And If Doris and Ella Were Vegan in Paris?

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We went into the first safe-looking place we found in Chatelet, and ordered for penne pasta, telling the waiter thrice that we’re vegan, so no cheese please, and strictly vegetarian. He repeated our words to us in total fidelity.

And he brought steamed chaste penne, sans cheese and meat, but also without vegetable or herb or salt or pepper or anything at all save its sweat. But he’d brought along a suitor for the dish, some mustard sauce, and after the first forkfuls taken with tentative touches of mustard, I began to rather like the plain, now-spiced, faux-Italian meal.

“It’s good,” I said to my wife who had gone into a wakeful coma. Her penne was steaming, contrasting very well against the cold outside the glassed cafe. She didn’t reply, which was unfair because it wasn’t my fault the pasta had come as it had. We’d asked for pasta with vegetables, and we’d repeated our order three times, but the folks had chosen to keep our pasta free of everything. My one mistake could’ve been that, because the waiter was nice and polite and so French, I’d signalled to my wife with my eyes to not refuse the thing he’d kept with such panache on the table.

After a few minutes, the waiter came around to ask how we were enjoying his cook's creation. “There should be one vegetable in this at least!” my wife admonished him, pointing to her full plate. The waiter was fine with that. “Oh!” he said, and picked up her plate and, before I could stop him, my half-finished plate as well, and carried them off to the kitchen. In fifteen minutes he returned to our dead-silent table with linguini tossed with peas and sliced carrot and shelled-green-beans — and the whole mix smeared with thin creamy cheese.

My wife was too hungry by now, and she pecked and ate a little, pausing from being vegan for just one meal, swallowing one tainted noodle at a time, while I gazed at my plate as she had done in the first act. “Don’t worry about me,” I said to her, magnanimous in word only. “What I ate from my previous plate was a lot.” But she couldn’t go further than a few noodles, what with the cheese on them, and her husband not eating. We exchanged glances. And called the waiter. And paid. And tipped. The waiter was genuinely perturbed that we’d eaten nothing. “Pack?” he asked. “No!” we said, and smiled our friendliest, feeling hunger even in the dry skin on the face.

We hurried back through sub-zero temperature and an unkind breeze to the hotel, and went straight to the hotel-restaurant, and begged in fervent English to be saved. They brought us assuredly-vegan soup, and fries, both scalding hot and served on heated, pure-white china.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m loving Paris, even if it’s bitter cold, even if I’m here for business only. Also, I’m thinking of Doris Day, and Ella Fitzgerald, and their love of Paris — how they loved the city every moment because “their love was near.” In my case, I’ve brought my love along, and I’m wondering how strong is truth in song.

Jet Airways Flight 23

Photo by baona/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by baona/iStock / Getty Images

It is dark, but for one laptop screen in seat 1F in front of me, where a Tamil man is finessing a presentation, adding and removing bullet-points. He is middle-aged, has an enviable paunch and a flowing beard, and he seems imperturbable.

The man in the next seat is young. He’s had a Black Label; he dined on chicken with it. The spirit has brought out his demons, I think: he’s shaking his head, and torso, with increasing intensity.

Only moments ago the young man let off a terrible groan, and turned and looked at me, to check if I’d heard him in spite of my noise-cancelling headphones, now playing back a Mozart sonata.

He may be forgiven his groan, set off by a fear that I share in equal measure with him, with perhaps all others in this cabin. This plane that we’re on has shook and shuddered and creaked and rattled for over an hour now, over the dark waters below. We’ve had moments when it seemed the plane would split along its spine. There’s been no service for some time; the captain has ordered his crew to their seats. But dinner is done, the trays have been cleared. The smells of what we ate are in the air.

We’ve crossed the Andamans, the monitor on the bulkhead tells me, and that an hour’s flying is left before we touch down in Bangalore, where the time now is 8:18, which also I read on the bulkhead.

**

We progress, scuffing the clouds as we go, and the blinking light from the plane’s wingtip pierces the clouds, causing flashes like lightning, except that these are so predictable, so metronomic, the only sound accompanying them the terrible labouring of the plane, which I hear in the moments I take off my headphones. In a half-hour we’ll be over land, I tell myself after a time, surprised to note a smile on my face when there’s growing anxiety in my heart.

