On Life

On Motivation
Doing a PhD, as many people have experienced and recorded, requires a lot of self-motivation which may seem elusive very often. Throughout the course of this period, I have been trying various tips and tricks, like the Tomato Timer, 30-day challenges, watching TED videos, and reading various stuff on the internet. The thing is you don’t know what will help at which point and you can’t but help become a little philosophical and a little distressed when things don’t go your way. The latest quote which I found very practically useful is the following: ‘The secret of work: Let the end and means be joined into one.’ That’s yet another representation of the golden mantra of ‘Living in the moment’ or ‘Carpe Diem’! The search to find motivation everyday shall continue. Thankfully, when the deadlines appear closer, finding the motivation also seems a little easier. The hardest challenge sometimes is to relish and do efficiently the apparently mundane things, but if one doesn’t have the determination to do that, it’s very hard to become a good researcher.

On ‘Transport’ of things
How much time do we spend in transporting things? Most of the mundane activities in everyday life involve transport. Moving things from the supermarket to home. Moving things from outside to within the body. Moving things from home to work. From work to home. From here to there all the time. Apart from basic necessity, we do this transport to maintain a sense of order as well. Does so much movement outside restore some order to the rush that’s happening within us as well? Shouldn’t we act in the same spirit when we move these objects in the external world as we would do when we want to move those parts within us and rewire those neurons as well?

On Music
Moving those parts within brings us to music. That inexplicable thing that effortlessly helps move those parts within. No matter what emotion the mind creates, it is also capable of creating the perfect piece of music that reflects that emotion. Is music something beyond exciting the intellect and moving the heart? It certainly gives more than it takes. It is not a mere permutation of the basic notes. Between those notes, there is so much to discover. Music feels divine.

On God
What is divinity? Godliness? Another secret of work is to feel like it is a form of worship. In religious rituals, whenever we offer something to God, it is supposed to be made with the best of ingredients, intentions, and purity. In that way, if every apparently mundane thing and every important thing is done with the feeling that we are doing it in order to worship God, it can give a little more meaning to life. As humans, if we can think of God as another being, then somehow we feel this emotional connect, but otherwise, in verifiable terms in the present, what is the notion of God that we have? When I try to do something, the purpose of doing that I think is God. For instance, with washing clothes, cleanliness is I guess Godliness. In this context, Dharma also appears. Dharma also seems like another notion of God.

On Dharma
What is Dharma? The question that Mahabharat tries to answer through various incidents. It seems to depend on so many things like place, time, the person concerned and the person in relation to whom it concerns. Invariably, with Dharma comes Dharmasankat where there appear to be multiple Dharmic ways ahead. Let us assume we sort out this problem and find out what the Dharmic way is. With that ends all confusion and there is no more the question of one’s desire. Coming back to how to find the Dharmic way, it seems like one should define one’s own Dharma and stay true to it. In other words, stay true to your own conscience. According to Sri Sarada Devi, ‘The mind is everything. It is in the mind alone that one feels pure and impure. A man, first of all, makes his own mind guilty and then alone he sees another man’s guilt.’ In other words, only when you impose your Dharma on someone else do you find that person to be guilty. Also, if, as individuals, we are clear on what our Dharma is, then no external thing can ever touch us.

On Desire
Desire is the ultimate killer. The cause for disappointments, sadness, and all such emotions when it is not fulfilled and temporary thrills and joys when it is fulfilled. Again, it is the mind that creates those desires and it is not impossible to rewire those neurons and remove those unwanted desires. Despite life denying us time and time again so many things that we desire, the desire itself continues to flourish. Some desires do seem desirable, in the sense that without a basic desire to live and accomplish things, life can seem meaningless. Is real freedom then removing these desires that dissipate our emotional energy and only allowing our mindspace for the Dharmic desires? In other words, can we let our ego die every moment and give life to the things that truly matter?

On Beauty
Beauty is like a breath of fresh air whenever we encounter it, leaving us wonderstruck, emptying our minds of all other emotions and making us sit up and notice and focus on only that. What is beauty really? Beauty to me seems to be Focus. Why do certain scenes look so beautiful? Why do certain actions look beautiful, like Federer hitting that perfect forehand? When all matter is the same set of fundamental particles rearranged in myriad ways, why do only certain things appear beautiful? At the same time, why do photographs of even mundane things that choose to use the focus in a different way look so beautiful? The key seems to be focus. Beauty is indeed in the eyes of the beholder. Is it then maybe possible to focus deeply or widely enough on every single thing and feel its beauty? Furthermore, can we look beyond everything and focus on the One?

On Oneness
There is verifiable oneness in matter, as we see that all forms of matter are made of the same set of fundamental particles – already discovered or still in contention. There is oneness in the emotions that we go through as humans too. It is possible to connect with another person’s emotions expressed as words or music or when interacting with that person in other ways. When we connect with any form of Oneness, when we connect the parts and that becomes more than its sum, that leaves us with an extreme satisfaction – almost a desireless state. Is that then the goal of life? To connect those dots every moment? To find the motivation to work, irrespective of its nature, through divine music, or conforming to Dharma, or fighting one’s dissipating desires, and find the beauty that connects everything that is conceivable and is experienced by the mind? Is it only an intellectual exercise or something more that gives peace?

