E-Commerce Wins

There are quite a few accomplishments I'm proud of. Today, I added a triumphant moment to my absolute top-twenty, will-brag-about-this-forever pile: I booked a tatkal ticket on the infamous Indian Railways site.

Source: Firstpost
To be fair, I rarely have an issue with them when it comes to regular tickets. Yes, their Captchas are a bit ridiculous, and they have to stop placing them on every single page. Yes, they occasionally log you out for no reason. But still, with normal tickets, it's an easy enough matter to get back in and book, because the number of seats available doesn't change drastically every 5 minutes.

Tatkal tickets, on the other hand, are only released at 10am on the day before the journey. So anyone with an emergency of any sort (such as when the Indian Railways decides to advance the time of your carefully pre-booked train by over six hours... without informing you) logs in and frantically tries to get train tickets for the following day. 

There are over 10,000 railway origin-destination pairs in India, so you'd think even this wouldn't be a problem, but it is. Despite the abundance of options, very few people want to get to, say, Rai Bareli, in a hurry. No, the majority want Chennai-Bangalore, Hyderabad-Mumbai, and so on. There are about 400 Tatkal tickets (max) for each of these combinations. There are 243 million internet users in India. You do the math. Supposedly, 40,000-45,000 Tatkal tickets are booked within an hour of their being released. 

My theory is that these tickets would get booked in the first ten minutes; it's just that the site adamantly refuses to allow it. At 10am on the dot, IRCTC gets overwhelmed by all the attention. It hangs, it jerks. It throws Captcha after Captcha after you. Every minute, on the minute, no matter what stage of the booking you're at, you will get automatically logged out. It's an exercise in patience.

I don't usually deal with tatkal anything, it sends my BP soaring. On the rare occasions when I do need a tatkal ticket, my parents have bought it for me the old-fashioned way - by 'queueing' up at the railway counter and fighting their way through a crowd that didn't get the memo that queues exist for a reason. But, as I said, the Indian Railways decided to arbitly re-schedule a train that starts at 6:30pm to 1:30pm, and not bother notifying people who'd booked themselves on said train. And I'm having a baby in 20-ish days, so my parents getting here before that is kind of imperative. So I offered to book tatkal tickets.

How hard can it be, right? I logged into the site at 9:35am (good call, because they claimed I read their Captcha wrong 3 times), and then refreshed the page every 2 minutes. FYI - it logs you out every 3 minutes if you let it get idle before 10/after 12. Also, FYI - it logs you out if you refresh the page/run a new search/do anything more than 25 times. And yes, you do have to prove you're a human being again, even if you're on the exact same browser. People have recommended logging in from different browsers so you're always logged in somewhere, but I can tell you this doesn't work - it just logs you out everywhere. People have also said Internet Explorer is the fastest when it comes to IRCTC, but uh, IE isn't the fastest when it comes to anything. Chrome worked just fine, while my IE was still booting up and asking if it could be my default browser (yes, sure, that's going to happen).

Anyway. 9:45am. The downstairs neighbour came over with a plumber to check for leaks because his... long story, and it was in Telugu, so I wasn't even really listening. I waved them out at 9:55am, ninja-like focus trained on my laptop. And realized that thanks to IRCTC's brain numbing refresh-and-repeat routine, I'd been lulled into leaving my debit card inside my wallet, rather than out. I whipped it out and typed in the numbers, as well as the ID proof details so I could easily copy-paste it.

And then, the moment of truth - 10am. IRCTC went bananas. It logged me out 5 times, 3 times at the payment confirmation stage, and had me enter passenger details 6 separate times. So my insane typing speed finally came in handy. About 3 minutes into the process, I started to despair, and thought, fleetingly, "They'll all be gone by now!" But each time I got back to the availability page, it continued to say 330 tickets were available. Which means nothing, by the way, because they probably just hadn't refreshed it yet. Still, it gave me the fortitude to press on. And finally, finally, six glorious minutes later, I'd booked three tickets. I feel like I deserve a sticker or something.

"Woah," A said. "I've never known anyone who managed to book a Tatkal ticket online before."

He wasn't even being sarcastic. There are agents who charge you to book these tickets online, and then tell you sheepishly that they all sold out too fast. I could share my top tips for getting in and out quickly etc, but the truth is, they'd be no good, because the rules keep changing. The point of this post is merely to record for posterity how useless e-com sites can sometimes be in 2014... here's hoping we'll be scoffing at this kind of thing a few years from now.

... Just for the record, IRCTC isn't the only site to earn my wrath. A certain swankily-advertising furniture portal called Pepperfry is so bad it's not funny. It took them four weeks to tell me the office table they'd confirmed for me wasn't in stock and wasn't ever going to be. It took them another two weeks to refund my money for the table, plus the chair which I clearly no longer needed. Three months later, they still haven't picked up the chair that came with the table, Yesterday, they called to see if I liked the table. I explained that I didn't have an opinion. They called an hour later to see if I liked the chair, at least.

