Half a Week in the Hills… Ooty!

My parents and I had a layover of about a couple of hours before our connecting flight to Coimbatore. Sitting at Chennai airport at 8am flooded back the memories of the last year. This was certainly one of the most exciting moments ever – being my last family trip as a student, I was had been looking forward to it. I had spent the Indigo flight from Mumbai working on one of my class assignments, and was glad that it was on the verge of completion.

Waiting for the boarding announcement we pondered about the course of action for the day. We planned to get to Udagamandalam (or should I say Ooty) from Coimbatore, and were brainstorming about how to get there. I was an advocate of renting a car – it would give us a good deal of flexibility while travelling, and would feel like the road trips we used to take when my sister and I were kids. My parents were more interested in hiring the services of a driver, as it would give my dad an opportunity to sit back and relax. After a brief discussion, we agreed on renting a Hyundai i20 from Zoomcars for the next 3 days and made the payment en route to the aero-bridge.

Having finished the remainder of my assignment during the connecting Indigo flight, I was relieved. It was heartening to see the coconut plantations from the airplane window as we began our descent at Coimbatore. A little while later we were greeted by the tropical South-Indian weather as we made our way to the baggage claim. Since the Zoomcars request processing time is approximately three hours (we had booked the vehicle at 9am), we found ourselves with a little less than two hours to kill. My sister joined us in the meantime, and we had a short breakfast comprising of ready-to-eat noodles and ice-creams from the general store outside the airport. Little did we know about the adventures that lay ahead of us!

After getting picked up by the Zoomcars representative, we headed to their nearest depot. Having completed all the formalities, we found ourselves driving to the Adiyogi Statue twenty minutes later. We had been looking forward to visiting since we saw the unveiling ceremony on TV, and our trip to Ooty was the best opportunity we could possibly think of. Google Maps had become our best friend, as the hour-long journey to the statue was really eventful – we found ourselves passing by fields of coconut trees, and small patches of land blooming with yellow and orange marigolds. A couple of bridges and a few narrow roads later, we found ourselves at the entrance of the parking lot.

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The Adiyogi looked majestic – the peace, coolness and serenity one feels after regularly practising yoga was clearly visible on His face, and definitely was a stark contrast to the punishing Coimbatore afternoon. We spent some time there, and after a pradakshina of the statue we were ready to head to the next place on our itinerary – a restaurant before beginning the journey to Ooty.

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Getting the car out of the parking spot was certainly the most hilarious part of the trip. The gearbox of the car was slightly different from the ones dad had driven previously. Contrary to most other cars, the reverse was the leftmost gear, and one needed to press a button to activate it. Ignorant of the fact, we found it impossible to get the car out of the parking lot – it kept going ahead when we wanted to take a reverse! Ultimately mom, sis and I got off and pushed the car behind while dad kept it in neutral gear. We got stuck behind a vehicle and it was impossible to get out without reversing the vehicle – and that was when we decided to approach the driver of one of the vehicles parked there (who had been confusedly observing us ever since we began pushing the car). He found it difficult to contain his smile as he helped us out. I am sure those 5 minutes were the most entertaining minutes of his day, and that he must have laughed his heart out once we left. The next hour and a half was spent in searching for a decent restaurant that was not too crowded. The day being declared a bandh didn’t help us at all – we couldn’t find one restaurant that was open! We ultimately gave up on the idea of lunch by 4.15pm.

The journey to Ooty was by far the most memorable road trip I have had yet. And the fact that we rented a vehicle (and not hired one with a driver) made the experience so much better. From cruising on the well maintained roads to trying to find an inexistent road and retracing our path by about 4-5km, we experienced it all. We discovered during this experience that the people in the small towns here feel really happy to help others out – never before had I seen anybody so enthusiastic about guiding us towards our destination, be it a lady carrying vegetables home or a pan-shop entrepreneur! Our ascent to Ooty finally began at about 5.45pm after we finally found a small restaurant where we stopped for tea. I dreaded the ghat section because I was really prone to carsickness as a teen – however this time was something different. We rolled down the windows and took in the freshest air possible, sang along with the songs on the phone, cracked jokes, enjoyed the beautiful scenery outside, observed the fluffy clouds, looked out for monkeys, and finally witnessed the sun take the rest of the day off. The most interesting part of this journey was seeing the buses travel up and down the slope – for a bus, the speed at which the drivers drove was just insane, and the way they navigated at the blind turns was nothing less than a work of art. By the time we reached the Club Mahindra Derby Green Resort, it was dark. We missed a couple of turns and ended up adding an additional half hour to the duration of our journey.

