April 7, 2019

Rajasthan Diaries - The Pink City!

Hi Guys,

A few weeks back, I was touring across Rajasthan covering Udaipur, Jaipur and Jaisalmer. This is an attempt to jot down some of the memories from the trip. Let me start with the part that was bang in the middle of the trip – Jaipur! Jaipur is an exciting mix of old and new. It is filled with a lot of history which seems to be sadly ignored in the cacophony of modern lifestyle. It is a pattern that you observe in a lot of Indian cities.

Arriving early morning from Udaipur, the fun started in the Railway station with the bargain for Auto Rickshaw. Ankur joined me for the trip and having a local helps a lot in any new city. We stayed in the Old City which has the cluster of heritage sites from the past. I was intrigued by the buildings having coral pink color and asked the sheepish question to Ankur. Only then did I remember that I was in the ‘Pink City’. The pink that you have in your mind and the pink that you find in Jaipur doesn’t help initially. It is amazing how the huge cluster of buildings inside the five gates are mandated to have the same color – it is quite a sight in the night to see them lightened up.

The first place in the trip was Hawa Mahal. I was hungry and we were still searching for a good breakfast place, there was traffic around around the Mahal itself was covered with dust which didn’t help. But, as we went inside and went up in the narrow staircases, we realized the beauty of the architecture. There were nice viewpoints and towers. The intricate glasswork does throw a spectrum of colors inside.
Hawa Mahal in the night!

We were still searching for Breakfast when we entered Jantar Mantar and we had to settle with Sandwiches in the canteen there. On a side note, there were tons of Kachori places all around which seems to be the go to breakfast in Jaipur, but I was not keen. Jantar Mantar started on a note where Ankur wanted to read each and every inscription available. We did end up reading all, but don’t know how much we comprehended though, as a lot were on astrology! The place is a marvel considering the detailed effort that must have gone into observing the universe when not a lot of modern instruments were available. The scale of some of the instruments available is gigantic.

Next stop – City Palace. City Palace is a nice mix of buildings and architecture. Darbar is the main place of interest here as it is one of the few places where you can see the exact setup of how the kingdoms ran. The armoury was even better as you see a huge set of weapons – swords, hammers, armours, ancient guns, etc. We spent a good time there analysing the science behind some of the weapons.

City Palace
As we left the City Palace, we took an electric Auto to Albert Hall. A point of note on the Jaipur Auto drivers – they are good at distracting people. Before we entered the city place, a driver was so keen to take us to Albert Hall saying there is nothing in City Palace. When we took the Auto to Albert Hall, a driver was so adamant that it is same as City Palace and we need to go to Jal Mahal. Finally the lady driver who took us there told us that we need to explore Maharani Market first. Thankfully, Ankur was there! The ride to Albert Hall was my first view of full-fledged Jaipur driving sense and I was left with a not so great memory of drivers honking all the time.

Albert Hall is currently the city museum. Constructed in the British era, the architecture of the building is a good example of Indo-Saracenic. The place was full of people – the City palace has a steep entrance fees and hence a lot of them choose Albert Hall as it is a mini version of what you see in City Palace museum. The key attraction there is a Mummy museum where they have a real mummy from Egypt. I don’t understand the correlation between Jaipur and Mummy though.

The other set of attractions in Jaipur are the forts which lie on the outskirts. As you start moving away from Jaipur, you realize that there are not just forts, but many walls and watch posts strewn across the hills.

Amer Fort from the outside with the moat!
There are three main forts – Jaigarh, Amber and Nahargarh. The first of the three has only one key attraction – Jaivana Cannon which was the world’s largest cannon on wheels when it was built in 1720. It has a range of 22 miles. The second one is the main tourist attraction of Jaipur. It is located right on the main road. You have to walk up, but still it is not nestled inside mountains the like the other two. It has a big moat which is still filled with Crocodiles (or atleast the warnings claim so).
Jaivana Cannon at Jaigarh

Amber Fort (or Amer Fort) is not just a fort, but it is also built as a palace with some royal architecture and intricate designs. Sheesh Mahal (Mirror Palace) is one of the most elaborate designs you will come across with heavy usage of small Mirrors. This fort is connected with Jaigarh fort for the royal family to escape in times of danger. Later, I came to know you can visit one place from the other through 30 - 45 minutes of walk – it must be quite an experience to do that.
Inside Amber Fort

Nahargarh is closer to the city, though the path is quite circuitous. It offers stunning views of the city. We went in the night, though I guess the views are good even during the evenings. There is also another interesting temple in Jaipur dedicated to the monkeys – Galtaji temple, which I did miss due to lack of time.