I concentrate on my breathing, on the in-breath and the out-breath and the burn in my nostrils, trying to pat down the memory of the Air Asia flight which flew up in bad weather, weather that froze the moving parts of its wings, high above the waters that bring such rotten luck to Indonesia all the time.

**

The land appears as a curvy line of lights along the shore of Chennai.

More lights come up: large and small patches of pixellated amber, and a long line through them — a highway running northward and southward. Like embers the lights look; swollen and scorched, the earth seems.

But I know it is none of that. There are people down there, millions of people cloaked in the reduced, evening-heat of Chennai, who do not know that there’s this plane over them that has escaped tragedy and the front pages of tomorrow’s papers, and which will land in 39 minutes in Bangalore, inshallah.

**

The next day I tell my wife I experienced turbulence like never before last night. “Me, too!” she says and describes her flight last week on the same stretch. She’s been through the greater experience. As always.


Some pictures I took in Singapore, on the iPhone X …

The Eleventh Day: A Dream

Photo by izzzy71/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by izzzy71/iStock / Getty Images

Here’s about a dream this morning,
a party in which I saw
my mother, my sister,
my wife, our son, his wife,
our grandson,
my brother, his family,
three colleagues, two uncles, an aunt.

I was not in the party.

All the men wore smart-casuals,
save my son who prefers the suit.
The women wore saris.
My grandson had been tucked into the traditional,
a pre-folded white dhoti and a little orange kurta,
both made of silk.

There was banter, and light laughter,
the clinking of glass, and metal tapping
and scratching china.

I wasn’t in the party, but I could see them,
I called, but they couldn’t hear,
I went up close, but it was no use.

It was the eleventh day after I’d died,
they were meeting at the Dublin,
where I first went in 1990,
and where I’ve been going on and off
ever since.

A perfect choice of place it was,
even if the Dublin’s a bar, and
an unusual venue to send up a soul;
'cos you see,
it’s to the Dublin that I hurry,
anytime I need to soothe my soul,
all on my own.

Coffee and Song and Coetzee, Not One Bloody Word to Write

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You have time, much guilt, and pen and paper and a plan for writing that’s fresh-written for the thirtieth, fiftieth time. You’ve had coffee, lots of coffee, and there’s more Americano steaming on the table before you. There’s urgency, and there’s a daze, and there’s a restlessness for writing. But you are dry. All that coffee and there’s no juice yet in you. You’ve planned to buy tea-cake in a moment, but you know that the sweetener won’t move the hand one bit on the page.

There’s a sense of peace, though. (Or is it emptiness? Are the two one?) It’s the feeling that comes from having retired. Once more you’re retired, and once more you’ve resolved that this time around the retirement is real, this time you’ve retired for good, and you’ll write, write full time, write all the time.


There’s Sur o No Sur in the air here at Starbucks, which SoundHound checked out for me: it is sung by a Kevin Johansen, whose name is not a match with the tune, song, and the language of the lyric. The beat is conducive to what I must do, though, which I would do, but for this leaden head.

I finish the coffee, eat two small tea-cakes. I wipe the newly arrived guilt in vain, guilt which comes from being vegan, from knowing there’s butter in the Starbucks Pineapple-Cinnamon Tea Cake. I linger at my table, sipping water. Then I leave, slapping the cover on the pure white page on my tablet.


It’s Monday today. It’s one-thirty. I enter the PVR Gold Cineplex with no guilt. There’s Liam Neeson in the film, so it must be good, I’ve told myself. Watching Liam Neeson would do only good to such creative muscles as I might possess. There’s just me in the cinema hall, and a youngish couple on my row at the back, and a very young couple in the middle on the second row.

Watching Neeson soothes my mind in spite of all the hyper action in the film, such a good and valiant man his character is, but nothing creative stirs in me. After the movie, I go back to Starbucks and open my kindle to Coetzee: Summertime: A kind of autobiography, third in a series, telling in its early pages of a time when he finishes writing his first book and gets it published. Dusklands: That’s the name of his first book. I tell myself I’ll read that book next, and I hurry through the page of Summertime that’s open in my hand. I know as I read that I’ll never write like this man who must’ve pulled a pen right when he was in the womb, which was where he perhaps first learned how to take notes of a dark world. No, no, his fascinating book doesn’t deter me. Every sentence that I put behind makes me want to write, even in this infertile moment.

