Trekking the Mullerthal trail

Hiking in pristine nature is slowly growing to be a compulsive passion of mine. After the magnificent experiences from hiking the northernmost segment of Kungsleden last summer, in Sweden, my urge to get on the trail was again peaked for this year.

With my stay in The Netherlands coming to end, I decided to take advantage of a long weekend and the relative proximity of being in Rotterdam to plan a trek in Luxembourg. With an added perk of it increasing the checks on the list of Schengen countries I would have visited.

Keeping this in mind, I started exploring the options for possibilities and stumbled upon a popular, marked, route in Luxembourg — The Mullerthal Trail. It spans 112 km through vivid natural landscapes. The second of the segments, spanning 33 km, was marked “difficult”, but was also more promising in terms of experiences than the first and the last segments. Without much debate this segment was decided.
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Once this was done, I was looking for a trekking partner. Two-on-trail is ideal for treks such as this one, in my opinion. When we did Kungsleden, it was four of us, and would always coalesce into two’s and it seemed perfect. I found a trekking buddy in my flatmate (and we’ve grown to be good friends in the run up to and after the trip!); she will be referred to as The Archer, in the remainder of the post, just for fun sake.

The Archer and I planned a 3 night-4 day trip; allotting two days on the trail. With this worked out, what remained was planning the nitty-gritties that came along with a trek. And I enjoy the process of planning and putting things together for a trek together, almost as much as the experience of the trek. An indulgence in its own right one might say.

The initial plan was to take buses, but that seemed to be possible only during odd hours. Instead my trek-pal, The Archer,  suggested we use the car-pooling service, BlaBlaCar. And it turned out to be an  excellent idea. Instead of hopping trains or taking buses at wee hours, we ended up being ferried to-and-fro Luxembourg city in the same car and it fit our schedules almost perfectly.

Due to delays in planning, we could only get hold of youth hostel for one of the nights. And it opened up an amazing opportunity to stay at an AirBnb service along the Germany-Luxembourg border. Will narrate more about this eventful accommodation subsequently.

Although the trip was for four days, I will only describe the days on the trail — day 2 and day 3 — when we were on the trail.

Day 2 of trip/ Day 1 of trek:
Consdorf — Echternach

As The Archer and I had narrowed down on Route 2 of the Mullerthal trail, we were going to be based in Echternach — a lovely town along the Luxembourg-German border. On the morning of the trek, we took a bus from Luxembourg city (where we had stayed at the youth hostel) to Echternach. After unburdening ourselves, leaving our bags, at this vibrant and amazing Austrian lady’s AirBnb place, we set out back to Echternach Centre to hop onto a bus that would take us to Consdorf. This was somewhere midway along Route 2 and we decided to walk the southern part of the trail towards Echternach for the first day. It would have been about 15 km. It was supposed to be slightly less arduous than the northern segment. So we chose to do this one first to get the trekking rhythm right.

Consdorf is a small village stuffed with fields on smoothly bumped up pieces of land. We joined the Mullerthal trail in about 600 m from the Consdorf Gare (Centre). The first kilometre was on asphalted tracks that led us  deeper into the trail after having walked over the sinusoidal terrain.
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And here is where, almost instantaneously the trail acquires its character — mainly comprising of tall birches on one side, beaming a green tint into the entire panorama, and a hem of rugged rocks along the other. The trail, however, flows like a brown river in between, curving in all its glory. The terrain left behind by such a trail is not difficult, but has a hard character to it, which is why hiking in (almost) wilderness is fun.

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As soon as the big boulders made way to towering crevices and increasingly large caves, the two of us, were easily mesmerised. And we began our spree of clicking pictures. Quite many, I might add. While the landscape was not changing all that dramatically, each new turn brought with it a different surprise. While I could only see intimidating rocks and giant boulders, The Archer beside me was imagining dragons and whales and dinosaurs. Perspectives!

Half way into the trek, we got out into a small town — Scheidgen — and decided to stop there for a break. This is an aspect of trails such as Mullerthal which I don’t really enjoy, that, we abruptly walk into civilization. Nonetheless, after servicing ourselves with a dose of “liquid bread” we were back on the trail, towards Echeternach. This segment of the trail had fewer rock formations when compared to the morning stretch. The terrain, nevertheless, was gorgeous and there’s nothing like too much of it. I wonder how nature is never monotonous!

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After a couple of hours of walking along on this stretch trail, we heard loud shout-outs, which we thought were by miscreants unsettling the peaceful ambience. It turned out to be a family looking for two young kids who had suddenly gone missing. They asked us if we had seen them; disappointing them we walked on, hoping they would reunion.

