Back to IIT

I hereby regret to inform you all that Sri Gurunath Patisserie, and everything around it including the Gurunath Stores and Moon Lab, is no more. There is no sign of its existence. Some new building, maybe an extension to the “giga mess” next door is coming up there.

Until this part of my walk early in the morning on the 15th of August, I had been thrilled to be back at IITM. Thanks to the kindness o the IITM Alumni Association, I had managed to get a room at the Taramani Guest House there for the morning, after my train had deposited me in Chennai at 4:15 am.

Of all the “institutes of national importance” I’ve visited in the recent past (last 1-2 years), IITM seemed the most friendly (and IIMB the least). This is ironic since as a student it was absolutely the other way round – the administration in IITM didn’t treat students well at all but in IIMB they were rather nice. However, now, post-pandemic IIMB has become a terror to get into, with some insane protocols and rituals.

At the IITM gate, though, all I had to do was to show a mail that I had a booking in Taramani House, and my auto was waved past. Delhi Avenue looks exactly the same as it did two decades ago, though maybe some new faculty blocks have been added to the sides. The stadium now has a sponsor (some Watsa – no Prem), and Gajendra Circle was all lit up for Independence Day. Else it was a very familiar ride in.

Taramani House has turned around, though, with its entrance now facing the road between CLT and OAT, and not towards Narmada (my old hostel). The auto dropped me there, and I duly handed over the ?160 change I’d got at the gas station.

A security guard welcomed me and asked me to sit down as he went to fetch the night manager. It was “old style check in” as I had to enter details into a fat log book. The room key was “electronic” (the one you swipe), though, and was handed to me along with a bottle of water and a small cardboard box. Later I found that the cardboard box had a Medimix soap, a satchet of shampoo (hadn’t seen one of those in decades now!) and a toothpaste and toothbrush.

I set an alarm for 7:30 and crashed off. IITMAA had asked me to attend the flag hoisting ceremony “around 8am”, but hadn’t given me more details. I decided to go “in search of it”, and take a walk around campus while I was at it.

After failing to find the flag hoisting ceremony, I expectantly walked towards Gurunath to find that it was no more. And having gone all the way, I went to my hostel.

Again the security guard was rather nice, and just said “oh, visitor?” and waved me past. It was 8:30 am, and I walked through the hostel for about 10 minutes “completely unmolested”. I didn’t cross paths with a single student, or even see one within 20m of where I was. The room I used to live in was bolted from inside (indicating my room-descendent was there). However, when I knocked, there was no response.

This is what my room looks like now:

Where I lived between 2002 and 2004. The graffiti, I think, is a recent addition

Most of the daytime in the hostel was spent at the end of my wing, sitting on the ledge (I’d not yet developed my fear of heights then) and reading newspapers. This is that ledge area.

Again some graffiti

I walked all round the hostel. The mess has been demolished and rooms built in its place. There is a third floor now. Large parts of the notice board in front are behind a locked glass. Even the unlocked part of the notice board has NO GRAFFITI – I guess that’s reserved for the walls now. And I was sad that I didn’t meet anyone – I would’ve loved to talk to the current inhabitants and find out what life is like there.

I had planned to meet Mohan, the legendary quizzer who was one year ahead of me at IITM CS, for breakfast that morning. Not wanting to put too much fight, I asked him to come to the guest house itself, and we ate there. The pongal and vada were good, although the “independence day special kesari bath” (a weird pink colour) was gross. We didn’t even go near the orange white and green idlis.

And then we went off on a rather long walk across campus, mainly covering the academic sections. We saw the new computer science building, and debated on what was in its place twenty years ago. We found this rather interesting nook in that building  – at the end of a corridor, a simple table and stools, and a blackboard.

The nook in the new Computer Science Block

We then went to the Building Sciences Block, which used to host the Computer Science department back in the day. And then kept walking, exploring campus and talking about lots of fun things.

It was interesting going around the place with Mohan, since we were a year apart in college and hence didn’t have any particular shared experiences, though we had SIMILAR experiences because we did the same program. This meant there was a connection but not too much nostalgia, meaning we could explore lots of different things as we walked. Oh, he recommended this book to me.

After that I headed back to my room for a quick shower, and checked out. Once again, it was time to deal with Uber / Ola. That I was deep inside IIT meant that any cab that had to pick me up had to make the trek all the way inside, and the place where I was meeting Kodhi and Aadisht for lunch was not far away at all – implying a huge transaction cost.

