Sunday, October 14, 2007

Land’s End at Journey’s End--Coimbatore and Kaniyakumari:

May 7 saw me boarding a train at Tirupati station, bound for Chennai and, thence, for points south in India—way south, to Land’s End! I was to fly from Chennai to Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu State. I planned to stop for one night in Coimbatore, where I had been invited to lecture at the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU). Then I had a sleeper-AC berth booked on an overnight train which would cut across the state of Kerala and sweep down the coast, via Cochin and Trivandrum, to the southernmost tip of India—a place called Kanniyakumari.

My good friend, Dr. Gunashekar (Guna), made all the travel arrangements for me and I’m ever grateful to him for that. The same is true for Dr. Jamuna, his wife and my facilitator while I was in India. Officially, as you may recall, Jamuna was to help me for just the first five days after my arrival in Tirupati, but she and Guna took care of me until the day I left. That's their daughter, Dipti, sitting with Guna and Jamuna in the first picture above. I can’t imagine what a problem it would have been for me if I had had to make all my travel arrangements on my own. I guess I would have learned the ropes soon enough if left to my own devices, but I’m glad I didn’t have to.

Guna had reserved a comfortable seat for me in an air-conditioned compartment on the Tirupati-Chennai train, and the ride through the afternoon was pleasant enough. When I arrived at Chennai station, the place was packed with people. Guna had advised me about how to pre-pay for a taxi to get me from the railway station to the airport, but I decided to save some money and go by auto rickshaw instead. I’d been told how much that might cost, so when one driver after another came up to me and demanded outrageous amounts of rupees, I haggled hard to get the price I wanted. I guess they realized I knew what I was doing because it didn’t take long before one driver agreed to my price and we were on our way.

To my amazement, what transpired next was déjà vue all over again!

The auto conked out half way to the airport, just as had happened soon after I arrived in India when I was at a conference in Orissa state! The last time this happened, as attested to by the pictures above, taken by Dr. Jyostna (Josi), my friend and companion in the auto, I helped push the auto into a nearby gas station and the day was saved. But this time it must have been a mechanical problem of some sort because my driver didn’t take long to do what he did next.

I was keeping an eye on my watch since time was of the essence and I didn’t know how long it took to get to the airport. My auto driver, however, was unperturbed, which did nothing to relieve my anxiety. He soon solved the problem by flagging down another auto rickshaw. He haggled with this other driver to get the best price he could on the cost of the remaining leg of the trip to the airport. Then he asked me for the agreed amount of money that he and I had originally settled on back at the railway station in Chennai. All the while he assured me that I would not have to pay any more to this new auto rickshaw driver when I arrived at the airport.

What choice did I have? I had to trust this man. It was either that, or I was stranded at the roadside, flagging down some other auto or taxi in the hopes that I’d make it to the airport on time. But here’s the point, as far as I was concerned. By now, after more than 5 months in India, I had become comfortable with the people and with the culture of India. I gave both auto rickshaw drivers the benefit of any doubt and I was once more on my way.

As was always, always the case throughout my stay in India, I was not cheated. Everyone I dealt with in India was, in my opinion and based on my 64 years of experience, honorable and fair. No, Indians are no more or less perfect than anyone anywhere else, but the Indians that I got to know have proved to be perhaps the most delightful and trustworthy people I’ve ever had to deal with in my life.

The rest of my trip to Coimbatore was uneventful. I was met by a driver at Coimbatore airport and taken to the TNAU guesthouse—easily the most palatial and well-appointed guest house I stayed at in India. It helped that it was spanking new, like the one I stayed at in Dharwad, Karnataka State. But this one provided me with a suite of rooms with all modern conveniences, including cable TV! A delicious South Indian dinner was served in my room and I slept soundly after my long day on the road.

The next morning I was brought by a driver to the campus at TNAU, founded in 1865. The university was relocated to Coimbatore in 1909. My breath was taken away by the Indo-Sarcenic architecture. It is very beautiful indeed—and well-maintained, too.

