In the Most Polluted Place in the World

Today I did an hour long workshop with people who are studying to be teachers. It was at an institute way out in the outskirts of Delhi in a place called Dilshad Garden. I’d never been there before. I had to change two trains which was also a first for me. On the way, I saw stretching far into the distance, partially constructed homes built in a giant jigsaw puzzle. Willy, nilly. Walls jutting into each other. Bricks exposed. Where is the time for plaster and paint in a place like Delhi? An expanse of urban life dotted by protruding domes and minarets belonging to places of worship. The dreams of a metropolis stuffed together like playing cards.

Life continues through all of it. A populace that is positively vibrating with curiosity and potential is pulsating through the labyrinths of chaos.

   *     *     *

A PhD scholar at the Dept of Education in Jamia Millia Islamia is working on emotional intelligence in the classroom. She has been designing a variety of interventions to help teachers identify, understand and manage their emotions while interacting with students. She had invited me to work with this group of pre-service teachers for a one-hour session using drama exercises to identify and name emotions. We worked with this through some fun improvisations that were followed by acts of self-questioning and noticing your breath, bodily sensation, thoughts and emotions. I had a wonderful time and was amazed by the intelligence of these to-be teachers. I was filled with hope for the children whom they will teach. I spoke to a few of them for a long time afterwards and they asked me a lot of questions that suggested they have rich inner lives. I was glad because I think we as a nation need to move on from note-giving, static curriculum teachers to dynamic, introspective teachers that have an inner process and practice.

Later one of them walked with me to the metro station and shared the ride until the Central Secretariat. He was from a village in Rajasthan. He was nearly 20 years old, very slim. A gaunt face and sharp nose. He told me he prefers to walk and spend the money he would on the rickshaw on something to eat. He eats bananas, he said. I asked him if he would join me in eating gol gappas. He said he avoids eating prepared food outside the house. He said where he lives in Dwarka, he knows the food vendors and the food is of good quality so he eats it there but not here in Dilshad Garden. He also told me the area we were walking through was the most polluted part of Delhi and he had read in the newspaper that Delhi was the most polluted city in the world so he said, this means we are walking through the most polluted place in the world. I remarked that some bougainvillea flowers on the way were beautiful. He said the flowers in Dwarka were better. On the train he asked me about my time in the United States. He listened with great curiosity and often went into deep thought about what I had said. Then he told me that I should stay toward the front when getting off at C. Sectt otherwise the mob will push me back into the train. When he got off, he told me how many stations it will be before mine. I thanked him, we shook hands and he left. I will attach a photo of the whole group today. He is not in it because he took the photo. Later we did a selfie with some other friends of his because he said that all the photos that are taken in the institute, he is usually not in them. Maybe he feels invisible.


For me, as the “expert” it felt good to have a channel for my experience to find a place in someone’s heart. That is what we all want I think, that someone will carry a piece of our legacy and a piece of the beautiful puzzle that they are figuring out will come from us. It really is a fulfilling feeling and on days like this, I feel like my acting aspiration is not just self-absorbed need for accolade and admiration. I owe those students a great debt because they agreed to be the recipients of my wisdom. This is hard these days because everyone already knows so much.

If we all did the things we are capable of,
we would astound ourselves.
Thomas Edison

That is how I feel about the kids I met today.

A Letter to My Future Wife

The first night I arrived in Oaxaca, I met a couple of people staying at the Calera in the big room. Clayton was a writer from New York and as it turned out he lived in Berkeley a stone’s throw away from me. A big African-American man with a kind face and a hilarious wit. Tara was his friend who worked as a video producer. She was upset because it had come to pass that their bags would probably not make it to Mexico before the end of their vacation. Propelled by the magic of the Mexican night and the trust that remoteness engenders among strangers, I found myself confessing to them things about my life that I would normally reserve for my journal. In the freedom of the moment, I told them that I wanted, after 10 years of being in the United States, to return to India and go on a sojourn to look for you. Clayton was totally on board. Tara had reservations. I’m not sure where that plan came from. Was it unformed all this while waiting to appear as words in the light of a paper lamp sitting underneath cactus plants?

That was then. I am now back home in India. It seems like I never left. Like the last 10 years was a dream and I have woken up only now. People keep asking me what my plans are, what my dreams are. I have many plans, many ideas, many dreams but only one true heartfelt desire. To find you. Never have I felt a presence in my life that is so sharply defined yet without a face or body. Sometimes I can conjure a blurry outline of a physical presence but its always a mirage and most likely a false one shaped by passion. Always disappearing as I approach it. I feel no desperation, no frustration. I am content to wander about and wait for our inevitable encounter. I know that I have to make no effort in order to bring it about.