After about 7 hours on the trail, the fatigue slowly started to show in both of us. Slightly more on The Archer, I observed. As any motivated compatriot would do, I tried pushing her to walk more. After some arbitration and an uphill climb by me, we settled on exiting the trek 3 km before our intended end-point.

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We were walking along a main road where buses were plying, according to the maps. We decided to hop away from the trail, sliding off the higher level we were along the trail and reached the nearest bus stop — Lauterborn. It was only 2 km to Echternach by bus and we ended up fully in-tact. The target for the day was almost met — not bearing the last 3 km, the purpose of Day 1 of the trek was to get acquainted with the terrain, us getting used to the trail and the rapport. All of which was more than a reasonable success.

Day 3 of trip / Day 2 of trek:
Echternach — Mullerthal

We started out afresh on Day-2 and hit the trail in Echternach by 11 in the morning. It was a warmer day than before, and the trail kicked off with a climb. We gained about 200 m elevation within the first km and that was one going to be the defining character of the northern segment of Route 2. Within the first couple of km we were led near massive rock formations. Climbing these would lead us to view-points and of course, we took them on. There were stony stairs carved out and the views were slightly underwhelming — mainly because of the lush green trees which were blocking our views. Detours such as this became a signature of this segment,  wherein, we would walk into crevices or caves, which were exhilarating.

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From Echternach, we were approaching another town along the trail Berdorf, but not before one of the most popular attractions along the trail. Amphitheaters etched out from the naturally existing caves. And this was the main highlight of the trek after 1.5 days. When we were walking up to the first caves we heard acoustic guitar reverberate through the trail. A thoughtful hiker had brought along his guitar and was trying out the natural acoustics facilitated by the caves. We spent good amount of time exploring the structures — feeling all content. The Archer, especially, seemed to have found it worthy of the effort we had invested in the trek until that point.

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From there on, we soon exited into Berdorf town and stopped by, what appeared to be, a trekkers’ joint. An hour long break ensued, with a couple of beers and a wide ranging, intimate, discussion. It was at the end of the hour when  we realized that it was already 18.00 and our target to reach Mullerthal was highly unlikely. We were only half way along the trail, mainly due to the detours we ended up making along the trail and were seriously behind the intended schedule. Nevertheless, one of the eye-candies along the trail was also a small waterfall just near Mullerthal — the town after which the trail is named. It was symbolic to go to Mullerthal and hopefully walk up to the water fall. As the return buses to Echternach were not plying after 21.00, we had to make an impulsive call to hop on to a bus towards Mullerthal via Consdorf (from day 1 of trek). We reached Mullerthal, which was nothing beyond a patch of land with few scattered houses. We realised the waterfall was only about a km from Mullerthal bus stop, and we decided to use our 90 minutes before we would be out of buses to walk to the waterfall.

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After having seen massive waterfalls in India and spectacular glacier generated ones in Sweden, I was a bit skeptical if this “small” waterfall would be anything exciting. It proved to be wrong. As with the country of Luxembourg, the waterfall while small, was still pretty. A perfect last vista before completing the trek, we felt. After another stint of pictures at the waterfall and rendezvous with an amicable Dutch couple, we headed back to Echternach by bus.

And that was officially the end of our hike on the trail.

Epilogue

While the trip was still not over, the two days on the trail was the crux of the trip. And it was, deservingly, the most memorable experience to me. I was also surprised that I so enjoyed my time on the trail — fooling around in pictures, braving to climb big boulders, savouring everything that came along the path; all without any unpleasant incidents. Due credit, at this juncture, is also to The Archer for being such a sport all along, and not getting bogged down by the physical stress of hiking, and the bigger burden of laughing at my stupid jokes.

I see these trips as the reward for my “supposed” hard-work leading to them. I also see them as my rejuvenation mechanism. Being lost in nature, in a mild discomfort and bracing the small pains, trying to push the envelope in small ways, is the perfectly fulfilling present I can bestow on myself. And something you should consider too, if you want to get into my good books.

Few more pictures from the trip are below:

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Sense and Sensibilities

Long train rides, after tedious days of mental toiling is rife with the possibilities of wandering into the alleys of the mind. Add to this, the film-reel of changing landscapes that’s flashing past the eyes, streaming picturesque fields adorned with grazing animals, making it all the more conducive for random thought-trains.

It was one such evening, and I was all lost, listening to Slipknot’s “All Hope is Gone” (it’s not as hopeless as it sounds!). I was thoroughly enjoying the guitar riffs and powerful vocals of Corey Taylor, while flaunting the slightest of the nods in synchronisation with the impeccable drumming. Then I stop, and get aware of this trance and wake up from this lostness. It was more than simply being woken up; I was self-aware and had started to ponder about how my sensibilities have changed, or rather how they have evolved.

