Zindadil Lahore!

old womn 39

Chai wala

Zindadil is one the great words in Urdu. Translated as ‘lively-hearted’, ‘vivacious’, or even, ‘up for it’, the word is full of energy and veritably rings like a bell when pronounced. And while it describes Pakistanis in general, it is the people of Lahore, one of the truly great cities of the world, who can best be described as zindadil.

I lived in Lahore between August 1986 and July 1987 as a paying guest in a middle class family home in Rivaz Garden. Everyday I rode my pushbike across several suburbs to Shadman Colony where I studied Urdu. In the afternoons and on many weekends I explored the city at leisure taking in classical music concerts at the Alhamra Theatre, dance performances in Hira Mandi, mushairas (poetry recitals) in many private homes and qawwali in the Old City.

The city welcomed me warmly, as if I were a long-lost relative. No one I met questioned why I was there or made me feel as if I shouldn’t be. Whether I meandered through the cloth-draped bazaars in the Inner city or sipped a double peg at a flash soiree in Gulberg, Lahoris treated me with respect, warmth and great humour. As an outsider it was wonderful and comforting to feel simultaneously welcome and ignored.

In my year in Lahore there was plenty in the air. Benazir Bhutto had recently been allowed to return to Pakistan. When she visited Lahore the air was electric with excited expectation. Gen. Zia, of course, was very much in charge but also the butt of hundreds of jokes. Everyone wanted a change.

One of the General’s more infamous policies—nurturing ideological gangs dressed up as political or religious parties, to act as proxies to advance his political agenda—was being played out in Karachi. Small arms had flooded the city and bombs exploded in buses, markets and mosques on a regular basis. Protected politicians operated torture chambers for their enemies. But all this was just headlines to us in Lahore. Our city was the embodiment of peace and goodwill.

The atrocity which occurred this weekend in Gulshan Iqbal is, unfortunately, nothing new in Pakistan. The seed planted by Gen. Zia clearly has found fertile ground. The deadly weed is choking the life out of the country. Even the fact that the bombers targeted children and revelling families is nothing unusual. The slaughter of children and happy families at play is so commonplace it is proof enough of the existence of the Devil.

As a city and country I love binds its wounds yet again I wanted to recall that word zindadil. It is this quality that I hope Lahoris will be able to draw upon in the next few weeks. Keep your hearts alive and lively! They are stronger than the darks hearts of the murderers.

The photograph that is at the head of this post captures the quality of zindadil for me. He is a chaiwala near Lahore Fort. When I passed he called out to me with a friendly, slightly off colour Punjabi phrase. In revenge I turned and shot! He laughed and I then bought a cup of tea!







Zafar’s two lines (Part 2)


The second line of Zafar’s couplet goes as follows:

Tu dhundhta hai jisko vo chchupa hai tujhi mein/ par tu hai bekhabar

(That/He which/whom you seek is hidden within yourself/but you are unaware)

Ever since discovering the line I have treasured it my heart. At first, I didn’t know why. I wasn’t particularly interested in ‘deep’ meanings in poetry or spiritualism. Indeed, at that point in my life I was in active and full retreat from the  Christian evangelical paradigm of my formative years.  But the line just made sense.  Such things, to the extent that they existed–Spirit, God, Truth–were obviously intangible. If they were real then they would be part of a person’s inner world.

I moved my life to Pakistan in the late 1980s, so much closer to Bahadur Shah Zafar’s home ground.  The 4 or so years that I spent in Pakistan turned out to be life changing. Of course, like all good things, the ways in which my life changed was not apparent at the time. But who I am today, and my place on the road, very much can be traced to “The Pakistan Years”.

It was a love-at-first-sight scenario. From the moment I stepped off the plane in Lahore on a muggy summer morning I felt something click into place. Two ends of a chain that had been dangling lonely,  suddenly joined together.  A surge of energy was released. A near empty well gushed with water.  Metaphor upon metaphor comes to mind as I recall those days. Though there is a resistance to the phrase, you could say I was ‘born again’.

What was this energy? What kind of water was this?  What was it about that country that gave me a new lease on life?

I don’t have an answer. In the external world of things and people it was ghazals,  folk music and khadai murg.  It was the spectacular light of Kashmiri valleys on a winter’s evening. It was the grimy but always so verdant galis of Pindi, Multan, Peshawar and Lahore. It was the Urdu language. It was definitely charas (hashish) which turned these already beautiful things into mysterious adventures.