On arrival at the campus I was met by the Dean of the Psychology Department and he immediately took me to the auditorium where I would be giving my presentation. I was amazed to see a huge banner on the wall behind the dais, probably 4 feet high and 10 to 15 feet wide, welcoming me to TNAU as a guest of the university. Technicians were on hand. I’d brought my laptop and projector along, just in case, but it turned out that the whole hall was wired for overhead projection and sound amplification, with a booth in one corner where the technicians monitored the equipment during the course of a lecture. I gave the technician my pen drive, showed him where my PowerPoint presentation was stored, and left him to get everything ready for me.

Meanwhile I was taken to the office of the Vice-Chancellor, Professor C. Ramasamy. Over tea and biscuits, I chatted with him for a while about his goals for the university, especially as regards technology, since that was why I was there. I have met the Vice-Chancellors of a dozen or so universities while I’ve been in India; I think Professor C. Ramasamy demonstrated the clearest understanding of what it takes to effectively—effectively—integrate computer-based technologies into teaching and learning.

He knew it was hard, and that it had to be done right. He didn’t just sort of wave a wand and assume that tossing a few hundred computers at buildings and offices would somehow magically transform how things were done at his university. The reason he had invited me to travel all the way from Tirupati to talk, at his university’s expense, about technologies for teaching and learning, was because he wanted to learn as well as to do.

I thoroughly enjoyed giving the lecture, as I hope the audience of professors and students did, too. There was a journalist there from the Times of India, and afterwards she sat down with me for half an hour or so to find out about me and about the Fulbright Scholarship and, especially, about technology in education.

After the interview, I was taken back to the guest house to rest and get ready for my 14-hour, overnight train journey to Kanniyakumari (also called Cape Cormorin)-—India’s Land’s End. The train departed Coimbatore station shortly after midnight. I had a berth in an AC sleeper carriage and slept soundly till dawn, when I got up to greet the new day.

For the next few hours, till I arrived in Kanniyakumari in the early afternoon, I took pictures of the Kerala countryside. It was wet and lush and green, quite unlike anything I’d seen in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat, or Orissa. This was verdant, fertile country. Fruits of every kind grew in the fields amongst the rice paddies and plantations.

The people were out there in those fields, working away, ten or more hours a day. I’ve been given to understand that some of these workers are paid, at the end of each day, not with money, but with food to eat—-some rice, whatever. In inflationary times, food is better than currency, but how do the many millions of poor in India get to escape their poverty if they are only paid enough to survive till the next day?

This I do know for sure. I didn’t see much of any laziness in India. People can’t afford to be lazy. Even the beggars work hard to make a living.

It was great to get to Land’s End, even though there’s not much to see there, other than the two impressive monuments built on rocky outcrops a mile or so offshore. One is to Swami Vivekananda, arguably the greatest social reformer and saint that India has produced. The other is to the Mahatma Ghandi, whose ashes were placed in the memorial here the night before they were scattered in the waters of the Indian Ocean. I stayed overnight at the Sea View hotel in a room with a huge picture window overlooking the ocean. To my left, in the east, I could see the Bay of Bengal; to my right, in the west, the Arabian Sea; and dead ahead, where both seas merged in the south, lay the mighty Indian Ocean.

The trip to Kanniyakumari was the only major touristy thing I did while in India. I didn't see the Taj Mahal or the Himalayas. Maybe next time. But I just had to make the effort to get to Land's End and I’m so glad I did. I enjoyed the sunset looking back from the far end of a long, rock-built quay that had me perched alone on the edge of the watery ocean void. A stiff, warm, zephyr breeze kissed my skin. My eyes watered as I stood there soaking up the sunset. Tears of joy welled up as I reflected contentedly on how far I had come to be where I was that day, Land’s End at my journey’s end.

Thank you, India. Thank you, my Indian friends. Shukria. Danyawadalu. Thank you, again and again.

1 comment:

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