I always look forward to staying at Club Mahindra – I love every bit of the experience, especially their hospitality (they go to extra lengths to ensure that our stay is comfortable) and the amazing food. On arrival we were greeted with hot towels, honey herbal tea, and sandalwood paste. The slightly-sweet hot tea complemented the chilly Ooty evening, and the untimely rain helped in quickening our journey from the reception to the 1-bedroom apartment (which also had a kitchenette!). The bandh interestingly proved to be beneficial for us – our room got upgraded owing to the fact that one of the guests cancelled at the last moment! We had a hearty dinner at restaurant Ascot. We were spoilt for choice when it came to dinner, as there was every cuisine we could possibly want. With minds full of eventful experiences, and tummies full of amazing food, we finally retired to our mini-apartment for the evening.

As there were no 1-bedroom apartments available for the next day, we were allotted a couple of hotel units (it’s essentially room + bathroom). We explored the area a bit in the morning before the amazing continental breakfast at Ascot. We reached the clubhouse after a bit of a climb and discovered a number of hidden gems there, including a 6-player Carrom board. The pencil sketches made by the previous guests were really interesting – it was almost homely.

We were torn between going for a trek nearby and attending the salsa class at the club – interestingly we ended up doing neither. We spent the afternoons chatting in our rooms, playing card games and relishing on the delicious alphonso mangoes that we carried with us from home. We were serious mango-vores, having consumed mangoes on almost every day of our stay.

We decided to explore the different delights Ooty had to offer us, and began with the Botanical Garden. We couldn’t even park the car the first time we went there owing to a HUGE group of  100+ people who had come to visit the garden. The next day was a similar story – we managed to get a parking spot, but couldn’t enter the park as the system was down. We gave up after waiting for more than half an hour in queue. We passed through the Tibetan market on the way back to the car park. Spotting an Ibaco icecream outlet brought the biggest smile to my face – I frequented it a lot during my stay in Chennai, and finally found an opportunity to share the amazing experience with my parents and sister. I made them the best possible ice-cream I could fathom, and we finally left the parlour feeling really full.

On the second-last day we wanted to experience breakfast at a restaurant called “The Earl’s Secret” in Ooty. Although the hotel “King’s Cliff” to which the restaurant is attached is at an enviable location, our experience was less than satisfactory. There was no coordination among the staff – we were told on phone that there would be a buffet (and even quoted the per-head price beforehand), there was none.

Dejected, we ended up going to the other Club Mahindra property: Danish Villa, where we enjoyed a nice buffet. The last night at the Club was the most eventful one – we enjoyed watching Herbie Fully Loaded and Impractical Jokers while savouring a pizza. The three days flew past us pretty quick – I only realized how much we had enjoyed only when our stay came to an end.

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The Reception

The day of our departure was another eventful one. Google Maps gave us a hard time – it showed us inexistent routes and we spent a good amount of time getting back to the normal road after being stuck somewhere uphill. We decided to stick to the advice of the local people until we reached the base of the hills. Having committed to returning the car at 10am, and did everything possible to reach the Zoomcar depot in time.

Google Maps bestowed upon us its benevolence this time, showing us routes with really smooth roads and negligible traffic. We made it to the depot in the nick of time and proceeded to have breakfast at a restaurant called Sree Annapurna near the airport after completing the formalities. Besides being affordable, the food was just amazing – the Thayir-wada (dahi wada) was the easily the star of the day, and the filter coffee was the most amazing one.

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The flight back home was interesting too. We had a three-hour long layover scheduled in Hyderabad, where we bumped into one of my cousins and his family. Coincidentally they were booked on the same flight as us, just ten rows ahead. We chatted for a while, discussing about our experiences since the last time we met (on Diwali last year), and how my cousin Yash seems to grow a couple of inches every time I meet him! Our trip to Ooty has certainly been one of the best memories of this year yet. From last minute bookings to weird Google Maps experiences, we had it all. A special thanks to the staff at Club Mahindra for making our experience amazing.

