Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Great Indian railways

Does interesting travel happen to some people all the time or do some people make all travel interesting? This post is an attempt to answer that question by way of an example, that of our recent trip to Shirdi.

Shirdi is an interesting place, by all accounts you simply can’t plan a Darshan - it happens to you. This trip proved that once more. We planned to be at Shirdi on the long weekend starting 2nd October, got the leave sanctioned, got up early on many mornings to try and book the ticket online, somehow it never happened. The next weekend, despite the shorter notice, it became possible. On the day of the travel, just about 5 hrs left to catch the train and oops, Chiya develops a fever in excess of 102F. An hour or so to catch the train and we are still with the doctor 20 km from the railway station, decided to leave everything to God (and to the bunch of medicines prescribed by the doctor) and reached the station with 10 minutes to spare! We worried all the way to the station about the fact that her temperature now was below normal (overdose of medicine? should we, shouldn’t we? what if….incidentally come morning the fever was completely gone).

Finally we settled in our compartment. We were in the same Bogey but in adjacent coupe – another way the railways makes your journey exciting. One lower berth and one middle berth is what we had – never mind that another family was completely occupying the lower berth and looked at us beseechingly so that we part with the same – we would have too but for the fact that Chiya is too small to safely occupy the middle berth with Rashmi. Anyway, I managed to be firm without being rude and the rest of the night was relatively uneventful. Not really. For one this family in question was close to 20 people and were traveling with their entire household effects – Food for 100 people (Dinner, Breakfast and Lunch and spare meals for emergencies!), plates, pots and pans, I think I saw a cow as well. Maybe not! They would have had a tough time trying to put a cow in the upper berth anyway! To teach a cow to use a western toilet must be quite a task and to flush after that an even bigger one.

Separately, scores of waitlisted passengers spent the night haggling with the TTE for a Berth. A Waitlisted passenger in AC compartment is just another way for the Railways to become profitable I guess, in the process if TTEs also make some money, why not. After all it’s a nice mix of socialism and capitalism. Maybe even communism with 100 people sharing space meant for 60!

Then again, the Indian Railways were always a social commentary. You see all shades of people and behavior to go along with it. I have had the privilege of traveling in all compartments right from the IInd class to 1st AC. On the one extreme is - a towel thrown in through the window reserves a berth in the best of times and a place to squeeze in in the worst of times? The other is the extreme of snootiness, you not only get a extremely private (read boring) place to yourself, you also get people to wait on you, if only that pot bellied, smelly attendant could be replaced with a Flight attendant from one of the premiere airlines (who knows, you may still – looking at which of those institutions is more profitable). In the first instance, you can shamelessly borrow a Beedi from one of the co-passengers or maybe even tobacco to chew, in the second, in all probability you can peacefully have a heart attack!

The best way to travel in the railways is of course Sleeper class – people are friendlier, most people offering you food are harmless (although occasionally it may be drugged) and unless your planets are aligned in a negative manner, you will find very few cockroaches to share your food and your berth with.
You can safely chain your luggage to any and all existing hooks and pillars without for a second feeling typically middle class!
The best Platform Food and tea is also normally available to Sleeper Class passengers – Tea in Kullars (Non existent mostly, despite Mr. Yadav’s tall claims), Piping hot Bread Omelets, Puri and Sabji both dripping tons of oil – if someone could figure out how to tap into the railway toilets, I am sure it’s a perpetual supply of endless energy, separate the oil and use it directly as fuel and convert the rest to Biogas! I can see the headlines too, “USA signs a historical S1, S2, S3 deal with the Indian Railways despite strong Chinese opposition – Green Cards to Railway Vendors, Citizenship to Indian Middle Class, technology transfer from the Indian Railways. The military is concerned as this is transfer of duel use technology – Potential Biological warfare implications, especially since culturally we fart quite unabashedly."

The biggest advantage of the Railways over the Airlines is that your entire family can see you off right up to your seat.
Oh to see those multitudes, all with valid berths and most with valid platform tickets jostle at the gate as if someone else is going to occupy their seats.
If you are a 20 something good looking female - actually that’s sexist, it happens to quite ugly looking young men as well – no way you can safely travel on the Indian railways unless your Father, Mother, brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles, aunties, childhood friends and the next door auto rickshaw walla come to see you off. They must all enter the compartment, check that all fittings are in order, fan is working, and adjacent seats are occupied by “families” as against hormone pumping, young, lone “deranged” traveler of the opposite sex!
Thank God! I married and have a kid as well, gained some respectability, fathers of all supposedly good looking girls from Patna to Panaji have since sighed in relief. So have I, having suffered the humiliation of being considered a potential “Majnu” or worst a rapist! The added advantage for me is that now, if (academically, mind you, no real intentions) I do decide to lech and ogle, I need to be worried about only Rashmi as against some girls entire family tree since independence!

