What is common between a Facebook joke about funny subtitles and a controversy around the results of one of the most important entrance exams students of this country take?
The joke in question showed a screenshot of a movie scene with its English subtitle. The song fragment bahne de, mujhe bahne de from Hindi was translated in the subtitles as give me sisters, give me your sisters, instead of let me flow (or let me drown if you feel the need for more intensity).
A Hindi speaker can immediately figure out what had happened. The word for flow here sounds like the word for sisters in Hindi. The two words don’t have common origins. In their root forms, they are sufficiently different. It’s just this particular form of the verb flow that sounds similar to the plural form of the word sister. The pronunciations and spellings are not exactly the same. They are similar enough that you may make a typo and write one for the other in Hindi. But a native speaker is not going to confuse the meaning of the two words. Even if they had exactly the same spellings, there is ample information available in the context and this translation mistake cannot be justified.
And NEET organizers apparently mistranslated 49 questions! This happened in Tamil, a language that I don’t know. So, I won’t understand what the exact mistakes were. But a similar issue had come up in another exam a while back. There clearly putting English questions through Google Translate and blindly pasting the output had been considered sufficient work for translating a crucial question paper. While so much attention is focused on whether students will get grace marks and if so how much, nobody seems to be asking how so many errors crept in. Does it happen more often than is reported? And even when there aren’t outright errors, what is the quality of translation in these question papers?
Unfortunately, bad translations are not a one-off issue. In fact, they are so prevalent that nobody seems to care. In literary circles, people debate a lot about good and bad translations, the challenges of translations, losses in translation and what not. But it doesn’t get discussed enough outside of it. The result is that a lot of documents, manuals, websites, instructions, etc. are translated every day and they are translated poorly.
Typically, these translation jobs will go to some agencies claiming expertise in all languages and a fast turnaround time at a reasonable cost. The quality is, at best, implicitly assumed and never checked. Most of the time, nobody even thinks about the quality. There doesn’t seem to be any difference between ordering pens for the office, which nobody uses except to sign documents, and ordering translation of your most crucial content. As for the “expert” translators who work on these jobs, they are typically any graduates who can claim to know the two languages. Sometimes they might be agency employees; most of the time, the agency will pick a freelance translator. Their credentials will be their past work – sometimes for big-name clients – but of the same shoddy quality. It was not flagged because nothing ever is. Most of the translators at work around us have never bothered to really study the nuances of the languages they work in; they seem to have no notion of the complications involved in a good translation, and nobody ever asks about the target group for a translation job which should matter a lot in how something is translated. They mindlessly do the word-by-word or phrase-by-phrase translation without caring about whether the output would make sense to a native reader. When you encounter a weird sentence or phrase in your native language (listen closely to announcements in the airports and metros, read signages that would originally have been written in English), try translating it mechanically back to English and see if it doesn’t start making sense. The translator, however, is not aware or doesn’t care. Access to Google Translate has made things worse. Many of these “professional” content creators and translators have no idea how Google Translate works and how it can’t be used blindly. Sometimes it results in funny or wrong output like the examples mentioned. But meaninglessness and unreadability are much more prevalent. Corporates, governments, NGOs – everybody is getting these poor translations done every day. Nobody has a mechanism to check, because nobody seems to realize that you can’t take translation for granted. Translation is a specialized skill that needs the understanding of both languages, their similarities, their differences, their colloquial expressions, their phrases and idioms, their regional variations, and very importantly the target audience for the output. Nobody is being trained for any of that. A few great translators might be producing great literary output, but things that get used every day by common people are at the mercy of those who don’t care. Neither the person ordering the translation, nor the one doing it. Without realizing it, we are in a translation apocalypse.
After visiting Les Combarelles cave, Abhaya asked our guide where the name of the cave came from. The answer was a little unusual. It apparently came from a word in a language called Occitan and as far as I remember that word meant cave. I tried to verify from the only Occitan-English dictionary I could find online and the nearest word I found was Comba, which means a gorge or a hollow. It still fits. So, perhaps that’s what she was referring to. But the best part of the conversation was the discovery that there is a language called Occitan.
France wasn’t traditionally French-speaking. Since after the revolution, targeted policies have been followed to repress, even destroy, “patois” or “dialects” in favor of a unifying French language. It was considered essential for democracy (else non-French speakers are excluded!) and for making France a unified power to contend with. Some, like Occitan, have survived to date, but like many Indian languages and “dialects”, they also have mostly older people left as speakers and hence are endangered. There are some scattered efforts here and there for these languages, but it doesn’t look like they are a priority. French is the only language of the French Republic and there is really no space for other languages to flourish under official patronage.
By recognizing a large number of languages in the constitution, India did a better job than the Republic of France with the languages. Since each of our states can have their own official languages, which can be different from the official languages of the central government, it has ensured that at least some languages are not yet obliterated. But there has been a sweeping classification of a large number of languages as dialects even in India (and Hindi – to whose dialect status many of these languages are consigned – might be the worst culprit here). Large modern nations just don’t seem to know what to do with their languages.
Luxembourg stands in stark contrast to France as far as the language policy goes.
