A Severed Kite

June 6, 2015 § 8 Comments

It is as if my childhood has returned. Afternoon naps, being home while parents are at work and going on cycle rickshaws. Although I pray, meditate, rest and read willingly in stark contrast to my younger days.

I signed up for a cleanliness drive on facebook. An anonymous group of citizens who do what they call “spot fixes” around the city. I met a very well spoken guy in the market and we were joined by a group of school children being herded along by their teacher. The school runs a citizenship program and the students who sign up are tasked with joining these types of efforts. The task was to scrape away sticky posters and bills from electricity boxes (or whatever those things are called, switchboards?), then sweep the surrounding and finally paint the skirting that goes around the park in white and geru (a beautiful deep rust colored paint that is locally produced).

When you are doing work in a public space, wonderful things happen. You lose all self-consciousness. How you look, what you’re wearing, who is looking at you, whether your belly is a little too big nowadays, what kind of statement you are making. Your gaze becomes focused on the work. You are being useful. All questions of identity and appearance simply vanish. You have earned the right to be there and everyone just sort of gets with it. You develop an intimacy with the street and it starts to feel like your home because you are taking responsibility for it. People seem less scary and a kind of healing starts to happen. I totally understood why people who violated some law and sometimes even serious convicts are given community service. It is a blessing disguised as a punishment.

It is very easy to cross the line from this new found confidence into entitlement and sanctimonious self-righteousness.

I remembered that it was the very lane of the market where as a teenager I had once gotten into a fight with my friend’s boyfriend. Rather, he had come from behind and pushed me to the ground. I remembered because I had fallen on a bicycle and as I painted a tough spot on the skirting, I had to pick up a bicycle and move it to the side. The memory immediately came back. Cycles in Delhi, the old skool ones have a specific type of weight and make a loud noise when they fall.

Later on, my parents came to pick me up from a coffee shop in the market and we all went to Old Delhi for a wedding. They had to pick me up a change of clothes from home that I got into in the coffee shop bathroom, not showered after three hours of hard work. I didn’t care somehow. The sweat on my body had dried in the cold air conditioned air of the upscale coffee shop and the evening felt cool. I felt energized and ready for a night out. We went deep into the old city. We had to park at the school where my mom and I work and then take cycle rickshaws to the marriage hall. As a kid, I remember when we would go to Aligarh to see my nana (granduncle) we would have to pile all the stuff and ourselves into two cycle rickshaws because one wasn’t enough for all of us. Having been in cars for the last decade or so I had forgotten this kind of simple problem of commuting as a family. My parents got into one rickshaw and I in the other and just like we would do with my mother and nani (grandma) in Aligarh, I looked back at them from my ride, smiled and waved. My father told me about the neighborhood in a loud voice.

The marriage hall was colorful and more like a big house with a courtyard than a formal venue. So used to big, noisy and garish Delhi weddings, it felt simple and unpretentious. More importantly, a guy was roasting kebabs on a coal fire and the smoke from the meat was intoxicating. I was ravenous. The hosts fussed around us because my mom is such a big cheese and we were brought food to our table. The most delectable mutton qorma and sheermal I’ve had in a while.  A long while. The taste was only partially because of the solid Old Delhi cooking. It was also because of how I had arrived at the table. Good meals start hours before you actually start eating.

It is as if my childhood has returned. My father told me that when he was a child, his father would take him from Bada Hindu Rao to Old Delhi on the tram. For a fare of 25 paise.

Days like this can only come with complete abandonment. Completely forsaking your dreams and vain desires. One of my favorite lines from a tv series I watched as a kid.

Zindagi ko kati patang ki tarah udne do.

(Let your life fly like a severed kite).

rickshaws_at_stationCycle rickshaws at Aligarh Railway Junction

Fear and Loafing in Haryana

June 1, 2015 § Leave a comment

I don’t usually wake up at 5 am. I did on Sunday. A friend and I had decided to explore the Asola Wildlife Sanctuary in the outskirts of Delhi. I agreed because the heat has made getting out really difficult and any opportunity to go exploring is welcome. And the only way to make an outing happen in Delhi in May is to wake up at 5 am. Any later and the heat will mute your mind and body beyond all function. The third guy who was supposed to go with us was nursing a Clintonian hangover and made excuses about work meetings from behind closed bedroom doors. So, we took his car and left.

