Saturday, September 29, 2012


At 5 in the morning, the streets were deserted, at the Tibetan Refugee Camp. The four of you are up, wandering the lamp-lit streets, to be in time for the early morning ritual prayers they said happen at the main monastery. And from the darkness, this old monk in maroon robes walking into the light, to stop in front of you. Big warm smile. And he invites you home for tea. He says he’ll take you for the prayers, but "first have tea". The others hesitate, but you gravitate towards warmth, as you always do, and say Yes, we will. He is absolutely delighted, his soul flowing out to you, mingling in the mist with yours.

So we walk in the darkness from one yellow pool of light to the next, to arrive at his small house, set tightly among many others. We bend and go into the cluster of small rooms. In the semi-darkness, photos of the Dalai Lama everywhere. Old furniture, old vessels, old relics from Tibet. The Buddha and the Taras. The infinite beauty of Tibetan art, an abundance of colours. Old black-and-white family photos. Carpets. He brings in a huge flask full of tea, and pours it out in small old ceramic cups for you. All the while chattering away about his home in Tibet, the Dalai Lama. The majestic mountains. The snow. The prayer flags. The ancient monasteries. The colors.  His parents. The very air. Home, the most beautiful place on earth.

Then we go out again, with our self-appointed guide. As the dawn slowly breaks in thin orange slivers at the horizon, he takes us to the main monastery, opens doors only accessible to a few, takes us to rooms where the ancient musical instruments are kept, rooms where the Dalai Lama holds audience whenever he visits. And then from a balcony within the massive building, we see the huge hall below with hundreds of monks in maroon robes sitting in long lines facing each other, chanting their morning prayers. Goose bumps are probably the only befitting response.

Looking out of an upstairs window, he pauses, points to the acres of fields all around, on undulating hills, and tells you, “Beyond that, is India”. There is a silence. You who had not for a moment felt not-at-home, standing on soil you believe have every right to be on, your birthright. Which you have never imagined anyone will take away from you. A security you have never for a second questioned. You who otherwise never take anything for granted. You are struck dumb by the enormity of what you have, and what he doesn’t.

By now you have become his most eager listener, the only one who keeps pace with him. And he is talking non-stop, the stories flowing out of him like a dam suddenly opened, you are one river without boundaries now. The others are tiring of his non-stop chatter, in an accent difficult to follow, they lag behind. You know this want, this need to make your stories come alive in the narration. For everything that is uttered, at last, attains reality, it is no longer something you just imagined. You will not deny this kind stranger this joy, this comfort. You will not set conditions for this connection.

He takes you all around the refugee camp, the various temples, the shops, he wants you to experience the best of Tibetan culture. And when the sun is firmly up in the sky, he finally takes leave. You feel you have lost family you have found after years.

A few minutes after he says his goodbye and leaves, another monk stops us on the road. He asks if the old man was bothering us. We are puzzled. He says, “I’m sorry if he was bothering you, he does this to all strangers. He’s mentally imbalanced, he’s not well. He’s been in this camp since he was a young man, and had to flee Tibet, walking across the mountains for weeks. Ever since he’s realized he can never go back home again, he’s not been okay.”

It tears you up. You want to go down on your knees and cry. Home. A wish you can in no way help him fulfill. You cannot even just buy him a ticket, because that, you would’ve done instantly, wiping out all your savings if need be, without a second thought, to hell with reason. You are fighting against forces so powerful that can so mindlessly crush an innocent man’s desire to go see if his parents are still alive, or have been killed, whether their souls have departed without the necessary last rites of passage into the other world, unprepared for the bardo of Fear.

Madness, the only way out of that desire to go home. And a reaching out to people, who will listen to your stories, people who will help you recreate that space into being, people who will watch over you kindly while you trip over words, clearly not in control of yourself.

Many many years later, when you listen to the fiery young Tibetan activist, Tenzin Tsundue, at a film screening at Nani Cinématheque about a march to Tibet, you remember the old man walking around at the Refugee Centre, desperately seeking a kind ear who will watch over him while he re-builds his sand castle called Home.

