The Love Divine

Written for the play “Shiva Calling,” showing this weekend at Q’La, New Delhi.

 

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Oh you, who waits
Oh you, who waits
if it feels like another day
that is because it is
may you go in peace
may you go to peace
may your heart be at rest

 

The river dances on
to the beat of the cosmic drum
it flows past the setting sun
to the valley
of the beloved one

all desires spent
to the high temple I went
the snowy mountain wept
with the winds it swept
my dreams along the breeze

what is left?
wish everyone well
in to the eternal river I fell
no sound was heard
but a distant ringing bell

the heavens will draw ever near
the swan of fury dives in water clear
I was here once
who is here now?

like the scent of fine wine
you know its a love divine
when my heart beats in yours
and your heart beats in mine

 

 

Amar, The Eternal

Is khwaabgaah ke andhere mein main azaad hoon

Gahre neele aasmaan mein abaad hoon

(In the darkness of this dream chamber, I am free

in the deep inky blackness of sky, I thrive)

 

Tod saka hai kaun mere jism ko zanjeer se

Khoon ka rishta hai rooh ka taqdeer se

(who can break my body with chains,

the spirit is married to destiny through the blood in my veins)

 

Chala jaaoonga ek din doosre jahaan mein

Ummeed-e-kaamiyaabi rakhta hoon imtihaan mein

(one day, I will be gone to the next world,

I fancy my chances still in the test of life)

 

Roshni dar-o-deewar se gum hui to kya

Taron bhari raat se aati hai ik sard hawa

(the walls and corridors are blank, so what?

the breeze comes to me from the starlit night)

 

Sannata bahlaye hai mujhe har raat ko

Parakh chukha hoon beet gayee har baat ko

(the darkness whispers sweet nothings to me all night,

I’ve considered my past many many times)

 

Kaun kahe ke kyun kya hota hai

Kyun insaan guzre waqt ko rota hai?

(who will say why things happen that do,

why does man cry over things gone by?)

 

 

 

Ek Khwaab Hai

Ek khwaab hai

Ek khwaab hai

Dil mein ek sailaab hai

Jis din taqdeer avaaz lagaayegi

Maujud humein woh paayegi

Har ek sawaal tum karte jaana

Har ek hamare paas jawaab hai

Ek khwaab hai

Dil mein ek sailaab hai

Woh waqt bhi ek din aayega

Jab koi raaz nahin reh jaayega

Sach aasman se barsega

Us baarish ko ruh betaab hai

Ek khwaab hai

Dil mein ek sailaab hai

 

 

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 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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.