We drove with abandon on deliciously empty roads, following the Google map directions. Until we reached a blue government-installed board saying “Asola Wildlife Sanctuary” with an arrow pointing in a direction that took us away from the Google route.

“That’s a pretty decisive board,” I said to my friend and took the turn.

Very soon, another sign turned us on to a dirt road. The car was just a regular commuter piece with reasonable shocks but no real claim to off road handling.

“Serves him right for flaking out,” said my friend and we continued driving.

The scenery was standard Delhi fare. Drab shops with shutters and piles of debris along the path. A building appeared on the left. Three men stood on the roof with a water hose. They were washing an enormous shiva-lingam. It was made of black tile that had a kind of dull shine and seemed like it would get really hot in the daytime. “Ok,” I thought to myself. Interesting things are starting to happen. We stopped to ask a man who had clearly emerged from a morning ablution how we could get to the Asola Wildlife Sanctuary.

“Yahaan aisa kuch nahin hai.” (There’s no such thing here.)

He seemed groggy, not fully awake. He walked off in daze clutching his water container. There were no other people, which is rare in Delhi. Very rare. We had come out into a sort of housing complex. Most of the houses were new and unoccupied. Built in the yuppie Delhi style construction with flat roofs, sloppy foundations and protruding balconies. Some of them were half finished with the bricks still exposed. Cars were parked willy-nilly. An auto-rickshaw lay abandoned at a slanted angle, the front wheel in a pothole. Its yellow hood peeled off like some lazy person’s bed cover in the morning. There were empty lots between houses. A type of bourgeois ruin waiting to be discovered like a site in Mohenjo-daro thousands of years from now.

We took turns at random sometimes following signs that said simply “ETF.” We speculated somewhat wishfully that this meant “Entrance to Forest.” A woman was taking a morning walk along the dirt path. We rolled down our windows again and asked her how we can get to the sanctuary. She answered in fluent English and gave directions. Relieved, we thanked her and rolled up our windows. The car A/C felt really good. More ETF signs took us to a place from where we could see a gate. By the side of the road, a sikh army man in uniform was packing things in the trunk of a car along with two lackeys. We thought we’ll check one last time. We asked him where the sanctuary was. He laughed. A laugh that clearly said “idiots.” Then he said,

“Yo hi hai!” (This is it, bitches.)

His lackeys didn’t laugh. We laughed but nervously. We asked some follow up questions about the entrance to the park. The armyman told us that it is through the gate up ahead but we wouldn’t be let in because the military controls the forest. We drove into a large field that had patchwork of thorny Aravali-style bushes. I drove through them  like in  an obstacle course and we came up against the gate. On queue, a groggy army guy came out with another random dude in a kurta-pyjama. I saw my friend make conversation with him through the window. The man was shaking his head in the classic faux-apology that all security personnel in Delhi take unearthly relish in offering when they tell you that you effing can’t get in, now beat it.


Off in the distance, in this field, three aunties were taking a baby for a stroll.


As we drove away and back into ghost town, every few minutes we would burst into absurd peels of laughter. With some accompanying rhetoric.

“What the eff is this place?”

“What is going on?” LOL!


At some point we decided that it might be a good idea to read Google reviews.


“Never visit this place. We got looted at knife point…”

“Worst place ever…our stuffs were taken in the forest.”



It only got more interesting. We lost all the drive to actually get anywhere and switched gears into total exploratory mode. For the most part taking turns at random. At one point, we went so deep into some village, it didn’t seem like the car would ever come out. The number of locals who laughed at us was not funny. In the Bhatti Mines village, a hoard of men and women stood in the town square trying to get into packed RTV’s and small buses to go to work. Never in my entire life in Delhi, did I feel like I needed to get back to Gurgaon to go home. We finally emerged on to the highway that promised via another blue board that it will take us back to Gurgaon. The road back, we saw this guy. At least 50 years old. The fittest guy I’ve seen on the street in a while, including in the States. This guy had a thigh to calf proportion that would melt Arnie to the floor. A huge white moustache. He was wearing Hercules boy shorts and a gray t-shirt and running slowly on asphalt. Barefoot.

