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.



Apocalypse Now and Then

Happy Holidays. Nearing the end of another year. Following an ugly-sweater party in the office this afternoon, I made my way to the Roxie theatre in the Mission. The Roxie is one of the oldest continuously operating cinemas in the country. It nearly went under last year and the community bailed them out via crowd funding. They operate in what I believe is an almost perpetual state of financial vulnerability. I do what I can to help because I love old theatres. The Roxie especially because they have a strong emphasis on screening community centered films, documentaries, independent film from the Bay Area and old classics. Stuff that any commercial theater in its right mind will never touch, understandably. This weekend they’re hosting the Coppola family who are all locals. I don’t believe Francis Ford or Sofia will make an appearance but other family members, all of whom are huge supporters of film will be interacting with the public. I bought a ticket to attend a benefit for the theatre and showed up around 6 pm to a small crowd at a place called the Little Roxie which is two doors down from the actual theatre. They had a xylophone player with a table sized xylophone. So far so good. As is always the case with anything actually worth going to, most of the crowd was over 40 years old, a lot over 60. I think I spotted a lady who had the signature Coppola face but couldn’t be sure. Talking and mingling, speeches. They had in the house, Richard Beggs, who was the sound designer for Apocalypse Now and deservingly won an academy award for his work on the film. It was all in the family and everyone knew everyone and everyone was nice enough to introduce me to everyone else. There was not really any need to turn on your networking radar and start making beelines for the headliners. I stood next to Richard at the bar for a few seconds with that odd feeling when you stand next to someone who has won an academy award and worked with Coppola, Brando, Dennis Hopper, Martin Sheen and many other legends. No idea what to say. He walked off and in so doing tripped over my hiking shoes. I’m wearing them to work these days because of the incessant rain. I can’t stand wet socks. The head of the board at Roxie explained that making a movie takes many people and not everyone is seen equally. I later heard Richard relate his experiences working on the movie and how they stored the 7 tonnes of film spool that they shot for Apocalypse in a storage room at Francis Ford’s Napa Valley estate. There’s something about seeing people who have made pinnacle achievements in the distant past. The thing you notice is a kind of simplicity, composure. They lack that open mouthed hunger and flitting anxiety. He spoke so simply, without affecting humility. There is a dignity about people who have no doubt about doing what they love that can never be matched by even the most competent of those who still are not sure. The party was followed by a screening of Apocalypse Now. I hadn’t seen it before and it was quite something to watch on a big screen. A war epic with poetic imagery that is hypnotic. You literally lose the plot and just let it take you. And it does, to haunting and dream like worlds where the horror of war becomes a spiritual ceremony.


I am convinced that big budget cinema can never be organized to bring happiness in equal measure. It is inherent in the nature of it that it be manipulative and at the expense of some to the benefit of others. A director is a master manipulator both on and off set and must use people to bring his vision to life. Mainstream film is thus basically a venture in exploitation guaranteed never to bring deep satisfaction. To make peace with the manipulation of others would require a denial of a kind that obscures all humanity and those who can live in such denial are never capable of the kind of artistic heroism that is required for success. So the successful lot in film must know the expense at which their project has been realized. I find myself sometimes, looking at my own website again and again, watching my reel, looking at the pictures. In some trance like state that is not remotely happiness or deep inner peace. I just look. Its me. I keep looking. As I look, some wordless voice inside me soothes the split-ends of my ego but always rides on a deeper anxiety that no amount of looking can sooth.  Sometimes I feverishly compare recent pictures with older ones trying to gauge the deterioration of skin, hair or a general reduction in youthfulness. An exercise that can ultimately only end in madness ala Sunset Boulevard. Its the same with my photography or anything else for that matter. To look for myself in the relics of achievement always leaves me wanting. Yet, to abandon this seeking part of me seems like copping out and to pursue it seems a fool’s errand. The Dalai Lama says that the only source of happiness is compassion. So far, following this tenet to me has seemed like a cliche but off late I am beginning to understand that an act of genuine compassion comes not from doing but from non-doing. Which is another way of saying that you don’t distribute compassion to others, you surrender into it within yourself. Anyway, this is boring. I meant to write a little something about what was a nice evening. I spent it alone albeit in a warm-hearted crowd. Happy Holidays, friends.

Saif Ali is a writer and actor based in San Francisco.

Where I Come From


I am over the moon. I know what they mean now. You’re over the moon when you can’t stay still, you’re that excited. I’ve returned home after almost 5 years of being away. The other day I went back to the neighborhood where I was born. Its squalid, crowded, dusty yet I walked around with a sense of awe and wonder. Deep connection. This is what it means to belong.

I’ve spent the last 4 years stripping myself of the identity given to me by this place. I tore off my hide so I could still the voices of expectation and good advice that resounded in my head. With this naked self, I am reengaging with the place of my birth with indescribable intimacy. I never thought it was important to belong, to be from somewhere or to be someone. But a sense of belonging, of rootedness is beyond thought. It is built into our very structure and cannot be denied. I am Indian. Which is not some silly statement of national pride. I am of this corner of the Earth, this dirt, this ground, these smells and colors. There is boundless joy in that. Immense freedom. 