At least 5-6 cabs (from both platforms) cancelled on me. The ones who would call would talk about some “distance” (what I could make out given my broken Tamil) and cancel. Finally, I got an Uber that was 14 minutes away (when I booked), and which actually arrived. Turns out it came with a passenger headed TO taramani house, and I got in as he got off.

I might have written here before – I quite like going back to IIT, even though it is in Chennai! I sort of feel at home when I go back there (unlike in IIMB, where I feel like I’m invading someone else’s personal space, unless I’m there to teach or for a reunion), though I’m still very sad that Gurunath is no more.

That was the one place where I had my best memories on campus, and kept me going through my last three years there. Most of the “network” I have from IITM consists of people I hung out with there. And it pains me that it doesn’t exist any more. I really wonder what misfit students do there nowadays!

Read Part One of my trip here.

Madras Mail

Earlier this week, I was in Chennai for a day. This is the first part of my documentation of my chronicles 

A month back, Kodhi suddenly messaged asking if I can travel to Chennai for the “Landmark” Quiz, now sponsored by Zifo. “Remember 2009”, he helpfully added. That year, the three of us (Kodhi, Madness and I) had won the Chennai Landmark, and then came close to winning the “national final”.

I reversed my decade-long policy of not travelling for quizzes. I reversed my decade-long policy of not going to Chennai without a very good reason. I reversed my more-than-decade-long policy of not taking an overnight train to Chennai.

It is not like I didn’t have my share of jitters. There is something about going to Chennai that depresses me. I don’t know what it is – and that possibly explains why I hadn’t been there since 2012. On Monday night, I had finished work, had dinner at my usual time and was watching TV when the jitters came in.

I suddenly didn’t want to go. I wanted to feign illness and let my tickets lapse. I tweeted this

My wife pushed me out, saying I was being irrational and I should just go. And so I went.

The Train

This was my first Indian Railways journey since 2012. I took the metro to the railway station. The walk from the Majestic metro station to the railway station wasn’t particularly pleasant.

It was the first time in life I was travelling “2 tier AC”. I realised I’d forgotten how to climb into the upper berth. With some effort, I managed. There was a pillow and a thick woollen blanket on my berth. Presently, a steward brought a large paper bag with two (warm) white sheets and a small towel.

Then I had to pee. In the bathroom, I found a mug chained to the tap. There was also a health faucet – the first time I’m seeing one such in an Indian train. There was also a notice that we shouldn’t throw things (such as toilet paper) into the toilet. Maybe the waste doesn’t go down to the tracks any more?

I discovered that there was a curtain I could pull, to shield myself (and three others in my booth) from the corridor. Surprisingly for a train journey from Bangalore to Madras, I slept well. I started feeling less bad about going to Chennai.

At 4 am, I got woken up. Someone in the next booth had started playing Suprabhatam loudly on his phone. Then I heard someone tell him “stop it, others are sleeping”. The sound stopped. I don’t know if the two people were travelling together. Anyway, at 415, the train rolled into Chennai Central.

Indian train stations have always had homeless people sleeping in them. A new one was at Central – where I saw mosquito nets strung across dustbins, and people sleeping in them. This was just the first such example, and not a one-off.

Chennai Central at 4:15 am

The Auto

I got out of the station and booked an Uber. There was no movement in the taxi. Presently the driver called. Speaking in a mix of my broken Tamil and English, I understood he was asking me if I’ll pay cash. I said no, and he asked me to cancel.

I started booking an Ola. The inevitable thing that happens in Chennai Central happened. I got accosted by an auto driver. He initially quoted ?450 to take me “inside IIT”. I started with ?200, reasoning that it was twice of what I used to pay when I was a student. I’m not good at bargaining and I wanted to go continue my sleep, so I agreed for ?400, which was about what Ola promised to get me a cab for.

In the auto ride, I figured it’s 19 years since I graduated, and so a 4X increase in price is not that bad. I had also told the auto guy that I’ll pay him by “scan”, and he had agreed.

He presently stopped for gas, saying the lines would get longer soon. My bargaining power was low, and I agreed. Once he tanked up, he asked me to scan, for ?400 – the entirety of what I owed him for the ride. “No no, you’ll get the change in cash here. You can give that to me later”, he said. I acquiesced, collecting the ?160 in change.