A thought-train had arrived.

Using Slipknot as a case in example, if someone had predicted that I’d be a proclaimed Slipknot fan, even a few years ago, I’d have smirked at that suggestion. I’m sure, several from my entourage might still see this as a digression from the person I projected to be. But then, our sensibilities are constantly evolving, and I see this as another manifestation of it.

In a broader context, the single most important change that my travels and studies outside India have caused in me are to expand and deepen my sensibilities. I don’t mean sensibilities merely in the sense of cultural consumption, but, more importantly, also the broader realm of my thinking, values and aesthetics.

Let’s take the LGBTQ movement, for instance. At the risk of sounding a conservative, I admit to having been hesitant to vocally voice my opinions in support of the struggles of this minority section, during my prime activism days in India. I attribute it to the carapace of the domestic Indian culture that I was so accustomed to, that even with my self-proclaimed liberal attitude, somewhere deep within I was still a conservative on this  particular issue (and presumably also on various others).

Moving to Sweden (and then to Denmark) changed this for me. I was transported from my seemingly non-committal views, to the forefronts of progressive values. This enabled to align myself to a centroid of values that I am proud of, and is consistent with the stances that I take.

There are various other core aspects in me that have, hopefully, evolved for the better. I am more conscious of discrimination that I am subject to, or that I might be perpetuating, in all its subtleties. I perceive work ethics differently. I am committed to being conscious of what I consume. And the list goes on.

Having said this, it does not imply that I could have abandoned my core values that shape me. I have sensed hints of cynicism from my Indian acquaintances (sometimes friends too), who believe that I am drifting away from my roots, while embracing these new sensibilities, as I like to call them. And this would amount to, as Shashi Tharoor would put it,  an “exasperating farrago of distortions, misrepresentations and outright lies”, or simply misreadings, as I would put it. Nonetheless, it was this observation that instigated me to question, if I had changed by abandoning my roots or had evolved by assimilating relevant values into me. The latter would suit me better, and I truly hope so. For, I believe that broadening one’s sensibilities and abandoning the core ones aren’t quite the same.

PS: Enjoy this amazing track, Gematria, that most probably triggered this post.

Posted in India, Personal, Philosophy, Sweden, Travel | Leave a comment

Stirred by Tchaikovsky

“V for Vendetta” is, unequivocally, my favourite movie. Beyond impressing the principles of the protagonist, it has also had a deep impact on several aesthetic aspects in me. For a start, my blog “Ideas are Immortal” is a paraphrasing of V, when he proclaims “Ideas are bulletproof”.

Another subtle way in which this impeccable movie influenced me was by kindling my interest towards western classical music. Those of you who have seen V for Vendetta would immediately recognise the role a famous piece of music plays in the plot. The piece is orchestrated by V at the start of the movie on the terrace, and also befittingly used at the end of the movie. That scintillating piece I learnt was “1812 Overture” by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. And that is, clearly the point in my life where I consciously started seeking more of western classical music and thus I attribute my favourite movie to having introduced me not only to the ocean of western classical music, but also to the maverick composer — Tchaikovsky.

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Portrait of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Ever since, I have consciously tried to groom my uncultivated sense of western classical music. For, I quickly realized it was more than what you hear or see in a performance. In my understanding, it also captures the epoch in which it was composed and invariably each of the greatest pieces of western classical music comes with inspiring tales.

Returning to Tchaikovsky, I soon discovered he was as versatile a composer one could get and have been proclaiming him to be my favourite composer. This also emanates from  the deeply moving story of his life. I will let the reader, you, to discover his life and shall only focus on ranting about my amateur admiration of his music.

As “1812 Overture” was the first Tchaikovsky’s composition I was introduced to, it only baffled me all the more to see that he’d composed, unwillingly, the most popular ballets ever: The Nutcracker and Swan Lake! These, he believed, were not challenging him as a composer and yet was forced to compose. These are still the most popular pieces of concert music played by orchestras world-wide.

Of late, I have started “listening” to his symphonies and trying to grasp them. And as yet, I am oscillating between his Symphony No.1 and Symphony No.6.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.1, subtitled “Winter Daydreams”, is seen as a landmark composition in Russian symphony music. He had completed composing it, when he was 26 (!) and is simply breathtaking. As a lucid lover of melody, the main melody in “Winter Daydreams” reverberates through all four acts in various forms and grandeur, and leaves the keen listener filled  with emotions, that only great art such as this can.

