Sunday, August 2, 2020

Show me your compassionate heart. And you will find me there.

(A short story for a long lament.)

I have stepped out to get some ilaneer (tender coconut water). On the bench by the vendor’s cart, sits a very despondent man. I think that maybe he is thirsty but the ilaneer is too expensive so I ask the vendor to give him one, my treat. The vendor shakes his head. “He has been like this for a long time. He won’t speak. He won’t buy a coconut. He just sits there, spreading gloom and sorrow around my cart.”

I wonder what great grief fills this sad man. I take the second coconut in my hand, sit next to him and say, “Brother, take a sip and tell me what ails you.”

He sits silent and immobile and then, maybe sensing my determination to stay, lifts his head to look at me. In his eyes, I see the troubles of the world. Sick people, hungry people, old people all alone, children left orphaned. His eyes fill my heart with an immeasurable sorrow too.

I persist, “Tell me what ails you.”

“Can you not see?” he asks. “Is your heart made of stone?”

“See what?” I ask, full of pop psychology wisdom about making him articulate his feelings. Again, I extend the coconut towards him. He smiles and takes it from me as if to please me, saying, “This compassion you show to me, can you not find it in your heart for what you see in the world?”

I still do not understand. I see him, the vendor, the coconuts, the beach around us and the sea. What does he think I see? I look in his eyes, which carry the world in them, and say, “What do you want me to see?”

They fill with tears now. “Willfully blind. It is more important to you that I see YOU as compassionate than that you should let yourself live and act with empathy and compassion, that you should actually see.”

“Brother, tell me who you are, where you are from and why you grieve so.”

“I am Rama of Ayodhya. I have lived in your heart since time immemorial but you still do not recognize me? Humans are quite amazing!” A flash of temper and irony on that beautiful, serene face full of sorrow.


And then, “Oh my god.” He chuckles, “So you say! But have you learnt nothing from me and my life?”

Apparently not.

“You seem to remember me as a martial hero. But think about what in my stories fills your heart with love and what fills you with doubt, and you will understand what makes me sad today.”

Rama looking at the moon in a plate of water. Rama as a diligent student. Rama’s bond with his family, especially his brothers. Rama lifting the bow and marrying Sita. Rama trying to please his stepmother. Rama’s gentleness with the people of Ayodhya. Rama and Sita living in harmony with the creatures of the forest. Rama’s friendships. Rama’s yearning to learn. Rama’s willingness to give appreciation. Rama’s insistence of giving refuge. Rama’s sense of right and wrong. Things we love.

Things that make us question his perfection. His absolute sense of right and wrong, valuing abstract norms above fairness and justice. His treating Sita as an instrument of his adherence to external standards. His departure from absolute standards to expedient ones in the killing of Vali. His summary justice for perceived transgressions that kept him from seeing Shambuka as human.

I look into Rama’s eyes again and past the surging spring of tears, I see this world and what we have made of it with our choices. Choices that implicitly or explicitly label some as less than human, less than worthy and simply existing as instrumental to our own goals. I look away. I cannot look him in the eyes any more.

“Guilt is useless,” he tells me. “Find compassion, find empathy and then put them to work.”

I still cannot face him. I am slowly crumbling inside.

The vendor observes. “Useless fellow! Everyday he sits here, looking sad, and then when someone sits down to talk to him, he makes them also cry. With two people weeping mournfully near my stall, how can I sell anything? Useless fellow!”

Rama smiles. “I agree I am useless,” he says. “If you ignore the few things I am useful for and focus on the truly useless aspects of my presence—where I was born, where I walked, what I ate—then my existence has been a waste.”

“I don’t need a memorial to my birthplace and palace because if I live, it is in your heart and conscience. And if I do not live there and animate those, I do not deserve all this fuss. If you have learnt from me to ignore the pain of your fellow humans, to deny the destruction of this beautiful world and to indulge in bricks-and-mortar vanity projects and ritual mumbo-jumbo, then you have learnt nothing from me. The temple, the ritual—none of this pleases this Rama.”

“Show me you have a heart. Show me your priorities are correct. Show me that you can listen to the truth and learn from those who are wise. Show me that you are secure enough for others to be free. Show me that your attachment to power is not stronger than your attachment to humanity. Then my existence will be meaningful.”