At 4:30 am, Mount Road looked just like it did 20 years ago. Apart from one long and incredibly narrow flyover in Kotturpuram, nothing seemed to have changed in nearly 20 years, including the route to IIT. Oh – I saw some metro stations along the way on Mount Road.

To be continued…




The first time I stayed in a resort was during my honeymoon in 2010, when we stayed at the Vivanta in Bentota (Sri Lanka). The travel agent (yes, we still paid them good margins on those days) had convinced us to stay two nights there. Friends had told it is “romantic”. Our room got upgraded to a suite.

And then we got bored. Our boredom occurred on several fronts. Firstly, there was nothing much to do there. Both of us being good south indian middle class kids, our idea of a “holiday” had then been the package tour with a tightly packed schedule. Suddenly, two days at a single hotel was incredibly boring.

Then, we got bored of the food. Back then I was vegetarian, which meant we could realistically only go to one of the three or four restaurants in the resort. By the time we finished a day there, we were completely bored of the food.

Then there was nothing much to do. The swimming pool was crowded, having been monopolised by a large and noisy tour group. The beach was okay, nothing compared to that at Trincomalee on Sri Lanka’s east coast (which we visited in 2014; oh, and by the way, my wife has started a new newsletter with her  travel experiences. The first episode is called “paid sex in Sri Lanka”).

Over the years, we have kept going back to resorts, and seldom enjoyed them.

I mean, spending one night at a resort, like we did during our recent travel to Tamil Nadu, is good. You are in the vicinity for something else, and it gives you a nice place to relax and recharge, and before you get bored of the place, you are out of there.

Any longer than that at a resort, unless there is something compelling to do, is a disaster. You get bored. The food starts becoming monotonous. You start doing things just to fill your day – and that thing is usually NOT reading the book you took on vacation. You might drink excessively. And so on.

Then there is the size of the resort. If it is too small, it can easily get monopolised by one large (ish) group, making it unpleasant for everyone else there (this has happened countless times now). If it is too large, it can get a bit impersonal (though one time we stayed at a really large resort, in Maldives, we loved it).

The other issue with resorts is that you are forced to follow their schedules. As a family, for example, we have our dinners around 6pm, which is normal for some parts of the world but rather early for India. Most resorts force us to wait till 8pm (or even 9pm) for our dinner, thus upsetting our schedules and sleep.

Another annoying thing I find about resorts is their desire to “add value”. From a resort’s point of view, they want guests to stay for longer, and that means offering them more things to do (unless there is something “natural to do”, such as a good beach, near the resort). And so the resorts pack themselves with all kinds of “activities”.

On Saturday, for example, at a resort near Kumbakonam, they had arranged for a classical dance performance. The number of times they reminded us about that was not funny. And some of the other “things to do” sounded like things you would write in a Social Studies exam to make your answer longer – “feed the fish in this pond”, “light a lamp, make a wish and float it in that pond”, and so on.

All this said, I was happy to be in that resort for that night (apart from the late dinner, which affected my sleep). Some people are of the opinion that on some kinds of holidays, the quality of the hotel doesn’t matter since “you only need a place to sleep”. As far as I’m concerned, though, I don’t mind paying the premium for a nice place so that the sleep is (sort of) guaranteed, and we are able to properly relax.

I thought I was done with this post, and then realised I’ve written about resorts once before.


The highlight of today, day three of our Tamil Nadu trip, was this temple called Thirumayam that we discovered. It’s a Vaishnava temple built into a hill, not far from chettinad, on the way to thanjavur.

And it was to thanjavur we were on our way to when we saw the Thirumayam fort and temple near the road, and decided to make a short detour and stop. In other words, later today we went to the Brihadeeshwara Temple (or “big temple” as it is known in these parts), and yet the highlight of the day remained Thirumayam.

For some of you that may not add up. So let me explain.

Over the last four years, we’ve done quite a few family road trips. Most of them have been in Karnataka. During one of the earlier ones we discovered that all of us quite like going to “ASI temples” – those that are currently maintained by the archeological survey of India.

Many of them are obscure. In some, we are the only ones around at the time we go. Some may have some worship, but many don’t since the idols have been damaged during one invasion or the other. That doesn’t matter to us.

What does is that these temples are incredibly pretty. Most have nice carvings on them – hence the archeological value. And most are old.

