Learning with Tanzanite Group

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Today, we close our sociology classes for the academic year. The group of kids (13-14 year old) with whom I have shared classroom time over the year were introduced to ideas of society, groups, norms and rules, sociological perspectives and institutions in a society. This was meant to be an introductory course. In two sessions with one scheduled this afternoon, the students share their experience (or speak of any topic of their interest) with rest of the school during assembly hour at the end of the day. Two groups presented about their topics of interest last week – one spoke of “crime” in society and how might one understand crime. They ended with some statistics on rate of different types of crime. The other group presented their ideas on “media” – its purpose, types and an example of how opinions presented in the media are shaped.

The idea of a review and sharing session during assembly developed when the principal suggested that we might want to have a review on how a year of sociology curriculum was received by the students. I proposed that instead of a conventional writing based or test-based assessment it might be good to involve the whole school as well as let the students themselves have some reprieve from the test-based methods. Understandably, when I proposed this to students, they were enthusiastic about it. They formed groups on their own, selected topics, went ahead with research on the topic and developed their content for presentation. When I saw them present, I was thrilled with the speed at which they executed this. In the entire year, this was perhaps the most swift and complete participation shown by the group of nine students in the class.

This brings me to the first lesson from the year – work with what interests the students, at all times. And if required, wait, till the students show visible interest in the subject. In other words, coercion does not work if the intent is to drive learning. Simple as it sounds, it took me three years to understand this. The outcome of coercion-free learning is marvelous, if I can use that word. At times the enthusiasm of students has been so infectious that I have stayed high with it for days. This year, with Tanzanite group (Poorna has names for groups not numbers) I have had my dead-poets-society moments. I didn’t want to ride back home after school but get on the bus with them and continue living that teen environment. for the sheer freshness of what I heard from them – no stereotypes, every observation, every question so elemental in its form.

An academic year is such a short time when one is tuned-in so closely with the students. The second lesson has been about the extreme importance of introducing social science with an equal emphasis and rigor as other subjects in the middle school. I say extreme because of the shape in which our contemporary world is in. It is no longer easy to parse through facts, truths, values and opinions that each one of us comes across in our daily lives. Most often, the kids project what they have heard their parents discuss at home or what either of their parent seems to hold true and has at some point shared it with the child. I saw this happening when the class discussed food habits (vegetarian/non-vegetarian), when they investigated the effects of demonetisation in India through interviews and wrote about it and several such discussions. A favorite was discussing sociological perspectives with them and watch them try to get a grip of the idea. In the following weeks, I was told several of them were using perspective as a way of reasoning in their conversations in and outside the school. This was intriguing as well as scary. Intriguing – for the speed at which the understanding was mobilized outside classroom and scary because it becomes crucial that one who is introducing these ideas in classroom does a good job at it. One’s own biases can cause a serious damage to the understanding of young, impressionistic minds. And I grew very conscious of it. We discussed the Russian Revolution and the idea of revolution itself. In their minds it was about violence as a method to bring change. I had to make significant effort in busting that impression that revolution always means violence. I used ideas of Gandhi and Mandela to talk of how revolutionary changes were brought about without violence.

Third lesson was about the use of school as a space to shape and mend things that the collective conscience of the society has felt wrong or problematic. For instance, themes like intolerance, respecting alternative views and reasoning one’s choices. All these played out as we discussed themes from the curriculum. I noticed how kids brought their observations from their daily lives into the class and used it as their views. Sometimes, to make sense of their own experiences we read travelogues – Khushwant Singh’s writing on Delhi, we read ethnographies – Katherine Boo’s Behind Beautiful Forevers and Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day and we tried discussing these first hand encounters to understand how one can go about making sense of daily experiences that stand out for an individual.

On this last day of the academic year, I think with a comfortable degree of confidence, I can say that the group I spent time with is a bit further up in their understanding of people’s lives and society, know how to be empathetic and are empathetic, and finally are able to think consciously (within their current cognitive abilities) of the choices they make at this stage in their lives.

I can’t thank these kids enough for helping me learn even as they trusted me with their learning. A satisfying year at school. I hope the kids also feel the same.

Some trails

​Bangalore Mountain Festival

29/1/2017

This was a short ride and a short run combo. Rode out this morning for a trail  run outside the city. Early hours, the yellow of the city roads and the engine’s rhythm worked up nostalgia of a dozen road trips.

Reached the venue after overshooting some 20  km in the pre-dawn darkness. Losing way is a smooth experience these days. That may be age’s doing. Rolled into the venue and changed. Paced around a bit and got on to the starting line. After Mumbai, this was to be a recovery run. So didnt bother tracking time or pace.

A sweet and simple start and we were off into the many spaces between the ranges around Nandi hill. The peak was still covered in fog but the many couples and groups of people were already flocking it like maggots. Hated the number of cars and rash riders all around. Feels sorry for the villages around. 

Two laps of 10 km were to be done and the bunch of Kenyans and Ethioians were already pounding it. They are the new variety of money chasers. likeable sorts though. Run races to win the prize money and repeat this all year. Such a livelihood doesnt quite come with a retirement plan. I was bombing down all the dowhills and loving it. Pissed too on the trail.There was one toilet at the start and ladies were already chatting for long in the long queue. So kept it for the trail.

Kept a good clip all the way and enjoyed the sight of hills around. One uphill stretch got me pushing myself but the downhill was like catching a flight for the next 2 km. A curious guy on one of the farms wanted to know the distance the runners do in an hour. 

By the second lap sun worked up the temperature. But Bangalore sun is no match to Chennai’s. Kept on. Bach’s symphony played on the phone. The last 4 kms were sure a symphony – a beautiful trail, good physical form, a decent pace and the morning. 

Through the last stretch of casurina plantation, emerged on to the timing mat at the finish line wishing for another lap. Some runs perk up the spirit like that of a lark’s – excited to fly, wanting not to perch! 

I’d recommend Bangalore Mountain Festival’s trail. Tasks the runner just a little beyond the usual endurance required for a half marathon.

Mumbai in 42 kilometers

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CST, Mumbai (Image: Eraserheaded)

Last week at SCMM, I figured that a 42 kilometer loop around a city is quite an unusual way of experiencing it. May be that explains increasing popularity of running tours in Europe. A run around the city is much like our old town halwai offering generous bits of the assortment of sweets on display before one buys any.