Tchaikovsky’s last symphony, Symphony No.6, which is popularly mis-attributed as  “Pathetique”, was performed for the first time just 9 days before he died at the age of 53. Tchaikovsky considered it to be his masterpiece and it does impress the listener easily. It has been widely debated and discussed, and the interpretation I really connect to is that the symphony is a metaphor to life. It captures all the energy, troubles, chaos and ends silently like a wave drawing back from the shore. The final act has a calming effect and invariably leaves me mellowed down. This is unlike most other symphonies, where the final act is when the crescendos grow to take over and end usually with a big blast of energy.

There’s five more symphonies by Tchaikovsky alone, and I’m certain there’s a life’s worth joy in savouring them and all other masters of classical music.

Abstract art forms such as music and painting are the elixirs of life. And I sincerely hope, there’s nothing like too much of it!

PS: I found these resources on Tchaikovsky and Symphonies highly insightful.

http://en.tchaikovsky-research.net/pages/Main_Page

https://www.theguardian.com/music/series/50-greatest-symphonies

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Sweden or Denmark?

A common question I encounter these days is, if I like Sweden better or Denmark. I refrained from answering that question for a long time, as either choice would be based on strong biases. For instance, Sweden was the first country that I lived in after having moved out of India and the overall experience was nothing but positive. I had to convince myself that if I had to give a reasonable answer, I should wait until I have spent a substantial amount of time in Denmark. So that the choice of Denmark is not based on my first impressions of it, or that of Sweden was because of the longevity.

It’s been fifteen months in Denmark. I might be at a better position to delve into this question, perhaps. Now that I have experienced the cycle of weather over this time and various aspects of the Danish society and culture. Do I still have a preferred choice between Sweden and Denmark? No.
I won’t commit to that, as yet, and play it diplomatically, but I can certainly point out some of the reasons for my increasing fondness for Denmark.

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A common sight in Denmark when the sun is shining.

First, is it’s people. Danes consistently rank as the happiest people in the world, and of course, the question was if it really was true and if so, what were the reasons behind this coveted title. Answering this question requires meticulous research and metrics, but based on my personal experiences and brief analysis, I think the title is not far from the truth.

One of the historical reasons cited for Denmark being the happiest country in the world, also referred to in the entertainingly educative book “The Almost Nearly Perfect People” by Michael Booth, is that Danes have low expectations. Not in a negative way, but that they are content easily. It is not a bad thing right? If you cannot be disappointed easily, then you can stay happier. That Denmark was a vast empire — at one point had Norway, Sweden and parts of Germany in its territories — and has now shrunk to what it is, seems to have had an effect in shaping the mindset of the people.  The notion “To make the best of what they’ve got” appears to have seeped into the broad ethos of the population.

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The Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde. While all Scandinavians claim Vikings as their own, the lineage is far more obviously recognisable in Danes.

While the reason mentioned above is contentious, there are several other superficial symptoms that can clearly fetch Danes the label of being the happiest country; at least, easily in northern Europe. There are also other factors, like Denmark being a welfare state, sparsely populated and affluent, adding to the equation. But, these are true for most other Scandinavian countries. Then, what else?

One of my early experiences of Denmark was when I would take trains via Copenhagen to reach Germany from Sweden. The famous Øresund bridge that connects Sweden and Denmark was the crossing point for the train when entering Denmark. The last major stop was Malmö  in Sweden, and the train that was all hushed up in silence until then (for the last 3 hours), would suddenly burst out into some lively and loud energy. The latest pop music on poor quality speakers of smart phones would rattle the air, and more often than not, there would be a bunch of kids or elderly Danes (easily distinguishable as Danes) would be drinking from the green tins with silver inscriptions that are now so ubiquitous — Carlsberg beers. The walls along the tracks would carry provocative graffiti in bright colours and the place in general had an air of being more casual. As I have done these trips several tens of times and in most scenarios I could find this drastic difference, I ended up attributing this “happy-go-lucky” attitude to Denmark.

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Inescapable presence of Carlsberg in Copenhagen.

And it has not been far from the truth after I have started living here. Even simple things which were impossible in Sweden, like striking a conversation with a stranger, is better in Denmark (or is it only in Copenhagen?). Nonetheless, the friend circle I was able to build within the first few weeks has been quite amazing. This was one particular thing that ended up being quite hard in Sweden, in-spite of me being a student who would constantly interact with a lot of locals in Gothenburg. It is an important factor for a foreigner, if he/she can feel welcome, to assimilate to the local society. That certainly has made my stay in Denmark a lot more lively.