People in shops and streets of Luxembourg are effortlessly multilingual. The default seems to be French, but English and German are easily switched into. There is also Luxembourgish, which has refused to succumb to the status of a dialect of German. It is, in fact, the national language of Luxembourg and one of the three administrative languages apart from French and German. Perhaps if we had more city- and micro-states in the modern world, we would have had more languages and fewer dialects.
Language learning over the entire school career accounts for 50% of the curriculum.
There is something to learn here. A multilingual country like ours should have much more emphasis on learning multiple languages in school than it currently has. Multilingualism, as a talent, is not sufficiently appreciated in our society, but it can be a great practical asset to people.
Then there was Brussels. Walking down one of the streets Abhaya suddenly told me something like, “They have such rhyming names for places. See, they have a chapel that’s called Kapel. I noticed other such names too.”
“Huh? A chapel called Kapel?” I hadn’t come across a chapel by that name in Brussels during my research on the places to see there.
He dragged me back to show me the street sign. It read
“Uh oh! It’s not a chapel called Kapel. It chapel written in French and Dutch!”
Henceforth, this story shall be known by the title “A chapel called Kapel“.
Belgium consists of three regions. Flanders is Dutch-speaking. Wallonia is French-speaking and Brussels is officially bilingual (hence those bilingual signs). There is also a German-speaking minority in the country, but it isn’t a separate region. Dutch, French, as well as German, are official languages of the kingdom. We didn’t visit any places in Wallonia. Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp, all in Flanders, sported Dutch-only signs. But the multilingualism of the country seems to accommodate English also amidst all this without any signs of grudge or snobbery.
French snobbery about their language is much talked about. Although in smaller places like Les Eyzies we faced language problems, we, thankfully, didn’t find anyone who was rude to us for not speaking French. In fact, in the place worst known for its language and cultural snobbery, Paris, we had a super nice Airbnb host. The elderly lady spoke very little English, but she was infinitely patient with us and went out of the way to help us at every stage. Since she had an easier time understanding written English, she always had a set of post-its about her and would ask us to write down when she didn’t understand what we were saying or asking.
At many places in Les Eyzies we had to resort to keywords, gestures, and pointing to written words – especially to get food! I suppose the Indian experience of often not knowing the local language even while traveling within your own country makes us more used to it. We are more likely to smile apologetically for the language trouble and make attempts to overcome it than act like it’s their fault that they don’t speak English. So, most people also respond in kind. Sorry for stereotyping, but many (not all – obviously) clueless American tourists seem to think it is everybody’s responsibility to learn English for their pleasure and this sense of entitlement gets returned in kind in some cases.
In Paris, people in shops, streets or restaurants usually always started by speaking in French, even when it should have been obvious that we don’t know the language, but most of them switched to English when we started using gestures and keywords (always with an apologetic smile!) to respond.
At the tourist attractions all over, even in Les Eyzies and other less visited places, there was almost always English-speaking staff available.
But, Museum Troubles
Unfortunately, information in English was missing in most of the museums. So, wherever available, one should take an audio guide.
National Museum of Prehistory in Les Eyzies and Musee du Compagnonnage in Tours were two very interesting museums which didn’t have information on the exhibits in English and had no audio guides available either. However, at the Prehistory museum, there were A4 cards available which had some information in English about all the exhibits in a room. It took some effort to figure out where they were for different parts of the museum and what they described, but they were ultimately fairly informational. One member of the staff did something very sweet for us there. Although her English was so labored that we understood very little of what she was saying, but she voluntarily came forward to speak to us and tried her best to explain how the exhibits in that room were chronologically arranged. After struggling with the cards for a while, what she was pointing out made sense to us and we were better able to use the cards.
At Musee du Compagnonnage we discovered a little late that the landing place, which was so crowded with a large group of elderly French tourists that we had thought it was a meeting/resting place and had skipped it, had some background information available, which helped to understand the rest of the museum with the help of a little pamphlet available in English. So the visit was slightly frustrating, although we did finally get a hang of the place.
At Lourvre we had opted for their “Welcome to Louvre” guided tour in English. At other museums in Paris and Brussels audio-guides saved the day.
We had popped in for a very quick look into Museum of National History and Art at Luxembourg and the cards in English there were fairly easy to use.
The Industrial Museum is Ghent turned out to be unsatisfactory. There were no audio guides although there were booklets provided in English for each of its floors. But in some cases, there was too much to read. Then on the main floor showcasing textile industry equipments, after the first few, we couldn’t match exhibited machines to their description in the book very accurately. But the Plantin Moretus Museum (related to printing) at Antwerp was very English-language friendly. All the information was available in all three languages – French, Dutch and English.
The Language Families
This is purely academic information, but one which I became aware of only after this trip. French is a Romance language, while English is a Germanic language, as is Dutch. So, English and Dutch are more similar than English and French are. But if there are many words in French that you recognize from your knowledge of English, it is because English borrowed most of them from French. After what is known as Norman conquest of England in the 11th century, a large number of such words entered the English language. More might have been borrowed over time too, because before English started donning the mantle sometime in the 20th century and after Latin had been displaced, French was the lingua franca of Europe!
