Friday, March 30, 2012

The Old Woman From Lebanon

La Roma Pizza is a small food joint on 61st and South Sheridan in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I don't remember how I discovered the place during my three-and-a-half years in that town, but I did begin to rely on it for its falafels. I grew up in the Middle East where falafels are sold on every street corner. Not many such street corners exist in the rest of the world. I'd learnt that the hard way.

I was unhappy and lost and forgotten in those days, a brown girl with no name and dark eyes and dark hair in a quiet white town in the middle of the American Bible Belt. Life was a haze. Somedays I almost remembered a life where I knew who I was and where others didn't look through me, but then that vision would slip away before it started to feel like it had once been reality. I hadn't always been anonymous, but I had started feeling like I had. I fought against that final darkness everyday, that last nail in my coffin that would take me under while I was still breathing.

The falafels at La Roma Pizza tasted a lot like the falafels from those phantom Omani streets that remained in my mind. I liked how I felt after I ate them, like I had been happy once, that that past had been real. Like I hadn't lost yet, that there was still that chance for...for what?

La Roma Pizza felt familiar to me. Their falafels made me feel like I was known, the way I had been known to the dark South Indian man who'd smile and give me free falafels week after week after week for years in Muscat when I still wore frocks and pigtails and peered at him from below the counter he stood at. He wasn't here in Tulsa, but La Roma Pizza still felt like mine. It was owned by a Lebanese family. A thin old woman in black stood at the counter and took my order most of the time. Falafel with fries. She never smiled, she barely spoke. Her hair looked like it used to be a deep black, but now it looked wiry and dusty, like she was in a photograph that was beginning to fade. Her skin was pale, her mouth was small, her features were delicate. Her face didn't move a lot. She looked sad, and her sadness looked slow. Her eyes never really looked at anything. We were just two sad dark-haired girls in a light-haired town. We both looked like we were far away from home, even though home was Tulsa.

The wall near the counter had framed newspaper clippings and magazine articles hung on it. I'd read one of the articles once and learned that the restaurant had been started by this old lady and her husband. I remember their picture in that newspaper article. She was smiling and sitting behind her husband, a cheerful balding old man with a round face and small eyes and thick fingers. I don't remember her name, but her husband's name was Rafat. I'd got excited about that because that had been my sister-in-law's name, and she had been from India. A Shia Muslim. I'd told the old woman about that. "Your husband's name is Rafat, that was also my sister-in-law's name...!" I was smiling.

She'd looked up at me. Her eyes looked startled, like something had moved inside her, but then they'd gone quiet again. She told me that her husband had died not too long ago. I'd stopped smiling and told her that I was sorry about that.

And my visits to La Roma Pizza continued, maybe once every 2-3 weeks. I always got a falafel and fries, sometimes two falafels. Once I took my mom there when she visited me in Tulsa. The old lady in black had nodded at her but remained silent. My mother had ordered hummus with pita bread and liked it very much.

One day the old woman talked to me. I don't remember what made her start talking; I was just placing my order as usual. She looked up at me and told me that she'd been to India once.

"Oh, really? Where in India?"

"Vee had gone to Bombai," she had said in a voice that was as deep as the Arabian desert and as rich as olives. Her r's were sharp, her d's and t's were soft. "My husbaand and iee. Many yeers ago. Vee had a good treep. Vee stayed in a hotel, what was the name?" She looked far in the distance over my head, her sight extending into the past. "What was the name of the hotel?" She looked distraught, as if she'd lost something but couldn't remember what it was except that it was upsetting her. "Iee can't reemember. Iee mees my husbaand. See, see, he used to reemember things like thees. Iee would always forget things, and he used to reemember for me. Eet's so deefficult for me now, without him." Her small mouth crumpled.

She set her gaze back on me. I was still looking at her, this Sphinx that had chosen to speak today.

"You are a preetty girl. So beautiful you are. You are so young and so beautiful. You must stay happy. You must stay happy. Look at you, you must always smile and be happy. Beautiful young woman."

Then she stopped. She wanted to convince me so badly about something but maybe there were no words in English for the pictures she was seeing in her Lebanese eyes.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Dead Man's Legacy

I was sitting in my room yesterday, doing something on my laptop. Probably editing photos. I could hear my father in the kitchen. He had someone over from his office about installing a deep freezer in our kitchen. Shop talk. I wasn't really listening.

Then they started talking about something else. About someone else. Someone they knew from work who'd passed away recently. My father hadn't known that he had died. He had brought up the man's name, and the man in our kitchen had told him that he had passed away. "Ohhhh!" I'd heard my father say from the kitchen. That's when my ears had pricked up.

"He was such a good man," my father had said. "A very, very good man." The man in our kitchen agreed. I could almost hear him nodding his head in agreement. They talked about how good that man had been while he had been alive. Now he was gone. The slate had been wiped clean.

I don't know who they were talking about. It felt nice though to hear good things being said about a man they had only known in a limited professional setting. Sometimes just one interaction is enough. I want to be like that man. He was a success. He had lived, he had died, he had done his best quietly and without being fussy. People might forget him after 50 years, after a hundred years, I already don't know his name or even his face. We are born without an identity, and we think we form one by associating with others through family, employment, gender, country, religion. But maybe we are nameless even then. Maybe we earn our real names by how we act, maybe these names are given to us in other people's kitchens after we die.

I wonder what name will be given to me.

Location Hunters

The day my now ex-roommate and I went on a recce was a fun day. It was a Saturday and she was supposed to be off from where she was interning at NDTV Good Times in the fashion show 'I'm Too Sexy For My Shoes'. My roommate loves fashion, but in an intelligent sort of way. She's not materialistic or shallow. It's the gloss and the colour of the fashion world that excites her. Looking at fashion photography make her happy. She's not into fashion because it makes her feel rich or special by association. No, she truly enjoys the creative aspect of sprucing up a person's appearance with fabric, perfume, plastic, and footwear.

My roommate is 21 years old. Her name is Karishma Sehgal, and she changes the colour of her nails every few days. Purple, orange, green, but always pastel. The colour of Easter eggs. She likes to paint her toenails a different colour from her fingernails, a concept that never really occurred to me before. I've always been so particular about painting my toenails the same colour as my fingernails - black, dark brown, dark blue, blood red, metallic orange, or biscuit pink. I don't always paint my toenails, but if I do, they are always the same colour as my fingernails. It just never occurred to me to mix-n-match. I was quite surprised about that because I'm quite creative. Maybe that's my particular brand of creativity.

We were still in our pajamas that pretty spring weekend morning. We were both off work, but then Karishma got a call from the office. She was supposed to find a location for a shoot that was scheduled for Monday. The location they had sealed had bailed out, and it was now Karishma's job to drop her weekend and do something about it. She was supposed to find a 'vintage' location.

"European vintage or Indian vintage?" I had asked.

"European," she had said.

"Oh, colonial British Raj types."

But Karishma was not from Delhi. She didn't have a car. She had only been in town for 6 months and didn't know her way about Delhi enough to even know where to start. She was panicking, I was sure, but in an immobile way. She sat still on her bed in front of her laptop, her cell phone placed against her lips. The last location hunt she'd been on all across town had left her with a cold, cruel migraine that had lasted well into the night.

I'd been in Delhi for over about a year-and-a-half, so I tried to come up with some ideas for places she could try. Hauz Khas? No, they'd already talked to them last week, and they'd said no. Any place in Connaught Place? Not that we could remember. Um, um, um. We couldn't think of any place for her to start her search. Delhi is a big city, especially if you don't have a car, especially if you've been sent off on an open-ended wild goose chase. Sounded a little impossible to me considering how Karishma was not from Delhi even. I mean, where do you even start?

"Oh, wait!"

I'd remembered this little British restaurant in a marketplace a few minutes away by autorickshaw - by cycle rickshaw even. Karishma passed that marketplace all the time whenever she'd take one of her long walks to the NDTV media training institute about 30 minutes away by foot.

