Houses
are built
by ants,
lived in by
god-fearing
sociopaths.

Houses
have windows
and doors
that make eyes
and faces
at homeless folk.

Graves
are lived in
by ants
and dug
by godless
sociopaths.

Graves
are blind
so that
the homeless
can’t envy
them.

Graves,
houses,
ants,
sociopaths,
and god
can teach
us a thing
or two.
Lucknow Residency: pic by Sahar Z

In the roofless, brick-exposed palace of King Wajid Ali Shah, there roams—some nights—the portly form of the late king. Behind the king goes his retinue of dancers and music makers. The king chooses the nights of his appearances. No pattern or almanac can be affixed to his visitations. Those who have seen the spectacle of the king’s song and dance are so enamored of the vision that they are left incapable of enjoying anything else.

Many of these people keep coming to the roofless palace in the hope of catching a glimpse of the king and his party. Sometimes they get lucky, most times they don’t.

Munni Bi was collecting firewood in the circle of trees outside the palace when she heard music. The music was ebbing and flowing like the moods of the sea. Munni Bi was drawn to the palace like a puppet.

When inside she saw Wajid Ali Shah sitting in the centre of the main hall. The king was shirtless, dyed indigo blue and dressed in a rough-cloth dhoti. In place of his boat-shaped crown was a jewelled crest and a peacock plume. The king was playing his flute.

Around him was his dance and music party. The palace was reverberating with music the kind Munni Bi had never heard. And then suddenly all music stopped. All dancers froze in their glorious arabesques. The king looked at Munni Bi and motioned her to step forward. When she came forward, the king said, “Close your eyes, and listen hard…”

When Munni Bi closed her eyes she saw the fat king change into Krishna, the beautiful cow-minder. The king was Krishna and Krishna was the king, and Munni Bi could not tell the difference.

When Munni Bi opened her eyes the king was back as himself, fat and blue. But his eyes were singing. And with his eyes the king told Munni Bi the story of his life.

In his desire to be Krishna, the king had become a victim of vanity. The mirror had become his best friend. He would sit before it and sing and dance and write odes to himself as Krishna. Then one day Krishna appeared before King Wajid Ali Shah. The beautiful cow-minder said because you have served me and loved me I will give you a boon. But because you have done so thinking you were me, the boon will come with a curse.

The boon-curse made Wajid Ali Shah everything that Krishna was but to his best-friend, the mirror, he became invisible.

And since that day Wajid Ali Shah has been coming to the roofless, brick-exposed palace, to sing and dance and play his flute. And to catch a glimpse of himself in the tiny black holes of human eyes.
The evening is turning into onion skins.

On the road outside the torn-poster theatre are four boys flapping around a tiny bottle like birds around a bird-feed. Each boy has a piece of folded-over muslin that’s stuffed into the wells of their tiny fists. The eldest of the four pours a jerky stream of viscous white liquid into each fist.

The boys bunch the muslin into bolster shapes, slide the shapes further into their fists and start to suck on them. Their inhalations are deep and purposeful as if their small fists are hand-shaped cigars.

Soon their eyes are floating in dream fluid. Their smiles have widened. Their world feels like a movie screen. They are no more outside the torn-poster theatre.

Bad-tempered cows have grown wings and are now sitting on trees munching fresh leaves. The pineapple truck outside the juice shop has become a space ship throwing hand grenades. “Can I have one to blow up your wife,” the littlest boy shouts at the guy unloading the pineapples.

The road is a black river. Wheels have turned into propellers. Some boats have tabla-players, others have musclemen whipping mean and oily shopkeepers.

The torn poster of the theatre has become unstuck. It’s flying now. The sexy FIRST LOVE heroine has taken off her bathrobe and her young lover has drowned in the black river.

The boys are singing randy bedroom songs. The hunger of their growing stomachs has evapourated. They’ve smoked their hand-shaped cigars down to the last drags.

Forgotten in the midst of all this frolicking, lies a tiny bottle of ERASEX, the white ink that removes typos and other minor errors.
The Buddha says everything is nothing. And that the true nature of everything is nothing.

To most people this is the most devastating piece of news. How can WE be nothing? How can the magic, the sanctity, the pleasures and pains of life amount to nothing? We are so much in awe of this life… it’s sheer ingenuity.

That’s why the Buddha’s message is so devastating. It’s like having a mushroom cloud explode inside our heads.