On Karuna
Are you searching for a reason to be kind? asks Rahman. Putting it a little differently, how do we so easily find a reason to be unkind? With the feeling of Oneness comes the feeling of kindness (apparently what makes us human) too. Dharma, which can become an intellectual exercise if we only analyse situations ‘rationally’, gains meaning only if it is guided by Karuna. And always thinking of others. Again, being aware of that Oneness every moment, can we discover more kindness in ourselves, Dharma that is guided by Karuna, and our capability to love infinitely?

P.S. What a combination of reading Swami Vivekananda and Rabindranath Tagore, listening to Swami Chinmayananda, watching Mahabharat, watching tennis, listening endlessly to A R Rahman and Sanjay, and doing a PhD can do is this.

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Inspired

If you have the will
To persevere till the summit of the hill,
If you have all the conviction there is
To stop ruing missed opportunities,
If you have the consideration
To forgive yourself and others for every reason,
If you have the heart
To love all despite all barriers there art,

If you can let yourself be inspired

By all that is heard:
Chirps of birds in the early morning stillness,
Or words of compassion and kindness,
The touch of the piano or drums,
The violin strokes or the guitar strums.

By all that is seen:
The green leaves at spring,
The sunset or the sun rising.

By all that is felt:
Love, goodness, forgiveness,
Cleanliness, calmness, Oneness.

The Red Dot

I have a personal question, he said.
What is that dot, on your forehead?

Is that a hole? quipped another.
How gory, it made me wonder.

‘Did you draw it with a pen?’
I heaved a deep sigh then.

Then there is the usual ‘What does it mean?’,
So I wikied and prepared an answer clean.

Now, when I see those raised eyebrows,
And feel the stare between my eyebrows,

The auto-answer mode switches on,
It’s the yogic centre of concentration,
A Hindu symbol, I go on,
Showing off with resignation,

The Eyetex Pottu packet,
Tucked in my wallet,

Filled with no mean stickers,
But skin-pH-matching wonders.

Mediterranean Blues

I always knew food would be a problem throughout my long trip down south in France, but I realise it even more now, when my taste buds have been finally satisfied with some good rasam after nearly three weeks. Onto more interesting things…

Starter

It began with a weekend stay in Nice. This city in the southern coast of France is blessed with great weather, rocky beaches and great accessibility to all the cities on the coastline. In fact, in one day, you can visit three countries – France, Monaco and Italy. That’s nearly what I did, but not in one day. The castle hill (Montée du Château) offers some breathtaking views of the beaches below. It’s worth taking a trip up there; it is also accessible by an elevator.

Nice Menton Ventimiglia Monaco 2013

The first meal at Nice Life International Cafe was quite good. We had some tortilla and salad with olives, tomatoes and cheese – typical Mediterranean fare. My second trip to this place didn’t leave me very happy though. Happycow (guide to vegan/vegetarian food all over the world) almost completely let me down during this trip. The exception was Menton.

Menton, about half an hour from Nice, is known for its Lemon Festival and fittingly, we were greeted at the station by some orange trees weighing down with oranges. A walk along the promenade is highly recommended here as well. This place is relatively quiet compared to Nice or Monaco but no less beautiful. The main attraction here was Musée Jean Cocteau or Museum of Jean Cocteau. Jean Cocteau, who lived in the previous century, was a complete artist – painter, designer, poet, playwright, film director. Most of his works struck me as bizarre. One interesting play/movie was ‘La voix humaine’ or ‘The Human Voice’ which has only one character – a lady talking on the phone to her lover who is leaving her. Original handwritten versions of this work were on display in the museum.

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If not for anything else, I wouldn’t mind going to Menton again just to eat at Loving Hut. That was in fact one of my motivators to visit this place. Having been a Loving Hut loyal in Leuven for the last couple of years, I was curious to try out a new Loving Hut and was I satisfied or what! This one was much bigger than the one in Leuven and offered local flavours in their food. I had ‘Crostini with sun-filled tomatoes’, ‘Rainbow Rice’ and ‘Pancake with a scoop of lemon icecream’. This was to be my last good meal for days to come. The only other vegetarian restaurant which I have enjoyed even more than this in Europe was ‘Ginko’ at Graz, Austria, which offers mostly Italian and Indian cuisine.

Ventimiglia is a small town in Italy just an hour away from Nice by train. My TER train experience was really good throughout this trip – punctual, frequent connections even during weekends and the tickets were much cheaper compared to Belgium. You could buy a ticket starting from the origin to the final destination and stop over at any of the intermediate places within the day. Ventimiglia is surrounded by hills and they offer more breathtaking views of the coastline. The narrow lanes of the old town here reminded me so much of the narrow paths in highly populated residential areas that we often find in Chennai especially in places like Triplicane and Mylapore. The old town of Nice also looks very similar. The weather plays such an important role in the lifestyle. Throughout this region, it almost never snows. The first big difference I experienced in Europe in this aspect was at Graz where buildings typically have large courtyards in the middle and the staircases are out in the open, which is not at all uncommon in India but impossible in Northern Europe because of the cold weather. Aspects like these were only highlighted even more during this trip – people hanging clothes out for drying, riding scooters and in general being livelier.