"It's called 'The Forgetful Elephant'. Have you ever been there?" She hadn't. I had.

"I've been there once. The interior's all upholstered fabrics and wood and flowery, but it's not high-class vintage. It's blue-collar, like fish-n-chips."

Karishma wanted to check it out anyway. She had a couple of other shops there in mind that she also wanted to check out for the shoot.

It was my day off too. And the weather seemed nice. I knew I'd just be lying about our little room watching videos on YouTube if I didn't go outdoors, so I volunteered to accompany Karishma on her travels that day. So off we went.

And it was fun! Maybe I too should've interned in lifestyle instead of news at NDTV. Or maybe it was just the company I had. I got along well with Karishma, and turns out, we worked well together too.

I don't know if you've ever been to that marketplace that I'm talking about. It's the M-block market in South Delhi's Greater Kailash 1 area. It's not a very big place, more like a crammed quadrangle with a small children's park in the middle and shops and food places smashed into each other all around the perimeter. It's always too noisy and too crowded. I never understood why the rich people of Delhi would insist on driving their cars into the marketplace and then honking their damn horns in the eternal jam as if that accomplished anything. GK1's M-block market is where the wives and mistresses and children of Delhi's elite hang out. Good-looking aunties with their sunglasses stylishly arranged on their blonde streaked hair, and young girls in short shorts (in the summer) or Ugg boots (in the winter). The boys dress in fitted tees and All-Star shoes and light stubble. This is the India that is overfed, the tiny segment of India that possibly feeds on the rest of the sun-dried starving citizens. This is where the shops hand out their wares in pretty gift bags that I've seen some girls in Delhi dangle on their waxed arms in lieu of purses (a bit silly, if you ask me). I've never really shopped at M-block market except for a skirt I'd purchased while under the sway of hormones and a pair of boots I thought I deserved after the hermit-like year I'd spent in Delhi. Most of my limited shopping was done in the street markets of Lajpat Nagar and Sarojini Nagar. You don't admit things like that in certain circles in Delhi.

Karishma and I spent our time walking around the whole quadrangle. If we saw any shops that looked like their interior could have Victorian potential, then we entered them. There was this one expensive boutique that had a nice staircase that unfortunately looked too Indian. It had some nice wooden doors too. Another expensive clothing store had everything peacock-themed. Nice but they don't have peacocks in Europe. Some shops were too contemporary, some were too avant garde, and many were really stylish but in an Indian sort of way. Punk Bhhaarat. We squinted at shop corners that maybe had potential and cocked our heads trying to imagine a model posing there, but no go.

I'd forgotten where 'The Forgetful Elephant' was, mostly because it was hidden from view on an upper storey. We found it though and had to trudge up a narrow wooden staircase to reach it. There was hardly anyone there, which made things easier for the two of us to walk around and play pretend in our heads. And Karishma loved it! She found a couple of corners that could be used for the shoot. She quickly spoke to the manager who was very cooperative and agreed to have the team from NDTV Good Times over on Monday for the shoot. For free. Karishma took some photos of the corners she liked and emailled them to her supervisor. A couple of days later, the segment was shot, and I felt so proud of Karishma. She'd dealt with everything and everyone so professionally, and on such short notice too. And I'd had a great time tagging along and giving creative input and having it received so well. Maybe I have a future in show production.

(Two of the actual photos Karishma had taken with her Blackberry and sent to her supervisor.)

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Where Did My Artist Go?

"We strive to be good, to be nice, to be helpful, to be unselfish. We want to to be generous, of service, of the world. But what we really want is to be left alone. When we can't get others to leave us alone, we eventually abandon ourselves. To others, we may look like we're there. We may act like we're there. But our true self has gone underground.

What's left is a shell of our whole self. It stays because it is caught. Like a listless circus animal prodded into performing, it does its tricks. It goes through its routine. It earns its applause. But all of the hoopla falls on deaf ears. We are dead to it. Our artist is not merely out of sorts. Our artist has checked out. Our life is now merely an out-of-body experience. We're gone. A clinician might call it dissociating. I call it leaving the scene of the crime.

"Come out, come out, wherever you are," we wheedle, but our creative self no longer trusts us. Why should it? We sold it out."

- Julia Cameron, 'The Artist's Way'

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Mad as Hell

"When we feel anger, we are often very angry that we feel anger. Damn anger!! It tells us we can't get away with our old life any longer. It tells us that old life is dying. It tells us we are being reborn, and birthing hurts. The hurt makes us angry.

Anger is the firestorm that signals the death of our old life. Anger is the fuel that propels us into our new one. Anger is a tool, not a master. Anger is meant to be tapped into and drawn upon. Used properly, anger is use-full.

Sloth, apathy, and despair are the enemy. Anger is not. Anger is our friend. Not a nice friend. Not a gentle friend. But a very, very loyal friend. It will always tell us when we have been betrayed. It will always tell us when we have betrayed ourselves. It will always tell us that it is time to act in our own best interests.

Anger is not the action itself. It is action's invitation."

- Julia Cameron, 'The Artist's Way'

Julia Turns 30 in Hollywood

"In 1978, in January, I stopped drinking. I had never thought drinking made me a writer, but now I suddenly thought not drinking might make me stop. In my mind, drinking and writing went together like, well, scotch and soda. For me, the trick was always getting past the fear and onto the page. I was playing beat the clock - trying to write before the booze closed in like fog and my window of creativity was blocked again.

By the time I was thirty and abruptly sober, I had an office on the Paramount lot and had made a whole career out of that kind of creativity. Creative in spasms. Creative as an act of will and ego. Creative on behalf of others. Creative, yes, but in spurts, like blood from a severed carotid artery. A deade of writing and all I knew was how to make these headlone dashes and hurl myself, against all odds, at the wall of whatever I was writing. If creativity was spiritual in any sense, it was only in its resemblance to a crucifixion. I fell upon the thorns of prose. I bled.

If I could have continued writing the old, painful way, I would certainly still be doing it. The week I got sober, I had two national magazine pieces out, a newly minted feature script, and an alcohol problem I could not handle any longer.

I told myself that if sobriety meant no creativity I did not want to be sober. Yet I recognised that drinkig would kill me and the creativity. I needed to learn to write sober - or else give up writing entirely. Necessity, not virtue, was the beginning of my spirituality. I was forced to find a new creative path. And that is where my lessons began."

- Julia Cameron, 'The Artist's Way'

Monday, March 19, 2012

Angry Young Man

There's a cafeteria at the bottom of the NDTV building in New Delhi where I'd often run into fellow interns. We'd group up around one of the small round tables there and catch up on gossip, and, more often than not, vent about any unpleasant experiences we'd had at work, particularly with the employees. You know, sort of like huddling back with your herd to swap stories about the wolves out there. Don't go near that guy, he's a pervert; don't be her friend, she'll rip you to pieces the minute your back is turned; etcetera, sort of a thing. On one such 'huddle', one of the interns began to say something but then hesitated as her voice dropped. She looked at me and then away with an apologetic look on her face. Something had happened, and she wasn't telling, but we nudged her on.

She told us about how she was in the edit bay with another intern from our batch, a guy we all knew. That day some visuals had leaked from Pakistan of some government security officers roughing up one of their citizens and then shooting him pointblank in the scuffle. The visuals had been running all day, and at that point, both this female intern and the other young male were watching it on one of the small TVs in the edit bay. The male intern had got agitated and turned to the girl and said, "Don't you get it, all these Muslims are crazy, they are the same, look at how savage they are!" He'd gone on further to warn her, apparently not for the first time, against befriending Muslims and hanging out with her Muslim friends. This had happended in the middle of the edit bay, a medium sized room usually crammed with people. Both these interns, like over 80% of India, were Hindus.

