beingsaifali

Trust

Often, people will exalt the glory of modern times by citing the marvelous technological progress we have made. Not only has it made life very convenient, technology can be used to save the Earth. For example, we now have paperless banking and bills and what not. This can be used to save trees.

I disagree.

Technology that is used to increase convenience for us without a consideration for justice is fundamentally a tool of violence. If we save time by using a blender to make our frappe instead of doing it manually, some person in China slaves away for hours at a terrible pay and in awful conditions to make that happen. Energy is conserved. We cannot save it without someone else picking up the slack.

This is my application for a visa to a first-world nation.

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The whole application procedure is online we save so much paper that way, except that there is so little trust left in the world that they ask for your entire life history in order to allow you to travel in their country for 3 weeks. I remember visa applications in my earlier and technologically backward days where paper was being wasted left right and center. You had to submit your passport and maybe 3-4 pages of documentation. It used to take a lot longer because the embassy would do the work of verifying your papers. Now, all they want is money and your entire life on paper. So it is faster. But it is faster because the time that is saved is offset by the amount we lean on nature. It takes a lot more paper and a lot more money which is essentially effort we have expended in our (almost certainly exploitative) employment. So the technological “progress” has done nothing. It has caused us to expend more natural resources and lull ourselves into a belief that things have got easier. This is nothing but confusion.

Progress.

Progress will come when we learn to trust each other. The road to progress for our generation is inward. That is where the solutions lie. As long as we seek progress outside of ourselves, we will cause more devastation than ever.

I realize that this is basically a rant. I am excited for my travels but honestly, the price that the Earth is paying for our adventures is starting to become prohibitively expensive.

 

The Small Time

I fantasize sometimes, to contrive a very elaborate social experiment where as an unknown theater actor I should live the life of a A-list socialite like Kim Kardashian minus the huge quantities of money – because I don’t have it. For example, a reality show called “Being Saif Ali” which would basically be like Keeping Up with the Kardashians on a budget. Really on a budget.

It could only run on YouTube, obviously.

All the “behind the scenes” footage would be of my rehearsing or teaching workshops. Or possibly backstage gossip about co-actors around the Delhi theatre circuit.

We could do a “days in the life of” type section where we would show parking disputes with neighbors. We could also show my social life and tape long hours of house parties and terrace get together. We could also arrange public appearances in DDA parks etc. It would all have to be edited to music that my musician friends would whip up on keyboards.

So, I could launch my own line of perfume. The other day, I went to the attar shop in Old Delhi and they do their own blends of attar and all of them are named after international and I’m assuming, deliberately misspelled. There was a “Yugo Bos” and a “Deekayenwai.” I know for a fact that if I paid them a reasonable amount of money, they would make one that was called “Essenti-Ali” or something. They have really nice bottles that cost a 100 rupees so packaging would be a no-brainer. Marketing would be easy because I could just get people in my neighborhood to pose for the ads in everyday domestic environments. Like, Rohatgi Uncle from around the block could be holding a bottle of Essenti-Ali while he eats his daily evening snack of cucumbers while watching TV in his living room.

I cannot possibly release a sex tape because my parents would never stand for it. I would have to make do with an MMS scandal of some sort where faces are blurred out. But MMS is such an outdated technology. Hmm. It would have to be on WhatsApp. Then later, I’d have to ask my filmmaker friends to do a short docu about the state of the theatre industry in Delhi and upload it to vimeo.

I would have to attend dharnas and the like to show that I care about political causes. I would probably have to tape a statement on current affairs every now and then, but that’s easily done on my phone. I can always write open letters to Anupam Kher etc. Supporting him, that is.

What else?

Oh right. Brand endorsements. I think we could get our local community center shops to pay for small ads during our shows. Meaning, we would have to stop the play and do a product placement and go right back as if nothing had happened. Like … “This play is sponsored by Bakshi Brothers convenience store. Ham udhar nahin karte!” … breathe…aaand back.

