See Through

Seen but not seen

down the twisting ravine

the sun on the ocean floor

does the clear lake see

the sky?

the substance of soul

the mirrors of life go by

beyond pain and grief

the pool of water clear

nothing to veil, naught to hide

a white swan on emerald blue does glide

here is me, all of me

unspeakable me, unspeakable light

no form, no shape, no possession, no wealth

full disclosure, is the perfect stealth


I just finished performing in the play “Shiva Calling.” It is a piece that merges all the worlds, the galaxies, the star systems.  It merges past lives and folds time into itself. The Universe lives and breathes continuously, destroying itself and reforming in every moment. You believe what you perceive to be real.

Amar is going to be executed tomorrow morning. He sits alone in his prison cell at night. Or is he alone? He faces the task of believing that the path to freedom begins by looking inside. Will he believe? Or will he simply die? You know, they say you die twice. Once when you die and once when the last person that loved you dies. So I’m already dead. 

The show occurred in the backyard of a majestic historical site. The Qutub Minar. As we prepared feverishly, doing warm-ups, breathing through our nervousness, peering into the auditorium to see how many seats were still vacant, bantered backstage, the Minar and its surrounding ruins stood in silence. Witness to a time gone by. A million births and deaths. People must have gathered in the courtyard at night, just like us, to sing to the moon. To celebrate. To rejoice. To prepare for war. Belief clashing against belief, ideology against ideology.


Time and again, they have come to me. Shiva! Shiva! To tell you the truth, I am just a simple ascetic who would like nothing more than to be left alone on his lonely mountain. Losing himself to meditation. 

Nothing is forever. Only impermanence. But we must keep playing the drama. On and on it goes. We have no choice. But, in that trap, we are free.


Qaid-e-hayat-o-band-e-gham asl mein dono ek hain

Maut se pehle aadmi gham se nijaat paaye kyun?

— Mirza Ghalib


The prison of life and the grief of man are the same

Why should man be free of grief before death takes him?


The Story and the Lesson

The word “present” is a noun, an adjective and a verb. That means, it is a thing, it is a thing that you are and a thing that you do. It is pronounced a little differently depending on the usage but is it simply a coincidence that the same word is all three?

First comes the noun form. The present. Meaning, the present moment as defined by time and space. The here and now. Then the adjective form. I am present. The doctor is present. Meaning, a condition of existence. A condition that is the foundation for any kind of relationship to exist. The third is the verb form. To present. Something that you, the one who is present, does in the present moment in time. I present, the President of the United States. This is the fourth form, a noun. The thing presented. The Christmas present. As we move across the meaning of this word from its nominal form to its verbal form, we move from a meaning that is abstract to one that is very pointed and specific. The present moment – implies the eternal aspect of time. The condition of presence – a more specific position describing a particular subject. And the act of presenting – a carefully formulated action which implies a subject and an object.

We all give presents. We all present something or the other. We present our identification if a policeman asks for it. This happens every now and then. But, there is something, we present almost all the time. Our selves. We present, the physical image of ourselves, our arrangement of garment, our point of view, our opinion and our entire being to people every day. People in the workplace, on the streets, at home. This act of presentation is motivated by our world view, our aspirations and our past – which taken together can be called our story. “What’s his story?” we often ask.

Currently, I am interested in two particular modes of presentation that, when thought about carefully, have a lot in common. The presentation of the theatre and that of the classroom. I am involved, currently, in the development of an orientation workshop format for new teachers at an exciting mid-journey startup in the Delhi NCR region. And I am calling it “Presenting Yourself.”

We have discovered, the teachers and I, that the theatre and the classroom much the same but also different. Both usually have rows of seats looking on to a stage area. Through the use of stationery-props, the actor-teacher presents a story-lesson. In the theatre, it is crystal clear to all concerned that the same script when performed by different actors will bring dramatically different results. But for whatever reason, this is less obvious in the classroom. People do understand in general, that a certain teacher will bring more to a certain lesson than another teacher but in the modern age of “smart” classrooms with their prepared videos and slides, the teacher is becoming relegated to a partial-mute who’s only job is to facilitate the dissemination of compiled facts. It is demoralizing, to say the least. Most unjustly, the teaching profession has lost the affection and heroism that it once afforded. A heroism and affection, that arguably, is still alive in the theatre. There is practically no good reason for this discrepancy to exist.