I could go on, but I think I've made my point.

For Two

"How many almonds can I eat in a day? And can I still eat idlis? It's fermented..."

The questions are typical of pregnancy forums. Even more typical are the answers, ranging from "Eat precisely 3 skinned almonds a day, and only in the morning, well before 11am" to "Avoid idlis in the night time as the baby will get gas in your stomach."

I love the confidence with which people state these 'facts.' But it's scary to see people our age dispensing age old myths as gospel truths. You can practically develop a book of folklore from the average pregnancy forum. If I wrote the book, I'd call it 'You're Eating For Two Now.' That's the generic line I hear used most often, and the one that frustrates me the most. Yes, you're definitely eating for two. That means eating more responsibly, not just 'more' (or conveniently, double). As for cravings - do you give in to every food whim you have when you're not pregnant? Or to every craving your child has when its outside you? What on earth changes just because you're pregnant? Believe me, we don't magically become immune to diabetes and cholesterol issues. Indulging every craving has real world consequences - not just for us, but also for our children. 

Personally, the thought that IF something were to go wrong I'd wonder if I could have prevented it is enough to scare me into doing things 'right.' Exercise-wise, the rules are easy enough. Half an hour of walking, with yoga thrown in. Food-wise, argh. The average pregnant person will go through days when they want to eat everything in sight, and others when nothing is remotely appetizing. I haven't had any cravings - or at least none that I can honestly attribute to pregnancy. What I've had instead is the opposite. When I'm cooking, I can't tell if something's salted. Other times, rotis taste sweet. And more often than not, nothing tastes of anything. The only way to stay healthy through all this is to get a firm set of food guidelines, and stick to them. It took me a while to get that disciplined, but I'm glad I got there. 

I'm putting down the food guidelines that I've compiled, in the hope that it helps anyone else who's going a bit crazy with all the conflicting advice. I'm fairly confident about this set, which was agreed on by several sources whom I trust. That said, this applies to my specific pregnancy, with no BP/sugar concerns + no prior history of health problems + no other problems during the pregnancy. You should definitely tailor any dietary advice to your particular history.

* First off, ask how much weight you should put on over the course of your pregnancy. 
For a normal BMI, this is between 11 & 16 kgs. Consuming 150 extra calories in the 1st trimester, and 250-350 extra in the 2nd and 3rd should get you there - balanced out with half an hour to an hour's worth of exercise. I found that putting on weight gradually like this really helped with my overall happiness. I wasn't suddenly carting around a huge load, so although I'm 10kgs heavier now, I haven't had any back pain. I was looking through pics of me at 1mo, 3mo, 5mo, 6mo, 7mo, and 8mo pregnant... the difference is so gradual! 

* The daily dietary requirement through pregnancy is:
- 200-240 grams of complex carbs. Rice, wheats, and millets account for 60% of your energy requirements
- 1 gram of protein for every kg of body weight + 5 grams, 7 grams & 23 grams for each trimester. This will be ridiculously hard to manage on a vegetarian diet, especially if you don't eat eggs. Protein counting is haaaard. But I can tell you for a fact that when I eat more carbs, then I put on weight, but the baby doesn't grow as fast. On the other hand, when I do high-protein low-carb, my scans show the baby putting on weight more rapidly. 
- 400 grams of vegetables. Brinjals & green vegetables are good sources of vitamin A, protein, and iron, despite the myths about them being off limits
- 300 grams of fruits. Bananas, papayas and oranges are great sources of vitamin A & C, and iron. Any stories about avoiding these because they induce cold are just that - stories. That said, only eat them when in season and do NOT eat raw papayas.
- 450ml of dairy, which goes up to 600ml for the last trimester. Cow milk's an allergy risk, so toned skimmed milk is suggested.
- 200-300 grams of legumes
- 8-12 glasses of water, which goes up to at least 3 liters in the last trimester

* The daily dietary requirement through lactation is:
- 600 extra calories for the first six months, 520 extra for the next six
- 250-300 grams of complex carbs
- 1 gram of protein for every kg of body weight + 19 grams for the first six months, + 13 grams for the next six
- 500 grams of vegetables
- 300 grams of fruits
- 450ml of dairy 
- 300-400 grams of legumes
- 200mg of DHA: flaxseeds, walnuts and eggs provide this naturally
- 30mg of visible fat, in the form of oil or ghee
- 10-12 glasses of water a day

* Other dietary requirements
Through both pregnancy as well as lactation, you'll need a steady intake of calcium, iron, folic acid, iodine, and vitamins A & D. I don't want to commit to specific mg's/mcg's here because I think doctors would know best. That said, a couple of rules of thumb for their intake:
- If you're trying to absorb iron, don't consume anything with calcium for at least 1.5 hours before/after. Each prevents the proper absorption of the other.
- Following your dose of iron (natural or through medication) with vitamin C (again, natural or otherwise) aids absorption.