Before I left, I did walk a lot around the bazaars of Jaipur – the place it so lit up in the night, Hawa Mahal is spectacular, the shops are an interesting mix mostly aimed at tourists, there is lot of handwork around. Though I didn’t buy anything, I found the prices reasonable. There is lot of commercialisation given that Jaipur is a big city unlike Udaipur and Jaisalmer which were more friendly.

Feeding pigeons seems to be another favourite activity in Jaipur – saw a lot of pigeons outside Albert Hall and Amer Fort. They look lovely, but I guess they do cause a lot of issues – Albert Hall had lots of net to prevent them coming in.
Pigeons in front of Albert Hall!
What I found overrated in Jaipur was Birla Mandir, where the policemen were constantly chasing people away from taking photographs and Rawat’s Pyaaz Kachori. I did love the delicacies at Laxmi Mistaan Bandaar though.

The entrance tickets are quite expensive (Hawa Mahal – Rs. 50, Jantar Mantar – Rs. 50, City Palace – Rs. 200, Albert Hall – Rs. 40, Jaigarh – Rs. 70, Amer Fort – Rs. 100, Nahargarh – Rs. 100). All except City Palace are managed by ASI and the timings are same as a government office – 9 am to 5 pm which is quite a shame. The best weather of Jaipur is in the early morning and all places are closed then.

Final thoughts on Jaipur – two days is not enough if you want to patiently look into the architectural beauties of the palaces and the forts.

Happy Reading!

November 17, 2018

Why redesign a Website that works perfectly?

‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ goes a famous saying. When I was chatting with someone in office a few days back, we had a conversation around the changing User Interfaces and User Experiences in the modern applications (commonly called as the UI/UX in Tech lingo). The conversation was more focused on why customers resist change and are comfortable with the older UI however crappy it might be. A small conversation it was, but triggered thoughts in me as I had been pondering around this point in the recent past.

If you are in India, there is a good probability that you would have used IRCTC website at least once in the recent past to book train tickets. CRIS (Centre for Railway Information Systems) took a major initiative to revamp the IRCTC booking website and make the website feature rich and improve the User Experience. It was well known that older website was not so great, but it got the job done and people got used to it. The newer website took some time to get used to and more importantly there was only one key question around, ‘Where do I Login?’ For some reason, IRCTC decided to focus on new bookings and threw up the journey details right at the centre of the page and Login went somewhere into some menu. For a lot of people who just wanted to cancel the tickets, they were not able to find the Login and had a horrid time. The earlier website started with a Login.  It might have been heavily inspired by the Redbus/Makemytrip websites, but the purpose is not the same. Today they have kept a red coloured Login button right at the top. But why change something that was working perfect?

When you design a new webpage or website, UI/UX takes the precedence. The impression you create, the placement of information and buttons, the fluidity and the navigation matters. But when you already have a solid user base who is comfortable with the interface, it is necessary to think much before changing the way things work.

Cricinfo has been another example in the recent past. Cricinfo has been a goto website for any cricket lover for a long time since we started tracking matches on the web. Famously their servers crashed the day Sachin scored the first double century in ODI. That’s the traffic they had. Ever since, CricBuzz came into picture with increased focus on Mobile App, a lot of users went switching over. Cricinfo decided it was time to revamp the website to fit into any gadget and became increasingly cluttered. It took more time to open the website, the commentary often doesn’t loads properly. Comments in the articles were one of my favourite features. There were only a handful of readers, but you knew most of them and looked forward to reading their perspective. Cricinfo decides that the volumes are not enough. When I tried to reach out, I get a reply that I can still comment on Facebook. Why move from a smaller intelligent sect to a larger garbage sect? There goes the user experience! The only good thing with Cricinfo now is that they still have quality reports from Sidharth Monga, Andrew Miller, Daniel Bretig, George Dobell and the likes.

More often than not, companies design new websites and believe that the features are intuitive enough for the user to figure out on their own. Around 2 years back, Airtel revamped their website with a lot of focus on material design and fresh icons. Earlier, there was a clear ‘Login’ button available and I was lost for a few weeks as to where it has gone. Only when someone randomly told me that they have replaced the wording to a person Icon, I realized that it is still in the same old place.