This is not the first time that we'd heard this particular intern going off about Muslims. We'd all been together at NDTV for over 6 months by then, and most of that time had been spent in a classroom setting where we'd had very close interactions with each other. He wasn't very old. He was straight out of college and in his early 20s like most of the batch. He seemed to be from a well-off family from just outside Delhi, but over time we'd discovered that he and his family leaned toward the extreme right in their politicial affiliations. In India that mostly meant two things - the RSS and the BJP. He had once publically bragged in class about how his father had been a member of the RSS in his youth and how, one time, he had been sent out with his friends to deface posters that some visiting Christian missionaries had put up about Jesus Christ. This story about vandalism was narrated to our class with great pride. Membership with the RSS was important to this young man's family, and his father expected his sons to keep that tradition going. And boy, did they ever.

In the early days of the internship when we were still in class, I used to keep to myself because my new Indian environment was quite overwhelming for me. I'd never really lived in India (except for childhood summer vacations in Lucknow), and particularly never by myself in a city like Delhi. I'd found most of the other young people in my batch quite friendly and sweet, even this young man who seemed easy-going and funny, that is until one day he got very agitated about the upcoming decision of the Allahabad High Court on the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. For someone who had only been a few years old - definitely under 5 - when the event had taken place in 1992, he could sure get belligerent while defending the rights of the Hindus in the whole thing. I'll never forget the first time I saw this seemingly pleasant young fellow raise his suddenly-hardened voice while indulging in a shouting match with some of the others in the class regarding Ayodhya. His face and his body had become so hard and violent-looking, his eyes were wide-open and about to pop out of his head. It made me feel very uncomfortable. He almost looked like he was about to hurt someone. I wondered how he felt about me. I was the only Muslim in the class, and he'd been quite normal with me in the limited interaction I'd had with him by then. I'd recently left the US (a few days after Obama was sworn into office, in fact) after living through the viscious Islamophobia that had taken over the Western World. Watching an educated young person in a diverse city like Delhi, that too with a major Muslim heritage, behaving like this was quite disturbing. I'd tweeted about it in passing that day, and this young man had approached me in class the next day to apologise. He looked quite sincere in his apology. "I'm not anti-Muslim, I'm just so damn pro-Hindu," he had said. I had accepted his apology and had told him to forget about the whole thing, it was no big deal. He had looked so relieved. We became good friends over the next few months. He'd very respectfully ask me a lot of questions about Islam. He even invited me to his parents' house once where he stayed with his younger brother. The whole batch had been invited, and those of us who had made it had enjoyed ourselves. Our batch was very diverse; we were made up of boys and girls from across the country. It was fun picking up bits and pieces of various Indian languages in class. Most major religious groups were represented also. It was interesting to watch this young man encountering such diversity at such close range, probably for the first time in his life. A lot of the preconceived notions that he'd been raised with about his ethnic background and those from other ethnic groups were constantly being challenged here, and it was nice to watch him progressively indulging more in dialogue than in debate. He'd even once remarked about how he felt like his whole life, everything he believed in, was being turned upside down, and how it kept him up at night.

I don't know what happened, but a few months later, he started becoming defensive again. When asked his opinion in class after being made to watch a documentary about the Ayodhya riots, he'd announced that the film had probably been sponsored by the centrist Congress party to malign the right. He'd had his arms tightly folded across his chest when he'd said that. His brow had been knotted, his mouth had been tightly pursed. And his eyes filled up with hatred and became hard. And frightening. He became belligerent and disruptive again. About everything. Even once the internship started at the NDTV newsroom. He would deliberately slack off or sabotage the work he'd been asked to do, sometimes getting others into trouble because of it. He had an uncle at NDTV, he said, he didn't have to work hard like everybody else because he'd get fixed up with a job anyway. He often made fun of the other interns who'd put in their time and do their job. I began to talk to him less and less because I found his attitude and lack of work ethic highly offensive.

So it was upsetting - no, highly disappointing - to hear about his outburst against the Muslims in the edit bay. Especially after spending so much time with me, after telling me so many times that he respects the Muslims and 'Muhammad Sahab' now. In those days it seemed like he was particularly respectful - proud, even - of our friendship and was becoming more open and accepting as a person because of it. What had that been, insincerity? So, yes, it was monumentally disappointing to witness his relapse, in bits and pieces, into the rigid thought system he had been blossoming away from. I'd even complained about his outburst to a superior at work once, about how offensive it had been and how it made the workplace unpleasant, but it hadn't upset that person at all. In fact, that person had seemed amused and completely unaffected by it. That person had dismissively smiled even. "Yes, yes, he's very much into the RSS," I'd been told, "but he's part of a very small population." That hadn't been my point. My point had been completely missed.

And you know what, I do agree. People like this are a minority. I don't even feel angry about any of it. If he was a Hindu, then most of the Hindus that I've met were not like that. If an American has ever been ignorant with me, and there have been quite a few, then more Americans have been very nice to me. I've met twisted Muslims, God knows I have, but most Muslims are not like that either. In fact, by now I have realised that ethnicity has nothing to do with it. You either are accepting as a person or you're not, and that's pretty much it. The things bigots say only shows how they are, it does not cast any sort of light on anyone else, not even on the bigot's own community. By now, after having lived in so many countries and having seen prejudiced people of all shapes and colours and combinations, I just feel really sorry for such people because they miss out on so much in this beautifully messy thing called life. They miss out on real loves, real friendships, and real honest-to-God human bonds.

And then when this young man eventually got hired at NDTV, it blew my mind. It really did. It made me wonder about a lot of things, it made me re-evaluate my own priorities about where I wanted to be and how I saw myself. And turns out, I like myself and the friends, family, and loves I have had in my life a lot. They are from all over the planet, and I choose them because they chose me. I sure must be someone wonderful because these wonderful people chose me.

Aaj mere paas buildingein hain, property hai, bank balance hai, bungla hai, gaari hai, kya hai tumhaare paas!

Mere paas maa hai.

Voice of the People

Diesel prices had gone up, and the input desk at NDTV in New Delhi had dispatched me to get reactions from customers at a gas station. Vox pop, they call it in the business, the voice of the people. I was interning in reporting that very hot month of June, so off I went. I picked up a memory chip for the camera from the video tape library, I arranged for a cameraperson, and I arranged for a car. We stopped outside a gas station at Nehru Place, and we decided to get reactions from the folks that would drive up to the diesel pump there. The red-and-gold OB van with NDTV written in huge letters on its sides that had accompanied us was parked right outside the gas station, and we'd uplink the footage back to the newsroom from there. Sounded simple enough.

Except that it was Saturday morning. Except this was diesel. Only a handful of people passed through the gas station for diesel that whole couple of hours, but I did speak to them and uplink their reactions back to the newsroom. The quiet cameraperson - a dark-skinned man with weather-beaten skin - and I had thought that we were done, but I received a call from the edit bay telling me that the reactions I had got were not good enough and that I'd have to get more. I can't remember exactly what I was told was lacking in the footage, but I remember the gist of it: the people didn't look good/educated enough for TV. They spoke Hindi too. There's a word for that in India: ghhaati. Low class.

But it was a story about diesel. The only people who bought diesel at gas stations were truck drivers, autorickshaw drivers...and other people's drivers in general. Weren't these the people whose reactions you'd want in a story about diesel? They were the ones who'd be affected by the price rise, right? I didn't understand the issue with the Hindi either. Sure, we were an English channel, but we subtitled non-English footage all the time. It was not a big deal, so what was so different this time? I'd tried explaining that to the person who'd called me from the newsroom, but I was very silkily asked to just get some English bites from better-looking people who weren't uneducated drivers.

I got it. They wanted freshly-scrubbed white-collar reactions for the white-collar-catering Inglis channel. Didn't matter if white-collar India didn't care about diesel prices.

I hung up and looked at the quiet cameraman. Camerapeople remind me of Rambo sometimes with those huge machine-gun-like cameras resting on their shoulders. They also remind me of the boombox-carrying kids from the ghettoes of America. My cameraman looked bored, emotionally disconnected. Cynical even. He wore what camerapeople, who are mostly men, wear around India - loose trousers, a loose button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled-up, and heavy shoes. All of it eventually a strange shade of don't-care. The colour of Delhi. "Kya karein (what do we do)?" I asked him. The newsroom wanted reactions from mall-going Indians. But that still didn't change things on the ground. It was still Saturday morning, hardly anyone was coming through the gas station, and almost nobody was passing through for diesel. Nobody that was English-TV-worthy, that is.

