heard of all around the world many others are crying too, and probably for just as little reason.

I suppose it was inevitable that the events in Mumbai would send me wandering down memory lane. I have actually been there twice but both visits were long ago when the city was still called Bombay. I was supposed to go to India this summer too, but complications involved in moving house meant that I couldn’t go. However, I did once eat in the Cafe Leopold that the terrorists attacked in such cowardly fashion on Wednesday and I have waited for a train in the old Bombay Victoria station (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus). We shouldn’t need to rely on such connections to shake off the numbness that we feel when hearing about atrocities in other places, but that’s what it’s like to be a complacent westerner.

My first trip to India was in early 1994 and I passed through Bombay on my way to and from Pune. My flight from London to Bombay arrived at about three o’clock in the morning and I was greeted outside the immigration area by a young man holding a sign with my name on it who had my train tickets from Bombay to Pune. The train didn’t leave until 6.30am so he asked me what I wanted to do until then. I said I thought I would just go to the station if it was open and wait there. He looked surprised, but said that, yes, the station was open all night. He then offered me a lift in his car as he was heading home and would be going roughly in that direction.

When we got to Bombay Victoria I realised why he had been surprised. I had assumed the station would be fairly empty and I might be able to sleep on a bench or something. When I walked into the concourse it was jam-packed with people sleeping all over the floor. I wandered in sheepishly, the only westerner to be seen, and started to look for what platform my train would be leaving from. Immediately I was surrounded by beggars – women with small babies, cripples, people with gruesome scabs and sores – all pushing me around and pleading for money. Then a teenage boy tried to lift my walkman from my pocket and I started to feel not just uncomfortable but scared.

Pretty soon, though, an official from the State Railways saw my predicament and came to my rescue. Delivering numerous clips around ears he speedily liberated me from my oppressors, took me to into a small kiosk situated on the platform, and offered me a cup of tea. It had far too much sugar in it, but I drank it anyway. He asked me where I was going, and I told him. He was initially suspicious, I think, because the primary place westerners tended to visit in Pune those days was the Ashram run by Bhagwan Shree Rasjneesh where his disciplines were encouraged to participate in unrestricted sexual activities. When I told my friend from the railways that I actually going to visit IUCAA, which at that time was run by the famous Professor Narlikar, he beamed with relief. I think he wasn’t unique amongst Indians who thought that Rasjneesh was a fraud and his disciples gullible idiots.

It turned out that the train I was to take to Pune was actually already in the station but was being cleaned. Since they cleaned the first class compartments first, I was allowed to get on the train early, about 4.30, and immediately nodded off. I only woke up when the train pulled out of the station and started on its journey up towards the Deccan plateau.

I enjoyed the journey enormously, partly because the train was slow enough to allow me to take in all the sights, and partly because I was sharing a compartment with a very friendly Indian couple (a professor of engineering and his wife). They had done the customary thing in such cases which is to consult the list of passenger names posted on the platform before the train left the station. When I woke up, they greeted me by name and introduced themselves. It was a refreshing change from London, where it is apparently forbidden to talk to strangers on a train.

I stayed about a month in Pune working with a colleague, Varun Sahni, on a lengthy article for Physics Reports. When that was over I had been invited to visit the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research in Bombay for a few days on my way home, so I got the train back to Victoria. Arriving on time, I left the train to be confronted by a crowd of small boys who tried to convince me that there were no taxis but that they would arrange one for me for a price of 200 rupees. That was way over the odds for a taxi so I laughed and said no thanks.

Proceeding out of the station to the taxi rank, I realised that they had been telling the truth. All the taxis in Bombay were on strike that day. I started to panic. How am I going to get to TIFR? Then I remembered that I was to have asked the taxi driver for “Navy Nagar Bus Stop”, which is right next to the guest house I was supposed to stay in. This is actually not far from the scenes of terrorist atrocities, but nearer the southern end of the Colaba peninsula, marked with an A on the map

I thought that if there’s a bus stop there must be a bus. I found a policeman and asked him where the buses went from. He gave me very clear directions and told me I needed the Number 11. I found the stop without much difficulty, but then there was a hitch. The buses themselves were red double-decker Routemaster types just like those you could find in London. Unfortunately, though, the numbers were written in Marathi script which I couldn’t read. Only when a bus went past did I see that the arabic numerals “11” were written on the back. A few minutes later I was joined at the bus stop by an Indian guy so I asked him if he could tell me the numbers of the buses as they came into view. He asked me where I was going, so I told him and it turned out he was going there too. Sorted.

On the bus I sat with my luggage around me and the front of the lower saloon facing backwards. All the locals peered at me like I was an exhibit in a museum, but most of them smiled. A couple of stops into the journey an old man got on wearing a scruffy coat. He looked rather poorly and had some sort of skin condition. He sat facing me and started scratching himself through his coat. I started to feel quite uncomfortable because this performance went on for some time. Then he started to unbutton his coat as if he was going to take it off. It was then that I realised the cause of his discomfort as a chicken poked its head out.

The bus was quite slow and the journey quite long so, when I finally got to the TIFR guest house, it was quite late. When I found the building, I was pleased to see my host, a physicist called TP Singh, in the lobby talking on the phone. He had his back towards me and was in the middle of a heated conversation, so I waited until he had finished before introducing myself. After a few minutes he put the phone down and turned around, so I offered my handshake and said hello.

He had a look of complete confusion on his face which gradually gave way to relief. Peter! He shouted. How did you get here? I got the bus, was my answer. It turned out he had found out in the afternoon (when I had already left Pune) that there would be no taxis so he had sent the TIFR car and driver to meet me at the station. I hadn’t seen the driver amongst the crowds and wasn’t expecting to be met anyway. In those days I didn’t have a mobile phone so there was no way of warning me about it. After scouring the station, the driver had returned to TIFR and reported that I was missing. When I had arrived at the guest house, my host had actually been on the phone to the local police in order to report me lost.

It was during this short visit of three days or so before flying back to London that I behaved as a tourist although I was guided around by students and staff from TIFR so I wasn’t herded around like a sheep. I visited the Gateway to India (right next to the Taj Mahal Hotel, scene of one of the recent terrorist outrages), ate at the Cafe Leopold, and took a boat to Elephanta Island.

Mumbai (as it is now) is an enormous city in which extreme wealth and abject poverty can be found in close proximity and where religious tensions are never far away. Riots are fairly commonplace and there are powerful grievances between the different social groups and claims of police corruption. The sheer scale of the place means that no casual visitor can hope to understand what the place is really like. But my visit there left me with an impression of a city full of energy and determination in which there is much kindness to be found below its rather scary surface.