With Mumbai, it was also a re-look at the city. It has showed up annually in my life ever since I stepped out of school. I have taken bits of of it on every visit and looked forward to the next visit without making an effort to know when. This year’s Mumbai was different. I was going past the same places that I have gone past earlier. The difference this time was running through these spaces, floating along with a stream of runners. The rhythm of a run, places gliding by, changing soundscapes, changing landscapes… all of these together have a rather unique effect on the visitor. It isn’t quite an immersion into a single site. Rather, it is a swim through the landscape. The effect is that of a visitor experiencing a closeness that develops spontaneously with someone, in first meet.

I’ve stood by CST, starting point of the marathon, several other times as a just arrived traveler, as a purposeful visitor, as an idler… but never under a pre-dawn darkness which is about to turn deep blue of the morning with an intent to just run around. The monument in those hours, void of its daily throng of people, was much like an artist in a completely different role than what the audience has seen her in, all these years. I couldn’t have imagined the magnificent CST building without people milling all over and this not because the city has shut down due to a terror threat, but for a different reason – when the city lets a whole lot of people see it, up close, and let them experience it on foot.

A runner in this country is somewhat privileged to be able to travel to different cities only to run and pay registration fee. If one is able to afford it, it offers a completely different and unique peep into the city. This isn’t a call for any sort of consciousness or action but a plain observation that it was upsetting to see children with huge sacks going after every single plastic bottle thrown by runners on the roads. There were easily a hundred of them who, oblivious to the event and people around them, kept their eyes on these plastic bottles and were out to collect as many as they could manage. That would be the day’s haul and perhaps a decent amount of money than other days when sold. At the same time another group of children were experiencing it differently – The Scindia School Band played from a stand. That was a lovely sight! The children showing up and playing for the runners.  The realities are stark – of the runners and of these children and of the worlds that the several pickets of policemen there on duty inhabit. Each of these overlap with the other’s only by virtue of their need or call of duty. Nothing else. I am not sure how these city marathons go in developed countries of the world. But in a place like India with its very wide spectrum of social and economic status of people, it can be a bit unsettling. Perhaps, this comes out best to a visitor when she comes attends an event like this.

At the same time there are several appealing aspects about it. SCMM is a huge fund raising event for social causes of a wide variety. The energy and enthusiasm among the people makes one feel quite good about being in the city and about the collective spirit of oneness. Even the diversity of people and groups seen on and off the course is remarkable.

My favorite part was to run on the Worli Sea link. There was something surreal about being on it and watch the steel ropes glide, one by one,  a little above the eye level. Modern structures as these are seldom seen on foot and at such pace. It isn’t a commonplace experience in India to be able to run right in the middle lane of a vast mega structure as this and take plentiful looks at the city’s skyline on both sides. It is as though this was an opportunity to come up close and know the spaces taking all the time that one wants. This aspect is quite distinct in urban runs and even more in large metropolises as Mumbai.

Amidst all this, I realized I was also doing a faster pace than my last run. I wanted to shave off some time from the Iceland run. Until halfway point, I was sure doing better and confident about finishing it well. It was a little surprising how I registered everything happening around and be mindful of the pace too. I can usually do either of the two -run or look around. Look around as I run, was new!

A couple of known faces passed by. Some were sure on their way to achieve a personal best timing. Meanwhile, I was bonking out. I hit the wall by 33rd km. Pace slowed. Shoulders drooped. The ones I tailed took off and were speeding to the finish line. And I was experiencing Marine Drive at a much slower pace than what I started with. There were kids reaching out for the strewn plastic bottles. There were policemen trying to mind them. The runners were all pushing themselves to the finish line. Meanwhile, there was an anticipation in the crowds which waited for the elite runners to run past, much like my brother and I used to wait by the small railway station in our town to watch a superfast train run through our little town leaving us in a storm of catering litter. Anytime now, the air suggested! There was this stepping in and out of the door that connected the chambers of past and present, which happens with me in almost every run. This was similar.

Running the 42 at SCMM wasn’t difficult. Keeping a faster pace, was. At the sight of the clock hung at the finish line, I started racing the seconds. Even before stepping on it, I was checking how much better than the last. The idiot inside overpowers ofern! SCMM course took 3 hrs 43, 15 mins less than Iceland’s. But a wholly different trip looking at Mumbai all over again while I was about to hit a personal best timing.

A day before the run, at Kitabkhaana, I searched for authors from the city writing about the city. Feels good to have come across an endearing volume of writing by Adil Jussawalla, edited by Jerry Pinto – Maps for a Mortal Moon. I knew that Jussawalla was a good friend of A K Mehrotra.  So this was also about discovering friends of a writer I admired. This morning’s reading from the book was a trigger to recollect my connection with Mumbai during the SCMM trip. The city lives in the heart of those who spent a lifetime here or have come to form an undying bond with the city because they came of age here, or found a career, or love or self or whatever. It is hard not to admire the city and its several cultural creeks as much as the geographical ones. Jussawalla writes about two writers who are pining for their Bombay in their time, which I think I am not quite capable of feeling about a city but several cities. Until next time, I too remain homesick and eager.

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“Six Authors in Search of a Reader”, Adil Jussawalla

 

 

Indian sociology, if there is one

Last week was spent in listening to some of the best Indian minds in sociology during NIAS’s annual seminar on nation, community and citizenship in contemporary India. It was also a fitting tribute to M N Srinivas in whose honour a panel discussion was organized. The discussions seemed in-line with his own way – stress-testing concepts and original. There were differing opinions on the relevance of concepts, ethnographic method etc. One of Srinivas’ contemporaries present at the occasion was Prof. N. Jayram who had known M N Srinivas for a substantial part of his later academic career.

I have been interested in Srinivas’ work and the development of sociology in India for a while now. The seminar at NIAS brought together a rather large section of Indian sociologists who, undoubtedly, have driven teaching and research in sociology in Indian universities. Over the last three years, I have used excerpts of Srinivas’ The Remembered Village as an preliminary exposure to sociology for students of O and A level studies. I find it a useful sample of classical sociological writing which comes up as a result of long term observations driven by a structured inquiry. I have been interested in knowing what has been the legacy of Srinivas’ work in India and how has it changed the study of Indian society. While I did manage to have some insights into it at the seminar, the more interesting part was Prof. Jayram’s reminiscence of Srinivas. A rich description of sociology in early years of independent India can be found in Srinivas’ interview with Chris Fuller here.

