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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.

 

 

Nothing to be done

I arrived in Mumbai in the morning. I always enjoy the first taxi ride in a new city. I’ve been to Mumbai before but I still count it among my list of new cities. We went inside an old building in Kemp’s Corner. We waited for the elevator, an old elevator with the sliding iron grill door mechanisms. The steel plaque declared a recognizable name. I like flats that have very little furniture. It is an ongoing battle with my mother. This one had a one-person balcony that overlooked the city from a height that was high enough to be exciting without triggering my vertigo. It was quieter than Delhi. Only the odd car would honk and that for half a second. A sense of the tropics is ever present in Bombay.

What is the relationship between a sense of abandon and a sense of purpose? Do we not need both to create meaning?

20151216_125820Mumbai Art Room is a tiny room off the main causeway in Colaba. It is packed on all sides by markets, office buildings, fruit stalls, random little houses, photocopy and print shops, cafes. Everyday, the merchandise from the surrounding ecosystem flows into the room and fuels the process of art. With everything that goes with it. The contemplation, the depth, the artifice, the ego hassles and the pretense. Stationery, printouts, idlis, chai, bobby pins, double-A batteries,  white socks, guavas.

Start a huge, foolish project like Noah. It makes absolutely no difference what people think of you, says Rumi.

The istiri-waala was a very thin man who wore a gungee and an above-the-knee lungi. He had a flummoxed expression when he held his face at rest. He worked inside a little one-room house on a high table. He used an electric iron. I had to instruct him which clothes I needed right away and which ones could wait. It is for a performance, I explained. He didn’t much care. I gave him a little netted carry bag I had bought at the Embarcadero Shopping Center in San Francisco which was meant for specifically this purpose. To carry important items of clothing through short distances. Please arrange the clothes inside this bag, I told him. He complied.

We had a day to wander about. I kept cooing about how awesome Bombay was but my co-actor kept explaining to me that I was in the best part of the city and that there was elsewhere to be seen. Carrying on with a sense of peace and contentment is a service to humanity. I will not be held hostage by a guilt about the elsewhere. There is a place in Mumbai, called Fort. It is old. An old place. We stopped by an old bakery. Fascinated. I asked for the menu. There was on old gentleman with white balding hair. Very thin and tall.

“Menu!!!” he said.

“This is a heritage hotel Sir.”

You die twice. Once when you die and once when everyone that knew you dies. The traces of the past die off, gradually. In Fort, there is a tall tree that filters the sunlight on to the metalled lane in the market. It is narrow. The lane. It is by an old Central Bank building. Underneath, a man with white hair and spectacles was taking a stroll in his khaki uniform.

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The piece I was performing in asked questions about identity. How do you say who you are? Who are you? On opening night, Mumbai Art Room was packed. Standing room only. A very pious silence. The polite seminar-etiquette of the artistic elite. There was a talk by a philosopher and some performed demonstrations by us. People asked a lot of questions and then also hung around later talking about the project. Everyone was hungry enough that no one could decide what they wanted any more. We went to a house that belonged to the curator’s friend. It was an old house. With a lot of very old furniture and chandeliers. Someone took pictures because I suspect that dim lighting looks good on instagram. All the delivery restaurants were closed. People lounged about with fatigue and exhaustion. The active exhaustion of stimulated minds. Other talks took place, many others.

Someone had once told me that there is a zen of auditioning. That the audition means everything. It is critically important. And. It means nothing. It is not important in the least. It is vitally important that you do it. But it matters not in the least whether you do or don’t. Everyone had a different idea about how long it would take to get to the airport from Colaba. It was rush hour. They were amused that I wanted to leave so early. One and half hours yaar.  They said that Indigo airlines are very co-operative. They will pull you out of security and shuttle you through. The guys standing around the taxi stand looked very concerned. You have to leave right away they said. Office ka time hai. Nobody accounted for the holidays. And of course, nobody accounted for the broken bus on the bridge at Santa Cruz. The traffic jam was a peak experience. It took three hours. The taxi driver was in shambles. He drove in first gear for an hour and a half during which we moved less than two kilometers. Are you in a panic? My co-actor asked. No. We left four hours in advance. The best you can do is your best.

 

A Severed Kite

It is as if my childhood has returned. Afternoon naps, being home while parents are at work and going on cycle rickshaws. Although I pray, meditate, rest and read willingly in stark contrast to my younger days.

