‘Messiah’ is a 10-part drama series created by Michael Petroni on Netflix which premiered on January 1, 2020. It follows the rise of a mysterious, soft-spoken Christ-like figure named al-Masih (aka “the Messiah”). A skeptical CIA agent Eva Gellar (Michelle Monaghan) is assigned to figure out whether this person they call al-Masih (Mehdi Dehbi) is actually a divine entity or just a dangerous con artist looking to upend the world’s geopolitical order. While the critics didn’t warm to it, and religious traditionalists criticized it, here are 10 reasons I absolutely loved it (Spoilers Ahead).
Firstly, the ambition of the show—to explore the core of spirituality on a global scale—is worthy of admiration. Using the comforting tropes of the global CIA thriller makes it palatable mainstream entertainment in its own right, but what made it stand apart for me was that the high spiritual EQ of the show. The fact that it got green-lit and made is a miracle in itself. .
I loved that every crisis of the key characters, while it may appear to be about conceiving a child, accepting their homosexuality or guilt over past wrongs, is really a spiritual crisis.In almost every other thriller/drama, the solution to the protagonists’ problems is attacking, punishing or killing someone. Here, as the external action unfolds, the characters either come to peace with themselves, or continue choosing to suffer. While some critics complained of the plot having loose ends, the real story—that of the inner transformation of the characters—is beautifully fleshed out. .
If Al-Masih is meant to be the return of the Christ, thank God he’s not played by a blond American. Perhaps the first time on screen that such a character is played by a person of Middle-Eastern origin. Good to see a brown lead who isn’t trying to enter the US, blow up the US or play Tonto to a Lone Ranger US agent. .
I loved that Al-Masih is not a cocky know-it-all prepared with the answers. He doesn’t have a plan to save the world and does not go around showing off how much he knows about whoever is in front of him. (“Ah Agent Aviram, I have been expecting you.”) God’s Will is revealed from moment to moment—and that is enough for him. Trusting in God’s goodness means trusting, as he says, “Nothing shall befall us, except what God has ordained.” Side note, also loved how simply and pragmatically the guidance comes—from an Instagram post, a ‘spontaneous’ decision, a dream. .
The show doesn’t shy away from asking difficult questions relevant to modern life and doesn’t provide easy answers. Al-Masih killing an injured dog to put him out of his suffering is a courageous scene to write. Likewise, the show’s take on abortion and immigration (…and ACLU lawyers!) At a larger level, the entire architecture of the show is designed as a spiritual Rorschach test, with enough evidence to support alternative theories. As Al-Masih says in his sermon on the Washington: “What you see happening depends on you.” .
I loved that each character has a different crisis of faith. The CIA agent, the ex-Mossad officer, the pastor, his wife and daughter, each has a different challenge to finding peace. The pastor Felix Iguero (John Ortiz) wants to believe and has moments of Grace but falters when he demands a plan. His wife Anna (Melinda Page Hamilton) wants to believe but not at the cost of the security of her family. The ex-Mossad officer Aviram (Tomer Sisley) keeps recreating situations of self-punishment for his past guilt but refuses to accept forgiveness. The CIA agent Eva Geller seems hell-bent on proving God wrong by having a baby even after her husband has died with his frozen sperm. Also, the show accurately depicts one important point: our fantasies of a savior notwithstanding, how easily the ego-mind reverts back to doubt even after experiencing miracles. The pastor burns his church even after he’s seen Al-Masih save his daughter from the storm and walk on water. Isn’t that how it is for all of us as well? .
The show’s creator Michael Petroni reposes hope for the future in the youth.Screwed up with teenage angst and confusion, they are still the most clear-eyed and willing to trust. “The fire burns brightly” in them, as Al-Masih says to the pastor’s daughter Rebecca (Stefania LaVie Owen) at one point. The other reflection of Al-Masih is the refugee boy, Jibril (Named after the Arabic name for the angel Gabriel meaning ‘hero/strength of God’. By the way, the Biblical choices of names are intriguing in themselves. Aviram and Eva are the two characters who seem most hopelessly stuck outside heaven… coincidence?) .
The government and religious machinery from both sides of the world are united in trying to discredit him, without any desire to know the truth about who he is. As the rich televangelist played by Beau Bridges suggests, they need to keep God out of these decisions. .
Loved that the character of Al-Masih spends much time communing in silence, instead of running around problem-solving. He’s comfortable even in a jail cell without needing to fix other prisoners’ problems. Neither does he try to unite Christianity and Islam—his single focus is on our connection with God. Broken spokes on a wheel don’t need to be fused together, they need to be joined to the center. Then they all work in unison. A nice reminder that the joining between man and God is the only real joining, not the joining between bodies or between dreams. .
Finally, loved his conviction that ‘History has ended.’(Eva Geller’s father reinforces this when he says he has been feeling something different in the sunrise these days) And by the way, in case you didn’t notice, the show was released on January 1, 2020… or if you want to call it ‘20/20’. Is it time to look with clarity at our world and simply “make a new choice”? .
Can’t wait for Season 2 of the show. I hope it is greenlit by the Algorithms-That-Be at Netflix and I hope the show holds its nerve to keep asking the questions that are worth asking. What if God really exists? What if His Will is audible to each one of us? Would we follow even without knowing the entire plan? Would we drink our fill like the bird that finds water in unseasonal frost, or would we ask questions first?
While on the subject of Marie Kondo, I was reading some of the reviews of the Marie Kondo Netflix show ‘Tidying Up’ and was astonished at how much of the Western media is missing the whole point. A few critics have gotten tangled debating her suggestion that we should keep fewer books, “ideally, less than 30”, in the house. I found more than a few stories in mainstream UK newspapers saying the popularity of her process would be ultimately catastrophic to landfills.
For her part, Marie Kondo has clarified often enough that her process is not about removing things, including books, from our life—it is about loving those things which we choose to keep because they spark joy in us. The KonMari method is a gentle reminder of holding an attitude of gratefulness for the service these small gods offer us. From this flows a sincere desire to treat them wisely, kindly and gently.
Watching the show, one can see that Marie Kondo is obviously an empath, with a keen gift of sensing into the energy of objects and her physical environment. Those on the spiritual path are not unfamiliar with this kind of sensitivity. Her process marries this innate gift with the philosophy from her childhood in Shintoism, where everything in natural world is alive with sacred spirit called “kami” and worthy of reverence. It’s a beautiful combination.
The KonMari Method though is more than a philosophical ideal. At a deeper level, I realized as I worked through my books and papers, my attachment to things is my attachment to the stories of those things, and the stories behind those things. The objects are the tangible symbols of those stories. And the clutter around me is the plans and emotions that I haven’t dealt with yet. So de-cluttering is actually a cathartic process of facing those leftover stories—the debris of our abandoned plans, aborted love affairs and alternate timelines—and letting go.
For some, this may mean an overhaul, for others a few minor changes. Either way, your clutter is your perfect, custom-designed path. Like the Zen monk who mindfully and diligently sweeps the pathway of dead leaves, clearing your house of clutter is clearing your mind. No wonder so many of those who go through it report a burst of energy and clarity after they complete it.
To those Western minds furiously employing the law of attraction to manifest fantastic objects to bring joy, Marie Kondo offers a gentle sister process: how about finding joy in what you have already manifested? How about enjoying them in the present moment? How about folding your clothes not to make them smaller, but to touch them with gratitude?
Intrigued by Marie Kondo’s advice, I watched an episode of another popular Western de-cluttering expert. She attacked the same process with hard-hat determination—clutter was a scourge to be exterminated and objects were a litany of old sins to be expunged. On the contrary, Marie enters cluttered house and gleefully exclaims, “I love clutter!” She begins her method with a prayer to connect with the energy of the house and ask the house for permission. In place of a shame-fuelled purge she offers a gentle goodbye to that which has served us… and a reminder that everything we own has served us in some way. While the former approach changes the way your house looks, Marie promises to change your attitude to what you keep, to what you give away, and as a parting gift, to what you will purchase in the future.
With that last gift I think—and no critic has noted this—the Konmari method is actually an antidote to mindless consumerism and fast fashion. Not only because of that brilliant moment of shock when a person, for the first time, sees all the clothes they own piled into a mountain, but also for how Marie treats each object. Her method values the classic, the timeless, the long-lasting. Every item of clothing is treated like a friend you treasure for years, not as fast fashion you trash every few months. That lifelong bond with the items that serve us is an unspoken gift of the diminutive Japanese lady’s method to the audiences—and in the long run, also to the landfills.
On 13th October 2018, Annapurna Devi passed away. Her death was as peaceful as her life in the last 60 years had been, ever since she stopped playing music publicly, because of a vow she made to save her marriage to sitarist Pandit Ravi Shankar. While the marriage still failed, she held her vow till the end. For the last 60 years she had lived the life of a hermetic recluse, seeing no one except for her music students. A life of pure devotion to her music and her goddess, Sharada Maa. I was lucky to be the first journalist ever to interview her in 2000 — a story that went viral many times over. This, with the wisdom of hindsight and maturity, is my final story about her. It was published by the Mumbai Mirror across six pages on October 14.