Nice Menton Ventimiglia Monaco 20132

Monaco was different from most other European cities (countries). This land of the richest was densely populated with multi-storey buildings with elaborate roof gardens, roads teeming with luxurious cars and was also very clean. The cactus garden ‘Jardin Exotique’ offered good views of the whole city (country) and I enjoyed seeing the stalactite/stalagmite caves again. It was extremely hot that day and we didn’t have much time since we had to set off to the summer school. Salad lunch started that day and did not stop for the next ten days.

Nice Menton Ventimiglia Monaco 20133

Main Course

The route from Nice to Peyresq, where I was going to attend a summer school, was very scenic. We were mostly driving along the course of the river.

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Peyresq, located on the French Alps, was a medieval village. Life was hard there and it was home to atmost 250 people till the French revolution. That’s when the people were driven away from there since most men had died in the war and the village was abandoned to the forces of nature. It was rediscovered in the 1950s by a Belgian professor and he initiated the process to reconstruct this place and turned it into a place that will exclusively hold scientific meetings and will be open only during summer. There are only two people who live permanently there to take care of the day-to-day requirements. Food has to be sourced from the nearest town, which is about half an hour drive away. Apples grow locally though. I had to live mostly on salad and bread throughout the duration of the school. It was a true experience of the harsh mountain life in a way.

Peyresq 2013

The best part of this place is the view of the mountains and valleys it offers. The ephemeral nature of these scenes, especially when there were clouds around, was awe-inspiring. I spent many an evening listening to Pachchai Nirame gazing into the lush green pine trees stacked up on the sides of the mountains.

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If not for the beauty of the landscape and the intense and engaging lectures we had, it would have been hard to survive the school. The idea of having an isolated place to hold events like this worked though. The camaraderie we had by the end of the two weeks wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. Nevertheless, I was glad to have finished the main course of the stay and be back amongst people once again.

Dessert

The last leg of the trip starting at Nice again offered more cloudy views of Côte d’Azur (The Azure Coast). I felt like I couldn’t tire of walking along the beach. The azure blues changed to grays following the clouds overhead. The perfect weather of warm and cloudy but not rainy continued throughout the weekend.

Nice Cannes Grasse Monaco 2013

Cannes was the next stop. I was pretty disappointed firstly by the railway station. I thought it would be similar to Monaco but it was quite the opposite. I thought the Film Festival was held in some historic building, but it just looked like a normal modern glass-panelled building. The only highlight was the short boat ride that we could take to two nearby islands. We went to Ile-St-Marguerite and soaked in more of the blues.

Nice Cannes Grasse Monaco 20131

Grasse was a change from all the other cities we visited. It is inland on the hills and is famous for its perfumeries. We visited Parfumerie Fragonard, which exists since the 19th century. The guided tour left me a little dizzy though. It requires months of processing and tonnes of flowers just to produce a small bottle of perfume. Perfumes apparently come with three notes of smells – the softer one originates from citrus fruits like lemon and orange for example, the middle one from flowers like lavender, rose and jasmine, and the hard note, which is what lingers on for a long time even when the perfumed person leaves the place, from musk or other such substances. This perfumery continues to produce new perfumes with the help of their ‘noses’. These are people who have to train for 9 years before they can smell different perfumes and come up with new formulae. Institutes for training ‘noses’ exist only in a few places in the world like Grasse and Paris. Fragonard also manufactures soaps in different flavours like rose, lavender, jasmine, orange and lemon. Fragonard seemed to own most of the main shopping street. They also have their own fabrics, garments and accessories. We also visited a well-displayed Jewellery and Costume Museum displaying collections from the 19th century. A couple of interesting things I found there – some of the floral designs on cottons were inspired from India and the tradition of giving the key-chain of the household to the new daughter-in-law existed there! It went a step further. When the husband dies, the wife throws the keychain into the grave symbolically to signify the loss of her ‘power’ in the household. Anyway, this practice resulted in having elaborately-decorated keychains that you could tie around the waist and had curious objects such as scissors hanging from them.

Nice Cannes Grasse Monaco 20132

Back in Nice, dinner at the vegan place called ‘Le Speakeasy’ was a complete disappointment. The food was tasteless, the place untidy and the requirement to eat something for at least 7 euros was a bit too much to ask for. The thoughts of eating at a vegetarian place remained forgotten for the rest of the trip.

Monaco beckoned us once more and we witnessed the very popular tourist attraction of ‘changing of the palace guards’ at 11.55 AM sharp. It was quite underwhelming to me and was nothing but a few guards marching away from the palace and being replaced by another set. We visited the palace which still continues to function. Lavishly decorated walls and paintings were all over the place. I particularly liked the silk draperies, marble busts of various princes and princesses and some of the paintings. The very modern painting from the 1980s felt quite out of place and only served to enhance the beauty of the older paintings.

We took some customary pictures outside the Casino. We made full use of the 1-day bus pass and also went to the Monte Carlo district of Monaco. The tennis fan in me particularly wanted to see the Monte Carlo Country Club, where the Masters 1000 tournament (won by Nadal 8 consecutive times) is held every spring. I was not disappointed and had a glimpse of the clay courts.