The cameraman shrugged as much as he could shrug with Rambo's machine gun on his shoulder, not completely unlike Jesus wincing under the weight of the crucifix on his back. He looked a bit cross. He suggested I go pull a customer from the petrol pump where all the nice sedans were rolling in with their upper-middle-class-and-higher clientele. The English-speakers of India. I felt a little ridiculous. My intelligence and integrity felt vaguely insulted, but I still went. I put my Hindi aside and put on my best American accent because I was representing an English news channel to the English-speaking persons of India. "Oh, NDTV!" they'd say with an appreciative smile, "of course, what do you need to know?" I got reactions in English from an elderly ex-army Sardar gentleman, a bearded intellectual type, and an outspoken clean-shaven polo-shirt-wearing man with a sharp haircut. I felt a bit empty standing there with my mic with the red NDTV muff on it, smiling and encouraging the people along on their performance. "Thankyousomuch," I'd say before trotting off. I'm sure they were nice people, but that wasn't what was bothering me. Only the previous month, when I was interning in the edit bay, had I been asked to edit vox pop footage that had come in from Kashmir about another price rise. I'd put the bites together, all of them in Hindi, and was then told by a young employee that they couldn't put that footage on air. But why, I had asked, the bites had good content. The girl had laughed. "Have you seen their faces?" she had said, screwing up her pretty light-skinned nose at me, the poor newbie. "We can't put such visuals on air."

Such people? Dark-skinned people from lower-income families? But what about the content? That footage never made it on the air on our English channel, but our Hindi channel ran it all day long. So the English channel only showed the good-looking people of India? But what about content? What about what we had initially been told at NDTV about journalistic ethics and the real issues and how journalism was supposed to be a pillar of democracy, the voice of the people? Or was it the voice of certain sections of the people depending on the segment of India you were catering to? The unattractive sweaty Indian is also a part of India. In fact, he is about 90% of India. Doesn't what he say also matter, even if he is not soothing enough to the eye of the English channel's global audience? NDTV's English channel is watched all over the world. At various points in my life, I have watched it in America, Canada, and Oman. The Indian diaspora feels proud to see India looking so dynamic and good on NDTV. "India is developing so fast," they always say so proudly, "everyone speaks English so well now. It is not the India we left." And then they proceed to daydream about a return to the homeland that never happens.

So what was this happening here??

That's what was running through my mind at the gas station at Nehru Place that Saturday morning. Much later, after the footage had been uplinked to the newsroom (and happily approved), after we'd all returned, I was asked to isolate a short 10-second clip from the English reactions they'd decided to use. I'd been transcribing the footage, and the news editor asked me if there was anything with 'punch' that was said that could be used when the headlines rolled for the news bulletin. Something expressive, something emotionally-charged.

I did have something. "But does the guy look clean-cut and suave?" I was asked. I said yes. The bite was from the agitated man in the polo shirt and the short grey hair. An Indian Anderson Cooper. That's suave, I guess. It was perfect, and his angry 10-second rant ran with the headlines all day.

Friday, March 16, 2012


My mother, Farzana Ejaz, is an Urdu writer and poet, and she once wrote a story that was inspired by when she was in labour with me in Lucknow, India. I've translated it into English here. The story is called 'Maseeha', which is Urdu for 'Messiah' or 'Deliverer'...

She did not know how long she had spent half-drowned in that ocean of pain, but Najjo’s waist was still twisting inside itself in the most horrible way. Each time that she had called out in anguish, the junior doctor had apathetically strolled her way and said, “Bibi, abhhi der hai (Ma’am, it’s not time yet).” Twelve hours had passed since she’d arrived at the hospital, and by now, the brutal surges of pain had finally stolen any last lingering measure of strength that her body might’ve had.

Childbirth wasn’t a new experience for her; she had endured the pain twice before - nine and ten years ago. The first time she had nearly died. Becoming a mother is just another name for risking one’s life. To become a mother, a woman - rich or poor, beautiful or ugly, from the most developed country or from a nation on the verge of collapse - has to suffer pain. Some women are built stronger, and their threshold for pain is a lot higher, and they can perhaps even bear the pain and not cry out. But then there are the weaker ones who end up barely holding onto their lives. Najjo was this kind of woman.

She hadn’t been frightened the first time. Ignorance indeed had been bliss. Najjo had seen twenty-two summers by then but had never seen anyone becoming a mother. She had always been around expectant mothers in her family, but the actual deliveries had always taken place at the hospital. The pregnant women would go to the hospital all weak and almost lifeless, but Najjo had never actually seen the birthing process herself. She had always assumed that the pain was bearable; why else would women willingly put themselves through it over and over again?

All she had ever seen at the hospital was a tiny baby lying in the arms of its weakly-smiling mother, her body covered with sheets, her face bearing a look of satisfaction. Never in her wildest dreams had Najjo been able to imagine the maddening pain the mother had gone through only a little while before. She hadn’t known that a woman only earns the name ‘Mother’ after her body has been churned in madness.

The first time the doctor had had her come to the hospital early, and she had innocently brought along a tiny suitcase with her, packed with a few books and some starched saris. Books and nice clothes had always been her only indulgence. But she had had to get out of her fine clothes and change into a depressing shroud of a hospital robe that felt unkind against her child-like skin. Her heart had sunk deep somewhere within. She had been made to drink a glass full of bitter medicine, and every time a doctor in white asked her if she felt any pain, she would sweetly smile and say, “Nahin (No)”. She had felt fine, but sooner rather than later, the lamb would have to be brought to the knife.

Two hours later, the pain had overtaken her. Twelve hours later, the pain had had her thrashing about in the labour room. Only when she began to feel that she could take no more and that she would lose consciousness had the maseeha (deliverer) of a doctor come to her rescue and chloroformed her out of her misery. Much later, when she had come to, she had found nature’s present to her - a round chubby baby, wrapped up in the remains of her own clothes, lying peacefully asleep in the curve of her arm. An innocent angel, a piece of her body, the answer to all her problems, her own son. Maternal love stirred within her, and her eyes twinkled with tears of gratitude. That day, Najjo had felt like she had realised her purpose in life, and she forgot all about the pain from a few hours ago.

Najjo went through the same ordeal the year after that, and nature gifted her another son. She felt like new strength had been given to her in both of her arms. Both the little angels, the lights in her life, began to grow. Najjo forgot everything else and let herself get lost in her children. She began to love her own mother more after having become a mother herself. Now she knew that it was not easy for any woman to go through that pain over and over again. They say that the doors of heaven are flung open for a woman after she goes through the pain of childbirth, and that only then can heaven be found at her feet.

Najjo often wondered at the sense of going through all the pain of giving birth to a daughter, raising her, and then finally handing her over to another. Handing over a part of her own body to another and from then on to always be worrying every second of every day about how she was being treated…if her daughter was truly happy or if she was only smiling and calming her mother’s heart with happy stories. Who can ever understand a woman’s pain? A mother, a daughter, a wife - those are the three faces of helplessness. For this reason, God and his prophets have endlessly preached time and time again to raise and love a daughter right, to love and honour a wife, and to be kind and loving to a mother. Hazrat Eesa’s (Jesus’s) love for his mother, Hazrat Muhammad’s love for his daughters, and Ram Chandarji’s love for his wife. Every religion has preached being gentle with God’s weaker creation. A woman is weak by nature; she thrives in the protective shadow of a man. She has that right and is the other wheel of the vehicle of life.