Given that last bit, we can excuse the French some languages-snobbery, can’t we?
The shiny-looking food we bring from supermarkets or even good old sabzi mandi is poisoned.
I don’t need to make that point all over again. This episode of Satyameva Jayate has done a pretty good, if necessarily dramatized, job. (Please watch if you are not familiar with the dangers of chemical farming.)
The tragedy, however, is that organic has become a word that arouses skepticism more than hope. Anecdotal reaction to the word organic is typically:
Too expensive – only for hippies and elites
This, unfortunately, is the result of half-hearted, half-baked attempts that have been made in practicing organic farming at many places without understanding its holistic (oh yes – that much misused word) principles and implications. Newtonian Mechanics and Relativity have some fundamentally different axioms. It would be futile and unfair to ask Relativity to be explained in terms of Newtonian Mechanics. It is similarly futile to talk the language of chemical farming, believe in their axioms and ask organic farming to prove its mettle.
The following conversation is not fictitious, although slightly dramatized and reconstructed from memory.
Person A: So, did you grow vegetables with the help of compost. How was the output?
Person B: Very good. Very good. Farmers were very happy. Healthy vegetables. Good weight. But there is one problem with compost.
Person A: What problem?
Person B: Amount of Nitrogen is less in compost. Something needs to be done about that. Otherwise, it is very good.
Person A: You measured NPK? 
Person B: Yes.
Person A: Was there a problem with the vegetables?
Person B: No. No. Very good vegetables.
Person A: They why care about NPK?
Person B: But Nitrogen was less.
We don’t eat nitrogen from Urea. We eat vegetables. Person B – a guy who has worked for years in the field with farmers – didn’t see the irony. This was, at least, not a case of failure. But because organic farming is often attempted with misguided notions and expectations, it is no surprise that it results in disillusionment.
Below I talk about some common beliefs about organic farming.
Belief: Organic is about replacing each chemical input with a corresponding “organic” one.
It’s not. That is like explaining Relativity with Newtonian Mechanics. Chemical farming has dissociated the process of farming from the natural way the plants grow (Think about this: Who applies Urea, DAP, MOP or pesticides in jungles? Don’t plants grow there and grow ferociously?). It has been like replacing a balanced diet of cereals, lentils, fruits, and vegetables with different pills and potions which directly introduce specific proteins and vitamins into your body with some calories thrown in. All of us intuitively understand that this isn’t going to work for our bodies. The plants are no different and chemical farming is doing this to our plants. So, organic farming can not work on this principle and when organic farming is treated as using “organic” fertilizer, “organic” pesticide, and “organic” this and that, it is going to result in disappointment.
Belief: Organic farming is more expensive.
I found this to be a tricky one. Everybody thinks so (perhaps judging from the “expensive” organic products in the market). But nobody has been able to explain to me exactly why. Recently, I visited a very good NGO which has done extensive work in the fields of health, education, water management, horticulture, sports and what not. “We tried horticulture with organic. It didn’t work. Too expensive and there is no market for organic.” I pressed on, asking specific questions.
“What do you mean there is no market for organic? Could you not sell the produce or did you not get more than the market price?”
“Was the input cost higher with organic?”
“Did the yield go down with organic?”
It resulted in answers like
“We could sell, but not get more than the market price of regular produce.”
“Input cost didn’t go up; it went down.”
“Yield didn’t go down.”
So, what was the problem? Even if you got the same price as everybody else, your input cost was less and the yield was also fine. Doesn’t that leave you better off?
It took me some effort to navigate through the muddled up conversations. Finally, I realized that the devil was in the certification! I don’t even know the entire process, but everyone agrees that certification is a nightmare and small guys can basically not do it. But the problem is that most of these initiatives start with a focus on certification, which is expensive. So, they need a higher market price.
In summary, the farmers don’t spend more to grow organic, the consumers don’t pay more to eat organic. They are both paying for the certification.
Please keep that in mind the next time someone says “organic is expensive”.
Belief: Organic farming results in low yields.
What organic farming takes care of and what chemical farming destroys is the fertility of the soil. What is the fertility of soil? It’s not a “thing” that you can put into the soil. Fertility comes from the soil ecosystem which includes inorganic material like minerals, but also, very importantly, a large number of micro- and macro-organisms and organic matter. These organisms and plants have a mutually dependent relationship. Through photosynthesis, the plants release “sugar” into the soil that the micro-organisms feed on. These organisms, in turn, through their regular metabolism, release the minerals and nutrients from the soil in a form that the plants need. If you have this process going on in the soil, you don’t need to put nutrients from outside in the form of fertilizers.