Nice Cannes Grasse Monaco 20133

That almost brings us to the end of the trip. Nice airport is also located on the coast and from the gate area, you can see flights taking off and landing in the background of the sea. The airport is quite small and there wasn’t enough place for everybody to sit especially at busy times like Sunday evenings. I missed the views of the full range of Alps during both flights but on the whole, I couldn’t ask for a better vacation and summer school. Côte d’Azur is truly a beautiful place to visit at most times of the year. Back to Belgium and to cooking! The Rasam beckons…

‘Two Lives’ by Vikram Seth

Upon my recent visit to the local library, I borrowed for the first time here, when I surprisingly had the mood to read one, a novel of a famous contemporary Indian writer, Vikram Seth. Vikram is better known for his novel, ‘A Suitable Boy’, which I am yet to read. I did not have a preconceived notion of how his books would be. Certainly, I had some reservations about reading contemporary Indian authors, what with the experience of having gone through the negativity and swearing of ‘White Tiger’. But I found this memoir/biography by Vikram very much engaging, sensible, sensitive and filled with those little details of real-life people which make them who they are. I felt most connected with Vikram’s ideas and interpretations of various events and people, throughout the book, which brought to light, again and again, the grey shades that exist, in each one of us. The two lives connoted by the title are those of Vikram’s grand-uncle, Shanti Behari Seth and his wife, Henny Seth Caro.

The story flows beautifully, starting with a short account of Vikram’s own early life, a part of which he spent with the two main characters in London at their home. In the last few pages of the book, Vikram adds some details about the thought process that went into the structuring of the book and the starting point for the final version of the book seems the most natural one. Vikram’s description of his Shanti Uncle and Henny Aunty take us into their lives. I can very well imagine how a typical day of Shanti and Henny would be: Shanti, a dentist, working in his surgery during the day, Henny doing the household chores with such perfection and efficiency and punctuality, and their evenings well-spent entertaining friends with bridge parties or simply having a quiet dinner together. Vikram, welcomed into this home, soon becomes one of their ‘chosen relations’ and continues to be so until their deaths.

Once Vikram decides to write this book after Henny’s demise, we are led into Shanti’s life starting from his childhood till the time before his marriage to Henny, through a series of interviews of Shanti by Vikram. Having done a couple of years back what Shanti does at about the same age in his life, i.e. travelling to an European country from India to study, I could relate very much to what Shanti goes through in his first few days in Germany. Shanti seemed to have accepted and comfortably settled into the German way of life. Living in a German Jewish house (that of Henny), amalgamating into their circle of friends and learning to speak and write German (he manages to write his doctoral dissertation, with the help of Henny, in German), Shanti, somewhere along the way seems to lose his Indian identity. Infact, Shanti, who was in some sense, looking for independence (this sense of being ‘independent’ that people talk about has always eluded me, given the fact that we are social animals and living in this world, we can’t but help being dependent on other people in some way or the other), embraced everything that he was exposed to, in his few years in Germany. This was the time indeed, that was going to mould the way he would think and live for the rest of his life.

Henny’s early life is mostly revealed only through correspondence between her and her friends, later in life, when she has lost her mother and sister and her home, to war. Henny seems to have been a sincere worker, who does like to have fun when she is out with friends and was deeply loved (or so it seems) by her fiance Hans.

The second world war, the events leading to the war and its aftermath form the most important parts of the book, which truly bring out the way Henny thinks and idealises (through her letters), how she comes to terms with the fate of her mother and sister and how Shanti too is affected (directly) by the war and ends up losing his arm. The narration goes deeper than the two lives in concern and paints a picture of different shades of terror, helplessness, pity, suffering, guilt, loyalty and power that Germany and its current and former citizens collectively go through. That one man’s wills can be exercised so strongly, supported by so many people, however unreasonable, insane and murderous those wills may be, shows in fact that the ‘grey’ shades in us, when brought together in unison could become black and ugly and ultimately make us utterly inhuman. I remember reading an article sometime ago about an experiment a teacher conducted at school about human behavioural patterns and how, in a way, everybody who aided Hitler in realising his vision could indeed be blind to the sufferings of others. Some aspects of the formation of Israel and the unrest in the Middle East and the link with the second world war is also brought about by Vikram. These sections of the book impacted me the most. When Vikram starts describing the plight of Henny’s mother and sister in the concentration camps, I wikied about these places a little more and it was really heart-wrenching. When I think of concentration camps, I always get reminded of the picture in my 8th standard History book of a couple of survivors from the concentration camp, who appear to be nothing more than skeletons. When I started reading more and more about Auschwitz and Theresienstadt, I felt totally repulsive about the Nazis. The author, on a visit to Jerusalem, uncovers some important documents (which somehow survived the war) which lists details of Henny’s sister and mother and where they spent their final days (hours?). The author goes through a phase of feeling extreme hatred towards everything German, which is but natural when one starts digging deeper into the Nazi attrocities.

Once Henny and Shanti’s lives are restored to some normalcy (which here would refer to not having to worry about what is going to happen to them and their kin in Germany and elsewhere and carrying on with the remaining pieces of their lives after having ‘lived’ through the war), they continue to be friends for a long time before they get engaged and again, it is a couple of years before they get married. It is never apparent whether Henny really likes Shanti as anything more than a friend. The fact that they come together and get married not as a result of very passionate love but by mutual understanding, concern and support and do lead a fulfilling married life is explored by the author beautifully from various aspects. Both of them were well into their forties when they get married, which greatly reduced the possibilities of having children. The void in their lives created by the lack of children is partially reduced when Vikram lives with them for a while and continues to visit and correspond with them throughout the remainder of their lives.