I signed up for a cleanliness drive on facebook. An anonymous group of citizens who do what they call “spot fixes” around the city. I met a very well spoken guy in the market and we were joined by a group of school children being herded along by their teacher. The school runs a citizenship program and the students who sign up are tasked with joining these types of efforts. The task was to scrape away sticky posters and bills from electricity boxes (or whatever those things are called, switchboards?), then sweep the surrounding and finally paint the skirting that goes around the park in white and geru (a beautiful deep rust colored paint that is locally produced).

When you are doing work in a public space, wonderful things happen. You lose all self-consciousness. How you look, what you’re wearing, who is looking at you, whether your belly is a little too big nowadays, what kind of statement you are making. Your gaze becomes focused on the work. You are being useful. All questions of identity and appearance simply vanish. You have earned the right to be there and everyone just sort of gets with it. You develop an intimacy with the street and it starts to feel like your home because you are taking responsibility for it. People seem less scary and a kind of healing starts to happen. I totally understood why people who violated some law and sometimes even serious convicts are given community service. It is a blessing disguised as a punishment.

It is very easy to cross the line from this new found confidence into entitlement and sanctimonious self-righteousness.

I remembered that it was the very lane of the market where as a teenager I had once gotten into a fight with my friend’s boyfriend. Rather, he had come from behind and pushed me to the ground. I remembered because I had fallen on a bicycle and as I painted a tough spot on the skirting, I had to pick up a bicycle and move it to the side. The memory immediately came back. Cycles in Delhi, the old skool ones have a specific type of weight and make a loud noise when they fall.

Later on, my parents came to pick me up from a coffee shop in the market and we all went to Old Delhi for a wedding. They had to pick me up a change of clothes from home that I got into in the coffee shop bathroom, not showered after three hours of hard work. I didn’t care somehow. The sweat on my body had dried in the cold air conditioned air of the upscale coffee shop and the evening felt cool. I felt energized and ready for a night out. We went deep into the old city. We had to park at the school where my mom and I work and then take cycle rickshaws to the marriage hall. As a kid, I remember when we would go to Aligarh to see my nana (granduncle) we would have to pile all the stuff and ourselves into two cycle rickshaws because one wasn’t enough for all of us. Having been in cars for the last decade or so I had forgotten this kind of simple problem of commuting as a family. My parents got into one rickshaw and I in the other and just like we would do with my mother and nani (grandma) in Aligarh, I looked back at them from my ride, smiled and waved. My father told me about the neighborhood in a loud voice.

The marriage hall was colorful and more like a big house with a courtyard than a formal venue. So used to big, noisy and garish Delhi weddings, it felt simple and unpretentious. More importantly, a guy was roasting kebabs on a coal fire and the smoke from the meat was intoxicating. I was ravenous. The hosts fussed around us because my mom is such a big cheese and we were brought food to our table. The most delectable mutton qorma and sheermal I’ve had in a while.  A long while. The taste was only partially because of the solid Old Delhi cooking. It was also because of how I had arrived at the table. Good meals start hours before you actually start eating.

It is as if my childhood has returned. My father told me that when he was a child, his father would take him from Bada Hindu Rao to Old Delhi on the tram. For a fare of 25 paise.

Days like this can only come with complete abandonment. Completely forsaking your dreams and vain desires. One of my favorite lines from a tv series I watched as a kid.

Zindagi ko kati patang ki tarah udne do.

(Let your life fly like a severed kite).

rickshaws_at_stationCycle rickshaws at Aligarh Railway Junction

“Chepna” – To Nail Someone

Today I visited the school I’ve been working at again in Old Delhi. What a wonderous place it is. Every second spent there brings with it enormous helpings of wisdom and amusement. I missed Friday prayer in the main mosque so Athar, the peon, showed me the smaller mosque outside the school compound where they have the congregation a little later. I barely made it up a sordid staircase into a crowded room that seemed like a remnant of an old haveli. The arches inside were still intact. As is required in prayer, I tried to focus on the remembrance of God but I had got there in such a hurry and the place was so uncomfortable that I didn’t really succeed. A kid kept hovering around me and would wait for the sajdah which would give her enough space to cross behind me. Then next sajdah, she’d be back. On my way out I gave some money to the beggars who always collect after Friday prayers. I didn’t have change so I dropped a large-ish bill into one of their collection rags and asked her to share some of it with a little kid who was also begging. On the staircase, a jaded young man brushed past me and said

“Yeah, that’s not gonna happen.”