8 months
In the interest of full disclosure, eating like this does get super boring, even when you're eating different fruits & vegetables each week, and playing around with the recipes. Eating/drinking every two hours when your stomach's being compressed by a baby is, frankly, exhausting. Ah well. I do indulge myself at one or two meals a week; I just work out a bit harder that day. And in another year or so, I'll be eating for one again. You won't believe how excited I am at that thought! (Uhm, my taste buds will come back by then though, right? Right??)

PS: I was editing this post before publishing it, and I realized those pictures above make it look like I don't have a bump at all. So here's another, where you can actually see the baby.

Incredible India

We like to say we're a jolly Bollywood-loving singing & dancing bunch who leave life in the hands of fate. We also proclaim that we believe hospitality is next to Godliness and we welcome diversity and learning. I think those perceptions are as grounded in reality as talking elephants and purple unicorns. 

Each person in this (vastly overcrowded) country likes to behave as though they're the only ones in it. 

I can forget about being offered a seat, or a slightly wider berth, even at eight months pregnant. Worse, I can guarantee that someone will elbow their way ahead of me, pretending a line just doesn't exist. And the cashier will just go ahead and serve them, whether we're at a small store, or at a five star hotel. Entitlement is the only language that speaks loud and clear in India.

People will spit millimeters away from my feet. Cell phones will be on loud in every theater. Trial rooms and toilets in malls will be taken over for hours together, without any hint of remorse or acknowledgement that anyone else is waiting for their turn. Red signals won't stop traffic. Green signals won't stop pedestrians. Traffic policemen will yell... and be yelled at. Likewise bus conductors, train ticket checkers, and anyone else who supposedly has any authority. And it'll be impossible to tell who's in the right, but by-standers will jump in to fight anyway.

It's been one of those weeks when it's hard to believe anything can change. I was at the maternity hospital yesterday. This is a place that takes twenty patients at a time, and the fees reflect this exclusivity. You'd think if you could afford it, you could afford some manners, or at least a basic level of common sense. So. I walk in at 3:50 for my appointment at 4, and find my doctor's been called away for an emergency C-sec. I don't have plans for the evening, so I say I'll wait for an hour, no problem. There's AC. There's water. I've an internet connection. It's hardly a hardship. And if it were, I'd just reschedule and come back another day. Isn't that what anyone would do? Apparently not. 

A family on my left is shouting about how the doctor can't treat them like third rate citizens, and how rude it is that they'll have to wait. Do they have an emergency of their own? Nope. Standard visit. If they had an emergency, would they be happy for the doctor to pop out and check on someone else's standard visit? Yeah, right.

On my right, another couple is indignant that they paid such-and-such amount, because they were guaranteed a 10 to 15 minute wait time, maximum. This, despite the fact that boards everywhere say that the only reason for delay will be if someone's having an emergency, and to know that they'll do the same for you. This, despite the fact that these people can probably read, given they're sporting designer handbags and shoes. This, despite the fact that being in your third trimester, you likely know that babies don't always get born within 15 minutes. And, may I add, having observed Indians abroad - this despite the fact that in any other country in the world, you'd tuck your tail between your legs and at least pretend to understand.

We like to talk about how Western civilization acts entitled and takes everything for granted, but I don't think anyone can beat our sense of absolute privilege. You should see the way a watchman/shopkeeper/auto driver's eyes light up when you say 'please' or 'thank you.' It's such a small thing. Why doesn't it just come automatically? It's an interesting dichotomy: how egoistic we are, while also being supremely insecure. You see this in the way people treat their household help, shop assistants, security personnel. (Of course, some service staff think when you're polite, you must be a push over; and so then they're happy to have a chance to throw some attitude around).

Over here, nothing comes without a fight anyway. Our public systems are overcrowded and underfunded, our policies are redundant and unhelpful. So why do we add our tuppence to make it even harder? Why does an ambulance get stuck in traffic for hours together because no one wants to be the first to give way to it? Why do we consciously say we won't be nice to people because if we do, they'll just take advantage of us? When will we grow up at least a little?

Yes, this country has certain problems that are inherently hard to solve. Then there are others that we just refuse to acknowledge. These are the issues that, on a day to day basis, make life here so hard. Not the fear of rape, or air pollution, or whatever else. Just plain selfish, self-centered, insensitive loutishness, passed on from generation to generation.