I find my voice. “But Rama, have you seen the temple design? Do you know that people are already arriving for the ceremony that marks the beginning of the construction? Do you know how spectacular and special it is going to be?”

I see cold fury in Rama’s beautiful eyes. “Is that so? Well, be there, be happy. I will not be there.”

“But it’s your temple. You have to be there.”

“You have understood nothing. I will not be where there is no compassion, no love, no dharma.”

“Where will you be?”

“I will be in Kashmir. I will be in Palestine. I will be in Syria. I will be in the homes of villagers struggling with hunger and debt. I will be with those who cannot access the temples I value—schools, hospitals, langars. I will be in the sleepless nights of the workers who came home, but have no work and do not know where to go next. I will be holding the hands of old people who are alone, wondering when this pandemic will end. I will watch over women who do not sleep, fearful of rape. I will be playing with children who find the little pockets of joy in the middle of a time when adult worries seem endless. I will be in the jails where the disease reinforces the will of the state to silence dissenters. I will be everywhere there is war, suffering and injustice. If you spare a thought everyday for my people, I will be in your heart. But I will not be at the ritual or the site in Ayodhya. Know this for sure.”

The sun has set. In the darkness, I can see just his luminous eyes, full of tears that blur the world as he has shown it to me. I take those compassionate eyes into my heart and I leave.  

Monday, February 3, 2020

Just me, just for now

It's just one life.
It's just one day, fewer than 24 hours long.
It's just this minute.
Just for this minute,
let me stop.

Let me put down all the shoulds and oughts and supposed tos.

Just for this minute,
let me be.
It's just me;
surely it will not matter
if I stop,
just this minute,
just for today.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Absurd Politics, Incomprehensible World

Last week, as I read of IIT Kanpur setting up a committee to see if Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s nazm, Hum Dekhenge, was against Hindus, one phrase flashed back into my head from the distant past: the theatre of the absurd.

In the last few years, we have become accustomed to hearing so many absurd and ridiculous statements by politicians that we barely notice what they say. Their utterances are stupid at best and hateful and divisive at worst and most of the time, we barely notice. Sometimes we normalize these things by drawing them into our conversation, first using inverted commas and then not noticing when those fall off. I am thinking here of terms like ‘presstitute’ or ‘sickular’ or the ‘tukde tukde gang’ or ‘anti-national.’

Misogynist, casteist and communal speech are laughed off as if they are only social gaffes. A short period of outrage, directed at no one in particular and heeded by no one at all, and we return to the business of our lives.

I have been thinking of the only absurdist play I have ever studied, The Rhinoceros. In Ionesco’s play, the protagonist watches as one by one, everyone—actually everyone—turns into a rhinoceros. It begins with disbelief, then denial, then curiosity, admiration and wanting to belong. It does not make sense at any stage and the transformation is an awkward overlay on everyday conversations (or the other way around). At the beginning of the play, the rhinoceros is an anomaly, maybe even an optical illusion. By the end, Berenger, the protagonist, is the anomaly.

Towards the end of the play, one of the characters says, “To understand is to justify.” Over the years, as people have sought to explain to me India’s fascination with right-wing politics, the sense of persecution it taps into and our infatuation with what appear to be strong leaders, I have thought of this. The person who said this turned into a rhinoceros. I have resolutely refused to understand.

None of it makes sense. We use rationality and history and evidence, or even principle, to argue against an amoral universe that makes less and less sense, and this is why it is as if we are trapped in an absurdist play. And then I remember that when I was in college, many theatre groups would perform works from this genre and I realise now that while all of it made sense to me in the moment—each line or exchange as a cluster of words did--I can remember none of them as a coherent plot. There was none. Or if there was, then it eluded me. We are so caught up in each moment that we never get or we lose the plot, until it surreptitiously overtakes us.

Nothing makes sense today either except hazy recollections of moments in our collective past. Violence inside sealed gates. Jallianwala Bagh. The rise of the Nazis and Fascists. Police as mute witnesses. The pogroms in 1984 and 2002 against Sikhs in Delhi and Muslims in Gujarat. Us, mute, helpless, ill-informed, unseeing. In our denial and in our fascinations, we become rhinoceroses too.