When it comes to being interesting, Delhi has got nothing on Haryana. You just have to know how to get lost in the right places. Which sho as hell means you don’t ever read Google reviews prior to leaving.

Rain and Candlelight in the Mountains

May 16, 2015 § 3 Comments

Up in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh, there is an institute for the study of classical Indian wisdom traditions. Built in the style of a Buddhist monastery, the main temple is painted in bright colors and is nestled in the bosom of three magnificent peaks. On the fourth day of my course, I sat in a room meditating along with several disciples when a huge storm was riled up. Hail smattered on the glass windows and doors slammed all over the building. Rain poured on the roof and we all sat silently with eyes closed contemplating the fury and letting it resonate in our hearts. I wonder why sitting together silently is not more acceptable as a mode of socializing.

Later that day, I walked to a nearby canteen for some hot momos with a new friend. A man from Holland who was working on a Sanskrit to English translation project. We talked of belief systems and of marriage. The conversation was very amusing and I ended up staying too long. On the trek back to the mud house where I was staying, I got lost and somehow emerged on the main road up the hill instead of at the house. Being a city dweller, I never actually fathom being in situations where there is no way out. No late night taxi service. I also don’t account for darkness. It gathers really fast in the absence of street lighting. The power was out because of the storm so the odd lightbulb in the houses was also not lit. A jeep went by and blinded me with its headlights. Now I know how animals feel. My host phoned to let me know that she had sent someone after me. Thankfully, being on the road meant that I could communicate roughly where I was (near the school for example). If I had been lost on a path on the hill, not only would I be stuck without any sense of direction, being in the middle of trees would also have made it impossible to supply landmarks. Meanwhile I had found a man who had offered to escort me to the mud house because he recognized the neighbor’s name when I told him. It was too late though, a car was coming for me. At night there was no electricity so we sat talking in candlelight. We listened to the rain on the bamboo roof and amused ourselves by reading poetry. The night air was a perfect temperature. Clean, cool, crisp, clear.

The next day, the word was out in the village the the city boy was hopelessly lost at night asking people for directions. I went and met my friend at his place in the afternoon. There are no addresses so the only way to get anywhere is to walk “in that general direction” and try to spot destinations by physical description. In this case, a single storied red house with peeling paint. Single story means he had the entire roof to sit and enjoy the view on. They grow watermelons up there so he had bought some from the market and we ate it on the roof. All around us were field of gold. Wheat farming in steps along the gentle hill. Since it was in steps, the next field “up” from his house was at the same level as the room so the woman working in it seemed to float in mid air, her legs lost among the tall yellow stalks. We talked of weird dogma films and how neither of us were interested in them. Further up the slope, two jackals chased each other among the wheat. One of them had a bad leg and kept getting caught.

The bus journey back to Delhi was nothing short of torture. A young Haryanvi driver was driving the bus like a Ferrari, cutting corners sharply which made the food in my stomach rise up to my throat, go back down and then left, then right like some sort of ping pong ball. He blared some awful Akshay Kumar film which was so bad, it made me want to throw up even more. I didn’t though but it was close. I slept the entire day and met friends in Defence Colony in the evening. I told them all the stories and then we all had hot chocolate fudge sundaes. We all agreed that we were losing our touch because had we been 10 years younger, we would have had one each.

Naked Shirtless Religion

May 5, 2015 § Leave a comment

A couple of my friends have made an excellent and co-incidentally named documentary film on Salman Khan fandom, “Being Bhaijaan.” It is playing at the New York International Film Festival right now. I watched it at a private screening in Gurgaon and the filmmakers honored me by placing my review on their blog.

