A Beautiful Day

February 16, 2015 § 3 Comments

Thank you for this beautiful day, spirit

This beautiful, beautiful, beautiful day

— Chant at the Noah Project singing group in Berkeley

There was a time not too long ago when my skin always looked good. Youthful, smooth. Now, it varies by the day. Sometimes I wake up with dark circles and other times I glow like a light bulb depending on how the day is going. It is as if it is a sensor for my internal state. Like an LED on a car dashboard. I woke up today with a puffy face, a dull reddish hue on my cheekbones. It was uncomfortably warm out and I had a lot of chores to do for my going away party.

Everyone wants to feel like they left an imprint on a place they have lived in for a long time. I am no exception. I have never had a great understanding of social protocol when it comes to inviting people to events. I tend to improvise just as I’m planning a party and invited whoever comes to mind. Usually I have various groups of people from different things I do and I do pay some regard to not mixing too much but I am only minimally mindful. I am often flummoxed when someone does not show up and later a friend tells me that that person probably felt awkward coming to the party. After thinking about it I guess I sort of understand this conceptually but I have no embodied understanding of how this must feel. I mostly want to go to all parties I am invited to (not many) and as a result I do sometimes find myself just standing by myself somewhere where I only know the host who is usually too busy to spend time with me. In my single days I go in the hopes of making friends and perhaps finding someone special. This mostly does not turn out well. Making friends is hard here as it is, let alone befriending people at a party who are in various states of inebriation. This still doesn’t stop me. I love being included. Feeling left out and alone is one of my least favorite things even though being alone is what I have done a lot of in the last two years. A lot.

Really, its true that the people who show up are the ones you have given the most to. The group of people who showed up today taking time out of their weekends (a premium time in the Bay Area) to say goodbye are people I have amassed like jewels on a necklace one by one over the years. A friend I met at a singles meetup in the South Bay. I never dated her but we became really close friends and we have come a long way from that first meeting. It was awkward, dark. Most people were drunk. We were not. She had gotten divorced a year or so ago and was finally ready to meet people. I was new to the Bay Area and very lonely. We left and exchanged numbers in the parking lot. We realized we would never be more than friends but we also knew that we would be good friends. Today she told me that her kids were sad I was leaving and wanted to see me. Awkward first meeting can turn into deep, beautiful friendships. It takes work and belief. Another dear, dear friend of mine who has been by my side in the best of time and in the worst of times. We met in an improv class and I remember having to drive somewhere far away after class and I had this lost expression on my face. I asked her if she knew how I could to that place and she took out a pen and paper, sat down on a table and drew a map for me. Then she had me follow her to the exit and hung her hand out of the window and pointed to the exit I should take. That is how we first met and we said goodbye to each other in tears today.

A lot of people wanted to hear the story of why I decided to leave and what I am going to do. I have some answers to this question which are all good reasons but the real reason cannot be spoken of more than to say that it is a deep sense of knowing. Often people will tell me I am really brave for leaving without any plan for what I will do or where I will be in India. I see how they might think that but inside me I don’t feel any bravado. I feel completely detached from the good or the bad that might come out of this move. All I know is I feel unshackled. A friend of mine says it will be a time of serendipity for me since I am about to dive into a life of meandering. A meandering that feels purposeless and profoundly purposeful at the same time.

Start a large foolish project, like Noah!

It makes absolutely no difference what people think of you

— Rumi

I told a friend as they left today how fortunate I am that everything I have learned from people who came today to see me is going to be with me wherever I go. All of the love I have received from them will fortify from me the forces of despair and covetousness in the world. It is testimony to the fact that whether we know it or not, we are constantly in the process of exchanging knowledge and love with those who we interact with and we are transformed by their presence in our lives and they by ours. Constantly.

I am because we are.

