Faith in the Desert

It was of little use to have big dreams in a place with little means to achieve them. It was futile, but Razia’s grandfather had told her otherwise and she believed him.
He was after all a very special man.

The women here are intelligent, ambitious, yet there isn’t a place for them to pour their energy nor exuberance. They are eager to learn that universal language that history and time had chosen, that language that stopped them from being a part of the modern world; English. Their own language of course is rich, the use of which could paint unimaginable poetry and imagery from the soul, but it was only of use to their own. The world would listen only to the voice it understood.
If you were a traveler passing by this village deep inside the desert in Rajasthan, you would smile at their lovely faces and modest clothing splashed with color. The eyes of the women, hiding their vast dreams in the boundless desert of their heart. You may take a photo with your phone, that the children will delight themselves for hours with, should you let them play a few games. You may see them and yet not see them, for if you stop to ask, you will find people eager to dream greatly, to learn, to dance, searching for possibility. One thing you will find undoubtedly here, as you would find anywhere in this world; is the hearts of the young women eager to love.

Every girl had a story, of the boy she adored from the same village or the next one, yet here you didn’t speak of these things openly, you told the other girls, but not the boy and never your own parents. They would chose suitably for you.
Razia was no different and yet she was. She had fallen terribly in love with a young man from the next village. A story doomed from the start, one to be silenced and held only as a great yearning in the heart. He was soon engaged to a woman in his own village and that was that!
Razia’s grandfather was a great mystic and a saint, a title he never bestowed upon himself, but one given to him by the people who so adored him. He himself, was always engaged in communion with God, but when people spoke to him, they found in his words meaningful answers to their questions and so they came from all over the village.
He asked them to reach out to God themselves, but when he had something of value to share, he happily did so. His words were always simple,
“Don’t go searching outside yourself asking this person to that one, about who you are. Believe in the pure open space in the desert. Sit here quietly praying and you will have your answers.”
“You must never seek revenge, If you do so, there will be noise and that will be all. If you have been wronged, seek no revenge and one day God will deliver the truth and it’s echoes will be heard by all.” He had asked Razia to have faith in this pure space in the desert where his body now lay buried. The granddaughter of the great mystic said a prayer. She told God of the great love she had for this young man and
Quietly in the open desert she let him go…

A year passed when her father brought to her door a wedding proposal.
Razia rubbed her eyes in utter disbelief to see her love standing before her. Her father had never known. For a reason unknown, the engagement had been called off and Razia’s father who travelled to the next village thought the young man would be a perfect match for his daughter. Faith paved her path. In the traditional Indian wedding, a few tears are shed when the girl parts with her family. Razia couldn’t help not caring for such tradition and no-one smiled and laughed greater than her.

by SHENAZ WAHID
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Love, pride and fear

“I believed in love. I put all my faith in it and I’ve been completely disappointed, hurt and humiliated. I can’t possibly put myself through it again. I’d be foolish to risk my heart, sanity and everything that I am all over again.”, uttered Kris

“I should be practical now. Focus on my dreams, build my career, after all it’s more reliable than another unpredictable human being. I can be wealthy, travel, spend time with friends, have fun, make something of myself and surely enough I will have someone to share life with.” he says, his eyes betraying the words his lips just uttered. He wants to share life with someone, but he’s tired of love’s heart-shattering complexities.

And then Kris shared his story. “It’s been three years she’s been on my mind, but I just can’t tell her. I was at work when someone had baked this amazingly delicious cake. I took a bite and asked every one who made it. They all pointed at her. When I saw her for the first time, I stopped in my tracks. I’ve seen a lot of women but this was different. What I feel just being in her presence……. She’s kind, radiant and like no other.”
” What?? Three years and you haven’t told her, why?? you have to tell her.”, I say unable to contain my expressive self.
“No, do you not remember how it ended with my last girlfriend? What if she doesn’t feel the same way? What if she says no? I don’t want to hear it. What if she has someone one else? I really can’t put myself through the pain or rejection again. Then again not everyone gets what they want.”
“No,you get what you ask for and what you believe you’ll get, if you risk everything to get it, and that includes your heart.”, I say.