Well, for those who intend to plan a similar trip, here are some pointers that might help –

  • If you plan to go from Coimbatore to Ooty, I would highly recommend renting a vehicle if you don’t have one. We found Zoomcars to be a very good deal for approximately ₹6,500– A Hyundai i20 Elite for 70 hours and 350km (over which we would be charged ₹12/km). The fuel was included in the package as well. BTW the airport pick-up and drop service is available
  • Speaking of renting a car, ensure that you take photos of the car from all sides to make a note of any prior damage the car has withstood and share the photos with the representative.
  • Although we loved visiting the Adiyogi, it would be best if one visits the place after approximately a year or two. A lot of landscaping is going on at present, and once complete, the experience will be something different altogether.
  • Do research about the bandhs well in advance. We travelled through a number of towns, and not a single restaurant or shop was open until 5 in the evening. Carry enough food just in case.
  • Plan in advance, especially for Club Mahindra (unless you are a Violet Card holder). We were really fortunate to find a place at such short notice. The food there is just amazing, albeit slightly expensive.
  • Carry adequate warm clothes. It is always cool there. We experienced that summer afternoons in Ooty have weather comparable to Mumbai evenings in winters. Preferably carry umbrellas for the sudden untimely rain.
  • The Derby Green property of Club Mahindra overlooks the Race Course and has a number of activities for the guests. Make sure you experience at least a few of them. Avoid visiting the property in winters – it is really cold. The staff there mentioned that the guests hardly ever come out of their rooms during winter.
  • The Tibetan Market in Ooty has great fruits, if you are interested. Chocolates are also available nearby. And if you haven’t already, do give Ibaco ice-creams a try. I just love the experience.
  • Google Maps is not highly accurate in the hilly regions. Asking the local people for directions could be more helpful. We had at least three occasions where the Maps pointed us to inexistent roads.
  • On a lighter note, if you are a mangovore like us, avoid having mangoes before a road trip on an empty stomach.

Creating History

The same thought which made it almost impossible to sleep last night jolted me awake this morning. 6.50am. I had been awaiting this moment for quite a while – and it was now coming true! I had never been this excited before. I raced to the TV to make sure that I wasn’t too late. There was just one thing going on in my head since the past couple of weeks – “MOM”!

I am referring to the Mars Orbiter Mission (informally known as Mangalyaan) – ISRO’s maiden attempt at sending a satellite to Mars. The past two weeks have been pretty eventful, as the commands were uploaded and the LAM engine was successfully fired after remaining idle for 300 days! The part that really amazed me was that MOM was to autonomously align in the Martian orbit!

Contrary to popular perceptions the most amazing thing about this feat wasn’t that the per kilometer cost of the Mission was less than that of auto-rickshaws in Mumbai, rather HOW they managed to achieve it. Instead of building a powerful launcher (which would have led to escalating costs), ISRO chose to use the old launcher, along with the cheapest resource available – gravity! ISRO used the Interplanetary Slingshot to get the Orbiter to Mars, making use of the Earth’s gravity to gather speed, the Sun’s gravity to travel, and Mars’ gravity to get closer to it. The fact that the entire technology was innovated and developed completely in India is what makes it all the more marvelous!

I watched the live telecast from ISTRAC, sharing the nervous look almost everybody had on their faces. The atmosphere was pretty much charged, as the final orbit insertion was due this morning. If everything went right, MOM would join NASA’s MAVEN. India would be making history, – being the only country in Asia to put a satellite around Mars, and the first country in the world to do so in the maiden attempt! This couldn’t get better. With every passing moment the anxiety level climbed. On hearing about the confirmed orbit alignment, the celebrations began. With the success of this interplanetary mission, India joined an elite global space club.

It was disheartening to find out that most of my friends didn’t share my enthusiasm and were more or less indifferent to the news. Some of them didn’t even know what I was talking about! Reaching Mars successfully in spite of the constraints and a pretty modest budget (compared to MAVEN) is a huge feat and calls for a lot more celebration than winning the Cricket World Cup.