It happens sometimes that someone will make a claim to your spot. I like to think that I will know when you are near. Some voice inside my head tells me I am creating a vision and placing it on a pedestal that no living, breathing woman will ever fulfill. The truth is that I have fewer expectations from you than ever. All I have is a sense of you and not too many words that I can say to define what I want you to look like, be like or act like. I make solemn oaths that I will put everything I have learned from previous commitments to our relationship but I wish for something higher. That you and I will create something entirely new, not slave to the incremental accumulation of wisdom about relationships but a flight of the heart that comes from the very depths of our beings. Free of ideals and words but full of belief. The break from my past that I have experienced in the last year has made available a space that is so full of a potential which I recognize as you. Whether you will ever assume human form is not my will or concern but it is my wish to love you completely if you ever do.

Who are you? Where are you? What are you doing right now? Are you the soft-spoken daughter of a family that depends on you? You say little but hold together the family with a silent and dynamic strength. Or are you the force of the ocean waves that breaks upon the shore relentlessly? You light up the room with your dazzling laugh and give as good you take. Or are you some completely unexpected vision who will perplex and frustrate me with her secrets? How foolish am I to lend to the formless the substance of manifested reality? Is it love’s destiny to be the slave of flesh and blood?

Delhi Summer

Devils of dust and dirt

trample the potholes

of the djinns

rising now and again

to claim their spot

seeking refuge

in the inferno of hopeless damnation

numb and still given to agitation

abey tu hai kaun

tu cheez kya hai

tere baap ka kya jaata hai

tu saale gaadi hata


rise the fury of vengeance

and have your way once and for all


burn amidst cheers and sulfur dreams

the rain must come, Raavan must fall.

My Improv Story and an Invitation

Depending on who you talk to the word “improv” could mean anything from stand-up comedy to Jazz solos to what Roger Federer often does when he hits the ball from between his legs. The first time I did improv, it was on cold dark evening in Mitchell Park, Palo Alto, with a group of people I had never met before. It was unlike anything I had ever done or ever thought it could be. I found that improv is simply the art of accepting all ideas – your own and those of others. I spent three hours going on vivid journeys and getting into all kinds of trouble with complete strangers. Eventually, we all got together to form a group known as thursProv and went on to perform during the 2010 SF Improv Festival at the grand Eureka Theatre in North Beach. We were just fooling around, it wasn’t serious. If you google around, you’ll find some stuff we did and if I’m lucky you might find a very favorable review. A couple of years later we had to leave Mitchell Park because we got into a turf fight with local gang members who barged in and did bad racist jokes. Here’s that flyer from 2010.

Things got a little more serious when I enrolled at the BATS School of Improv that has a beautiful theatre right by the bay, looking out on to the Golden Gate Bridge. Here I met people who had been improvising for over 30 years. I had the once in a lifetime opportunity to study with Keith Johnstone, the founder of the Theatresports format and one time director at the Royal Court Theatre, London. If you’re tabla player, this is like getting to study with Zakir Hussain in a closed room for 8 hours every day for four days. At BATS, people constructed entire hour long plays from a single suggestion from the audience. I learned how to do genre-improv which is when you distill the essence of a genre and then tell made up stories in that style. They did “Improvised Alfred Hitchcock,” “Improvised Quentin Tarentino” and even “Spontaneous Broadway” where players improvise entire songs and string them together into a musical. After about 3 years of studying, I devised my own format – “Improvised Stories in the style of J.R.R. Tolkien.” I directed five fantastic improvisers in an improv championship called the Cavematch where audience members vote for their favorite team among two teams. The losers go home, winners perform again next week. We performed five times in a row and eventually lost to a brilliant team who did improvised Kung-Fu movies.

Improvised Fim Noir at the BATS Bayfront Theatre.  June 2012.

I met people for whom improv was a lifestyle, a livelihood. They consulted with Silicon Valley companies and LA based film production houses. These companies chose to make improv a part of their culture. To develop flow in their processes, for story-boarding, improving team dynamics and problem solving. Improv is a reversing of norms and rules. It helps you get what some call “in-the-zone.” PIXAR is a studio that places improvisation at the very heart of what they do. The Internet abounds with stories about how they use it in their work.

I had the opportunity to work at the Stanford University, teaching improvisation to would-be teachers at the School of Education. I taught the course for two quarters to two different groups along with PhD scholars who were working on career development and researching movement and creativity. I joined a member of the in a day long workshop in Design Thinking for visiting students from Japan and China who turned out to be great improvisers. We used improv for prototyping ideas, throwing away ideas and a way to solve your particular problem by embodying the user experience yourself. One group was working on a design for a cafe for the disabled. They used a wheeled office chair to embody the experience of their would-be customers. They improvised an entire cafe scenario with no real equipment, just using their bodies.

