Ashish Thakur
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An Interviews with Udupi

August 17, 2010 @ 5:49 PM | Permalink

Part I: Konkan Railway

"You have traveled through 31 hours of a grueling train journey, and have agonized through a thousand questions you might be asked in an all important interview the next Day. When you finally think you have made it to the last leg of the damned journey and thank God, just then, the train breaks down. How would you feel?" I shot at Chandan, out of sheer frustration.

"Delightful. Blissful." says Chandan.

A Train crawling through Konkan Railway (Chiplun, Maharashtra)
And I knew he was right as I stared down the lush green valley laden with vast spreads of Mango Trees. The morning sun made it look like one of those postcard dream-locations. Right down the valley a seasonal river curled through the mountains, like a sleek serpent disappearing into the bushes and rocks, the water in it, extremely placid. The only noise that punctuated the bliss was the friendly banter of a group of friends in the next compartment. We were in Ratnagiri, the Mango capital famous for its legendary Alphonso mangoes. It was only when I woke up this morning that I realized the place was not just about Mangoes. And the spot where our train, fortunately, chose to break down made it look even more fulfilling.

Chandan is a chap from Delhi. We met in the train the day before only, when he boarded from Godhra (Gujarat, India). We have been friends since. I am from Jaipur (Rajasthan, India). We struck up a conversation and soon discovered our destinations were same: Udupi, a cultural hub and the temple town in the northern part of Karnataka and incidentally we were both headed to participate in the admission process of a renowned Business School.

But at least for the moment we had forgotten all about careers and interview techniques. As the train finally moved after a hiatus of two hours, we started discussing the Konkan Railway. What would you do, after all, when you find yourself on a mountain top trek IN A TRAIN, where the tracks coil through a maze of more than 90 tunnels and as many as 2000 bridges?!! Each time we relaxed feeling this one was the last of those tunnels another one engulfed us with its sudden ghoulish shriek. But it was not scary. It filled us with awe. It is a project one of the world’s leading consultancy firms declared unfeasible altogether, cut out of an incredibly difficult terrain amongst the Sahyadris and Western Ghat Ranges. The track forms the artery which connects southern Maharashtra, the coastal states of Goa, Karnataka and North Kerala to the Northern part of the country and runs along the rich rainforests of Western Ghats. Ratnagiri itself forms the gateway to many virgin beaches and unbelievable backwaters in the Sindhudurg district of southern Maharashtra.

As we reached the borders of the state, the train began to descend. The high hillocks disappeared and the river that seemed like a distant silvery ribbon, suddenly looked as if you could reach out and touch it! It was about 2:00 in the afternoon and we were wondering how late would we get because of that little snag with the train that suddenly the whole place buzzed up with activity. Somebody told me we would soon reach Thivim, the first railway station in the state of Goa. As soon as the train crawled into the station I understood why the entire buzz. The station was loaded with people battle ready. Clad in their best beachwear with surfboards and volleyballs, foreigners and Indians alike, got off the train as yet another hilltop station peered down a small countryside road disappearing into the horizon. Somewhere down there, I wondered, would be the legendary beaches of Goa. And there it was, a signboard on the station told us as much. It mentioned several famous beauties and their distance in twenties (kilometers). "Twenties", my heart gave me a jolt. I was within walking distance (if you consider the 2200+ kms I had covered from Jaipur in the last 25 hours) of the best place on earth and was not going there. Well while I mused, and considered, seriously, making a move towards one of them beaches, the train started to move, solving the dilemma for me.

Margoa or Madgaon, the commercial capital of Goa was our next stop. It was also easily the best-maintained station of India. The newly laid Skybus route could be seen from the station and assured us that the Delhi Metro and Konkan Railway (Incidentally architecture-d by the same person) are not flukes but a part of the nationwide infrastructure revolution. The train halted for a frustrating forty minutes, which was enough for us to sample some brilliant Cashews and even browse through the bamboo artifacts at various small shops oon the platform. As we slowly edged our way out of the sleepy station, we got a glimpse of typical Goan structures. The influence of the colonial era has not been lost even now. The predominant Christianity is celebrated in every structure, as is the happy-go-lucky attitude of Goans. I did not know what it was, the image of Goa portrayed in all those movies and rumors, or reality, but the place did seem to immediately put you at peace with yourself. With poor but cute modifications on antediluvian car models parked beside the newest and the trendiest sedans, Goa portrayed a happily contrasting picture. As the last few images of Goa faded, the sun also started dissolving into the horizon.