I am sure this success is only the first step in our amazing journey ahead and that it will open more doors with respect to space research in India. I can’t be prouder. I conclude with the words of our Prime Minister Narendra Modi: “Aaj Mangal ko MOM mil gayi.”

Singapore-Thailand Trip: Back to Reality

Day 9: 2nd June, Bangkok

The week we spent abroad almost felt like living a dream. It was now time to get back to reality and regular life – back to Mumbai. It was slightly disheartening that the trip had come to an end. I was absolutely in no mood to leave. The biggest (and maybe the only) upside, however, was that we had the entire day to ourselves and could spend it the way we wanted. For once we enjoyed the breakfast in leisure. We checked out of Atrium a couple of hours later.

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Near Fortune IT Mall

 

Our agenda was to visit the Fortune IT Mall, which is basically a huge mall dedicated mostly to electronic items. It was almost 1 in the afternoon when we reached there. This mall (unlike the Indra Mall the previous day) had the actual original branded stuff. We spent quite some time there exploring the mall and having lunch.

We had a hilarious experience at McDonalds. Being all vegetarians, we had to tell them particularly to not add any fish, meat or beef. We also told them that we wanted tomatoes in our burger. Although the lady who took our order confirmed it thrice, our burgers lacked tomatoes. I guess mentioning just the exclusions would have sufficed. 😛

The best thing available in the mall was salted pretzels. I really wish I had chosen pretzel for lunch instead of the burgers. After a little bit of shopping, we decided to leave for the hotel.

 

We witnessed another random act of kindness from a complete stranger, who helped us find cabs back to the hotel. Although she spent 15 minutes of her valuable time trying to find us cabs, there was nothing but a pleasant smile on her face. We just couldn’t thank her enough. I guess that is the best part about Thailand and Singapore – the people in general are really friendly and kind. We reached the hotel just in time to collect our luggage and proceeded to the Suvarnabhumi Airport for our 9.30 pm flight back to Mumbai.

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We reached the airport three hours before departure. Although it was a wise decision I wish we had gone there a little earlier. The richness of Thai culture was visible in the artwork displayed – the huge statues near the check in area. It was just grand.

Thailand lies between Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia. Cambodia was ruled by Indian kings and hence having Indian influences in Thai culture is not really surprising (If you notice, the name Suvarnabhumi is Indian and it translates to “Golden Earth”). Thai culture also follows Chinese traditions. I was pleasantly surprised to find images of Samudra-Manthan (The Churning of the Ocean) on the way to the waiting area. The king of snakes – Vasuki had a Chinese touch in the image.

As we boarded the plane awaiting take-off, I couldn’t help but wonder about the experience we had in the week. Going abroad, meeting new people, exploring new places, seeing and learning a little about the culture of two countries, and of course, shopping was a really enriching experience. I recalled the little things (like the friendliness of the people) that played a huge role in the experience all the more special. I understood one thing – the simplest of smiles transcends the greatest of language barriers. It just seems to make the world a better place.

As the plane took off we saw the surroundings shrink and the city of Bangkok slowly fade into a network of lights. Although I was more than sad about the trip being over, I was looking forward to see the Arrival lounge of T2 Terminal in Mumbai.

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I want to specially thank Cox and Kings for planning the trip out so well and ensuring that everything went smoothly.

 

Here are a few tips which might be helpful:

  • I don’t know about other countries, but in comparison to India, most of the goods were less expensive in Thailand. However, that being said, do check the authenticity of the electronic goods before you purchase.
  • VAT refund is available for tourists at the airport for electronic items. If you plan to buy any electronic goods, it is advisable to talk to the seller about it.
  •  I have said this loads of times earlier. Food might be an issue for people with special dietary needs (like vegetarians or vegans).
  • Airport Rail Link is available to Suvarnabhumi Airport and is an express mode of transport. Although we couldn’t give it a try, I have heard that the experience is good.

Singapore-Thailand Trip: The Beginning

Like most other students, the vacations are the most favourite days of the year for me. Vacations are the only times a student can relax without absolutely any kind of course related worries (except perhaps the results). For me though, the summer vacations represent the time for meeting relatives and going on family trips. Last year we had multiple experiences: the first one being the Gujarat-Rajasthan trip, where we explored a few places in the two Indian states over a period of 9 days. This year too, we had a similar plan, only grander. Instead of two states, we were going to explore places in two different countries – Singapore and Thailand. Just like the Gujarat Trip, we were eleven of us travelling this time and about half the group comprised of senior citizens.