The greatest expression of this energy came in the form of a compelling urge to photograph.  I had been taking pictures for ten or so years at that point but my interest had plateaued a few years earlier. One afternoon as I lay on my futon I became aware of a vibration in my body. I sensed I was  a fly stuck in honey.  I heard something deep within me say, “You can’t let this energy be wasted.  It is holy.”  I made a commitment right then to get up early every weekend morning to intentionally and purposefully take photographs.

For the next 2 or more years I kept that commitment. The quality of my photographs went way up as did my pleasure and understanding of photography.  Today I look back at 1988-90 as the period when I began my artistic career.

Experiences like this deepened my attraction to Zafar’s poem. Though I could not articulate it and didn’t feel the need to do so, I KNEW that that something hidden deep within me, and something that was not human, was real.

Since that time I have experienced equally profound ‘connections’ with this ‘hidden thing’. Whispers, dreams, gut feelings that were not your usual gut feelings but absolute KNOWINGS about certain things have all come to me.   I’ve even heard it speak out loud to me.   So the veracity of Zafar’s line, that ‘that/he which/whom you seek is hidden within you’ has been proved.

The statement is as old as the hills.  Spiritual writing of masters from many traditions have always pointed to the interior as the repository of meaning and purpose in life.  The ancient Jews said in the book of Proverbs “For as [a man] thinketh in his heart, so is he.”

Gautam Buddha is reported to have said, “You are what you think.  All that you are arises from your thoughts.  With your thoughts you make your world.”

Jesus echoes the same in his typically simple and colourful way, “You shall know them by their fruits”.

The interesting thing was that these profound connections seemed to be completely unpredictable and did not necessarily involve (in fact, rarely involved) any conscious ‘seeking’ on my part.  The inner voice woke up to speak whenever It chose to but in response to a very deep, almost unconscious desire on my part for something ‘more’.  Van Morrison has an album called Inarticulate Speech of the Heart. That sums up perfectly, until recently, my relationship with Zafar’s ‘hidden person/thing’.  Whatever/whoever this Force was it was massive. It visited me with such fundament and clarity that it was impossible not to believe this was the Universe itself speaking/moving.   And though its visits would often result in tangible and very useful things that I wanted (jobs, book deals, companions) I never felt I could directly engage in conversation with It.  It was simply too Vast, too Massive, too Deep and too Subtle for me to get its attention through any action on my part. I simply had to wait for It to stir.


In recent months I have made a bold decision to completely change my life.  One of the driving factors behind the decision was a book deal I landed–quite by chance–in mid-2015.  When I say ‘by chance’ I of course mean, it was the Hidden One moving things in response to an inarticulate cry from my heart that I wanted to write full time. Since making the decision to leave my old career behind and pursue writing and a home business I have, for the first time, cocked my ear to the sayings of mainstream ‘self-help’ gurus like Wayne Dyer, Bob Proctor and Louise Hay.

Like all the spiritual leaders they have come to the conclusion that ‘what you think you create’.  And further, that our outer circumstances and ‘reality’ is but a reflection of our inner person. And further still, that to affect real  sustained change we each must change the ‘self-image’ we have created of ourselves, inside. And further even still, that we can create any sort of reality we want (barring one in which unicorns play a key role) by changing the things we believe and think about. Indeed, they insist, that is the ONLY way to do so.

This has been quite a challenge for me. I’ve always assumed the outer ‘me’ was the more significant one. Sure this inner voice was powerful and amazing but it was reserved for those BIG issues. And It was not readily accessible. I could access, however,the external ‘me’ very easily.

More challenging still is the view that I am responsible 100% for my outer reality because it is but a reflection in the physical world of my inner spiritual world.  My life has been amazing in many ways. But it has also been full of half starts, frequent failures, regular ‘I call it quits’, ineffective and inconsistent results and shitty relationships.  I’ve never been able to hold on to money. I’ve struggled with depression off and on.  That I  have to take ownership of it all and responsibility for it and not blame other people, circumstances and forces has been a cold slap in the face.

The good news  is that while we are 100% responsible for what our life looks like and what we accomplish, achieve, experience, feel, attain etc., we also have ultimate and absolute power and capability to change ourselves. How? By changing our inner reality and story. By changing how and what we believe and think about.

Which in the end gets me back to Zafar. Whereas until recently I understood that “hidden one’ within me to be entirely Cosmic and unknowable, I know get that in fact, It is me. It is not separate from me, like some external deity. It is nothing but me. Or vice versa. I am nothing but It. And far from being accessible only by chance, It is very accessible every moment of the day through my thoughts.