THE MUSIC OF SILENCE
I was 27 years old when I was offered a chance to record the defining interview of my life — a story that would become the benchmark of everything else I would write, and would become the Rorschach test for my own changing attitudes to relationships as I grew older. I was Contributing Editor for a Men’s lifestyle magazine called Man’s World India — a respectable local variant of GQ or Esquire. Unexpectedly, into my lap, fell this opportunity from a friend of a college friend to interview a reclusive musical maestro named Annapurna Devi — so reclusive, I was told, that she would be speaking to a journalist for the first time ever. My friend introduced me forward to her friend, an affable diamond merchant by day and devoted student of ‘Maa’ in every spare hour, and my first question to him was, ‘Who is she?’
In a world where ‘low-profile’ means not giving interviews till your next album, here was a musician who had stonewalled the media — and not gone out in public, literally — since three decades before I was born. If there were no recent photographs of her, it was because she had not been photographed since 1956. Even in the world of Indian classical music, where she was a legend, she was more heard of than heard. Many of those who had seen her play live, at a clutch of recitals in the Forties till the mid-Fifties, were now dead.
So I began to piece together her story from fragments and shards for the first time. She was the daughter of Ustad Allauddin Khan, widely acknowledged as the father of Hindustani classical music. In some sense, her lineage itself made her the equivalent of the first daughter of the Hindustani classical world. But she was more than that. Allauddin Khan’s youngest daughter was the foremost living exponent of the surbahar, a difficult instrument colloquially described as a ‘bass sitar’. Moreover, over the years, she had been the Guru Maa – a combination of music teacher and spiritual guru – to hundreds of students which included a veritable Who’s Who of rising stars of modern Hindustani classical music — Nikhil Banerjee, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Ashish Khan, Bahadur Khan, Nityanand Haldipur, Sudhir Phadke, Basant Kabra, Amit Bhattacharya, Pradeep Barot and many others. But the part that caught my attention, and the reason I was being given the interview, was because she was also the first wife of sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar. More specifically, what caught my attention was why she was no longer his wife: a tragic story that became the main reason why she had shut out the world beyond her music room.
From her students I learned that she had not played in public for 50 years because of a vow she had taken. I was further intrigued when I was told that the cult 1970s Bollywood film ‘Abhimaan’ — in which the marriage between singer Subir (Amitabh Bachchan) and his unassuming young bride Uma (Jaya Bachchan) breaks down because he is jealous of her superior talent — was based on the story of their marriage. It was this story of a fiery, ill-fated marriage of two creative artistes that I explored in my piece ‘The Tragedy of A Relationship’ in August 2000. So fiery, in fact that the stray sparks, still flying forty years after separation, had led to this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: the only reason the reclusive Annapurna Devi had agreed to speak to a journalist now was because her former husband had misrepresented their marriage in his new autobiography.
For the next few weeks, guided by her student Atul Merchant, I immersed myself in her life story, which was like a crash course in the history of modern Indian classical music. I interviewed some of her students and music critics. And finally, when I was ready, I visited her home. While appearing to be an ordinary tenth-floor flat in a South Mumbai apartment block, it was a portal into a world out of the ordinary — just as she was.
For one, the door had a plastic plaque: ‘A request: Please ring the bell only three times. If nobody answers, please leave your card/letter. Thank you for being considerate.’ She was then living with her second husband Rooshikumar Pandya, a cheerful, worldly-wise psychology professor from Montreal, who seemed to have found a happy mix between being her student, confidante and caretaker. As I entered, there was a small holding area — as hotel suites sometimes have — beyond which access is not allowed except to music students. But that night, Atul Merchant took me through the passage into the ‘forbidden zone’.
On the left, we passed the kitchen, where Annapurna herself cooks. In the Hindu pantheon, Annapurna Devi is the Goddess of Nourishment and her namesake’s culinary skills are rumored to be worthy of this high epithet. Across the bottom of the kitchen door was a small wooden partition, a pet door for her dachshund Munna who had passed away twenty years ago. But Maa still keeps the door in his memory, Atul said. Annapurna, I realized, was not a person given to forgetting quickly.
Straight ahead was a door, which was shut. Maa is meditating, I was told and guided instead into the training room. This large room, with a row of sitars along its walls, opening out through sliding doors on to the sea, was the heart of the house — and it could be said, the epicenter of contemporary Hindustani classical music for the sheer number of musicians that had honed their skills here. Near the center of the room was a well-worn chattai mat. This is where every one of Maa’s students has sat and learnt from her, Atul pointed out, and this round cane munda (stool) is where Maa sits while teaching.
Even 17 years later, I remember two things about that room. One, it was frozen in time, as if it existed in its own reality where time moved slower, if at all. The light had the still, depthless quality of an aquarium, as if everything that ever happened within it stayed floating forever in its ethers. And secondly, I remember distinctly perceiving the air in the room was dense with silence. It was not just the dead silence of an empty room, it was the living silence of a monk’s cell, where every gesture felt magnified and every thought I had carried in from the outside world felt suddenly too loud and too vulgar.
Around the room were priceless paintings and bronze busts, and even more priceless, the surbahar she herself played, but my eye was drawn to a relatively smaller sketch in the corner. That was drawn by her son Shubho when he was young, Atul informed me. It was eerie and hypnotic: a stark black graphic illustration of a series of doors sucking you into them, as if each promising possibility led inexorably to doom. It could have been a metaphor for Shubho’s own unhappy life.
The interview began with the defining childhood moment at age ten when her father caught her correcting her brother Ali Akbar during his music practice. She had been playing hopscotch outside their family house in Maihar, 160 miles outside Benares, and her father had gone to the market. Teenaged Ali Akbar was immersed in his daily 18-hour riyaz on his sarod when she caught him playing a false note. To fully understand the significance of this moment, you have to know two things: One, Ali Akbar was no musical pushover, he was a child prodigy who made his stage debut at age 13, and secondly, that the youngest daughter Annapurna had received, until then, no musical training whatsoever from her father. (This was mainly because her elder sister who had been trained in Dhrupad had, after marriage, found her Muslim in-laws unwelcoming to a daughter-in-law who sang Vedic devotional songs. So Allauddin decided it might be in Annapurna’s best interest to not learn with her brother.)
So when Annapurna not only corrected, but also sang the raga flawlessly to demonstrate the correct way, it demonstrated a finely tuned ear far above even the abnormally high standards within a family blessed with musical genius. As she recalled the incident in my interview: “I was so involved in the music that I didn’t notice Baba returning and watching me. I was most afraid when I suddenly felt his presence. But instead of scolding me, Baba called me in his room. He perceived that I had a genuine interest in music that I loved it and I could do it. This was the beginning of my taalim (education).”
Her taalim had begun, as was compulsory for all students, with vocal Dhrupad training. Then, she was taught the sitar. But very soon, her father asked her if she would like to shift to the surbahar, a larger and more unwieldy cousin of the sitar. His suggestion was far more significant than a shift of instrument or a notch-up to the next level of dexterity, it was an acknowledgement that she was spiritually and musically ready to be transmitted the highest teachings the Master had to offer.
As she recalled in my interview, “He said, ‘I want to teach my Guru’s vidya to you because you have no greed. To learn you need to have infinite patience and a calm mind. I feel that you can preserve my Guru’s gift because you love music. However, you will have to leave the sitar, an instrument liked by the connoisseurs as well as the commoners. Only listeners who understand the depth of music or who intuitively feel music, on the other hand, will appreciate the surbahar. The commoner might throw tomatoes at you. So what is your decision?’ I was dumfounded. ‘I will do as per your aadesh,’ was my simple response.”
In 1935, Uday Shankar, the legendary dancer, invited her father Allauddin Khan to join them on their tours. Uday Shankar had popularized Indian dance in the West by adapting European theatrical techniques to it. His little brother Robindra (he later changed his name to Ravi Shankar) was then a handsome dancer in the troupe, with an intense, exotic charm. In his teens, Robindra found another gift: he could fool around with any instrument — the tabla, sitar, sarod and flute — and create music even without formal training. He became obsessed with the idea of spreading this music to the West. But when he met Allauddin Khan, the teacher, with characteristic bluntness, told him that he was wasting his time and talent. Humbled, but inspired, in 1937 Ravi Shankar sold his western clothes, shaved his head, and moved to Maihar. The move was not just geographical, Robindra was moving from bohemian Paris into a stoic world, which was disciplined, and demanding.
It was Uday Shankar who approached Allauddin for the hand of his daughter Annapurna for his little brother. At that time, Annapurna was a shy thirteen-year-old and, in the words of Ravi Shankar, “very bright and quite attractive, with lovely eyes and a brighter complexion than Alubhai’s (Ali Akbar Khan).” But this was not a Hollywood romance between two prodigies, Annapurna reminded me. “I was brought up by Ma and Baba in an ashram-like atmosphere at Maihar. There was no question of my getting attracted to Panditji. Ours was an arranged marriage and not a love marriage.” In fact, before marriage, all Pandit Ravi Shankar says he knew about the depth of her feelings was that she had ‘agreed’. And on the morning of May 15, 1941, Annapurna converted to Hinduism and the same evening they were married according to Hindu rites.
He was 20 and she was 14.