I reflect on the writing I’ve been doing. It’s so desultory to just blog. And you fish in such shallow waters when you travel for writing; moreover, all the wonders of the world are written about many times over. I’d have to write the small things, the inconsequential events, and my modest insights. Would anybody want to read such stuff? People celebrate such things as the red wheelbarrow, glazed with rain water, beside the white chickens — which the doctor saw and wrote down in verse. Whereas I, I studied to be and failed to become, an engineer. Unlike the doctor, there’s not even a small something that I can extract from my world for the page.

There’s perhaps this thing that I can do if it can help me break through to writing. I can write only for me to read. Or I can write — like that writer in The Moveable Feast who tells Hemingway, and with whom Hemingway agrees — stuff that no one will ever read. (It’s some years since I read Moveable Feast. Please pardon me my recollection. How Coetzee remembers everything!)

Tomorrow, I’ll watch McMafia. I’ll watch it for Nawazuddin Siddiqui. There are only three other Indian actors whom I’ve loved as much as Siddiqui: Anant Nag. Naseeruddin Shah. Om Puri. Watching Siddiqui should get me somewhere in getting started in writing, I think, looking up when Koroko comes up in the speakers which, again, SoundHound looks up for me. The singer is Oumou Sangare. The song and the singer and their names and the rhythm are all in sync. But the number doesn’t appeal to me.

Consuming more Coetzee might do the trick, I tell myself, staying with the Kindle, staying with hope.

My Post: Follow the News, Follow the Money

Photo by halbergman/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by halbergman/iStock / Getty Images

“Follow the news,” he said, bringing to my mind Deep Throat) and All the President’s Men. “You’ll see where the government is spending money. Just now they bought a huge number of rockets. The Israeli Spike missile contract is brought back. Ammunition! They’re stocking ammunition in large quantities. Suddenly. Why? Why do they need so many rockets so urgently?”

I listened, my eyes locked to his. The man before me was a brilliant businessman, quite young and rising fast, and, more importantly, a key customer with top-class global exposure.

“Our borders are getting hotter,” I ventured. “China has all but acquired Pakistan …”

“Pakistan is nothing,” he interrupted. “Nothing. Okay they have nukes. Maybe they can bomb one Indian city. Max. But when India responds, Pakistan, so small it is, it will be blown off the map. The Chinese are the real threat. Every day they are coming one kilometer into Arunachal, sometimes three four kilometers, walking in when they want, walking back. Someday somebody will lose his head. Some ego will explode. Then?”

I wondered about his geography while he took a moment to rearrange himself in his seat. We were sitting poolside in the hotel he was staying at, the temperature had fallen and a chill had enveloped the area, as it had the entire city — the chill was creeping up and down beneath my jacket and trouser and shirt, and my socks even, seeking skin, teasing out an occasional shiver.

“I don’t believe in these things, Shashi, but I must tell you something. There’s a 37 year-old guy. In my city. He’s done his PhD in astrology. He doesn’t accept money for his services, because he believes he’d lose his powers if he did that. That fellow is saying, and people are quoting him, that right now the stars are steadily moving toward their same positions when Kargil happened. I don’t believe in this prediction business, Shashi, but give it six months. In six months we will have a war. With China. Not a long war. About three months, maybe.” He swayed his torso side to side to measure out in mime the possible duration.

“Three months,” I cried. “That’s long!”

“Yes,” he began to nod after a pause, giving each nod generous time, and then he took his arms behind his chair, clasped his hands there and stretched. “There will be a big recession. The economy will take a hit for two years, maybe three. We will all suffer.”

“The entire world will take a hit,” I said. “We’re not a small economy anymore.”

He thought a bit, and went back to nodding, even slower this time. “But there’s one thing,” he said. “There’s one thing Modi has done. He has really gone out and got India some powerful allies. So we should see.”

It was my turn to nod thoughtfully, slower even than him, gazing at the beer on the table now, gelid and golden, tempting as hell. You could tell its temperature by sight, from the even, thin, drop-free frost over the entire mug. Nice squat mug with no handle, with Kingfisher Ultra in it.