What you seek is hidden within you, wrote Zafar. I always thought that meant ‘God’ or ‘Love’ or  ‘Purpose’.  But in fact, he meant, EVERYTHING you seek is hidden there. Mundane things like the house you want to live in. The amount of money you want to earn. The partner you want. The career and job you want. All these things, everything your heart desires is within you.  And if you want to see it in your outer world, in real physical form, you need to first see it and find it inside.





Motherless Child

Motherless Child_ Interpretations of the Great Negro Spiritual

I have many passions. Negro Spirituals are one of them as is gospel music in general. My childhood was passed in a seriously Christian environment so the roots of many of these old songs are deep in my soul.  I no longer prescribe to the worldview of my childhood but I definitely cling to the beauty of songs such as Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.

In preparing my column for Scroll.in. last week on the music of Afghanistan I stumbled upon a wonderful rendition of this hymn which blew my socks off, not least for its unexpected discovery in a country not generally associated with Afro-American music!

Several years ago I put together a couple compilations of Motherless Child for my (now discontinued) blog, Washerman’s Dog. Given what happened last week I decided to revive the links to those compilations which cover versions of the song from all over the musical landscape.  If you’re interested in hearing some utterly fantastic music feel free to click the links below.

Part 1: Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child

Part 2:  Motherless Children: More Interpretations of the Great Negro Spiritual

The Glories of the Rubab


The region known in ancient times as Khorasan bequeathed a rich and diverse cultural heritage to human civilisation. Like all long-lived cultures, Khorasan’s geography expanded and constricted like a huge lung breathing art, beauty and elevated thought, spread across much of what today we call Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. So huge was its presence and vast its territory that Babur, the first Mughal, proclaimed, “The people of Hindustan call every country beyond their own Khorasan”.

Among the roll call of illustrious Khorasanis is an “A List” of poets, mystics, theologians and scientists: Rumi, Rudaki, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Omar Khayyam, al Biruni, Abu Hanifa and al Ghazali being just the more renowned. The contributions of these great souls to the understanding of astronomy, physics, literature, medicine, Islamic philosophy and mathematics, in many cases, formed the “standard texts” until relatively recent times.

Sometime around the 7th century CE, Persian texts including the writings of Sufis began to mention a musical instrument they called rubab. Its inventor and exact place of birth is not recorded, but given its undeniably Khorasani origin, I like to imagine the rubab was played for the first time in northern Afghanistan around Balkh. Others claim it was invented in Ghazni. Whatever the truth, the rubab is now the beloved national instrument of Afghanistan. [Full article appearing in Scroll.in]

Zafar’s two lines (Part 1)


The man pictured above is one of the more poignant characters of recent Indian history. Abu Zafar Sirajuddin Muhammad Bahadur Shah Zafar inherited the throne of Mughal India at the age of 63 in 1837.  Grand though his ancestors’ Empire had once been and as fabled the name–‘Mughal’ was a synonym for other-worldly luxury and power to the 17th century European imagination–when the old man ascended the throne he was in fact, little more than the King of Delhi. During his grandfather’s reign, the city’s wags came up with the line, Sultanat-e-Shah Alam, Az Dilli ta Palam [The kingdom of Shah Alam extends from Delhi to Palam]. A vast territory indeed,  covering a mere dozen or so miles.

Not only did Bahadur Shah inherit a ‘moth-eaten’ kingdom, he was cursed with bad timing.  As his family’s influence shrank to near-comical dimensions the wealth and aggressive power of the British grew ravenous. It was the old Shah’s kismat to live his days along a crease in time; those lines of history which demarcate the end from the beginning. They say when a King dies there is moment when his Kingdom’s Fate hangs suspended in the balance.  As the bitter internecine fights that inevitably surround the dying monarch break out, the people hold their breath and wait, hoping for a smooth and rapid restoration of order.

Twenty years into Bahadur Zafar’s reign all hell broke loose.  Local soldiers in the employ of the red-coated East India Company revolted against their English commanders. Rumours had it that the bullets they used in their weapons were oiled with pig and cow grease.  In Meerut sipahis (soldiers) mutinied and overthrew the Company’s garrison. The violence and momentum spread across the plains toward Kanpur and Lucknow.  With the English on the backfoot, deserters rushed to Delhi and appealed to the opium-smoking Emperor to back their cause.

Although the historical tide had truly turned against the House of Babur, perhaps the old man saw one final flash of grandeur beckoning.  He assented to throwing his mighty symbolic authority behind the rebels but to no avail. The Englishmen rallied and clawed their way to Delhi where they unleashed a scorched earth campaign against the city’s people.  The Emperor’s sons were beheaded. As for His Majesty himself, he was humiliatingly carted off to Rangoon, a sort of Siberian exile, where he breathed his last 87 years after being born.