Jayram suggests that there are two things worth noting when we discuss Srinivas today – that he came in at a time when social philosophy transitioned to sociology and that his career spanned colonialism, Indian independence, Nehruvian socialism and nationalism (he passed away in 1999). In terms of the discipline, he  privileged field view and participants , which methodologically many know as participant observation. His approach was of being in the field and getting us “earthworm perspective “(for Jayram the importance of this approach kicked in during his work in diaspora studies in Trinidad). The terms he coined – dominant caste, vertical and horizontal solidarity etc are widely used in analysis of Indian society now. Srinivas emphasized on caste as interest group over caste as a system. This analytical lens becomes immediately useful when one finds that systemic analysis of caste not being helpful in offering any logical analysis of caste dynamics.
Jayram added that Srinivas was strongly influenced by structural functionalism. It was his eclecticism that made his sociology more appealing. When one thinks of it, it is hard to list names of eminently readable sociologists in India. The likes of Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Ashish Nandy, Shiv Visvanathan etc who appear often in the newspaper columns can hardly be understood by common people (and require re-readings for social science graduates themselves). One could argue that these are not sociologists, but the larger point remains – that Indian academicians don’t quite have the ability to write in an engaging manner. The only exception to this, in my opinion, is Andre Beteille. Whereas, Srinivas did not restrain from communicating his ideas to a general audience. Jayram remarks that Srinivas’ language carried both – the novelist’s imagination and sociologist’s thinking. That is a enviable ability to write! It is said that Srinivas was also influenced by Graham Greene’s prose style.

Another sociologist on the panel and whose papers I have read through MA was Surinder Jodhka. His remarkably sharp, analytical mind is rather unusual in the discipline. Jodhka’s criticism on “Rampura” (village where Srinivas does his field work) as a problem – that it is the idea of a Hinduised India, is reverent yet sharp in pointing out the contention. Jodhka says, the village of Srinivas’ imagination isn’t quite a village reflecting the realities of a village in contemporary India. Jodhka urges that rural is not just one – there are many rurals. Rural India encompases a whole range of possiblities and configurations which get flattened out in the dichotomous references of rural and urban. A more reasonable category, Jodhka insists would be settlement. The last bit of Jodhka’s critique was about the conceptin of an ideal society which in some sense has been about a casteless society. He asserts that  a casteless society is not an answer – a democratic society is! In a way, it is futile to imagine that caste would cease to matter in the future. Evidence suggests that irrespective of material status, caste consciousness has deepened in India. If anything, it matters all the more. Caste based coalitions are now a major determinant of political outcomes as well as in businesses. In such a scenario, imagining a casteless society is delusional. The task of sociology is to acknowledge the realities of the society and then offer a way forward, not by negating them.

In most MA programs, courses in sociology are dominated by published papers from British and US institutions. Most students are at  a loss to even recall two Indian sociologists and their works. Indian sociology with its own approaches and unique knowledge production could certainly be identified in the 1970s and perhaps until late 1990s. After this, I do not quite find works as situated – in method and content, in India, as earlier. This can be a hasty remark, until I find published works on Indian society, which deviate from the methodological and conceptual traditions of the British and US institutions.

 

 

Roundup 2016

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At the end of 2015, I wrote about the unusual solitude I experienced that year. The Walden Pond spirit of that year dissipated in the activity of work, school, university and travel with 2016’s – the year soon filled with people, places and activities. It feels remarkable how one set of days can be very different from another even though not much might have changed in the immediate environment that one lives in. Obvious though, to some. But this obviousness isn’t quite the same to those arriving at it via a process of gradual discovery propelled by the course of life. The change it appears lay in mind and spirit helped a little with a good spell at work which pushes the worries of making a living off the table.

It has certainly been the best for running – finished four marathons and managed to complete my first 50 km ultra run. I hope to do at least one 100 kilometer ultra this year. Pushing it towards La Ultra 111 would be easier later. Cycling suffered tremendously, though. The only continuous bout of 40-45 kilometers cycling every evening was during the few weeks in Oslo. Back in Bangalore, I was clocking double this distance everyday on motorbike. The year almost had an even tenor with days spent equally at school, university and at work. And then the remaining outdoors which included over four weeks of time in Nepal. This year I also read more than the previous. If there was any semblance of balance (a balance that I’d like) in daily living, 2016 was it.

It has been an immensely instructive year. Of these, I think the following are to stay as a pursuit hereon,

  1. Being with people unlike myself: The trouble with earlier years has been that I spent time hanging out, meeting and working with people who were a lot like me. This grouping of likes happens in a natural way I suppose. I learnt to be conscious of it and move out of such groups which sometimes tend to become echo chambers. I am enriched a lot more from knowing people with different vocations and interests than mine. Associating with diverse range of people has helped immensely in my learning and outlook. Related to this is an insightful book that I read in December was Oliver Sacks’ autobiography On the Move. He lived an extraordinary life as a roadie, one time record holder in weightlifting, a neurologist by profession and an amazingly prolific writer.
  2. Realization that mental health is an extremely important aspect of life: State of mind has a tremendous bearing on day to day activities as well as one’s zeal for life. I wouldn’t have known this. It came to me in course of last year when I saw my own spirit fluctuating through weeks and later with a couple of individuals at Poorna. It was immensely revealing. A completely able body can be rendered useless with a mind that isn’t up to it. This year and further, it is a resolve to pay much greater attention to mental health of others (if I can help it) and to keep a good, vigorous and healthy state of mind myself. This reminds me of one of the most interesting books that I read last year – “Mind Readings” – a collection of essays about writers’ journeys through mental states. This realization was particularly stronger with a kid in school whom I taught for two years (and with whom I failed in my feeble abilities as a teacher) and couldn’t help with how he felt in school every day that he was being forced through the educational system and exams. And then watching Lars and the Real Girlan outstanding film on human condition and the lives that some live.
  3. Keep pushing myself: I feel more convinced about it than ever before. I reached the physical edge of it during CTM’s last eight kilometers of the fifty that I was running on that hot morning in Chennai. Never felt so exhausted yet not wanting to give it up. That experience has been subtly shaping me since then, I realized.