There was a coffee table book on Karnataka’s temple architecture I had got several years ago. We’ve planned entire itineraries based on that book.

I remember going to Tirupati around Christmas in 1991. It was so crowded and the lines were so long that I didn’t want to go back. My wife had a similar independent experience about the place whenever she first went there.

It was a similar experience in Mantralaya, or any other popular temples I’ve been to. The crowds are quite off putting. Especially if you are not of a particularly religious persuasion (and we are not religious) you start wondering what the point of jostling with such massive crowds is.

And as it got reinforced during our trip to the Brihadeeshwara this afternoon, I’m actually claustrophobic. Big crowds of people, or people walking past me and close to me, really put me off.

We entered the main temple, and the queue to see the idol stretched till the entrance. One look and we decided we’d had enough and put exit. Earlier, when we had gone to drop out shoes in the shoe stand, the absolute chaos of (lack of) organisation there meant we just left our shoes there without bothering to take a ticket for them (they were there an hour later when we returned).

Even on Thursday when we went to the Madurai Meenakshi temple, the crowds were big enough to put us off from wanting to see the idol – seeing the temple and its architecture and beautifully carved pillars was Darshana enough for us.

And so while the Brihadeeshwara was fantastic, and I’m really glad I finally saw it, our experience there was discounted by the crowd. And that made the place far inferior.

Later, we went to the similar but smaller temple at the nearby Dharasuram. We went at a time when there was no worship, but I enjoyed that much better than Brihadeeshwara, all due to the relative lack of crowds.

Crowds put us off, disorderly crowds even more so. And if that means we don’t see the main idols at several temples, so be it. Seeing the temples and the carvings and architecture is more than good enough.

At Thirumayam (picture above) we were possibly the only “tourists” (that was clear from our appearance and dressing, and our lack of proficiency in Tamil). And I was amazed to see how nice everyone around was.

One of the priests took a few minutes off his worship to explain the temple and other deities there to us. Another pilgrim (possibly a local) shared some of her Prasada (rock sugar or Kallu Sakkare) with us – unprompted.

The vibe – which can come from the lack of crowds – was incredibly friendly. And that’s been our experience in all the seemingly underrated temples with good architectural value.

The problem with supply of visitors being too high is that the attention goes down. And that makes the experience inferior. Unless of course you believe that catching a direct line of sight to the idol is going to compensate for this – which for a lot of people matters, which explains why demand sustains despite the inferior overall experience.


I’m not great at languages. The two languages I can speak fluently in – Kannada and English – I learnt them both before I was four.

I learnt Hindi in school but speak a mix of highly sanskritised Hindi (textbook Hindi) and bombay Hindi (from movies) with a thick kannada accent. As for other languages, the less I say the better.

I spent four years studying in Tamil Nadu so sometimes people assume I know Tamil (it also has to do with my name and face, I guess!). The truth, however, is that by the time I graduated from IIT Madras, I had barely learnt to distinguish between Tamil and Telugu – the two “new” languages i had been massively exposed to during my time there.

Basically I didn’t bother learning Tamil when I lived in madras in 2000-4 because I didn’t really need to. Most people on campus spoke at least basic English. Most outsiders I interacted with were shopkeepers, restaurant waiters and auto drivers, all of whom could speak broken English at least. And since I’m inherently not good at picking up languages, I just didn’t bother.

Before we started out Tamil Nadu trip yesterday my wife (who happens to be good at languages) was wondering how I would fare on this front. “Let’s see how you can put your four years of living in TN to good use”, she said. I told her I hoped to mostly get by with English, and broken Tamil.

After yesterdays lunch she had been impressed. “Not bad. With just words for one and two you managed to manage the conversation”. “Yeah that’s how I managed in chennai”, I replied.

High expectations having thus been set, I’ve had to try and live up to them later on in the trip. My biggest issue is that I end up speaking “assembly language”. I know the words but not the word forms or grammar, and so what I speak can sound funny.

“Instead of asking the shopkeeper what that is, you ended up asking where that is”, my wife informed me yesterday. I had at least got the message across. This kind of faux pas, largely because I can’t speak prepositions and other word forms, continued.

This morning we were at an Adyar ananda Bhavan (a chennai based Tamil Nadu style food chain restaurant) for breakfast. I confidently decided the waiter there might know English and started speaking in English. To our horror, for the rest of the breakfast he spoke to us in Hindi! “If you don’t know Tamil but look Indian you must be Hindi types”, he must have decided.