Before the next wave washes it away. 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

I was a Stranger, and You took Me in

"I will tell you a story that will make you believe in God", the old man tells the narrator, in the opening chapter of Yann Martel's novel, 'Life of Pi'.

Let me tell you a story that will make you believe in Kindness. Well, probably just for a short while, before the soot of skepticism settles down again :)


So my friend's cousin's 84-year-old father-in-law goes missing one fine morning, from their flat in Delhi. His wife had died a few weeks ago, and he'd gone into depression. They had not taken him for the cremation because the cemetery was far away, and he was unwell. He'd walked out with no money, and no sweater, in the freezing January cold. Searching, police complaints, media ads, nothing yielded any results. The son and daughter-in-law go to pieces, not knowing whether he was dead or alive, or suffering. The only clue they get is from the cemetery watchman who said that yes, an old lost-looking man with no sweater had come there a couple of days ago.

A few days later, an auto rickshaw driver finds the old man fallen down at a bus stop, dehydrated, frozen. He takes him to a hospital which gives him basic first aid, but refuses to keep patients "with no bystanders". The police arrives, and tries speaking to the old man. He has no idea who he is, where he is from, where he needs to go. After many futile attempts, the policeman tells the rickshaw driver (who waited all this while) to just drop him at the bus or railway station, he'll find his way back.

He cannot bring himself to do that. What if this had happened to my own father, he thinks, what would he do? So he takes the old man home. The auto driver stays in a slum, in a small room he shares with 4 other rickshaw drivers. He makes place for the old man, gives him a blanket, and a share of his own meagre meals, for the next 2 weeks. He tries speaking to him every day, but the old man spoke hardly any Hindi, and the rickshaw man does not know English. And anyways, the old man does not even remember his own name, he is lost in another world.

In the meanwhile, the young man moves heaven and hell, trying to find ways of finding the old man's relatives, but has no idea what to do. And then he asks this lady, who works in an IT company, one of his regular passengers, if she could come home and speak to the old man in English. She agrees. She spends a lot of time cross-questioning the old man - all he knows is that he used to live with his son and daughter-in-law, and that he has two grand-kids. She asks him their names. The old man suddenly remembers one of them, "Govind", he says. And then he remembers that they stay in Govind Apartments. That was it, he retreats into silence again.

The lady googles for Govind Apartments in Delhi, and finds so many of them - Delhi is a vast, sprawling metropolis where millions live. She makes a list of all the Govind Apartments in Delhi, with their addresses, and gives it to the rickshaw driver. And tells him that if he does not find the old man's family, she will put him at an old age home that she knows.

The young man does not want to give up easily. Every day, for a few hours, he takes the old man in his rickshaw, to one Govind apartment after the other, across the huge city, driving hundreds of kilometers up and down, and asks the Security guards at each gate, whether there was an old man missing from there.

After many days, he finally lands up at the correct apartment block. The Security guards immediately call his son. The old man is back home, though still disoriented, with hardly any recollection of the weeks that had gone by.

The overwhelmed son tries to pay or recompense the rickshaw driver for all the money, time and care he has so willingly spent on his father for 2 weeks. He does not accept even a penny. "If this was my father, would I not have done so much for him? Just because he's your father, not mine, should I do any less?" - was the simple logic that made this a most obvious thing for him. He could not imagine taking money for that.

He goes back to his slum, leaving behind a stunned family, forever marked by a kindness that cannot but transform the way they view the world.


While millions sit in spirituality sessions, struggling to understand "Universal Soul", "Universal Consciousness", the "Spirit that links all Sentient Beings", our inter-connectedness is seen, and preserved, in the most unexpected of places, as the most obvious and ordinary thing.

I often think - every day, in the mad rush of our busy lives, we cross people who could’ve changed our lives, if only we could hear their stories, or see the lamps that light them from within.

* "I was a Stranger, and you took me in": from The Bible, Mathew 25:35