As you see, the general adjective that I seem to repeat in attributing to Denmark is that it is “lively”. It fits better than simply calling it the happiest country, for happiness is hard to quantify.

There are other interesting, but less flattering aspects of Denmark, of course. For instance, their immigration politics and behold — the language. But, I will deal with them in another post.

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Context for the stream of posts about “Demonetization in India”

Context for the stream of posts about “Demonetization in India”, for my friends outside India. Apologise if I’ve been flooding your newsfeed without providing proper context. Wrote this in response to a friend’s query:

Tax evasion and hence unaccounted wealth is a big, and pervasive problem in India. Off-shore accounts, for instance in Switzerland is a go-to hideout for several rich corporates, politicians and celebrities. We have a trove of Indian names in the Panama Papers [0], for instance. So, the lower middle class, which is predominant in India wants something to be done about this form of corruption. So all ruling parties try some form of glossy but ineffective measures. Ineffective, mostly because it will also eat into their own assets.

After a lot of promises in the election campaign, the latest of these tricks by the current ruling national party, BJP, based on a misunderstood notion of tax evaded wealth (black money), that people who evade taxes just stash their money piles at home, in mattresses or underground in trunks. Almost in an Escobaresque manner. Which is true to a small extent but to call it the main reason is silly. Only about 6% of such wealth is maintained as cash piles, and rest is invested in real estate, solid gold or in off-shore accounts.

The current ruling party, whose strongest forte is propaganda and not necessarily policy making decided to make 500 and 1000 bills illegal tender overnight. And have given 50 days time for the citizens to exchange their money for new 500 and 2000 bills from banks. According to them, this will bring out all the piles of unaccounted money, stashed as piles! Hence, the problem of black money resolved.

This is a naive understanding of the problem, to say the least.

This in turn has created havoc for rest of the population. As 86% of cash in circulation in India was in these bills. And there’s no way to replace all of that overnight. And we are far from being a cashless society; not everyone even has a bank account [1]. While the urban privileged people (including myself) are not hurt by this, as we have access to internet banking and online shopping; the rest of majority of India (easily 50% ) cannot do this.

And the crisis is getting worse by the day, as the newly introduced bills are not compatible with existing ATM’s and the ATM’s are expected to be fully functional by early December [2].

All of this for a myopic political stunt. People are furious. And the ruling party supporters call this a minor inconvenience in the long-run. And the ones who disagree are branded anti-nationals and unpatriotic.

[0] http://indianexpress.com/about/panama-papers/
[1] http://www.thehindu.com/…/175-million-ne…/article7109166.ece
[2] http://finmin.nic.in/press_r…/2016/PressReleaseR12112016.pdf

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Memories and time travel

One of those early nights after a long and seemingly tiring day, when still trying to work through elaborate mathematics in the notes I carried to the bed, more often than not, my mind finds all possible excuses to wander away. All of a sudden, as if a dam had cracked, a deluge of memories flooded inside my head — leaving vivid imagery, distinct smells and weird sensations — all refreshed into my being. And I say to myself — Yes, we can travel through time.

This time, I was transported back to the house I lived in for more than five years, more than a decade ago in Bangalore. Most of my teenage years were spent here; from my high school to the pre-university years. I was startled at the details that were flashing in front of my eyes. Exact location of several mundane items, along with the feeling of their texture were being simulated in me. I could feel the grip of ‘my’ glass that I used for several years to drink water, the bump on the floor in the kitchen pushed through my heel and the humid air wrapping around me. It was so vivid that I could sketch a top view of the house  to a great detail. And I did!

It felt good. As if I was reaching out to a piece of me that was no longer in me. These were the formative years, and this abode of mine helped in forming me.

When I tried to trace back why I ended up with this particular stream of memories (learnt it from Freud), I discovered a couple of reasons that possibly could have led to this outburst.

Firstly, I have been positioning the privileged (at least economically and with opportunities) present self in the context of the rest of my unprivileged life. A gnawing feeling has been swelling in me for a while now, questioning if I have grown complacent (more about this in a separate rant). There was also another incident recently, when I was offering two acquaintances the possibility of staying at my 20 sq.m studio apartment in Copenhagen for a night or two. Another friend of mine, was quick to remark that it wouldn’t be possible, as he had seen my small place which was designed for only two. I did not respond then, but subconsciously maybe I was amused at that claim. The house that rushed into my head from my teenage years, even with my most generous estimates would not have been more than 15 sq.m and I grew up in that space with my parents and my sister. We easily lived there for more than five years. I then did not think it was a hard thing, because we had moved from a smaller place into that. And I never thought of it as a small place, until we moved to a marginally bigger place. Comfort and aspirations are relative, it seems.