Five years after the story was published, when I was well in my thirties, I got married. I found it a complex negotiation of little and big sacrifices, and I wondered what it would have been like for a fourteen-year-old who had barely left her hometown and never been with another man. And here she was, thrown into the deep end, with a debonair, worldly-wise musician with grand plans to change the world, and in whose presence girls giggled a little more than necessary. There is a mythic resonance to the story of the star pupil marrying the teacher’s daughter, as there is in the tale of a daughter marrying the one man holding the promise to someday equal her father. But their marriage was so ill fitted in every other way. It sounded like a match made in music heaven, but emotionally, it was a match made in hell.
Jealousy — sometimes suspected, sometimes confirmed — began to define their arguments. Like her father, Annapurna had a temper, and this did not get easier, when their son Shubho was born a year into the marriage. A year later, Ravi Shankar was attracted to dancer Kamala Sastri (later Chakravarty), a fact he would confirm in his book ‘Ravi Shankar: An Autobiography’. It was barely two years into the marriage, and they had just moved to Bombay when the affair took wing. An enraged Annapurna returned to Maihar with her baby and did not return until Kamala was hastily married off to movie director Amiya Chakravarty. Of this period, Ravi Shankar wrote, “This was first time in my marriage that I had become deeply attracted to somebody else. Annapurna doubted me with everyone anyway. So it was nothing new for her to doubt me with Kamala—only this time it was true. I was not in a state to think reasonably. Perhaps the moment reason set in, love frayed at the edges. She is so gifted! But she has a tremendous temper. Like her father. And at that time even I was very ill tempered. So we both would flare up together….”
What compounded this personal drama was that in music – the aspect of life that mattered most to Ravi Shankar – he was dogged by constant whispers that his wife, not him, was the real deal.
The first schism, according to the recollections Annapurna shared with her students, emerged a few months after marriage when she was invited by their father’s patron Maharaja Brijnath Singh Jiu Deo to play at his palace in Maihar. Ravi Shankar, unfamiliar with rigid court decorum, not only travelled with her but, after she ended a spectacular and much-appreciated hour-long surbahar solo, requested the king for a chance to play on his surbahar. The king allowed the unexpected intrusion into the schedule, but walked off fifteen minutes into the performance. Annapurna would later clarify that though Pandit Ravi Shankar had learned the surbahar from Allauddin Khan, the sitar suited him more and was his forte.
Ravi Shankar continued to develop his expertise on the more challenging and rewarding instrument but an almost-identical rejection a few years later became the last straw for their marriage. After a live surbahar jugalbandi (duet) performance by the couple in Delhi in the 1950s, audiences rushed up to surround her and critics congratulated her, ignoring Pandit Ravi Shankar, and the writing was on the wall. In later years, Annapurna would repeatedly clarify that it was only because Panditji was playing the surbahar that the contrast was glaring. But on that night in their home, the silence was deafening.
Marriage is considered sacred in Indian culture. Hindu marriage rites bond a couple across lifetimes. Ending it was so unheard of that until the Hindu Marriage Act was created in 1955, divorce was not even recognized by law as a means to end marriage. To save her marriage, Annapurna Devi took a vow before a picture of her father and an image of their family goddess Sharada Ma never to perform in public again.
Even though my access to Annapurna for the interview had come with the unspoken caveat to portray her side of the story, I tried to stay true to both sides — using quotes from Ravi Shankar’s multiple autobiographies on every incident Annapurna spoke of, in the absence of direct access. But I underestimated the iconic power of this single image: a wife making the ultimate sacrifice at the altar in a last-ditch effort to save her marriage. After that, nothing could rebalance the scales, which tipped heavily with the weight of centuries of masculine and feminine archetypes. Perhaps because of it, the article didn’t just end up as a profile of a reclusive genius, it went far beyond the rarefied world of classical music aficionados. It spread on weblogs, Internet chat forums and bulletin boards; and a decade later, when Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp emerged, it resurfaced and continued to remain viral, like a never-ending social media Mexican wave. In 2016, when I posted a copy of the original article on my personal blog, WordPress stopped recording statistics after it crossed 10,000 shares on Facebook alone — within a week! Every month I still get comments about it, which essentially say the same two things in different words: how amazing Annapurna Devi is, and how awful her husband was.
I did note, for example, in my article that Ravi Shankar recalled this defining incident differently: “As long as we were married I used to force her to play along with me and give programmes… But after that she didn’t want to perform alone. She always wanted to sit with me. And after we separated she didn’t want to perform… She maybe doesn’t like to face the public or she is nervous or whatever but it is of her own will that she has stopped. This is very sad because she is a fantastic musician.” But it didn’t have the iconic ring of a vow taken before the gods, and in popular imagination, Annapurna’s version endured.
As I grew older, I sometimes wondered if it could have ended differently for them. In the photograph of them on their marriage day, they look like any other couple, giddy with possibilities and promise. No one sets out to have a bad marriage, but theirs unraveled almost as soon as it began, and I wondered why. Surely it showed poor judgment for Ravi Shankar to expect a traditional Indian woman like Annapurna to allow him an infidelity pass. Much as I admired his honesty in acknowledging in his book that he was “deeply attracted” to dancer Kamala Sastri “for the first time in his marriage” — he didn’t note that this first time was barely two years into the marriage! Or had Ravi Shankar misjudged himself? Had he been so carried away within the ashram-like atmosphere of Madina Bhavan-Shanti Kutir, living with his Guru’s family for seven years, that he had forgotten that he — a dancer since age ten in Paris — was someone else inside? Looking with today’s eyes, I would wonder if their age was a factor: it was, after all, an underage marriage and teenage parenthood. In later years, I even wondered if her determination to hold her vow — even after the marriage was lost, even after Ravi Shankar passed away — was a twisted way to deprive the world of her music: a punishment that held an unforgiving finger of blame forever pointed in the direction of Ravi Shankar.
As the years passed, and my own marriage began to come apart at the seams, I realized more clearly that in real-life, relationships aren’t divided into heroes and villains, into victims and oppressors, even if that version of the story offers us the comfort of sympathy, or of righteousness. It felt, because of the scathing criticism of Ravi Shankar in the comments I received, that I had done an injustice to the full truth of this story. After all, to define Ravi Shankar’s life by his failed marriage would be grossly incomplete. He had gone on to do more for Hindustani music than almost any other contemporary musician. He had not just become a global face of Indian music — he had become a patch-cord which plugged a whole generation of the West into the spiritual source of Indian music, musicians like George Harrison, Robbie Coltrane, Philip Glass, Yehudi Menuhin, Pete Townshend, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. And I believe Annapurna Devi felt the same way, because in later years she did clarify her undiminished respect for Pandit Ravi Shankar the musician, torchbearer of the Maihar Gharana, even as she continued to stay silent or cryptic on Ravi Shankar the husband and father.
Perhaps if Ravi Shankar had not written about Shubho’s ‘sleeping pills incident’ in his 1997 biography, she would still have let her angst remain locked up in her music room. Perhaps if their story had ended with separation, it would have been simply a cautionary tale. But with the addition of the story of Shubho’s little life and early death, it got sordid.
Hospital records would show that Shubhendra Shankar’s life was difficult from the beginning. Within eight weeks of his birth in 1942, he was diagnosed with a painful intestinal obstruction. Staying awake all night with a crying child after ten hours of sitar lessons every day put the first strain on his parents’ marriage. Ravi Shankar recalled in his book, “…Because of that trouble Shubho had now developed the habit of not sleeping in the night. It continued for the next year or so, and gradually I saw Annapurna’s personality changing. For both of us it was extremely strenuous, and our tempers would fray.”
Little Shubho was taught to play the sitar by his father. Since his father was constantly busy, either on concert tours or travelling for films and ballets, his musical education was taken over by his mother, who, like her own father before her, was rigorous and uncompromising. He continued to stay with her after the couple separated. In his teens, he showed an interest in art, and even as he continued his daily riyaz, he enrolled in the Sir JJ School of Art. This seemed partly an act of teenage identity-assertion and partly because he somehow believed graphic design promised a more reliable source of income. By all accounts, he remained a shy, sensitive and solitary boy.
His father was by now estranged, living and touring in the West. Around 1966, when he came to India, he heard Shubho play on the radio by chance. He reached out to invite him to move to the US with him — an invitation that cannily was sent directly to Shubho instead of Annapurna. For Shubho, comparing his spartan lifestyle of endless hours of solitary practice, against the promise of travelling to pre-ordained fame as Ravi Shankar’s heir, the choice must not have been difficult. His mother was determined that he should complete the remaining two years of his taalim. Ravi Shankar proposed to Shubho that since the same guru had taught him, he could complete Shubho’s training too. As a final offer, Annapurna requested for six months. But Shubho was adamant to leave with his father – and then, one night, he opened the first of many doors that would seal his fate.
In his autobiography 1997 ‘Raag Mala’, Pandit Ravi Shankar wrote, for the first time, about this incident — the controversial ‘sleeping pills episode’. He wrote: “When I was staying in Bombay sometime in early 1970, I received an SOS call at my hotel from Shubho, asking me in a feeble voice to come home and take him away. I didn’t know what was happening and was terrified by his tone of voice, so I rushed to the flat in Malabar Hill, which I had not visited in the three-and-a-half years since I left for good. There I saw Shubho lying down and looking ill. He clung on to me desperately, like a little boy, and begged me to take him away with me to America, as he could no longer stand the hot temper and harshness of his mother — not only in connection with music but in general too. Coming from a man of 28, this both melted my heart and angered me. I did not want to make a scene and managed to control myself even as Annapurna was shouting in fury, ‘Yes, take him away! I don’t want him!’ After we left I learnt that Shubho had taken 8-10 sleeping pills in an attempt to end his life. Fortunately, the doctor had arrived just in time and emptied Shubho’s stomach completely.”