The thing with lists is that they develop fast and turn banal soon after the third point. Most of the other takeaways from the previous year are likely to fall in one of three above. So, I’d rather keep it at this.

The post is four days late. I had been in the practice of writing this on new year’s eve. But this is another break this year – impulsiveness over predictability. Took an impulsive bike ride to Madurai to visit friends from APU days and spend time chaffing around. As years get added to life I hope this impulsiveness maintains itself. Thurber wrote, “He (E B White) has steadfastly refused to learn to play bridge or take out life insurance.” I wish that such a spirit of adventurism and refusal to seek insurance against what life throws on the way stays with me too.

Bonne année everyone!

 

 

Iceland: Driving, Running & Northern Lights

Downtown Reykjavik, Iceland in October, 2016

Downtown Reykjavik on an October morning

This place is completely twisted (in an endearing way though). Everything that a traveler sees is almost guaranteed to end with I-have-never-seen-this-before. Its people (Viking idiosyncrasies, music videos, sense of humour), food (Hakarl?), landscapes (any given sight on the island except the airport and the supermarkets) and above all unbelievably difficult to pronounce names, of places mostly. But these are mostly post-trip thoughts. Something completely different got me there – a movie watched on a mid-week afternoon in Bangalore. We were binge-watching, helped by cheap 100 rupee tickets on weekdays at PVR.

Iceland is as close to the Arctic circle as I could get this year.  The island was not on the travel list until Secret Life of Walter Mitty released. Watching Mitty take that downhill on a skateboard, across a stunningly beautiful landscape on a big screen was magical. The landscape looked extraordinary to a mind familiar only with tropical imagery. In retrospect, it feels that I was also in awe of this adaptation of Thurber’s short story into a film and Ben Stiller playing Mitty. The conversion of landscapes from screen to real had to wait two years from that afternoon at the cinema. In October, 2016 my friend and I found ourselves heading to Scandinavia and were to spend several weeks in Oslo. This was Iceland’s call via Scandinavia for us. Thurber was right, beautiful things don’t ask for attention. They just remain lodged in the subconscious space, until one gets to live that beauty and finds oneself right there, witnessing it. We were fanboys traveling to Iceland. Reykjavik’s Oddsson hostel had a few more – a South Korean college kid who got on the plane after watching Mitty. And then a whole pack of instagram-led young travelers who wanted their own instagram album set in Icelandic locales. That the common kitchen overflowed with people and conversations was a sign of backpackers making use of the crashed Icelandic Kroner and easy connectivity from Europe. Those from  US however, were on travel offers from Icelandic air which has been pitching Iceland as the most suitable en-route destination for travelers from US to Europe. And this was working!

Reykjavik harbor area

Reykjavik harbor area

On the eastern highway to Vik

On the eastern highway to Vik

Truckers on the highway to Akureyri

Truckers on the highway to Akureyri (Image: My friend Eraserheaded )

The flat hill top in the distance is Eyjafjallajökull volcano

The flat hill top in the distance is Eyjafjallajökull volcano

Driving

Over the four days in Iceland, we took the highway to Vik, a pretty little town past the beach with black sands, on the eastern highway. We didn’t have a plan for the place. The thrill and anticipation of Iceland week was so much that neither of us knew the lay of the place, places to see or cared about changing money, checking public services etc. The only thing we had booked more than a month in advance – a car to drive around and live our time there at our pace. A motorbike would have been better, but Iceland demands extensive preparation (riding gear, GPS, good bike, breakdown backup etc) before one can take on its weather and the roads. We set out to see the legendary Eyjafjallajökull volcano, not because it brought Europe to a standstill with its eruption in 2010, but that Mitty runs for his next clue on the island even as Eyjafjallajökull  is erupting and the people have vacated the town. Another weather twist – the volcano is covered with an ice cap! It was unlike a volcano. It appeared as a flat hill range with a pretty set of houses nestled by the base. I wondered if this is how Icelandics play dare, by settling down by the base of an active volcano and then drive away as fast as they can in their SUVs when the fireworks begin. The tranquil and country idyll was perfect with baled harvest waiting on the farm, horses grazing in the distance, near empty highway passing by the settlement and the scene rendered even more unbelievable with a waterfall from a hill not too far from the settlement left alone. The sight is hopelessly appealing only to the traveler who can’t believe that the people have all of this for themselves everyday of the year. And a handful of them at that!

A day later we took the highway heading north of Iceland, via western rim of the island, towards Akureyri. However, the weather and time allowed us time to reach up to the peninsula region of Borgarnes about a hundred kilometers from Reykjavik, a busy little town with a population of under 1200. The drive in this direction was as stunning. But this was the arterial highway to northern Iceland and so visibly more traffic than the eastern highway. There was heavy cargo movement on this route and the large trucks had a sense of urgency which felt unusual for Iceland. Were these the Poles driving trucks for Icelandic companies? Probably! One of them almost ate our little red Corolla, showing up on the rear view mirror and staying behind menacingly or may be in his view, patiently. The sun shone bright on the highway after a rainy morning. Spiked tyres that most vehicles here have made a roaring sound on the road. This stayed as the road’s music in my head long after that.

The sense of open space, complete absence of human activity except the presence of the road and the unique combination of weather and geography, struck me the most about Iceland. Snow covered hills, lava plateaus, glaciers, waterfalls, grasslands, sea, active volcanoes, hot springs, rain, strong winds and sunshine and the clear blue skies at times… it all comes together as though nature pitches to a weather symphony and it chose Iceland for its performance.

Running

I ran the Reykjavik Autumn Marathon on October 15th. I trained for the cold weather run by training in Oslo (which had a similar early morning temperature as Iceland) in the preceding two weeks. The week leading up to the marathon went without practice due to work in Budapest. I was unsure about the run and about my performance. And this was also to be my first international run. The participants were mainly from Europe, a few from US and quite a few from running clubs in Iceland. No one from India in the full or the half category, although I did hear about a small Indian community in Iceland.