As the train cruised through lavish greens of coconut trees and stark browns of the series of hillocks, my amazement only grew. There were a few things about this leg of Konkan railway, which made it absolutely delightful. First, the momentary glimpses of the Arabian Sea, which filled us with childlike curiosity as we raised our necks to the highest window bar to take in as much of the delight as we could. Second the setting of the houses in the countryside, where, each one of them was surrounded by scores of coconut and other greens, with another placid serpent flowing beside. The rivers were wide enough in some parts to be navigated by boat steamers, while in some parts they were a maze of thin tributaries. I realized later that I was witnessing a typical river delta. The tracks are at a higher altitude providing a panoramic view of the beautiful countryside to the passengers of any train. As we watched, mesmerized, a sudden desire to jump out and settle there for till eternity overwhelmed us. I began to wonder how much civilization was good? Well certainly life would be better off without the eardrum shattering noises in any metro, not to mention the choking city air. Do we really need the fast cars and air-conditioners when we can afford to live in this virtual paradise? But the question felt heavy and hypocritical. After all, the reason for this visit of mine was to be a part of that very "civilization".

We were only getting over the sight of a mammoth statue of Lord Siva, in Murudeshwar, which is visible from miles around when someone announced that Udupi was the next station, and the whole train transformed into a hub of activity like a swarm of bees. I was surprised to see how many people were Udupi bound. The fact that they were all my age told me that even their purpose was same as mine. Also it gave birth to an expectation. Right through the past few days and this journey we had pictured an image of how Manipal and Udupi would look? The small town on the border of the southern state of Karnataka and Goa, was popular as the Oxford of India. Manipal had a zing to its name and the stories about that place had filled us with great anticipation. That obviously was until we reached the town.

The train entered a dimly lit petty little station with about ten inhabitants, who all are pushed into reluctant motion at the sight of the train. The trite sight of coconut trees failed to cheer us as we wondered about the "Oxford of India". It looked like a small fishing community town. Where were all the temples of the "Temple Town" and where was the Oxford, which, supposedly was only three kilometers from the Udupi railway station? I was beginning to consider my decision of going there and by the look on Chandan’s face he was doing the same. But, we were going to find out, as always we had jumped to conclusions too soon.

Part 2: Uppi and Maipal

We took the ten-minute ride in an auto-rickshaw to our hotel where I had reservations (Shri Ramakrishna Hotel); it was decided that Chandan would stay with me, as he did not have any reservations. I was surprised to know that all the hotels of both Udupi and Manipal were jam-packed. Our auto-walah informed us that this was a normal routine at this time of the year when students from all over the nation poured in. But
I had perhaps lost the "student" bit in me for the moment. I was more engrossed with the small town. A deserted, barely lit, solitary road led us out of the station, but suddenly it turned and the whole city sort of exploded into our sight. Buzzing market-place resplendent with bright and shiny colors of the typical handiwork of South India, glared at us from all over. Smell of rich spices and coconut oil, invited us from every corner. And the road-side stalls beckoned with an intoxicating smell of fresh home-grown coffee beans (Karnataka is one of the largest producers of coffee in India). But what was the most intriguing was the city in itself.

The east has had its own share of immortal love stories like the Romeo-Juliet, stories of substance and eternal love like . Soni-Mahival, Heer-Ranjha and Laila-Majnu, but at least I never came across one so scintillating as Uppi and Maipal. While Uppi could be a town materialized right out of one of those settings of R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi Days, Maipal looks as if a chunk of Mumbai has been sliced off and placed on a small hammock in the middle of a jungle. This contrast makes the synchrony between the lifestyles of the two towns seem even more beautiful. How the typical Loongee clad fishermen and coconut traders had come to terms with modern Cappuccino drinking and fun-loving youth was heart warming to see.

