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.
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.
I act like the wise sage but very very few of you know the child in me. Through an online profile on a social network, a stranger in Russia reminded me of the child in me. The way she wrote about herself with blatant honesty reminded me what vulnerability is all about.
“I am a musician, a painter but I am not going to bore you with my artistic tastes,” she wrote. “I have a child inside that is shy, naive and hurt and disappointed in humanity. Every day I feel like I have new cuts and bleed afresh.”
This is me. I thought. In fact, I myself wrote about the little boy inside a while ago.
“That is who I REALLY am,” she said.
Maybe that is true. I dunno. Regardless, today I will speak to you as that boy.
Today was my birthday. I am 34 now but I look much younger than that so I’m not sweating. I’m really glad I don’t have a girlfriend or a wife. Not to be inappropriate, but they can be a real pain. I want a wife eventually but only if she is not a pain. I wish more of my friends were here. I wore my favorite outfit and looked handsome. It was Eid yesterday. I fasted 25 days out of 30 and intend to make up the rest later in the month. I went for Eid prayers and wanted to eat cake and snacks at the shop nearby and I couldn’t because my father wanted to go home so I sulked the entire day. I felt that I deserved it after fasting, not losing my temper, helping out and praying regularly. Although coming home was good because then I got to eat breakfast with my mom who wouldn’t have been there at the shop but I didn’t think that then. Today, we had a big party and everything was made up for so I don’t feel bad anymore. My whole family has not been together on Eid for the last 10 years so today was really special with it also being my birthday and what not. We had amazing food some of which I made myself, some really old friends of mine were here and they brought presents, there was cake and I stayed up till 2:30 am playing table tennis. I ate way too much dessert and then I ate truffles that a friend gave me. Sometimes I felt that I was smiling even though I was sad inside but I kept smiling and laughed even more and then I went back to being happy. My sister tells me that you have to insist on being happy and that choice is there in every moment. It is the first time I am able to understand that and do something about it. Earlier, the sadness would take over and no amount of smiling would turn it away. Moreover I would feel sick to the stomach that I was trying to force things and how pathetic that was. I don’t understand the sadness. Reading some books, I have come upon the possibility that it is because of some karma. I am responsible for it. Because of what I did in my past or in past lifetimes even but I don’t believe in past lifetimes. So it must be in this lifetime then. I have done some bad things. I have hurt people, mostly. And so these days, sometimes I feel extremely hurt. Which makes sense. Sometimes I feel other people are sad and they don’t know it. Or they don’t show it. I don’t know which is worse. If I make myself believe that they are fine and I am just imagining it then I feel better. I hate it when other people are sad. Sometimes I hate it more than if I am sad myself because I feel like I can do something about my own sadness and nothing about theirs.
I have to say, it is 3 am. It is the third hour of my birthday so it has only just begun. There are still 21 hours left. I do feel pretty special. Everyone worked to make it a good day for me. I feel special. I have nothing to do tomorrow because its Sunday, I have nothing to do because I don’t work, my whole family is sleeping peacefully while I am awake and everything is ok. This makes me very very happy. Not many people have this. Soon I will travel around Europe. Which is pretty exciting. I often feel that I am not as excited about something as others would be if they were me and other people often ask me “well, aren’t you excited???” They say it like something is wrong with me. I think there is nothing wrong with me. I’m excited enough, thank you. Although, they have a point. I think its related to the sadness. Which is less now. So I’m getting along. Thank you God.
I just realized that I was born on Sunday, July 19th and today is Sunday, July 19th. It feels like one lifetime is completed and I have gone back to being a kid. This time, I’m not going to wait around for people to make me happy. I’m going to smile whether you want to or not. Maybe after I smile, you will too because like me, you were waiting for me to go first. Sometimes you meet people who smile so hard that they make you believe that its ok. I wish this time around, I could be one of these people. This is my deepest wish and now I feel that I should have wished for that when I cut my cake and instead I made some other wish which is also a good one but this one is better. I’m gonna try my best not to hurt people and if I get hurt I won’t make tall promises about avoiding the person who hurt me or tell long stories about why its ok. I’ll either stop being friends with them, or I will wait till I get over the hurt and keep being friends with and forget that they ever hurt me.
On birthdays, it is polite to wait for people to wish you first but who cares, I will wish you first. I wish you the best of times. Be happy. Want it, insist on it. If it feels fake, insist harder. But if that feels bad or you feel like it’s not happening, it will get better one day and one day you will be able to turn it around.
There is a lot of pressure on family vacations. Especially international ones. Money is spent, leave is taken from work. The expectation to “have a good time” is enormous. I wonder what we find if we reflect on what a “good time” really is. For the most part, family vacations are a time of tremendous irritability, botched expectation and sulking while they last. Their status is elevated to that of a “good time” only after a few years when perusing the photos.
