delhi

Renewal

It was day two of my new job today. After a day of classroom discussion and planning meetings, I was finally walking back home from a busy day. A busy day. I have not experienced such a thing in the last two years because I have only spent time doing the things I want to do. It felt good to have a busy day. I was walking down the road I have walked on for as long as I can remember. Past the modern school that has transformed from a small pathshala in to a grand establishment in the span of my lifetime. The Delhi winter is just peeking around the corner. The evening sun was large and the very hint of a nip in the air gave me that feeling of renewal that only a change of season can bring.

I heard from behind me someone calling out.

“Babu! Babu!”

I looked back to see a richshaw pull up from behind and stop by my side. It was a familiar face. I knew it right away. Especially the toothless grin. For as long as I can remember, he had never had any front teeth and always smiled with only his canines making him look silly. He had less hair and it was grayer.

“Remember?” he beamed.

“Yes of course! Are you kidding?” I replied with excitement.

“Where were you all this time?” I asked.

He said he had gone to his village. I did not bother asking for how long he had been gone for because I honestly did not remember. He carried on reminiscing.

“The gentleman from number 7 flat. He also remembers me. I used to drop his kids to the bus stop when they were young. He asked me on baqr-eid whether I wanted some meat. I said Sir I am a loner. I won’t be able to cook it.”

He said this last with a shrug. I asked if things were all right in the village. I got the feeling maybe he needs some help but he seemed energetic and well so I did not want to offend him. He was smiling a lot. The same toothless grin but his eyes seemed to shine more from age.

“Well, now I’ll see you around I hope. I have to be going now.” I said.

“Where are you going? Study? Duty?” he said.

I said I was going to my work.

“Oh! You’ve become a professor!” he said.

“I’ve become a professor!” I echoed. I did not bother to add that it had only been two days. He went into a bit of a reverie. He said it was a thing of happiness that the kids he took to school in his rickshaw for years were now all doing well.

“Someone is a professor, someone is a doctor, someone a big man in the police. I’m very happy.” he said.

I realized I still don’t know his name. He offered to drop me if I was in a hurry but I declined.

“I’ll see you when I get back,” I said with genuine hope.

 

 

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 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

 

 

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

 

 

Eastern Promises

I’ve been performing at the India Habitat Center in the Short + Sweet Delhi Theatre Festival. A mixer format that puts up 10 ten minute plays in one evening giving the theater community a great opportunity to come together, create a tasting menu of theatre presentations and exchange ideas. Really fun.

Our last show was on Ashura. The day of mourning in the month of Muharram. My auto got stuck in the Karbala parade on Mathura road past Nizamuddin. A great commotion. A large procession was snaking up the road. A group of boys were beating a variety of drums. Younger boys had wooden sticks that they were using as performance swords and playing out swordfights with each other in the middle of the road. Traffic was honking but the parade was oblivious to the noise. They were marching to their own beats. Far in the distance above the heads of people, were two taziyas decorated in black, green and gold. Being carried along. Bobbing on the surface of the crowd like logs of wood are carried along by a rousing river. Under the flyover, a dozen military men waited with big guns. Lean, tall statures. Bodies relaxed, leaning on the pillars but the gaze alive and alert, full of intelligence, confidence and swagger. A majestic sight.

The auto-waalah was whining about the jam. He didn’t understand why festivals needed to block the street. I nodded along. All the while thinking in my head.

“Why do I need to be anywhere else when we have this to be part of? Can anything be more enthralling? My performance later in the evening does not hold a candle to this story.”

He finally peeled off to the wrong side of the road and went against traffic, zig-zagging across cars coming from the opposite side. I was dizzy with excitement and joy.

“The Muharram traffic is insane”

I texted my friend. It sounded like a complaint but cell phones often overturn meaning. In reality, it was like I was shouting the words while dancing on the road myself. Later when I met her, I said “how is this related to Muharram?”

“How is anything related to any religion in this country?” she answered.

That’s when I realized this has nothing to do with Muharram. This is just the passion of humanity. The desire to put on a show, to participate in the public space, transcends all boundaries and connects us as human beings. Although my insistence on piety and sincerity in matters of religion was still firm, I could set it aside and just see these people have a good time. I wonder how often they actually take the time to do that.

I felt gratitude towards my friend for propelling me to a larger truth. I felt gratitude toward the military men. Toward the city of Delhi for opening its streets to its people to just have a ball. To the autowaalah for finding the fastest possible way to get me there.

I left the pandemonium behind as I walked in to the premises of the Habitat Center. As I approached the Stein Auditorium, I stood in the open courtyard for a while. I appreciated, as if for the first time, the tranquility of the building. The red brick. The trees swaying in the breeze. The marriage of the interior and the exterior. The oblique lines and open vistas. Surely, Mr. Stein, deserves to have the auditorium named after him. What a privilege to perform here.