Finally, the trigger for this sudden revisiting of that home of mine must have been the sleepy take on math-ridden literature in my bed, which was a common occurrence during those school days, when the diligent me would carry notes to my mattress on the ground.

I now don’t know what I set out to accomplish with this post. Maybe I just wanted to capture this feeling. And I might have captured a glimpse of it.

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Growing up

Can you point out that one incident when you felt that you had grown out of your childhood; when your image of the world suddenly transformed; when it all gets disillusioned, and you come to face with the less exciting reality? I might have one such moment, quite late in my adult life during my first job after college, when I suddenly realized that sophisticated adults needn’t be rational. A realization now I understand to be the difference between literacy and  education based on ethics.

Growing up, I had been innocent enough, presumably like every other child, to assume that grown ups were called so, because they grow out of the logical fallacies and naive gullibility that are defining attributes of childhood. I was telling myself — adults have answers to all the questions, and soon you will too — a fantasy, but a common one I suppose.

The first time I encountered the idea of evolution, which must have been in grade 5 or 6, it was an epiphany. It immediately made sense to me, and I was convinced that it had to be that way. Not that I was not curious, but it perfectly made sense to me. As I reached high-school, to accommodate the religiousness that was part of me, I came up with an account that the avatars of Vishnu — beginning with him incarnating as a fish, then a tortoise, a boar, then a half-man and half-lion, and then into humans — to me was a subtle way of hinting at the evolution by natural selection. Soon after, when my scientific querying would not be satisfied with this accommodation, and found the notion of ‘God in a form’ and religions to be unnecessary, I thought it was the natural trajectory of people growing up. Also, I was not critical of people, other than myself; I assumed grown ups had undergone this metamorphosis. Or maybe, I was all too engrossed in the changes of my own world view.

Coming to the point of disillusionment — it was during my first job and it happened with the second manager I was working under; I had/and still continue to have immense admiration towards him. He was very disciplined, knowledgeable and encouraging. He was vocal in saying that I was whiling away myself at that job. This soon would become an important tipping factor when I was later contemplating to change the course of my life towards academia. So, it was this person; I deeply respect even today.

During one of our several conversations, the topic of evolution by natural selection came up, and I was talking to him as a matter-of-fact-ly about it. It took me a while, before I could realize that maybe he was not on the same page. The flash point of sorts, was when he sought out a clarification from me — Do you really think people came from monkeys? Then why are the monkeys still around then? I believe God made us — which totally changed the world for me, at least, symbolically. This was also the time, when the agnostic in me was devouring Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan and Christopher Hitchens, and to have this wake up call was massive. I think after this point, I have grown to be cynical and many a times condescending (of which I am not proud) of, the apparently sophisticated people, who are literate and also possess higher education.

This change of mindset has been crucial in moulding me. It was when I started looking at the notion and process of education within the socio-political context, and as a tool that is used by the establishment to advance their agendas, and also as the attribute that distinguishes societies. It was also when I came to the recognise the struggle of humanity in pursuing knowledge. The triumph of Gutenberg in making the first press and the role of neutral internet. The trial of Galileo and the poisoning of Socrates would never be, merely sad and unfortunate, anecdotes, but acts of violence on all of humanity by the darkness of ignorance. In the same spirit of Julian Assange, when he says “the burning of the Alexandria library was a crime against all of humanity, not just a crime against the people of Alexandria.”

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Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, and the sad reality of it

Enough has been said, of-late, as to who a patriot is, which of us are nationalists and who are the anti-nationals. This post is a frustrated response to the very many debates I cannot afford to engage on social networks. So, for the ones who bother to debate with me, here is my stance on the entire issue — not just the one which has happened in the last two weeks involving Rohit Vemula, from University of Hyderabad and Kanhaiya Kumar, from Jawaharlal Nehru University — but in general, my stand on whether or not I want to be branded a nationalist by anyone.

Borders are scars

I am an idealist. When I say that national borders are the worst scars on the face of the Earth, I earnestly mean it, and long for a world with no borders. I know of several, well-meaning human beings who might not distinguish people based on religion, caste or creed, but stop at the divide of a nation. Why stop there? Like the earlier mentioned factors, nations are also man-made constructs, and there is nothing natural in dividing people based on nationalities. Yes, nationality is a useful marker based on the shared history and culture a group of people have, but that does not make it any more rational to divide people based on nationalities, than one could based on race or religion (well, if you think it is okay to divide people based on race or religion, I am not addressing you). Also, I am not being naive here, and I understand the convoluted complications of global geo-politics. But at a personal level, I don’t think we ought to take into consideration the exchange value of our currencies or the diplomatic policies, to think nicely of people from other countries.

