May 17, 2010

Getting into BITS Pilani

Lately, I have read quite a lot of posts written by our batchmates reflecting on their stay at Pilani during the last four years. Reading through them reminded me of the wonderful days that we spent together at our little village. Four years zipped past us before we could realize it. That led me into thinking about the years that eventually led me into getting admission at BITS Pilani.

Well, here is how it goes. By the time I got into 10th grade, I was made to understand by the society in general that performing well in the board exam is a prerequisite for doing well later in life. I was made to believe that one’s percentage in boards forms the basis of comparison in determining how smart one is. And to make things worse, people used phrases like (I’m sure most of us must have heard it) “The first stepping stone” or “The first public examination”. For a normal 10th grader, all this can get quite intimidating. Therefore, I started studying quite a bit. I gave up the tennis that I had started playing a year back to save time to memorize some chemical equations. Reading for pleasure had gradually become a luxury and socializing had been curtailed to a great extent. All this went on for months before before the exams finally got over. When the results came out, I was quite elated to find out that my efforts had been rewarded well and I had crossed the 90% barrier. Not that I cared too much about the percentage but it sure made answering a lot of questions (about results) from officious acquaintances pretty easy.

That was the first turning point. The Indian society has quite a few in-built check points to direct kids towards their pre-determined careers. And the 10th board exam is the first out of those. Those kids who score decently are directed towards science (to pursue engineering/medical later) in their senior secondary and those who did not score that well are directed towards humanities /arts/commerce. (Things have started to change in the last few years though. I’ll admit candidly that Indian parents are less insistent nowadays and are starting to take their children more seriously hence we see a gradual shift towards people choosing streams other than science out of sheer interest.)

A lot of us blame the society in general (and parents in particular) for directing us towards their accepted goals. Kids often blame their parents for being adamant and not letting them choose their intended career paths. But the fault isn’t entirely theirs. How many of us had our career paths charted out right after class XII? Most of us would answer in the negative but of course, for the minority that can, forcing them towards something else should be completely denounced.

Later that year, I took up science+math in 11th grade. When you have taken that combination in higher secondary, preparing for engineering entrances is implicit. And when you are preparing for engineering entrances, you are preparing for the IIT JEE. No one prepares specifically for AIEEE or BITSAT. Those are things that we do in addition to (or not do at all) preparing for the JEE.

So here I was, aiming at the IIT Entrances without ever having a given a thought to the fact whether this is what I wanted to do. I just found solace in the fact that almost everyone around me was doing the same thing. So I thought, when so many people are aiming at it, it must be the right thing to do. The other problem was that at that age, I did not know the kind of options I had or what I really wanted to do. Plus there were many things that favored preparing for the IITs. These were probably the only set of colleges (at the undergrad level) that used to get unparallel coverage by the media and evoked a lot of awe from the society in general. The JEE results were highly publicized and the top rankers almost had a celebrity status for a few days after the results. All this gradually led me into deciding that preparing for the IITs would be the best thing to do at that stage.

Gradually, I got engrossed into the JEE preparations. Life had become far worse than I had ever imagined it to be. I thought class 10th would be the time when I would work the hardest and after that things would ease but it was quite the opposite. Till 10th grade, it had just been school. Now I had to juggle school with FIITJEE 4 to 5 days a week. A normal day for me would be spending 6 hours in school, coming back and having lunch and then spending another 4 hours at the coaching center. A workload of more than 10 hours a day! It’s hard to fathom how I managed to retain energy after all this. Along with this, one had to manage tests in school and test series at coaching. Most of the days, after coming back from coaching, I simply did not have the energy to do anything else. Above all this, free advices were available in plenty. Some kept reminding me how important the year was for my future whereas others reiterated the importance of using every second well in the crucial year. Statements like “ Those who work hard in these two years, enjoy later and those who enjoy now will struggle later” annoyed me the most.

This routine went on for almost two years. As most of you reading this have already gone through the same grind, I'll skip the details. Finally, the D-Day came. All the effort that we had put in for the last two years had to culminate in the 6 hour marathon (the IIT-JEE paper) that we faced. The sheer thought that these are the 6 hours for which we have prepared, for the last 2 years was enough to tense me up totally. When I got the question paper, I was so nervous that I lost the first few minutes just thinking about how important this was for me. And in a competitive examination in India, where seconds can decide whether you get through or not, wasting a few minutes was way too much. I was pretty disappointed with the way I had given the examination. Leaving that aside, I started gearing up for the remaining exams as I knew that I didn’t stand a decent chance at IIT this year. The Sunday on which I gave the IIT JEE was the first in a string of examinations that I was to give in the following weeks. So the weeks ahead saw me giving the AIEEE exam, the VITEEE(officially pronounced “Vity” :D), the BITS Admission Test(BITSAT) and the WBJEE( I have no clue why I gave that!).