The purpose of a family vacation, unequivocally, is to get away from routine life. It’s never quite clear, to get away from what. From the grind or from each other. Especially if the entire family lives together. Families also have to contend with what the destination has planned for them. We think we will control our vacations but really, we are at the mercy of not just our hotel staff but also the entire population of our travel destination. Well known cities have a way of ensnaring you into having a particular kind of good time. If you walk around London, every single establishment in the “nicer parts of town” is either a cafe, a restaurant, a museum or some kind of store. Your interaction with the city therefore occurs as an accumulation. If you’re a crude yuppie, you accumulate material in the form of food and merchandise. For the more sophisticated traveler, accumulating information in the form of names of places, stories, sights and historical facts takes precedence over eating out or shopping. Other people of higher refinement still take photographs or enjoy the performing arts. For some, this is a good time. I don’t contest that at all. This is not a lecture on how to spend your vacation. I wonder though, if it really is a good time. Certainly, if the family at hand is one where the members do hard physical labor for a living, spend a lot of time doing housework and eat meagre meals everyday, it is understandable they would like a vacation to be where they are taken care of by paid professionals and their minds and palettes are stimulated everyday with invigorating food and information. This type of family would get back from their vacation recharged and ready to go back to their lives. They might even feel a sense of gratitude at having been able to afford this luxury.
This is almost never the case for anyone who might be reading this blog. For the vague grouping of people that I will call “us”, who use the Internet everyday and watch television many times a week, a vacation of seeking novelty by accumulation is actually a chore. Our entire lives are a process of accumulation. The learning of school textbooks, polite manners, professional skills and finally remembering appointment dates and work deadlines. The pouring in of news, popular media and advertising. The acquisition and cultivation of acquaintances. We work sitting in a chair and eat our fills of diverse foods and culinary offerings while still at home. Practically every experience is available to us audio-visually without going anywhere. We absorb new things everyday. The logical theme of a vacation for us would be the opposite of novelty and accumulation. Perhaps a type of reduction and an embracing of the mundane. For it to truly be a vacation which by one definition is a time spent after which you are grateful to come back to your everyday life.
The reason I bring all this up is that I was confronted by a strange dilemma earlier this month when I left Delhi for my current trip to London. It is now ramzan, the month in which Muslims fast and withdraw from worldly things to make room for the remembrance and worship of Allah Subhana-wu-ta’alah. I had to decide whether I would fast during the vacation and give up sightseeing, eating out and exploring the performing arts scene because by the evening I am too tired to go out. It seemed like I had to choose between my deen and having an actual vacation. It was an international trip so money had been spent to make it happen. By the grace of Allah, some deep clarity came to me and I decided that I would fast the entire month if my health kept up and I altered my entire vision for the trip. I decided it would be a trip of reflection, prayer and being with family. The results have been contrary to one might ordinarily expect.
Freed from the need to eat, the restaurants and cafes do not even register in my consciousness. I walk right past them. My mind is too tired to bother with remembering the names of places or learning about a certain type of architecture or the history of something. I never liked shopping so that was never a problem. The stores and malls are a non-entity as far as I am concerned. I travel without a camera so I don’t need to stop to take pictures. I am totally free from the desire to absorb, record or accumulate in any other way. Not by carefully thought-out choice but by the blessing of ramzan. Fasting is known to slow down your mental activity. I spend my time sitting under trees in parks, watering the plants in my sister’s home, cooking with her and my mom and simply looking at things. The city ceases to be a conglomerate of addresses and instead becomes a continuum of experience. When my mind doesn’t retain, my perception is vivid. The red-orange of the old brick against the blue sky. The fluid motion of the silver Mercedez Benz taxi on the smooth asphalt. The orchids sway in the wind, then stop and then sway another way. The other day in Richmond Park, there was a brightness and clarity that illuminated the very being. You wanted to drink it in with your eyes like refreshing water but then the intense ecstasy of the realization hits you that you are in it already like a diver in an ocean. The yellow of the grass and the blue sky with perfect white clouds brought me a body wide smile. Once in the Regents Park, I was napping and woke up to a great flight of pigeons all around me. They were taking off and for a moment my head was in the very midst of them. I saw them come directly at me but would swerve clear of my face a few feet way. For a fleeting time, it felt like I was mid-flight with them.