Time went on in its pace. Najjo’s sons, the apples of her eye, grew, and after ten years or so, she was lost in yet another maze of pain; each wave teased her with the promise of being the last. But getting out of the maze wasn’t that easy. Najjo stayed lost in that abyss for twelve hours. Her tolerance was falling by the second. The high blood pressure and the artificial drugged state that she was in had made her weak. Her heart fluttered with each wave of pain. Her limbs had gone cold. She bit her lips, her tongue, trying to bear it all.

She had called out to Allah Mian many times in that shabby labour room at the government hospital. She had thought that it might not have been proper to call out the names of the prophets and the saints during a pregnancy, but what could she have done? Who else could she have called out to? Kiski duhaaein deti? It is only the Most Beneficent One, the Owner of Worlds, who can truly hear the cries of His children. He can hear them in His Heavenly Court. He is the One who has said that whatever a woman in labour cries out for she will get.

All the saints and the prophets that Najjo believed in, she needed their help today. She needed them today the most. Her attention kept drifting towards the mazaar across the street, the tomb of a Muslim saint. She would scream out his name during her worst contractions, and it was his name that was on her lips during the weakness that each surge of pain left her in. People are so weak and helpless; they call out the most holiest and purest of names for help in the most unclean of places. She had recited many times already all the verses from the Quran that she could remember in the painful swirl she was in.

By that time of the night, all the junior doctors and aayahs had left. Most of the beds were empty. Najjo was the only person in the room, or so she had thought. Her pain had not let her notice someone else sighing in the room - “Hey, Bhagwaan (Oh, Bhagwaan)”. Through eyes squinted in agony, Najjo looked towards her right and saw a rustic woman lying on a table. She had vermillion in her hair and was wrapped in a dirty sari. She was shivering in the aftermath of her latest contraction. Her sari was torn in many places, and the top half of her body was half-covered. She was in an incredible amount of pain.

Najjo’s pain was rising to its peak, and she was now constantly screaming. But there was no one there to hear her cries. Perhaps the doctors and the nurses were so used to these sounds that they went about unaffected like machines. Once in a while, a doctor would come in and say, “Abhhi der hai (It’s not time yet)”.

Najjo was writhing in pain. She felt like her waist would tear away and that she would die any minute. She was crying in hiccups.

Najjo suddenly felt the rough worn hand of a sympathetic stranger on her waist. She turned to see that somehow the rustic woman, bathed in her own blood, had reached out to her from her high table and was gently trying to stroke Najjo’s aching waist. She was telling her, “Na ro, behni (don’t cry, sister). Bhagwaan sukhh dega (Bhagwaan will give you peace)”.

Najjo took the woman’s hand and placed it on her own teary eyes. She had never seen such a display of empathy and kindness before. That woman was a poor, illiterate rustic who was herself immersed in the same pain, yet she had reached out to Najjo and was giving her support. The pain had turned her face yellow. Her entire body was drenched in sweat. Her eyes were wet. At that moment, these were simply two women. Just women. Not Hindu, not Muslim. Not rich, not poor. Not educated, not illiterate.

The call for the morning fajr prayer blared out from the mazaar across the street. Najjo whimpered, “Shahmina Baba, madad kijiye (Help me, Shahmina Baba)”. The rustic woman wailed in her own words, “Hey Shahmina Baba, humri sahaaita karo (Help me, Shahmina Baba)”.

Some Things Are So Nice

Some things are nice
Roly poly dribbly drooly babies growing into young ladies
Looking at the boy you love but seeing a son you might have one day
The day you realise you love being soft
The day you realise you love being round
The day you realise a man likes your softness
Your roundness
Some things are nice
Songs that are poems
A shirt that fits in all the right places
When your perfume becomes you
Freshly brushed teeth
Glasses after a contact lenses day
Food that makes you roly poly dribbly drooly
The devil and his promises
Dirty jokes with extra dirty friends
Inside jokes that keep coming back
Silly things in a silly little life
A silly little life is nice
Some things are so nice

Limited Girl

My beautiful mortality
In my new grey hairs
In my thinner skin
My skin used to be thicker
Not so flat on my cheekbones
But the aging is so pretty
Because my eyes are the same
They shine
They look naughty
They crinkle
They look at you
They have thunderbolts sometimes
So pretty is my mortality
What a pretty girl

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

On Tortured Artists

"The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time. The four twentieth-century writers whose work is most responsible for it are probably Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, and the poet Dylan Thomas. They are the writers who largely formed our vision of an existential English-speaking wasteland where people have been cut off from one another and live in an atmosphere of emotional strangulation and despair. These concepts are very familiar to most alcoholics; the common reaction to them is amusement. Substance-abusing writers are just substance abusers - common garden-variety drunks and druggies, in other words. Any claims that the drugs and alcohol are necessary to dull a finer sensibility are just the usual self-serving bullshit. I've heard alcoholic snowplow drivers make the same claim, that they drink to still the demons. It doesn't matter if you're James Jones, John Cheever, or a stewbum snoozing in Penn Station; for an addict, the right to the drink or drug or choice must be preserved at all costs. Hemingway and Fitzgerald didn't drink because they were creative, alienated, or morally weak. They drank because it's what alkies are wired up to do. Creative people probably do run a greater risk of alcoholism and addiction than those in some other jobs, but so what? We all look pretty much the same when we're puking in the gutter."

- Stephen King, 'On Writing'

Stephen King's Babysitter

"Eula-Beulah was prone to farts - the kind that are both loud and smelly. Sometimes when she was so afflicted, she would throw me on the couch, drop her wool-skirted butt on my face, and let loose. "Pow!" she'd cry in high glee. It was like being buried in marshgas fireworks. I remember the dark, the sense that I was suffocating, and I remember laughing. Because, while what was happening was sort of horrible, it was also sort of funny. In many ways, Eula-Beulah prepared me for literary criticism. After having a two-hundred-pound babysitter fart on your face and yell Pow!, The Village Voice holds few terrors."

- Stephen King, 'On Writing'

Authority Figures

An excerpt from Stephen King's 'On Writing', where he talks about his school principal's reaction to a story he had adapted from a horror movie and sold stapled copies of the 'book' to his schoolmates when he was in the 8th grade...

""What I don't understand, Stevie," she said, "is why you'd write junk like this in the first place. You're talented. Why do you want to waste your abilities?" She had rolled up a copy of VIB#1 and was brandishing it at me the way a person might brandish a rolled-up newspaper at a dog that has piddled on the rug. She waited for me to answer - to her credit, the question was not entirely rhetorical - but I had no answer to give. I was ashamed. I have spent a good many years since - too many, I think - being ashamed about what I write. I think I was forty before I realised that almost every writer of fiction and poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent. If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that's all. I'm not editorialising, just trying to give you the facts as I see them.

Miss Hisler told me I would have to give everyone's money back. I did so with no argument, even to those kids (and there were quite a few, I'm happy to say) who insisted on keeping their copies of VIB#1. I ended up losing money on the deal after all, but when summer vacation came I printed four dozen copies of a new story, an original called The Invasion of the Star-Creatures, and sold all but four or five. I guess that means I won in the end, at least in a financial sense. But in my heart I stayed ashamed. I kept hearing Miss Hisler asking why I wanted to waste my talent, why I wanted to waste my time, why I wanted to write junk."

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


Excerpts from Ayn Rand's 'The Fountainhead', where the brilliant has-been architect Henry Cameron is warning his protege Howard Roark about the pitfalls of genius...

"You're too good," said Cameron. "You're too good for what you want to do with yourself. It's no use, Roark. Better now than later."

"What do you mean?"

"It's no use wasting what you've got on an ideal that you'll never reach, that they'll never let you reach. It's no use, taking that marvelous thing you have and making a torture rack for yourself out of it. Sell it, Roark. Sell it now. It won't be the same, but you've got enough in you. You've got what they'll pay you for, and pay plenty, if you use it their way. Accept them, Roark. Compromise. Compromise now, because you'll have to later, anyway, only then you'll have gone through things you'll wish you hadn't. You don't know. I do. Save yourself from that. Leave me. Go to someone else."