While the previous trip was completely planned by us, this year we took the help of the tour planners Cox and Kings. Unlike the last year’s trip I was pretty psyched. I had a fair idea about the places we were scheduled to visit, thanks to the courtesy of my friends (who had been there earlier) and of course, Google.  We used almost half a year to plan it and work out the littlest of details. This was the first international trip for my grandparents and I wanted it to be really special for them.

The newly opened T2 terminal of the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport (CSIA) was one of the reasons of elevated levels of my interest as I had heard a lot about it but never actually gotten a chance to see it for myself. It had been a very long time since I saw the face of the international airport.

Day 0: 24th May, Mumbai

There was something different about the trip this time. I knew it in my gut that I was going to enjoy every bit of it. I was glad we were getting out of Mumbai – it was peak of summer and I was in no mood to bear with the increased humidity along with the sun’s wrath. Fortunately our flight left a little after midnight. We had to be in the airport three hours earlier, and were hence saved from traveling in the hot sun.

Coming back to the beginning of the trip, we were on the elevated road leading exclusively to T2. The sheer smoothness of the road coupled with the absence of traffic jams made me forget for a while I was still in Mumbai. The taxi breezed through and the wind in my hair brought me some relief from the otherwise sultry summer.

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A moment later we could see the new airport terminal. It was as grand as it could possibly be, standing out from the rest of the scenery. I just couldn’t take my eyes off its beauty. The security, as always, was pretty tight. It took us about ten minutes to just enter the airport after getting the travel documents checked. I was left even more stumped when I saw the grandeur inside.

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We had done a web check-in a few hours earlier. Regrettably, that wasn’t enough as our seats were scattered. Security Check and Immigration followed the check-in of the baggage; and were soon followed by the trip to the duty-free area. This part was the grandest of all. It felt like as if I was at a shopping mall.

After a hearty dinner we boarded the airport shuttle. We settled down and buckled up once in the plane. My excitement grew exponentially as it took off. I am always left amazed by the airplane rides no matter how many times I fly. I look forward to the funny feeling in the spine as the plane takes off, observing the wing of the aeroplane, seeing the vehicles appear the size of ants, flying in the clouds, you name it! The thing I enjoyed the most was seeing the surroundings shrink. The city soon looked like just a network of fading lights. The last sight of Mumbai I remember was seeing the city disappear under a thick blanket of clouds.

PS: Photo Credits – My sister

The Proudest Moment of My Life Yet

Election 2014: FAQs for first-time voters, general electors and NRI electors (© Getty Images)

The most touching video I have ever seen relating to the elections is about the first voter of independent India – Mr. Shyam Saran Negi, who has cast his vote in every election since 1951. The video reinforced my faith in the saying that every vote counts. Here is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IuXU989B2p8

           I found another inspiration to vote – my cousin brother, who went to cast his vote even though he had a pretty injured leg. Here’s the link to his blog: http://nixieslife.wordpress.com/2014/05/10/the-day-i-stood-on-my-legs-again/

The Parliamentary (Lok Sabha) elections started from 7th April 2014 and were done in multiple phases. This was the lengthiest election in the history of India as the elections lasted till 12th May. A notable feature about these elections was the tremendous rise in the number of contesting candidates (most of them were independent). Popular faces in the entertainment industry and many sports personalities contested from various constituencies. The main reason that made the election special to me was the fact that I was a part of the 10 crore first-time voters.

Almost every other billboard in the city were adorned with posters relating to elections – while some of them were urging people to exercise their most basic fundamental right: the right to vote; the others belonged to the political parties trying to sway people in their favour. The political jokes, advertisements and campaigns became increasingly in-your-face as the day of elections, 24th April, grew closer. The theme of almost every advertisement had something to do with elections and this monotonicity became irritating after a while.

