April 12, 2015 § Leave a 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
March 7, 2015 § Leave a comment
I am not a fan of Arvind Kejriwal. Only a fan of what he has made possible for Indian politics. I am a fan of his chutzpah and screw-everything attitude. People are hollering on about the ouster of Prashant Bhushan and Yogendar Yadav from the political affairs committee. I am sad about this. I absolutely adore Yogendar Yadav. If AAP leaders were put in a museum he would continuously attract the maximum visitors despite Arvind Kejriwal being on the brochure. Honestly, I don’t care about the Aam Aadmi Party. A political party as far as I am concerned, is a campaign vehicle to get the right people and the right ideas into power. After they’re in the house, the political party is no longer my primary concern. They are free to re-organize and restructure till kingdom come. Our eyes should now be on the people in government who we voted for. We have to watch them like hawks and demand that they stay true to every promise or else give us damned good reasons for deviating. This is where “not being a fan of anyone” is important. Personal admiration aside, I am decisively not a fan of Arvind Kejriwal, the Chief Minister. I have high hopes from him and I believe in him but make no mistake, he is a public servant and I will demand to be served, muffler or not. I am elated he resigned as the national convener of the party. He is the chief minister for Ganesha’s sake, he has a lot of work to do. Delhi is a consummate shithole of pollution, population, corruption, crime and general filth. I don’t want him sorting out his political party. I want him sorting out my city so I don’t have to build a house in Dharamshala.
This brings us to the painful realization that AAP is not a shortcut. There are no shortcuts in the sustainable the transformation of nations. The AAP has brought to the fray a value system for the polity. This system is based on directness, candor, accountability, transparency and simplicity. Most importantly, it has conjured up the intoxicating dream that elections can be won by common people. It has turned social media, blogs, YouTube, local musicians into powerful tools of political battle. The kind of government that Kejriwal has brought into the assembly may work to remove some systematic corruption and offer slightly more generous infrastructural support to the aad aadmi so we can expect some changes. I don’t expect these changes to be dramatic. The sea change, the dormant deluge lies in the political awakening of the middle class. A phenomenon that we owe to the efforts of Arvind Kejriwal in the AAP. If the landslide majority win for the AAP in Delhi is mirrored by a shift in perspective of the common people across Delhi, then we have game on. Here is what I mean. I mean that people on the streets are already citing the Kejriwal regime for not accepting dubious behavior from the police, from shopkeepers, from autowallahs and from each other. There is the “ab yeh nahin chalega” attitude that is setting in. I said it to an auto guy the other day when he demanded some unearthly sum to take me to Lajpat Nagar. I will go further to say that if the AAP government is to work at all, we have to see this transformation in the consciousness and mentality across Delhi.
We all have to realize that we cannot expect any government to police us, to babysit us, to hold us accountable, to respect women, to drive while sober and tell us to pay our bills on time. Unless we want some hostile surveillance state with CCTV cameras everywhere a dozen sting operations a day. If Kejriwal is able to legislate successfully, with 67 seats I don’t see how not, then we can fully expect more power to be shifted to the hands of the common people. The very model depends on the responsible and competent conduct of the citizen body.
I fully anticipate the formation of new parties. There is already dissenting voices in the AAP party ranks and all kinds of hell is breaking loose with people going off road and making party meeting details public. This is a great thing. The AAP mission was to change the rules of the game and if you bring in new game you have to expect new players. I mean what kind of person would want to see a carefully planned expansion of AAP across the entire country with landslide victories and seas of those white caps. That is not Swaraj, its a hegemony of a party that is clearly imperfect. Besides, those white caps are boring beyond a point. I want to see new parties come up and challenge AAP with even higher standards for transparency and candidate selection, with better plans for rural development, with awesome ideas about green energy and local handicraft. Why stop at AAP, bring on the SAAP and the BAAP and while we’re at it even a PAAP. My ideal situation will be a set of AAP-like parties with different ideas battling it out all over India and getting all up in each other’s faces about every issue. That is decentralization, that is democracy, that is Swaraj. How banal for the AAP to just duplicate the Delhi-model in other states. That whole “duplicating state model in the whole country” schtick has already been tried and the jury is out on how awesome it really is.
Democracy is dirty. Delhi is a five year experiment. If you are between the ages of 20 and 35, you should be watching very very very carefully. The AAP has done what they set out to do. They have changed the rules of game. The Delhi Vidhan Sabha as of now is rapist-free unless one of those three candidates has something in the closet. We have leveled up. It is a new world and it is wide open. It is painful and unacceptable that we don’t have an amazing opposition who could keep the Kejriwal machine in check. Get off your asses. Stop using Facebook as a selfie-repository and ask for a password reset on that 10 year old blog you had started while slacking off before maths exams. Start a community radio station, don’t for God’s sake bribe anyone, get in line, get out of your head. You could be Chief Minister in 5 years. It’s time. Game on. Jai Hind.
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
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