Jai Salman. Naked Shirtless Religion

by Saif Ali

“I had a knack for impressions as a teenager. It was a handy tool to win friends and sometimes influence people. Performances were arranged, thug-style, in the schoolyard away from the anticipated wrath of the subjects being imitated. A mob of kids stood around while I belted out impressions and improvisations of selected pedagogues. Sometimes a peer would request an impression of a particular person and I would have to say no. The thing of it was that I did not choose the subjects of my impressions…”

Read the whole review here. If you’re in NY, go see the film.

Nothing Lasts

April 12, 2015 § 3 Comments

I spent the morning walking around the ruins on Mehrauli village. A haunt of the later Mughals in Delhi. The burial site of the Muslim holy man, Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki. Among his devotees, was one of the most discussed figures in Mughal history, the last Mughal, Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II. He was a poet king. A lover of poetry. He features as the organizer of the last gathering of poets in the play Dilli Ka Aakhri Mushaira (The Last Gathering of Poets in Delhi). Bahadur Shah Zafar II was exiled to Rangoon in Burma (modern day Yangon, Myanmar) by the British after they took over the Mughal Empire. Long before this Zafar most likely sensed the mood in Delhi and knew the doom that was to come. He wrote:

Na kisi ki aankh ka noor hoon, na kisi ke dil ka qarar hoon

Jo kisi ke kaam na aa sake, main woh ek musht-e-ghubar hoon

I am neither the light in anyone’s eyes, nor am I the comfort of anyone’s heart

I mean nothing to anyone, a mere handful of dust

His poetry reflects the tragic circumstances of his life and his resignation to an overwhelming fate. This morning I ascended the stairs of Zafar’s palace in Mehrauli. The Zafar Mahal. A site that carries the silence of years gone by. Ruined, empty and surrounded by ugly haphazarad urban sprawl. The place had the beautiful silence of loss. The sublime beauty of emptiness. The very essence of Zafar’s poetry. A couple of pigeons flew over the sandstone facade. The empty jharokha (viewing window) looked over Delhi. The place where Zafar would sit and watch the Phoolwaalon ki Sair (The Parade of the Florists). It is said he was a big fan of fireworks.

There is a row of tombs in a compound in the mahal. In Islam, there is the belief that it is beneficial in the Hereafter to be buried next to a person of exalted stature in the eyes of God. To be buried next to saints and holy men who were near to God. Mughal emperors held their spiritual advisers in great esteem and loved them. They wanted to be buried near them to obtain the benefit. Zafar had marked out a space for his own grave among this row of tombs. He never found his resting place there. The British exiled him to Rangoon and he died there. While in Rangoon, he wrote:

Lagtaa nahin hai dil meraa ujday dayaar mein
kis ki bani hai aalam-e-naa_paayedaar mein

kah do in hasraton se kahin aur jaa basein
itani jagah kahaan hai dil-e-daagdaar mein

umr-e-daraaz maang kar laaye they chaar din
do arzoo mein kaT gaye do intezaar mein

kitnaa hai bad_naseeb “Zafar” dafn key liye
do gaz zamin bhi na mili kuu-e-yaar mein

My heart is not at peace in the realm of ruin

Who after all wins in this world of mortality

Tell these desires to go be elsewhere

No space remains in a heart marked by sorrow

We had come here asking for a long life

Half of it I spent in longing and the other half in waiting

How unfortunate art thou Zafar, to rest in peace

A mere two feet of ground, you could not get in the lane of the beloved

The beloved here means Bakhtiyar Kaki, the saint who is buried not too far from the empty space that speaks loudly these words of Bahadur Shah Zafar. I stood there today and wondered what it felt like to be the last remnant of the empire that gave rise to the Taj Mahal.