Back in the school compound after risking my life to cross the road, I saw kids pouring out of the mosque, skullcaps still in place. I recorded some kids playing “maaram-pitti” in the field. The name loosely means “hitting and beating.” It’s basically like tag except instead of tapping people you try to nail them with a tennis ball. The process of nailing someone is called “chepna.” It’s a verb, meaning to nail someone.

Some of them immediately started posing with wide grins and folded hands. Others gathered around me to peer into the camera. One kid wanted to know why I was filming. I told him I make films. He then placed his hand in front of the lens. This annoyed me and I told him to stop. It is so surprising to see how early the “character” of an individual appears. The whole episode was enlightening. He came up to me and said in a manner which was exactly like a common adult goon. The typical vernacular that you hear in Muslim dominated poor areas.

Meri photo jo khichi hai wo kaheen bhi lagnee nahin chahiye. Nahin nateeja bahut bura hoga, samajh lo abhi se.

(The photo you’ve taken of me should not be put up anywhere. Or else the result will be bad, kapish?)

Barely 10 years old this guy. Then he walked away. His manner was so adult it stumped me for a bit. The way the threat was constructed, the tonal pattern. This other boy came up to me and said,

Aap se dar ra hai woh.

( He is afraid of you.)

This boy was even younger. Maybe 8, yet he stated the profound, obvious truth of the situation without batting an eyelid. I have always believed that everyone knows the plain truth about our existence at all times. Even the ones in the deepest trance will utter it and not realize what they have said. I asked one of the boys to bring him to me. I told him that not a second of footage would see the light of day without his permission. I asked him his name and then shook his hand. First he refused to even come to me. Then he refused to shake my hand. He didn’t know what to do with my friendliness. Since he was still a kid, he did melt. He smiled and finally shook my hand even though he tried to maintain his original air of distance. He couldn’t possibly let it all go in front of his friends. It was such a vivid example of how fear and desire operate in a person. The boy clearly wanted to be filmed but he couldn’t come to terms with the idea that that might mean his secrets will be exposed. He wanted to talk to me and gather round and peer into the camera like the other kids but he couldn’t admit it. His deepest desire in the moment was masked from him because of fear. It is possibly, this dynamic when reinforced over a period of decades solidifies into what we recognize as the ego. This interplay of fear and desire that play hide and seek in our minds and appear in bewitching disguises to ensure we remain hopelessly lost.

Firsts

Many firsts. The other day I had my first road rage incident since I’ve been back home. It ended with the guy passing me in a tizzy, cutting me off by blocking the road in front of me and leaning out of his window to yell at me. I remained inside the car and kept quiet. I’m told people are shooting each other over parking nowadays. That was another first. The restraint in the face of public provocation. Also for the first time, I am single and not frantic about it. For the first time, I let each day live itself. For the first time I don’t question the ultimate value of time spent with people. For the first time, I know what it means to let go and be yourself. For the first time, risks don’t seem daunting. For the first time, I am saying yes to practically everything and everyone and yet life seems to go at a languid pace.

To embody a completely new consciousness and perspective is sometimes unnerving. At times I talk to people and as I look at them, I ask who it is that is looking. People keep asking, now that you’re back home after 10 years what is your plan? I don’t have a plan, I have many ideas. Delhi is so activated and energized that I am having to push work away and push gigs away. Practically every conversation I have is bursting at the seams with promise.

Today I walked to the mosque and joined Friday prayer just in time for the first rakat. On the way back, 8 men were trying to push a huge tractor and a cart full of mud out of an equally big mound of mud. The wheel was completely jammed. The men, one of them at the wheel, were heaving the beast out of the dirt. They would do a large push coordinating it with the accelerator and the tractor would lift a few inches out of the dirt and plummet right back. A man got under the wheel with a shovel and dug some mud out. Another one blocked the wheel with bricks. I joined them. They did not resist or notice it much at all. They would invoked various Gods, mantras and chants. Chew tobacco during the breaks and get back at it. After 3 attempts, there was a final heave which I felt in my bones would work. It did. This evening I can barely walk because I think I injured my knee. It was worth it. To feel that moment of union when men are joined together in a single consciousness. Amazing how much it has to do with the mind. If we can control our minds and not be controlled by them, the effort of life can be eliminated altogether.

I’ve been volunteering at a school that my mother oversees in the heart of Old Delhi town. Well, it is now the heart. When it was built 300 years ago it was actually outside the confines of the city, just outside the Ajmeri Gate. When it was built, it was not a school at all, I think. I’m still learning the history of the place. It is a world heritage monument but it is a living monument in the sense that it has a school compound which actually operates as a school and it adjoins a Mughal mosque that still operates as a mosque. A rare gem where you can see modern life occur in a historical building preserved in its original form. The beauty of Islamic prayer is that it does not change from generation to generation so as i stood in file today at the mosque, I can’t imagine it would have been too different when Aurangzeb was still emperor.