We tried to talk to him henceforth in our broken Tamil, but he had made his decision. Hindi it was for us.

Then, in the afternoon, at lunch in a “mess” in karaikudi, I was again struggling to speak Tamil with the waitress (to link back to yesterdays post – she was a middle aged woman. Again a cohort I don’t normally see among bangalore waiters). Suddenly I ended up speaking a few Hindi words!

I quickly realised what had happened – Tamil and Hindi are both languages I can’t think in. For both, I “think in Kannada” and translate to the respective language before speaking. And somewhere my wiring had gone wrong today and instead of translating to Tamil I translated to Hindi.

Later on in the conversation she said something quickly. I caught a few words but couldn’t catch the prepositions and ended up entirely misunderstanding her. Apparently she said “the sambar is hot”. And I replied “no, I don’t need hot rice. Pour the sambar on this only”.

And so it’s been going.

Tamil Nadu Day 1

Today and tomorrow are a series of parent teacher meetings at my daughter’s school. Consequently, the school is closed for the children (since teachers are busy meeting parents all day).

Having observed this pattern last year we decided it’s a good time to an extended weekend holiday, and quickly booked the first available Thursday slot and headed out.

I’m writing this from Madurai. The taj gateway here is a fantastic hotel, with a magnificent view of Madurai city. In the evening, there were wonderful sounds from the birds here. We saw lots of peacocks and a mongoose, and my daughter inferred that “there must be lots of snakes here”.

This is my first time ever in this part of Tamil Nadu. Although I went to college in chennai, I didn’t travel much around. So the only parts of Tamil Nadu I’d seen before were the areas around Chennai (Kanchi, mahabs, etc), the hill stations of Ooty and Kodaikanal and one trip to Palani when I was very very young.

As a family we like driving holidays. It gives us flexibility in terms of itineraries, and all we need to fix are the hotels. Also, we can travel at our own pace, deciding to stop or slow down or see some interesting thing on the way.

My first surprise today was the terrain. Maybe I don’t pay enough attention to “physical maps”, so had missed that central Tamil Nadu is hilly! I mean I know krishnagiri is hilly (once our bus from chennai to bangalore was unable to climb a slope there and we’d been made to get off and walk a short distance). I know yercaud exists near Salem. But I hadn’t expected so many low hills along the way.

And so while driving I was thinking – when you drive (rather than take a bus or train) you pay attention to your surroundings and the terrain and the people around and all that. And you notice the road signs – the ones saying “ghat section. Go slow” were hilarious given the magnitude of the said ghats (mountains and passes ).

The second surprise was the highways – most of our drive today (from Silk Board to very near Madurai) was along the north south corridor (now NH44, earlier NH7). The number of barricades across the road in Tamil Nadu was not funny.

Wherever there was a cut in the road for cross traffic, there were barricades, so that traffic had to slow down to a snails pace to get around them. In some places it seemed downright dangerous, since you couldn’t see (thanks to bends, trucks ahead, etc) the suddenly approaching barricades.

I find them rather bizarre – I’ve never come across them on any highways in Karnataka. I haven’t seen them on the same NH44 north of bangalore (in AP). It’s only in Tamil Nadu. And these are supposed to be national highways! And this was my fastag bill for the day!

The biggest surprise of the day, though, was the role of women I observed in the economy here.

I remember when I moved back from Gurgaon to bangalore in 2009, that in Gurgaon many jobs that are done by women in bangalore are done by men (bank clerks, gas agency operators, street vendors, etc). Now I find that Tamil Nadu takes this to another level.

Pretty much all the fastag booths we passed today were manned by women. Almost all the waiters in the place we had lunch at today were women (to be fair, it was called Selvi (Tamil for young woman) Mess) – not seen this in bangalore. And on multiple occasions I saw middle aged women in saris riding along the highways on Luna’s / TVS50s, some carrying heavy loads on their bikes. Oh – and the 50cc scooter category again seems Tamil Nadu specific – in bangalore most people have activas or similar scooters. Nothing smaller.

Food has been excelllent so far on the tour. Selvi mess was great – simple rice and biryani with meat side dishes. Back in 2013 when I went to Lucknow, a friend had said “don’t waste your appetite eating chicken”. The same applies in this part of Tamil Nadu as well – the mutton is far better.