Arriving in Reykjavik after midnight, on the day before the run was the first mistake in a series of mistakes that I was about to launch myself on! The second – picking up the self-drive car on the airport, soon upon arrival. It escaped me that I would have no clue about the roads and orientation of the place. And making to the guesthouse by driving on my own was as stupid as I got in the last season. Third – figuring out the ways and systems of a completely new country in the darkness of night, with rain and cold which wasn’t quite factored in.This found us trying to drive out from the airport with a left hand drive car, re-fueling it at a gas station by swiping cards and filling in from an assortment of variously rated octane fuel (unlike petrol/diesel and premium grade labels of India). With a good load of fuel on my jacket sleeve because I couldn’t work the nozzle control to flow smooth, we got out in the rain to look for our guesthouse. The next mistake – to save on rental, I had not rented navigation for the car. I had prints to work our way through, on an Icelandic night. Everything was a first! Truly, out of the comfort zone where nothing was familiar – neither the roads, nor the names or sounds or machines.

8 am on the trail, Reykjavik Autumn Marathon, 2016

8 am on the trail, Reykjavik Autumn Marathon, 2016

The run started at 8 in the morning. We checked in at the guesthouse at 2 am and needed some sleep after 6 hours of flying and even more tedious drive from airport. I had no clue that I’d be hopelessly lost in the morning, looking for the race venue! This was perhaps the most terrible case of being lost (for what was at stake – a run that I had dreamed of all the way from India) after losing my way on the under-constrution outer ring road in Hyderabad, years ago. Starting at 6 in the morning, we drove all over Reykjavik, out and in and out again only to get back in and pull over at a filling station, despondent, looking for directions. There is just no one walking about by the road side in this country! Stop but ask whom? The Indian in me kept looking 360 degrees in disbelief. The filling station guy heard the mention of a marathon and that’s when the lights came up in my miserable morning – he had seen a lot of cars and runners next to the stream a kilometer down from where we were. Drove the car as though I was flying the jet out of an air base and made it to the starting point, with a minute to go for the gun shot! The kind lady pinned up the bib, as I put on the timing chip and the nice folks by the starting line shouted back by saying they’ll wait for me.

I do not know what was happening, any longer. It was a time warp – it continued from the time I sat by the plane window looking at Norwegian coastline that we were flying past the previous evening until now. There was a sense of disjunction – the body got into the act of running. Mind was trying to come to grips with the immediate environment, people and what was happening. I switched on the GPS and got running. It was dark at 8 am, drizzling and windy. I followed the footsteps ahead of me. A light chatter in the air. I kept going until the deep blue of early morning melted and light up the landscape. By that time I saw the runners ahead taking a turn towards what looked like a waterfront. The cold got the skin this time, with the wind pushing it in. I ran without music. By the time I was along the waterfront the day light broke in and as though I was out of the cave-like time warp which held me since last evening. It was now that I registered where I was running and what was happening around me. We were about 12 kilometers into the circuit. The wind grew stronger. I figured that we’d be doing two loops of this and that made me think about the next loop when I’d be running against this windy waterfront with a depleted energy stock. I had my first swig of gatorade at 12th kilometer aid station. Along the water front section I saw a tall guy running at almost the same clip as mine. As I neared, I ran along for a while, but he felt a bit slower than my pace at that time, which made me move ahead. Over the next 2-3 kilometers we kept at each others heel. Soon enough we ran shoulder to shoulder until the next aid station. We got out together again. This was an unsaid chemistry. We were running together, each saying “I need to run along to keep the pace”. We didn’t speak at all, until somewhere in 30th kilometer, the man went on to say “I can’t run fast, I’d like to keep the slow pace. Please go on my friend.” I realized he was a man in his 50s. He was a strong runner and it was me who was finding it a push to keep the pace. I wanted to tell him that. I hadn’t looked at the watch until then. The half guys were soon on the trail. We both realized that we were doing a decent pace.

The were more people on the trail by now. The solemn, cathedral like early morning mood was gone. It was a chatty, race scene now with runners, onlookers and people passing by. The people here didn’t cheer with words. They preferred ringing bells vigorously. The runners didn’t talk much to each other too. Neither they would return a gesture if someone made any. It was a bit unlike the festive mood at most Indian marathons. I was missing the groundnut-jaggery chikkis on the aid station. It was only gatorade and liquids. Many preferred a few swigs of coke instead. Strange I thought. The Hungarian partner I was running with preferred coke too. He said his wife was running the half. When they crossed, he gave a big bear hug and wished each other luck. I was observing the people around.

It felt like a very fast race. I saw no one walk any part of the trail. I was surprised that I had not taken a break even at the aid stations. The Hungarian guy and I were to run together till the finish line. We broke little, spoke little and fought the cold all through. The rain had picked up again. It barely registered on my numb skin that the tights I wore were soaked. I couldn’t feel the cold. The last four kilometers increasingly felt tough. After the daylight broke, the morning fell into a state of constancy. There was a gushing stream near by, autumn colours through the treeline and dampness of a rainy morning. Cold had slowed down the ache in the legs. It felt as though I have been running from the previous evening.

With the 42nd kilometer, we both gained pace and maintained it till the finish line. The man’s face turned into a relief as he neared. I was searching for the only face I knew on the other side of the finish line. Everything else was a sea. We stepped on the finish line and I looked up at the timer on the line. I couldn’t believe that I was finishing in less than 4 hours. I was least expecting this. And even if I were to target sub-4 hr finish, Iceland’s trail would sure not be the one where I would hope to. The morning temperature was between 3 or 4 degrees C. My friend reached out to me. Someone took off the timing chip and to escape the wind we went into the tents put up by the organizers. It was an amazing feeling. I couldn’t feel my lower body and felt that I had no control on my legs.

I sat for a while and wanted to eat. The last mistake was to show up here – there was nothing vegetarian to eat. The sandwiches had meat and eggs. Except for coke and bananas, I figured I could eat nothing else. In desperation, I pulled the salami slices and eggs out of the sandwich and ate it with lettuce and cucumber. I should have carried some food with me. But, that is how it was supposed to be! And now the cold kicked in as the body cooled down from the run. I was shivering from the cold. We made to the car and switched on the heating. It took a while before I could begin to drive and get back to the guesthouse.

This is how I finished the Iceland run – in a bluff, making mistakes all the way! And hit a personal best run time with it.