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India Habitat Center, New Delhi

A group of people had spread a very large canvas on the floor under the open sky. The canvas was full of wild and colorful art. A public art project. Buckets of paint lay around. I put my bags down and looked at the artscape for a while. Vivid. Mediocre. Free. I saw a large yellow flower someone had painted. I painted a bunch of green men climbing all over it. They looked somewhere between aliens and grasshoppers. At the very end of the canvas, there was a girl. She sat wearing jeans and a denim shirt. On the floor. Her hands folded around her legs hugging her knees in. Evening had begun to set in and her face was illuminated by the glow. She said nothing but her eyes smiled without any effort. I pretended to walk to the end to draw something there. Then I struck up nonsense conversation with her. I spoke in my best Urdu. She replied but her Hindi was terrible in an adorable way. She spoke with a thick Eastern accent. Bihar, Bengal, Odisha, was my guess. She told me “aap is corner ko aur sundar bana sakte ho.” Then she coached me through some basic art work. I was just blankly dipping my hand in the paint and drawing circles with my index finger. I was trying to look at what I was doing but my entire aware consciousness was transfixed on her. It was awful, what I was drawing.

“Mere khayaal mein, yeh corner ab pehle se zyaada khoobsurat hai,” I said.

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We invited her to come to the show. She never did. After the show, a father came on stage with his son. A little boy. He said that his son wanted to congratulate us in person for a good show. How beautiful is life? The energy. The color. The irritation. The thwarted promise. The parrots perched on trees. The desperation. The desire. The dominance. The death.

In the Most Polluted Place in the World

Today I did an hour long workshop with people who are studying to be teachers. It was at an institute way out in the outskirts of Delhi in a place called Dilshad Garden. I’d never been there before. I had to change two trains which was also a first for me. On the way, I saw stretching far into the distance, partially constructed homes built in a giant jigsaw puzzle. Willy, nilly. Walls jutting into each other. Bricks exposed. Where is the time for plaster and paint in a place like Delhi? An expanse of urban life dotted by protruding domes and minarets belonging to places of worship. The dreams of a metropolis stuffed together like playing cards.

Life continues through all of it. A populace that is positively vibrating with curiosity and potential is pulsating through the labyrinths of chaos.

   *     *     *

A PhD scholar at the Dept of Education in Jamia Millia Islamia is working on emotional intelligence in the classroom. She has been designing a variety of interventions to help teachers identify, understand and manage their emotions while interacting with students. She had invited me to work with this group of pre-service teachers for a one-hour session using drama exercises to identify and name emotions. We worked with this through some fun improvisations that were followed by acts of self-questioning and noticing your breath, bodily sensation, thoughts and emotions. I had a wonderful time and was amazed by the intelligence of these to-be teachers. I was filled with hope for the children whom they will teach. I spoke to a few of them for a long time afterwards and they asked me a lot of questions that suggested they have rich inner lives. I was glad because I think we as a nation need to move on from note-giving, static curriculum teachers to dynamic, introspective teachers that have an inner process and practice.

Later one of them walked with me to the metro station and shared the ride until the Central Secretariat. He was from a village in Rajasthan. He was nearly 20 years old, very slim. A gaunt face and sharp nose. He told me he prefers to walk and spend the money he would on the rickshaw on something to eat. He eats bananas, he said. I asked him if he would join me in eating gol gappas. He said he avoids eating prepared food outside the house. He said where he lives in Dwarka, he knows the food vendors and the food is of good quality so he eats it there but not here in Dilshad Garden. He also told me the area we were walking through was the most polluted part of Delhi and he had read in the newspaper that Delhi was the most polluted city in the world so he said, this means we are walking through the most polluted place in the world. I remarked that some bougainvillea flowers on the way were beautiful. He said the flowers in Dwarka were better. On the train he asked me about my time in the United States. He listened with great curiosity and often went into deep thought about what I had said. Then he told me that I should stay toward the front when getting off at C. Sectt otherwise the mob will push me back into the train. When he got off, he told me how many stations it will be before mine. I thanked him, we shook hands and he left. I will attach a photo of the whole group today. He is not in it because he took the photo. Later we did a selfie with some other friends of his because he said that all the photos that are taken in the institute, he is usually not in them. Maybe he feels invisible.

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For me, as the “expert” it felt good to have a channel for my experience to find a place in someone’s heart. That is what we all want I think, that someone will carry a piece of our legacy and a piece of the beautiful puzzle that they are figuring out will come from us. It really is a fulfilling feeling and on days like this, I feel like my acting aspiration is not just self-absorbed need for accolade and admiration. I owe those students a great debt because they agreed to be the recipients of my wisdom. This is hard these days because everyone already knows so much.

If we all did the things we are capable of,
we would astound ourselves.
Thomas Edison

That is how I feel about the kids I met today.