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 § 1 Comment

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.

Just Live Dear Boy

March 22, 2015 § 5 Comments

Today I attended a meeting of the resident welfare association of my colony in New Delhi. Mostly senior citizens. Within the first 10 minutes of the meeting, a full blown shouting match involving multi-directional messaging had commenced. Most of it was people telling other people that “they cannot talk like that.” It was a chain of disciplinary advice. Everybody wants to be someone. Everybody wants to matter. Indian people, I find, make the most transparent pursuit of significance. They try to hog space, power, attention and money whenever, however and wherever possible. A truly materialistic lot. There is a certain naivete to this that is endearing. I am coming from a place where the search of significance is accompanied by an insidious need to hide the fact that it is happening at all. Or to escape from one’s human nature into an imagined utopia of emotional perfection which becomes nothing more than a plastered facade of political correctness, fair play and social etiquette. Indian people are hopelessly transparent, prone to manipulation by colder hearts. There is so much infighting that it is trivial to play one against another.

In the relentless epic of colonization in the Indian sub-continent, another chapter has now opened. This time, we want it (although it can be argued that that was the case earlier too). It begins with the appearance of six-pack abs on the Bollywood circuit. A sure sign that simple Dilip Kumar-esque charm or Bachchani bravado will not cut it any more. Men and women alike must up their body sexualization game in order to get with the program. It is now possible to do CrossFit in India. An abomination of masochism invented by the mainstream fitness militia of the United States where you torture yourself physically and then ingest high energy medicine-food to develop muscle and perhaps some semblance of “character.” A completely wasteful exercise that produces no benefit to society other than the ever receding mirage of personal and sexual gratification for the participant.

Then there is the all encompassing campaign for vikaas (development). Development for India apparently begins with the procurement of a diplomatic visa to the United States for the Prime Minister. More highways, more industry, more high rise flats, more jobs, more insurance, more flights, more, more, more. Yeh dil maange more! (thanks Pepsi). We are begging to be converted into a third rate suburb in Michigan.

As I watched the residents of my colony have a go at each other over every small matter, sometimes over no matter at all, I realized that in India life just sort of plods along. People have not been turned into hyper-efficient, muscular machines of progress. They speak their minds freely, express dissent and stall matters at the drop of a hat, bigger picture be damned. They eat sweets, drink chai four times a day, fight their hearts out, hardly exercise, make a fine mess of life and honestly, it is really not all that bad. The human soul is not a glass menagerie of perfection. It is a flawed phantom of convictions that unabashedly wants to matter in this world.

Alan Watts says that intelligence is just systematic doubt. It is a delaying of inevitable matters with the hope of optimizing for some ridiculous parameter like money or “eventual satisfaction.” One of my favorite Hollywood stories allegedly occurred on the set of the movie Marathon Man starring Dustin Hoffman and Sir Laurence Olivier. For a scene where he had to portray a harrowed and tired man on the run, Hoffman appeared on set disheveled and not having slept for two days in the hopes of producing a convincing performance. To which Olivier said, “just act, dear boy.” When I find myself trying to think of the perfect attitude toward life and how to develop it or how to achieve perfect inner tranquility and flawless outer manner, I say to myself, “just live, dear boy.”


March 20, 2015 § 5 Comments

Many firsts. The other day I had my first road rage incident since I’ve been back home. It ended with the guy passing me in a tizzy, cutting me off by blocking the road in front of me and leaning out of his window to yell at me. I remained inside the car and kept quiet. I’m told people are shooting each other over parking nowadays. That was another first. The restraint in the face of public provocation. Also for the first time, I am single and not frantic about it. For the first time, I let each day live itself. For the first time I don’t question the ultimate value of time spent with people. For the first time, I know what it means to let go and be yourself. For the first time, risks don’t seem daunting. For the first time, I am saying yes to practically everything and everyone and yet life seems to go at a languid pace.

To embody a completely new consciousness and perspective is sometimes unnerving. At times I talk to people and as I look at them, I ask who it is that is looking. People keep asking, now that you’re back home after 10 years what is your plan? I don’t have a plan, I have many ideas. Delhi is so activated and energized that I am having to push work away and push gigs away. Practically every conversation I have is bursting at the seams with promise.

Today I walked to the mosque and joined Friday prayer just in time for the first rakat. On the way back, 8 men were trying to push a huge tractor and a cart full of mud out of an equally big mound of mud. The wheel was completely jammed. The men, one of them at the wheel, were heaving the beast out of the dirt. They would do a large push coordinating it with the accelerator and the tractor would lift a few inches out of the dirt and plummet right back. A man got under the wheel with a shovel and dug some mud out. Another one blocked the wheel with bricks. I joined them. They did not resist or notice it much at all. They would invoked various Gods, mantras and chants. Chew tobacco during the breaks and get back at it. After 3 attempts, there was a final heave which I felt in my bones would work. It did. This evening I can barely walk because I think I injured my knee. It was worth it. To feel that moment of union when men are joined together in a single consciousness. Amazing how much it has to do with the mind. If we can control our minds and not be controlled by them, the effort of life can be eliminated altogether.

I’ve been volunteering at a school that my mother oversees in the heart of Old Delhi town. Well, it is now the heart. When it was built 300 years ago it was actually outside the confines of the city, just outside the Ajmeri Gate. When it was built, it was not a school at all, I think. I’m still learning the history of the place. It is a world heritage monument but it is a living monument in the sense that it has a school compound which actually operates as a school and it adjoins a Mughal mosque that still operates as a mosque. A rare gem where you can see modern life occur in a historical building preserved in its original form. The beauty of Islamic prayer is that it does not change from generation to generation so as i stood in file today at the mosque, I can’t imagine it would have been too different when Aurangzeb was still emperor.

My mother has a giant office where I work on the school website with the guy who teaches computers to the kids. A very shy Sikh man who is intensely obedient and sincere.He told me he had a love marriage and knew his lady for three years before they got married. The school is free so severely deficient in money and resources. The people are wonderful. At least, they are wonderful to me. My mother’s assistant, Furkhan bhai, is very impressed that I spent 10 years away from home and came back despite having “seen the world.” He thinks that is true imaan. There is another gentleman who does accounts who is outgoing personality. Today after we finished some work, he suggested we all go into the galis to eat Kalloo bhai ki nihari. Nihari is a slow cooked meat preparation that is made from the inner thigh and loin cut of beef. It is intense and spicy and sprinkled with fresh cilantro and sliced ginger. It is sold for two hours after the asr prayer only. Later, I learned someone fired a gunshot over some nihari related brawl once. Men place plates of nihari on the backseats of scooters and eat dinner standing up, washing it down with Coca Cola. Two boys squat in what looks like an old toilet that has been converted into a place for a clay oven and roast naan, served fresh off the coals to the clientele. The gentleman from accounts is an insider and he got us a spot in a little alcove that had picnic tables to eat on.

Praying in the mosque that adjoins the school is a sublime experience. The simplicity of life and the non-existence of expectation is like a wash of cold, fresh, mountain spring water on a soul that is scorched by the anxiety of insignificance in the high achieving inferno of the San Francisco bay area. I got stuck in really bad traffic on the way to and from the school. I mean, really bad. Hours on end waiting for signals and dust flying around on uneven roads and blaring horns. Million near misses. Everything still feels right. I watch everything with a hear that is ready to cry any moment and eyes that forever smiling inside.


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