I sound so confident, so full of faith but I’d be lying to him and myself if I said I hadn’t experienced the same stone-cold fear, deep aching hurt and terrifying confusion after my first heartbreak. I was 21, my heart ripped open that I turned over to God who with time and his majestic love, made it whole again. He taught me that only those who had the power to touch our soul, had the power to break it open in such a way, that only then could we ever peer into it and slowly over time discover it’s power, magic and love. Only then would we listen to its dreams, truths and what it yearns for. Only retrospectively can I understand that it was a blessing I had deemed as a curse.

Consider this my dear friend, God does with the human heart what he did with the world’s most magnificent mountain ranges, The Himalayas; the earth lay low, resting blissfully in the sun and for no particular reason, He decided to disrupt the peaceful lands with a mighty earthquake. The earth would have let out a long terrified cry, confused as it trembled, but from it was born the world’s mightiest mountains that towered into the sky. Only such utter disruption could allow the earth’s mighty heart to reach into the clouds. I know you’re afraid my friend. Believe me in one way or another we all are. I sure as hell am for my own heart, but there’s an awesome invisible hand leading us through the mystery, that we must trust.
You have but one life (one that you know of anyway) and you must express the love it feels, no matter the outcome. If you believe, you will one day triumph.
Tell her Kris, tell her!!

by Shenaz Wahid
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The bar dancer

She looks at me from the seat beside mine and asks if I have any cotton as the flight is about to take off to Delhi.
“Kow-tun hai kow-tun?”, she asks in a heavy accent.
“Nahi hai. No I’m sorry” I smile at her.
She smiles back, “What do you do? Where are you going?”, she inquires.
I tell her that I love to travel and to write and that I’m going to the mountains.
“What do you do?”, I ask her.
“Dance.” she whispers softly.
“Oh I love to dance. I’ve been learning different forms since I was seven.”, I say animatedly to which she reacts with a quirky funny smile and says, “No, not that kind of dance.”
“Like Bharatnatyam?”
“Like Mujra and bar-dancing.”,she says softly. “Don’t tell anyone.”, she adds.

She says these words, “Don’t tell anyone” in such a soft shy way in my ear that it is almost impossible to forsee the crazy, dramatic, exhilarating next two and a half hours that will follow me on board.

In an endearing way, she is completely oblivious to social etiquette. She talks about her birthday aloud animatedly and the customer who showered two lac rupees on her “like rain” in a matter of half an hour. “Mere janamdin pe naa woh phool waali mombati jalaaye the aur aise paise udaaye mere upar ki barish jaise.”
“They love my dance.”, she says proudly and in the next instance says, “Let me show you.”, dikhao mein aapko? before I can reply she pops out her phone, plays a song and starts moving her hands dramatically.

My embarrassment quickly turns to pure amazement, that life put her my way, her eyes and voice overflowing with laughter as she tells her story.

“I’ve traveled the whole country, but my favorite part is Delhi.”,
“Delhi??”, I ask with questioning eyebrows thinking of the chaos in contrast to the peaceful villages and mountains.
“Yes Delhi. Where I live it’s beautiful. The neighbors are like family, the women laugh and cook meals together sharing stories. My family is kind and loving. I feel blessed coming back home to them. They don’t know what I do. They’d feel bad if they did. Bura manjayenge. They think I’m a make-up artist. I support the whole family from my sisters to their children and my parents, so we’re all happy.”, she says with pride

“How is it dancing?”, I ask trying to be as subtle as I can.
“It’s so much fun. bohot Mazaa aata hai. ” she says to my surprise
” I never let any man touch me at work. I dance because it helps me take care of the people I love and honestly dance is my passion.” Believe me it is, because even a flight full of passengers wouldn’t stop her from playing her tunes out loud and dancing. Everyone including the crew is too amazed and stupefied to stop her or say anything.
“The people I work with are like my sisters and dear friends. Also nothing else pays this well.”, she adds. Her last sentence gets me thinking of the irony of the price sexuality sells for and how an artist who makes beautiful music or the incredibly talented painter will have to fight it out to make ends meet, until they make it, but that is for another story.

Her appreciation for deep friendships and bonds seem much deeper than most people caught up living their busy lives. She pulls my cheek tightly with gleaming eyes and says “Aapse milkar bohot khushi hui mujhe.”