At times I am gripped by an attack of self. My chest is constricted and some emotion relating to the past surfaces and I cannot escape. My thoughts race in some inexplicable patterns of negativity that to the best of my knowledge I left behind in my early twenties. Having no option to distract myself with food and too weak to busy myself with any other business, I have to go through the experience. That, perhaps, is obedience. Whatever the malady is that grips me, it inevitably melts away after I break my fast and turns into elation and gratitude. The meal is festive and it is a pleasure to share it with my family. Hours go by during the day in relative silence. If anyone in a Muslim family is fasting and others are not, they automatically become gentler in their speech and manner and assume an air of loving concern. One comes face to face with the reality of what one actually wants. What is the ultimate desire of a human being? Communion. When you appreciate this fact deeply, inwardly, your heart becomes connected to the Inexhaustible source and there is novelty everywhere. Your need for gaining contentment from an experience like a vacation become a secondary concern. Your expectations of life snap into their correct place and this releases the senses into an awakening that causes all of life, including your turmoil, to become a vivid journey.
This is the blessing of ramzan. The wisdom that it brings for those who reflect. It is a one month intensive laboratory course for the spiritually minded. If you apply yourself to it correctly, it is possible during this month to model your entire life and connect with your deepest aspiration. Most of us go back to a large degree to living the way we did and some of us retain a sense of spiritual elevation. Either way, ramzan is the ultimate vacation with rewards like no other.
There is always the danger of relating your experience that it may seem an attempt at positing it as a superior to another’s. I offer this writing in humility to all of those who wish to enjoin in such reflection. For certainly, Allah knows best and may He protect me from disseminating false wisdom. By all means, I wish you all splendid good times, in any way that they come to you.
It is as if my childhood has returned. Afternoon naps, being home while parents are at work and going on cycle rickshaws. Although I pray, meditate, rest and read willingly in stark contrast to my younger days.
I signed up for a cleanliness drive on facebook. An anonymous group of citizens who do what they call “spot fixes” around the city. I met a very well spoken guy in the market and we were joined by a group of school children being herded along by their teacher. The school runs a citizenship program and the students who sign up are tasked with joining these types of efforts. The task was to scrape away sticky posters and bills from electricity boxes (or whatever those things are called, switchboards?), then sweep the surrounding and finally paint the skirting that goes around the park in white and geru (a beautiful deep rust colored paint that is locally produced).
When you are doing work in a public space, wonderful things happen. You lose all self-consciousness. How you look, what you’re wearing, who is looking at you, whether your belly is a little too big nowadays, what kind of statement you are making. Your gaze becomes focused on the work. You are being useful. All questions of identity and appearance simply vanish. You have earned the right to be there and everyone just sort of gets with it. You develop an intimacy with the street and it starts to feel like your home because you are taking responsibility for it. People seem less scary and a kind of healing starts to happen. I totally understood why people who violated some law and sometimes even serious convicts are given community service. It is a blessing disguised as a punishment.
It is very easy to cross the line from this new found confidence into entitlement and sanctimonious self-righteousness.
I remembered that it was the very lane of the market where as a teenager I had once gotten into a fight with my friend’s boyfriend. Rather, he had come from behind and pushed me to the ground. I remembered because I had fallen on a bicycle and as I painted a tough spot on the skirting, I had to pick up a bicycle and move it to the side. The memory immediately came back. Cycles in Delhi, the old skool ones have a specific type of weight and make a loud noise when they fall.
Later on, my parents came to pick me up from a coffee shop in the market and we all went to Old Delhi for a wedding. They had to pick me up a change of clothes from home that I got into in the coffee shop bathroom, not showered after three hours of hard work. I didn’t care somehow. The sweat on my body had dried in the cold air conditioned air of the upscale coffee shop and the evening felt cool. I felt energized and ready for a night out. We went deep into the old city. We had to park at the school where my mom and I work and then take cycle rickshaws to the marriage hall. As a kid, I remember when we would go to Aligarh to see my nana (granduncle) we would have to pile all the stuff and ourselves into two cycle rickshaws because one wasn’t enough for all of us. Having been in cars for the last decade or so I had forgotten this kind of simple problem of commuting as a family. My parents got into one rickshaw and I in the other and just like we would do with my mother and nani (grandma) in Aligarh, I looked back at them from my ride, smiled and waved. My father told me about the neighborhood in a loud voice.
The marriage hall was colorful and more like a big house with a courtyard than a formal venue. So used to big, noisy and garish Delhi weddings, it felt simple and unpretentious. More importantly, a guy was roasting kebabs on a coal fire and the smoke from the meat was intoxicating. I was ravenous. The hosts fussed around us because my mom is such a big cheese and we were brought food to our table. The most delectable mutton qorma and sheermal I’ve had in a while. A long while. The taste was only partially because of the solid Old Delhi cooking. It was also because of how I had arrived at the table. Good meals start hours before you actually start eating.
It is as if my childhood has returned. My father told me that when he was a child, his father would take him from Bada Hindu Rao to Old Delhi on the tram. For a fare of 25 paise.
Days like this can only come with complete abandonment. Completely forsaking your dreams and vain desires. One of my favorite lines from a tv series I watched as a kid.
Zindagi ko kati patang ki tarah udne do.
(Let your life fly like a severed kite).