Dinner was at this “bun parotta” place here in Madurai. Again unassuming and quick (we were in and out in 20 minutes). There I saw an interesting concept – you would be served on plantain leaves and at the end of the meal you had to clear away your own leaves (and residues) and put it in the bin.

I know Tamil Nadu is a bit ahead of other Indian states with it comes to countering caste oppression but I’m curious to know the origins of this “clear your own leaf” concept. Maybe it’s a Covid thing also!

This is a packed trip and tomorrow we move to the nearby Chettinad region, seeing Chettinad mansions and stuff. Hopefully I’ll keep you posted!

Food recommendations (including for breakfast in Madurai, if you can tell me in the next 10 hours) are welcome!

Jordan “visa interview on arrival”

The peak-end hypothesis means that we’ve come back from our trip to Jordan really happy. It was a brilliant and diverse experience, involving Roman History (Jerash, Amman Citadel), Christian Theology (Mount Nebo, Madaba), hill climbing (at Petra – more on that later), wilderness (Wadi Rum) and a resort and floating on water (Dead Sea).

However, preceding all this was an absolutely atrocious “process” that we had to go through at the Amman airport. I waited to return to India to write this.

Nominally Jordan has “visa on arrival” for Indians. This means you don’t need to get a visa before you travel. However, what they don’t really tell you is that it doesn’t work the same way as visas on arrival in other countries – such as Hong Kong or Thailand or Maldives (based on my limited experience), where you enter the passport control, get your passport stamped, maybe pay a fee and move on.

In Jordan that’s not the way it works. We had pre-bought a “Jordan Pass” that includes fees for the visa and to some of the historic attractions in the country. Upon landing at Amman Airport, we encountered a line saying “for jordan pass / visa on arrival”. And that’s where the arbitrariness started.

Firstly, it is the “border police” who man this, unlike India where it’s bureaucrats from the external affairs ministry. More importantly, there is no “process”. You go to the window where the person there leafs through the passport looking for active visas – if you have a valid US or UK or Schengen or even Saudi visa, your visa  gets printed on a paper and you get waved on to passport control. In the absence of all this, you are asked to “wait there”, without any further direction.

Then we were asked to go to “police in room 1”, which was some 200m away. This is where we had our first cultural shock of the trip – there was a heavy smell of cigarettes there, and we entered to see cops smoking there as they were talking to us.

The same process repeated – the cops leafing through the passport to see if there are any other valid visas, and then when not finding anything, asking us to “wait”. Again there was no definite timeline or process. We waited for a bit (during which the cops did namaz, and presumably stopped smoking while doing so), and then went in again and asked. Again we were asked to “wait”.

The cops all had identical uniforms so it was impossible for us to know who was “superior” or to escalate. After a few rounds of such waiting, my wife finally put senti saying we have a small child who is hungry (thankfully our daughter managed to produce a reasonably sad face at that time, though she was unable to cry), and finally they started considering our application.

We had printed out all our hotel reservations (I’d read on some forum that it might be required at “immigration” – though those fora didn’t mention how arbitrary the process is) and handed them over to the police, who went through them. One cop got convinced (I don’t know if it helped that we had booked in a few expensive hotels; he even asked us for our salaries and what work we do, etc.) and we got sent to another one. Yet again, and this was not the first time we were encountering him, he started the process all from the beginning, looking for valid visa stamps in our passports!

And then he started filling out some application. It was the first time I had seen someone actually write right to left, so it was mildly amusing (and it’s interesting that finally he stapled all our documents at the top RIGHT corner). He asked for our return tickets, which we hadn’t printed out, so I showed him on the phone. He took the phone and put it on the xerox machine and took a “copy” of the tickets! And then he stapled everything together and asked us to “wait”. Apparently his “boss” was supposed to call him (this guy took a picture of the application he had written and sent it to someone).

Then five minutes later, he gave us a small chit of paper and asked us to go back to the Visa On Arrival counter. I assumed we were almost through and messaged our driver that “we should be out soon”.

I don’t know if the guy at the visa on arrival counter was incompetent, but it’s not funny how many times he entered details of the same passports. In the middle of this, one lady walked near his counter, and he got busy talking to her while “processing” our stuff. And entered details many more times.