“I’ve loved only one man in my life and he passed away a year ago. I miss him a lot, after which its never been the same. He was the captain of a ship and to think of it, I wouldn’t be doing this if he were still alive. I would still be dancing, but not for others.”, she trails off. She plays a Punjabi love song that reminds her of him and translates it for me with intense emotion.

Here’s a list of endearing downright funny things that she asked me,

“Bangalore se Dilli tak teen Ghanta lagta hai. Yaha se foreign jaane ko kitna der lagta hai?”
“Eh chai de, aur Chinni aur dood theek se de abbey.”, to the purser.
“Aapka koi hai?” she raises her eyebrows naughtily, questioningly and adds “lover??”

by Shenaz Wahid
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Hiding

Let’s hide dear friend, all the questions that torment our soul,                       those questions of life and love whose answers we don’t already know.

Let me hide all my wounds, any hurt or any pain, just as you do beneath your smile.
Let’s hide under the curtain of the dark lonely night and pretend there’s only the moonlit sky with stars that shine. Let’s forget it is the darkness, which holds the stars in its vast bowl because they aren’t afraid to embrace it, like you and I.

Let’s hide the sadness that wonders why it was ever there and raise a toast in celebration and laughter.
It’s been said that the deepest laughter comes from those who aren’t afraid to cry, like a well carved so deep that it can hold the rain’s song, like secret twins dancing in the night, but let’s forget and pretend we’ve only ever known one of those two twins; joy.

Let’s hide that all we need is a silent embrace from another who knows exactly what it feels.
I know you know just what I mean, but let’s not be so weak to show the shadows of our soul. Even the sun moves and dances with the shadows through the day, but let’s pretend the sun of our hearts never a cast a shadow upon a single stone, and should that wretched shadow ever appear, let’s hide it beneath a velvet blanket where no one can see.

Let’s hide dear friend, anything that they say shouldn’t be. The deepest fear or doubt, for to show ourselves completely as we are, is shameful we’ve been told, So let’s dress those fears in beautiful robes woven with silken thread,                          
So that we may never know the beauty of being human or the magic of unveiling a glimpse of the mystery together
Or know that wondrous secret, that we’re all the same darling friend,
Stars so brilliant, that just need to know how to embrace the night,
for us to see our own hidden light.

All the same, you and I and everyone,                                       
And all we need is a silent embrace from another who knows exactly what it feels.

by SHENAZ WAHID

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One mask remaining

“Most people die with one mask remaining, wearing one last mask on, never knowing what it is to be fully loved, for who they really are.”

says Joe.

It is the person living the dream that others imagined for him, rather than the ones his own heart longs for. He feels the burden of following his own path and so he sticks to the one carefully paved by society for millennium & so one mask remains.
It’s the lover trying hard to be what the one they love wishes them to be.
And in doing so, often changing who they really are. One mask remains. It’s rare that people stop to ask them self, “Who am I? What do I really want from life? What do I dream of being and what do I long for?” They might ask the question but take everyone’s thoughts into the answer.

What would happen if we first fully see ourselves unmasked naked and then show ourselves to the ones we love, just as we are. That kind of sky-like freedom is what we all long for,
And yet, we hold back this freedom from our self and from the ones we love. Why? I’m not really sure. I do it too, consciously and unconsciously.

If I gave myself that freedom, I would travel deep into the world’s heart, love fearlessly regardless of the outcome, dance in wild abandon, live with the Sufi saints, Buddhist monks, Christian monk to feel life and God from everyone’s eyes. To arrive at the same space through different ways, write not just about the light but the gray shadows of my soul of which they are many, the doubts and the questions.
More and more, slowly I’m about to gift myself this freedom. A simple freedom of just being me.

“The only book truly worth reading is the book of your own life and rarely does anyone do so. Some one stops to read the book of his own life, seeing the beauty of it all, and he turns into a famous teacher, a saint or wise man. When in truth, everyone carries these great men and women within themselves. It’s just that we never stopped to the read our own book.” says Joe who is loving these cookies the most.