For my original interview, Annapurna wanted me to put it on record that father and son had concocted this episode. She called it “a stage-managed drama to malign me and to take him away from me.” She said, “Shubho was immature at the time and hence unwittingly became a party to his father’s plot. I think he realized this later and stopped communicating with his father a few months before his untimely and possibly preventable death. Let me share with you what did happen… When I was told that Shubho had taken sleeping pills, I immediately called a doctor who examined him and confirmed that nothing was wrong with him. We also searched for an empty bottle or any other telltale signs but nothing was found. As a matter of fact, Shubho himself called his father at that time and told him to take him away as per their plan. My only plea to Panditji at that time was, ‘You have ruined my life and now you are ruining your son’s life. Why?’ His only answer was, ‘It is because of you’.”
When Shubho arrived in America, it was the Summer of Love. Shubho moved in with his father in Hollywood, and was gifted a Ford Mustang. But the glamorous doors of La-La Land only sucked him in deeper into a black hole. Shubho fell in love with an American girl Linda, whom he met at one of the concerts and, against his father’s wishes, decided to get married. After marriage, he gradually lost interest in playing the sitar. He found solace in drawing and devoted his talents to earning a degree in fine arts from Parsons School of Design. Cut adrift from his cloistered world where he was revered as Ravi Shankar’s son, he was cast into blue-collar America. Soon the baby-faced scion of the Maihar gharana was working part-time as a clerk in a liquor store and drawing illustrations for telephone directories to support his wife and two children.
At the age of 40, Shubho took his father’s advice to return to music full time. He began playing the sitar again with Panditji and returned to India for a few concerts. He met his mother again, after twenty years. It was an emotional moment and as he touched his mother’s feet, he told her he wanted to complete his music studies. His delighted mother was ready to begin immediately, but it was soon palpable that this was not the bright-eyed boy who had flown to claim his destiny, this was a defeated and broken-down Shubho whose last paying job had been as a pizza delivery boy. When he played together with his father at the Sawai Gandharva Music Festival in Pune in 1990, a few music critics carped that he was out of tune. This was enough to crush him. Once again, Annapurna tried to convince him to stay back in India and once again, he declined. He had concluded by now that it was too late for him. And he flew away once again.
The promise of bearing the musical genes of Annapurna and Ravi Shankar, the promise of being the most eagerly anticipated heir of the Maihar lineage, the promise of conquering America with his celebrity father, the promise of finding his identity apart as a painter, the promise of a new beginning with his final trip to India — every doorway of promise had turned into nightmare for Shubho.
In his last few months, he cut himself off from everyone. He contracted bronchial pneumonia and on September 21, 1992, the Los Angeles Times reported that the son of renowned sitar player Ravi Shankar, who had been ill for the last several months at his home in Garden Grove, had died at Los Alamitos Medical Center. The obituary noted: ‘Shankar is survived by his wife, Linda; their son, Somnath, 17; their daughter, Kaveri, 13, and his 71-year-old father, who is recuperating in London from surgery to clear blocked arteries.’For some reason, deliberate or otherwise, it made no mention that he was also survived by a grieving 65-year-old mother, who did not have a passport to go to the US — a mother who had perhaps believed that a tragic divorce would be the biggest shock she would ever have to face.
Her day-to-day life was not different from an Indian housewife. Her day began at six in the morning when she woke up to take in the milk. She spent the day cooking, cleaning the house — and even washing her own clothes, because her father had told her to do this in childhood. Besides music, her only obsession was pigeons: another quality she had imbibed from her father. Every afternoon, she would feed hundreds of pigeons on her balcony. The rest of the time, she taught in the training room, never leaving the house, except a couple of times for medical reasons.
While it was a hermetically sealed life, it was not an unhappy one; it was a life that had made peace with the seeming imperfection of its own story. Her deeper sorrow was the declining standard in music. She was born in an era of royal patronage (she was bestowed the name ‘Annapurna’ by the Maharaja of Maihar). In her lifetime, the world had moved from Maharajas to Maharaja Macs — her students now needed to please the lowest-common denominator of the masses to survive. She relentlessly trained her students in the same exacting way her father had taught her and her father’s guru had taught him, but everything outside the windows of her training room had changed. Even as her newer students immersed themselves in decades of solitary 12-hour-sessions, they would see half-trained musicians zoom past as pop musicians and Bollywood music directors. Some students got mundane day jobs for survival but over the years found the pressures of work, marriage and children hard to balance with this demanding spiritual path. While none would openly question Maa, they sometimes wondered if they were trying to be a Timex in a digital age.
Much has changed for everyone in the story since the article came out. Three decades of marriage to Prof Rooshikumar Pandya seemed to have settled Annapurna and healed long-held scars. A trained psychological counselor, I suspect he helped her as much as she helped him. Ravi Shankar also softened over the years. When Annapurna remarried in 1982, he was one of the first persons to congratulate Rooshikumar Pandya. Pandya recalled that though Ravi Shankar and Annapurna Devi never met or spoke to each other after her second marriage, whenever Ravi Shankar spoke to him over the phone, he would enquire about Annapurna – and her pigeons.
A white-bearded Pandit Ravi Shankar passed away in 2012, after a concert in San Diego in which he arrived on stage in a wheelchair, on oxygen, and played Raga Bhimpalasi in memory of Hurricane Sandy victims. A year later, with much less media coverage, Rooshikumar Pandya passed away after a cardiac arrest. Annapurna stopped teaching and cancelled the annual Guru Purnima celebrations, the one day of the year when her doors were open for all her students, and anyone else who came with offerings of gratitude. And on October 13th, well into her ‘90s, she quietly moved on to her next journey.
Our minds — addictive story-telling machines — jump blithely across decades of idyll to connect incidents and make meaning; connections that perhaps don’t exist for those living them. Maybe there is no cause-and-effect continuity between the tempestuous 15-year-old wife and the struggling 35-year-old single mother and the dignified 55-year-old music teacher. We want to combine these dramatic and disparate notes of her life into one raga, but maybe they belong to different songs, with the previous tracks erased. In some cases, like with Annapurna, the daily, hourly flow of time across the many intervening years having smoothened out jagged memories into peace. In other cases, as with Ravi Shankar, the crowd of new faces replacing the old neighborhoods within the mind with newer skylines.
In his final interview, with Tathagata Ray a few months before he passed away, Rooshikumar Pandya gave the sanest and most concise summation I have read about the Annapurna-Ravi Shankar saga: “Two persons sometimes don’t match. It is very simple and happens all the time. People are only interested about their marriage. But what people don’t understand is that it was over long ago. Both of them have remarried, lived happily, and lived a full life. Both of them have contributed enormously to the country’s music. While he chose to perform in concerts, she chose to spread her father’s music among her students.”
And sometimes it is hard to grasp how long the gaps in time have actually been. They were married in the age of scratchy vinyl. They separated in the year Phillips introduced ‘compact cassette’ players. Shubho went to the US just before the Sony Walkman became the rage. She remarried Prof Pandya at a simple Arya Samaj ceremony in 1982, the year music began moving to Compact Discs. And then the year after Shubho died, mp3 killed cassette tapes forever. My original interview happened exactly a year before Apple launched the iPod, which put ‘1,000 songs in your pocket’. And that was still 17 years ago.
Blame it on serendipity or algorithm, the next video YouTube throws up for me is a performance of Pandit Ravi Shankar playing the same raga, at Woodstock in 1969. From the first notes, one can sense a showman’s instinct for connecting with the audience and carrying them along into a joyous place. When he plays Manjh Khamaj before a live audience, it can almost classify as ‘fun’ in the way of a rippling Santana guitar solo or Satchmo ripping his trumpet. The performance is soulful, intricate and not lacking in dexterity, but it is also dazzling and one can picture open-mouthed American teens sprawled out in rainy Woodstock that weekend wondering what in God’s name is this wizardry. The difference is clearer here than anywhere else. While Annapurna’s joy seemed to be in playing for herself and for her goddess, Ravi Shankar’s role seemed to be to share the nectar of the gods with the world. Fluent in both Eastern and Western musical languages and a charismatic, polished stage performer, Ravi Shankar was undoubtedly a natural, and better, ambassador for a dying craft.
Somewhere, that is where I find my peace with their story. One of them was designed to scale mountains of glory, and one of them was designed to plumb solitary depths of the valley of devotion. In themselves, they were pinnacles of the two functions of music — as an inner doorway to divine joy, and as a medium of sharing divine joy with others.
The world may see Ravi Shankar’s contribution to music greater, but I would lean towards Annapurna, because of a story I heard a few years after I wrote my article. Till then, I had always likened Annapurna to Mian Tansen, the legendary 16th century musician in Emperor Akbar’s court, who could start fires and create rainstorms with his ragas. (In fact, the Maihar gharana traces its teachings back 400 years directly to Tansen, so in some sense she is musically a direct descendant of Tansen.) But after hearing this story, I began to think differently.