My mother has a giant office where I work on the school website with the guy who teaches computers to the kids. A very shy Sikh man who is intensely obedient and sincere.He told me he had a love marriage and knew his lady for three years before they got married. The school is free so severely deficient in money and resources. The people are wonderful. At least, they are wonderful to me. My mother’s assistant, Furkhan bhai, is very impressed that I spent 10 years away from home and came back despite having “seen the world.” He thinks that is true imaan. There is another gentleman who does accounts who is outgoing personality. Today after we finished some work, he suggested we all go into the galis to eat Kalloo bhai ki nihari. Nihari is a slow cooked meat preparation that is made from the inner thigh and loin cut of beef. It is intense and spicy and sprinkled with fresh cilantro and sliced ginger. It is sold for two hours after the asr prayer only. Later, I learned someone fired a gunshot over some nihari related brawl once. Men place plates of nihari on the backseats of scooters and eat dinner standing up, washing it down with Coca Cola. Two boys squat in what looks like an old toilet that has been converted into a place for a clay oven and roast naan, served fresh off the coals to the clientele. The gentleman from accounts is an insider and he got us a spot in a little alcove that had picnic tables to eat on.

Praying in the mosque that adjoins the school is a sublime experience. The simplicity of life and the non-existence of expectation is like a wash of cold, fresh, mountain spring water on a soul that is scorched by the anxiety of insignificance in the high achieving inferno of the San Francisco bay area. I got stuck in really bad traffic on the way to and from the school. I mean, really bad. Hours on end waiting for signals and dust flying around on uneven roads and blaring horns. Million near misses. Everything still feels right. I watch everything with a hear that is ready to cry any moment and eyes that forever smiling inside.

Detective Professor

Recently a good friend of mine contacted me. He is Bengali and upholds the tradition by being a dedicated scholar and a thorough intellectual, so I jokingly call him “professor.” Professor is an old friend from back when I did a short stint with Tata Consultancy. We then again found ourselves in the same neck of the woods when he enrolled in graduate school at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I would often drive up into the mountains to spend the weekend with him. He lived in a tranquil, old house with some roommates right by the boardwalk. He has since then moved back home to pursue further research in computer science at IIT Bombay. He was browsing at a book fair in Kolkata where he came across a book. He has always been a big reader, making recommendations and writing critique. In a stupendous display of memory and presence of mind he spotted a photo on a book cover that he recognized as one I took years ago. It was an old man I had met in Connaught Place who sat by the pavement. He had moved me so much that I had gone back a year later to see if he was still there. Professor made the connect and even remembered that I had taken the photo in Connaught Place.

“Wasn’t this photograph taken by you in CP a long time ago?”
The message popped up on Facebook messenger. Indeed it was. He said he didn’t see any credit but had not been through the fine print so it was possible it was buried somewhere. On further research it turned out that the publisher is based in Telangana, was incorporated in 1948 and takes great pride in printing material with a “consistent emphasis on quality.” To make matters ever more dramatic, they published all of my elementary school English textbooks. Quite a reunion.

The reason to not get indignant is that there is someone that has a larger right to that photo than I do. The subject. And I can guarantee you my dear, he does not give a darn. The only correct course of action here is to tell a little more of his story before we start either squabbling over rights or making magnanimous displays of nonchalance. The man in the photo is a shoe maker (why he is on the cover of a book of dalit literature I have no idea, unless the cover designers just assumed he was dalit). A shoe repairer, to be precise. He came every day to sit at the very same spot from 23 miles away, undertaking a bus journey that lasts 2 hours each way. He made just about enough every day to pay for the ticket and a meal. Other than the presence of his shoe repairing equipment, there was nothing else about his demeanour that even remotely suggested that he was sitting on that corner by way of some business. I think he just gets by by sharing tea and meals with the hawkers and sellers who share the street with him. I could tell that he enjoyed their love and sympathy. This was his world, where he came and sat everyday and sometimes repaired shoes.

I asked him if I could take a picture and he noted that several people over the years “from foreign lands” have taken pictures of him. I remember I immediately felt silly and awkward having had the bubble of supposed originality burst so unceremoniously. Felt acutely aware of the glare of the on-lookers knowing that they thought of me a a foreigner in my own land. I hesitantly offered him some money and he took it without question.

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