myphilosophicalrambling

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.

 

Change

It is the nature of man to seek unity. To seek that which underlies the apparently known. I like to connect all my experiences. Weave them into a thread of meaning that could not have existed without me. That is how I know myself. We are all here to learn from each other.

A few things happened recently. I went to watch a production of Charandas Chor performed by the actors of the Naya Theatre of Bhopal, the company that was founded by the late Habib Tanvir. Then, I read about an organization that is promoting the arts as an agent of social change. Finally, I have started a project that aims to map a path through the collective shared memory of our generation. It is regarding this last that I started to watch an old Mahabharat episode on YouTube. I heard the familiar opening recitation of a Sanskrit shloka. I have heard it at least a thousand times in my life, because not only did I watch the Mahabharat every week when I was growing up, my flatmates and I in graduate school watched the whole thing again on laptops. Having heard the opening shloka a thousand times, today I realized that I did not know what it meant. This is a sign of our times folks. It is not too late to make amends so I Googled the meaning. It is the 47th verse of the second chapter of the Bhagvad Gita. I will reproduce it here in transliteration.

Karmanye vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana,
Ma Karmaphalaheturbhurma Te Sangostvakarmani

The meaning of the verse is—

You have the right to work only but never to its fruits.
Let not the fruits of action be your motive, nor let your attachment be to inaction.[1]

 

My heart was stilled by the beauty and profundity of the verse. I had to read it again and again. Why is this the opening verse of the 12 year epic series that captivated the imagination of an entire generation of Indians? More importantly, why do we not see it in their actions. Why has it not altered the history of the nation? Instead, the history of the nation is being made by what came later in the telecast. The display of macho strength, patriarchy, war-mongering, revenge, chest-thumping commentaries about the “naari’s sammaan” and the “kul ki maryada.”

Now, what does this have to do with the play I watched and with arts for social change? The play was performed by actors that have come out of the folk tradition in Chatthisgarh. These actors live in villages and small towns and while they are very experienced their cultural attitude is one of service and not performance. I don’t know them personally. I am not making a comment about their goodness as people etc. But it appears that when they are on stage, they work to serve the story. This means that they perform the actions required by the script whether or not they are feeling “personally inspired” in the moment or not. If the script requires them to laugh, they laugh, if it requires them to do a little jig, they do a little jig. They seem to be unconcerned by the result. The story flows merrily along with little or no anxiety shown by the performers. This is in sharp contrast to the modern, urban actor.
 
This person worries endlessly about how they are coming off. Their performance is riddled with anxiety about being “fake” or “not convincing.” The moment you attach yourself to “convincing” someone you have become attached to the result, you have lost the wisdom of the 47th verse of the second chapter of the Bhagvad Gita. You suffer from the delusion that you can somehow control the audience. You have become, if I am to indulge an exaggeration, a tyrant. It is a quality of scriptural text that it anticipates your questions and doubts. The next question in this case is, well, if we don’t have any control over the fruits of our actions, then why do the action at all? Well, first, because it is not your right to be attached to the fruit of your actions. It is your right only, to work. And further, do not become depressed and then attach yourself to inaction. In this second line, there is hope. We are being told implicitly, that there is virtue in this. It is good for us to keep working. That, that is the way. But the difficulty of our generation is that we don’t like to be told anything. We view it with doubt. We think it is an attempt to control us because we are so fearful. We do not trust that things may be told to us because they are good for us. And if we do allow ourselves to listen then we demand proofs and evidence and references. We are so blinded by the morality of scientific thought that we cannot trust our own hearts, intellects and bodies to be the vessels of experimentation with the truth. We have externalized completely, outsourced rather, the discovery of the purpose of life. We look for the meaning of the world in the world even though we know fully well that meaning is more subtle than what appears to us at the surface. It is no surprise that the theatrical and film world is blighted by depression, loneliness, insignificance all of it fueled by the delusion that somehow it is we who are the agents of transformation in the world.
“It feels fake. “
– The disgruntled actor.
This links us to the arts for social change agenda. It is a powerful idea, I think. The idea, broadly speaking, is to sensitize and expose people to techniques that help them to uncover the truth and meaning beyond surface appearances. In other words, to help them connect to their innate urge to find unity. The difficulty though, is compounded. The organization that runs the programs are sometimes headed by people who themselves are severely attached to the outcomes, the fruits. NGOs, while claiming to represent a counterpoint to the corporate rat-race, run their employees into the ground. Deadlines, fund-raising madness, field visits all in the service of good intentions. They do not take to heart the command of the Bhagvad Gita, that your right is only to work. You have no right to the fruit. So, to perform the duties is your only task. You must perform them efficiently, regularly and with all of your creativity and intelligence at work and attach not at all to the outcomes. When attachment does occur, you remind yourself of what you have been told. Here also, we run into the difficulty that no one likes to be told anything any more. Everyone knows far too much already. So, a creative, well-meaning, well-educated, passionate and sincere person is run into depression and anxiety by their own god-complex. That somehow, WE or I will make a difference. So the question we must ask is, if we have no right over the fruit of our labors, then who does? Who is it all for?
I want to make a difference.
 – Well meaning NGO worker.
In the Islamic tradition, the belief is that the purpose of man is to follow the command of Allah SWT. That all actions, all affection is directed toward Him. And further, that true, change and transformation is only possible through the power and will of Allah SWT. In Arabic, it is:
hawla wa lā quwwata illā bi Allāh