And this is where that I have my two-bit to offer.

In a galactic sense, our planet would look something like a cell whose nucleus is the sun. Or an atom whose nucleus is the sun. A lot happens inside these hidden cells and atoms, but to the un-aided eye, there is no cell, no atom simply because they are not visible. They have activity and purpose but in the larger scheme of things their individuality amounts to nothing.

In the galactic sense our solar system is the equivalent of a cell, an atom. Imagine this vast limitless space where our planet is but a cell part. And we men, women, creatures, plants, buildings, planes, mountains, oceans are all parts of this part.

Like a cell part or atomic particle we too have a specific purpose and function. But we spend most of lives living down this purpose and function.

The Buddha says don’t get caught up in these minor cellular and atomic issues because there’s a larger, higher body to consider. A body that from our cellular/atomic perspective seems vague and unimaginable.

What is this vast body made of? And why should we care about it?

It’s actually made up of nothing. Space is nothing.

Space is also indestructible because of its lack substance. Yet it contains everything. And everything contains it.

So when the Buddha says everything is nothing, he actually means, everything is SPACE.

Even the great JC said something to that effect. Space DOES set you free.
When a story travels
it gains weight
and muscle,
and age
and meaning.

When a story sleeps
it drools,
it dreams
and snores
and wakes up people.

When a story dances
it shakes,
and twists,
falls down,
then rises.

When a story cries
it pours,
it thunders,
things die
and worlds go under.
It is raining outside. Inside it is dark. Eyes are shut. Some ears are glued to earphones. Others are dead to the world. Legs are stretched out in the aisle. The bus is falling. Like a ball on a spiral staircase. Hill roads have that kind of effect on the mind.

A flash of lightning, briefly blinds those inside the bus. It also splits the bus into two. Two complete buses. With two identical sets of passengers.

It’s almost as if the lightning has made a photocopy of the bus.

The buses enter a tunnel. The other bus looks and feels the same except for its speed. I walk over to the driver’s cabin to ask him why the sudden hurry. I tap him on the shoulder. He turns around and I realise that the driver’s copy has rebelled.

I ask the driver who he is but he says nothing. He just smiles, a very sly and knowing smile. “Welcome to the journey,” he says.

He says ‘the Journey’ as if it is THE JOURNEY. I ask him how much longer for our stop and he says ‘very’ and starts to laugh. It’s a hollow and booming laughter. As if coming from the basement of an ancient tree trunk.

People in THE JOURNEY bus are ageing. The bus has had no stops. Some women now have children. The young have grown older. The kids have grown young.

There is an eerie bonhomie inside the bus. It’s like a family where everyone shares a secret but doesn’t know how secret it is.

The two buses are running parallel to each other. Like parallel lines that are supposed to meet at some vague infinity. In the original bus things haven’t changed.

It is still raining outside. Still dark inside. Eyes still are shut. Some ears are still glued to earphones. Others are still dead to the world. Legs are still stretched out in the aisle. But the bus is not falling. It’s steadied like a train on metallic tracks.

In the journey bus things have moved fast. Fast-forwarded in a way. The bus’s interior has become old and rundown. Reccine has started peeling off the seats. Curtains have become threadbare. Tinted glass panes have further darkened with caked slush. Everything, everyone has succumbed to time and velocity. Everyone, except the driver, who retains his tree-trunk hollowness.

The buses enter another tunnel. When they come out, they’re bathed in another flash of lightning. This time the flash solders the buses together. And me, a witness to THE JOURNEY, wakes up to find the bus as it was when the journey began.
Through the week, traffic in Delhi stops for the gods. You can see them being sold at red lights in their Paris Plaster avatars. A hot favourite among red light vendors is the face of the Sun god. Surya comes down to the windows of waiting cars and earnestly says ‘Buy me’. But not many are kicked about spending money on the hot Sun. He’s up there shining for free anyway, so why pay and take him home.

But Saturdays are different. That’s when Saturn comes down to the traffic stops. Shanni Dev comes soaked in a pool of oil and soot. Few want to upset him when he comes calling. Small change is plopped into Shanni’s steel bowl without the usual prayers and genuflections.

It’s the cold, dark and unpredictable power of Saturn that pulls at the purse strings. Unlike the known virtues of the Sun, Saturn’s virulence is mysterious, inventive and varied.