The last days of Henny (she dies first) and Shanti continue to be a reflection of their married life till then, even though Shanti has retired (owing to his poor health) and their daily routines have changed, allowing them much more time to spend with each other. Henny spends her last few days of critical illness still with the same vigour and determination she had throughout her life, even though her body is very fragile by then. After her death, Shanti’s life becomes very miserable. Combined with his fragile heart condition and delusions of old age, his loneliness becomes very much magnified. Vikram tries to be of assistance and visits Shanti often. In the aftermath of Shanti’s death, when the contents of the will are revealed, Vikram is shocked by the fact that Shanti has left nothing to his family. This, it seems to Vikram, is totally out of line with Shanti’s character, who always holds family in great importance, or so he says. Even though Shanti corresponds with his family, he never visited India after his wedding. Shanti and Henny seemed to have been comfortable only in their own space they created for themselves. A moving account of the lives of these two people brought together by circumstances beyond their control, by grief, by friendship, by mutual concern – that is what The Two Lives is all about.

P.S. I wrote this piece sometime around July/August last year. I read this book after a long spell during which I did not read any books and from then on, I have started reading books fairly regularly. This space will hopefully see more of my thoughts on the books I have read recently.

Caves of Han-Sur-Lesse

From the time I saw Pangaea’s (the international meeting centre of KULeuven) announcement for a trip to Ardennes (the range of mountains in Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium) covering the caves of Han-Sur-Lesse (with a beautiful picture of stalactites and stalagmites) also, I really wanted to visit this place. After having missed that due to a planned hike on that day (which finally was postponed to another date), I decided that I should definitely visit it this year and that finally happened last Sunday. From a topic discussed on TripAdvisor, I found out how to reach this place by public transport. The nearest railway station to Han-Sur-Lesse is Jemelle. All train schedules within Belgium can be accessed and tickets can be booked on: http://www.b-rail.be/main/E/

I left at 8 AM from my home and cycled to Leuven Station. I took the 8:28 train to Ottignies (9:08), from where I took a train (09:15) to Jemelle (10:20). Then, I boarded the TEC bus no. 29 at 10:34. The schedule is available on TEC website, where you can search for number 29, direction Grupont. The ticket, which is 2.40 EUR one way, can be bought on the bus. The bus driver asked me to get down at ‘Han-Sur-Lesse Eglise’ bus stop. I reached there at 10:48. The trip to the caves starts from the visitor centre, which is located at about 100 m from the bus stop. It is right across the church, at one side of which the bus stop is located.

 

The first visit for the day was only at 11:30. I went inside the visitor centre to enquire about the trip. I had bought a combination ticket  online for 20 EUR, which is valid for visiting the caves, Safari in the wildlife reserve, museum and a 3D game. The same ticket is priced at 22.50 EUR at the ticket counter there. I was asked to take the Safari first, which would last 1 hour 15 min. There were 4 options starting at 11:30, 13:00, 14:30 and 16:00 (this varies depending on the season and the latest schedule can be accessed in the website). Taking the Safari first, I would also be back in time for the visit to the caves starting at 13:00 (the same 4 options were available for the caves also). The visit to the caves takes slightly longer – 1 hour 30 min to 1 hour 45 min.

Han-Sur-Lesse is a small village, which has become famous thanks to the caves, which are probably the oldest and biggest such caves in Europe. I walked along the main road and found only restaurants and a couple of small shops. The visitor centre also had a shop selling gifts – some typical Belgian style dolls, postcards, pieces of minerals, diaries and T-shirts.

At 11:25, I boarded the vehicle, which was open on the sides to have a good view during the Safari, along with 10 others. The Safari was good on the whole, but a bit long. It was also quite cold that day. We saw wild cats, European bisons, reindeers, lynxes, an owl,  two brown bears and other animals from the horse family and cattle. The bear looked much bigger than I thought it would be. The animals live in a 15-acre reserve specially created for them, sometime in the 1970s. There were a few stops in between. One of them was to get a panoramic view of the valley and another one, to see the river Lesse flowing into the hills.

 

At 12:45, we were back at the visitor centre. After a sandwich lunch, I started the visit to the caves at 13:00. We were taken to the entrance of the cave by a short ride on a tram. After asking for everybody’s language preference, the guide decided to give explanations in both Dutch and English. He began by telling us about the history of how the caves were discovered. The caves have been in existence for about hundred thousand years. The caves are inside a hill, on top of which we can only see a forest. There are evidences of people from the Neolithic Age having lived here. But they only lived in the regions close to the outside world and hence, much of the caves remained undiscovered till the 18th century. In the 1770s, the first explorations started. About 14 kilometres of caves full of natural formations of stalactites and stalagmites have been discovered till date, over several years. Only 2 kilometres of this are open to the public. The rest is only available for research purposes. The caves were opened to the public for the first time in 1820s. At that time, since there was no electricity, lamps or torches were used to guide the visitors through the caves, and therefore, some of the stalactites and stalagmites have acquired a shade of black. Now, the caves are well lit with lights at suitable positions to enhance the beauty of the structures. The lights are switched on only during visits, in order to protect the structures. Photographing is allowed without flash. But many people were still taking pictures with the flash on.