Bahadur Shah Zafar was not born great. And rather than greatness, all he had thrust upon him were ill luck and disaster. But this last Mughal of note did achieve greatness, nevertheless.  And it is to a small detail of that eminence that I now turn.



Sample of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s calligraphy

Those who observed Bahadur Shah Zafar before he became Emperor remarked on his ordinariness: tall and thin with the appearance of a tutor. With no expectation or ambition to be the Shahenshah, Zafar had spent his life composing poetry, developing a very fine hand at calligraphy, smoking opium and generally, reflecting on the way the Universe worked.

He was a man of letters rather than politics. He shared his lifetime with the greatest of all Urdu poets, Ghalib, and his time in power coincided with a final flourishing of the sharif (noble) arts for which we so fondly appreciate the Mughal dynasty.

Zafar composed poetry in a number of styles including ghazal and masnavi and used an Urdu that was, considering his own social rank, quite common.  Compared to Ghalib’s lines which are full of Persianised phrases Zafar’s language is refreshingly straight-forward.  Many of Zafar’s poems are beloved classics. They are recited and sung to this day across northern India and Pakistan.  This rendition of Baat Karni Muskhil by Mehdi Hassan is among the best and most popular.

There is a strong sense of sorrow and despair in many of Zafar’s poems, almost as if in his youth he had seen a vision of his tragic and pathetic last years.   Here is one such, which was sung by Mohammad Rafi in the film Lal Qila.

Lagtaa nahii hai dil meraa ujRe dayaar mei
What pleasure can the heart know in this derelict city

Kiss kii banii hai aalame-naapaaidaar mein
Who has found fulfillment in this mortal world

Umr-e-daraaz maang ke laaye the chaar din
Having asked for long life, I brought back four days

Do aarzuu mein kat gaye do intezaar mein
Two passed away in yearning and two in waiting

Kah do in hasraton se kahiin aur jaa baein
Tell these desires to go and settle down elsewhere

Itnii jagah kahaan hai dil-e-daaghdaar mein
There is little room in this so tainted heart

Kitnaa hai badnaseeb zafar dafan ke liye
How ill fated is that for Zafar even for his burial

Do gaz zamiin bhii naa milii kue-yaar mein
Was not granted two yards of earth (for his grave) in the land of the beloved

(Translation from First Impression blog)

If we were to take his external words as a reflection of his inner state, the last Mughal of India was an unloved child with rock bottom self esteem!



My love affair with Zafar’s many popular ghazals came after I stumbed upon a couplet of his from a masnavi.  I studied Urdu as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota where the head of the South Asian Department was none other than the much feted M.A. R. Barker.  In one of his several books on Urdu language and poetry I found the following lines:

Kyon ka’aba o kanishth mein sar marta hai tu   /  sargarm-e-justuju

Tu dhundtha hai jisko chchupa woh tujhi mein hai   / par tu hai bekhabar

(Why do you bang your heads in the Kaaba and temple / in a feverish search?

What you are searching for is hidden within you   /  but you are aware)

I was raised in a religious home and so this pooh-poohing of mindless worship struck a chord.  I completely understood and embraced that first line.  I knew the Divine was not in some building or another and that rituals (the banging of the head) were generally followed out of a fearful desperation (the feverish, frenetic, scurrying search).

The second line made sense in that if ‘God’ was not out there then he/she/they must be internal within me.  And though I’ve never doubted that truth, my appreciation of Zafar’s simple statement has only deepened over the years.

(Part 2 to follow)




Of Ambassadors and heroes.

old womn 2

Individual style is a sensitive issue for artists. We are told that we must have a voice or an eye that stands out, yet when we finally develop one, some smartass comes along and says, “Oh, that looks just like so-and-so’s work.”

All of us learn how to do what we do by copying those who are bigger, faster and more experienced. I remember hearing Clive James, the Australian writer, talk about how one of his teachers made him write something each week in the style of another writer – Ian Fleming, James Joyce, Mark Twain and so on. James reckoned that this process of near-slavish imitation had been very useful in developing his own voice.

In the words of the 19th-century French painter, Edgar Degas, “the secret is to follow the advice the masters give you in their works while doing something different from them.” Easier said than done.

Near the end of his short life, the fabulous Indian photographer Raghubir Singh published a book called A Way Into India, which consisted entirely of photographs of or photographs made from inside a Hindustan Ambassador car. It’s a major and quirky work, a kind of photographic ode to a piece of metal. [This article was originally published by Scroll.in and can be read there]