Through all of my years in California, improv became a part of everything I did. How I related to people and sometimes I got to use it in emergencies as part of scripted performances. I dreamt about improvising in India. I lay awake at night thinking of all the possibilities that our rich and colorful tradition offers. Can you imagine “Improvised Panchatantra Stories?” I longed to improvise in two languages, or three! Finally, after 10 long years I am able to put forward the first of what I hope will be many invitations to join me in an exploration. A six-session introductory workshop to improvised theatre. Where we will explore the basic principles of improv and get into much trouble. Because failure and mistakes are an integral part of improv. If we are not failing, we are not doing it right. Improv is about surprising yourself, making discoveries and people watch you to see how you solve problems. We will create a safe space for experimenting with our inner creative intuition, not try to be funny or do too much.

But I cannot do it without you. Such is the beauty of improv. It is not about one person. If nobody stands out, it means everyone is doing their job right. The ensemble is the star of the show. In this workshop, we will focus on building the right attitude and skills for improv and not necessarily on applying it to a particular discipline. My ideal situation would be to have a diverse room where we get people from many backgrounds. This will increase learning for everyone and myself.

I have met some of my best friends, some of my worst fr-enemies and the most mad, balmy people through improv. I hope that this will be the case for you. Dare I say, for the first time in New Delhi, partake in your first experience in completely improvised theatre. I hope you will be there.

Lick here to go to the Facebook page for the workshop event. Click, I mean click here. That was an honest mistake. Mother swear.

Time and Space Jam

This is going to be another one about coming home. I keep doing that again and again. After two months away after having moved back home, I’m back once more. Today I attended the congregational Friday prayer at the mosque in the university where I went to engineering school.

When I was seventeen, which was seventeen years ago, I remember I would play basketball on the university basketball court. I was not in the University at the time. I would just go there to play. The court was ruled by a bunch of boys from the locality that were way tougher than I was. They had better game, obviously. Not just technical, also psychological. These guys were growing up in tough homes, most of them in the government run schools spending most of their time outside class. I was in a premiere private school, softened by parental supervision and finessed with good manners. This left me with basically nothing on court. Still, these guys were always nice to me. But you know its bad news when the guys are “being nice” to you on court.  It kinda bummed me out but I didn’t really mind because honestly, I didn’t want to see their A game. Once I cut off this guy on his way to a lay up and maybe I threw a little too much elbow in there. He made the shot anyway then smiled at me and with a weirdly feminine voice said,

“Tumhe bhi lag jaayegi phir.” (You might get hurt too then). 

It was a friendly reprimand, nothing serious but it was enough for me to back off. The thing was I wasn’t that much worse than them. They never looked at me like I was a burden they had to put up with, or else they wouldn’t let me play. It was just that when I had the ball, they played it clean and proper. It wasn’t personal. They respected that I was not from their world and I accepted my place as the nice boy. I thought way more about them than they did about me. I think this is true about most people in my life.

Other than the crop of standard rowdy basketball players, there was a boy who was unbelievably good and very graceful to watch. He never played rough and it was him who first asked me to play with them when I was just kind of skirting the court to see if anyone would bite. He was very lean and short but he ran like a bullet. Insane accuracy and agility. Overall athlete. He even had that face. The good-athlete face. Sunken cheeks, floppy hair and a sharp nose. For the purposes of this discussion we shall call him Wasim.

So, back to today. After I finished praying my father who is a professor, took me on a customary tour of the university. He would do this when I was young too. At that time, I did not realize the value of knowing all of his colleagues and all the wisdom and affection I was getting for free. Today I went to see a physics professor who appears and acts more Russian after his stint in the erstwhile U.S.S.R. He listens to the opera in Volgograd and reads the poetry of Pushkin. I remember him from my adolescent years. I once visited him at the Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics in Pune while I was interning there as an undergrad. He was not too well, recovering from a cold but very happy to see me which he expressed by feeding me raisins from Tashkent out of a polythene bag.