To be continued…

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


It’s been a while since I have posted on this Blog and even while I was posting, it was spaced more than I ever wanted. Since writing is one of the things I genuinely love doing, this set me thinking about the direction my life is taking.

You wake up in the morning, jumping out of bed to come to work, not so much that you want to (jump, that is) but that you have to. You are already feeling tired, have not slept well all week – and that’s your story for your entire working life – and there is general lethargy. Unfortunately, you also happen to love the work that you do, it gives you a high. Unfortunately, it also takes away from everything else that you love doing, some more so. Dilemma, huh?

You sleepwalk through your morning, catch up on the news (its either catch up on the news and get late to work, or not catch up at all, you choose) take the car out of the garage and drive down 17 km to work – ideally a 17 minute distance – and it takes you anywhere between 90 to 120 minutes, and you do it twice a day!

You get along with your day, sometimes coasting through, sometimes struggling with, but you get through the 10 hr day (ideally, 12 hrs is not a problem spent on quality work, but then you already have provisioned for the 3 hrs daily commute). At the end of the day, you reach home, drained and disgusted. Take stalk of your time – 1 hr preparing to get to work, 3 hrs commuting to work, and 10 hrs at work, 1 hr winding down from work. That’s fifteen hours. That gives you 9 hrs (wow!) to have your breakfast (I mostly used to miss mine, nowadays I eat it at the traffic signals - necessity is the unwed father of invention!) – prepare and have your dinner and then go to sleep (Most of us supposedly need 8-10 hrs to just do this last bit to keep our Biological machinery in top shape) – Interesting or what?

That brings me to two questions:

Is it worth it?
If not, what do we as individuals, and the organization that we work for, do about it?

The first question, obviously has a spirited (or dejected?), resounding NO as an answer. To do what we have been doing and to get a monthly salary which either takes care of your day to day needs or an imaginary future and does nothing significant to add to your present, unless you count those white goods that you can’t genuinely enjoy or the car you’d much rather not drive as a value-add. Look at the irony; I work in a mad rush to earn money that buys me stuff that I would not need if I had more disposable time instead of more disposable income! I can only smile that wry smile.

We notionally own two cars (notionally because one is company provided and costed as CTC and the other one we are still paying an EMI); we notionally own a house (notionally because in an inflationary economy, we would continue to pay the EMI till we retire!). We own a Microwave and a washing machine and pay exorbitant electricity bills to run the same and earn more money to pay those bills. Unfortunately, with more time at hand both these equipments are unnecessary and the work that you do to earn that money to pay for them is also unnecessary and hence releases your time, elementary.

So very clearly, you need to work only because you love doing it, every other reason is superfluous.

So what do we do about it?

Firstly, my advice to organizations is simple, go beyond the superficial and genuinely realize that employees are spending more and more time on work or work incidental activities and the only way work life balance can be achieved is not by superficial HR (or Non HR?) actions like taking employees to picnics, but by more robust, thought through interventions which do not follow the lead of others but carves out a name for itself. Let me give examples. Once upon a time, it was thought that 8 hrs was a good time frame to work. It went hand in hand with issues like 8 hrs was more or less fixed, stretching was not involved, and commute was far more easier. When commute to work became difficult (and organizations added to the difficulty by getting further and further away from the city centers to manage costs) the entire difficulty was passed on to employees to manage from their personal time. I know of no organization which has said that owing to the organization being located at a distance of 20 or more kilometers from the place of stay, the organization has reduced (not changed) its working hours by 30 minutes? Not one. The improvement in productivity reflects in the organizations P&L and the loss of individual productivity reflects in the employees personal P&L, unfortunately, no one except the employee is required to audit that. Not even organizations which control the commute through their own services like buses, have thought in this direction.

Work life balance cannot mean balance your work by constantly giving up a piece of your life. When was the last time a work life balance programme was launched, which envisaged giving up a piece of work to balance life!

Secondly, my advice to individuals (starting with myself) is staying hungry. Ask yourself this simple question every morning - “is what I am going to do today dear to me?” - if the answer is “No” for most of your days, its time to look for a change. Go out in search of what you truly value, make the sacrifices required to achieve that and you will achieve that. Stop living the mundane existence.

As I keep saying, there’s more to Life than High5’s. Tough choices will be presented to us often in life and only tough decisions will help!