On the killings in New Zealand and a 19th Century Indian poet


Mirza Ghalib

Thinking about yet another mass murder of innocents and a frightened, hate-filled man who brazenly dons the mantle of ‘heroic defender of white people’.  In his effort to protect the white race Brenton Tarrant has stupidly only succeeded in further darkening the growing stain of shame that  covers so much of the pale skinned fraternity.


I am a white person. I am a male.  Together these two accidents of birth have placed me at the very bullseye of privilege.  As someone recently said, ‘98% of everything that has ever been invented is aimed at me.’  Why then, do white men like Tarrant feel so afraid and victimised? Why do people like Carlson Tucker, the smug, chubby Fox News commentator, take such enspittled pleasure in categorising Iraqis as ‘primitive, semi-literate monkeys’?  Why does President Trump describe the majority of the earth as a shit hole crawling with rapists?  Psychologists and sociologists are having a field day explaining it to us: poor education; demagogy; brutal fathers; sexual repression.  But to me there is one obvious explanation, travel. Or more accurately, lack of it.


When I consider my own experience of this world and why, as a white ‘Christian’ male my response to a mosque is not to pick up a rifle and take aim, the most obvious difference between me and Tarrant, Tucker and Trump is that I’ve actually spent some time in a mosque. Be it meditating in the quiet shadows of Mahabat Khan’s in Peshawar or gobsmacked by the colours and visual stimulation of Wazir Khan’s in Lahore, masjids are some of the most sublime spaces on earth.  But that is hard to appreciate if you never leave the suburbs.


I’ve lived in 8 countries and visited another 30+ as part of my profession as an aid worker.  I went to a liberal arts school in a politically liberal state in the USA. Most of my American friends lean left of center.  I have offered free accommodation and even help with air tickets to friends to come visit me in all 8 countries and not one has taken me up on the offer.  To my knowledge none has left American shores in over thirty years. 64% of Americans do not possess a passport. 33% rank Disneyland as their ultimate dream holiday. How appropriate that these days Mickey Mouse trumps Machu Picchu.


Being able to speak Urdu and Hindi and have conversations with people who are actually Muslims and Hindus and fanatics and sentimentalists and con men and big souled spirits, Pakistanis and Indians and people who want to welcome me into their homes and people who think I’m a CIA spy and want me arrested, has allowed me to appreciate the contradiction and nuance of every human, including myself.


Spending hours walking slowly through the bazaars of Delhi, Allahabad, Dushanbe and Pindi. Observing and being observed. Tasting the food and hearing the jokes. Shaking hands, embracing, bumping shoulders, pushing and shoving for the window seat. Watching bad Punjabi movies and excellent Tajik films. Reading local newspapers and watching PTV and Doordarshan. Being asked to defend American war mongering as well as listening to praise for America’s culture. Understanding that for most people in the world, Jesus is just another prophet or avatar of Vishnu and being embraced as a person of the Book.  Being called a red monkey and worse. Being chased through the desert by a mob of angry Pakistanis. Being given half of a poor Muslim man’s roti when I have no money of my own to buy breakfast.


You do these things more than once in your life and you can’t help but feel a part of something bigger. At first you feel smaller. But stronger. The world that seemed so easy to hide in the palm of your trembling hand now is marvellous beyond comprehension. The world is there with you. You are a part of it.  Not the best or strongest or greatest part. Just one part. There exists only the world. There is no ‘them’. Only ‘us’.  Or, perhaps we are all ‘them’.


Mirza Ghalib who lived in Delhi in the 19th century is regarded as the greatest of all Urdu poets. He lived during a period of huge and rapid change that saw his beloved sharif (noble) Muslim culture, collapse all across north India. Often in the face of great violence. He had to make sense not merely of a new group of ‘immigrants’—white people from Britain—but well-armed, motivated invaders.  As a brown male Muslim male his historical position of privilege was undermined in the wink of an eye by an invading horde of ‘Christians’ whose habits, clothing and religion were as different to his as night is from day. But unlike the Muslims praying in the New Zealand mosque, the white arrivistes to mid 19th century Delhi were intent on seizing power as well as imposing their ‘civilisation’ and ‘faith’ on the local population.


Some of his countrymen eventually rebelled and did take up arms to try to restore lost Mughal pride. It didn’t work. Just as Tarrant’s killing spree will not succeed in protecting a whiteness that is supposedly under attack. As a writer Ghalib had only words to make sense of the changes that were truly engulfing him and his society.