Oh! For those who are wondering what are Uppi and Maipal, welcome to Udupi and Manipal bus-driver style. Actually, Chandan and I wanted to have a look at the venue of our interviews in advance because they were scheduled for early next morning. After unpacking at our hotel, we asked around for a public transport. The receptionist at the hotel informed us that an auto-rickshaw would cost us a ferocious amount, about sixty Rupees for a ride of about three kilometers, so we better take a bus. So there we were wandering around the local bus stand looking for one, which goes to Manipal. It took us a while to realize that all the busses were Manipal bound only that we were actually supposed to be looking for “Mai…Paaall”, and while returning we were coming to “Uppi-Uppi-Uppi-UPPI”.

I would rather skip the process of interview and its outcome in this narrative. At about 4:30 PM we returned to Udupi. The past few hours had flown past leaving little imprints on my memory. In spite of a discouraging morning, my exuberance to visit around had not died out. As soon as I reached my hotel, I got to the reception and asked for information on the place. The receptionist, with that "another silly north Indian" look, gestured towards a printed guide to the hot spots. This was the second shock I had received on the trip (after the interview that is) but this one was a delight. The place was called Malpe, situated only seven kilometers outside Udupi and it was a BEACH! The last time I had been to a beach was in 1998. Somehow all my vacations and trips after that had either been to Metros or hill stations. My train was scheduled for midnight the next day and we had a full day with only a few formalities to finish with the institute by noontime.
Chandan informed me that some of his friends had already visited Malpe and had been in Udupi since the evening before we arrived. We called over Divyendu, Aditya, another chap from Delhi and Vijay (he was staying in the same hotel as us) for a chat. Over some hot Chicken Hot and Sour, we shared our horrifying experiences in front of the interview board and realized that except for Vijay who was planning to leave earlier, all of us were Delhi bound on the same train. No, I was not the only loser, incidentally all four of us could not get through the interview stage; we were a whole army of losers. So, after a quick shower, good-byes and good lucks were shared with Vijay as the other three, Divyendu, Chandan and I left for Manipal.

Manipal is as modern as any of the other up and coming cities of India. Right from the best coffee shops to great restaurants, from the best-branded casuals to Delhi style roadside garments sales Manipal has everything. It feels as if God has forgotten to bless the town of Manipal with adult life. Those seldom few adults who are there are the teachers and faculties of the various institutes. I just got a sneaking feeling that even they made their level best efforts to look younger. The students here live it up. While on one hand the town has world class teaching facilities on the other it has the scope for some good weekend fun. It also enjoys students from quite a few countries. Overall, it can prove to be a lifetime for a student studying here. Sorry if I sound gluttonous but I guess the word food merits a mention here. Both Manipal and Udupi have great food to offer. I believe it offers the cheapest food in the world. A sumptuous Thali with Rassam, Sambhar, curd, buttermilk and two Sabzis, along with Chapati and Rice would cost you only Rupees seventeen; spiral pasta in white sauce about Rupees fifty. We ended our day with some good non-vegetarian food although a must-try is curd-rice dashed with rich mixtures of spices and curry leaves stirred up in hot oil.

Udupi is a beautiful town. The temples, which we for a while presumed were an illusion, are actually there, and quite a few of those at that. Hence the religiousness of the town is apparent. Also visible is the town’s occupation. While, you would invariably always run into fisherwomen in each bus journey, the shops laden with beautiful handloom cloth tell another story. The specialty of the town would be clothes ranging from handloom made crafty men’s wear to the beautiful Sarees and Salwar Suits. The textures and colors being the specialty of these predominantly women’s clothing, apart from the fine fabric, the shops flaunt the brightest of the colors on their windows.

Next Morning, before the final interviews, we decided to visit the Shri Krishna Mutt, Udupi’s most celebrated temple. The Krishna Mutt is an ancient temple and one of the holiest places of pilgrimage in Southern India. It is said that Shri Madhwacharya, the founder of Dwaita philosophy found the idol of Shri Krishna (an incarnation of the Hindu God, Lord Vishnu – the Preserver) on a ship he rescued from a storm in the waters of Malpe. The idol is placed inside an enclosed chamber and is worshiped through a window with nine holes, called Navagraha Kitiki. Men have to remove the clothing they wear on the upper half of their body before entering the premises of the temple. The experience, needless to say was divine. The Prasada had two ingredients. Being the glutton I am I ate it all up in one go, however, the typical taste of the Prassada was explained when right after my throwing it in my mouth the Swami ji began, "Put the chandan (sandal-wood paste) on your forehead and the flower in your pocket for rakshan (protection)". Well I had to eat what I already had in my mouth and take some more for the real purpose. God always has ingenious ways to teach you, I realized.