With the use of chemicals over decades, this ecosystem in the soil has been destroyed. The organisms and organic material have disappeared. Hence, all the minerals of the soil are locked and not available to the plants. When you talk to older farmers, they will say that the soil has become “addicted” to the chemical. It is because the natural process is no longer functional. So, now, if you just stop using chemicals and try to grow plants, it will obviously not grow well. What you need is for the micro-organisms to return to the soil and for the soil to have enough organic material and moisture to sustain that life. This change needs some intervention and blindly trying to procure “organic inputs” from the market doesn’t work. The solution, of course, involves using some inputs, but they can be prepared with the animal and plant waste available to the farmers in their houses, farms or nearby areas. And they are best prepared by the farmers themselves, involving community wherever needed and possible. Firstly, because even when the inputs are available in the market, their quality is by no means guaranteed. There is no regulation and there is no dearth of unscrupulous businesses trying to milk the organic fad. Besides, preparation of such inputs in-house also helps come up with a system that is sustainable and suitable for the locality. It makes the optimum use of everything a farmer has at his disposal – land, plants and animals. Finally, it reduces outside dependence of the farmers. Different inputs work at different rates, some fast, some slow, some more easily made in one area, some in another and so on. But they exist, they work and they can be used.
While the well-off urban professionals turning to farming can usually take their time in building up an organic farming operation, the process of transition needs to be carefully managed for the small and marginal farmers. The thing is, it is entirely possible to manage. We just have to focus on the correct principles and outcomes and not obsess on measurements like NPK which don’t really matter!
Belief: But pests will still destroy everything.
An ecosystem similar to the one regulating soil fertility works to regulate pests too. The Satyameva Jayate episode also touches upon it. Basically, if there are pests in nature that destroy plants, there are others which eat these plant-pests. The organic approach is not to identify every single plant-pest and kill them with external inputs. But to get that ecosystem running in which the predators of the pests do that job of keeping the plants safe. There are again ways to manage the transition, which must be done carefully so as not to leave the small and marginal farmers stranded. It will have to be designed keeping in mind local conditions with minimal dependence on external inputs.
There are a few other important pieces of the puzzle including the now widespread practice of mono-cropping, water management, and seeds. But I don’t intend to write a technical treatise here. What I want to emphasize is that organic is not a distant, hippy, expensive or unnatural idea. It is, in fact, the default idea. That chemical farming enjoys the badge of ‘conventional’ is the real distortion. It needs to be corrected. And it can be corrected.
We went on a wine-tasting tour in Bordeaux. To educate us in the art of appreciating wine, they had a game for us. They give us four vials which had four different smells (pretty strong, not subtle like in actual wine) and we had to figure out what each of them smelled like. There were four couples on the tour and each couple was a team. We were also given a huge list of all possible kinds of smells a wine could have. I gave up on the game almost instantly when the very first vial confused the heck out of me. But Abhaya was more sporting; so we stayed put.
This is the story of two vials and their smells. While handing us one of those, our host said something to the effect that it was difficult for the Indians to recognize that smell. We glanced through the list of and without even smelling the vial, wrote “Truffles” against it. So did everyone else, we realized later. That was one vial we were all right about.
The second one, Abhaya was very sure, was cinnamon. He tried to get me to confirm, but for the life of mine I couldn’t figure out the smell. “Yeah. It’s spicy,” I mumbled to get him off my back. When it came to checking the answer it turned out that the correct option was pepper. We smelled it again. Of course, it was pepper. How could we ever think it was anything else? How on earth could it ever have smelled like cinnamon?
Indians usually get spicy smells right, our host informed us. It is all about what kind of smells you are used to, he was trying to explain with badly-behaving examples. We blushed and shrugged and giggled dutifully in response.
And Of Smelly Feet
Rains were our constant companion on the trip. One fine day in Paris, I realized after leaving the Airbnb that my shoes had not properly dried. but I didn’t want to go back to change and decided to keep it on. That evening we visited a fromagerie (cheese shop) and bought some cheese. We had decided to savor the cheese in our room. I freshened up after reaching the Airbnb and settled down to lay the cheese out. When Abhaya walked into the room he declared, “Your feet smell. Did you wash them?” “Not with soap,” I conceded as I was also smelling sweaty shoes or the stink they leave on your feet. I had been wearing the wet shoes the entire day. So, it was totally possible to have smelly feet. I went to the bathroom, washed and made sure that my feet were as fresh as daisies (or fleur-de-lis). But the smell won’t go. It must be the shoes, we figured. Abhaya collected both our shoes and socks and left them out in the balcony. That should keep the smell away also help them dry. But the smell in the room was still there. So, now Abhaya decided to give a soap treatment to his feet. We were still not entirely free of smell, but we decided the smell must be inside our noses now and it will subside in a while. It did. Either because the smell was finally getting out of our noses or our noses were getting used to it. We focused on cheese.
After eating a bit, Abhaya started reading about them on Wikipedia. He read thoroughly – all about their history, how they were made, what their chemical composition was and then he reached to this particular piece of info:
Camembert cheese gets its characteristic odor from many compounds. These include diacetyl (buttery flavoring for popcorn), 3-methylbutanal, methional (degradation product of methionine), 1-octen-3-ol and 1-octen-3-one (degradation products of fats), phenethyl acetate, 2-undecanone, δ-decalactone, butyric acid, and isovaleric acid (odor of gym socks).
Yes. We were eating Camembert cheese. After this experience, we ate blue cheese in a restaurant.
Every bad smell in France can be explained by some good cheese. And with wine and cheese being the thing, I don’t know how they ever manage to smell wine.