 

 

 

 

 

Nothing to be done

I arrived in Mumbai in the morning. I always enjoy the first taxi ride in a new city. I’ve been to Mumbai before but I still count it among my list of new cities. We went inside an old building in Kemp’s Corner. We waited for the elevator, an old elevator with the sliding iron grill door mechanisms. The steel plaque declared a recognizable name. I like flats that have very little furniture. It is an ongoing battle with my mother. This one had a one-person balcony that overlooked the city from a height that was high enough to be exciting without triggering my vertigo. It was quieter than Delhi. Only the odd car would honk and that for half a second. A sense of the tropics is ever present in Bombay.

What is the relationship between a sense of abandon and a sense of purpose? Do we not need both to create meaning?

20151216_125820Mumbai Art Room is a tiny room off the main causeway in Colaba. It is packed on all sides by markets, office buildings, fruit stalls, random little houses, photocopy and print shops, cafes. Everyday, the merchandise from the surrounding ecosystem flows into the room and fuels the process of art. With everything that goes with it. The contemplation, the depth, the artifice, the ego hassles and the pretense. Stationery, printouts, idlis, chai, bobby pins, double-A batteries,  white socks, guavas.

Start a huge, foolish project like Noah. It makes absolutely no difference what people think of you, says Rumi.

The istiri-waala was a very thin man who wore a gungee and an above-the-knee lungi. He had a flummoxed expression when he held his face at rest. He worked inside a little one-room house on a high table. He used an electric iron. I had to instruct him which clothes I needed right away and which ones could wait. It is for a performance, I explained. He didn’t much care. I gave him a little netted carry bag I had bought at the Embarcadero Shopping Center in San Francisco which was meant for specifically this purpose. To carry important items of clothing through short distances. Please arrange the clothes inside this bag, I told him. He complied.

We had a day to wander about. I kept cooing about how awesome Bombay was but my co-actor kept explaining to me that I was in the best part of the city and that there was elsewhere to be seen. Carrying on with a sense of peace and contentment is a service to humanity. I will not be held hostage by a guilt about the elsewhere. There is a place in Mumbai, called Fort. It is old. An old place. We stopped by an old bakery. Fascinated. I asked for the menu. There was on old gentleman with white balding hair. Very thin and tall.

“Menu!!!” he said.

“This is a heritage hotel Sir.”

You die twice. Once when you die and once when everyone that knew you dies. The traces of the past die off, gradually. In Fort, there is a tall tree that filters the sunlight on to the metalled lane in the market. It is narrow. The lane. It is by an old Central Bank building. Underneath, a man with white hair and spectacles was taking a stroll in his khaki uniform.

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The piece I was performing in asked questions about identity. How do you say who you are? Who are you? On opening night, Mumbai Art Room was packed. Standing room only. A very pious silence. The polite seminar-etiquette of the artistic elite. There was a talk by a philosopher and some performed demonstrations by us. People asked a lot of questions and then also hung around later talking about the project. Everyone was hungry enough that no one could decide what they wanted any more. We went to a house that belonged to the curator’s friend. It was an old house. With a lot of very old furniture and chandeliers. Someone took pictures because I suspect that dim lighting looks good on instagram. All the delivery restaurants were closed. People lounged about with fatigue and exhaustion. The active exhaustion of stimulated minds. Other talks took place, many others.

Someone had once told me that there is a zen of auditioning. That the audition means everything. It is critically important. And. It means nothing. It is not important in the least. It is vitally important that you do it. But it matters not in the least whether you do or don’t. Everyone had a different idea about how long it would take to get to the airport from Colaba. It was rush hour. They were amused that I wanted to leave so early. One and half hours yaar.  They said that Indigo airlines are very co-operative. They will pull you out of security and shuttle you through. The guys standing around the taxi stand looked very concerned. You have to leave right away they said. Office ka time hai. Nobody accounted for the holidays. And of course, nobody accounted for the broken bus on the bridge at Santa Cruz. The traffic jam was a peak experience. It took three hours. The taxi driver was in shambles. He drove in first gear for an hour and a half during which we moved less than two kilometers. Are you in a panic? My co-actor asked. No. We left four hours in advance. The best you can do is your best.

 

Time and Space Jam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Non-teaching staff,” he said.

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

“You wait here,” said my father.

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

“I will ask my wife to call you.”

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

A Little Night Birthday Chatter

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.

Firsts

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.

A Beautiful Day

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

— Rumi

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