Quora is another example of consistently changing UI. The prime components of Quora is quite simple – Questions, Answers, Topics, Upvote, Downvote, Share, Search. The UI team are an enthusiastic bunch who cannot retain the design for a few months together. They move buttons from one place to another, replace words with icons, bring new icons and get back to word. Interestingly there a few questions in Quora itself as to why the platform has got such inconsistent UI.

Gmail has a good example of how to alter the User Interface without affecting the User Experience. They provide a guided tour when they get into a new interface. They still enable you to retain the older version for sometime before it is scrapped. And the core of the design remains the same. The wordings still remain the same and most of the times are the same place. You don’t suddenly start searching for old features.

Quite often, the software providers allow you to use the older version for a longer timeframe even after launching a new interface. The issue is that they donot let you flow smoothly from the older interface to the newer one. They don’t provide you with guided tours or guided trainings. And in most cases, the revamp is hard to adapt too.

While the purpose of revamping the UI will be to increase adoption and satisfy the user community, more often than not, it leads to the opposite.

Happy Reading!

August 15, 2018

Tales of Old and New Madras - S. Muthiah - Book Review

Tales of Old and New Madras

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Landing upon this book was a pure chance. I was randomly browsing through the Amazon's monthly kindle deals and ended up purchasing this gem for a cheap price. The book is authored by S. Muthiah the famous Madras writer and the man behind the organization of Madras Day celebrations in the recent years. This is not a book written in a single flow, but is a collection of 38 articles written by the author in various instance at various lengths. Strewn together, the book brings the stories of Madras from its founding days to the recent fiasco of the new Assembly building.

The first chapter starts with how Francis day got the land for Fort St. George by combining two villages back in 1639. To placate the Village headman Madarasen and the ruler Chennapa Nayak, he decided to name the fort as Madarasapatnam and the surrounding colony as Chennapatnam - the names of which has created controversies in the later years. After this interesting chapter, the book enters into a few articles on how rules were established in the settlement based on first reported Murder, a Rape Accusation and how Sheriffs were setup in the settlement. These chapters appear extended and creates a lull in the book, given the disconnect with the modern day.

After this comes the articles of late 18th and early 19th centuries, which are interesting. They cover pieces of famine relief (Cyclical rains seems to have been a eternal worry for the state), a few historical buildings, the Club House and the beginning of Engineering institute in the city. The author seems to have a critical remark of how the College of Engineering, Guindy has been let down off late, given how great it was an institute in the early days.

Then comes the tales of late 19th century which is the most interesting part of the book given that the city has attained a remarkable shape in this part and most of them remain intact today. These parts covers the tales of the Indo Sarcenic architecture of the old buildings, the formation of the Marina Promenade, construction of the Madras Harbor, the formation of Theosophical society and my most favorite part of the book - the Chepauk Cricket Stadium. It is indeed sad that the local cricket administrators have ignored the history of the ground completely in the name of modernization. How great it would have been to have an antique cricket museum or hall in the ground reflecting the long tenure of cricket here.

The book deals with various firsts in the city - Telephone Exchange, Bank, Movie Theaters, Studios, Newspaper, Magazine and looks into the history of how a few failed, while a few went on to become household names like Ananda Vikatan or The Hindu. The book then looks into the life of few famous personalities to have come from the city - the math genius Ramanujam and how prodiogious and unfortunate he was (he died when he was just 33), Kalakshethra founder Rukmani and how she found discovered and made Bharata Natyam popular, the Woodlands hotel founder K. Krishna Rao and how he setup the entire business, Thiru. Vi. Kalyanasundaram and his tryst with Labour Unions.

In the final part, the author briefly touches upon the major political events of the recent times - the death of CM Annadurai and MGR - their rise to power and in the process he covers the history of Justice Party, Dravida Kazhagam, DMK and ADMK. It is certainly indulging to read about the party in 1940s and 1950s and how they came to the current state.

The flipside of the book is that the author has just compiled the articles he has written at various points of time. This drives the lack of continuation at certain points of time and also lack of depth in some articles. The other effect is that certain portions keep getting repeated like there are lot of instances where the establishment of Justice party is meted out.

The book gives lots of interesting anecdotes all along. An entire chapter is dedicated to the rise of Indian English and how even the the Britishers had established a dictionary for that. The author keeps lamenting the fact that we have forgotten the Englishmen who established various institutions and facilities in the city. He is also critical of the modern day governments for not preserving the history. The author also brings the fact a lot of rules that forms the core of our country were actually established in this city in the founding days.

There is so much of history in Chennai, but so little a current generation Chennaite would know. This is a must read book for any History buff from this part of the country.