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Transitions

This was my tenth 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.

6:47 pm – Yikes!  The fun don't never stop on this here party train, and today's been no exception.  After hosting simultaneous live events on opposite ends of the Earth last night (namely, a radio interview in DC in the midst of a performance and Q&A at Pune University, AKA "The Oxford of the East), we hopped in our gharri for an 11-hour jaunt up India's western coast to Ahmedabad in Gujarat.

We had a few meetings today, including one with an activist group run by a Muslim-Hindu couple who started helping women establish economic independence before then organizing crews of youth involved in instigating violence between Hindus and Muslims.  By coordinating on treks (think Outward Bound) and facilitating a series of discussions, they helped transform these young men and women into secular leaders within their respective communities.  They reflect all walks of life: university students, textile workers, day laborers, and young professionals, all working to defend secular humanism in contemporary India.  We're hosting an event for them this Saturday.

A quick trip to the local Radio Mirchi affiliate later, followed by some sandwiches and a strawberry colada outside a coffee shop, left us enjoying an unencumbered late afternoon.  After starting to feel the fatigue from last night's drive, we returned to our hotel in Lal Dharvaza (a neighborhood literally known as "the door"), recharging our various electronics and psyches drained from the unrelenting pace we've maintained over the last several days. 

The beginning of the week found us in the Nasik valley, practicing yoga in between workshops for literally hundreds of village youth around Trimbakeshwar.  The town itself – a pilgrimage site for millions of Hindus around the country – was roughly 15 minutes from the yoga ashram where we were staying.  We went one day in an attempt to visit the mandir (temple) there, but grew daunted by the wait of several hours and settled for paying our respects from the courtyard outside.  Hawah and I tucked flowers behind our ears, prompting stares with double the intensity of when we were merely two bald-headed bearded men walking around with a hip-hop strut.

Our stay at the ashram was wonderful.  I learned more about yoga than I had in the prior year, ate food as extraordinarily healthy as it was delectable, and climbed a mountain on our last day to view and celebrate the sunset.  The landscape is stunning, reminding me more of Northern California than anywhere else I've ever been.  It even boasts vineyards that have recently grown acclaimed as the best in the region! 

After hosting performances and workshops for around 40 students at the ashram, we visited two classes of around 150 students each at a local primary school, as well as a secondary school in the area with around 300 students.  Because English is spoken by relatively few people in the area, I wasn't able to offer much help as a public speaker.  However, between the gracious translation offered our companions and the remarkable ability of a mere smile (especially when coupled by what author Greg Roberts calls "the famous Indian head-wiggle") to forge unspoken bonds among strangers, I was still able to contribute as an ambassador. 

We left the Nasik valley after dinner on Tuesday, returning to Pune (where we'd met some university professors on Saturday) in the middle of the night.  That left enough time for Hawah and I to crank out several hours of work at a cybercafé in the alley behind our hotel before crashing around dawn.

Our event at the university yesterday – which spontaneously turned into two back-to-back events – was held in a courtyard behind the international students' hostel, offering us the chance to share our poetry and music with students from all over the world.  The ashram, which caters to international students, was similar.  Between the two sites, our audiences this week have included young people from Canada, the US, the UK, Ireland, France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Ethiopia, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Nepal, South Korea, Japan, Australia, and of course India.  Notably absent were any Pakistanis, none of whom study in Pune on account of diplomatic tension between India and Pakistan.

Ahmedabad has brought into focus the central tension we originally set out to address: tension between Muslim and Hindu communities within a single city.  On our way here, we've explored settings that have been the subject of international diplomatic and military struggle omitting the voice of local people (Srinagar in Kashmir); the capital cities of two nuclear-armed powers whose slowly improving relations have allowed sighs of relief to billions threatened by a nuclear stand-off in 1999 (Delhi and Islamabad); the two largest cities of those nations (Karachi and Mumbai); the only border between India and Pakistan passable by road (Wagha); my family's ancestral city (Lahore); the seat-in-exile of the Dalai Lama (Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj); the educational capital of South Asia (Pune); and one of the spiritual capitals of India (Trimbakeshwar).

Vishal left last night.  We sparked a minor incident with a group hug outside the airport that prompted a middle-aged guard to command us to "act dignified," prompting me to laugh in his face.  After he summoned an airport official to investigate, we shuffled two steps to the left to obviate the reason he conjured for his supposed suspicion: that we were standing in a driveway, which happened have no cars waiting to enter it.  That episode behind us, I gave my dear brother zerberts goodbye and hopped in the car for our overnight drive to Gujarat.

Mohammed, the Kashmiri sufi singer we met the prior Saturday, joined us for our afternoon gigs but was ultimately unable to join us on account of his father's concern for his well-being.  Having learned during our meeting this afternoon that local secular activists are routinely threatened, I can't say I blame him, though having a Kashmiri voice along for the ride would certainly have amplified our relevance to audiences here. 

It's no sweat, in the end, though: we nailed down a major gig in Jaipur next week within a few hours of confirming our event here on Saturday, and our India-based crew (Purvi and Alok) has become family, growing far more integral to our success than I'd realized.  I look at Purvi increasingly as the little sister I've never had, and Alok – who speaks no fewer than seven languages, and has experience as an actor, director and playwright before more recently taking up video editing and production – amazes me nearly every time he opens his mouth.

We've gotten no shortage of affirmation from the various people we've met, leading me to wonder just how immense the scope of possibilities may be for this sort of work.  We've been explaining to our audiences our view that the leaders of our respective nations have leadership failed us, reflecting the same provincial small-mindedness lying at the root of most of our shared global problems – and that the only solutions to fill the breach are the voices of individuals around the world seeking unity, a global partnership grounded in equality and committed to shared sacrifice in the name of ensuring the ongoing viability of our species.

I said during our radio interview yesterday that, in reaction to that global failure of leadership, we're basically "circumventing the Department of State."  My nascent career in the Foreign Service, which recruited me in the late 90s before law school gratefully derailed my plans, was my first attempt at seeking an international diplomatic role.  Constrained by the bonds of institutional service to a racist, belligerent and militaristic government, however, my effectiveness in that role could have been only a pale reflection of what I'm managing and building now.

There's a different scale in this kind of mission, of course, but I find the lesser "quantity" more than offset by the "quality" of this work.  Neither our audiences nor our team are of the scale that could, in themselves, shift a nation's consciousness.  But I've helped build enough communities to know that the ultimate impact of a seed-planting effort is better measured by the shape of the ensuing forest than the number of seeds planted.  Our audiences have consistently walked away from us engaged and inspired.  And our team blows my mind in each incarnation.  When we first arrived, Hawah, Vishal, Sanjay and I were a roving pack of good friends, all DC dhesi artists with a long-established plan.  As the tour has progressed, we've lost Sanjay and Vishal to their return flights, and picked up Alok and Purvi in return.  In only a few short days, we've become a family.  I can't wait to see what wonders they conjure on their own, once we're gone.

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