He got thoroughly confused because we had two Jordan Passes, and had to pay for our daughter’s visa (since she didn’t need a ticket to see the monuments this made more sense). In the middle he suddenly picked up all our passports and walked over to the police room. By now I was thoroughly psyched and had already swallowed my panic attack pill.

After yet another inordinate delay, he printed out our visas and sent us to passport control (a few metres away). Again we thought we were done, only to be told he had printed out my visa wrong (remember I said he entered details multiple times). Since the distance there was short, the passport control officer called the visa on arrival guy over and he took my passport YET AGAIN, and started entering details on his computer.

Another ten minutes later, he brought over my passport and visa to the passport control, where my passport was duly stamped and we were sent on our way.

Our bag was there in one corner, and we picked it up and walked out, feeling glad that we had booked a driver for the length of the trip who would be available for any further interfacing with Jordanian cops.

Overall, the whole process was rather bizarre. I’ve waited hours in line at Heathrow to be let in. I’ve visited the US, again waiting for a long time at JFK and even being pulled over for a customs check. None of that was even remotely comparable to our experience at Queen Alia International Airport last Tuesday.

If Jordan wants to outsource its visa process to more developed countries, that is fine, but they need to make it explicit. Turkey, for example, offers visa on arrival to Indians with a valid US or Schengen visa, but everyone else is expected to apply for a visa before travel.

Jordan says no such thing, and instead subjects people to arbitrary waits without any process in a smoky police station in the airport. Which is really really bizarre.


The kids are alright

The art we saw today didn’t have that much to write home about – well, one exhibit definitely did but that requires some pre work so will write about it in a week or so – so I’m back to writing about the children I’m travelling with.

Before we begin, though, in beryl shereshewsky style, here is the art work for today. This is a portion of a long scroll by Anju Acharya, clicked at the biennale today. This was the second most interesting piece of art i saw today.

Now back to talking about the children. Oh wait – I want to put a song first.

  • The hardest part of the first half of this trip was my daughter refusing to hang out with me, and not talking much to me. She wanted to be with her friends. That changed this morning when she snuggled up to me as we were waiting for the bus (more on that later) saying she really missed me last night since she hasn’t really spent two nights away from both me and her mother before.
  • The second hardest part of this trip has been that I’ve found it hard to not swear. I’m so used to swearing (and at home our daughter knows that there are “big people words” (like there are “big people juices” ) she can’t use even if we use them). I haven’t used the F word but liberally used damn and bloody and shit. I felt relieved this morning when I heard a kid shout “oh shit”.
  • I’m struggling to talk to kids (not my own) about words regarding bodily functions. “Wee wee” is too Brit. Piss might be impolite. Shit as well. Kakka – I largely talk to them in English.
  • The best part of the trip so far happened last night when I was sitting in my room talking to three of my daughters’ friends, about her (and she wasn’t there). It was nice hearing about her from her friends – something I’ve pretty much never done before. Got a lot of insight into what she’s like
  • This morning our bus broke down. Rather it refused to start. It took an hour for our agent to find a replacement and for that replacement to arrive (the original bus was presently repaired, and I’m sitting in it now on my way back to the hotel). I was amazed at how calm all the children were during that time. Absolutely no hint of irritation. One thing is they had one another for company. My wife (who I spoke to about this) thinks the school has something to do with this – given there are no exams and not many deadlines, children here haven’t yet learnt to be anxious, she thinks
  • I saw a mild hint of mob mentality and cascades. We had lunch in the same restaurant as yesterday. First one kid said “today I’ll have a veg lunch”. Suddenly all kids wanted a veg lunch. Then one kid said she wanted fish with it. And when the waiter came with a plate of fried fish, the decisions overturned – half the kids now wanted the fish.
  • Both yesterday and today afternoon we went to an “art room” set up as part of the biennale. Some kids had spent time yesterday making a sculpture and today they only wanted to finish that. Every time the guides tried to lead them to other activities they would say “just 10 minutes we’ll finish this and come”. They worked on this sculpture till end of day
  • Yesterday at the art room, my daughter and some of her friends started making another sculpture with dried leaves. Presently a puppy arrived and started pulling at those leaves, mildly destroying the sculpture in the process. The girls quickly abandoned the sculpture and lost proceeded to play with the puppy! It was spontaneous and nice to watch!

Ok that’s sufficient pertinent observations for today. And the bus is nearing the hotel.

More tomorrow.


I’m starting to write this at the beginning of today, as we go through the biennale.