Zafar Mahal - The Silent Witness to Loss

Zafar Mahal – The Silent Witness to Loss

The Taj Mahal - A Monument of Splendour and Glory

The Taj Mahal – A Monument of Splendour and Glory

I pray that the soul of Bahadur Shah Zafar is released from the burden of empire and his longing for the beloved be quenched in the Hereafter. Did he perhaps bear the punishment for the violence of his forefathers? He surrendered the empire to the British with resignation and wished only for home in his last days but he did not find it. They say he is regarded a saint in Myanmar where is buried. Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki said:

Kustgaan khanjar taslimra

harzama az ghaib jaan-e-deegar ast

Those who are slain by the dagger of surrender;

Receive every moment a new life from the unseen

An Emergence of Hope

April 3, 2015 § 1 Comment

Delhiites, sit back and take a deep breath.

Among the frustrations, disappointments, shocks and confusions that we suffer daily in this city of ours, there is a place where we can exhale. The Aravalli Biodiversity Park, where I spent the entire day hiking through a nature trail accompanied by two very knowledgable ecologists who had arranged the visit at the request of my father who himself is a molecular biologist and an avid proponent of biodiversity conservation in India. The park is generally closed for the public.

We walked through a canopy of green accompanied by the symphony of bird calls. The sky was clear and the bushes were alive with buzzing. A green pigeon sat quietly on a branch taking an afternoon rest. In disturbing contrast, every now and then a loud airplane would land at IGI airport nearby. The park is home to 15 species of snakes. For those of us who have a hard time appreciating the importance of biodiversity, consider that when we eat a meal consisting of vegetable pulao along with raita and pickle, there are about 50-60 species of plants that have made their way on to our plate. Further, mankind has selected these edible species via thousands of years of experimentation. The advantages of being born in an advanced civilization are often taken for granted. Plant species are disappearing from Delhi at an alarming rate because of intense urbanization, vehicular pollution and loss of habitat. If zeera (cumin) plants were to disappear from the world, raita would never taste the same again. Plants depend on bees, butterflies and other flying insects for survival. Though overlooked, it is still a fact that if bees disappeared from the Earth the human race would be wiped out, a prospect far more sombre than bland raita.

The Aravallis are 1500 million years old.

The mountain range that is right besides us in our very hometown, the mountain range we just drive by usually without a second look, is among the oldest mountain systems in the world. Keep in mind the next time you are in Vasant Kunj, you are walking (or driving more likely) along mountains that were around before the ice age, before there were animals on planet Earth.

Take another deep breath.

The portion of the Aravallis in Delhi were subjected to mining operations to extract mica and sand. Ruins of old structures like wells from the time can be seen in the park. This destroyed the natural habitat and led to the large scale disappearance of species and the conversion of the region into barren wasteland. A team of passionate people led by eminent Delhi University biologist Dr. C. R. Babu took on the Herculean task of converting this mining inflicted land into a biodiversity preserve. This is an enormously complicated operation that requires expertise in ecology, zoology, botany, immense manpower, bureaucratic agility and an iron resolve.

Dr Hussain, the ecologist in-charge of the preserve explained that a park or a botanical garden is different from a biodiversity preserve. A biodiversity preserve is a wild forest system where the insects, reptiles and animals are put to work to keep the balance of nature without constant human intervention. What this means is that species of plants must be selected carefully and introduced in a particular order starting with the top canopy and going down to the undergrowth so that a self-sustaining forest ecosystem emerges as the tree cover increases. Such an ecosystem provides what are called “ecological services” the larger urban area. The most important among these is the gathering of polluting matter from the air. A critically needed service in Delhi, the most polluted city in the world. As we sat in Dr Hussain’s office, the air felt clean and light. It was hard to believe we were in Delhi.

The development of a forest ecosystem requires monitoring and analysis of the plants and animals inside it. Species evolve together and live in a perpetual state of interdependence. Dr Aisha, another ecologist at the preserve, showed us a mining pit that has been converted into a butterfly conservatory. She pointed out that butterflies are expert botanists. They are very specific about which plant they choose to pollinate. If a particular species of plant disappears, so does the related species of butterflies. Dr Damani, the in house expert on reptiles showed us a picture of a snake eating a ground lizard. He said that lizards in turn eat the juvenile snake individuals and in this way the two species keep each other in check. A fascinating concept in emergent ecosystems is called “ecological separation.” This is a type of equilibrium that an ecosystem attains as it matures. Each species becomes localized to particular regions which decreases competition among them and the entire forest can flourish in a state of balance.