I firmly believe in having an exercise regime for good health. But in practice, my exercise schedule follows a ruk-chal, ruk-chal rhythm worse than my Europe trip did. It has more ruk than chal.
Even when I am doing well on my exercise routine, I can’t seem to follow something intense enough to help in weight loss. It keeps my body good and strong, but the weight doesn’t go anywhere.
While I am no model for healthy eating, my eating-out frequency is not too high; the same goes for eating junk food. I could cut down a bit more on it, but I couldn’t sustain a salad and lentils diet for the long term. I need my carbs; I need my ice creams and cakes once in a while too.
Any kind of diet, howsoever wholesome and healthy, doesn’t work in long-term. Watching what I am eating all the time makes me crave what I am not supposed to eat even more than usual. It is also just too much of an exercise of willpower. I can’t sustain it.
Then, purely by accident, I landed on this piece by Sidin Vadukut about 5:2 diet. His predicament with weight-loss struck a chord and 5:2 seemed doable. The idea is simple. There is no approved diet chart or anything. So, technically, it’s not even a diet. It’s simply a way of creating a calorie deficit – the holy grail of weight-loss – but not by watching your food every day. Instead, two non-consecutive days a week, you reduce your intake to one-fourth of the regular daily calorie needs. That is 500 calories for women and 600 calories for men. Now, you can eat whatever you want on these “fast” days, so long as you are within this calorie limit. But you will quickly realize that eating 500/600 calories of ice cream would not see you through the day. So, you do have to plan, but you can plan it to suit your dietary preferences. I won’t eat spinach no matter what! You can spread these 500/600 calories over the day, or take most of it later in the day, or stagger it any other way you want.
It may take some trial and error to figure it out. What I have mostly settled on now is
A cup of cappuccino in the morning (no sugar)
A filling meal with one bowl of dal and 2 medium or 3 small phulkas at night.
When the cook is absent, I sometimes pick up something from the calories-counted meals available from health-food restaurants on Swiggy. Before LivEat closed down, their hummus with veggie sticks and Buddha bowls were a lifesaver. Now, I typically pick something from PurpleBasil. But only if the cook is absent to make me my bowl of dal. Of course, you should eat only regularly on the other days and not compensate for these fast days by overeating, or over-indulging your sweet tooth.
Now, in an ideal scenario, you can lose 2 Kgs a month. But I have my ruk, chal rhythm to contend with here too. Between September last year and May this year I lost 8+ Kgs from my peak weight. Dushehra, Diwali, Christmas and New Year meant lots of sweets and desserts. Multiple work trip outside Bangalore meant eating out. Vacations meant suspending the diet for a week or two because – really – I am not spoiling my vacations by watching what I am eating. The suspension of the diet was also applicable while visiting parents – because – well you know! Vacations and visiting parents also usually result in indulgent eating compared to normal. And once in a while, you hit a plateau for no good reason at all. So, my average weight-loss was less than a kilo per month by May. Then the 2-week+ vacation in June meant a reversal, which I have been able to shed only now. I have had a couple of work-trips even after the vacation – so count all those setbacks.
I waited until now to write this post because these 8 Kgs were like an important milestone for me. I would like to lose another eight, but even if I don’t, the diet will at least help me in maintaining the current level, which is a happy-enough place for me.
I don’t think that the 5:2 diet is necessarily a universal solution. For one, people with diabetes and certain other health conditions may not be able to do it at all. Second, some people are just happy with healthy eating and an active lifestyle (my respects to you!). Third, some people have tried other methods of losing weight and it has worked for them. Finally, the idea of fasting seems to scare people.
I am not apprehensive of fasting, and hence it works for me. While I haven’t been into fasting for religious reasons, growing up I have seen most of the adults around me fast once or twice a week in the honor of some God or Goddess. Of course, propped up with sugary sherbets and lots of fruits and sweets, it didn’t help them with weight-loss. But fasting for a day or two a week is an idea that I am comfortable with. I have never seen anyone run into any complications because of that. In fact, unless a health condition makes it unsuitable for you, occasional fasting is supposed to have several health benefits – both according to popular belief and some medical research. What this diet did for me was to give a specific rule to follow during the fast which will achieve a specific purpose of weight-loss without starving the body. That leads to another reason why I like this technique. Unlike Keto or other very strict diets, I can actually see myself fasting one or two days a week over the long term (health permitting).
Sidin’s article has some more info and you can always check out the official site to get an answer to all your questions. I didn’t buy any books. The information on the Internet was sufficient for me. But you can, if you want to be even more careful. Some links from Amazon India here:
A final word of caution. 5:2 diet is a technique to produce calorie deficit and lose weight. It is neither a substitute for eating well nor for having an active life or some kind of exercise regime. I, personally, find that following a simple exercise regime is easier for me when I am on this diet because I no longer get disappointed with the exercise for not helping me lose weight. I can enjoy the other benefits it brings to me.