“Right,” I said, marveling at how every Indian businessman that I know adores Modi.

“Some of us will have good business if there’s a war. But I hope it won’t happen,” he said. “But you must follow the news, Shashi,” he said. “You must follow the news. Read what the generals are saying. You will see how things are shaping up.”

I nodded again, and my eyes clouded, and turned inward, and caught Deep Throat by a column amid blue vapors in an underground parking lot. “Follow the money,” Deep Throat urged in his thick voice, sticking to his line after all these years. In a moment I snapped back to the moment, and found my customer still with me, and we got down to the business that we’d met for.

This morning, I found myself recalling the conversation, which happened last night. I was nodding to the recollections. I was still nodding after breakfast, and again in the car on my way to work, which made me think I must write about it, and thereby clear out my head and steady it.

Also, I decided to rent All the President’s Men this weekend. The news should wait, I figured, in these times of Fake News. And because my life is better when there’s no news in it.

Some Questions Before Aurangzeb’s Tomb

Aurangzeb’s tomb, circa 1850 (Wikipedia)

Aurangzeb’s tomb, circa 1850 (Wikipedia)

His tomb is a simple affair even if Lord Curzon upgraded it with marble during his viceregal tenure in India. How much simpler was it at the time Aurangzeb was interred? On Wikipedia I found a sketch of it as it must’ve looked in the 1850s, before Curzon got to it.

Aurangzeb died in 1707.

Why did the Englishman Curzon go against the Mughal emperor‘s wishes, and improve the tomb? There would be a good answer, but in this moment I have only the question.

The tomb with Curzon's changes, circa 1890 (Wikipedia)

The tomb with Curzon's changes, circa 1890 (Wikipedia)

These days attendants at Aurangzeb’s grave eke out some earnings telling briefly the final events in Aurangzeb’s life: his death in nearby Ahmednagar from natural causes (natural causes, the attendant stresses); his desire to be buried near his teacher Chisti’s tomb; his express command that his tomb be simple and to the tiny budget he’d stipulated – fourteen rupees and twelve annas. The attendant at the grave telling me all this was blind. And nice. “I am blind,” he said, humble in a dirty white tunic, a stick limp in his hand. “And I am poor.” He held out a hand. I put money in it, which he took and pointed a finger to a box by his feet, a wooden public hundi with the slit on top. I put the same sum in it as I’d given him and looked up.

“Where was his palace (in this part of his empire)?” I asked him. I wanted to know if Aurangzeb’s royal residence had been in the fabulous Daulatabad fort. Or Ahmednagar. But the fellow was done with me. There was another tourist at the door, and the blind man had heard him arrive.


The young Aurangzeb spent his energies in the outer reaches of the empire, in the west, the northwest, and in the south in the Deccan. His father Shah Jahan kept him challenged in the Deccan, demanding higher revenues from a poorly performing agrarian region. Aurangzeb decided to annexe the Bahmani kingdoms further south to augment income, but his father decided on his behalf to sign a truce with them, exasperating Aurangzeb, stoking suspicion in him regarding his father’s intentions toward him. Such a down-spiraling relationship caused the emotional chasm between father and son to grow to equal their geographic separation, driving Aurangzeb to wrest the empire through treason and treachery and terrible fratricide.

He is argued by many to have ruled well, extending the empire to the largest the Mughals ever ruled, increasing its wealth to surpass the other great monarchies in the world at the time — but also depleting it towards the end.

The last decades of his fifty-year rule were spent in taking the Deccan, at great cost to his treasury and, as regards his fighting men, he lost in that period over two million of them at the rate of a hundred thousand heads a year, it is said.

As for Aurangzeb himself, to die asking to be buried so far south from Delhi, from the seat of his empire — how did it feel? Where lay his heart? In Delhi? In the Deccan, where he’d honed and proved himself when young?

Far from the graves of his forebears his remains rest. The first great Mughal is buried in the northwestern reaches of the empire. Aurangzeb, the last great Mughal, is buried in the empire’s deep south. The other four greats lie in Delhi and Agra. There are many descriptions of this Mughal after whom the empire began its decline: valiant, despotic, cruel, and also syncretic. As many people revere him as despise him. Standing before his grave I wasn’t sure where I should lean, but I can tell you I was moved for a moment by the asceticism of this man who ruled for so long over so vast an empire.

