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The Universe greasing our rails

This was my second 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.

December 13, 2006 at 7:35 a.m. – I found myself stunned this morning upon realizing that I've only been in India for two days and three nights so far.  It feels like it's already been well over a week!  Among the various compelling aspects of international travel, time dilation may be one of the most predictable, so I suppose I shouldn't feel surprised….

As a subset of slowing down and engaging the pace of this place, two goals I've had for myself on this trip are to both sleep and meditate with greater discipline.  Sleep's been coming along: I've gotten eight hours each of the last two nights.  And while we did say salat (traditional Muslim prayer) once yesterday, I've not engaged my meditation aims with the same intensity.  I hope to stop writing in a minute and get down while the rest of the crew remains asleep.  Actually, Hawah appears to have just woken up and is doing handstands in the corner….

10:09 a.m. - We're in the car on the way to the Pakistani embassy, where I need to pick up my visa for the trip over the border at Wagha.  Go laptop!  I'm sitting in the rear with my foot propped up, since it's basically swollen over the past two days to roughly half the size my other one reached during my recent hospital stay.  I was pretty frustrated and freaked out by it at first, but turned a corner pretty quickly. 

Hawah and I picked up a pair of sandals and a cane (which have together rendered my foot little more than an annoying inconvenience) yesterday in Pahar Ganj, a neighborhood near the New Delhi train station inundated with backpackers and a wide variety of street vendors who cater to them.  We also picked up some infrastructure for our travels, including sleeping bags for Vishal and Sanjay, a decent djembe, a travel journal for me, a pair of jackets (including a sporty red wool button down vest that I'm wearing at the moment), a house warming gift for Akshay (our very generous host here in Delhi), a flash drive to supplement Vishal's (which was with him back at Akshay's) and a tripod for our video camera.

We had a bunch of fascinating encounters in Pahar Ganj, starting with an interesting young Dutch woman who overheard us chatting at a rooftop restaurant and asked Hawah and I if we're twin brothers.  Tessa is about to start a job as a museum curator at a photography museum in Amsterdam, and shared both the URL for her photo blog, and an excerpt from Shantaram, a bestselling book by a Gregory Roberts…with whom I'd traded emails the prior day!  It was the second time we'd randomly encountered the public presence of someone with whom we've been put in touch.  After the Pakistani embassy this morning, we have a meeting with Shabana Azmi, an activist, politician, and actress whose reputation is apparently staggering.  Vishal described her as Lauren Bacall, Medea Benjamin and Barbara Boxer rolled into one. 

Discovering how prolific each of them are inspired my latest realization about the Univese greasing our rails.  Serendipity strikes with shocking frequency in my life generally (which I'm fairly certain reflects nothing more than my willingness to recognize it), and it seems to have amplified and accelerated with this project.  What we're doing is certainly a fascinating and compelling shared adventure with some close friends and allies, but it's also potentially enormous in terms of inspiring the everyday folks with whom we come in contact to consider and thoughtfully address their relations to their extended neighbors.  Hawah shared an idea about writing an op-ed together, which I found enticing.  I don't want to let the cat of the bag prematurely, so once I figure out how to construct internal links in the CMS driving our website, I'll just come back to link to it.

1:53 p.m. – We just left ANHAD's office, where we met with a different Shabana.  She's a longstanding activist promoting secularism, and spoke with us on camera for awhile before engaging in a lengthy discussion about concrete potential synergies among our efforts.  Hawah was quick on his feet, inviting her to join our Board of Advisors, and she even made some phone calls on the spot with contacts in Srinagar and Ahmedabad!  Her work offers an inspiring example of how to leverage youth art towards building progressivism, and I hope to bring some of it back home.

We're on our way now to meet with folks at Breakthrough, another group here that was identified by multiple contacts back at home as a potential supporter.  Hawah's met with them once, and we've spoken with them on the phone a few times, about working together on a performance to launch a major film festival in January, and possibly an event or two between now and then.

As I write, we're in the midst of a fun process discussion within the group, about the extent to which our outreach and materials while here in India should focus on ShantiSalaam, rather than other groups with which we're each associated.  It's been fun to witness when issues like these come up, and to seek common ground among everyone in the group.

Setting aside the reportback from this morning, among the craziest things I've noticed since is how much I feel affinity with the white people I've come across.  They appear familiar to me, yet I don't appear any different to them than the teeming multitudes of other South Asians.  Perhaps the co-optation of my psyche and identity by the colonial masters of my ancestral land was even more successful than I've imagined?

3:27 p.m. – Breakthrough was fun.  Good folks, for sure….  We had a great conversation, and they were even willing to speak on camera – but we didn't bring it with us and lost the chance to capture some footage.  S'all good in the hood, though times like this do remind me of how limited our capacity ultimately is.

I never got a chance to finish writing about our afternoon in Pahar Ganj yesterday, which included stumbling into a shop in search of a sealable pouch, where we met a group of Kashmiri Muslim shopkeepers.  One, a remarkably articulate (in English) shopkeeper named Yaseen, shared his striking reflections with us on camera before one of his friends took us around the corner to Samir, another Kashmiri shopkeeper who shared his perspective.

I was surprised to learn that Kashmiris, despite being overwhelmingly Muslim, tend to support their inclusion in India.  They spoke of being second-class citizens in India, subjected to official state discrimination, curfews, and immediate suspicion of terrorism in the wake of any attack anywhere in the country.  Each of them had left their family behind in Kashmir, in order to come to Delhi (where they didn't feel especially welcome and which they all seemed excited to leave one day) to earn a living.  Yet they wanted to be part of India – perhaps for the resulting economic opportunities?

Samir invited us to pray with him, and we went down the street to a small mosque where we did wudhu and said salat.  It was fascinating to pray with Hawah in the traditional form of my family, having so often watched (and occasionally joined) him doing yoga.  Samir happened to see us on the street again later on, and invited us to maghreb prayer, but it was getting late by then and we needed to get moving. 

We didn't make it back to Akshay's place until 10pm in the end, as we had to find a cybercafé to catch up on emails and update the tour website.  I promptly went to bed…and checked above with my first thoughts upon waking this morning.

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