The next stage was one filled with a lot of uncertainty about where I would be headed for the next four years. Finally the results started coming out and to my surprise, I did make it through JEE Merit List 2006. The rank that I got was not good enough to get the B.Tech degrees that I wanted to enroll for at the IITs (except for maybe mining and metallurgical engineering which I had no intention of taking up). I got through most of the other examinations as well that I had given earlier. As I had never had a great fascination for engineering, I did not have any preference of the branch of engineering that I wanted to enroll in. I just wanted to get into the best college. Finally after weighing all my options, I decided that the best bet would be taking up admission at BITS Pilani. That’s where this story ends! For those interested in reading a little further, here's the link.

P.S. After four years, I can vouch that I made the right choice. Thanks BITS Pilani!

March 08, 2010


It had been a long time since we had gone on a vacation. Every time a plan was made, someone had some engagement that thwarted the proposed plan. After a lot of deliberations & reschedules, we finally decided to go out during the last week of December. Though the dates were decided at the very end, the destination had been taken care of a long way back. All of us had unanimously decided on going to the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. Not that we thought of much while deciding, we just wanted to go to a place which was beautiful as well as serene. Scanning the internet for a few clicks of the islands helped us in finalizing on the Islands.

The next hurdle that we faced was booking the tickets. Something that is quite peculiar about the Andaman Islands is that despite it being a favorite tourist destination, the connectivity is still poor. You have direct flights only from Chennai and Calcutta and their number is inadequate when compared to the demand. Due to this, tourists have to book tickets months in advance. One of my dad’s friends posted in the A&N had once said (in a lighter vein) that he would be able to arrange for everything in the island except for the return tickets! Such is the pressure for tickets during the peak tourist season.

On the 25th afternoon, we left Patna for Calcutta. The next day, we had our flight early in the morning. The flight took off on time and within minutes we were soaring 32000 feet above the Bay of Bengal. I dozed off for a while and by the time I woke up, we were almost ready for touchdown. Looking out of the window, I could see little specks of green in the vast expanse of blue. There were almost a dozen islands of all possible shapes and sizes, dark green inside and almost white on the edge, which were clearly visible. After descending a few thousand feet, we could clearly see the South Andaman Island on which Port Blair is located. This island is the largest of the Andaman Islands and has the highest population. The Port Blair airstrip runs right through the middle of the town and it looks as if it divides the city into halves. After a while, we finally got off the plane at Veer Savarkar International Airport. We were sweating as soon as we alighted from the plane and this was Andaman's coldest season! Andaman has moderate climate throughout the year hence even in December days are quite hot. From the airport, we directly went to the South Point Circuit House, where we were supposed to stay for the next few days. Port Blair, for starters, is probably like any other town in the mainland but probably a lot cleaner and a lot more picturesque with tastefully done gardens and wide streets. South Point is located on the top of a hillock and is supposed to be best government accommodation the Andaman Islands. With the hills on one side and the clean azure blue waters of the Indian Ocean on the other, the view from our balcony was quite scenic.

After resting for a while, we took off for the Corbyn Cove’s, the beach that is closest to Port Blair. In Andamans, people say that the farther you go from Port Blair, the better the beaches get and after seeing the Corbyn Cove’s beach, I could vouch that. The beach is an average rocky beach with coconut trees lining the whole stretch, just like any other ordinary beach that one finds on the mainland. After strolling for a while and clicking a few snaps, we returned to South Point.

The same day after having lunch, we went to see the Ross Island, the island that is closest to Port Blair. Ross Island was the administrative center of the Andamans when the British controlled the islands. Rickety motor boats run frequently between Port Blair’s Phoenix Bay Jetty and Ross and it takes around half an hour to get there. Though the boat was old and slow, the journey was quite pleasant as it had become quite windy by evening. On the island, our tour guide took us to see to the various buildings that the British had built during their rule. We saw the ruins of quite a few old official bungalows and barracks which were used during the British rule. We walked around the whole island and also got down to check out the beaches. Most of the beaches of the island were totally ravaged after the tsunami. What you’ll see at the beaches is mostly, long coconut trees uprooted and lying flat on the white sand. We could almost imagine the kind of waves that would have brought down such huge trees and converted huge boulders into rubble. It is said that had Ross Island not been there, Port Blair would have bored the entire brunt of the tsunami which would have caused immense loss of life and property. The island acted a barrier and ensured that the high tides did not directly hit the shores of Port Blair.