P. S. I don’t look particularly different in photos, so perhaps most people can’t figure out that I have lost this much by looking at me. I am assuming that most people didn’t notice that I was gaining weight when I had traveled this weight-road in the other direction too! But right now, I know that I feel better and lighter and the clothes fit a wee bit better too 🙂
Do you remember this old ad? Kabhi ruk, kabhi chal was how our plans on this trip were executed. French railway played its part, Bangalore rains and traffic did, and Belgian railway didn’t want to be left behind.
We were to take a flight to Paris overnight, land there on a Saturday morning and then the same day take a train to a place called Les Eyzies. Les Eyzies is a village in South West France which is an excellent place to stay to see a large number pre-historic sites and cave paintings. We had a booking to see the famous Lascaux cave the next morning. The day after we were to attempt another interesting cave called Font-de-Gaume. Then we were to travel back to Paris after spending a day each in Bordeaux and Tour.
A few days before the trip, I got a notification that the first train we had to take in France, which as you would recall was on the day of us landing there, could be disrupted due to the strikes. It looked like a generic warning message about the potential disruptions and I couldn’t figure out a way of determining if that specific train was disrupted or not. Strikes go on for months in France. Different unions or sets of employees go on strike on different days. From the “strike calendar”, I figured that they were going to be on strike on alternate days. So, every other day the trains would run normally. And since not everyone went on strike, it looked like you could mostly find alternatives even on the strike days. so we decided to stay hopeful. Now SNCF – the company that runs French railway – releases a definitive list of which trains are canceled and which will be running at 5 pm the day before. Which was about the time we were doing the last-minute packing and were about to leave for the airport to take our flight to Paris. To SNCF’s credit, they let you change the trains at no extra cost (even if the tickets were booked in advance at low, non-refundable fares, which ours was). But! This free exchange is not possible on their app or their website. Only at the train station or through a phone call. Afraid of being distracted and forgetting something important while leaving for the trip, I didn’t even try what would have been an international call from India and where I expected the language problem to make things difficult. What I did realize with my online attempts, however, was that there was no way we could reach our destination Les Eyzies by train on that day because ALL trains to that place had been canceled. If we didn’t reach Les Eyzies by that evening as planned, then our pre-booked Lascaux tickets would be wasted, as would be the money on the pre-booked hotel and on a last-minute hotel we would have to book elsewhere. Some desperate search for alternative places to reach by train threw up the name of Perigueux. But Les Eyzies is still almost forty-eight kilometers away from there. Although France and Europe supposedly have great public transport, this particular region is an exception. Reaching from anywhere to anywhere without a car is an ordeal. So, I searched for taxi companies in Perigueux and shot frantic e-mails to them to arrange for our transfer from the station at Perigueux. Given that most people in the hospitality industry in France had been rather laid back in replying to my emails earlier, I was sincerely doubtful of receiving a reply in time. Besides reaching Perigueux was also not guaranteed as of yet, because our tickets were not yet changed.
As we made our way to the airport, what to do after landing in Paris was not the only problem on our mind. It was raining heavily and Bangalore traffic obliged by creating a long jam on the road to the airport. At the suggestion of Google Maps, we took an alternative road. Still, for almost forty-five minutes it seemed like we would not make it in time. The problem of what to do after landing would be solved because we would never land there!
It is because the destined pattern was not just “ruk”, but also “chal”, that a few things fell in place. Even as we were wondering if we would ever take the flight to Paris and whether we would get a train from Paris to Perigueux, a taxi company responded and agreed to take us from Perigueux to our hotel in Les Eyzies for (gulp!) 100 Euros. Have you known what a bleeding heart feels like? Nope – you haven’t unless you had gone through this. Months of careful budgeting thrown out of the window. But given everything else that would be disrupted if we didn’t reach Les Eyzies, we swallowed the bitter pill and confirmed the taxi.
Because I am so careful a traveler that I normally spend inordinate amounts of time on the airports, on this fateful day we braved the traffic and managed to reach in time for our flight. The immigration at Paris wanted to see everything from our tickets and hotel bookings to cash and cards. But we had enough time in hand. So, we cleared all that, collected our luggage and reached the railway station well in time. As we had already figured out, there were no trains to be had to Les Eyzies. Thankful for my research, I requested them to change the ticket to Perigueux and they obliged. We didn’t get pickpocketed the entire time we were at the station in Paris. The driver at Perigueux station turned up in time and we reached Les Eyzies only about an hour and a half later than planned and a hundred Euros poorer.
Lascaux visit the next day should be a highlight of the trip, but compared to all this, the day felt uneventful.
The visit to Font de Gaume the next day was also supposed to be a great highlight of the trip because it is one the last remaining pre-historic caves in the region with polychrome paintings done almost 17000 years ago that is still open to the public. But my mind suffered so much excitement in what happened before, that I seem to have forgotten most of what was inside the cave!
As has been the case with most caves, they have reduced the number of people allowed per day into them every successive year. Right now at Font de Gaume, you can’t even book tickets in advance. You have to go there the morning of your visit, occupy one of the numbered seats outside the ticket counter and if you are among the first 52 people who occupy those seats, you get to go in. Else, better luck next day.