"You see, of all men, I'm the last one to whom you should have come. I'll be committing a crime if I keep you here. Somebody should have warned you against me. I won't help you at all. I won't discourage you. I won't teach you any common sense. Instead, I'll push you on. I'll drive you the way you're going now. I'll beat you into remaining what you are, and I'll make you worse...Don't you see? In another month I won't be able to let you go. I'm not sure I can now. So don't argue with me and go. Get out while you can."


"Why are you saying all this to me? That's not what you want to say. That's not what you did."

"That's why I'm saying it! Because that's not what I did!...Look, Roark, there's one thing about you, the thing I'm afraid of. It's not just the kind of work you do; I wouldn't care, if you were an exhibitionist who's being different as a stunt, as a lark, just to attract attention to himself. It's a smart racket, to oppose the crowd and amuse it and collect admission to the side show. If you did that, I wouldn't worry. But it's not that. You love your work. God help you, you love it! And that's the curse. That's the brand on your forehead for all of them to see. You love it, and they know it, and they know they have you. Do you ever look at the people in the street? Aren't you afraid of them? I am. They move past you and they wear hats and they carry bundles. But that's not the substance of them. The substance of them is hatred for any many who loves his work. That's the only kind they fear. I don't know why. You're opening yourself up, Roark, for each and every one of them."


"No! I don't want to speak of that! But I'm going to. I want you to hear. I want you to know what's in store for you. There will be days when you'll look at your hands and you'll want to take something and smash every bone in them, because they'll be taunting you with what they could do, if you found a chance for them to do it, and you can't find that chance, and you can't bear your living body because it has failed those hands somewhere. There will be days when a bus driver will snap at you as you enter a bus, and he'll only be asking for a dime, but that won't be what you'll hear; you'll hear that you're nothing, that he's laughing at you, that it's written on your forehead, that thing they hate you for. There will be days when you'll stand in the orner of a hall and listen to a creature on a platform talking about buildings, about that work which you love, and the things he'll say will make you wait for somebody to rise and crack him open between two thumbnails; and then you'll hear the people applauding him, and you'll want to scream, because you won't know whether they're real or you are, whether you're in a room full of gored skulls , or whether someone has just emptied your own head, and you'll say nothing, because the sounds you could make - they're not a language in that room any longer; but if you'd want to speak, you won't anyway, because you'll be brushed aside, you who has nothing to tell them about buildings! Is that what you want?"


"Not enough?" asked Cameron. "All right. Then one day, you'll see on a piece of paper before you a building that will make you want to kneel; you won't believe that you've done it, but you will have done it; then you'll think that the earth is beautiful and the air smells of spring and you love your fellow men, because there is no evil in the world. And you'll set out from your house with this drawing, to have it erected, because you won't have any doubt that it will be erected by the first man to see it. But you won't get very far from your house. Because you'll be stopped at the door by the man who's come to turn off the gas. You hadn't had much food, because you saved money to finish your drawing, but still you had to cook something and you hadn't paid for it...All right, that's nothing, you can laugh at that. But finally you'll get into a man's office with your drawing, and you'll curse yourself for taking so much space of his air with your body, and you'll try to squeeze yourself out of his sight, so that he won't see you, but only hear your voice begging him, pleading, your voice licking his knees; you'll loathe yourself for it, but you won't care, if only he'd let you put up that building, you won't care, you'll want to rip your insides open to show him, because if he saw what's there he'd have to let you put it up. But he'll that he's very sorry, only the commission has just been given to Guy Francon. And you'll go home, and do you know what you'll do there? You'll cry. You'll cry like a woman, like a drunkard, like an animal. That's your future, Howard Roark. Now, do you want it?"

Poor Boy

Finals Week at the Oklahoma State University in Stillwater meant three things - the last week of the semester, exams, and unlimited pancakes and coffee at the Student Union. I don't like pancakes or coffee, and I didn't exactly hate taking exams, but it was nice to finally reach the end of the semester. Just in time for burnout. That semester I had Social Psychology, Introduction to Speech Communication, and Introduction to Databases. There was something else but I can't remember.

And then the email came. On the weekend before Finals Week. I was sitting in my dorm room when the phone rang. I answered; it was my second brother in Chicago. I gave him a cheerful hi, but he cut me short by asking me if I had checked my email. I hadn't, so I told him to hang on the line while I logged onto my email account on my PC. I had a new email, it was from my father in Muscat, Oman. There were just two lines. Something about how my eldest brother in Oman had been in a car accident and was being operated on at the hospital for spinal damage. "Please pray to Allah that Irfan's legs are saved," he had written.

I'm a fast reader, and it didn't take me very long to read the email. It made no sense the first couple of seconds. My second brother was still on the phone, waiting for me to finish reading the email. The phone's handset was still next to my ear, held in place between my shoulder and my neck. And then came the emotions. And ugly visions. Of my well-fed, healthy, glowing surgeon brother with his legs cut off. No words came out of my mouth, no words are usually sufficient when your whole body breaks out into a panic. My mouth opened, and a strange wail made its way out. It wasn't a loud cry, it wasn't particularly steady either. It was low-pitched and unattractive. It started soft, then it wavered, and as the panic suddenly started to spread in my stomach, the wail became louder and more terrified. It was almost like pushing down on a car's accelerator, except it's your panic, full-blown terror almost, that's suddenly picking up speed. There's no time for the rest of your body to catch up with the panic. Before your heart can start pounding, before your tears can start secreting, before all that there's a shout that's suddenly shown up in your abdominal cavity that starts forcing its way out through your wind pipe, like a jinn making its way out of the bottle it had been imprisoned in. My brother, who was still waiting on the phone, shouted at me and I suddenly fell silent. I was 19. I had long straight hair, and my child-like face and body had recently started softening and looking woman-like.

A week later, and I was in Muscat. Arranging for travel had not been any trouble, I'd already had a flight booked to return home for the summer anyway. My finals had gone well. I'd been in touch with my family the few days before I'd flown back, and I'd been told that although my brother's spine had been repaired and had not been severed, he was paralysed all the way down from his mid-chest. Paraplegia was what they called it. It was just a word at that point, and everyone was sure that, although the doctors didn't have a cure for the paralysis, my brother would be back on his feet in no time. But, of course.

My first day back in Muscat wasn't too bad. My brother from Chicago had already flown in. He and my father were in and out of the house, and I can't remember where my mother was. Probably at the hospital with my brother. My brother from Chicago took me to the hospital during visiting hours (4-6pm) the second day. It's not like I had never been to hospitals before. Both my parents have had heart problems my whole life, and I've visited them and others at the hospital, even this particular one, before. I'd been around the sick and dying more than usual for someone my age, so I wasn't particularly afraid this time. I was at home now with family and others whom I'd known all my life.

My father and mother were already at the hospital. My brother was in a private room, and my mother would stay there with him. I remember weaving past all the people in the frankincense-smelling corridors of the hospital. Everything in the Middle East smells of frankincense. It can be a startling odour at first, but I'd always been around it, and it comforted me. The hospital was white and very clean. It was the visiting hours, so there were a lot of people around. Mostly Omani and South Asian. A lot of Omani women from the interiors, Bedouin women covered in black from head to toe, a black Batman-like mask keeping their whole faces except their eyes covered. Very unlike their city sisters, who wore fitted black synthetic garments over their usual clothing and kept their beehive hairstyles stylishly covered with a scarf. Their faces were very visible. They wore a lot of makeup to make sure you noticed them. The men wore long white robes with open sandals. The older men carried canes. I've always wondered how these men keep their white robes so clean; they practically glow in their crispness. They keep such nice trimmed beards, it's always so nice to look at. Everyone's feet made soft slapping noises where the floor was marble or short, loud squeaks where the floor was rubber-like. The frankincense of the visitors mixed with the usual disinfected smell of hospitals. My paternal grandfather, who had passed away the year before, had once said that he loved how clean the hospitals were in Oman. He had a good sense of humour, and he had very excitedly remarked that if one had to die anywhere, it would have to be in an Omani hospital. This was a few years before his dementia and strokes had left him unable to speak and partially paralysed. He had died in his bed in our house in Muscat, a shrunken confused old man who recognised almost no one, had to be fed and taken to the bathroom like a baby, and had to be tied down to his bed so that he wouldn't harm himself.