Later that evening after returning from the Ross Island, we went to see the most important landmark of Port Blair, the Cellular Jail. Popularly known as “Kalapani” the construction of the jail started in 1896 and it took almost ten years to complete. The bricks required for the construction were brought all the way from Burma! The jail initially had a central tower and seven wings radiating from the center, each of which had three stories. Four of these wings were demolished during the World War II and the remaining three are the ones you get to see. After entering the jail premises, we first entered a hall where on display were various items which were used by the prisoners. We saw things like their manacles, the utensils that they used and the machines that they used to work on. Then we went on to see the various wings of the jail and the prisoner’s cells including the one where Veer Savarkar was incarcerated. The British officers were so scared of him breaking out of the prison that they kept him in a special cell which had an extra iron gate outside the cell. Later, we saw the light and sound show at the jail. It was quite informative and ran us through Cellular Jail’s history and highlighted the brutal torture that the British used to inflict on the prisoners jailed here. One’s patriotic spirit definitely gets charged up after hearing about the innumerable sacrifices our forefathers made for us.

The next morning we set out for the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park, which is about 30 kilometers from Port Blair. The national park, probably the only marine national park in India, starts at the Wandoor coast line and extends a few nautical miles into the Indian Ocean. The drive from Port Blair to Wandoor where the national park is located is quite scenic as the national highway runs through thick forests. After reaching Wandoor, we took a speed boat to the Jolly Buoy Island nearby. What added to the thrill was that a 12 year old boy was in charge of the speed boat and he was racing it at a very high speed. Fortunately, we got to our destination unscathed! There, after taking a stroll on the beach, we took a glass bottom boat to see the corals. Just about a kilometer away from the island, the corals were completely visible. I was seeing it for the first time and trust me, it’s quite a sight. For the uninitiated, corals basically look like colored vegetation growing in the shallow sea beds. We saw quite a few types of corals such as brain corals, star corals, flower corals and the like. We also saw a quite a variety of fishes of various sizes and colors. Corals are one of the treasures of the Andamans and if you get a chance to visit the islands, don’t miss it. After that, we went snorkeling. Snorkeling enables one to have closer look at the corals and at times, even touch them. After that, in the evening, at Port Blair’s Phoenix Bay Jetty, we did water scootering. Though we did not get to drive the scooter (as the tide was high), the ride was exhilarating, especially because I was holding the grip on the scooter incorrectly! Therefore, each second of the 10 minutes that we zipped on the water surface, I was struggling to hold the grip tightly. The fact that I don’t know swimming did not make things easier either. The guy driving the scooter was totally enjoying out there taking sharp turns and jumping his scooter against the tide and my screams for reducing the speed went totally unheard. I still did manage to get back to the bay safely!

