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Kismet

This was my fourth blog entry from the ShantiSalaam tour that I co-organized with Hawah and V:shal in 2006-2007 to promote communcal harmony in South Asia.

12:25 a.m. – I have seen things over the last three days the likes of which I have never imagined: sunset from the balcony of the Dalai Lama's temple in McLeod Ganj; the Himalayas from a plane flying above snow-capped peaks stretching as far as the eye could see in every direction; a Tibetan youth organizer telling me that he never felt comfortable sharing his true sentiments with a foreigner until meeting us at our first public performance; and a picture of the ShantiSalaam crew accompanied by a reportedly glowing article on the front page (on the regional section in the Himachal Pradesh edition) of Jagran, a major Indian newspaper.  

Nothing I write could possibly do justice to the last several days.  We led an 8-hour workshop at the Chimaya Organization for Rural Development (CORD) in Sidhbari on Saturday, which involved guiding and inspiring a crowd of around 75 Indians from 16-40 years of age to both draw and write poetry reflecting on their perceptions of Pakistanis.  It was an intense day, culminating in an interview with a pair of reporters who showed up after our local contact notified them of the event.  They ran a story in Jagran, a Hindu-language daily with a sizable national circulation – which we learned about only when a random passerby in McLeod Ganj (the site of the Dalai Lama's temple) recognized us from the photo and drove off with Hawah on the back of his motorcycle to pick up a copy.  I haven’t been able to either read or find it online since it’s in Hindi, but we had a fun 3-way translation episode when someone read it to Vishal, who translated it for us.  Peep the headline:  “A Message of Love in a Time of Hate.”  And just wait: that’s the tip of an iceberg….

We went down the road to a nearby Tibetan monastery afterwards, which was an amazing experience in itself.  I'd never seen or heard anything like it.  The four of us knelt on the patio outside the temple and meditated (each of us following a different tradition), and I felt an expansive peace of mind in the wake that was sublime.  On our way back to CORD, we stopped off at the Ashram where Hawah spent several months a few years ago, where I witnessed my first aarti (a celebration, or puja, greeting every sunrise and sunset) and learned more about Hinduism than I had in the first 32 years of my life.

One facet of our Saturday workshop that struck me was a segment we tailored around the notion of everyone's work being important.  It strikes me as obvious in the abstract, but I realized that – for whatever reason – I've had a hard time applying it to my own work in the last year or so.  I think it's related to having essentially become an administrator of a network of some of the brightest and most inspiring legal minds the U.S. has to offer, in that I compare myself to unreasonable standards and find myself understandably lacking.  Or it could be because my longstanding devotion to both progressive law & policy and creative art & activism leaves me "a jack of all trades, and a master of none."  Either way, it's absurd when taken in a relative sense: the people in our workshop will be lucky to ever see another country; enjoy any of the luxuries and opportunities I owe to my astounding educational privilege; or engage their own faculties with enough space to explore their full potential.  Meanwhile, I often whine to myself…essentially on account of feeling like a small fish in a big pond (which is precisely what I am, and a stupid reason to feel shame or disappointment in myself).  Stepping outside one's own shoes certainly has a way of offering perspective….

Vishal turned 32 on Sunday, which we celebrated in suitable style with a brunch feast overlooking a vast valley from the side of a mountain in the foothills of the Himalayas.  After eating to the point of pain, we strolled the streets of McLeod Ganj on what was supposed to be our first "day off" since we got here…but ended with me and Hawah kicking a tag-team poem for an audience of 200 at a Tibetan Freedom musical extravaganza.  In between, we saw the Dalai Lama's home; meditated from the balcony of the temple across the street at sunset; bought a bunch of gifts for various people back home; ran some errands; and shared our unanimous surprise at the sudden attention of such major print media.  Hawah hooked up our ad hoc appearance on the mic, which culminated in some spectacular conversations with Tibetan student activists, including one who told me that we're the first foreigners with whom he's ever been inspired to share his own candor.  We bonded over one of the few Hindi phrases I've come to know: Dhoon yah may, suhb lohg ech heh (All people of the world are one).

We got back to Sidhbari around midnight after picking up some groovy flyers that Vishal designed for the tour, and immediately started picking for our next stop: Srinagar.  We had to leave at 4am in order to drive to Jammu, where we caught a flight into the mountains after going through an elaborate dance involving 4 baggage X-ray screenings and at least as many friskings – none of which would have caught anything that the prior screenings missed.  Suffice it to say we're all very tired now…

…especially after a day that's been, in a word, stunning.  We experienced some fun attention from local police and the Indian army upon arriving, as our contact was running a bit late and local and Indian security forces take an avid interest in everyone who comes here.  It was pretty mild, all things considered, and we were quickly on our way once Ussman came by a few minutes later.

Since then, we've had a series of interviews with some intense people, including local community leaders and grassroots organizers; the staff of a prolific NGO doing some amazing economic and civil society development work; several renowned local artists, including a playwright and several musicians (all of whom are collaborating with us on a show here in Srinagar this Wednesday), and a national television news correspondent who shared his inclination to do a story on our project. 

The sheer amount of information and perspective we've taken in today has left me reeling, feeling as though my life-as-usual is a pale reflection of a much more brutal reality to which most of humanity is painfully subject.  Seemingly everyone we spoke to today has lost a friend or family member to violence between Muslim militants and the Indian Army.  It's a tragic situation in need of greater international attention, and the sense of purpose pervading our work grew several-fold over the course of the day. 

The ongoing standoff notwithstanding, this must be one of the most beautiful places I've ever beheld, and I desperately hope to find my way back here again in the future with more time to explore and settle in. 

Sanjay leaves tomorrow afternoon in order to join his family in Chennai…and then there were three.…

2:07 a.m. – I just enjoyed my first hot bath since first arriving in India a week ago (and yes, I have showered with cold water since then).  How easily we take such immense blessings for granted!

Then I went downstairs to post this write-up to our blog and make some updates to the website…only to discover that the relevant power circuit was out.  On the one hand, it's annoying because I have so much work to do (e.g., nailing down meetings and gigs in Lahore, Mumbai and Ahmedabad; updating our accounting records; checking email and sending some overdue messages; and making those changes to the site).  On the other hand, I'm tired of pulling all-nighters – which have surprisingly continued unabated even after embarking on this trip – and could really use an excuse to finally get some sleep. 

We have a 9am meeting with some A/V folks to line up logistics for a show on Wednesday, and an arts workshop with some local youth starting at 10:30am.  I suppose rest could not come at a better time!

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