I stood outside the closed door of my brother's private ward. My second brother was with me. He put his hand on the door, and before he pushed it open, he sternly told me to make sure I didn't cry. I thought I could handle it. I had images in my head of my brother in the hospital bed maybe with some plaster and bandages. His legs hadn't had to be amputated, and, aside from the paralysis, had no damage to them.

My brother pushed the ward door open, and we entered the room. Some people were in the room already, all family friends who'd come to visit my brother. My father was in there too. He turned to look at me. I looked at him and then looked around the room. "As-salaam-alaikum," I softly said to everyone. I smiled quietly at them because one has to be polite. The room wasn't huge but it wasn't too small. There was a partition on one side where they had an extra bed for an attendant. A door led to an attached bathroom. A TV was mounted high up on the wall. The few visiting men were with my father on the far side of the room, and the women - mostly their wives - were standing with my mother on the other side of the room. In the middle of the room against one wall was the bed with my eldest brother lying on it on his back. He looked at me, but I don't think he saw me. His body was still in shock, and he was constantly in a tremendous amount of pain, so the doctors kept him doped up with painkillers. He was barely awake most of the time; he had just happened to be awake when I met him. His pale skin looked the same, but his head was bloated and looked like a trapezoid. The top of his scalp looked flat but tilted. His hair had been shaved off because when his car had rolled off of the road down the mountain into the ditch, his head had smashed into the rolled up car window. His scalp had torn open - like a cut-up watermelon in the marketplace, my mother would tell me later - and although it had been stitched back up, there were still bits of glass embedded in the flaps of skin on his scalp. There was a roadmap of cuts and stitches on his scalp, and those cuts had got infected and were oozing pus. He had raccoon eyes, which I later learned happens to people with head injuries. He was wearing a hospital gown and was covered with a pastel blanket, probably green or blue because that hospital has blankets like that.

I never moved from where I had entered the room near the door. I stood there quietly, my polite smile weakly hanging on my face. I looked at the men in that one corner, my father with them with his back turned towards me. I looked at my brother and how ugly and frightening he looked. He was the best of us. He had recently finished med school in India and had been working as a surgeon in Oman for a while. He had cleared his USMLE exams and was planning on going to America for his residency. My parents had started looking for a wife for him. He was the best of us. He was the best of our entire clan's generation. I felt so stupid standing there, my silly smile fading from its edges, my eyes darting back and forth between the men and my brother in his bed. I wanted to see some plasters and some broken bones, I wanted to see the paralysis, but the damage was not like that. It was worse, it was something bigger and something much worse. The damage was to us and everything we were supposed to be, everything life was supposed to have been.

I stepped back out of the ward into the corridor that smelled like frankincense and disinfectant and shut the door. I started to cry, but I wasn't sure why I was crying. I wasn't feeling anything. I think I was frightened at how ugly my brother looked with his mis-shapen swollen head. I think I was wearing a swamp green shalwar suit, but I can't be sure. I remember seeing it as I bent my head down outside the ward and cried but not too loudly because I had been warned against upsetting people with tears. One of the aunties came out to comfort me. Someone else, maybe my mother was with her, I can't remember. I do remember the lady saying something about how sisters are particularly sensitive to their siblings' pain. That was the first time I felt angry at words of comfort. I didn't want to hear her words. I wanted to push her and be cruel to her. I wanted to hurt her, I wanted to be cruel. What did she know. Her words made me feel a physical rage in my little teenage body. I wanted to bury my nails into the sides of her head.

My summer vacation had started. I would spend the mornings with my brother at the ward. I'd brush his teeth for him, feed him breakfast (a cucumber, lettuce, tomato sandwich), and tell him about the headlines in the newspaper. My mother would take over in the afternoons and nights when I would go to a computer class I was taking whose credits I'd transfer back to OSU. The nurses whose faces I never saw because they wore surgical masks (to not infect the infection on my brother's scalp any further) gave him spongebaths in his bed and cleaned out his bedpan and urobags. My brother was sedated most of the time. Sometimes when I'd be lying on the extra bed on the other side of the partition, I'd feel like my brother was about to walk around the partition and laugh and tell me that he'd been joking about the accident and the paralysis the whole time, that the whole episode was over. I thought I heard him walking on the other side of the partition sometimes. But, of course, he wasn't. He couldn't even raise his head an inch because his body was in shock, and he would scream in pain. The doctors had operated on the segment of his spine in the middle of his back, and if you even lightly blew on those stitches on his skin, he would scream.

And so our routine continued. One day my father was sitting on his prayer mat outside the ward in a quiet corner. He had started doing that after prayers, sitting on his prayer mat, thinking. That day he was sitting with his face covered with one hand. I didn't know what to do or what to say. I felt so stupid because I was so young and wasn't able to do anything for anybody. I didn't even know how to drive in those days. So I went and crouched behind my father like a dog who has lost its master and leaned one side of my body against his concave back. I rested my head on his back, hoping that I wouldn't add to his problems and that I was sorry I couldn't contribute to anything like all the real grownups could. I didn't say any of that though, I felt too useless and ashamed.

My father doesn't emote or talk very much. He was quiet as usual, deep in thought. I heard him whimpering, "my poor boy, my poor boy".

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Wheel in the Sky

It's funny when life starts coming full circle, or sometimes circle upon circle upon circle. I wonder if it means something when that happens. I wonder if that means that you're zeroing in on something, like the way a predator swoops around its prey in swiftly shrinking circles, like the way a man can't help but linger in ever-closing circles around the woman who has bewitched his senses before he dares to reach out and touch her. Like you've just completed one huge revolution around your own personal sun. We all have our own suns that we orbit around our whole lives, suns that keep us anchored, that power us, that provide us our point of reference in a very dark and unmapped universe. Sometimes other objects get in the way and cast shadows on us, and we lose sight of our sun, the source of our warmth, the memory of what we once knew to be true when we first set out on our journey. Sometimes our orbits take us far, far away from our suns, and we start to feel cold and frightened, off course, lost. We begin to feel the presence of our sun less and less as where we are on our invisible orbit makes us feel colder and darker. We forget what we believed in in the beginning and why we do anything that we do. But whether we know it or not, we are still on our orbit. Our sun - even if we can't see it anymore - still holds us in its gravitational pull, and if we just hold on, we will inevitably swing back towards our sun and behold it again at the same point where we first started our journey from. We will be in two places and at two points in time at once. What is place and time in a universe where there is no up or down or sunrise or sunset? But we will have returned to something, except we will have changed, we will have seen things, we will have been places, and we will be able to acknowledge our journey and renew our belief in the sun that drives us before we set off on yet another revolution.