These cookies are strange. They’re filled with things that are making the people around the table far too intense. And of course we must talk of love.

by SHENAZ WAHID

What would you do if you had no boundaries?

“What would you do if you had no boundaries?” asks Mia the blue-eyed girl sitting in front of me.
It is one of the most important questions any one has ever asked me.
She means to ask, What would you do if you had no boundaries from your mother, father, lover, friends, brother, sister, neighbor, from the boundaries you impose on yourself and the ones imposed on you. What would you do?

We are talking about choices and I am sitting there contemplating which path I should choose to tread upon, what is right and wrong, what I should and shouldn’t do, when Mia looks me in the eye and asks me that one simple question,
“What would you do if you had no boundaries?”

It suddenly became easy to answer what had puzzled me. I start answering her with excited little heart of a child speaking withou care.
I think of my dreams and what I would do with life, if the only thing that steered me was the mast of my soul.
The answers that came was the naked voice of my heart, stripped bare of anything superficial, of what another thinks I should be and who I wish to be in front of another and who I’m supposed to be for another.
The voice that answered was my own. It was me being me.

Where would I go? What would I do? What would I say to another and to myself? Who do I love?

What would you do if you had no boundaries?
Who makes these boundaries but us, for ourselves and for each other?
Any one who truly listens to his own soul, could never go wrong because our souls are the throne of God, where his voice guides our feet.
If you listened to that voice, would you choose a new dream? Where would you travel and who would you meet? Perhaps you would meet yourself on a foreign street. Who would you say the deepest words of your soul to? Which friends would you hold onto for ever and who would you let go of? What would you want to see and what would you to do to go there, just to glimpse at yourself.

“What would you do if you had no boundaries?” If you listen to that answer, you will hear your heart speak.

by SHENAZ WAHID

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.”
Rumi

The royal man and the arrack seller’s daughter.

He was royal.
An Indian steeped in British blood whose family owned lands as far as the eye could see and lived a life of great luxury. He loved his whisky and drank it everyday, and for some reason on that particular day he ran out.
Left with no choice, he drove to the little local liquor store to get freshly home-brewed liquor.

She was poor and too young to sit at her father’s arrack shop.
In fact she never did sit there, but for some particular reason on that day, her mother and father were out and when he came in to ask for liquor, only her hands came out of the little wood opening to serve him.
He saw just her fragile beautiful hands and fell in love. He wanted to know who they belonged to and just how beautiful could the woman who had such hands be.

He came back the next day, saw her and he knew. He asked for that very hand.
When he proposed the idea to the church, they said, “It’s Lent, this isn’t the time to get married.”, but he cared little for such rules, got married and took her home.
In true movie style, his family was outraged saying, “If you choose to be with someone from the street, you’re free to leave the house.”

And he did. He went to one of their many lands which had two little rooms and turned to her, ” Well this is going to be our home darling.”
She looked around and there was no electricity, there was almost nothing.
He took his grandmother out the next day for a few drinks, got her drunk and got her to sign that land’s paper on his name. They had a home to live in now.

For the next 50years that was their home, and as my friend invites me to the mansion that now stands on that land overlooking the vast coffee plantations, telling me the story of two great lovers, her mother and father..
She also tells me of the time when she chose wrong in love.
Her mother who knew exactly what it is like to love a soulmate deeply, told her outside the church door, “Sweety forget about the people gathered here or the money spent, if you take two steps back instead of two steps forward, I’m with you. Don’t worry about a thing, I’ll call this off.”
She looked into her mother’s eyes and said, “I’d like to go ahead.”
Her mother sighed, made the sign of the cross and walked in with her.

Her mother was right and after what almost seemed like an eternity of pain and separation – she found the one with whom her soul was twined by God’s very hands and the house was once again filled with great love and magic.
“My mother and father are so happy.”, she says to me.
“How do you know that? They aren’t here anymore.”
“They are with me always. I feel their spirit smiling.”, she says as if death were only a door into life.
The hot wax from the candle lit to her father in prayer, seeps out from beneath and forms a perfect heart.
The two great lovers are happy, that their daughter found love as great as theirs.