[PS: Professor Mohammed Ayoob, Emeritus Professor at Michigan State University, has also been remembering the Theatre of the Absurd.] 

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Ayodhya: Sabko Sanmati De Bhagvaan

Ayodhya means invincible. But anything with an absolute description like that is surely a metaphor. The town, its spirit and its history are defeated by the human battle over ground and walls and ceilings and this room or that room. The people perhaps defeated by being dragged into what ultimately are squabbles.

The idea... what is the idea of Ayodhya? I think of that para from the Valmiki Ramayana describing Ramrajya that I used to quote a great deal:

“Only more than a month has elapsed since you took the sceptre in your hand, O Raghava! And mortals have become strangers to disease, death does not overtake even men worn out with age, women undergo no labour-pains during parturition and human beings are well-built indeed. An abundance of joy has fallen to the lot of every citizen dwelling in the town, O king! Pouring down nectarean water clouds rain at the proper time. Even the very winds which blow here are capable of giving a delightful touch, and are pleasing and healthful. People living both in the cities and in the country, arriving in the capital, declare, ‘May such a sovereign be our ruler for long’, O king!” (Srimad Valmiki Ramayana, Uttara Kandam XLI: 15-21)

Perfect governance feels like a mirage. An idea easily squashed by human stupidity and cupidity.


Ever since I saw the Ayodhya judgment was due today, I have been thinking of our obsession with a physical location.

I have also been thinking of Sita. Abducted and ensconced in a grove that we, with our obsession for tying ideas down to physical locations, identify with Ella, Bandarawela or Nuwara Eliya in today's Sri Lanka, we are told she still found Rama in her heart, with her, in every part of her day. As she was in his.

To paraphrase a book I love, if you want to be with someone you love, aren't you already there?

Shouldn't devotion to a deity or a divine idea be the same?


I have also been thinking of Rama's perfect and ultimate devotee, Hanuman. Rama does not sit on a throne in a temple. In virtually every traditional illustration, except these stylised angry new Hanumans, Rama dwells in Hanuman's heart.

Hanuman is known for physical strength and valour, for this devotion and for sagesse. He was wise. By holding Rama in his heart, he freed his faith and love and devotion of time and place.

"i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart)." The Internet is full of criticism of this ee cummings poem but to me it captures the kind of love you express to a beloved toddler--beyond reason and logic and trying to capture intense feeling in inadequate words: I love you to the moon and back. "i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart)." No separation between you and me. Between Hanuman and Rama.


na jāyate mriyate vā kadāchin
nāyaṁ bhūtvā bhavitā vā na bhūyaḥ
ajo nityaḥ śhāśhvato ’yaṁ purāṇo
na hanyate hanyamāne śharīre 
(Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 2, Verse 20)

Krishna, also in essence Rama, tells Arjuna that the soul is not born and never dies, does not come into being or cease to be. Then, what birthplace? What birthplace for one who is not born and does not die? One who is without start or end, as we learn in the Vishwaroopa chapter? 

danṣhṭrā-karālāni cha te mukhāni
dṛiṣhṭvaiva kālānala-sannibhāni
diśho na jāne na labhe cha śharma
prasīda deveśha jagan-nivāsa
(Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 11, Verse 25)

"Having seen your many mouths bearing your terrible teeth, resembling the raging fire at the time of annihilation, I forget where I am and do not know where to go. O Lord of lords, you are the shelter of the universe; please have mercy on me."

I forget where I am and do not know where to go. You are the shelter of the Universe.

But we will confidently pinpoint the location of the birth of the one who is neither born nor dies, who encompasses and embodies and shelters the Universe, although we scarcely know if we are coming or going. 


Invincible, are our hubris, our ignorance and our inability to love without limit. 


As we wait for the Supreme Court's verdict on the Ayodhya case, in which we have reduced the idea of Rama to the persona of a land litigant, prayers for sense or even magnanimity have failed so we must pray for peace. 

We just celebrated Gandhiji's 15oth birthday. In the words of his favourite bhajan: 

Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram
Pateeta Paavana Sita Ram
Ishwar Allah Tero Naam
Sabko Sanmati De Bhagvaan

Sabko Sanmati De Bhagvaan.