Legend has it that one day in court, after yet another soul-satisfying musical performance from Tansen, the Emperor Akbar declared there could be no voice more divine than Tansen. The singer humbly replied that if the Emperor could hear his teacher, a hermit called Haridas, his own poor efforts would be forgotten. The Emperor wanted to immediately summon Haridas to court but Tansen cautioned him that it was not possible – his teacher did not sing on demand, only when he felt inspired. Intrigued, the Emperor, with Tansen, set off for the forest in Vrindavan where Haridas lived in a hut. When they arrived, it was early morning, and the teacher was deep in meditation. Akbar hid in the bushes while Tansen prostrated himself before his guru and began singing a sacred hymn his guru had taught him. The teacher, still deep in meditation, did not open in his eyes. Then Tansen, as planned, deliberately sang a note off-key. His guru immediately opened his eyes and corrected him. Tansen begged him to remind him of the correct notes. So the guru lifted his voice and rendered the same hymn so magnificently that Akbar fell into ecstasy. It was only then that Tansen revealed to him that the guest hiding in the bushes was the Emperor of India. When they returned to the capital, a bewildered Akbar told Tansen he had been right: his teacher was beyond anything he had heard before, but one thing puzzled him — how could there be such a vast difference when both had sung the same song, and hit the same notes, flawlessly. It is said that Tansen replied: ‘The cause is simple — I sing to please the king, he sings only to please God.’
Most of us, when we read social media posts about a natural calamity like drought, we click angry-face LIKE and hit ‘Share NOW’, perhaps with a dark comment about government inefficiency. Some of us donate money. Very few volunteer time with an NGO. My friend Rajshri Deshpande went a step further: last month, she set out to single-handedly revive a river.
An audible groan runs through the Jet Airways afternoon flight to Aurangabad as the captain announces temperature at destination: 45 degrees. It’s the kind of weather in which an actress-slash-model like Rajshri Deshpande should be safely within a cafe near her beachside home in Mumbai, sipping iced latte and discussing the European tour for her debut film ‘Angry Indian Goddesses’. Instead, she is in a village some 350 kms away, mediating a quarrel between two villagers.
As she uses her tough charm to calm down both heated parties, you realize she faces a challenge even more ancient than drought – the human ego. A barter deal she had struck with the village dhaba for free diesel to run the hydraulic earthmover has hit rough weather. We are in Pandhri Pimpalgaon village 30 kms away from Aurangabad, standing on the banks of the river Bembla, or at least what used to be the 160-foot-wide river Bembla until 2002. It is now an arid dustbowl overrun with thorny scrub, so scorched even the dusk breeze stings our eyes. And here is Rajshri Deshpande, using her education as a lawyer, her talent as an actor and some milky sweet chai to resolve the problem so the stalled work for resuscitating the dead river can begin again.
An old villager remembers the beginning of the end came when the trees on its banks were chopped for wood. Every year after that, the riverbed retained less water. The perennial river soon had dry months in which spiny shrubs and cacti began weeding its riverbed. When the rains came, thorns clutched plastic trash and choked the flow. The loosed sediment slid down its banks and morphed the riverbed into the almost-indistinguishable rolling scrubland where we stand right now.
Rajshri Deshpande has taken it upon herself to reverse the process for this little river Bembla. The immediate plan is to clean out three large pits within the riverbed which can become ponds after the monsoon. While raising funds in the city, she has also asked villagers to pitch not only in their spare time but also a small part of the cost. The larger reason, she explains, is not so much to save costs as to have them feel invested and empowered. The biggest problem here, Rajshri says, is lack of motivation.
When it comes to drought, most city-folk are like Jon Snow: we know nothing. Reading media reports we picture emaciated farmers’ bodies scattered across deeply fractured lands. As journalist P Sainath points out in his darkly humorous classic ‘Everybody Loves A Good Drought’ the truth is drought comes in many forms, not all of which look like the clichéd ‘endless parched lands’, not all of them caused by the clichéd ‘cruel monsoons’ and not all of them causing deaths of clichéd ‘starving farmers’.
The truth is different. In Maharashtra, as in many parts of India, drought is man-made, so an above-average monsoon is no guarantee drought will not recur. We may point fingers at the government’s indiscriminate digging of water-sucking bore wells, poisonous urea-farming, destruction of ancient ponds, diversion of rivers for city-dwellers’ electricity and water-guzzling sugarcane factories. But other fingers should point at the farmers themselves – at their focus on instant solutions for immediate profits. The cliché of cruel nature causing drought, I learn, is only partly true.
Secondly, thanks to heavy subsidies on dal, rice and wheat, most farmers do not actually die of starvation. This year, the government is providing free tankers of water twice a week to fill the ubiquitous 200-litre blue plastic barrels clustered like oversized garden gnomes outside every hut. With a little stretch, this is enough for the farmer family’s essentials but not enough to support their extended family: the animals who starve with little fodder and lesser water every year. And for centuries-old farming communities, it is not enough to sustain their withering farms. Year after year, men and boys flee farms to work as construction laborers or, as Nana Patekar cinematically put it, to knock on the windows of your car to ask for loose change. This is the broader problem caused by drought. More often out of loss of will than lack of a meal, 6000 Indian farmers have committed suicide in the last four years.
The biggest problem, Rajshri keeps repeating, is lack of motivation. There are farmers here who are dirt-poor, she says, but there are farmers who have money also. Our donations for water-tankers can help them temporarily, but next summer the farmers will be in the same place… and the water-tanker contractors will be much richer. To make a long-term change, the farmers need to revive their land and rivers. They need some motivation to do things beyond immediate gain. For that they need a little push from outside, just like we all do at times.
In fact, motivating herself to take on this project without money, resources or a team was the first challenge for Rajshri. This is what I found most fascinating about Rajshri’s story: while many NGOs, non-profit organizations and volunteer teams are doing praiseworthy projects for drought-relief, hers is the story of how far an individual can walk with a little bit of faith and a little bit of insanity. But that was not how it began.
Initially, she contacted Nana Patekar & Makarand Anaspure’s ‘Naam Foundation’ to take on the Bembla river project. They were stretched thin, they said, but offered her a Pokland earth-mover for free. Another NGO she approached quoted a heavily padded estimate to take it on as a turnkey project. Yet another asked for a 10% profit share from all funds she raised. The monsoon was approaching in less than two months so she finally took a deep breath and braced herself for whatever lay ahead.
Convincing the villagers of Pandhri and Pimpalgaon was her next challenge. It helped that Rajshri’s mother had worked with the Zilla Parishad in nearby Aurangabad so she grew up in these parts; in the parochial village mentality, this Marathi-speaking and Marathi-swearing girl is ‘aamchi mulgi’… our girl. But she still had to work against deeply embedded wrinkles of distrust. Broken promises by successive elected leaders – whose tenure was a snatch & grab race to collect as much money as they could before their five-year term ran out – had made the farmers cynical. On her first visit, an old woman hoarsely predicted to everyone in the village square that like others who had promised to help, Rajshri too would never return.
But she did return, along with an environmentalist and natural solutions expert with two decades of experience, Dr Ajit S Gokhale. He set up a bench in the village field and demonstrated to the farmers using their own soil how urea-farming and tractor-tilling was killing their land.
But information, Dr Gokhale knew from his experience of helping 170 villages, is never enough to motivate. So he asked them his favorite trick question: Has the government done anything for you? In unison, the villagers chorused an angry NO! This was perhaps the only subject upon which they agreed across all caste, class and religion lines. Dr Gokhale smiled and asked: So who made the roads?Did you make them? The villagers were nonplussed by this new line of questioning: roads came from the government, of course. And do you create your own electricity? That too was from the government, they had to agree. The school your children go to? What about ration shops? And fertilizer subsidy? Slowly, the point of the questions began to dawn on them: Dr Gokhale was offering them the option to stop sitting on their haunches and blaming the government for everything wrong with their lives.
When he saw his point had hit home, Dr Gokhale changed tack. He asked: Are any amongst you helping anyone other than your own family? Something altruistic in which there is no thought for your own gain? The villagers squirmed. That, Dr Gokhale concluded, is the real reason for the drought – you don’t think about your neighbor, your village land or even your grandchildren.
He reminded them of the dust-covered ‘Yogeshwar Krushi’ board he had seen while walking through Pandhri village; Pandurang Shastri Athavale’s beautiful concept where the entire village also tills one patch of common land, the produce from which is used to help whoever has unexpected need that year. He advised them to revive that half-forgotten practice. Dr Gokhale’s conversation worked like magic. In less than an hour, they went from helpless victims waiting for relief to citizens ready to take responsibility for their situation.
Next Rajshri picked her two local champions for the project. Dattabhau, at 55, is the senior, experienced and respected one. Having bought his first plot of land by pawning his wife’s mangalsutra, he worked to educate his sons through engineering college and his daughter to an MA in English – so he’s hardworking and future-oriented. Twenty-something Yogesh, on the other hand, is affable and talks with a smile. When most of the farmers were still skeptical, Yogesh was the one who spoke individually to at least listen to her.