What inspired a man of great wealth to trade the world for a woman, just by seeing her hands? Was it not great love?

by SHENAZ WAHID

The Italian baba

“Have you ever been in love?”, I ask the Italian baba living on the hilltop we had walked to, after debating for a while with myself if it’s the right question to ask the holy man.
“Yes, many times”, comes an easy reply with a smile.
“Have you ever loved one woman more than the others?”, I ask again
“Yes, I lived with her for 7years before I came here.”, he says, as he hands me the biography written on him by the Italian writer Falco Terzani titled, “A Piedi Nudi sulla Terra” or “Naked footsteps in the earth.” as if to say, you’ll find all the details in here curious young lady.

Mia my new German friend suddenly asks, “Is jealousy in love, just a product of the ego and the mind?”
“For sure.”, he replies falling back into the silence, never speaking more than he is asked nor supplying us with any great wisdom on life.
“Do you ask him that question because you have experienced jealousy in love?”, I ask Mia.
The Italian baba is now poised between a smile and a laugh as we women confront each other.
“Yes”, says Mia.
“I have too.”, I say.
Lini nods as if to agree while Mia says, “I suppose we all have at sometime.”

It’s the beauty of sharing emotions, not just the beautiful ones full of light, but also the dark ones we’re asked to hide. When you share them honestly, you realize that everyone feels just the same as you do.

The Italian baba doesn’t come across as an enlightened man far beyond human reach, but very unafraid to show his emotion and so all the more interesting. Interesting enough for BBC to film a documentary on him and his biography due to be translated in English soon. Although he is a recluse, people sought him out over the mountain, to know his story, which brought me to the question, “So then what are you doing here on this hilltop, in the forest?”
If he had loved, what was he doing here alone for over 58 years in India?
“I came here in the last hippie caravan from the states. We were the last hippies standing. I felt drawn here. It felt right to stay.”, he says simply as if I should have all already known this, before I came here.
“Do you miss Italy?”, I ask.
“I was just there a month back.”, he says smiling and gets up to recite effortlessly fluent Sanskrit chants for his evening puja, after having passed around and shared a strong joint of marijuana with his Shiv-bhakts.

I came back home to read contradicting statements on him such as, “He’s an amazing being and so very special.”to “He’s a fake.”,
Whatsoever be the truth, I admired that he answered my question with perfect honesty. He just was, sitting there, his lips poised between a smile, intriguing us. It was we, who were curious enough to have sought him out deep into the woods.

As the sun drowned over the hills in Hampi, we walked back before it got too dark and the conversation deepened with the girls, just by sharing one little doubt, one little question. And just like that, I understood love if only for a glimpse deeper.
I was able shed a layer of fear right there, simply by sharing what I feel.

by SHENAZWAHID

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A painting of The man.

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Igniting a light.

Meeting fear in the dark lake

Dusk was soon handing herself to the dark and the three of us are standing on the rocks by the lake.
The lake which has a signboard outside saying, “Beware of crocodiles.”
The villagers say it is a hoax, so that the tourists will swim in a nearby beach whose shops can profit.
We ourselves had swum in the lake, the previous day in the sun’s company.

But right now is completely different.
The rocks casting dark shadows in the darkness that deepened every second, brought alive all our fears.
The crocodiles, whether or not they were hiding beneath those deep black waters, were alive in our imagination, lurking somewhere far beneath, waiting.
It is all so beautiful as long as we are standing outside, looking at the sweeping landscape begin to dream in the night, but we had come here to jump in.

Wasi heroically says something about swimming to a far off rock and back, but quickly changes his mind.
“So I’m going to have a smoke over it.”, says Tanzim as he sits down on a rock to light his cigarette.
We are all staring at the water when Wasi says, “Look there, the eyes staring out.”
“What? Where?”, we ask. It was his attempt to get us to completely change our minds. A cup floating in the water appears as the crocodiles snout and by now there is no way I’m jumping in either. There is not a soul far in sight but for the three of us and the crocodiles in our mind.

In one crazy moment, I ask my guardian Angel to protect me. Wasi runs and dives into the water first and I follow him. Pitch black bottomless darkness within.
We swim out in a matter of seconds.
Me and Tanzim jump in the second time, and the manner in which we jump back out, both throwing ourselves at Wasi, arms and legs beating the water madly, to get us out, is beyond hilarious.