This brings us to the another difference between the theatre and the classroom. The theatre – when setup correctly, is a process-oriented environment and the classroom – more often than not, is a result-oriented environment. This is more acutely true when the classroom we are talking about is responsible for producing results in competitive examinations. In a play, actors don’t rush through the story as fast as possible to get to the standing ovation. They relish the story and pace each scene, giving it its right place in the narrative flow. The goal of this process is to produce understanding and engagement in the audience. In a lecture though, even though we have the same goals, we often find teachers trying to “get through” the syllabus. Students trying to reach an answer faster than others. These behaviors are motivated by the affect of timed competitive entrance exams. In these exams, it literally doesn’t matter how you get to the answer, only that you do somehow and that you do more frequently and rapidly than others around you. Students are not concerned about each step, how it goes from one to the next. Not concerned about the values of helping each other, of taking everyone along, of the group dynamic. Yet, every MBA worth her salt will tell you that people succeed in groups. I should caveat this by saying, that there is “commercial” theatre where results are gauged by ticket sales, likes, tweets, awards and all kinds of other rubbish but we are discounting this type of theatre for the purpose of this discussion.

The goals of the orientation workshop are still to be determined. We are administering a pilot. Firs and foremost, we must restore in our teachers, the sense that their particular  perspective is of prime importance. That not just the curriculum but their own interpretation and presentation of it through the lens of their unique self is important. We must also, develop in them, a habit for self-reflection. This is a habit that is well developed in actors. In the good ones anyway. They (sometimes over-zealously) talk about their “process” or their “method” and continue to refine it through the run of their careers. Finally, we must inculcate in our teachers, an appreciation for the process-oriented approach. We cannot, in this workshop at least, question the competitive examination system and must act within the constraints and motivations that it presents. But we can, produce in teachers, the ability and willingness to blend into their teaching regiments, certain aspects of the process-oriented approach.

We have chosen to structure our economy so that our kids and the people who mentor them must put themselves through the grinder in order to achieve what we have defined as success for them. We teach our kids the virtues of help, of friendship, of togetherness and of uniqueness but we then make them compete in cattle-style competitive exams for the purposes of earning a livelihood. Is it a wonder that most of our kids are confused and a generation of teachers are mired in dilemma? Ultimately, we have to accept that all of life is sacred. Our kids and their teachers cannot sully their selves in the profane as exams approach and then surface back into the sacred, after the exams are over. We have to question the bigger picture, where we teach our kids that a livelihood is obtained at the expense of others and still ask them to be “good human beings.” But until then, we have to continue our inquiry within the constraints of the present.



The Bond of Dignity

In my spare time, I participate in a little project called the Bond of Dignity. It is an ongoing social experiment that aims to investigate what constitutes “dignity.” The way we do that is we engage people in our lives that might otherwise appear invisible to us. Beggars, people working on the streets, living on the streets, working in ours homes, offices. Anyone really. An immigration officer (although the scope for engagement is limited there). The first step toward this engagement begins by eye contact. The most basic acknowledgment of the other’s existence that a human being is capable of. It goes from there to a verbal acknowledgment and perhaps onward to conversation. In a city like Delhi, where no one really belongs, this has been a critical piece of the puzzle for me. Because people come to this town to make money or find a better life, the city has developed a culture of grabbing and posing. You grab what you can of the land and resources and use that to assume a pose that you show to others. In an introductory workshop that we ran as part of this project, a long conversation occurred among the participants about the so called “show-off culture” in Delhi. This was really unexpected but now, it appears that this “posing” is very much a symptom of the crisis of dignity and makes total sense that it was an integral part of the dialogue that day. It is very palpable in the public space.