Here are a couple of his lines that seem especially apropos to this day and recent events.


منزل ملیگی

بھٹک کر ہی سہی

گمراہ تو وو ہیں

جو گھر سے نکلے ہی نہیں


Manzil milegi

Bhatak kar hi sahi

Gumrah to wo hain

Jo ghar se nikle hi nahin


You’ll lose your way for sure

But you will reach your destination eventually.

The one who is truly lost

Is he who never leaves his house.






Road Stories: Running Home (Pt. 2)


The Russians were easy to find. I heard their tipsy, vodka soaked laughter coming from a shady part of the compound. Four or five of them were sitting on adjacent porches of their apartments, their fleshy faces flushed red with heat and drink.

As I approached, silence broke out.

I smiled, hoping it would break the ice. It didn’t.

They stared at me, obviously perplexed and irritated that I had interrupted their lunch break. One of the women whispered something to her friend.

“Excuse me,” I began.

By now I had my tale-of-woe down pat. I told them my mother was ill and I needed some money. “I need to get to Allahabad, about 700 kilometers from here,”

“No. No money,” one of them said.

A couple others joined in the chorus. “No money. Go away.” A man with huge arms and angry eyes said it louder than the others. With real authority.

Having spent 8 years in boarding school I knew a lost cause when I met one. I turned back toward the gate.

But I was dying of thirst. With a drinking gesture I said, “Could I have some water?”

This second request really set them off. Amidst the general clamor of, “No water. Go!’, one of the men made a move towards me. He didn’t follow me but I didn’t have  the courage to turn back and check until I was several meters down the path. When I did turn the Russians were still tense. They glared at me, but as I retreated the laughing resumed.

A mali who was sitting in the shade on his haunches watering a guava tree beckoned me over.

He held up the hose for me to drink. He didn’t say much and I didn’t offer anything. I have no doubt he had been watching the scene play out from a distance. I sensed it was one he himself was familiar with and took his kindness as an act of solidarity.

The thought of a 10 km ride back to Hardwar in the midday sun depressed me, especially as I was no richer for my effort. I was too spent to formulate my next move, but I knew I needed to be in town where there existed at least the potential of assistance.

I must have looked miserable pedaling along the highway because out of nowhere a man appeared. His  well oiled, wavy hair  glistened in the sun. He wore narrow legged pants and a plaid yellow shirt. I can’t remember how it happened but he successfully commandeered my bike, sat me on the rear carrier and began cycling toward Hardwar.

Despite the heat, we got a bit of breeze going which cooled my cheeks slightly. I vaguely remember the Stranger talking to me but can’t recollect about what. Before I knew it we were back at the Station. He dropped me at the cyclewala and even paid the outstanding balance. Then with a nod of his head he disappeared as unexpectedly as he’d appeared.


I retreated to the relative comfort of the 1st class Waiting Room. I dozed on a rattan lounge chair with extendable arms that doubled as leg rests, one of the distinctive artifacts of railway waiting halls in those days. But I was hungry. And more than a little anxious about how I was going to make the next leg of the journey.

A middle class family were the only others in the Waiting Room. The patriarch reclined on a rattan chair like mine, staring blankly at a ceiling fan that swayed as it whirred madly. From time to time he lifted his buttocks and farted. But other than that, he didn’t move.

I may have been oblivious to him but I had been watching him for some time. After one of his farts I cleared my throat and in my best Hindi launched into conversation. I learned they had come to Hardwar on yatra (pilgrimage) and were now heading back home. I asked him about his business (the nature of which I’ve completely forgotten) and may have said a nice thing or two about his young child.

As a conversationalist he was unenthusiastic.

“My mother is ill,” I offered, hoping to pique his interest.

He may have nodded, but if he did, it was ever so slightly.

“I need to get home. To Allahabad. But I have no money.”

“Why do you not have money?”

“I was robbed,” I found my mouth saying. I couldn’t believe it. But I was in the water now, so I had to keep going.

“This morning on the way from Dehra Dun, it was very crowded in the bogie and when I got here I realized someone had stolen my money.”

He looked at me skeptically.

“Could you provide me with Rs. 20, so I could get a ticket? My mother is very ill.”