After this, I met a mechanical engineering professor. A devout Muslim and very dutiful teacher. He never actually taught me but he told me he wants me to give a talk at the department. Then, on the pretext of introducing me to the dean of the faculty my father took me to the dean’s office. Though on the way there he mumbled something about a very eligible young lady being a member of the teaching staff. He thought I didn’t hear it. I had. I feigned oblivion to make matters less awkward. We went in and we were greeted by a late thirties gentleman of small height and a demeanour of outward calm. He had a name like Sharif or Shafa’ul or something. He was the head clerk of the dean’s office. So, you have to understand. These guys exist by the thousands in the University. They are the bulk that the administration stands on. They are the secret keepers of all the professorial rivalries. They are the ones who keep students at bay and wreak havoc in their ranks by befriending a small group of them and then stamping their forms on time while keeping others waiting. They implement all the petty schemes of the administrators, get people out of the proverbial hole, put people in the proverbial hole. They hold your future in their hands. In the form of marksheets, degrees, rubber ink stamps, affidavits, time tables. They own you. But you would never know it. Their faces look like some demon is sending them death threats everyday, like some calamity is about to befall them or they just got slapped. They are always wiping their brow with a handkerchief or driving solemnly down the road on their scooters. They inevitably have the limp handshake. The moment they see any figure of authority, they go into this infuriating obsequious mode. This particular gentleman was of a more sober variety and didn’t froth at the mouth at the sight of my father. I wasn’t exactly paying attention because seated on a stool at the back was Wasim. The basketball player. He got up obediently when he saw the man and my father. I recognized him instantly but it took me a few seconds to recall his name. He looked at me and then walked into another room past a glass door. Meanwhile the clerk told my father the dean was not in. That should have been the end of that. I kept standing in the corridor looking at this figure of my long forgotten past. He looked just the same. Lean, boyish. He saw me looking at him so he came out. I asked him if he remembered me. I had to remind him that I had a white basketball that I brought back from the United States. That seemed to do the trick. At least he pretended to remember. I asked him what he does.

“Non-teaching staff,” he said.

Meanwhile, my father and the clerk were staring at the teacher’s time table.

“You wait here,” said my father.

They then disappeared while I asked my friend whether he still played. It turned out he did and I said I wanted to play as well but he didn’t seem too excited by the idea. It was like we were back on court. He was being polite but he didn’t really care if I played. My father and the clerk returned and I heard my father say to him,

“I will ask my wife to call you.”

The clerk gave me his A+ poker face. A face he has practiced diligently through at least a decade of administrative diplomacy. I in return, gave him mine. We shook hands. Sure enough. As limp as dead fish.

Parisian Promises

You can never have a first night in a city again. Paris immediately strikes a friendly note to an Indian visitor from London on account of being dirtier. I don’t know if it is only me or all Indians but we feel slightly on edge in cities that are too clean and orderly. Being creatures of chaos, despite our proud nature, we hold some anxiety about doing something wrong and getting caught. The traffic underneath the magnificent front entrance of the Gare Du Nord is chaotic and yet people stop for you to cross the street. It is an Indian person’s dream because you get the sense that you can be free and still feel safe. The city is grand and yet cozy. Imposing yet intimate. It fulfills every promise. People dine on the sidewalk, have spirited discussion holding cigarettes, drink Coca Cola out of bottles, a couple kisses on the bridge the man smothering the woman her eyes half closed intoxicated by love, the Seine glitters by the lights and the spire of Notre Dame extends ominously into the night sky. First few hours are spent gasping for orientation in the labyrinthine haze of the metro, disappearing underground, being whizzed around by a fast train and re-appearing overground into another world. The pace slow and lilting on the surface and fast and dizzy below. You go under leaving a boulevard of serene beauty and get swallowed up by an electrically propelled serpent and get spat out on to a breathtaking town vista. You float into a cobblestoned alley with the most stunning people with glowing faces. Like some sort of heaven and hell.


Leaving London

I am at the end of my stay in London which as lots of you know has been a really heartwarming and healing time spent with my family. Tomorrow I will arrive in Paris and start another journey in the rest of Europe. I am very excited for the unknown and unexpected and also to see my old friends who have spread themselves across the continent. Yesterday I spent some time at the Bank Junction in Central London and I marveled at the place which once held and accounted the wealth of the British Empire. I wandered around Parliament Square and looked for a long time at the newly installed statue of Mahatma Gandhi and then of the towering one of Churchill. While I do feel awe at the giants of history I feel greater awe for the people that live in the world now. The people who are willing to let go of the demons of past wars and work to forge friendship and understanding. Later I was at the Royal Exchange and I saw all the people walking about, trying to do their jobs with honesty and preserve their dignity in this world. Some had arrogance and a sense of being unsure, some tried to emphasize authority with fancy clothing or in the way they sat but all I saw were people trying to be happy and whether they realize it or not, trying to do the right things. Being humbled by their imperfections. More to be seen yet.

20150720_173058The Royal Exchange, Bank Junction, Central London

United Kingdom