The poor are invisible because they are ignored by the privileged and the rich are invisible because they have walled themselves inside concrete bastions where their dignity can appear to be preserved. Once my parents and I, dressed in our best outfits for a wedding party, got locked out of our house without the car keys. It felt like our dignity had fallen off a cliff into an abyss. Our fancy outfits seemed comical and we were left out in the cold in more ways than one.  The poor do not experience existential angst because of their invisibility beyond a sort of lamentation of misfortune but the rich do. They deal with it by showing off. The public space ceases to be a place of  trust and becomes a war-zone where people are either ignoring you or judging you. It is quite natural that people will need larger cars to protect themselves from the threat of exposure. Nobody really knows each other.

Today we did another little exploration. We collected warm clothes from our own homes and through generous donations from our friends. We sorted the clothes into “male”, “female” and “child” categories. We then approached the homeless shelter that we usually work with. The managers suggested that we donate the clothing to a different shelter. They then presented a rather disappointing narrative about the “people on the street.” They said that the people do not realize the value of food and clothing that is given to them. They will often throw food away and burn clothes to make fire for warmth. I am aware that there has recently been some speculation in the press about the unwillingness of the homeless of Delhi to use the services of shelters. The managers were understandably eager to explain the efforts they go to to try and rehabilitate the homeless. But in the quagmire of drug addiction and ensuing mental illness, it is difficult for them to “civilize” people enough so that they can fit into the culture of the shelter.

“They don’t want to live here because they can’t live with discipline. On the street they can smoke where they want, litter and do drugs. At the shelter that’s not allowed so they don’t come,” one of them said.

“If you walk by them with warm clothes, they will pretend to be cold or close their eyes for effect,” another volunteered.

This lack of trust, general resentment and the tight holding to a narrative on the part of the management was rather a dampener in our charitable plans. I do not for one second, doubt the management. There can be many reasons for their perspective, including a degree of frustration, lack of resource and more likely a general fear of appearing incompetent to what they believe is a ruthless press. The first lesson that I learned here was that making the decision to give to somebody involves more than just the giving. It involves the understanding. We decided to take to the streets and do our own reconnaissance.

We walked around and engaged people on the street in a little chatter. The ensuing interactions gave us many answers and true to my expectations, many smiles. Some interesting stories. We heard from a boy who ran away from home in Aligarh because:

“Mere koi yaar dost nahin the.” (I didn’t have any friends).


What struck us was that “the poor” are not one category of people. They are all as different from each other as we are. They have different viewpoints, different reasons to be here and different priorities. The unwillingness to stay in the shelter cannot be explained away as being for one reason or the other. The people who live in the area possess individual personalities and histories and that determines who they are and what they are willing and unwilling to do. It is not necessarily just simply determined by a “lack of education” or by “drug addiction.” Someone might be unwilling to live at the shelter simply because he likes to sleep on the pavement. We spoke to a gentleman who came here to work in a factory and then was jilted.

“I have my aadhar card, my license, everything,” he said. He said he wasn’t afraid to do any work and the employers were trying to jerk him around by having him come out to Mayapuri (very far) every day and he told them to come clean with him. So he just gave up the idea and now hangs out on the pavement before he can make his way back to his home. I didn’t offer him any clothes simply because he seemed to know exactly what he needed and what he wanted to do. Clothing wasn’t his problem. Not all “poor” people need woolens. This told me that this model of one-on-one engagement works to alleviate problems of mistrust. When you make eye contact with someone and really listen to them, you can pretty get a good idea of who they are. Once you know that, it doesn’t matter so much whether there story is true or not or whether they are “pretending” so they can get a free piece of warm clothing. I simply took everything they said at face value. If I offered someone a piece of clothing, I made sure the offer was motivated by the conversation we were having.

The conversations would get very private very suddenly. Before we knew it, we would be asking them things like “who supports your family back in your village.” My co-conspirator pointed out that in our circles, if someone is separated from their spouse for example, we avoid the topic like the plague. Sometimes for months and years of knowing someone but people on the street hide behind nothing. Physical privacy and emotional privacy are directly linked. After all, if someone lives in a hut, you walk right in but if they live in a palace, you have to walk through gardens, gates, antechambers and what have you.

Living on the street is a lifestyle just the way living in a skyscraper is a lifestyle. Whether you like it or not, it is something someone has chosen and your decision to help them has work within the context of that choice. Later in the evening, I spoke to my mom about it. She said that “giving” is a good thing but it cannot encroach on someone’s sense of freedom. A mutual respect for choices in life irrespective of social standing is a critical aspect of giving and receiving dignity.