“You must report to the Railway Police,” he said. “If you have been a victim of theft.”

As far as he was concerned the conversation was over. The spinning fan captured his attention once more. I felt foolish but let a decent interval pass before shuffling out of the Waiting Room.


Once again, 24 hours after the first occasion, I entered the office of an Indian Railways bureaucrat. I had mulled over what the farting businessman had said. He was absolutely correct in his observation that the Police needed to be notified in the event of a crime. But in this case there had been no crime committed so fronting up to the Police would not be the smartest tactic. On the other hand, I was clean out of options.

The Railway Police office was shabbier than the Station Master’s in Dehra Dun. The man behind the desk had a pot belly and sweat stained his khaki uniform. His closely shaved head sported a choti, the little tuft of hair that identified him as a high caste Hindu. Unlike the Station Master his face lit up when I stood in front of his desk.

“Kya baat hai, baba?” he asked. What is it, lad?

Though he addressed me in Hindi he clearly didn’t expect me to respond in kind.

“Meri ma bimaar hai, aur mere paas ticket ka kiraya nahi hai,” I said, laying down the by now firm foundation of my story.

“Arey! Hindi bolte!” His belly jiggled with delight. “Ay shabaash!”

Before I could continue with my dishonest story he shot a series of questions at me in an attempt to come to grips with the fact that a white kid could speak Hindi.

I told him about me. I was American. I studied in Mussoorie. I was born in India. Rajesh Khanna was a good actor, yes.

Whereas the Station Master had instantly linked my school being located in Mussoorie and my being in his office to funny business, this jolly man didn’t give a stuff. Indeed, he was hooting to a couple of underlings about what a spectacular thing I was.

Somehow in the midst of this excitement I managed to explain my dilemma: 700 kms. No money. Sickly mother.

Before I knew it he grabbed my wrist and dragged me behind him. He marched outside with me in tow. A couple of minutes later we were seated at an open air dhaba that sold tea and fast food to the throngs around the station.

He instructed the dhabawala to give me a plate of curry and a few chapatis. “This fellow is American but born in India! It’s true. And he speaks spasht Hindi! Just listen.” He could hardly contain himself.

Though my mouth was full (this was my first food in nearly 36 hours) I knew this was the price of dinner. A small crowd had appeared or, rather the endless crowd of passersby stopped for a moment to look at me. It was my cue.

I restated in Hindi what I had told the Police Inspector a few minutes earlier, that I was American, born in India, lived in Allahabad but studied in Mussoorie.

People marveled and exclaimed. The Inspector couldn’t have beamed wider had I been his son. He ordered my plate to be refilled. I ate up. He continued to hold court but eventually passersby grew bored and the rhythm of the bazaar returned to normal.

The Police Inspector led me back to his office. I was grateful for the meal but had no idea how I was going to make it home.

He pressed a buzzer on his desk which immediately produced a minion. The underling was sent forth to find others and after several minutes returned with two colleagues who carried rifles and bulleted shoulder straps. They noisily pushed a pair of prisoners into the office in front of them. With their legs and wrists in irons the prisoners shuffled and clanged like cheap robots.

The inspector didn’t move from his desk and in a loud voice told the newly arrived cops that they were to include me in their party. They were on official duty, transporting criminals from Hardwar to the state capital. “You take this boy with you to Lucknow but do not let anyone, and I mean anyone, speak with him.”

With that, the chubby Police Inspector himself walked me to a train and bade me bon voyage.

I was on my way at last. Still ticketless, but with a pair of personal armed guards.

The Poetry of Sophia Pandeya


Sophia Pandeya is a South Asian-American poet currently based in California. Her poetry is luscious and verdant. Meanings and ideas sprout out from each line, some reaching for the sky while others burrow deep into the soil. For the past year or two I have been reading and falling in love with her poems.

Pandeya has published in prestigious journals such as The Adirondack Review and her first volume, Peripheries is currently available on Amazon and receiving excellent reviews. On her website Sophia identifies herself as “an in-between, an inhabitant of hyphen”. That thing, the hyphen, is both a separator and a joiner. And an indicator of something ‘missing’. An ambiguous, even scary, place for most people. But for Pandeya, it is home and a wellspring of inspiration.

Scroll caught up with Sophia for a discussion about her tangled roots and absorbing poetry.

[Full article with audio of poems as appeared in Scroll.in]

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.





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)