A year ago, a trip to a Shanni temple in Lucknow opened up Saturn’s secret chambers for me. The temple sits on the banks of the river Gomti. It’s located at a place where the river slithers against the temple steps like a molting snake. Such is the look, feel and stink of the industrial froth that lines the steps. I asked Shanni’s attendant why we couldn’t keep our temples clean.

“Can you keep your stomach free of muck?” He asked me point blank. “That muck that you keep inside your stomach is a necessary evil, so it is with this outside muck?”

Come to think of it, Shanni isn’t really that bad. He’s just the guy given the most difficult job. The job of humbling people.You can’t really blame him for trying to make his job interesting. What seem like the cruelest of perversities to ordinary people are in fact Saturn’s tools of instruction.
Mr Crow's an actor. He’s got the most amazing singing voice. His occasional dances can put the most weightless moonwalker to shame. Mr Crow stays in an imaginary home, where the roof pours when it rains.

People say Mr Crow has a drinking problem. But if you ask me it is no problem at all. Although, Mr Crow’s often seen staggering out of the city’s most expensive (and on bad days, crummiest) watering holes, he's never embarrassing. Because when he’s drunk, the actor in Mr Crow comes out to play. At such times Mr Crow is like an inflatable dummy into which compressed air has been pumped. If Mr Crow’s fans had their way they’d keep him constantly soused, intravenously if need be.

An orphan, Mr Crow grew up in a foster home. Even as a toddler, he wasn’t quite one of the Sparrows. The bookwormish and opinionated Mr Sparrow was often heard berating his wife for her unbridled maternal passions. But Mrs Sparrow never once doubted her decision, made in the quiver of a clock hand, to bring home the wailing and abandoned Mr Crow to their cosy but childless home.

It was a difficult childhood (isn’t it for all actors?) but Mr Crow didn’t do too badly. He left home when Mrs Sparrow died in a storm. It wasn’t as if he hated Mr Sparrow but life at the Sparrow home wasn’t the same after Mrs Sparrow’s passing.

From there on Mr Crow’s life was a series of self-taught crash courses. Life at the cosy Sparrow home hadn’t quite prepared him for life in the outside world. But Mr Crow was naturally wired to learn. He had after all learned to be one of the Sparrows without having been born to them.

The first thing Mr Crow taught himself was to change his natural voice. While growing up, Mr Sparrow had never let him forget how bad he sounded. So out went his old voice and in its place came the rehearsed voice of a born charmer.

Next to go were his clumsy movements. He taught himself how to measure his steps, keep time with his feet and slither his body through the turbulence of taped music. Soon Mr Crow had the moves and the rhythm.

Finally, the city's mean streets taught Mr Crow the art of keeping clean feet while navigating sticky, muck-laden puddles.

Today, many of Mr Crow’s fans love him because he’s taught them the importance of clean feet and watering holes.
The skin-colour sands of Amman are about 180 kilometres (or thereabouts) from the Holy City, where a certain golden-domed structure sits like an atomic reactor. The reactor straddles two worlds. The Islamic and the Christian. It’s tenanted on another. The Jewish.

It is in many ways a reminder of Islam’s legacy of appropriation. A legacy that perhaps began with the appropriation of the Judeo-Christian prophets and the principal deity of a pagan past, that was duly decimated later. It is a legacy that was forcefully perpetrated wherever the new religion galloped on horses of presumption.

A millennium and a half later, it is the rubble of those invaded pleasure palaces, broken temples and smashed idols that’s threatening to bury Islam in an unmarked grave.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is a Mideastern wonder. Because Arabs actually WORK here. “We don’t have oil and we don’t have people,” explains a seller of Dead Sea salts.

Urban Hashemite women too have it better than most of their Arab sisters. They dress as they like, smoke, drink and bathe in public. Across the border, in Saudi Arabia, they could be jailed for so much as not donning the hijab. Most of Jordan’s queens are also imported from foreign shores mainly the US and the UK. In short it’s a good life.

Jordanians have found a fine way of subverting orthodoxy. Without institutionalising subversion like Turkey or enforcing it at gun-point like Pahlavi Iran. You can see it in the way they have embraced the protestant work ethic. And the way they live it up on Saturday nights. The way their cherish their Greek heritage in Petra.