Reykjavik Autumn Marathon, 2016, full marathon finisher medal

Reykjavik Autumn Marathon, 2016, full marathon finisher medal

Northern Lights

The next three days we soaked up Iceland like tourists. Shopped for supplies, cooked in the hostel, packed lunches for long drives and long walks after returning. The hostel air was abuzz with talks of northern lights and there were midnight tours to spot action in the sky. The harbour front had companies offering attractive prices for midnight tours. We were on a budget. The Icelandic Meteorological Forecast indicated strong chances all through the week. Meanwhile, I read Scandinavian folktales on aurora borealis – one spoke of how fortunate the child conceived under such lights in the sky, is. Another of how, these lights are the dead virgin women dancing in the skies teasing men who couldn’t make love to them.

And then the roof of the hostel went riotous early evening on the day before we were to leave. Everyone around would want us to “check it out” – the lights in the sky. I looked up for the best places in town to watch northern lights. A little before midnight my friend and I made way to the lighthouse. The whole town appeared to have fallen down to this little strip of land, possessed by the pull of the flickering green lights in the sky, the dead virgins.

There, ahead in the horizon, we spotted the dancing lights. The phenomenon is absolutely spell bounding to say the least. There is nothing comparable to this marvelous show of lights in the sky on a cold, dark night high in the latitudes of earth. There was a feeling of being fortunate that we could stand there and witness this. Far from anything else, it was just too fascinating. The fact that there are so many of these extraordinary geographical, climatic and meteorological occurrences unfolding in the world that are far removed from the daily lives that we live. The world in that moment felt an extraordinary place with us being alive and being able to stand witness these. I shall never forget the swirls of green in the sky, which I watched transfixed from the windscreen of the car, as I sat inside trying to take the moment in. There is a sequence in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty where Mitty meets the Life Magazine photographer whom he has been chasing through the film. It is played by Sean O’Connell. The photographer is shown high up in Himalayas, perched at a post, trying to photograph the reclusive snow leopard. When the leopard does appear in the viewfinder they both look at it transfixed. After taking a good look, Mitty asks if he took the shot, to which the photographer replies –  “Sometimes I don’t. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.”

Returning Indians

Both, Hemingway and Virginia Woolf insisted that one ought not to judge. Describe, not opine, they suggest. I try. Then, sometimes a surge of thoughts make things go haywire. An instance – the range of views that Indians returning to India dole out as they make their way back. Lately, I have come across quite a few emotive, reflective and often times critical responses written by young men and women returning to India from universities in Europe and US who are generally unhappy with this reverse-gear travel. And I felt that most of these responses are rather unfair and mean to the country that they return to. The scope of being empathetic to their situation is also lost for me, when they tend to cast India in the light of all that they have seen with their blinkered experience in the “developed” countries where they attended universities.

About time that we have a new literary genre of angst ridden, fuming, hyper-critical social and philosophical writings from returning Indian youngsters who are given the boot from “the West” after their student visas expire.

With their dreams rear-ended by the immigration laws of the desired world they train their guns on and pump their frustration down to India and its people. Its narrow-minded, crude, uncultured, illiterate people with its men who exist only to grope the returning woman. Profound soul-searching literature that emerges as they make their reluctant way back to India; resume lives in the neighbourhoods which they thought they left for good; searching jobs shunting recruiter to recruiter not willing to accept the cheap INR remuneration! Life was lived in Euros and Dollars until now! Oh and let us not even get started about its corruption. This is the only country in the world,  you know, with life reeking of corruption from moral to economic! Of course, no where else in the world (that they escaped to), such shameful corruption exists.

As weeks turn into months and months bloom into years they take to writing and seek affirmation and glory on Facebook and twitter and blogs, hoping someday that they’d again escape the “unsafe” streets and wretched public spaces of the nation whose nationality is so regrettable!

May be I should stop reading such posts. I sure should. But sometimes it feels that this has a more ruining effect on others who live and work here and contribute to make this country a better place. No place or society is as flawless as the imagination of the returning Indians paints. They just choose to ignore the flaws of their adopted countries in their enamored lives abroad and in pursuit of keeping that dear opportunity (of living there) intact!

Understanding Children & Feeling Naked

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After a session on rights of children the teacher asked her group (10-11 year old) to draw what might be their idea of rights of children. This was one of the rights that a kid thought of and illustrated.

Last week in school, two incidents forced me to think about what does one really know about a child’s mind. A better question would be to ask what do we know about a child through his years of growing up, until an acceptable, complying adult is formed out of her by years of joint work by school, family and the society.

Then, I felt, that the best of insights into a child’s mind has been those of authors of children’s books – Dr Seuss, Maurice Sendak and lately Oliver Jeffers. Some object to the idea of “children’s books” vehemently. Sendak is even better on this – “A woman came up to me the other day and said, ‘You’re the kiddie-book man!’ I wanted to kill her.” I have to admit that I had never tried reading books meant for young readers after my early years of schooling and ever since I stepped into university. I started reading them after I joined Poorna as a teacher. The library was teeming with eye-catching, hilarious and endearing books which were also very well illustrated. I was hooked. Also, I’d find the kids of younger age groups highly engaged in their weekly reading sessions. Three years since my first encounter with this amazing world of literature for young readers, I am inclined to look into these books to find life lessons.

This morning, I woke up and read Dr. Seuss’ Oh the places you’ll go. Someone on twitter had mentioned it, after I had already forgotten it from Poorna’s annual day theater performance which was based on another of Dr. Seuss’ work.

Going back to the two incidents last week in school – a six or seven year old girl (from a group I do not teach but hang out with them during breaks) in a nonchalance that only children are capable of, tells me, “you talk to boys only”. I was standing with a group of boys of her age in the foyer. This felt like a remarkable observation coming from a six year old. She and I have seen each other in school for two years and she probably has also seen me speak and play more with the boys than her or her friends. It made me think about my unconscious bias and tendency to play with boys only. In the end, I felt she is right on this. While I stood gaping at that observation and my own inability to see this pattern in my interaction, I was also amazed at the range and variety of information that children tend to pick up. I think adults seldom have any idea about it.

Dr. Seuss or Mr. Giesel, to use his real name, once said that when he writes he does not think of moral of a story in the beginning. On the idea of a moral in a story, he says, “kids can see a moral coming a mile off”. This I would completely agree with, after last week’s incident. And I’ll also add that they can beat adults hands down in their insights on daily living.

