Eastern Promises

I’ve been performing at the India Habitat Center in the Short + Sweet Delhi Theatre Festival. A mixer format that puts up 10 ten minute plays in one evening giving the theater community a great opportunity to come together, create a tasting menu of theatre presentations and exchange ideas. Really fun.

Our last show was on Ashura. The day of mourning in the month of Muharram. My auto got stuck in the Karbala parade on Mathura road past Nizamuddin. A great commotion. A large procession was snaking up the road. A group of boys were beating a variety of drums. Younger boys had wooden sticks that they were using as performance swords and playing out swordfights with each other in the middle of the road. Traffic was honking but the parade was oblivious to the noise. They were marching to their own beats. Far in the distance above the heads of people, were two taziyas decorated in black, green and gold. Being carried along. Bobbing on the surface of the crowd like logs of wood are carried along by a rousing river. Under the flyover, a dozen military men waited with big guns. Lean, tall statures. Bodies relaxed, leaning on the pillars but the gaze alive and alert, full of intelligence, confidence and swagger. A majestic sight.

The auto-waalah was whining about the jam. He didn’t understand why festivals needed to block the street. I nodded along. All the while thinking in my head.

“Why do I need to be anywhere else when we have this to be part of? Can anything be more enthralling? My performance later in the evening does not hold a candle to this story.”

He finally peeled off to the wrong side of the road and went against traffic, zig-zagging across cars coming from the opposite side. I was dizzy with excitement and joy.

“The Muharram traffic is insane”

I texted my friend. It sounded like a complaint but cell phones often overturn meaning. In reality, it was like I was shouting the words while dancing on the road myself. Later when I met her, I said “how is this related to Muharram?”

“How is anything related to any religion in this country?” she answered.

That’s when I realized this has nothing to do with Muharram. This is just the passion of humanity. The desire to put on a show, to participate in the public space, transcends all boundaries and connects us as human beings. Although my insistence on piety and sincerity in matters of religion was still firm, I could set it aside and just see these people have a good time. I wonder how often they actually take the time to do that.

I felt gratitude towards my friend for propelling me to a larger truth. I felt gratitude toward the military men. Toward the city of Delhi for opening its streets to its people to just have a ball. To the autowaalah for finding the fastest possible way to get me there.

I left the pandemonium behind as I walked in to the premises of the Habitat Center. As I approached the Stein Auditorium, I stood in the open courtyard for a while. I appreciated, as if for the first time, the tranquility of the building. The red brick. The trees swaying in the breeze. The marriage of the interior and the exterior. The oblique lines and open vistas. Surely, Mr. Stein, deserves to have the auditorium named after him. What a privilege to perform here.


India Habitat Center, New Delhi

A group of people had spread a very large canvas on the floor under the open sky. The canvas was full of wild and colorful art. A public art project. Buckets of paint lay around. I put my bags down and looked at the artscape for a while. Vivid. Mediocre. Free. I saw a large yellow flower someone had painted. I painted a bunch of green men climbing all over it. They looked somewhere between aliens and grasshoppers. At the very end of the canvas, there was a girl. She sat wearing jeans and a denim shirt. On the floor. Her hands folded around her legs hugging her knees in. Evening had begun to set in and her face was illuminated by the glow. She said nothing but her eyes smiled without any effort. I pretended to walk to the end to draw something there. Then I struck up nonsense conversation with her. I spoke in my best Urdu. She replied but her Hindi was terrible in an adorable way. She spoke with a thick Eastern accent. Bihar, Bengal, Odisha, was my guess. She told me “aap is corner ko aur sundar bana sakte ho.” Then she coached me through some basic art work. I was just blankly dipping my hand in the paint and drawing circles with my index finger. I was trying to look at what I was doing but my entire aware consciousness was transfixed on her. It was awful, what I was drawing.

“Mere khayaal mein, yeh corner ab pehle se zyaada khoobsurat hai,” I said.


We invited her to come to the show. She never did. After the show, a father came on stage with his son. A little boy. He said that his son wanted to congratulate us in person for a good show. How beautiful is life? The energy. The color. The irritation. The thwarted promise. The parrots perched on trees. The desperation. The desire. The dominance. The death.

The Looking Glass

Some people die with the impression that they are better than others. And others with one that they are lesser. At least it seems that way from the outside. I suspect that at the very moment of death or the moments immediately after, all becomes clear. I can think of no greater misfortune. Than to die with a false notion of self.