We laugh hard as we ride into the stars and the rice fields, our bodies and hearts soaked in the lake’s sweetness, feeling more alive than ever.
Even if just for a few moments, we had dove into our fears to find they were silly voices in the head, that die the moment we embrace them. As I turn back to look, while the bike drifts through the road back home, fireflies ignite the path.

by SHENAZ WAHID

Yoleen and Aaray

When I looked into her eyes, I saw that there in lived a thousand stories of love and war, heartbreak and hope, kindness and disillusionment all whirling around in the same ocean.
Since every young Israeli is bound to go to the army, she found herself posted at the border where she says she saw young Israelis return home from the land called India with ‘shining eyes’. Their eyes made her wonder what lay beyond and in a moment she made herself a promise that she would one day head in that direction.

When we first begin to speak in Manali, it was because Yoleen told the waiter to mash some garlic in warm water to soothe the sore throat and cold that I was complaining of.
A friendship formed slowly and yet deeply between Yoleen and I, as we walk through the pine forests speaking of our dreams. She is a teacher and this is her dream. For the longest time her parents who would rather have her work at the brilliant job she had, found it hard to accept, but Yoleen who loves children, unrelenting became one. And yet she had to come out here because she was journeying, searching for something and quite what she didn’t know yet…..

While she had learned the art of self-defense in the Army she still didn’t know how to defend her heart, wearing it on her brave sleeve. The last year had been heavy on her with her apartment getting burned down and heartbreak, that tricky thing that’s a part of life.

*****

I journey on and so does she and when I meet her again for dinner in McLeod Ganj, there is a man sitting beside her called Aaray, whom she happens to meet by chance. Aaray was here in search of a lost dream. A lost love, an Englishwoman called Dilayla whom he met in the very hotel where he is now staying. He has her number and her facebook but he wants to use none of these to contact her,
leaving it all to fate, but fate was working by the one who created fate.

Aaray does not meet Dilayla….  but he does meet Yoleen living right opposite him as his next door neighbour at the very same hotel. A conversation that starts over sharing a light turns into exploring the mountains together, unravelling the many sights that the magnificent mountains hold.

Aaray is a history teacher most fascinating to talk to with his deep insights on everything imaginable.
I ask them about the strife in Israel and Yoleen is replete with stories.
“When I was a child, they would announce for us to go into the ‘safe room’ in the house and put on the mask, when they knew the missiles were about to be fired. And we would go in there really scared, put on our masks and wait. Our parents who were so used to it, would step outside to watch and point to the missiles flying overhead and say, “No not here, it’s heading across to the other side”.
She says all this in such a humorous way, that ironically we all laugh.

Aaray is losing his eye-sight and this is impossible to tell. I only notice this when I stick my hand out to say goodbye one night after dinner and he does not reciprocate. I start waving my hand about in front of his face, until someone kindly points this out to me. He has been an athlete growing up, running on the football fields since he was a child.
“Yoleen I’m a mess.”, says Aaray who is not coping so well with the fading eyesight.
“All I see is a beautiful man with so much love to give the world.”, comes her reply.

The last time I see Yoleen is with a pink setting sun, a Simon and Garfunkel song to which she is singing along and a cup of cinnamon tea. Tears run down her cheek as she tells me Aaray is leaving back to Israel.
After two weeks it is time for Aaray to head back home and for Yoleen to continue her journey. She says she must journey on because she came here for her.

******

A month after she leaves back to Israel, she writes to me saying,
“Aaray lives an hour away. I just came home after a cup of coffee”,
six months later, “So we’re moving in together” and just a little later, “travelling with Aaray.”
And now 2years later her last message to me goes something like this,
“We’re getting married in the Mountains. You have to come.”

I think of the distances that all of us travel for love and God’s brilliant hand in our lives. If it wasn’t for one cigarette that needed to be lit, they wouldn’t have come together.
The hotel, the cigarette and they themselves needed to be in the space of time.
Even before she met Aaray, she says, “I know this one thing; the Yoleen that came to India is not the same Yoleen that goes back out.”
She tells me that when I finish writing my book, she will read it to him.

by SHENAZ WAHID