We had only one day left in Les Eyzies. It was then or never. The ticket counter opens at 9.30. We woke up before six and were there at the counter by 6.30. We weren’t the first ones to reach. A man was already there. I walked up to him and wished him Good Morning. He was surprised. “How did you know that I spoke English?” “I figured no local would be here this early,” I replied. He was trying to get access for the second time. The last time he had come, he was in a group of four. They had gotten three tickets. So, he had missed it. This time, he was the first in the line. Fair enough!
It started raining soon. We put our umbrellas over the chairs and stored our small bags under the umbrellas. That contraption would mark our place in the queue, while we took shelter under the small canopy hanging over the ticket window. After half an hour another small group came. Then more people trickled in. We figured we would have gotten a seat even if we had reached by 8.30. But we are not the people who take such risks! Remember the drive to Bangalore airport?
At 9.30, the employees started appearing. We witnessed what looked like some frantic activities inside the bookshop cum ticket office. Then a woman came out and spoke at length for 10 minutes. In French. I understood only one word she repeatedly used. Désolé. It means ‘Sorry’.
People who understood started getting agitated. This American before us in the queue understood some French, but he couldn’t quite decipher that monologue. Finally, she took pity on the rest of us. And summarized the situation in English. There can be no tour of the cave. There is no electricity.
What can we do?
Perhaps come back after two hours and check again.
Problem is, if we came back after two hours, what was the guarantee we will be among the first 52!
We hang around. The tickets for another cave Les Combarelles are also sold there. What about that one, we ask?
It will take her 10 minutes to find out.
So we hang around some more.
We see lights coming on inside the bookshop. Some anticipation. But no announcement is forthcoming.
Then the désolé lady is sitting behind the ticket counter. And she asks – who is number one. It will be much later that I would think of how that “number one” guy must have been feeling until then. It is his second attempt. And he has been there since BEFORE 6.30!
Well, we get into the first English tour at Font de Gaume. We get an afternoon tour at Les Combarelles too.
We feel victorious.
Despite some confusions, we managed fine with the trains in the next few days. From Les Eyzies to Bordeaux. From Bordeaux to Tours. And from Tours to Paris.
Then the strike struck again on the Paris-Luxembourg train. We had wrapped up the day early in Paris. We wanted to be rested well the night before the early morning train to Luxembourg. But the SNCF app and website informed us that our 7.40am train the next morning was canceled. Just before this, we had done a pushy negotiation with our Airbnb host in Luxembourg to allow us to drop the luggage before the check-in time. Assuming we got into the next 8.40am train, we would now have to request them to be available at a different time. Well – it was what it was. Changing tickets for free through the website or the app was again not possible. But now we were in France. In an Airbnb. With a super nice host, who could call and talk to them in French. Her spoken English was limited. We sometimes had to communicate by writing, because she understood written English pretty well. That’s what we did. Helpful as she was, she immediately called.
Surprise, surprise! Nobody picked up the call.
Being the careful people we are, we didn’t want to wait until morning to change the tickets. We decided to go to the train station then itself. Wrapping up the day early be damned. We had only a day in Luxembourg and we didn’t want to lose it. It was raining heavily by then. We braved the rain. Since Abhaya forgot his transport pass, we also spent four Euros extra on the bus ticket to the station (what was that after a hundred Euros for the earlier strike, eh?). While buying the ticket on the bus, he also got a lesson from the driver that it was Gare del’est that he wanted to go to. Not Gare l’est.
We reach the station. We stand in the line. Only to be told that change requests were being entertained only for the trains leaving that day. We should come tomorrow. In desperation, we seek help at another “info” counter that isn’t so busy. They give us a printout of the page showing 8.40 train, write something down on our e-ticket and ask us to board the 8.40 train and stand our ground if somebody asks. With that signature on the e-ticket, we have the right to board the train. That is not quite comfortable. It would be a TGV train that needs a reservation. You get a seat number there. But no point banging our heads. We come back.
The next day, the original counter issues us a new ticket. With seat numbers.
The train that was scheduled an hour later than our originally booked one, decided to get delayed from its own schedule too. We had negotiated the new timing with the Airbnb host. But now it looked like we would reach not before noon, which was when they wanted us to check-in originally. So much for benefitting from our negotiation skills.
We reached a little earlier than noon. The host was cool about all the confusion. Given the timings of the walking tour and late opening hours of Bock Casemates, we had enough time to see most of what we intended to see. The only gripe was that it was raining the entire day – just like in Les Eyzies, Bordeaux, and Tours! Just like the last day in France. When we finished the day, however, and returned to our accommodations at around 7pm, it was bright and sunny again! Arghh!
The next day it is the turn on Belgian railway to add spice to our trip (the company is conveniently called SNCB). These SNCB trains have no assigned seat numbers or reservations. We could basically take any train on that route on the day the ticket was booked for. We had a plan though. We had planned to catch a 5.10 am train to make the maximum of the day in Brussels.
But “Houston, we have a problem”. The displays at the station are showing no 5.10 train to Brussels. There are some for later. But we are at the railway station at 4.30 in the morning. What for? For the 5.10 train.