But most of all you see it in the way they have fashioned a mini industry on the bathing pleasures of the Dead Sea.
I am standing at Leonardo da Vinci airport. I am standing, in line behind a bunch of motley passengers. We're all waiting to get out of Italy. No the Carabinieri isn't after us. We’re just leaving, in an end-of-business/end-of-pleasure sort of way.

For those flying out of Caeser and Mussolini’s one-time imperium, this glass-and-steel avatar of the great artist (da Vinci) is the last post of civilization. After da Vinci there’s just space, clouds and cling-film-wrapped airline food. Old Leo is a sort of gateway to the sky, like all airports are meant to be.

As I await my turn to reach the sky, my thoughts are already flying. I am hovering above the Fiumicino, on the way to the obsessively grand Piazza Venezia. At the obsessively grand Piazza I can see the stone heads of gods, goddesses and war heroes that preside over the eternal city.

From the Piazza I fly above the road leading to the Colosseum, outside which Romans in skirts and togas strike 2-Euro poses with visitors from different worlds. I pass the Arch of Constantine and turn towards the Forum where Rome’s most powerful men once sat and plotted the spread of civilzation.

That's the Senate, I can hear the guide’s voice booming like a thunderclap. That’s where Julius Caesar was butchered by his friends, the voice is saying with a typically Italian sense of greek tragedy. I am now flying wondering how Caesar, freshly disembodied, would have felt hovering above the Senate after his friends butchered him. Did he mourn his loss? Was he thrilled at his release? Or was he simply shocked to see his own blood spilled?

Just then my flying is jerked to halt. I am back at the check-in counter. And I am face to face with the glorious smile of an Italian air-hostess. “Viaggio solo?” she’s asking me. I stare at her blankly, like someone recovering from a huge cranial thwack. “Are you travelling alone?” she asks me suspecting a case of airport amnesia. “Yes, yes, I am,” I say by way of explanation, apology and interest. “Yes I am,” I tell her again in an attempt to make conversation, “Aren’t we all, in a sense…”

She once again breaks into a gorgeously dimpled smile. “You can stand here. It’s the line for single passengers," she says. Smiles again.

"Goodbye passenger, Buon Viaggio!”

Buon Viaggio I say to her and to Old Leo and await my safe flight.

I believe a life is meant to be lived. Then left behind. I believe people begin scattering themselves from the day they are born. And they continue with it through their lives.

Smells and secretions leave our bodies and enter our clothes. From the clothes they enter water and air. Sensations are carried around through touch. Shake-hands, caresses, kisses—slaps and pinches too—we leave behind for others to feel.

And feelings ride out of us on harnesses of words. Those too complex to be said or written down, squeeze out of us as gestures and expressions.

Our fears, our dreams, our hates and loves we leave behind as impressions on life's invisible canvas.

We leave behind photographs as witnesses to moments. We also leave behind memories on paper, film, tape and microchip.

We leave behind our DNA with our children, sometimes in the vainglorious hope of a genetic resurrection.

We make food, art, architecture and leave them behind for others to savour and delight in.

So what is it that dies when we die? What perishes when we perish? What disappears when we disappear?

Our flesh and bones are left behind. As ash, as dust and food in the stomachs of creatures tinier than us. Our souls too go somewhere. Heaven or hell or brand new bodies. Atheists and rationalists, I guess, go back to their books, as silverfish.

I believe a life lived well is one where leaving becomes a source of great joy.
I am sitting under a wishful sun at the Dalai Lama Temple in McLeodganj. It’s a Sunday and I am three days short of the Dalai Lama’s 70th birthday. In a remote and unworldly way, I am also celebrating my own. The mist here is busy, swaying and dancing to the tunes of a deep baritone. It’s the voice of the world’s most heard spiritual leader.

The Dalai Lama is speaking in Tibetan. His English, on the best of days, can only be described as ‘reluctant’. But to the faithfuls language is hardly an issue. To many outside the faith, it may seem nothing’s EVER an issue with the faithfuls. A lot of those at the temple square are wrinkled and graying. It’s a generation that has followed its leader to the ends of the earth. And which continues to do so, walking deeper and deeper into an abyss where logic has no place.

Today this Pied Piper generation seems resigned to a NEVERNESS. A neverness that it faces, day in and day out, without ever succumbing to its enormity or unfairness. It’s no surprise that there are perhaps more foreigners fighting to free Tibet than there are Tibetans.

Nima, who later materializes before me at the Tara Café, says he speaks Hindustani as a mark of respect for the Indian state. He even introduces himself as Suraj, a name he says is a synonym of Nima.