— Doug Von Koss

The venue I had rented to have my party is something called the Finnish Brotherhood Hall. An old community center for the Finnish community. The manager told us that his whole are used to be Fin town and this hall a gathering place for the Finnish immigrant community. There are only about 15 active members of the hall now left. The place is all wooden. Floor, tables, long benches up against the wall. I had rented the basement space but they have a main hall upstairs which is beautiful. With chandeliers, curtains of Delft blue and wall hangings with Finnish insignia. As people tricked out and after a lot of goodbyes, more than I would like, this jolly fellow with a pony tail and almost no hair in the front came into the hall to fill water in his bottle. A friend of mine got to talking to him and he told us there is a singing event in the upstairs hall later in the evening. My friend said she was gonna do it. I told her I would do it with her. So we came back to my apartment to drop some stuff and an hour later we walked into the hall and saw something like I had never seen before. A large number of very merry people walked about the hall and we were greeted by a man wearing a deep red collar. He had on a table a large wooden bowl with warm water and next to it three red candles in old style holders. We dipped our hands in the water and then he wiped them with a towel and that was our welcome ritual. It was cult-like. Another large table under the main chandelier in the center of the hall had a variety of Valentines day goodies. Roses, boxes of candy and more red candles. Most people were over 60. Everyone seemed merry to the point of it being a little ridiculous.

“This is the singing event, right?” I asked somewhat hesitantly.

A man answered with a big smile. “It sure is!”

It sure was. It was led by a man called Doug Van Koss. A thin, tall man with a mane of white hair and a manner that exuded a sense of deep devotion blended with an almost foolish zest. He also happened to be in the art department for Star Wars, Episode IV, Return of the Jedi. A kind of character you will only find in Berkeley. He invited us to sing in what he called a perfection-free zone. People gathered round the candlelit table in a circle and he conducted us through songs, chants, poems. He had pulled them from across the world. A Latin hymn of divine adoration, a moon chant from the Seneca nation. The whole time I was there, I couldn’t believe that I was. That I was singing and chanting from the very depth of my heart. I am certain that it was by no random chance that I was there. It was a rite of passage for me. Into my new life. At one point, we chanted, “Open my heart, open my heart, open my heart.” This was no coincidence. I met a woman from Israel and we spoke of home and finding new homes. We hugged. I met a stunning woman. She holds the distinction of being the first woman who has looked directly into my eyes for a full 5 or so minutes that she talked to me, having just met me.  Her gaze was so intense and beautiful that I found myself being mesmerized and had to keep looking away and smiling in an awkward way. Awkwardness is the beginning of wonderful things. At certain times in the evening, I caught myself singing with such abandon that I felt nothing but open sky in my chest. Then, just like that they went into a dance performance. Improvised Argentine tango. These people were quite old but graceful. And they knew how have fun. People read poetry. It was a bountiful celebration of everything it means to be alive.

Fulfilled. Overwhelmed. I walked back along the familiar path to my home. The home I am about to leave. At night my two favorite companions witnessed and shared my joy. The blue-black sky and the bare trees in the soft moonlight. The black cat and the spotted white cat that prowl around my apartment complex weren’t there today. I came home and looked at myself in the mirror. My skin looked flawless, like I was still 23. Which is when I left from India to come here.

Goodbye everyone. Goodbye Berkeley. Thank you for your deep love and joy.

Thank you for this beautiful day, spirit

This beautiful, beautiful, beautiful day

— Chant at the Noah Project singing group in Berkeley

What history feels like

February 10, 2015 § 7 Comments

Ever wonder what it feels like to be part of history that will be taught in textbooks? It feels like this. And it looks like this.

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I am history. I am stuck to the Delhi election website.

The AAP is leading in 65 seats in Delhi. Out of 70. Delhi is waking up. Power to the people. Jai Hind.

After 10 years of being away from home I am returning in 19 days to live among my own once again. A momentous time to return. I have spent the last 3 years watching the slow yet steady rise of the fundamentalist right wing in India and at time have been overcome by anxiety. I watched Narendra Modi’s aggressive speeches and felt sick to the stomach when my own friends started to drool over him. Ending in the historic landslide win giving total control of the Lok Sabha to the BJP. The fear of losing my home as I knew it became all too real when recently just a few miles away from my flat communal riots broke out in Bawana and Trilok Puri.  The government was silent. Delhi felt like a pressure cooker blowing off steam. I saw a chilling photograph of police drones flying over the riot stricken area taken by my friend. Two things struck me. The police use drones? What was my friend doing in riot affected areas two days after the violence happened?

Leading positions in 66 seats. The Congress is at 0. Is this real?

This told me two things. First, India has changed since I left. Second, my contemporaries have the courage and the means to question the system. 10 years of separation is a lot. I am 33. I cannot state verbally what the difference is between a 23 year old and a 33 year old but for the first time I can feel it in my bones, in my heart. I have lost that kind of scared, wide-eyed look. That amalgam of fear, wonder and curiosity. It has been replaced with a steady gaze. The gaze of observation and responsibility.

