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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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?
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
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.
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 Nehru place flyover
looks out beyond the small hills
on to the giant orange setting sun
pigeons fly through
the gray air of dusk
Easy cabs flying past you
the misery of indentured labor
a man on the metro train
pays his respects to the Kalka maa
the slight bow with a momentary closing of the eyes
the soul of Chiragh Delhi lights up the evening
through the ever abundant headlights
of clogged traffic
broken dreams live in Panchsheel
holding strong through the smog
people gather in balconies
winter afternoons of determined smiles
oh You, the Ever-Living, the All-Sustaining
the Omnipresent, the most Compassionate
live you not only in the pristine valleys
and clean lakes of lands far and away
live You in the black sheen of the Yamuna
and in the squalor of Mina Bazaar
Your Glory not the domain of hermetic houses
You live also in the hearts of flat dwellers
in the prayers of jhuggi dreamers
where shall I go?
everywhere is home.
* – * – *
Happy New Year to all my friends and readers.