After returning from there, we left for Chidiya Tapu which is located at the southern most tip of the South Andaman Island. Getting there took us about forty minutes and the journey through the virgin forests was very relaxing. We reached just in time to get a glimpse of the sun setting at Chidiya Tapu. It is for sure the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen. We could see the sun just over the hills that were present on the island adjacent to this. In the foreground, there were leafless trees that once were there on the coast but were now half submerged in the waters. The sight was breathtaking and I did not feel like budging from there. It was getting dark and we had to leave for the beach that was situated nearby. Even on the beach, the half submerged trees added to its beauty. The sand on the beach was white and the water was absolutely transparent. This is the beauty of the beaches in the Andamans. Wherever you go, you will find that the water is absolutely transparent. We could even see the roots of the trees quite clearly. From the sea shore, a small stream was going into the mangrove forests right behind the beach. This beach will always be etched in my memory for it stood out from the beaches that you get to see generally.
The next day, we left for the Baratang Island, which is situated in the Middle Andamans. We had to take the Grand Andaman Trunk Road [NH 223] to get to Baratang and the route that we took passed through the Jarava Tribal Reserve. The Jarawas are the native tribals of the Andaman Islands, who still for the most part, live isolated and far from civilization. Hence we were quite enthralled to catch a glimpse of the tribals. As vehicular movement is not freely allowed through the Jarawa Reserve Area, we had to catch a convoy that was to start at Jarkatang. Vehicles are not supposed to stop once inside the reserve area. Throughout our journey inside the reserve, we peeked out the window with utmost attention but could not spot any Jarawa [though when we were returning, we did spot quite a lot of them and they totally resembled the African tribes. A lot of them sit along the national highway these days looking for alms.] After leaving the reserve, we drove for another hour or so before we were forced to stop. Yes, that’s because the NH 223 ended there. Probably the only national highway in India where you have to take a ferry to continue your journey across a river! And that is exactly what we did. We got off the car and then waited for a ship to arrive. Then the car was loaded into it and whatever space was left was filled with the passengers waiting to cross over. There are regular ferry services that the local administration offers but the queue for cars to cross over gets quite big and hence one has to wait for hours. Thankfully, we did not have to wait that long as the local S.H.O. had been given prior instructions and hence we could cross over in less than half an hour. Now we were in Middle Andaman town of Baratang. From here, we took another boat which took us to the island which had the Limestone caves, one of the important tourist destinations of the Middle Andamans. The boat journey took more than 40 minutes and by the time we reached the caves, we were sweating profusely as it had become quite hot. The last few minutes of the boat journey was quite amazing as we passed through dense mangrove forests to get to the island. A fifteen minute trek through dense forests from there and we were at the limestone caves. Though not very huge, the caves were pretty decent and totally dark on the inside. The caves are still active and we could see water droplets falling off the limestone. From what I could make out of what the guide told us, these caves probably formed as the thick roots of the old trees with the action of sunlight and water gradually transformed wood to limestone. The guide showed us parts of the cave where formation was still going on. Though not very grand, it was still worth a visit. After that, we went to see to the Mud Volcano. Though I had heard from a friend that it’s not worth seeing, but having come so far, we decided to give it a shot. It turned out so bad that we left within a minute of seeing it. I could see quite a lot of mud around but couldn’t spot any volcano. The term Mud Volcano is a misnomer; the site is just another mud pool that you can recreate in your backyard! The rest of the day was spent in getting back to Port Blair.

On the 30th, we left for the Havelock Island, the most popular tourist destination in the Andamans. We got up early in the morning as our ship was to leave Port Blair early in the morning. The jetty was quite crowded as ships for all the other major islands start from here. There were quite a lot of ships parked in the bay but the M.V. Makruzz, the cruise ship that we were about to board stood apart. The luxury catamaran had a very modern look and a sleek design. Even the interiors were done up quite well. It almost gave the feeling of sitting in an airplane. The ship cruised noiselessly at over 25 nautical miles an hour and we reached the Havelock Islands in an hour and a half.

At the jetty, we took a taxi to the Dolphin Resort, the place where we had to put to put up that day. From the jetty to the Dolphin Resort, the road was lined with resorts. Most of the resorts are situated on the coast and hence they have beaches right in front of them. As soon as we checked in at Dolphin, we went to check out the beaches. We had a cottage to ourselves at the resort and the rooms were sea facing. The view from the room was splendid. Though it was quite hot outside, we still walked along the beach for quite some time.

Later that evening, we headed towards the Radhanagar Beach, the most popular beach of the Havelock Islands. We almost covered half the island while going from Dolphin to the Radhanagar beach and the single lane road took us through thick forests and sandy beaches. The first thing that you will notice about the Havelock Islands is that you don’t feel like you are in India as you’ll find more foreigners on the island than you’ll find Indians. Foreigners throng Havelock Island and most of them come here to stay for months at a stretch. The best part about Havelock is that the place is totally tranquil. If you are looking for a place to completely unwind for a few days, you should definitely put up here. Radhanagar Beach, once rated as the best beach in Asia by the TIME magazine, is definitely worth all the praise it is showered with. As we had gone there in the evening, we were expecting quite a lot of people out there, but fortunately we were wrong. Like the beaches at other places in the Andamans, even at the Radhanagar beach the water is crystal clear but what makes it stand out is that it's totally covered with white sand. The green from the woods in the background stood out in stark contrast to the white sand, painting a beautiful picture of the coastline. The next day, I hired a scooty and drove around the whole island. Driving around was tremendous fun as the roads were nearly empty and the drive along the coast was breathtaking. That evening, we returned to Port Blair as we had to catch a flight the next morning. After all this holidaying, I did not want to head back at all. I wanted some more time to enjoy the serenity of the Islands. Though the thought of leaving did make me a bit sad, the wonderful memories that the trip has given me still help me in admiring the beauty of the islands.