My father just called. He says Arvind Kejriwal ne inka raita phaila diya.

I still remember the day I saw the picture of man with spectacles and a Delhi-Uncle-Ji moustache in the papers. He was smiling and waving to the crowds surrounded by cameramen. Arvind Kejriwal. I scanned the article headline. Something about an Aam Aadmi Party. Without knowing anything about either the person or the party, some very muted ray of hope emerged for a second deep in my psyche and died out. I read the article in a trance. I couldn’t understand what was going on. This man had broken away from the Anna Hazare movement and started his own party to battle corruption. The rest is history. I devoured his interviews, his speeches and everything about him on YouTube. Not a day would go by when I didn’t type “Modi news” in Google and spend half an hour getting depressed as more and more ridiculous news poured in about changes in school curriculum, crazy demands by the saffron right, ghar-wapasi and perpetual stony silence from the Prime Minister. This morning routine changed. I would now type “kejriwal news” in to the text box and watch him tackle interviewers, have egg thrown on him, get slapped, be ridiculed.

The Aam Aadmi Party became a permanent fixture in my life. To my delight, I saw more and more of my friends become interested. I saw people me age giving interviews on television. This was nothing short of revolutionary. Ever since childhood I had seen these angry, violent people in my neighborhood be associated with politics. The jobless, loud son of the uncle-ji who lived downstairs and mysteriously owned a Honda Accord when most people had two-wheelers was a member of the Congress party. When I was in college, the guys in the youth wings of political parties were people that you basically never saw on campus. Smarmy, oily faces and you’d see them sometimes waving from a truck full of hooligans. For the first time, I saw “politicians” who were professors, social activists, journalists.

One day I watched Yogendar Yadav give an interview on television. He told a story about how he was called Salim when he was born. The story went that his father watched his grandfather be butchered to death by a Muslim during communal riots. His response was to give his son a Muslim name because he refused to accept that an entire community could be violent. Yadav ji cried when he told the story. For the first time in my life, I felt what could be termed inspiration from something a political figure had said on television.

Still leading in 66. It is the age of absolute majorities. Our family friend just called from College Station. He is a long time BJP guy. He conceded gracefully and said he was happy. He invited me to come stay with him in Texas. I should go.

I am an emotional guy. I am an actor. It goes with the territory unless you’re Christopher Walken. But the AAP is more than just hard-hitting personal stories. They have hired some very smart people in the last 8 months. They’ve got people from IIT, from CSDS, from the entertainment industry, lawyers. They already had amazing people from the street movement. They have redefined what social media means to Delhi politics. Kejriwal has tempered his words, he gives one knockout interview after the other. A new era has begun. In Delhi politics and as it happens, in my life. I am so full of hope. I don’t fear the right wing juggernaut as much. Apparently, Modiji has called Kejriwal to congratulate him and promise support from the Center. A fitting response. Modiji is smart, no denying it.

Down to 63. Any bets for the final tally?

Its all new. Its all for the very first time in Delhi, not since Independence, since forever. 67% of Delhi turned out to vote. A record. The Pandavas would have been envious. It is like music in my heart. Sweet music. If you are a young person (0-40 years), never again underestimate your voice. The AAP will come to power but it is not on them. They are only 60 odd people, by the looks of it. We all have to commit to reforming ourselves beginning from the core. No more bribes. No more littering. We will demand governance and we will ask questions because no government is perfect (even if they have an opposition of 7 Vidhan Sabha members). It is a thing of the past when blogs were just a hobby. When YouTube was just a novelty on the Internet. They are now tools of transformation. There is a lot of work to be done. The work has begun now.

Sitaaron se aagey jahaan, aur bhi hain, Abhi ishq ke imtihaan aur bhi hain. 

Come, let us dream together. Imagine Lajpat Nagar without all the encroachment and illegally parked cars. Imagine the slums in Okhla Tank turned into flats and the people who have worked in our homes as domestic helpers have real homes and water and 24×7 electricity. Imagine when you get into a fight on the street and you call the police and they come and help. Imagine if the guy who has sold vegetables to you for the last 20 years can send take his sick wife to the government hospital without coming and asking you to put in a good word. Imagine when a church is attacked and vandalized in the capital, the government takes action and issues a statement. Imagine, not being helpless. Imagine, being served. Imagine. And work for it. It will take years. There will be a lot of mistakes. There might even be abject disappointment and shock at times but mistakes are better than ennui and helplessness.