Chamba, his younger friend, doesn’t share Nima’s sentiments. “What did your generation get by learning Hindustani?” asks Chamba. Old Nima winces at the observation, changes the topic, and returns to talking about the goodness of Indians. “I have seen the whole country,” he says sipping chai and namkeen. “So so so much to see and so so so many lovely people.”

The conversation suddenly switches to Tibetan. Chamba reminds Nima of what seems like an unpleasant incident. Nima brushes him aside and tells him that his generation only knows how to hit, not how to take a hit. “That’s a bigger lesson learnt,” says Nima.

Chamba unlike Nima, came to India 15 years ago. Nima’s almost been here for 50. They’re both pacifists and returners to the wheel of existence. They both believe in the returnability of life.

There’s a blue-green peacock that sits on Nima’s forearm. A tattoo. “It’s my biggest regret,” he says as he tries in vain to peal the peacock off his skin. Because, it is said that those with tattoos don’t return to the wheel of existence as a human being. Nima’s lived with that curse for over two decades now. Anyways, he says, it’ll be a shorter life as an insect or an animal.

In a way he typifies the first wave of faithfuls who left home and country to stand by their god-king. I can't think of any other king or ruler being followed into exile by his people. Even the just denizens of Ayodhya couldn't dream of doing that. Which makes these Tibetans even more unique.

Life under a strange sky mustn’t have been easy. But Nima and his generation have survived, and in the process learned to be grateful for all the Nevernesses life pushes your way.
Mr Das was lonely man outside his bio lab. But within the window-lit brilliance of his lab he was king. He drank tea from a glass beaker and smoked filter-less Panama cigarettes seated on a high stool at the long table of the bio lab. He smoked and drank as if the place was bar and he, its lone customer and king. Other teachers went to the PT Room to smoke.

For human company Mr Das had a skeleton in a glass cupboard. Lower animals, there were plenty. But they were mostly bottled in formaldehyde. Mr Das was a tough nut. Only the thinnest slice of plant stem and only the cleanest excision of cockroach gut would satisfy him. But in our world of ‘strict teachers’ and ‘soft teachers’ Mr Das was unclassifiable.

Mr Das rarely smiled. Laughter was even rarer. The other teachers treated Mr Das like one of his bottled specimens. An object of awe and pity. He had few friends. And fewer enemies.

Into the ears of every fresh senior school student was whispered the story of Mr Das’s one great love. It was almost a rite of passage. The telling of his cautionary tale of love and loss. But even though Mr Das stood out like a staggering example of doomed love, it was difficult to imagine him in love. It was said that she—a she who was variously identified as a cousin, a student and a colleague in different versions—scoffed at Mr Das’s confession of love because he was too dark and too ugly.

Everyday Mr Das would ride his black Atlas bicycle to school and back without really ‘mingling’ with his students and colleagues. Mr Das never lost his cool with the students. His voice carried with it the exhaustion of effort, having traversed the light years between mind and mouth. Back-benchers, like me, had to strain hard to listen to Mr Das’s lectures on life and beginnings.

Despite his reclusive ways Mr Das was given responsibilities that tested the limits of human touch. Like giving out board mark-sheets. What more could you tell a bad student about his badness. Or explain to a disbelieving genius the stupidity of an examiner. I remember the day I had to go and collect my mark-sheet from Mr Das. I was one of the brave few in my class. In the sense I knew that the black numbers on my mark-sheet couldn’t kill me despite their extreme modesty.

But Mr Das surprised me.
“What’s your roll number boy?” he asked me.
“18420, sir!”
“You’re one wicked boy,” said Mr Das smiling.
“Yes sir, no sir.”
“You’re 18 times 420. You know what that means?”
“Yes sir, no sir…. Umm, I don’t know sir.”
“It means you have to change and get better.”

That was the last time I saw Mr Das. Years later, when school had slipped out of my mind and school friends had scattered to claim their bits in the world, Mr Das came back to me, packed in the wool of school gossip. Mr Das had died of throat cancer, alone in his one-room flat. His neighbours found him on his bed a day or so after he shut the door on the world outside. As for me, I smiled at the memory ofthe man who had taught me to think, differently.

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As an art practitioner I work in a variety of mediums, what you see here are glimpses of my many creative projects. If you like or feel strongly something here please don't forget to comment

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