But finally, it was the day Rajshri directly dialled veteran Marathi actor Makarand Anaspure to give the villagers a speaker-phone pep talk that they began listening to her with newfound adoration. (An unanticipated side-effect: Makarand mentioned that she was an actress, not realizing she had hidden this from the villagers until then.)
Since then Dattabhau and Yogesh, along with a handful of village volunteers, supervise the clearing of the riverbed in night and day shifts. It’s been two weeks, and straw-haired Dattabhau who walked with a limp when work began, now sprints with youthful excitement.
He has reason to be: in ten days, they have completed one pit and soon, when the work is done, it will support two villages: Pandhri and Pimpalgaon, with a combined population of 2500. By official statistics, around 80% of them are small farmers with less than five acres for their cotton, soybean, millet, jowar, bajra and pomegranate fields. But for Dattabhau, all of them are faces he has known his entire life. If they manage to complete all three pits before the rains, the water will also benefit a zopadpatti (slum) nearby. And just maybe, if the rain gods are benevolent, then the five toilets in the village can be reopened so they don’t have to go every day for a long ‘morning walk’.
As Dattabhau lithely climbs a concrete backwall across the dry riverbed, he points me its cement slab: This wall is government work… means total duplicate work. Where they need ten bags of cement, they use two bags. That’s why this happens… He shows me gaping holes with exposed twists of metal rods, and then adds with pride: By government rate, our river project would cost Rs 30 lac, with our work it will be not more than Rs 3 lac. Ten times difference…
Later, I discovered this little Bembla river shares its name with another larger, more infamous Bembla river in nearby Yavatmal, which became an icon of corruption for its massive, misguided dam project which remains incomplete even after 25 years. The biggest irony: after spending Rs 1857 crores, the Economic Times reported that the project is providing water to a mere 1,200 hectares – which is the exact size of Pandhri and Pimpalgaon villages put together! When Dattabhau estimated a ten-time difference between his costs and government costs, he was way, way off.
At dusk, we sit on a charpoy overlooking Yogesh’s field, and a small crowd gathers around. Rajshri tells them she is arranging for a medical camp with the help of a hospital in Aurangabad whom she contacted through her older sister, a doctor. She needs them to let her know through Yogesh which kind of doctor they need to visit them. The conversation flows into dinner at Yogesh’s two-room corrugated-roofed house. Like most village homes, it has porous walls: neighbors and children wander through and join conversations and meals without questions asked. Rajshri discusses the next steps over dinner: once the digging work is done, they should plant trees on the banks, to complete the reversal of the original degradation process.
One of the guests’ cellphone bursts into devotional song. Light-eyed pomegranate farmer Thombre picks up and speaks rapidly in Marathi. He shyly offers his ancient Nokia phone to Rajshri tai. The call is from a woman who heard about the Bembla river work, asking if Rajshri can come to help their village next.
‘If you motivate one village,’ Rajshri says to me as we leave, ‘it becomes an example for others. And in future, villagers like Yogesh and Dattabhau can manage it themselves. I will help from outside. It may not be easy, but it can be done.’When you consider that a river which ran dry for fifteen years is being revived in a little more than a month, you realize this is not ‘Savior Barbie’ optimism, nor is it too faraway a dream.
At night, after the village babies have rocked off to sleep on their swinging cotton hammocks, after the nightly hari-katha song of the village women in the Vitthal temple porch has fallen silent, Rajshri checks one last time with Yogesh and Dattabhau to see which villagers are going to monitor the work for tonight.
“Yogesh, next year I want to see a bumper crop in your field,” she says, as she sits in her car. Thombre asks shyly if they can talk to Makarand Anaspure once again from her phone. She laughs. But tai… only to thank him… for his support… We should thank him, no? Thombre stammers. Everyone laughs as the car starts.
The battered car is throbbing warm even though the air-conditioning is a full noisy blast. Rajshri Deshpande adjusts the steering wheel and braces for the eight-hour drive to Mumbai, as she has done seven times in the past month. But she knows the more difficult challenges await her back home. So far, through family, friends and a personal contribution by Masaan writer Varun Grover and director Neeraj Ghaywan from their National Award money, she has raised Rs. 1,25,000; somehow she will have to get the remaining money. There are other problems too, some undreamed-of: like the one where a stranger came to surreptitiously take pictures of their worksite to con people online for donations: what can one do in such cases? She takes a deep breath and straightens her rearview mirror. In the distance, Dattabhau watches as the car turns past their tree-canopied Hanuman temple onto the highway: the highway from where the fast-moving world will soon slow down to marvel at the miracle of an ancient river come back to life.
Every Sunday, around 25 of us participate in a weekly conference call with our mentor GD. Every week ends up being different. The calls spontaneously move from deep spiritual discussions to psychological processes to energy healing. Nothing is fixed except that it mostly ends with a space of deep fulfillment and no-mind.
Last week on the call, GD spontaneously led us through a powerful 35-minute meditation to dissolve subconscious blockages surrounding the heart. It was so unexpectedly potent that some reported crying, others said they slept for hours after the call and many others felt a solid peace throughout the day. I felt this meditation/clearing was worth sharing so that more could benefit.
This 35 minute energy process facilitates releasing trapped emotions, past life trauma, old conclusions, energetic heart walls, and areas of un-forgiveness in our lives. The clearing also helps release the frozen tears that are locked up in the throat chakra. Finally the meditation brings us to rest in the quiet space of oceanic peace – our true Being.
Please drink lots of water after hearing the audio as there may be some detox. I do hope you enjoy it as much as we did! Feel free to pass it on…
PS: Each person’s experience with this audio will be unique. Feel free to share your experiences, insights and any further questions in the comments section below.
During the weekly group call last Sunday, my mentor GD spoke with incredible clarity for an hour about the inner monologue that makes us zombies to the present moment. That constant thrum that never allows us to be quiet even during our attempts at peace. That inner screen we are glued to even more than our iPhone screen. I thought it was so powerful and potentially transformative that I decided to share some excerpts. If you would like to listen to the full talk, it is available as an audio download from The Core Healing Archives under the title ‘The Story of Me’.
Pause. See if you can notice the stream of thoughts moving in your head in this moment. That is what we call ‘the story of me’: it’s ‘my story’, ‘my life’. It’s like a non-stop movie inside our head. And it’s always in movement – and this movement is based on all the stories of the past and all the stories of the future. It’s a non-stop river, and it’s always about me, me, me. It’s a kind of dreaming we do even when we seem to be awake.
For most of us, the story of me is so unconscious, we don’t even know it is going on throughout the day. And the story of me can remain active only when there is unawareness. When there is pure awareness, even for a few moments, the story of me disappears. And what remains is just an openness, a stillness, a sense of being.
This story of me is always plotting, planning and scheming. It’s very clever. How can I get all the things I want and need? How can I avoid all the things that I fear? The ‘me story’ is always about avoiding all forms of pain, sickness and disease. And about acquiring all forms of happiness and pleasure. If you notice, this ‘me’ in your head is always going towards something or going away from something. It is never still… ever.
Imagine you are sitting in a movie theatre watching the movie ‘Titanic’ fully engrossed… feeling the emotions, enjoying the drama. And something goes wrong with the projection. Suddenly the movie stops. And we realize there is just a blank screen! We kind of wake up and realize the boat was not real, the characters were not real: there was nothing actually happening there. It was just a kind of hypnosis.
Similarly, there is a movie going in our mind on all the time – stories about my future, my past, my spirituality. They are all imaginary and they are all painful. Why are they painful? Because they are constantly running into the future. They are stories of unfulfillment, they are stories of neediness, they are stories of desperation. In a cinema hall, this drama happens for two hours, but for us it continues for sixty-seventy years. Morning to night, this imaginary story of me goes on and on and on.
All our conflicts with others also arise from this story of me – based on what I believe, what I think should happen, what I think is ‘right’. So the imaginary story of me is not just hell for me, it creates hell for others also. The ‘me’ tries to impose itself on everybody else. If others don’t agree with us, there is violence. The violence can be very subtle, like we may sulk and go into the other room, or it can be very loud and we directly attack the other person.
A time comes in our life when the story of me becomes spiritual – then the story of me becomes preoccupied with getting enlightenment and having the perfect state. The joke is that the story of me can never get enlightened! Because it’s this very story, this dreaming that is the obstruction to what is already always present!
Allow yourself to notice this story of me… again and again. Throughout the day, use this question: What unconscious dreaming is going on in this moment? The moment you pop this question, something will change, something will shift, and the story of me will snap. And what will be revealed is pure awareness – that which has no past, no future, and no story.
To download the entire 60 minute talk which includes further insights and a deeply meditative space – as well as other Q&A and clearings from GD’s group telephonic sessions – go to the Core Healing India Archives.
Last night, my father was felicitated as a real-life hero by one of the biggest stars in the world on a television show – my personal journey to seeing him as a hero took forty years.
One of my fondest memories of my father was waking up early in the mornings and seeing him out on the verandah, perched on his favorite rocking chair, scratching out his novel onto the pad propped on his knees. Through my bleary little eyes, I used to marvel at his dedication — I struggled to wake up early during exams and he did this almost every day of the year!
Like all children, my father was my hero. For the world, he was known as a prolifically creative author, painter and cartoonist, but for me his most remarkable quality was that he never imposed his parenthood. In fact, he trained me to call him by his first name. So when he came home from work in the evening, I would drop my cricket bat and run to him, happily shouting: ‘Hiii Aabid!’ Outsiders were sometimes shocked. But most remarked that we looked more like friends than like father and son. And that made him happy.