I don’t usually wake up at 5 am. I did on Sunday. A friend and I had decided to explore the Asola Wildlife Sanctuary in the outskirts of Delhi. I agreed because the heat has made getting out really difficult and any opportunity to go exploring is welcome. And the only way to make an outing happen in Delhi in May is to wake up at 5 am. Any later and the heat will mute your mind and body beyond all function. The third guy who was supposed to go with us was nursing a Clintonian hangover and made excuses about work meetings from behind closed bedroom doors. So, we took his car and left.
We drove with abandon on deliciously empty roads, following the Google map directions. Until we reached a blue government-installed board saying “Asola Wildlife Sanctuary” with an arrow pointing in a direction that took us away from the Google route.
“That’s a pretty decisive board,” I said to my friend and took the turn.
Very soon, another sign turned us on to a dirt road. The car was just a regular commuter piece with reasonable shocks but no real claim to off road handling.
“Serves him right for flaking out,” said my friend and we continued driving.
The scenery was standard Delhi fare. Drab shops with shutters and piles of debris along the path. A building appeared on the left. Three men stood on the roof with a water hose. They were washing an enormous shiva-lingam. It was made of black tile that had a kind of dull shine and seemed like it would get really hot in the daytime. “Ok,” I thought to myself. Interesting things are starting to happen. We stopped to ask a man who had clearly emerged from a morning ablution how we could get to the Asola Wildlife Sanctuary.
“Yahaan aisa kuch nahin hai.” (There’s no such thing here.)
He seemed groggy, not fully awake. He walked off in daze clutching his water container. There were no other people, which is rare in Delhi. Very rare. We had come out into a sort of housing complex. Most of the houses were new and unoccupied. Built in the yuppie Delhi style construction with flat roofs, sloppy foundations and protruding balconies. Some of them were half finished with the bricks still exposed. Cars were parked willy-nilly. An auto-rickshaw lay abandoned at a slanted angle, the front wheel in a pothole. Its yellow hood peeled off like some lazy person’s bed cover in the morning. There were empty lots between houses. A type of bourgeois ruin waiting to be discovered like a site in Mohenjo-daro thousands of years from now.
We took turns at random sometimes following signs that said simply “ETF.” We speculated somewhat wishfully that this meant “Entrance to Forest.” A woman was taking a morning walk along the dirt path. We rolled down our windows again and asked her how we can get to the sanctuary. She answered in fluent English and gave directions. Relieved, we thanked her and rolled up our windows. The car A/C felt really good. More ETF signs took us to a place from where we could see a gate. By the side of the road, a sikh army man in uniform was packing things in the trunk of a car along with two lackeys. We thought we’ll check one last time. We asked him where the sanctuary was. He laughed. A laugh that clearly said “idiots.” Then he said,
“Yo hi hai!” (This is it, bitches.)
His lackeys didn’t laugh. We laughed but nervously. We asked some follow up questions about the entrance to the park. The armyman told us that it is through the gate up ahead but we wouldn’t be let in because the military controls the forest. We drove into a large field that had patchwork of thorny Aravali-style bushes. I drove through them like in an obstacle course and we came up against the gate. On queue, a groggy army guy came out with another random dude in a kurta-pyjama. I saw my friend make conversation with him through the window. The man was shaking his head in the classic faux-apology that all security personnel in Delhi take unearthly relish in offering when they tell you that you effing can’t get in, now beat it.
Off in the distance, in this field, three aunties were taking a baby for a stroll.
As we drove away and back into ghost town, every few minutes we would burst into absurd peels of laughter. With some accompanying rhetoric.
“What the eff is this place?”
“What is going on?” LOL!
At some point we decided that it might be a good idea to read Google reviews.
“Never visit this place. We got looted at knife point…”
“Worst place ever…our stuffs were taken in the forest.”
It only got more interesting. We lost all the drive to actually get anywhere and switched gears into total exploratory mode. For the most part taking turns at random. At one point, we went so deep into some village, it didn’t seem like the car would ever come out. The number of locals who laughed at us was not funny. In the Bhatti Mines village, a hoard of men and women stood in the town square trying to get into packed RTV’s and small buses to go to work. Never in my entire life in Delhi, did I feel like I needed to get back to Gurgaon to go home. We finally emerged on to the highway that promised via another blue board that it will take us back to Gurgaon. The road back, we saw this guy. At least 50 years old. The fittest guy I’ve seen on the street in a while, including in the States. This guy had a thigh to calf proportion that would melt Arnie to the floor. A huge white moustache. He was wearing Hercules boy shorts and a gray t-shirt and running slowly on asphalt. Barefoot.
When it comes to being interesting, Delhi has got nothing on Haryana. You just have to know how to get lost in the right places. Which sho as hell means you don’t ever read Google reviews prior to leaving.
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.