Soon we were aboard a fishermen-loaded bus from Uppi to Malpe. It was one in the afternoon. In spite of the acrid smell of the fishermen’s prize catch and the fact that they spoke in rapid syllables of an entirely alien tongue (Kannada) that I could not gather a word of, I was on the seventh moon. A twenty-minute drive from Udupi shall take one to Malpe, they told us in a broken mixture of Hindi and English. I kept popping my neck above all to have a glimpse of the waters. And there it was. Somehow the sight of sea has always enthralled me like nothing else. Perhaps it is the enigma it portrays or the lack of boundaries or the depth, I do not know what, but it is majestic, powerful.

It took me only a couple of minutes to drop the philosophy (and my clothes) and get ready for a nice little swim. Meanwhile, Divyendu and his local contact had also arrived. What followed was raw fun. For the next few hours we had given up being adults. Right from swimming out into the sea to throwing sand balls at each other, from playing football with a group of local youngsters to eating the ever-so-tasty Gobhi-Manchurian (fried cauliflower wrapped in corn flour) and burying each other in the sand, we did it all. By the time the Sun went down we were all dead tired. At the sunset all of us were strolling by the seashore. The soft waves of the sea caressed my toes and went back, the cold breeze, everything, felt blissful. I knew it then that Malpe shall remain in my memories forever.

The only resort around the Malpe beach offers some good shower and locker facilities apart from the legendary good food. Also it has a comprehensive pub to add flavor to the party. As Malpe enjoys good weekend crowd, the general cleanliness and other facilities are fine. With luck you can catch an opportunity to visit one of the islands (The northern-most island is called Daria-Bahadurgad, the middle one Daria-Gadara-Kallu and the southernmost Kari-Illada-Kallu) close to the shore. The local tourism authorities run a boat whenever there is an assortment of 30 to 40 people willing to go out. Unfortunately, we were there on a Monday so could not find enough company. Malpe is perhaps not very popular outside the region and that is what makes it a complete paradise.

We unwillingly made the return journey. It was eight in the evening when we reached the hotel. Chandan and I bid adieu to Divyendu and promised to meet again at the station. But suddenly I realized I had forgotten something. Well it was time for some power shopping as I gathered some artifacts and a Salwar Suit and had a quick dinner (that sumptuous Thali for one last time) and took an auto-rickshaw (another 50 rupees! Preposterous!). Somebody told us that we would not find any means of transport to the station after 9:30 PM.

It is 10:00 PM. and our train is 10 minutes late and scheduled for 0015 hrs. To be truthful even I am fed up of this narrative as you might be by now, but I had to preserve this memory and therefore I decided to write this. For the past hour or so Chandan has been chatting up with a girl he struck up a conversation with in the morning and has met again. Her name is Ashvini (she was one of the interviewees). So, obviously I must be looking a lot less appealing to him now. Sir Cliff Richards has taken refuge in my Walkman somewhere and as he sings "Summer Holiday" in my ears, I am wondering if and when shall I ever be able to listen to that delightful voice of Buswallahs again, calling Uppi-Uppi-Uppi-UPPI

Ps: I returned to Udupi last year to relive those memories. An alternative for the Malpe beach is the Kapu beach which is a lot more popular with the students of Manipal. Because the population is well educated the beach is uncharacteristically clean. Kapu also has a light-house which you can climb up on and it offers an amazing view of the Arabian Sea. Udupi also has some very old Churches and other temples, which are popular amongst tourists and locals alike. And here’s the bomb: Be careful of leaving your stuff around. The locals have trained crows, yes believe it, crows to search through the stuff you leave behind on the shore and identify currency notes! It happens only in India :)
View of the Kapu beach from the Light-house


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