The tomb as it appears now … (Wikipedia)

The tomb as it appears now … (Wikipedia)


Indian Christmas

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I’m at a hotel in Nashik. It’s all decked up for Christmas. A plum cake was delivered to my room with Merry Christmas sketched out in chocolate on the plate. The hotel is sold out, but I can tell easily that most guests are not Christian. Some are Sikh. Most are Hindu. In the small world I move around in, Hindus appear to have appropriated Christmas.

Merry Christmas! And, because I’m entering a Buddhist retreat on Wednesday, and will observe complete silence for ten days with all my digital devices surrendered, I wish all you wonderful people right now: Happy New Year!

—-

I wrote this little thing after reading this Guardian story.

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A Cure For This Craving

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Those rains that we’d so missed and which weren’t welcome when they came, because they came on so hard and so heavy, those rains are gone, and we’re breathing a collective sigh of relief. Some of the bitterness we felt during rain-times has abated, bitter feelings against those in power, which came with waters flooding homes and offices and taking the lives of more than a dozen humans. Those tragedies and tribulations are behind us, and now the road-laying machines are out, we pass the grimy-yellow uglies during our commute, delighted that they’ve been brought out. Ah, the so-short life of public memory! The promise the machines hold out, of better commutes coming before this lovely winter leaves, it has the government basking in extenuating light.

While we wait for the machines to finish their job, we’re experiencing the tough times that must precede good times. These days we are commuting even slower than during the rains, and one morning last week we thought we wouldn’t reach office at all, we were outperforming the snail in being slow, but we persevered like the mollusk, and found after an age why we weren’t moving: A ceremony middle of the road. The corporator (I think) of the place and some government officers and the contractor and his men were performing a pooje, appealing to the mighty machines to please go unto the finish without once breaking down. Amen.

I didn’t laugh at the sight. My wife by my side laughed so much, looking at the fine-dressed important people (men and women, in silks and such) doing aarti middle of the road. (“Laugh,” my wife urges me often, pinching me, and I feel my grouch getting deeper, more intense. Seeing my expression she laughs once more, in closure.)

But I’m happy. It’s the happy time of the year for me in December, when the floating population of Bangalore thins, people leave en masse for holidays. You can already feel the gathering quiet. A depression in the Bay has sharpened the chill a degree, and a passing deep shade of gray obscures the lightness of the time — but all that will go this week. We’ll soon have back December’s sunshine, its crisp air, and chill with a nice nip to it: We’ve begun wearing light sweaters, and loving them so.

Dear reader, you must be charitable. You’re reading an Indian who is eking out such pleasure as he can while at home. Such as now at Starbucks, in the morning, where on the upper floor there’s only one other customer, a man with Mongoloid features wearing a blue cap with a red hood. He drank up a pink frothy Frappuccino a long time ago, and is now sprawled on the sofa, playing games on his phone with the screen less than six inches from his face. He is silent, absorbed altogether by his phone, and although there’s no sound about save Neil Diamond singing Sweet Caroline, I’m still distracted each time the young man shifts and rearranges his sprawled self.

I’m happy, as I said, but also I’m a little sad, because I must travel to Aurangabad for three days middle of the month, and I hate to leave Bangalore at this time. Again, at the end of the month, I’m going away for twelve days to Igatpuri, near Nashik.

Perhaps the Igatpuri trip is the right thing for me, where, through a ten-day Vipassana retreat, they’ll train me to overcome cravings and aversions, to detach from the cycle of desire and revulsion. If they succeed, then in January I’ll not covet this weather that now delights me, I won’t dread the torrid summer that this winter will fast-forward to.

Is it good, what Igatpuri offers? I shall find out.

Givin’ a Dog a Name

The Late Duke, when he came home the first time …

The Late Duke, when he came home the first time …

Sheba is white, maybe fawn. I can’t tell the color very well in the dark of dawn. Her master is a revered celebrity, a beloved treasure of our nation, and this his pet runs without a leash. Sometimes her athletic master walks with her; sometimes the mistress. I’ve encountered the three together a few times and kept my distance, from the master and mistress for one reason, from Sheba for another.