Teenagehood happened. And gradually, without realizing it, my opinion changed. I began resenting the fact that, unlike my friends’ fathers, he could not afford to buy me roller skates, then a skateboard, then a bicycle, then a Zx Spectrum computer. I blamed him for not being ‘fatherly’ enough in teaching me worldly things — how to shave, how a bank works, how to drive a car.
I didn’t realize it then, but I spent my adult life trying to not be him. In my twenties, I sought solid father figures, in bosses and in spiritual teachers and left home; I looked to these new ‘fathers’ to tell me exactly what to do in every situation. Because that’s something my real father never did.
Since I secretly blamed him for his unreliability and his selfishness in pursuing his joy, I became the opposite: a steady dependable breadwinner who earned enough money that my son would never see me as a loser. Dad’s Bohemian spirit could not survive in an office for six months, I stuck to a corporate desk for more than a decade. With a sadness veiled as pride, I confessed to friends that everything I had wanted to enjoy in life — my first cellphone, my first car, my house — I had had to buy myself.
In between my busy career and marriage, the distance between us grew into monthly phone calls, mostly initiated by him, which began awkwardly and ended abruptly. The distance between us had grown so much that when he began a neighborhood campaign to save water by fix leaking taps for free, he didn’t tell me till many months later.
In my forties, after my son was born, I began seeing him differently. I experienced such an intense love for my son — I wondered if this was how my father must have felt when he saw me growing?
After I quit my full-time job to become a consultant in 2012, I began spending more time with him. In early 2013, I wrote a blog post called ‘Saving The World One Drop At A Time’ about his one-man NGO, which now had a name as quirky as his personality: Drop Dead Foundation. My blog post went viral and was translated into Italian, Spanish, Greek, Malagasy and Russian. Word of his inspirational campaign spread and he began getting more praise, awards and love than he had seen as an artist.
It was a still a home-run enterprise, working from his laptop and living room in a dingy suburb. When I offered to contribute money, he refused point-blank saying this was not a family enterprise, it was a social enterprise: if it had to run, it would run with the support of society or not at all. So I began helping him occasionally with media and PR. Still, I kept a safe distance between his world and mine. As the creative head of a major movie studio, I felt uncomfortable editing his NGO documentary in the ramshackle edit suites that were offered to him free.
As I faced the challenges of my own marriage and fatherhood, I began appreciating him even more. I appreciated that in becoming a husband, he never fully gave up being a freedom-loving human being – what I had all my life put down as selfish now seemed sane. As a father, I found it was more loving to give my son the freedom to learn on his own rather than forcing my conclusions on him. As I watched my son’s intelligence grow rather than his obedience, it made me feel as happy as my growing must have felt for him. My relationship with dad warmed into Sunday lunches, surprise gifts and more regular, friendly conversations. I began working on a documentary about him, put out four English translations of his novels onto Amazon Kindle format, and helped him sell his older books for film and TV adaptation rights.
Then in early November, on one of my little spiritual circle’s weekly group calls with my brother and our mentor GD, the last piece quietly fell in place. One of the participants on the call complained that he forgave others, but never completely. GD asked us to remember all the people in our lives whom we were still subtly punishing. He asked us to connect with that part of us which secretly held on to the energy of a punisher, a mini-tyrant or a stern judge meting out justice to others. “One of the easiest ways to catch where this is operating in your life,” GD said, “is by asking: who are you still subtly making wrong? Who do you think needs to be fixed? Is it your boss, your friends, your parents, your partners, your company…? That’s where the resentment is hidden. The tail of the elephant which you are still holding onto…”
I remembered dad. I don’t know what happened but in a flash was bridged what seemed to be a lifetime’s distance: he became fully my father again.
The following night, I got an urgent message from him saying that he had just landed into the city and needed my help for an interview the following day. I noticed in myself a level of welcoming towards him I had never experienced before. I offered to help him with the paperwork, his clothes, and the questions. I told him not to worry — I would be there for him whatever time he wanted for however long it took.
By chance, I found out later that night the ‘interview’ was an appearance on one of the biggest reality TV shows in India, called ‘Aaj Ki Raat Hai Zindagi’. It is an adaptation of BBC One’s ‘Tonight’s The Night’ hosted by superstar Amitabh Bachchan, the Indian equivalent of Sean Connery. The show felicitated ordinary people doing extraordinary things and dad was being felicitated as one of the heroes because his ingenious effort in water conservation had saved over 20 million litres of water.
En route to the shoot, I spoke to my brother on the phone. He was pleased to hear about dad getting long overdue recognition, and equally pleased at the transformation in my energy towards dad. He offered to send remote core healing for both of us during the hours of the show recording. He pointed out that in my wholeheartedly supporting dad, we were both being supported by the universe.
Backstage at a reality television shoot is a confusing, intimidating world — hundreds of audience members hunting for holding areas or canteens, dozens of crew members angrily muttering into walkie-talkies and multiple layers of security asking who you were. While I was at home in this world, dad was lost. Knowing I was there seemed to calm him. I helped him choose the outfit, guided him on signing release forms, and as we waited for the delayed shoot to begin, we paced across the studio lot till sunset chatting about life. Anyone looking at us would have mistaken us for friends.
The creative team of the TV show, noticing his youthful quirkyness during research, had designed his entry onstage with dancing girls to a Bollywood song. They told him of this idea only just before the show but dad was not flustered. I helped him quickly learn the hook step in the vanity van, but beyond that his lifelong joie-de-vivre and innocence made it a perfect entry onstage.
I saw my father differently as he stood on the stage. I have seen many superstars sharing a stage with Mr Bachchan and they struggle to divert any spotlight away from this imposing legend. Dad was doing it effortlessly, just being himself — a solid human being. Every anecdote was greeted with laughter and his palpable love was returned by the audience in showers of applause.
“It’s not only about water,” dad said at one point. “If you can’t save water, save the sparrows who get cut on kite string every year or help stray dogs who get diseased. But do something for the world which does so much for you.”
We all bathed in the magic of this one human being, alight with the fire of belief, who was making this grand strobe-lit studio stage seem small and hollow in comparison. At the end of the show, Mr Bachchan was so moved he offered a surprise personal donation towards Drop Dead Foundation. Being a media person, I have grown cynical of stars’ grand public acts of charity because I know it’s mostly for PR — later the money comes from the studio, movie producer or channel, if at all. But Mr Bachchan surprised me by adding with endearing humility a small request that this not be a part of the telecast. Dad got up and did a little victory dance.
Backstage after the show, dad’s work continued — he shared brochures of Drop Dead Foundation with the camera crew and the production team, some of whom felt inspired to begin this work in their own neighborhoods. In between post-shoot interviews, he enrolled housewives, schoolgirls, elderly couples with spare time. He wasn’t a hero only when the camera was rolling, he was the real thing.
As I watched the episode later on television, I was a little sad that much of the magic of the evening had been edited out due to time constraints. But perhaps it was perfect — the world didn’t get to see him in his full glory, but I did. And it had taken me a full forty years to see it.
I share this not to say that my relationship with my father is special, but that this is the journey every father and son must make. And the circle between father and son is closed not because a father does something grand and glorious but because a son is willing to finally forgive him for not being the perfect father. Simultaneously he finds he is forgiven for not being the perfect son.
A few days ago, my six-year-old son was having a play date at home. As I sat nearby reading a book, I overheard my son boasting to his five-year-old friend: “My papa starts his work in the night, even before its morning.” I almost fell off the couch. I quietly prayed that my son’s journey from adoring to hating to finally forgiving his father is as perfect as mine has been.
Thank you dad for everything.
To watch the episode of Aaj Ki Raat Hai Zindagi on which dad appears, click here.
To know more about Drop Dead Foundation or to ask how you can contribute, click here.
This year, I have been taking baby steps in exploring forgiveness as a spiritual path. A chance encounter with the intriguing phrase ‘advanced forgiveness’ led me to Gary Renard’s ‘A Disappearance of The Universe’. Encouraged by my mentor GD, I revisited my hardbound ‘A Course In Miracles’ copy. Many epiphanies later, I found my longtime Buddhist practice being steered into unexplored waters. And during a turbulent work-year, the guiding star I tried to steadfastly hold onto was forgiveness, forgiveness, forgiveness. From it, I learnt two things: one, forgiveness can indeed change your life; and two, most of what we have been taught about it is wrong.
Forgiveness, I was taught in school, is when someone does something awful, but you, taking in a deep breath of pure compassion, decide to forgive him. Because you are good, he is an ass. Plus, doing it makes you a favorite of old man God who smiles in his frosty beard and jots your name on His Special List of Favorite Children.
As I grew up, I occasionally practiced forgiveness, using the same line of thinking, just with complicated multi-syllable words. Then, three decades after my Jesuit education, I was guided to ‘A Course In Miracles’ (ACIM), which makes forgiveness the cornerstone of its entire teaching system. According to ACIM, forgiveness not only heals, it single-handledly undoes the ego’s delusional worldview; forgiveness is not just an occasional step – it is an entire path towards the peace that passeth understanding.