 The morning sun showed no mercy and the humidity coupled with heavily-crammed dusty and smelly surroundings didn’t help either. We had to walk some distance as cars were not allowed due to the narrow roads. A lone broom stood near the polling station (My parents joked that it was strategically placed by the Aam Aadmi Party!) Boredom and impatience slowly set in as my queue moved hardly a few inches in about half an hour. Another slow half-hour later I made it to the polling booth. After checking my name in the list of voters my finger was inked and I was directed to the polling booth, where I finally saw what an EVM looked like for the first time (you don’t get to see this appliance anywhere else :P)

Though the process was long and tiring (the wait in the queue was really boring), I felt that it was totally worth it. An inexplicable sense of happiness filled me as I saw my freshly-inked finger. Maybe it was because I care about my country…or maybe because my vote made a difference. Either way, the patriot in me was beaming with pride.

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Refusal of fare by rickshaw-guys in Mumbai is something almost everybody faces on a daily basis. Finding a rickshaw in the peak hours is nothing short of a miracle. Even if you do find one, you are sure to be at the rickshaw-driver’s mercy when it comes to the choice of route to the destination. What really irritates me about their attitude is the indifference with which they treat the people sometimes. Yesterday I found one after walking about 600 meters from my college and unsuccessfully trying to convince about twelve of them.

Sitting in the rickshaw with two other classmates, I recollected this incident that occurred about two weeks ago. It was a bright sunny afternoon as I just walked out of college and saw a rickshaw standing nearby. When I approached him, he asked me to sit even without knowing about my destination. I was pleasantly surprised. “आप बैठ जाइए | आप जहाँ भी जाना चाहते हैं, जिस मार्ग से जाना चाहते हैं, मैं आपको ले जाऊँगा |” was what he said. This roughly translates to “Please sit down. I will take you wherever you want to go, by whichever route you prefer.” I couldn’t help but smile at his politeness. Observing the quizzical expression on my face, he told me that he avoided refusing fare, especially that of ladies and college students. On asking why, he told me that he understood the inconvenience the college students face while travelling. Like me, his daughter too is a university student and faces the same problem every day. I was too stumped to reply.

I felt a surge of pride as I got off at the railway station. One simple man – just a simple rickshaw driver had made his contribution to the society, by doing his job well and taking pains to educate his children. One simple man made a difference. He made my day. I noted the registration number of the rickshaw as I left for the railway platform with a smile on my face. As you might have guessed by now, it was MH02VA7909.

Celebrating India

Celebrating India

Here is the article I wrote which recently got published in the college magazine

Being humans we hold little regard for the things we are gifted with and aspire for those we don’t have access to. This phenomenon applies to our culture as well. Undoubtedly the richest in cultural heritage, India seems to be fast losing its identity to numerous acquired traits and even brands.

Always on the go to chase our dreams, we treat the vital elements of our life, like family and culture, that bind us together, as insignificant. We bypass the greater picture of love, care and sharing while remaining engrossed in painting our own small one. Years down the line, we realize our follies and feel heavy at heart with regret.

Ours is one of the oldest civilizations on earth with a rich cultural history. A predominantly Hindu country, India has embraced all faiths – Islam, Christianity and Hinduism to name a few – with open arms. The countless sects within Hinduism alone are replete with their own cultural practices and folklore. About 1652 recognized languages in our country divide us but we still stand as one unit and represent ‘Unity in diversity’.

India has been a major contributor to global development. The first ever surgery in the world history was performed on this soil by Sushruta in the Vedic Age. The concepts of zero, pi and Pythagoras Theorem were all conceived here. In fact the Pythagoras theorem was pioneered in India long before even Pythagoras was born. The birthplace of Yoga and Ayurveda, this land was also an important center for trade and learning many thousands of years ago.

There is so much to celebrate about Indian culture – folklore, music, dance, theatrical forms, languages and literature, art and architecture, festivals and cuisines. The pride in being a part of our Punyabhoomi is most elating.

All said and done, it disheartens me to see that our culture, which has withstood the test of time for ages, is gradually withering.

The influence of western culture in the past few decades is a major driving factor for this. Stimulated by the exponential growth of media and accessibility to the Internet, its impact is greater than that of any past invasions. What really baffles me is whether our culture will withstand this onslaught or not. Without concrete efforts to revive it, the chances that we can preserve our age old culture are slim. However, I am sure that gradually, with each of us doing our bit, we can accomplish this challenging task.”

Your comments are most welcome.