A Severed Kite

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).

rickshaws_at_stationCycle rickshaws at Aligarh Railway Junction

Nothing Lasts

I spent the morning walking around the ruins on Mehrauli village. A haunt of the later Mughals in Delhi. The burial site of the Muslim holy man, Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki. Among his devotees, was one of the most discussed figures in Mughal history, the last Mughal, Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II. He was a poet king. A lover of poetry. He features as the organizer of the last gathering of poets in the play Dilli Ka Aakhri Mushaira (The Last Gathering of Poets in Delhi). Bahadur Shah Zafar II was exiled to Rangoon in Burma (modern day Yangon, Myanmar) by the British after they took over the Mughal Empire. Long before this Zafar most likely sensed the mood in Delhi and knew the doom that was to come. He wrote:

Na kisi ki aankh ka noor hoon, na kisi ke dil ka qarar hoon

Jo kisi ke kaam na aa sake, main woh ek musht-e-ghubar hoon

I am neither the light in anyone’s eyes, nor am I the comfort of anyone’s heart

I mean nothing to anyone, a mere handful of dust

His poetry reflects the tragic circumstances of his life and his resignation to an overwhelming fate. This morning I ascended the stairs of Zafar’s palace in Mehrauli. The Zafar Mahal. A site that carries the silence of years gone by. Ruined, empty and surrounded by ugly haphazarad urban sprawl. The place had the beautiful silence of loss. The sublime beauty of emptiness. The very essence of Zafar’s poetry. A couple of pigeons flew over the sandstone facade. The empty jharokha (viewing window) looked over Delhi. The place where Zafar would sit and watch the Phoolwaalon ki Sair (The Parade of the Florists). It is said he was a big fan of fireworks.

There is a row of tombs in a compound in the mahal. In Islam, there is the belief that it is beneficial in the Hereafter to be buried next to a person of exalted stature in the eyes of God. To be buried next to saints and holy men who were near to God. Mughal emperors held their spiritual advisers in great esteem and loved them. They wanted to be buried near them to obtain the benefit. Zafar had marked out a space for his own grave among this row of tombs. He never found his resting place there. The British exiled him to Rangoon and he died there. While in Rangoon, he wrote:

Lagtaa nahin hai dil meraa ujday dayaar mein
kis ki bani hai aalam-e-naa_paayedaar mein

kah do in hasraton se kahin aur jaa basein
itani jagah kahaan hai dil-e-daagdaar mein

umr-e-daraaz maang kar laaye they chaar din
do arzoo mein kaT gaye do intezaar mein

kitnaa hai bad_naseeb “Zafar” dafn key liye
do gaz zamin bhi na mili kuu-e-yaar mein

My heart is not at peace in the realm of ruin

Who after all wins in this world of mortality

Tell these desires to go be elsewhere

No space remains in a heart marked by sorrow

We had come here asking for a long life

Half of it I spent in longing and the other half in waiting

How unfortunate art thou Zafar, to rest in peace

A mere two feet of ground, you could not get in the lane of the beloved

The beloved here means Bakhtiyar Kaki, the saint who is buried not too far from the empty space that speaks loudly these words of Bahadur Shah Zafar. I stood there today and wondered what it felt like to be the last remnant of the empire that gave rise to the Taj Mahal.

Zafar Mahal - The Silent Witness to Loss

Zafar Mahal – The Silent Witness to Loss

The Taj Mahal - A Monument of Splendour and Glory

The Taj Mahal – A Monument of Splendour and Glory

I pray that the soul of Bahadur Shah Zafar is released from the burden of empire and his longing for the beloved be quenched in the Hereafter. Did he perhaps bear the punishment for the violence of his forefathers? He surrendered the empire to the British with resignation and wished only for home in his last days but he did not find it. They say he is regarded a saint in Myanmar where is buried. Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki said:

Kustgaan khanjar taslimra

harzama az ghaib jaan-e-deegar ast

Those who are slain by the dagger of surrender;

Receive every moment a new life from the unseen