Millions of years ago, when the sea level was much higher, this region was part of the sea bed. There are some stretches in which fossils of corals and shells can be clearly seen on the walls. These corals and shells are rich in calcites.

Once the sea level had gone down and this part became a hill, rain water and water from the melting of snow started seeping into the hills. Also, the river Lesse flowed through the hill. The river water, which was acidic, easily dissolved the basic calcites in the corals and shells. The water seeping through the ceiling and the water dripping on to the ground of the caves, started the formation of stalactites (the ones that grow from the ceiling) and stalagmites (the ones that grow from the floor), by depositing limestone. A 4-centimetre-long piece of stalactite/stalagmite takes 100 years to form. All the stalactites and stalagmites continue to grow and we can see water still seeping through. The caves are pretty damp. The formation of these structures would only stop during an Ice Age, when water can no more seep into the hill.

The oldest stalagmite is 6 m high and 21 m wide. It is more than a 100000 years old. This one (especially because of the shining white colour) and many others reminded me of huge tall cakes with different levels with icecream flowing down from them. Another prominent stalagmite is 12000 years old.

Another very beautiful structure of the stalactites are the draperies/curtains. These can be found where the roof of the cave is slanting. When the water flows along such a region, the stalactites start forming like sheets of draperies. They are also found in different colours, depending on the presence of other elements like iron (red) and lead or manganese (grey). Some of these draperies were translucent and they looked like perfect, beautiful marble sculptures. Yes, they were sculptures too, though not by a human hand.

There are 3 levels in the caves. River Lesse used to flow through the topmost level years ago. It doesn’t flow through this level anymore. During the dry periods of the year, it only flows through the lowest level. But when there are heavy rains or after the snow, the second level is also fully submerged under water. This happens 5-6 times during the year. The caves are closed during winter for this reason. Last Sunday was in fact, the last day of this year when the caves were open to the public. We could get a glimpse of the river from the second level itself. The only other place in Europe where a river can be seen flowing through the stalactite/stalagmite caves is located in Slovenia.

In one of the two biggest caves, there was a short 5-minute light-sound show. From there, we could also see the river. The lighting effect was spectacular, making you notice innumerable details in the structures. The music went well with the whole show. I was reminded of Chandralekha song from Thiruda Thiruda and thought that that would go well with that show too. These biggest caves were possibly formed as a result of huge earthquakes. Boulders chipped off can still be seen lying around the cave.

We walked along the Lesse during the last stretch. It was in this region near the exit where the people in Neolithic Age lived. Many artefacts found by archaelogists are kept for display in a museum close to the visitor centre, but it was closed that day. During war times, people used to take refuge in these regions. Till the second world war, visitors were taken inside the caves by boat through this region, which was actually the exit for us. A cannon used to be fired before the visit began to keep away evil spirits. This tradition is being kept up even now, except that it was done at the end of the visit. We were also asked to tip the guide at the end, since a major part of his salary comes from tips. He has been a guide in the caves for 47 years now and seemed quite knowledgeable. The exit of the caves was 300 m away from the visitor centre.

I reached the visitor centre by 14:50. I skipped the 3D game also, which was on the way, since I was not sure if it was open and also, nobody else seemed to be going inside that place. After buying 2 small dolls, which were on sale with 50% discount at the visitor centre, I took the same bus no. 29 at 15:17 (direction – Jemelle) to the Jemelle station (15:31). Taking the same route by train, from Jemelle (15:39) to Ottignies (16:44) and Ottignies (16:52) to Leuven (17:32), with the second train delayed by 7 minutes, I reached Leuven and then home by 6 PM.

I highly recommend this place for a one-day trip within Belgium if you are interested in seeing beautiful natural formations of stalactites and stalagmites. The full set of pictures can be accessed here.

The ARR Top 20 Project

As soon as I saw this new topic in the ARR fan club about making your list of Top 20 ARR songs, I was curious to try it out and find out which songs would end up in my list. I did it a bit differently. Firstly, I decided not to listen to ANY music while making the list to ensure I was unbiased. I tried to think of the first thing that came to my mind for each song. I thought of the ‘impact’ it has on me – every time I listen to it. I thought of whether the song has the same impact on me now as it did a few years ago – the ‘timeless’ factor. This was quite hard to judge for the recent songs, especially those from Rockstar. In that case, I tried to see what the song meant to me beyond the musical notes, the lyrics, the voice – if there was something that I connected with at a deeper level. This last fact is true for all the songs that finally made it to my top 20. These are the songs whose ‘souls’ I have been able to connect to, every time I listen to them. I did not think of any technical aspects while making this list. These are songs I have played on loop endlessly, songs which I waited to hear during the cassette days or impatiently rewound innumerable times to loop them and songs which leave me with an awe every time.