According to ACIM, the commonly practiced form of forgiveness is actually ‘the ego’s forgiveness’. Notice the ego subtly making itself higher than the other by allowing what is considers a perfectly obvious act of evilness to pass. The victim sees himself innocent while the other is guilty. Attempting this kind of forgiveness is valuable because it may be motivated by a noble intention, but seems at best superficial and at worst arrogant.
To appreciate a more advanced vision of forgiveness we need to first understand how the mind projects its own unacceptable emotions on others. A man who furiously blames others at office for incompetence, looking honestly within, realizes it is his secret guilt about his own incompetence in some area, which he is constantly projecting outside. Or a woman who strongly condemns her husband for being unreliable will find it was coming from her secret shame about being unreliable. When this is seen, there is a natural forgiveness that happens, because now the other is not guilty. He was simply the screen on which we were projecting our movie. This is a more genuine forgiveness than the first because there is real freedom in seeing it was all a projection, hence a misunderstanding.
This is not the grudging forgiveness of the ego, this is a laughing forgiveness that wonders how it could believe that the fault was really outside. As American teacher Byron Katie says, “Forgiveness is realizing that what you thought happened, didn’t.”
Perfect forgiveness, ACIM says, occurs when we begin to glimpse the dreamlike nature of the world itself. So not only is the other not guilty because it was your projection onto him, you are not guilty either: the victim and abuser are equally dream characters. The highest level of forgiveness thus rises far beyond the plains of Puritan morality into the high peaks of Non-Duality. As ‘The Course In Miracles’ says:
“Forgiveness is the only thing that stands for truth in the illusions of the world. It sees their nothingness, and looks straight through the thousand forms in which they may appear. It looks on lies, but it is not deceived. It does not heed the self-accusing shrieks of sinners mad with guilt. It looks on them with quiet eyes, and merely says to them, “My brother, what you think is not the truth.”
In its purest form, forgiveness is not a doing, it a seeing: a seeing that the illusion of separate individuals is simply an erroneous mind-construct.
In its purest form, forgiveness is not a thought, it is a meditation: a sinking into the silence beyond form to see that without thought, this never happened.
In its purest form, forgiveness is a gift of love to yourself as much as to the other: because it reaffirms the truth of our oneness once again.
There are times, when even the most sincere seeker experiences ‘disconnection’. This disconnection can last hours, days or even weeks. Many seekers hence follow a daily ritual. Some follow a particular meditation style, some a breathing technique, because a daily ritual has a very simple purpose – it brings you back home.
This prayer was originally written by my brother GD to help a few friends who said they kept forgetting the core teaching; who kept getting disconnected… and needed a simple, short, crisp reminder of their true nature. So GD created this small reminder – in the form of an ‘advaita’ prayer – to help them stay connected to their essence.
Just one suggestion… please don’t rush through it.
Go slowly… and savor each line to experience the true power and energy of this unique prayer. It will reveal deeper meanings each time you connect with it.
PS: For those of you who would like a printout for daily use, we have included a pdf file which you can download. Enjoy 🙂Prayer of Oneness PDF
The ego, as you know, is clever, very clever.It can utilize everything for its own protection and perpetuation – including spirituality. With the very tools created for its dissolution, it can etch out a new version of itself. And since the old big-bad-ego has got more bad press than Kim Jong-un, it has been reinventing itself across the world in a new avatar: the new-age-ego. Since it is even more deceptive in this crystal-addicted, incense-sniffing guise, GD and me had a sit down to identify this new-age-ego in all its new-age glory. At the end of our hilarious session, we identified its eleven most important commandments, which are active below the surface at all times.
THOU SHALT NOT REST Speed is one of the most under-appreciated tricks of the new-age-ego. Busyness, anxiety, rushing are all hallmarks of a superlative ego at work. Of course, the new-age-ego chases new-age goals, which are indisputably noble. Between perfecting your downward dog and saving gay humpback whales, the ego ensures you don’t keep any time for yourself.
Even when you are on the potty, the ego won’t let you rest – it will insist you reply to at least three emails, read two pages of Eckhart Tolle and retweet Rumi on Twitter. After all, you have to ‘live up to your full potential’. *
THOU SHALT ALWAYS HAVE SOMEONE TO STAND AGAINST Without an opposition, any good ego would just wither away, so it needs to maintain the perception of an enemy. Whether it’s the corporations or the cults, whether it’s old feudal religions or new two-minute-noodle sects, the ego must have opposition. What’s the point of all your spiritual learning, the ego whispers, if you can’t even use it to prove how unevolved, lost and clueless the others are! To create a powerful ‘I’, one must create a powerful ‘you’. Tip: To create an ultra-strong-industrial-strength-ego, judge the entire planet and everybody that lives on it. *
THOU SHALT ‘SPIRITUALIZE’ YOUR WORLDLY DESIRES Let’s make this simple. Working hard for months to earn money for a Ferrari is bad, but visualising and manifesting a Ferrari is good… and spiritual. Instead of revealing your desperation to impress chicks, let the Ferrari be proof of how open and receptive you are to abundance.
Wise ancient teachers intoned that ‘greed’ is the cause of suffering, so no problem: simply chase ‘abundance’ instead! Say “I am not greedy, hungry, desperate and insecure – I just want abundance!” That way, you can be completely entangled in the Maya while still maintaining the glow of transcendence in your Facebook posts. *
THOU SHALT GLORIFY THY MUNDANE EXISTENCE Thou shalt give spiritual meaning and interdimensional interpretation to everything. Name your kid after an unheard of Sufi Mystic. Name your dog after an unpronouncable Zen Master. See mysterious synchronicities in Facebook posts. And mistake truck headlights for landing Plaeidian spacecraft!
If you have a toothache, it is because of an X-class solar flare in Sunspot AR2291. And if you fart like a bulldog, you are merely purging your root chakra! Bottomline:To create a spectacular, topped-to-the-brim ego, make sure there is nothing simple or ordinary about your life. *
THOU SHALT NOT BE RESPONSIBLE
Misapply the principle of non-doership to suit your needs. Take credit for everything that’s going well, and blame the universe/karma/life lesson for the rest. Bottomline: if you make a pile of money, attribute it to your high vibrations and connections with the ascended masters. But if you go bankrupt, call it the ‘dark night of the soul’ and throw an about-to-be-enlightened party. *
THOU SHALT SEEK BUT NEVER FIND Keep up the appearance of spiritual seeking, the ego advises, but remember to always remain in the state of ‘I’m-almost-there’. Become a workshop junkie or a guru shopper but remember what you seek should always remain ‘just-around-the-corner’. If you are the armchair seeker variety, scrounge hungrily on Amazon or YouTube to purchase even more books you will never read and mark new videos you will never see. Bottomline: Scatter all your energies on the internet, follow dozens of teachers simultaneously, pontificate on chat groups, go to bed every night confused, overwhelmed and exhausted. Become so addicted to seeking that there is no space for finding. *
THOU SHALT BE OBSESSED WITH THE BODY Keep asserting that you are an ‘infinite being beyond time and space’, while keeping a hawk-eye on every pimple, wrinkle and milligram of flesh on your waistline. Use all your spiritual tools to look younger, fitter and manifest a neon halo. Perfect your soul beads, your esoteric body processes, and your macro-vegan-lactose-intolerant-glutenfree diet. Tip: Being obsessed with the body is the best way to maintain a rock solid six-pack ego! *
THOU SHALT CONSTANTLY BE LOOKING FOR A PERFECT PARTNER Your purpose in life is to find the One who will fulfill you, complete you and make you eternally happy. No, no, what made you think we’re talking about God? We are talking about your soul mate!
So thou shalt be constantly looking for the perfect partner… even if you just got engaged last week! In case you don’t have any luck, switch to Plan B: Thou shalt constantly try to perfect your existing partner. Tip:Being obsessed with the ‘other’ is like Viagra for the new-age-ego. *
THOU SHALT OBSESSIVELY PROTECT YOURSELF It very important that you feel increasingly vulnerable and sensitive as proof of your enormous evolution. So you must need more and more protection from entities, black magic, negative energy… and especially your spouse and relatives! Gift yourself a fortress of crystals, candles, talismans and other expensive energetic protection tools. Because you’re worth it. *
THOU SHALT FIND YOUR ‘SPECIALNESS’ What’s the point of being spiritual if it does not even make you feel special and unique! So find a guru who makes you feel uber unique… or find disciples who make you feel super special. Or find a complicated spiritual system with obscure terminology and infinite levels which only a chosen few understand – that too after they pay $1,11,111 (local taxes extra). Tip: it is not important that you understand the path or process, as long as it is expensive and the salesperson is impressive! *
THOU SHALT NEVER EVER ASK THE ONE QUESTION This is the final and the most important commandment of the new-age-ego. Don’t ever ask the question ‘Who Am I?’
Never, ever question – who is the one chasing desire, who is the one seeking the soul mate or who is still miserable after so many years of spiritual searching.
You are allowed to travel to Machu Picchu, eat Spirulina till you turn green and spend a lifetime chanting Sanskrit verses, but stay away from stillness at all cost.
Stay obsessed with past lives or future prophecies, just don’t come to this moment.
And don’t ever, ever relax, pause and become silent. Because that is the one thing even the new-age-ego can’t survive. *