There is a train at 5.10, but it is to a destination we don’t recognize. After some complicated online search, we realize that the destination of that train is a place in Belgium which is a stop even for the train we had planned to take. The planned train was supposed to leave that unfamiliar station at 5.37 am. And that unfamiliar station indeed has a train to Brussels at 5.37 am. Neither the 5.10 train to the unfamiliar station nor the 5.37 train from the unfamiliar station has the same number as the planned train. There is absolutely no info about the planned train number on the displays. It does show up in printed timetables posted on various noticeboards. But that printed schedule was supposedly only valid till February. So now? Take a later train to Brussels? Or take the 5.10 train to this unfamiliar station and a 5.37 train from there to Brussels to reach at the planned time. Will these two turn out to be the same train? But if they are different trains, will we have the time to change to the other one at the unfamiliar station? We don’t know. The information counters won’t open until 6!
Armed with the info that our ticket allows us to travel to Brussels on any SNCB train, we take the 5.10 train to the unfamiliar station. Unlike the SNCF trains, ticket checking is frequent in SNCB trains. A ticket checker comes. I hand him the tickets. Hopefully, he will not shout at us for boarding the wrong train. He doesn’t. I am emboldened. I ask him if the same train will go to Brussels.
No, it will be a different train, he tells me. He isn’t surprised that we are on this train though. Good for us! The other train usually leaves from the same platform, he adds. We sigh in relief. As the train reaches the unfamiliar station, the helpful ticket checker has info on the next train. It is going to leave from a different platform. How can it not? It has to play its role in creating travel memories for us. We rush with all our luggage. We are panting, but we make it into the 5.37 train.
We reached Brussels at the planned time. If you need proof, here it is.
After all, Bhai chaal mein koi baat honi chahiye.
From here on, it is uneventful as far as the trains are concerned. There are only day trips to other cities until we take the flight back home. The trains are frequent, we have the train pass figured out, no reservations are needed and there are no strikes!
The most exasperating part of social media debates is when both sides blame each other for not keeping their minds open. There isn’t usually any hope in hell of settling this meta-argument about which party is open-minded, if either at all is. But the issue is a good introspective opportunity. How would you know whether or not you are open-minded? Of course, you think you are. But are you?
One good test is to see whether you have changed your mind in the last few years about any important issues. You may be so well-informed that you have never needed to, but statistically, most of us would not be in that group. Most of us would come across information or experiences which would challenge our existing understanding. So, it is a fair test to apply to yourself. Did you change your mind when it came to that?
I applied it to myself. I am happy to say that the exhaustive list of things I have changed my mind about is much longer. But talking about a couple of them is a good starting point.
This changing of mind comes about in two distinct ways. In one there is a clear moment of enlightenment. I can pinpoint exactly what idea, information or experience led me to change my mind. The other kind is more gradual, drawn out. There is no one moment of transition. But it isn’t difficult to know that the transition has happened. At one point of time in life my views are very different – even opposite of – what they used to be at another time in the past.
The latest experience is an example of the first kind. I was reading an article about Ambedkar and Gandhi and their differences over the issue of separate electorate for the Dalits. The compromise reached was reserved seats for them, but no separate Dalit electorate. Gandhi had to coerce Ambedkar into this compromise with one of his stubborn fasts. I had always thought that it was the right compromise and didn’t see any problems with it. It ensured a path forward for the Dalits without dividing the populace forever. But this article pointed out a problem there. Simply put, it is this. When Savarnas elect a Dalit candidate, they elect the one who will be convenient for them. If the majority of the voters are Savarnas, then even if the candidate is a Dalit his job is to woo the Savarnas and not the Dalits. In independent India, it ensured that most Dalit candidates elected were from Congress and not the Dalit parties – including Ambedkar’s. It was a lightbulb moment for me.
It doesn’t mean that the issues one sees with separate electorate disappear. But what it does mean is that there is a real problem the separate electorate was trying to solve, and this compromise does not solve it. So, I don’t know if separate electorates would have been a great idea in it is entirety, but reserving seats without separate electorate wasn’t the ultimate solution either! I changed my mind on the issue of separate electorate.
The other thing I have changed my mind about is the existence of God – God in a sense that most people find easy to justify. There has to be some power above us. How else is the world running? Humans can discover the formulae governing the physical world, but who made them that way? Even though I had given up on religion pretty early on, this concept of God was difficult to get rid of. If you keep asking “why” after every explanation, ultimately you run out of explanations. God was the only answer to the ultimate “why”. And living without that answer seemed impossible.
Unlike in the case of a separate electorate, I can’t pinpoint how or why my mind changed. But over time that necessity to have an answer to the ultimate “why” started sounding pointless, even childish. I was no longer demanding that answer. Because there was no right way of fulfilling that demand. Meanwhile, a lot of what was explained by God’s (rather inconsistent) ways could be explained better by evolution, probability, statistics, and the mechanics of human-made systems.
I used to think that what I came to believe was atheism. But someone better versed in philosophy than me explained that I was agnostic. That’s where I am. It has inevitably led me to believe that the world is purposeless. It is a difficult worldview to live with. But it is less delusional than believing in God. So yeah – I changed my mind about God.