As a first step, I wrote down my favourite songs from each album. I also included the non-film albums. There were 166 songs. Then I decided to cross out the songs which I felt were not right there at the top. After a lot of attempts at weighing the relative merits of the songs, I came up with a list which had 84 songs! Then, I decided to do a selection instead of elimination – that is, I chose all the songs that I wanted in the top 20. I came up with 40 for the top 20 spots 🙂 Then came the toughest part of the whole exercise. To make it easier, I decided not to include the non-film songs. After eliminating a few more, there were still 29. I had almost given up at this point. After a lot of heartbreaks, this is what I came up with (listed in no particular order):

(I am listening to each song as I am writing about it now. It is proving to be extremely difficult to switch to the next song)

1. Chinna Chinna Aasai – Roja

The first Rahman song I listened to. Happy, light-hearted, carefree. Beautiful lyrics. Minmini’s voice. ‘Elelo’ in Rahman’s voice. Beautiful visuals. The variation in the beats. The freshness.

2. Pudhu Vellai Mazhai – Roja

The first thing you notice about this song is the unique ‘snowfall’ beat. The theatrical effect that Rahman brings sounds grand, even today. I knew which song to play during my first experience of snowfall about two years back 🙂 The pause before every time ‘Pudhu Vellai Mazhai’ starts after the charanam allows for a moment of solitude, which only adds to the romance beautifully brought out in this song.

3. Thee Thee – Thiruda Thiruda

I listened to this much later than the time of the movie’s release. Veerapandi Kottaiyile was the more popular song at that time. This is a ‘love at first hearing’ song. This is one of Rahman’s most energetic songs. Both interludes are par excellence – the first one mainly with konnakkol and Rahman’s swarams and the second one with Naveen’s flute. I still struggle to understand the lyrics completely, thanks to Carolene’s singing, but I am not complaining. On the whole, this is how fusion with Carnatic base should sound like!

4. Narumugaiye – Iruvar

The salangai chimes moving from one speaker to the other. Poetic Tamil lyrics, which I don’t entirely understand. A Nattai-based song (Never knew Nattai could sound romantic!). Unnikrishnan’s and Bombay Jayashri’s voice. The blend of Ghatam (by Vikku Vinayakram) and salangai. The second interlude on the Sarangi(?). The variation in beats for almost every line (The variation for the first line in the charanam can easily be missed. I discovered it only recently.).

5. Mangta Hai Kya – Rangeela

Rahman sounds funky! I don’t know if he has sounded this way in any other song. The closest is probably Humma Humma. The beats that run throughout this song are like heartbeats, giving life to every moment. The second interlude on the piano is simply magical. Rahman springs a pleasant surprise at the end with the short alaap and swarams. He really is a master in introducing elements of Indian classical music in ANY kind of song. A charming mood-lifter, this song is.

6. Sandosha Kanneere – Uyire (Dil Se Re – Dil Se)

I happened to listen to the Tamil version of this song first and that has stuck with me. There is a slight variation in the tune in the first line of the charanam, which I like better in the Tamil version. Lyrics are good in Tamil too and not a mere translation of the Hindi lyrics. My favourites: ‘kallonRu thadai seidha pOdhum, pullonRu pudhu vErgaL pOdum, nam kAdhal adhu pOla mIrum kannE’, ‘unnOdu nAn kaNda bandham, maNNOdu mazhai konda sondham, kAindhAlum adi Iram enjum kaNNE’. The chorus plays an important role in this song. The jathis/swarams in the interludes and the lag with which they sing (almost whisper) towards the end bring in a mystic sense, as if it is the air that is whispering these lines/carrying voices from far away. I can almost feel the fog in the atmosphere through the muffled beats. A beautifully picturised song too.

7. Jiya Jale – Dil Se

The Malayalam lyrics and the beats add a festive spirit to this song. What an eclectic combination of flute, percussion and santoor in that first interlude! Sindhubhairavi never sounded so buoyant!

8. Theendai – En Swaasa Kaatre

A classical beauty. I think the entire song is based on Shri Ragam. The entire beauty of this ragam is brought out in this passionate song! The beauty of every line lingers on, thanks to the extra karvais or prolonged notes at the end of every single line in the song. This song is worth watching too, just for the beautiful landscapes of Hampi and that pond with amazingly-stacked steps.

9. Pachchai Nirame – Alaipayuthey (Saathiya – Saathiya)

This is my most special song. Perfect in every way. And it manages to manifest itself equally beautifully in every language too! I love this song equally in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi. I was a bit apprehensive before listening to this in Hindi with Sonu Nigam’s voice, but he does complete justice to the song. The lyrics – the beautiful concept of describing the different shades of love. Hariharan sings this extremely gracefully, as if whispering into the ears of his girl. This, in my opinion, is THE best picturised song of ARR. Madhavan and Shalini only add to the beauty of the already breathtaking locations. This song has got to be experienced – no more words to describe it.

10. Do Kadam – Sonu Nigam  Meenaxi

A very contemplative, soulful, mysterious song. The song of hope – to find a better place (heaven?), which we are just two steps short of. This song reminds me of the time I used to listen to this sometimes (the rare times when I was not listening to Aayitha Ezhuthu) while solving Physics problems while preparing for JEE (maybe it gave me the hope that I would be able to handle Physics, which I found to be the toughest of the three subjects). A simply structured song, but conveys much more.