We started with one place near the main venue where some volunteers has made some art. Some fairly trippy stuff, and some risqué stuff

Now on to today’s pertinent observations

  • This is only the fifth edition of the biennale
  • I quite love the artwork I’ve seen so far. And if not for the school I don’t think I would’ve seen all this art at all
  • Some of the art is “vaguely familiar”. And that intrigues me. The familiarity draws me in. The vagueness makes me want to keep seeing more of it. Sidhus quote about the bikini comes to mind
  • The biennale has this concept of “art mediators”. Effectively tour guides who explain the art and concepts around it. Our guide today was Safa. The comment I made about tour guides yesterday doesn’t apply to her. I’m enjoying her commentary.
  • Just now I heard another art mediator explain a piece of art that Safa had just explained. And the two are nearly orthogonal! I guess the thing with art is that it’s in the eyes of the beholder, or maybe the mediator
  • From the biennale venue (aspinwal house) you can see the kochi container port. To me, watching container ships getting loaded and unloaded is also art
  • Ok I finally have a hypothesis on what I consider as good art – something that compels me to keep looking at it. It could be stuff that is hard to interpret. It could be stuff with several dimensions. It could be things that tell a new story every time you look at them. That is the kind of art I like.
    • And so I like Paul Fernandes – so much going on in his art. And why I cut out a page from the times of india on Republic Day and pinned it on my wall
    • And so I like Picasso – it is so hard to interpret what he has done and there are so many dimensions I want to keep looking at it
    • If it gets too abstract though there is no “handle” to latch on to. And so it becomes hard to interpret
    • So far I haven’t been impressed by stuff with too much “messaging” – the message by definition makes it one dimensional and not something I want to keep seeing!
  • Art is fundamentally a “low precision low recall” activity. You can never see anywhere close to all the good art in the world (hence low recall)! Low precision because to find any good art you need to also go through a lot of art you can’t appreciate.

Ok now it’s afternoon and we’re at lunch. The post is long enough as it is and we’re done with the first session of the biennale. And I’m rather proud of the last two things I’ve mentioned here. So I’ll stop here.

More pertinent observations from the school trip

Ok I’m starting to write this on the first “sight seeing leg” of the school trip to kocbi. I’ll just stick to pertinent observations in a bullet format this time

  • There is this old T-shirt that went “I was born intelligent. Education ruined me”. The more I hang out with kids the more I believe this is true
  • Around 10 years back I used to give lots of lectures. A lot of them were rather painful, since there would be next to no class participation. And then I remember giving one lecture to a bunch of high school children. And the questions were exemplary. And with the kids on this tour I find that another level.
  • We were at fort Kochi. One tour guide was giving us the history of Judaism, prepping us for the synagogue visit. And he asks “kids do you know who is Abraham?” And someone says “you mean John Abraham?”
  • Over the years I’ve developed a healthy disrespect for the gyaan spouted by tour guides. And that Bayesian prior only keeps getting stronger with further evidence. I wonder if guides haven’t figured out that Wikipedia exists.
  • A mixed age group of kids in a school class means there’s more cuddling! Mostly older kids cuddling the younger ones. It’s damn cute to watch.
  • A mic was brought out on the bus. And the kids started singing, one by one. Massive diversity in the songs. From devotional songs to ???????????? ??????? to baby shark. Later in the evening, when we went to see the fishing nets, we also saw a baby shark – for sale
  • The kochi synagogue is amazing. I’d loved it in 2002. I loved it today. Small space but really really nicely done up. And really really colourful
  • But then this part of town is incredibly incredibly touristy. Lots of shops with fairly pretty (and I’m sure pretty overpriced) stuff aimed largely at foreign tourists. I’m sure 10 years back I would’ve fallen in love with it and out of love with some of my money. Of course today I’m with a school group so didn’t indulge but I don’t think I would’ve indulged anyway
  • Kids have amazing energy levels. Sometime it is difficult to keep up with them true energiser bunnies. Most of us started the day at 3 am and they were all going strong at 7pm, when I had completely given up (and started writing this)
  • At a more global level – I wonder how a historically strong trading centre like Kerala became so strongly communist.
  • Shorts are good for this kind of humid weather (though absolutely nothing compared to chennai). But downside is mosquitoes. And I haven’t packed full pants for this trip

More tomorrow, after we visit the actual biennale!