“The phrase may be translated word-by-word as:

lā = no, not, none, neither
hawla = change, alteration, transformation, movement, motion
wa = and
lā = no, not, none, neither
quwwata = strength, power, potency, force, might, vigor
illā = but, except, if not
bi = with, to, for, in, through, by means of
Allāh = Arabic name for the Supreme Being

Progress is only achieved through change and transformation… and spiritual progress requires the highest degree of change and transformation. We may wish to change, but we alone do not have the power to make such changes. Such change and transformation can only occur through the tahwīl (transformation) of Allāh. That is to say, true change and transformation can arise only through the awesome and glorious powers of Allāh.” [3]

The meaning of this bears great consequence in our lives. What is being said is that we cannot even change ourselves! Without the will and of Allah SWT who has control and dominion over all things. So, we must never expect to be able to change the world without His help. And to seek His help, we must remember Him. Dhikr, the Arabic word for the rememberance of Allah SWT. A highly recommended practice in the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
It is in the nature of man to become attached to what he strives for, whether it be personal transformation or the transformation of society. This attachment causes frustration. But this attachment is a delusion, a flight from our purpose, which is to act without concern for the result. On stage and in life. The way out of this attachment is dhikr, remembrance. To remind ourselves, of the message brought to us by the noble Bhagvad Gita and the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). That change and transformation are not caused by us. But to those who false arrogate to themselves the powers of change and transformation, those who are now laughably investigating “social engineering,” this is a message of despair. That we don’t control anything. But for those who can humble themselves before Allah SWT, who can find it in themselves to obey, for them this is humility. This is mercy, mercy for ourselves. That we can take ourselves off the hook. That we can believe in the justice of Allah SWT, which is perfect. That when we strive in His cause, when we perform the actions He has ordered us to, He will reward us in this life and in the Hereafter.
So the next time the self becomes too much on to you, repeat the shloka, repeat the words of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), take them to heart and be gentle with yourself. Inshallah, you will find yourself endowed with strength and vitality and then you can continue on your quest without fear.
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It is beyond the shadow of doubt that I am a fallible man who possesses but partial wisdom so may Allah SWT forgive me my errors of judgment. For indeed, Allah knows best. May His blessings be upon all of you.

Sources:
  1. http://www.swamivivekanandaquotes.org/2014/05/bhagavad-gita-chapter-2-verse-47.html
  2. Mahabharat, Episode 49-54, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VjELJsDOVtU
  3. Wahiduddin’s Web, https://wahiduddin.net/words/tahwil.htm

 

Choose

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.

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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 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).

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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.

The Looking Glass

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

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

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

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

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

Wal-asr, innal insaana lafi khusr

Allazina aamanu wa aamilus-swaalihaati

Watawaasau bil-haqqi watawaasau bis-sabr

By time,

Verily, man is in loss

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

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

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

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

A Letter to My Future Wife

The first night I arrived in Oaxaca, I met a couple of people staying at the Calera in the big room. Clayton was a writer from New York and as it turned out he lived in Berkeley a stone’s throw away from me. A big African-American man with a kind face and a hilarious wit. Tara was his friend who worked as a video producer. She was upset because it had come to pass that their bags would probably not make it to Mexico before the end of their vacation. Propelled by the magic of the Mexican night and the trust that remoteness engenders among strangers, I found myself confessing to them things about my life that I would normally reserve for my journal. In the freedom of the moment, I told them that I wanted, after 10 years of being in the United States, to return to India and go on a sojourn to look for you. Clayton was totally on board. Tara had reservations. I’m not sure where that plan came from. Was it unformed all this while waiting to appear as words in the light of a paper lamp sitting underneath cactus plants?

That was then. I am now back home in India. It seems like I never left. Like the last 10 years was a dream and I have woken up only now. People keep asking me what my plans are, what my dreams are. I have many plans, many ideas, many dreams but only one true heartfelt desire. To find you. Never have I felt a presence in my life that is so sharply defined yet without a face or body. Sometimes I can conjure a blurry outline of a physical presence but its always a mirage and most likely a false one shaped by passion. Always disappearing as I approach it. I feel no desperation, no frustration. I am content to wander about and wait for our inevitable encounter. I know that I have to make no effort in order to bring it about.

It happens sometimes that someone will make a claim to your spot. I like to think that I will know when you are near. Some voice inside my head tells me I am creating a vision and placing it on a pedestal that no living, breathing woman will ever fulfill. The truth is that I have fewer expectations from you than ever. All I have is a sense of you and not too many words that I can say to define what I want you to look like, be like or act like. I make solemn oaths that I will put everything I have learned from previous commitments to our relationship but I wish for something higher. That you and I will create something entirely new, not slave to the incremental accumulation of wisdom about relationships but a flight of the heart that comes from the very depths of our beings. Free of ideals and words but full of belief. The break from my past that I have experienced in the last year has made available a space that is so full of a potential which I recognize as you. Whether you will ever assume human form is not my will or concern but it is my wish to love you completely if you ever do.

Who are you? Where are you? What are you doing right now? Are you the soft-spoken daughter of a family that depends on you? You say little but hold together the family with a silent and dynamic strength. Or are you the force of the ocean waves that breaks upon the shore relentlessly? You light up the room with your dazzling laugh and give as good you take. Or are you some completely unexpected vision who will perplex and frustrate me with her secrets? How foolish am I to lend to the formless the substance of manifested reality? Is it love’s destiny to be the slave of flesh and blood?

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