You gotta feel for Shazia Ilmi. You know, I feel bad because I know she means well. I think she got steamrolled in the Arvind Kejriwal parade but Shazia ji, this has got to say something to you about a process called delayed gratification. If you can learn from mistakes, you will remain a leader in my eyes. I think you will do well. I feel like I should say something to Kiran Bedi ji, but I don’t know what. She is a strong lady.

Just saw this headline. “Gloom descends on BJP offices in Delhi.”

Yeah, no shit. Delhi is not Gujarat. Today I feel like Delhi is the Capital with Capital C. Like the people from Delhi cannot be played and like the bad rap we’ve got for being badtameez and loud and stupid can finally take a chill pill. Oh my word. I just saw Sambit Patra on TV. It is honestly, the best thing I have seen … basically ever. Crap, it was live online streaming and I can’t take a screenshot. Probably for the best. Some things are best experienced once and laid to rest.

They’ve won in 3 seats and leading in 60. That’s 63/70.  90%. Its still not as good as Harshita’s board exam score. The thing is why are they trailing in 7 seats. What happened? I just heard someone say that unlike Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi’s performance is at least consistent. I can’t sleep tonight.

Detective Professor

February 8, 2015 § 1 Comment

Recently a good friend of mine contacted me. He is Bengali and upholds the tradition by being a dedicated scholar and a thorough intellectual, so I jokingly call him “professor.” Professor is an old friend from back when I did a short stint with Tata Consultancy. We then again found ourselves in the same neck of the woods when he enrolled in graduate school at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I would often drive up into the mountains to spend the weekend with him. He lived in a tranquil, old house with some roommates right by the boardwalk. He has since then moved back home to pursue further research in computer science at IIT Bombay. He was browsing at a book fair in Kolkata where he came across a book. He has always been a big reader, making recommendations and writing critique. In a stupendous display of memory and presence of mind he spotted a photo on a book cover that he recognized as one I took years ago. It was an old man I had met in Connaught Place who sat by the pavement. He had moved me so much that I had gone back a year later to see if he was still there. Professor made the connect and even remembered that I had taken the photo in Connaught Place.

“Wasn’t this photograph taken by you in CP a long time ago?”
The message popped up on Facebook messenger. Indeed it was. He said he didn’t see any credit but had not been through the fine print so it was possible it was buried somewhere. On further research it turned out that the publisher is based in Telangana, was incorporated in 1948 and takes great pride in printing material with a “consistent emphasis on quality.” To make matters ever more dramatic, they published all of my elementary school English textbooks. Quite a reunion.

The reason to not get indignant is that there is someone that has a larger right to that photo than I do. The subject. And I can guarantee you my dear, he does not give a darn. The only correct course of action here is to tell a little more of his story before we start either squabbling over rights or making magnanimous displays of nonchalance. The man in the photo is a shoe maker (why he is on the cover of a book of dalit literature I have no idea, unless the cover designers just assumed he was dalit). A shoe repairer, to be precise. He came every day to sit at the very same spot from 23 miles away, undertaking a bus journey that lasts 2 hours each way. He made just about enough every day to pay for the ticket and a meal. Other than the presence of his shoe repairing equipment, there was nothing else about his demeanour that even remotely suggested that he was sitting on that corner by way of some business. I think he just gets by by sharing tea and meals with the hawkers and sellers who share the street with him. I could tell that he enjoyed their love and sympathy. This was his world, where he came and sat everyday and sometimes repaired shoes.

I asked him if I could take a picture and he noted that several people over the years “from foreign lands” have taken pictures of him. I remember I immediately felt silly and awkward having had the bubble of supposed originality burst so unceremoniously. Felt acutely aware of the glare of the on-lookers knowing that they thought of me a a foreigner in my own land. I hesitantly offered him some money and he took it without question.