The other incident speaks of the degree of carelessness that I tend to have with words and being conscious of what I speak. A kid in sociology class had not done her assignment which was due that morning. No, she mentioned that she forgot her notebook at home and that she has completed her assignment. We were only beginning the class and kids were just settling in. I remarked that she needn’t attend the class since she doesn’t have her work with her. And in the next moment my attention shifted to another kid’s notebook. I didn’t realize that the first kid had actually left the class and stood in the corridor overlooking the playground. When I was about to begin the day’s discussion, I noticed the vacant chair and still couldn’t recall that I had been careless enough to ask her not to attend. I looked out into the corridor, called her out by name and asked if she would not want to attend the class. That is when the kid responds by saying, “you had asked me not to attend.” It hit me then about how attentive I am to my own words, while I ask the students to pay attention to the discussions in the room, all these years. To say it was a humbling moment is being incomplete. It was more than that. I used that do-not-attend-the-class often as a threat and never meant to exclude anyone. Turns out that threat and even to consider exclusion as an idea, is so misplaced as an approach.

Both these incidents happened on the same day. The day felt like a waterloo of sorts! I am convinced that if one wants to know where the society is headed in its consciousness and what is to become of it, the world of children is the space to begin looking into. As I write this, I am reminded of several such incidents which offer a telling picture of the contemporary world. The drawing image in this post being one of them.

The cross seems heavy to bear

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A hyper modern museum space (Astrup Fearnley) right on the old harbour in Oslo. The landscape continues to change with high intensity construction activity.

In Oct – Nov, 2016 I spent six weeks in Scandinavia (Norway mostly) and in countries of Western Europe. This was to be my roving introduction to the region. To a traveler, the time he visits always appear as an interesting time. Likewise with me! It was to do with Brexit, immigration crisis and the rise of nationalistic fervour above the super-nationalistic identity that EU tried to drive in all these decades.

In Norway, the human-nature relationship is said to be special (vs. other part of the world). The fact that Norwegians enjoy a very high standard of living and at the same time have managed to achieve a high degree of environmental conservation is always foregrounded in discussions. Norwegian values and its landscapes are also said to be a part of the inspiration that led Arne Naess to articulate his ideas in deep ecology. This meant that while I moved around Oslo and its suburbs, I was quite consciously looking for evidence of such a relationship. Oslo’s high number of electric cars and ubiquitous charging pods for these cars for sure was one. However, I wanted to know what kind of discourse on environment, nature and human relationship went on here. This is what I was after. And then perhaps, having identified it, contrast it with the Asian context. Is it some kind of enlightened thinking going on in other parts of the world that is amiss in the Asians or Indians in particular?

The intent is to talk of environmental thinking and the contemporary discourse on environment. Climate change negotiations at those high profile and widely televised COP meetings to me smack of a doublethink on the OECD nations’ part. It seems unfair ( coming from a region which loves ending its sentences with “… in all fairness.” & “To be fair…”) that the burden of environmental concern and therefore reduction in carbon footprint should fall on countries in Asia, primarily India and China.

To complete this twisted picture of an environmental values of the OECD countries, we have the activists in Indian metropolitan cities whose action and thought go as far as the city’s parks and town halls where they can either light candles or hold placards or arrange public talks against the latest proposed infrastructure ( a steel flyover lately, in Bengaluru). It appears incomplete – their variety of action.

The Cross Seems Heavy to Bear

There appears to be an undue burden placed on an average man on the streets of India, to think about environmental impact and the impending crises. What is she to do about it? Everyone seems to have a prescription. But is that practicable or should the action start with an individual first (followed by systemic measures) is a question which needs a thought. This has been a continuing frustration with the arguments and reasoning that the activists and some of the policy makers push forth.

An ecological consciousness which drives conduct from a mere instrumental relationship to a blend of altruistic and instrumental behaviour with nature has undergone a re-discovery in twenty-first century. India seemed to have locked up its ecological consciousness away in a chest which would later on be broken into by recurrent environmental crises – year on year drought, floods, loss of soil fertility etc. During the decades of Nehruvian push towards modernization of India through its modern ‘temples’ – industries, damns, power plants etc, ecology formed neither a consideration in public policy nor in scientific planning a worthy factor. Note that it was the modern Indian state making that decision. The citizenry followed along – some gained from the benefits that the projects had to offer, some who stood in the path of the big projects were relocated and some others found careers of a lifetime in those enterprises. What agency if any could have an individual exercised if she felt not in favour of these large projects of modernization?

Also, this was well within the paradigm of the times, wherein the countries of the West took the same path to development – by dispensing with considerations of ecological impact and pushing up the exploitation of natural resources to the advancement as well as fulfillment of human needs. Soon enough, the impacts of ecological recklessness were to be felt across countries, with each one facing consequences proportionate to their extent of exploitation. The cross of environmental degradation and resultant loss seems heavy to bear. What are the options then, that a way back to an ecologically sustainable way of life can be found? With whom and where must it start from?

A look at the current ecological discourse shows a resurgence of themes like ecological processes and their relationship with development. This was identified by thinkers like Arne Naess, Rachel Carson, E F Schumacher and within India, by Gandhi with his ideas of sustainability and self-reliance. Besides these, anthropologists have written about man and nature relationship in earlier societies which embodied this form of behaviour.[1] Among these, an idea which perhaps hold potential to provide a philosophical foundation to the thought on way ahead is Naess’ exhortation for an ‘enlargement of the ego-self to eco-self’. This, he argued, might result in environmentally responsible behaviour as a form of self-interest. While Naess’ gaze appears to be directed at the individual, I argue that the same thought must be first applied to nations and their governments. It is with the state’s apparatus which should move towards an eco-self – an ‘eco-self of the state’. A state’s eco-self is a better suited site of action than an individual who as a citizen may not have the same influence and power to negotiate with the state vis-à-vis other citizens. Partha Chatterjee’s distinction of the civil society and political society identifies this differential power equation and how the state deals with the two groups in accordance with their status.