To make my point more concrete, let me add that, anything that makes us think of people in terms of ‘us and them’ is harmful to humanity. And I also believe that a mindset transcending this divide is not difficult to attain; it certainly is not Utopian. When I come to think of it, this philosophy of mine, is an endorsement of one of the core beliefs of Hinduism — “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” — meaning, the world is a family. Why is it, then for the self-proclaimed pious Hindus, hard to see the world as one family? If all world is one family, why this venomous propaganda based on nationalism?

Also, when you come to think of the world on the lines of oneness, beyond all differences, it is easier to then spot the factors that are being used by the ruling class to divide the people. The bickering amongst people is the main fuel that enables the ruling class, which thrives on pitting communities against each other, to push their agendas. Needless to say, not only this is detrimental to the societies we inhabit, but it also reflects poorly on one’s intellectual abilities, if he/she chooses to become subservient to the rhetoric of divisive politics.

This being my stance on nationalities and nationalism, I am least offended or upset, but only amused when people are throwing labels such as “anti-nationals”, and more so, for the slightest of the difference of opinions.

Empathy above all

To be able to see the suffering of another person, or a community, and to wish for more of it instantly makes us inhuman. Whatever the rationale or the grand reasoning it might be, lack of empathy is unjustifiable. There is no point in bragging about your nationalism, when at the core, you lack empathy towards fellow human beings.

Patriotism is an over-sold idea and nationalism is corruptible. I’d say, simply stick to being nice to others.

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Cosy in Copenhagen…

It was one of those random thoughts that occur suddenly – usually, just before falling asleep – I had ‘moved’ from Sweden to Denmark, and I had done so unceremoniously! This transition was so abrupt and it happened amidst so much haste, that I have not had the time to stop and reflect on this possibly crucial transition in my life.

People in Europe might discount this transition as being a minor one, as the two sibling countries from Scandinavia have more in common, than being different. Nonetheless, if I were the person I was in India, and you would talk to me about Denmark and Sweden, I would expect them to be a world apart. It could be because I wouldn’t have had any idea about either of these countries. In any case, I am interested in the nuances that differentiate these neighbours.

The fairy tale specialist, HC Anderson in central Copenhagen.

The fairy tale specialist, HC Anderson in central Copenhagen.

My first impression of Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, coming fresh from Sweden was that it was ancient. Ancient, not in the sense it is obsolete, but in ways elder siblings are when compared to their younger ones. Especially when the younger ones are in their teens, and the elder siblings already feel a generation gap of sorts. The elders find themselves out of trend, trying hard to catch up and being clumsy on technology, yet with a mature charm and grace of their own. This is my visualisation of Copenhagen, which was founded around 12th century, when compared to a young city like Gothenburg, founded in 1621.

And the Danes are amicable. This could seem like an overstatement, but then we are not comparing them to the legendary Southern Europeans, but to their brethren from Sweden, Finland and Norway. What do I base it on? As yet, my personal experiences, and some additional readings on Scandinavia. It could also be the impact of placebo effect in my expectations for social interactions, making it easier for me to talk to Danes. And it is not just about striking conversations, but to keep them going on! This is in stark difference with Sweden, where it takes enormous effort to sustain conversations. With some Danes, I have, on the contrary found it hard to halt the juggernaut of conversations!

On the notorious front, Denmark, has a reputation for being less immigration-friendly. But, after my 6 weeks here, it comes out as a truly cosmopolitan country. Of course, this remark is mainly based on Copenhagen and the reality outside the city might be different. I was also rectified by many that Copenhagen is not as multi-cultural as London or Berlin, but my rebuttal is that in Scandinavia, which is a world of its own, it appears to be the most vibrant and lively city in terms of ethnicity. It is refreshing not to be living in a homogeneous population, which ended up being my take-away image of Sweden. Also, it has dawned upon me that, the reputation of Denmark being anti-immigration has more to do with the open debates they have about immigration. Sweden, on the other hand, maybe is brushing the issue under the carpet, leading to increasing tensions, of late. Or this hypothesis about Denmark’s cosmopolitanism could simply be my self-consolation than it is in reality; Denmark is my new home, and there is always a soft corner for places we see as home.

Another notorious aspect of Denmark is alcohol. And yes, the myth of beer being cheaper than (bottled) water pretty much holds in Denmark. Carlsberg has a true monopoly on all beer sales. It is a matter of routine pride for Danes to brag about the stock of vodka and schnaps they would certainly have at home.