It was almost a year ago, at the same time this year, that I felt like I'd been there before, except not. Not really deja vu, but like I was there and somewhere else at the same time. Two places, two times at once. How do you plot that on a space versus time graph? 'There' was NDTV in New Delhi in 2011. I was interning in the first of a series of departments, and that particular month, I was at the internet news desk, which was basically 3 PCs on one side of a long cubicle. On the other side was a very excited internet sports desk. It was a special time for them - the cricket World Cup was on. It only came around once every 4 years, and this time, it may as well have been the Olympics because an IndoPak semi-final was on the cards. At the Mohali stadium in Punjab, right across the border from Pakistan. Patriotism was rising a little bit everyday around the country, much like the mercury in everyone's thermometers. The air even began to smell a little bit more greenwhiteandsaffron. Stick your tongue out and you could taste those colours in the gray Delhi breeze. People around the country were planning to take an off from work, officially or unofficially, on the day of the match, and everybody knew that their bosses would understand. No real work that could be avoided would happen that day anyway. It's just the way. Indians are funny like that. They snap and snarl at and often steal from each other every single day of their lives, but a national level cricket match whips up the long-muffed-out symbolism of their freedom fighters. The ghosts of the khhaadi heroes and heroines start wandering India's streets. It's like the whole country becomes a television rerun of 'Gandhi'. A defiant salt march, anyone? This age that I live in, the age that I am of, is an age where most young people have no cause to offer their youth to, where they mindlessly swing between desk jobs and fast food and bad postures. To such a generation, the promise of an impending IndoPak match, with the possibility of their mostly crumbly country winning its first World Cup final in twenty years, flicks on a light on their usually expressionless faces. With every passing day that brought the semi-final closer, that light grew brighter. It reminded me of the general mood in the United States around the 2008 presidential election. I was living in a Republican state where you didn't dare show too much support for the Democratic candidate, but the day after Obama became the first black president and brought the Conservative hold on the White House and the world to an end, one couldn't walk down the street without meeting the knowing glance of someone wearing a half-smile as if you shared some underground secret, like you weren't alone, like you won, like you had contributed just by being alive. Like it meant something.

So there I was quite firmly, almost 30 years old and at NDTV, but I was also somewhere else. That other place was 12 years ago. I was 15 kilos lighter and in Lucknow with my mother in our old crumbly home in our mouldy moholla. I had finished 12th grade and was in the country for my university entrance exams. It was that period in every modern student's life where when you think of the future you don't really see anything at all, just a vague blackness extending into forever. Que sera sera, what will I be? A doctor, an engineer? In architecture, biotechnology, genetics, hotel management? Papa kehte hain bara naam karega...

It was 1999, but it was the Lucknawi summer from every year before. Life had slowed down, and the desert 'loo' winds from Rajasthan were swirling about like bodyless jinns in our ancient alleys. The mangoes in Barabanki were ripening. The Kargil war was on in Kashmir. Ajmal Jami's footage from the border made it to our rented-for-the-summer TV. He was making Barkha Dutt famous. I'd follow the story on NDTV everyday. I remember how the body of one army boy from Lucknow made it back to town and how the roads were blocked off for the mourners that showed up for the boy from their city who'd died for his country. They wouldn't let his family grieve alone. The World Cup was also on that summer. I remember an IndoPak match that I'd got excited about. I'd watched it on TV with my mother even. I don't care for sports at all, but I always enjoy an IndoPak cricket match. India had ended up winning that match, and I had leapt up in all my 18-year-old glory as someone set off celebatory firecrackers on Victoria 'Tooria' Street outside. My cousins who lived a couple of houses down from us had announced a few days earlier that they would offer extra prayer rakaats to Allah so that India would win the match. Maybe Allah had listened to them. Our generation was different. We were Muslims but we had been born and raised as Indians. We felt no affinity for the Pakistani cricket team. It felt good to know for sure which side you were on, even when some identities threatened to make things confusing, even if just for others. Like it did for me and other Muslims in another hemisphere in the years that were to follow.

But here I was back again, 12 years later at NDTV in New Delhi. Ajmal Jami was now on my Facebook friends list. I had even spoken to him a few times about that Kargil footage I had seen in 1999. Back then, Dilli really had been far, a monster city that swallowed the mild Lucknawis who dared. In another few months, I would fly to America and make a life there for almost 10 years. Back then, I could not have known that, many countries and so much living later, not only would I dare to return to India, but that this time I would be sitting inside the NDTV office, talking to the man whose footage I had seen in that warm room in a moholla that time and even I have forgotten. I even saw Barkha Dutt at the NDTV office a few times. She's a lot taller in person. Amazonian even. I was in two places, two times at once. In 2011, an IndoPak World Cup match was around the corner. India won that match. India went on to win the final against Sri Lanka and brought home the trophy for the first time since 1983. Somewhere 12 years ago, I leapt as firecrackers went off on Tooria Street.

Magar yeh toh koi na jaane ke meri manzil hai kahaan...

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Journey to the King

"By far the most famous parable describing the Sufi Way and the stations that a disciple must pass through on the journey toward self-annihilation was composed by the twelfth-century Iranian perfumer and alchemist, Farid ad-Din Attar (d. 1230). In Attar's epic masterpiece, The Conference of the Birds, the birds of the world have gathered around the hoopoe (a mythical bird), who has been chosen by lot to guide them on a journey to see the Simurgh: King of the Birds. Before they can begin their journey, however, the birds must first declare their absolute obedience to the hoopoe, promising that

Whatever he commands along the Way
We must, without recalcitrance, obey.

The oath is necessary, the hoopoe explains, because the journey will be perilious and fraught with physical and emotional adversity, and only he knows the Way. Consequently, he must be followed without question, regardless of what he demands.

To reach the Simurgh, the birds will have to traverse seven treacherous valleys, each representing a station along the Way. The first is the Valley of the Quest, in which the birds must "renounce the world", and repent of their sins. This is followed by the Valley of Love, where each bird will be plunged into seas of fire "until his very being is enflamed." Next is the Valley of Mystery, where every bird must take a different path, for "There are so many roads, and each is fit/For that pilgrim who must follow it." In the Valley of Detachment, "all claims, all lust for meaning disappear," while in the Valley of Unity, the many are merged into one: "The oneness of diversity/Not oneness locked in singularity."

Upon reaching the sixth valley, the Valley of Bewilderment, the birds - weary and perplexed - break through the veil of traditional dualities and are suddenly confronted with the emptiness of their being. "I have no certain knowledge anymore," they weep in confusion.

I doubt my doubt, doubt itself is unsure,
I love, but who is it for whom I sigh?
Not Muslim, yet not heathen, who am I?

Finally, at the end of the journey, the birds arrive at the Valley of Nothingness, in which, stripped of their egos, they "put on the cloak that signifies oblivion" and become consumed by the spirit of the universe. Only when all seven valleys have been traversed, when the birds have learned to "destroy the mountain of the Self" and "give up the intellect for love," are they allowed to continue to the throne of the Simurgh.

Of the thousands of birds who began the journey with the hoopoe, only thirty make it to the end. With "hopeless hearts and tattered, trailing wings," these thirty birds are led into the presence of the Simurgh. Yet when they finally set their eyes upon him, they are astonished to see not the King of Birds they had expected, but rather themselves. Simurgh is the Persian word for "thirty birds"; and it is here, at the end of the Way, that the birds are confronted with the reality that although they have "struggled, wandered, traveled far," it is "themselves they sought" and "themselves they are." "I am the mirror set before your eyes," the Simurgh says. "And all who come before my splendor see/Themselves, their own unique reality.""

- Reza Aslan, "No god but God"

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Other People

I could've told you that I love you
If we had been other people

That I crave seeing you often
And it bothers me that I do
I don't like it that I do

That I wish I could amuse you
And hold your gaze forever
Make you look at me forever
Or just a little longer

I don't know what it means

That I feel restless when you're out of town
Not that I get to see you much anyway
But your swagger is too much
It makes me shake my head in disbelief
It’s just too much style
And I can't take my eyes off of you when you start talking
What a performance
You’re on fire
I hold my breath
And wish you'd never stop
Your eyes blazed with something nameless I’ve also known

I believe in some things again
Because of how you've been
Because of the adrenalin
I enjoy that we don't agree on many things
But you listen to me still
And tell me what you think still

I like you in knit sweaters
I like that your nails are short
I like the veins on the back of your hands
How organised you are
And your wicked, wicked terrible wit
I want to hear you keep talking
I want you to keep talking to me

I feel shy when you speak Urdu
Or say my name right
And when you open the door for me
Or let me go first

I love that you're quirky
That you spaz out sometimes
I enjoy that I don't know what you mean sometimes
That your voice sounds like a breeze
That your voice sounds like the most crystalline thing I’ve ever seen
It’s been so difficult
I could've told you what that means

There would've been so much to say
If we had been other people
If we had been other people
If only we had been other people