Round the corner from that sportsman's house lives Zorro. I’ve told you about Zorro, who also is never on a leash, in a previous post. With Zorro lives another canine, whose name could be Augustus, or Brutus, or perhaps Mark Anthony. I’ll tell you why I guess so: The mistress of Zorro and his mate has acquired a pup. I heard her coo to him on the street this morning. “Caeser,” she said. “Come here, Caesar.” And Caesar tottered over to her, stumbling once and stumbling twice before reaching her. He is black. Caesar is black, and when he is grown he’ll be mean. I saw the promise in him.

A guard walks a long-legged lean one who is black and brown. Taking a cue from the aforementioned ladies, he’s begun to let loose his charge. The hound is Alexander, maybe? Not Darius, I think. Certainly not Porus: You think like Trump when you pick for a dog a name — never ever the loser’s.

I bet if I shout Cleopatra, and Nefertiti, I’ll hear a bark from there, and from there. They may not be warm, friendly. I’m a philistine, and indifferent to these royal dogs in my largely regal neighborhood.

I must confess I’ve myself owned dogs in my life. Of the last two that I’ve had, one died last year. His name was Duke, and he was a St. Bernard. He is survived by a snow-white Retriever, whose name is Raja, and I’ve dispatched him to the factory campus, where he has room enough for good chasing. The guards love him there.

I wonder why I haven’t yet met a Hannibal. Or Chengis, or Kublai. I’ve known a Marco and I might’ve glimpsed a Polo, but I really look forward petting an Atilla a little.

Coffee and Joy and Terror

Thotadakere

I was at Nandi Thota last weekend.

It was a time for butterflies on the plantation. Small ones crossed my path: yellow and white lime-green and gray and other, rich-patterned types. They winged about at the speed of small birds, and covered comparable distances, even if they were unsteady and shook as they flew. The currents buffet the fragile things as they make their way with the breezes. Why the speed? I wondered. There wasn’t ever a predator chasing them.

Spiders. They had proliferated across the plantation, weaving a web every place where they’d found two supports with a gap between. Such opportunities abound in the place, of course. The spiders have grown fat from the bounty in the country. I wished them bon appetit, and I wished the same for all the creatures around, gorging and being gorged with gusto among the greens. There was joy and there was terror in the orgy of dining going on in that sylvan setting.

I took my pleasure gazing at the coffee. Their broad leaves had opened out to the balmy sun, and they shone like they’d been oiled, every single one of them. The grasses between coffee patches had paled in comparison, having received a ruthless marine cut.

Those were the sights on the plantation this weekend. The one thing I didn’t see, though I heard it all the time, was the peacock. The peacock feeds on the snake, and there’s a feast of them all about the plantation.

Now I’m back home for workweek. Here, too, we have the peacock calling during the day, from the sprawling CPRI campus before my house. At night a white owl that has long resided in my compound takes over with deep short metronomic hoots. The sound comes in when I’m in bed. I don’t know the owl’s diet, but there are snakes aplenty within this agglomeration of millions of humans.


This morning, at 5:30, when I was walking on 4th Cross a dog leapt at a man and settled its paws on his shoulder. The man shook off the legs and moved on, but when that same dog started running up to me I let out a shout so loud it stunned the four-legged thing and it froze.

“Zorro, Zorro, don’t do that,” a female voice rang out. It was still dark, and a lean figure emerged from a gate and went to the dog and led it away. After I’d gone a few steps I turned round. The lady, who I could see was in good shape but whose age I couldn’t tell, had taken the dog’s head between her knees, and was soothing the scolded thing’s hurt.

Three streets later, I asked myself if I’d been too harsh. Yes, perhaps. But I’m not such a great dog-lover, and I don’t fancy its bite. There’s no knowing which one is vaccinated, which not, and there are two or three such owners who walk their dogs unleashed mornings while I walk, and they put on a provocative air when I near them.

I’m disappointed with myself, though, for the volume of my outburst, and also because what I did is not good preparation for a book that I’ve just preordered on Amazon: The Inner Life of Animals, by Peter Wohlleben.