11. Hey Goodbye Nanba (Short Version) – Aayitha Ezhuthu (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E0s7aERlI1s)

This is the piece that appears when Siddharth and Trisha do never-ending round trips on the bus on their last evening together before her wedding. It is just one-and-a-half minutes long and the melody is the same as that of the full version of the song, but the lyrics are different and very apt for the situation. I like this even better than the full song – the opening notes on the piano and the guitar are magical.

12. Yakkai Thiri (Fanaa) – Aayitha Ezhuthu

I have already written about this here. To add to that, this song is mostly based on Suddha Dhanyasi.  The series of metaphors in the lyrics and the concept of One love has more meaning than it first appears. This song, if I remember right, was composed for the lyrics which Vairamuthu had written earlier. A slightly modified version was used for the final version of the song. Rahman carries the entire song, with his voice too.

(It was extremely difficult to leave out the other songs from Aayitha Ezhuthu. They were all there in the 40 I wanted in the top 20. It was especially difficult to give up Nenjam Ellam and Sanda Kozhi, but at some point, the songs from other movies took over)

13. Spiderman – New

A unique song for the mood it creates. The repeated melody (on the guitar?) creates the mood of the song from the beginning. Kunal Ganjawala’s (he even manages to pronounce the ‘zha’ properly) and Sadhana Sargam’s voices fit in perfectly for this passionate, intimate, mystic song.

14. Porkalam – Thenali

The best part of this song – 1:51 to 2:09, which also appears during the second interlude. This is a slow, beautifully flowing song – almost like a conversation between the two. Gopika Poornima’s voice sounds very good. This is one song just for listening – not at all to watch. A soothing melody.

15. Mausam & Escape – Slumdog Millionaire

One of the best instrumental pieces of Rahman. The sitar-guitar combination is deadly. Grand, epic sound. Full of energy.

16. Sahara – Sivaji

This is the most underrated song in this album. Its more popular version ‘Sahana’ sung by Udit and Chinmayee doesn’t quite create an impact for me. Vijay Yesudas sings and hums very soulfully (I am glad we got to hear him again (in a Rahman song) in ‘I’ve Been Waiting’). The Thiruppavai lines ‘Maale Manivanna..’ are set in a moving Suddha Dhanyasi accompanied by the rhythms of the guitar. That is the highlight of this song. This could also be thought of as a melancholic interpretation and an instrumental/humming version of ‘Sahana’.

17. Aaromale – Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya

That’s the song that has always been on my playlist ever since the music of Vinnnaithaandi Varuvaaya released. Infact, I fell in love with this song from the first time I heard it. It’s magical to say the least and it’s one of those rare songs which I can listen to any time in any mood. Infact, it creates my mood everytime – of joy, of awe, of magic. Just like the first time. There’s something about the song which is indescribably blissful. Be it the opening guitar, the voice of Alphons Joseph, the beats, the ‘Swasti Swasti Sumuhurtham..’ chorus or Ganesh Rajagopalan’s violin. There’s something unique in how it all comes together and makes the song what it is. The song is based on the ragam Bhageshri, one of my most favourites. I don’t know why but everytime I walk along St. Pieter’s Church (the structure looks beautiful from every angle) in the centre of Leuven, I feel like listening to this song. I don’t know if it is because they show a church in the movie too. When every face of the church appears before me as I walk around it, the sound of the opening strings of guitar play in my mind. Epic song.

18. Jaa Re Ud Jaa Re – Raavan

The surprise song in Raavan. I like the version rendered by Rahman during the music launch of ‘Raavan’ the best (it is slightly different from how it appears in the movie). A song which instantly connects with the soul. It sounds like a conversation with oneself – introspective, ruminating over the past and spiritual. Rahman brings out the magic with his voice.

19. Acid Darbari – 127 Hours

How can a piece of music be so touching, so moving and convey a whole spectrum of feelings without uttering a single word? Is this what is Rahman’s touch? I don’t know, but I know for sure that it is something divine. It brings tears to my eyes, yet comforts me. The cry (of Aron?) reveals the pain, but the continuously flowing sounds of the continuum soothe. The romantic Darbari mostly used in film songs puts on a mournful face here. Yet, there is an indescribably beauty in every note. [I wrote this down on the day I first listened to this piece. I feel exactly the same even today.]

20. Jo Bhi Main – Rockstar

I really connected with this song after reading about Jordan’s character as described by Imtiaz Ali – that Jordan can only connect with other people’s music, which cannot lie unlike their words and that he can express himself only through his music. Earlier, it was the sound of the opening guitar, ‘ya ya ya’ and the lyrics, which I appreciated, only superficially. After reading that, I could sense something beneath all this – probably the true emotions that the song tries to convey. When I hear the same ‘ya ya ya’, I can feel that those words are trying to convey something deeper, something which can’t be expressed by any other meaningful words. This has also become my most favourite song in Rockstar. There is much more that I am yet to discover in this song, but I know it is going to be in my playlist forever! My favourite line: ‘jO bhI main kehna chAhoon, barbAd karEn alfAz mErE’. I hope you could hear some of the music behind all these words I have written here, which otherwise probably quite didn’t convey what I wanted to say!

P.S.: After coming up with the list, I made a short analysis and saw that 10 of the 20 are from Mani Ratnam’s movies! Also, 10 of them are from films released in 1992-2000 and10 from 2001-2011. I certainly didn’t expect that!