This is the place I can do anything. Being tied down by immigration law for the last 7 years, the freedom to do anything, be anything, is like a gift. The thing that everyone takes for granted is a valuable, priceless bounty. What color, what beautiful complexity of human life, what aroma, what magnificent creativity there is in this land. Where I’m from. My sister got married in a magical faraway place. I got to see the way of life there, the people, like another country, another continent altogether. In Delhi, I embraced distant family members and friends, hundreds of them. Some with dutiful courtesy and others with tearful affection. I wore the dresses they wear here and they fit like a glove. It was like a new skin that felt totally right. We looked through old family albums and laughed into the night. We talked of old times, old jokes new again. At Lodi Gardens, I witnessed the sublime sunset and stood in the mausoleum at dusk. Among the spirits of kings. In the Delhi metro, I looked with awe at the surprisingly good public conduct of my ever maligned countrymen.


Today my mother handed me a diary and I knew that I knew what it was but I couldn’t remember what. A marvelous feeling of anticipation. My old GRE preparation notebook. I looked at the diligent notes of a young man determined to make something of himself. That was me. Desperate to go to America, 10 years ago. To see what it was all about. To find that diary … unbelievable. I nag my mother about hoarding stuff but sometimes you find gold.

My self-inflicted exile is over. The reserved, exclusive solitude that I had chosen for myself in the last decade is done. This is reengagement. Rediscovery. I want to live. To love. In this moment now, there is no conflict. Only harmony.

 *   *   *

Saif Ali is a writer and actor based in San Francisco.



Racking it up a notch

Apparently in the age of Eat,Pray,Love one of the mantras of a happy life is to do one thing every day that you’ve never done before. Well, in my averagely happy life the days where I can actually check this box are rare unless I did happen to do a new thing and wasn’t paying attention. Today I hauled a bicycle from Santa Cruz to the city. This involved mounting a bike rack to the back of my car and then mounting the bike on the bike rack and then being nervous for the first twenty minutes about it falling off. Oh wait, I forgot one thing. Initially I loaded the bike on to the rack and then the front wheel of the bike kept knocking the bumper. So I had to pull into a gas-station a buy a roll of insulation tape with which I secured the front wheel to the frame so it wouldn’t swivel about. Then I drove home 80 miles. It was fairly smooth except on Van Ness Avenue which is a delightful street because it reminds me of the badly repaired uneven Delhi roads.

The bike is safely in my garage and the bike rack is off the back and in the trunk. Mission accomplished. I’m happy.

What is this happiness though? Can we describe it, really examine it? A reassuring feeling of achievement. Perhaps a sense of security that comes after feeling nervous about the bike falling off the whole way. I do recall a kind of “letting-go” that happened as the bike wheels touched the garage floor and the garage door came sliding down. It was then, when I turned out the light and walked out of the garage. That was the happiness. Right there. A sense of having nothing to worry about any more. The security of my own home and bed and loo in the offing. That was the happiness, unmistakably. And now. The happiness is from the fact that I can share the experience. That the check box is indeed checked. Its a thought, an image of my life having been enriched by this episode. So the memory of the event brings about the so-called happiness. I will milk it, milk the memory until it is worn out like an old sweater and then move on to something else. Or I sit quietly in anticipation until something else exciting happens in my life. Exciting not just according to me but according to some suggested measure, something cool, chic that is inspiring. The fact is, I need something to be happy “about.”

Happiness is derivative. It is the by-product of something else.

– Jiddu Krishnamurti

Rewind an hour and a half. I am standing near the curb on 2nd Street in Santa Cruz just a few hundred feet away from the Pacific Ocean. The air is thick with fog and the cold wind has caused me to put on my black Columbia Sportswear jacket that MJ had given me for my birthday in a previous lifetime. The instruction manual for the bike rack does not list the measurements for my particular car model (2008 Mazda 3). My iPhone is running out of charge and I don’t know how to put the thing on the back of my car. I am waiting for the guy to arrive so I can go into the house, pick up the bike and use his Internet to look up the instructions. Now, I’ve had a share of what someone recently called character-building experience so I am not daunted by the state of affairs. I know I can make it work even though the bike rack looks like a mess of wires and straps all bent out of shape like a dead jelly fish and its tentacles. I am not frustrated or scared but am I happy. No. Cant say that I am. I’m calmly waiting but still there is the slightest, most understated sense of disturbance that is pulsating deep down somewhere as impatience. Definitely not happy. Happy is when there is that extraordinary radiance of being that is not dependent on circumstances. Mind you, this is when I am doing the “new” thing that is so sought after. This is all new. I’ve never been stranded with an alien bike rack waiting outside a house. But this novelty is not desirable.

See, I fear the truth is that happiness cannot possible come from thought or memory. It cannot come from mental or physical security. And if it does, it is not complete. There is always something better, a higher happiness. If I hauled a bike today then the next round of happiness can only come from something bigger. For example, the plan I’ve made with my dear friend to ride our bikes into Sausolito across the Golden Gate. This is why we often see that the highly accomplished and the most sophisticated are the most unhappy. They have exhausted a larger than usual share of their happiness fixes. But again, I suspect the truth is that happiness is free of measurement. There is no such thing as “more happy” or “less happy”. It is complete, whole and infinitely deep. All of us have felt it at some point in our lives. When it comes to the pursuit of happiness, I’m afraid I have no answers. Other than a nagging suspicion that its completely pointless.