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A Life of Devotion

February 7, 2015 § 1 Comment

Through logical reasoning and contemplation, today I am more convinced than ever that the quest for personal glory ends in dissatisfaction, if not disaster. As an actor, this present certain problems. Every now and then a demon of confusion and envy awakes inside me when I watch a particularly compelling performance or see a career take off. I am left with the unfortunate choice of having to either ignore this demon or worse still, whisper incantations of self-righteousness to my heart to alleviate his fiery onslaught. Often some ghost of an existential question arises that demands of me whether I think my life is so important that it not be squandered on a self-serving acting career in big ticket cinema. It taunts me. A coward who cannot weather the emotional storm of Mumbai, Los Angeles or New York. A quitter. At these moments, I seek refuge in meditation, in God. I have been doing this for the last year now, plunged for the most part in personal crisis. Not really having filmed anything. Off late, the silence is starting to break. The answers are starting to come. A thousand plans swirl in my head and I let them. I let the waves rise and break on the shores of my rock solid resolve never to give in to the temptation of personal glory. The entire time I grieve for yet another loss. The loss of a love I have nurtured for the last 7 years. I grieve for my dreams. The dreams that are so holy in the epoch of personal fulfillment. I fear the coming of regret. Today I saw this short film, that eradicated, if momentarily, all fear. All doubt. And filled me with contentment. It confirmed in my heart that a life of devotion to other living beings is the only kind of life I wish to have. In this short film, I admire equally the subject of the film and its makers. I felt grateful for the skill of the cinematographer, the editor, the cameraman, the voice artists all working to produce a story that moves hearts. I am filled with respect for what I have done and for my fellow artists who have been with me along the way. In this story, I find hope. The hope that no matter what I do, my limbs move fueled by devotion, guided by love. I am not the happiest man in the world, but I am happy.

Too Legit

January 21, 2015 § Leave a comment

I was recently invited by the folks at Netapedia to be a guest blogger for their website. Netapedia is a wonderful effort by some IIT Mumbai graduates to bring more transparency to politics in India by providing a searchable database of ministers providing details of their terms in parliament and party affiliations. I think, just the type of thing we need. So I agreed. Excited to announce that I wrote my first entry today. It’s a first for me in terms of getting away from being Saif Ali and being a voice of composure and neutrality. So be gentle. Read it here.

The Flight of the Lioness

January 17, 2015 § 1 Comment

Deep in the forest at dusk, the last of the birds have gone back home. A small bird baby cries in fear as the two parents fuss about him. The young lioness wanders away. The baby falls asleep. Darkness is approaching fast and the lioness is restless. She walks over to her den but stops at the entrance. This is no longer her home. She looks around. The forest becomes very silent. A pang of fear. She walks inside and lies down in her usual spot, protected by rocks and a small bush. The forest that feels alien now. She has already left. Only her body remains, trying to pass the long night. Dawn will see her begin her journey. What until then? The ground is cold and sleep does not come. She gives up. Might as well take a walk. A memory lurks at every flower. The smell of damp wood. The little fox twins would frolic in her path underneath this tree. From behind the giant oak, she would watch the beasts run across the field in the distance. This stream marks the spot where the elder lioness would rendezvous with her to take her running in the caves. All of that really happened. Once, it was real. This is the fork in the path where she parted ways with her mother yesterday. The young lioness weeps silently. She paws the ground where her mother stood, looking back at her for the last time as the rest of pride disappeared into the yellow grass. Tears make the Earth wet. The lioness weeps for everything that was. Home. Family. Innocence. Every sob releases the breath stuck in her breast and makes room for the courage to find her own. Exhausted, she lies down at the fork in the path and rests her head in the dirt. Above the grasses, there is vast sky. The stalks looks so tall point straight up at the stars as if showing her the way. She takes a full breath, finally. And sleeps.

The Outside is the Inside

January 13, 2015 § Leave a comment

I recently heard a talk by the Dalai Lama where he talked about compassion and he said that every human being is no different from us in one way, that they want happiness and not pain. One way to bring a deep appreciation of this that I found effective is to try and experience what it is like to be this other person. Not developing a sense of pity or kindness through this empathy but just see what it is like to be this other person. What it is actually like in their daily lives. Their happiness, their frustrations, their constraints and more importantly, their guilt and anger. The quality of mind that is required for this is curious yet integrated, not a mind that is jumping outside of itself, as we will see this is not possible. Deepening this awareness of the the other has helped to realize that everyone truly does their best. Another way to say it is that they had no other choice. Another way to state the same thing is that their guilt and anger was the same as ours. Guilt and anger are exactly the same no matter in which consciousness they manifest. In this universality of affliction, we are all the same. This is what truly unites behind the facade of causality, separateness, intentions, identities and injustices. The sum total of their lives including their intentions and actions is complete in itself and they could not possibly stand outside of themselves, just as we cannot. If we try to stand outside ourselves, well then there we are, the outside is now the inside because we are there. In this way, every person is locked to their karma.

Saif Ali is an actor and writer based in San Francisco. 

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