Copenhagen is dubbed the bicycle capital of the world, and some statistics say that there are more bicycles in the city than there are people! And this is no vain vanity, Copenhagen really runs on bikes. Commuting on motored vehicles (cars and buses alike) takes easily twice the time than when biking in the city. Ants like bikes criss-crossing during rush hours have prompted me to get hold of a helmet.

Finally, yes, the jokes about Danish, the language, are all true: it is close to being full fledged mumbling, and yet is a language spoken by five million people and counting.
Wish me luck in my brave attempts at decrypting this Norse code.

While moving to new places can be difficult and weird, I am all “hygge”, approximately meaning cosy, in Copenhagen.

Yes, really.

Yes, really.

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“We are together, because we are alone”

Even simplest of the chores, when away from home, in a different country, can be daunting. After more than two years in Sweden, I still can’t get a decent haircut – mainly because I cannot convey myself clearly – and I don’t blame the people working in the salons for my plight.

With such trepidation that has become a common feeling now, I finally made up my mind to trim the shabby dark mop that sits over my head. I went to the usual salon, behind my university and work place. I used to visit a different place initially. Now, of late, I have settled with this one. In the last 6 visits, never have I seen the same person run this shop. They are all different, only denominated by their nativity and the generous warmth.

The place is a meagre establishment, and not a posh salon. I must admit here, I have tried to imagine how different the experience in these exorbitant places could be, when all we want to is to let go off some hair. In any case, this place is run by second generation Swedes – a weird euphemism that categorises people whose parents migrated into Sweden. Most of them from the middle East, and not for happy reasons. This family is from Iraq, I learned.

The man who was running the salon today must have been in his late forties, and had all the qualities of the patriarch who was running the show. Slightly large, but he seemed agile with his movements when performing his meticulous art on another customer. Occasionally, also whistling along the radio. Mostly out of tune.

When my turn came, he ushered me warmly to the seat, and immediately asked if I was from India. I nodded, as if to acknowledge the stereotype about our multi-purpose nods. After I confessed my lack of Swedish skills, he confidently said “litet Engleska”. Assuring me we could do just fine with his little English skills and I gave him a thumbs up, assuring him I would contribute my two cents of Svenska.

The first words that he spoke were a series of names – Bachchan, Gabbar Singh, Hema Malini, Dharmendra- I captioned the series with ” Sholay”. He gleefully nodded and said that he was a big fan. I thanked Bollywood for being that bridge (not necessarily a proud one) between some of India and rest of the world. After our bond was made based on the greatest film (or so it is perceived) to come out of Bollywood – Sholay – we got along pretty well for the next half n hour.

Our Bollywood chats spanned the same course, as with any foreigner from the middle East – few songs, some more names and immense fondness. Even I miss the 70’s and early 80’s Bollywood. Bollywodd today is trash in comparison. I refrain from delving into further details of our Bollywood conversation here.

This man did know a few phrases from Indiska – the Swedish name for Hindi – presumably because it is still falsely believed across the world that Hindi is the main language spoken in India. As I know Hindi, I did not get into a discussion on the linguistic diversity of India. A useful phrase he expertly used was “Mushkil hai”, which can mean anything ranging from “it is difficult” to “it is infeasible”, or even “it is sorry”. He started saying “Vatan (country) mushkil hai”, “jahan (world) mushkil hai”, “jung (war) mushkil hai”, “gareebi (poverty) mushkil hai” and ended with the Swedish word for loneliness, which because I could not grasp the word, he had to animate it to me and declared even that was Mushkil.

We spoke some more in broken sentences about various other things – religion, humanity, wars, movies, families, democracy and world politics. He came across as a passionate and caring human being.

In the end, he said he had love, in fact he used the Hindi/Urdu term – Mohabbat – towards all mankind. Next, he started listing some countries in his Mohabbat rankings. In decreasing order of love, he said – Iraq was on top of his list – meaning he loved his home country the most. Then came Iran, India (maybe because I was there), Sweden, the Arab world and everyone else. He paused. And as if to correct something he had missed out, he said “But not America. They are shaitan”.

Shaitan is the Urdu/Persian word for evil, or the devil. He then added, if not for their (USA’s) oil greed and the wars they started, he would have still been in his glorious Iraq of the 1970’s and not have had to flee and come to Sweden. “We are alone. All of us (the migrants) are together because we are alone”, he softened. He then moved around me finalizing my hairdo, of which I had lost track of and was now short enough to show my scalp, and he sighed again: “America is shaitan”. I nodded, again, in acknowledgement. Thinking to myself, if my analysis of contemporary world politics were reduced to three words, it might end up around his version.

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