This is a unique effort of restoring a lost world. There are many aspects of this effort that are totally new. As citizens, we should be proud of the work the teams have done and help spread the word. This project is undertaken by the Delhi Development Authority and you can find out more at http://www.dda.org. The park allows high school, college students and serious scientific enquirers to enter the premises of the park. They have a path where local community residents can take their morning walks. We can all take heart from the fact that in our dusty inferno of concrete and asphalt, a beautiful oasis of natural beauty is taking shape.   

“Chepna” – To Nail Someone

March 27, 2015 § 2 Comments

Today I visited the school I’ve been working at again in Old Delhi. What a wonderous place it is. Every second spent there brings with it enormous helpings of wisdom and amusement. I missed Friday prayer in the main mosque so Athar, the peon, showed me the smaller mosque outside the school compound where they have the congregation a little later. I barely made it up a sordid staircase into a crowded room that seemed like a remnant of an old haveli. The arches inside were still intact. As is required in prayer, I tried to focus on the remembrance of God but I had got there in such a hurry and the place was so uncomfortable that I didn’t really succeed. A kid kept hovering around me and would wait for the sajdah which would give her enough space to cross behind me. Then next sajdah, she’d be back. On my way out I gave some money to the beggars who always collect after Friday prayers. I didn’t have change so I dropped a large-ish bill into one of their collection rags and asked her to share some of it with a little kid who was also begging. On the staircase, a jaded young man brushed past me and said

“Yeah, that’s not gonna happen.”

Back in the school compound after risking my life to cross the road, I saw kids pouring out of the mosque, skullcaps still in place. I recorded some kids playing “maaram-pitti” in the field. The name loosely means “hitting and beating.” It’s basically like tag except instead of tapping people you try to nail them with a tennis ball. The process of nailing someone is called “chepna.” It’s a verb, meaning to nail someone.

Some of them immediately started posing with wide grins and folded hands. Others gathered around me to peer into the camera. One kid wanted to know why I was filming. I told him I make films. He then placed his hand in front of the lens. This annoyed me and I told him to stop. It is so surprising to see how early the “character” of an individual appears. The whole episode was enlightening. He came up to me and said in a manner which was exactly like a common adult goon. The typical vernacular that you hear in Muslim dominated poor areas.

Meri photo jo khichi hai wo kaheen bhi lagnee nahin chahiye. Nahin nateeja bahut bura hoga, samajh lo abhi se.

(The photo you’ve taken of me should not be put up anywhere. Or else the result will be bad, kapish?)

Barely 10 years old this guy. Then he walked away. His manner was so adult it stumped me for a bit. The way the threat was constructed, the tonal pattern. This other boy came up to me and said,

Aap se dar ra hai woh.

( He is afraid of you.)

This boy was even younger. Maybe 8, yet he stated the profound, obvious truth of the situation without batting an eyelid. I have always believed that everyone knows the plain truth about our existence at all times. Even the ones in the deepest trance will utter it and not realize what they have said. I asked one of the boys to bring him to me. I told him that not a second of footage would see the light of day without his permission. I asked him his name and then shook his hand. First he refused to even come to me. Then he refused to shake my hand. He didn’t know what to do with my friendliness. Since he was still a kid, he did melt. He smiled and finally shook my hand even though he tried to maintain his original air of distance. He couldn’t possibly let it all go in front of his friends. It was such a vivid example of how fear and desire operate in a person. The boy clearly wanted to be filmed but he couldn’t come to terms with the idea that that might mean his secrets will be exposed. He wanted to talk to me and gather round and peer into the camera like the other kids but he couldn’t admit it. His deepest desire in the moment was masked from him because of fear. It is possibly, this dynamic when reinforced over a period of decades solidifies into what we recognize as the ego. This interplay of fear and desire that play hide and seek in our minds and appear in bewitching disguises to ensure we remain hopelessly lost.


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