The trouble is that we think we have time. These words are not mine, they belong to the Buddha. We think there will come a time when we will be free of our responsibilities toward the duniya and at that time we will start to reconcile with ourselves and finally prepare for our departure. In Islam, we believe that the time of death for everyone is already set out. This is the meaning of the Arabic word muqarrar. Only Allah Subhanahu wa’ta’ala knows this time and there is no way for us to know it.

So then the question becomes, what is one to do? Well, I’ll tell you. We must live continuously with a sense of the imminence of death. This attitude is often deemed as depressing by those who derive their sense of self from the duniya. From their relationships, their possessions, their ideas and whatever else they claim to be “theirs.” These people also often depend on sensory apparatus to determine the authenticity of phenomena. Naturally, they have absolutely no understanding of the unseen and can never break free from the known. After all, what is depression. Depression is the ennui that occurs when one has held on to false notions of self for far too long. In the process, one is obviously misguided about one’s purpose in life and therefore the mind and body have been abused in the service of worldly goals. This attitude inevitably leads one to exhaustion and the evidence that something is seriously amiss in our belief system starts to become harder and harder to ignore. We then have to contrive other methods to hold on to lies. To persist in being right. One way to do this is to consume the elixir of the lie – alcohol. In a Budweiser ad, after consuming the beverage, a man sees what is otherwise a plain looking woman as a vixen of intoxicating beauty. In broad daylight, the makers of the this substance advertise to the world that it is in fact the elixir of the lie and people heedlessly consume it and evangelize the fact that actually, the Bacardi lifestyle is in fact one of immense abandon and mirth. Whereas the reality is that alcohol serves only one purpose, it allows us to persist in living our lies. It stands in for the long overdue lifestyle changes that our mind and body are screaming for us to make. This is painfully clear to all of us in the depths of our hearts. And holding on to false beliefs and delusions of self hardens the heart. It disconnects one from one’s innermost desire. The desire to merge with the infinitude of the Universe. The more one hardens in false belief, the more depressing it becomes to accept this fact. You will often hear people after they’ve had a drink or two advise you to “loosen up.”  But it is never too late because depression, looked at another way, is the beginning of healing. You will often hear depressed people say that the world seems “phony” and people seem “fake.” It is because they are beginning to embrace their real self and from that perspective, their observation is absolutely accurate. I remember in the throes of my own anxiety and depression, people’s smiles seemed plastered on. I would find the animated small talk of people at parties amusing. In public I would often feel compelled to laugh at the determination of people to get ahead of me in traffic or the sincere and strenuous effort that office executives would make to “get the job done.”

One thing is clear from both the traditions of Buddhism and Islam, that the duniya has no inherent purpose. The duniya is a dimension through which the knowledge of self is obtained. It is a series of mirrors that present themselves to us continuously so we may move toward self realization. This is the only purpose of the duniya. So, the idea that by exceeding in some measure established in terms of sensed phenomena like praise, salary, news coverage and the like, we become better or lesser than someone else, is total nonsense. It is a misunderstanding of life and creation. If we are to take these parameters of worldly success as having inherent substantial existence, as goals in themselves and we devote our lives to obtaining them, we will necessarily be compelled to commit evil deeds.

Now, the question becomes, what is meaning? I believe, all meaning is endowed solely by Allah Subhanahu wa’ta’alah. That the only meaningful striving is the striving toward God. The Ever Living, Self-Sustaining Self. Imam Al-Ghazzali says that the knowledge of God is obtained through the knowledge of the self. The only purpose of the duniya being the realization of the one and only Self, one may infer that the only meaningful effort one can make in life are those that reveal self knowledge.

Wal-asr, innal insaana lafi khusr

Allazina aamanu wa aamilus-swaalihaati

Watawaasau bil-haqqi watawaasau bis-sabr

By time,

Verily, man is in loss

Except those who have believed and done righteous deeds and advised each other to truth and to patience.

— Sura Al-Asr (The Declining Day), The Holy Qur’an

The meaning of this verse to me is, that the duniya, which is time and knowledge, is loss. Time is loss. The world is nothing but loss. To seek it for itself is bound to end in disaster. The only meaningful quest is the quest for truth (al haqqa) and the only meaningful response when one encounters loss on this quest, is patience (sabr). And the way to seek the truth is to see it reflected in the self and in creation. Thus, the pursuit of self-knowledge is the only meaningful quest in the world and all others must be subservient to it.

May Allah grant us all the wisdom that destroys arrogance and false notions of self. And it is beyond doubt that I am but a slave possessing imperfect wisdom, for Allah knows best and may his blessing be upon all of you who tread the path.

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 d.school 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.