Sunday, February 26, 2012

Up In The Air .... Part 4

After Coimbatore and Trichy, it was time to head to the ancient temple city of Madurai. The morning glow in the skies was absolutely enchanting. The approach to to Madurai was so stunningly green that I had to capture it on my Blackberry!

The Southern Sojourn!

Last week, I took an interesting trip down South.
I landed in Coimbatore late on Wednesday. Unexpectedly the flight was full, full of expatriate workers returning back home and people travelling to Coimbatore (from Mumbai) for business.
The Jetlite flight was pretty uneventful. On the approach to Coimbatore airport, as we descended to about 20,000 feet, there was a dramatic change in the landscape below. The drab landscape gave way to a real visual treat - the rolling green hills of Ooty and Coonoor - if I recall correctly these hills were home to two of India's illustrious soldiers - Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw and General K. Sundarji.
The Boeing 737-700 touched down at Coimbatore at nearly 7PM, dusk was just setting in and the horizon had a fiery orange-pinkish hue, but the weather was cool. I drove to the hotel and it was time to crash and recharge.
Next morning I woke up to see cloudy skies and a large forested patch in front of my window with a good number of peacocks roaming around regally. For all the splendour around it, the peacock is certainly worthy of being the national bird!
Breakfast followed - an amazing South Indian spread of idlis, vadais and the most flavourful sambhar I ever had.
For the quintessential North Indian, sambhar is a generic name for any South Indian lentil-based gravy, but gladly that is not the case. Every area - Kerala, Mangalore, Coorg, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu - has a different type of sambhar.
After the meetings in Coimbatore were done, it was time to visit Thiruchirapalli (or Trichy as it is more commonly called). I took the road route - the roads were very decent - 4-laned. We covered the 250 kilometers in nearly 4 hours flat.
I had last visited Trichy in 2007 - it was a wee-bit sleepy and dusty. Now Jayalalitha got elected to the state assembly from Srirangam, a constituency in the area. Now money for developmental works seems to be flowing in, the infrastructure has improved and the city seems to have got the look and feel of a mini-metro.
On reaching Trichy, I checked into Sangam Hotel. When I stayed there in 2007, it was pretty decent but there were a few rough edges here and there. This time, I was pleasantly surprised that the hotel had undergone a slick makeover. The facilities in the rooms had improved quite a lot - the furniture was smart and modern, the lighting was automated - the rooms had an uncanny similarity with the business properties of say the Taj Group or Welcomgroup. Much to my relief there was a kettle, tea bags and sachets of milk and sugar in the room, which previously was rare in these parts - I was saved from the bad aftertaste of readymade tea that I so detest! Clearly there was a good demand from the local industry to justify the makeover.
One of the highlights of my stay at Trichy was an amazing meal which had a tangy gravy called Vathal Kozhambu (வத்தல் குழம்பு) - a spicy tamarind based gravy with sun-dried sundakka or turkey berries. The tangy sourness of the  sundakka gave the gravy a unique flavour!
The next day I ventured into the city and its outskirts for a few meetings. I was baffled to see hoardings of M. Karunanidhi and his family - Stalin, Alagiri and Kanimozhi all over the city - this was kind of unexpected especially in Jayalalitha's home-territory. My local contact told me that a senior DMK functionary's son was getting married in the city for which the erstwhile first-family was flying in that night, led by Kalaignar (this is how Karunanidhi is "fondly"(?) called by his supporters, obviously my contact was a DMK supporter!). And to top it all, the family was to stay in the same hotel - oh my God, that explained the presence of a posse of security men around the property.
Politics down South, especially a cat and mouse game of jumbo-sized egos, hatred and money. If Karunanidhi is in power, he would chase Jaya with a vengence and the other way around. But no one wins, no one wins, much like the all time classic, Tom & Jerry!
Talking of egos, during this trip I heard of an interesting anecdote. Years back, when Jayalalitha was in power, the Tamil cult superstar, Rajnikanth who was her neighbour at Chennai's Poes Garden, was actually harassed by her security to such an extent that he found it difficult o move in and out of his bungalow. One day he decided enough was enough. He got out of his bungalow and stood at the gate attracting his fans - numbers swelled from tens to hundreds to well, say thousands. The chief minister had a harrowing time that day but she got the message and "the larger than life" Rajnikanth, never had any problems thereafter. (Did you know Rajnikanth is a Maharashtrian?)
I was to take a 9.30PM Jet Airways flight to Chennai. After all the meetings were over, I was to head to the airport, but my contact suggested that we have some snacks at Adyar Ananda Bhavan - a chain of joints all over the South (and Delhi as well!). The place was full of families relaxing (thank God it's friday!) and having a good time - enjoying North Indian fare - chaats, tikkis, channa bhatura, samosas and kachoris! Now this was a revelation - South Indian fare has been very popular in the North for long, but I never knew Northern fare was equally popular down South! That is interesting because it does prove that preferences and tastes across the country are actually converging, which is actually great for the nation as a whole!
But for me it was the standard fare - vadai sambhar, which was rather cold and leathery! How atrocious!
After that I headed to Trichy airport. On the way, I received a text message from Jet Airways - my flight which was to leave Trichy at 9.30PM was rescheduled to 11.30PM! They were are it again, and still have the audacity to call themselves India's best!
The lady at the check-in counter at Trichy airport seemed to be very harried after being hankered by passengers over the delay. So when I coolly collected the boarding pass, she thanked me for the "consideration" for the flight being late and was offered vouchers for complimentary snacks and beverages. The aftertaste of the bad vadai sambhar of Adyar Ananda Bhavan was still in my system and I settled for a coffee.
Trichy airport had undergone a major transformation. When I was here in 2007, the airport building was barely twice the size of my apartment. Now a new shiny terminal had been built with loads of glass and chrome. The activity level was also much much higher - Trichy is now connected to Dubai, Colombo and Singapore. Two international flights - a Kingfisher to Colombo and Tiger Airways to Singapore were readying for departure as we waited for our ATR-72-500 for Chennai! I could have never imagined in 2007 that Trichy airport would expand in scale and size in such a fashion.
As we took off, I was thinking that truly interior India is growing and will continue to grow despite what the economic indicators say - look at a place like Trichy - a small town which has grown, industry and commerce there has grown, people there are spending - exploring new tastes, eating out and reaching out to the world....
Next on the itinerary was a short trip to the ancient city Madurai the next day, Saturday, to visit Meenakshi Amman Temple. We had a long night ahead - the flight to Madurai was at 6.50AM - Neeti was to join me at Chennai airport for the Madurai trip.
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