The climate change negotiations at the Climate Change summits are unlikely to work with technological and monetary interventions which are forever sharpened as though someday it would reach a state of perfection where the inter-nation differences over environmental impact and conservation would suddenly cease to exist. It needs a combination of these approaches with a direction for governments which face the crisis of venturing forth into imagining an ecological-self that does not call upon them to sacrifice their lifestyles and neither impinges on their future desires of consumption, material comfort and aspiration. This is the real challenge that domestic as well as global public policy is set against. These might manifest as conflict of interests, however, the underlying cause is a deadlock in being able to think about how one might conceptualize a path which lessens the human impact on environment and at the same time makes the inevitable cross a bit easier to bear.

[1] See Martinez Alier on Environmentalism of the Poor, Jared Diamond on collapse of societies and Rev John Malthus on overpopulation.

You must go to Berlin

 

 

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Living by the Rosa-Luxemburg Platz U-bahn, Berlin in November.

“You must go to Berlin” is a refrain we heard from Oslo to Budapest. Travelers and vagabonds swore by it. The itinerant European indicated a promise of a unique experience. The returning Israeli soldier insisted on how Berlin suited his travel (how its spirit suited him) in Europe hitting back after every leap out into the creases and frontiers of Europe. This time he was returning from Iceland, where we had met him a few weeks back. Another one insisted on joining her as she traveled to Berlin for a porn film festival. I didn’t know what to make of these until the evening I coursed through its multi-level underground metro and bahn system and surfaced above, on the massive Potsdamer Platz square. Larger still and standing in contrast is the Alexander Platz square which appears as though the city planners didn’t know what to do with the twenty acre plot. It is a gift of planning from the former East Germany. The strange looking  placement of Park Inn Hotel, the world clock and the shopping complex with confused looking trams and vehicles stopping across the the roads for signal.

Berlin is a restless city. Restless, not in an Asian-city sense and certainly not in its pace. It is restless in its production, its opinion, its taste and in its character. I say this from having spent time mostly in the East Berlin. For a visitor it is hard to characterize Berlin. It is a relief that such a place exists which has slipped out from the many attempts to stereotype it. Berlin’s hard to stereotype character is sensed when travelers – frequent or first timers like me, take a pause after the first “It is an interesting city” remark. Nothing follows by the way of explanation after that. The difficulty is then covered by the traveler recollecting her experiences or personal life stories that unfolded in the city but nothing that could explain why one found it ‘interesting’. Berlin renders clichés like ‘enigmatic’ and ‘rich’ hollow in their meaning. To a traveler who has been a reader of its history and spectator of its present the city is a stream of cultural, intellectual and political rapids with currents of every grade that occurred along the course of its history still whirling by. The traveler can begin rafting at any level and get washed away in the ensuing course.

As I arrived and got on to its dense network of U-bahn and tried in vain to make sense of the profusion of graffiti that covered every visible surface from foot level to the top of multistory buildings. The little buttons on the traffic signals too were in service of the graffiti messages. They displayed messages from chiding the reader of his bourgeois life to assertions of an independent taste and opinion on matters from artistic taste to sexuality. And unlike Oslo, the graffiti here dared with their placement and by their reach from the wagons of metro trains, sides of buildings and of course on the still remaining stretches of the Berlin wall. The city bursts with opinion on every issue – fringe or mainstream, big or small. I think every Berliner in his life must have had some paint on her and made a graffiti at least once in her life. That should perhaps be a more suitable definition of a Berliner than the beaten one that a Berliner crosses the road only when it is flashes green for the pedestrian.

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Sections of the Berlin Wall as seen at Potsdamer Platz. These were the L-shaped concrete blocks which were used to replace the conventional wall after a German soldier from East Berlin used an armoured vehicle to ram into the wall, break it and escape. 

On the political front, the city continues to nurture Marxist intellectualism and attracts scholars from the frontiers of communist thought and political action into spending some time exploring the tomes in its many archives and libraries. A mere walk around its main thoroughfares itself is an education in communist history – from Karl Marx allee to Rosa Lumxembourg Platz. Elsewhere, Lepizig renamed its Ho Chi Minh Strasse and back home Kolkata stayed with its Ho chi Minh Sarani. Berlin tried renaming in dozens, yet a fair deal remains. When it came to renaming Clara-Setkin Strasse which runs along the Reichstag, a leading Berlin feminist Marianne Kriszio is reported to have asked “Have we nothing better to do than to slander the memory of such women?” Evidently, renaming is a touchy subject. This is pretty much similar back home in India, from Delhi to Bengaluru. Renaming of streets can evoke public sentiments as fast as a monsoon roll over of dark clouds.

I am reminded of Walter Benjamin’s quote as I recollect losing our way finding the Berlin Philharmonic and later, the way to Rosa Luxembourg Platz on a late evening – “Not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling.”  It was November rain quite literally as I walked down from the skyscraper lined Bahnof Potsdamer Platz towards Brandenburg Gate and looked at remains of the wall all along. This arc of history on a single avenue is quite rare in metropolitans of our times, a sure sight to revel in. I imagined that a walk down this avenue on an afternoon can do the work of two weeks of world history classes for the students I teach here in school.

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The approach to Brandenburg Gate from the Victory Pillar

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The approach to Reichstag from Brandenburg Gate

Berlin’s socialism, its workers’ unions and their almost militant activism to safeguard wages and its intellectualism in art, music, lifestyle, philosophy and political thought is unmatched. No other city perhaps exhibits such a wide spectrum. If there is the classic socialism, then there is also the new left and both challenged menacingly by the right wing conservatives like AfD.

While a fraction of young Berliners choose to propagate and be a part of the Identitarian Movement, spreading fast across Germany and France, there is the horde of bohemians and hipsters who confuse the identitarians with their disregard for nationalism and to rigid ideologies. The ideological inclinations of the Berlin hipsters appear to be as diverse as their facial hair styles and marked by as many different thoughts as their body piercings. That is the beauty of Berlin. It all comes together as a very busy, forever changing collage, where each piece is a history as well as a commentary on the contemporary at the same time. Berlin seems to vow to not let any new wall ever get erected!

To a traveler, I’d respond in the same eager tone – You must go to Berlin! This European capital is a river with rapids to be rafted by the visitor. Jack Lang’s words stringing the two cities in a single sentence sure seem apt, “Paris is always Paris and Berlin is never Berlin!”