Beginning Of The Quest
My story is not terribly unusual, and yet it is not the stereotypical story of an immigrant from a third-world country that fuels typical American ideas about the relationship between underdeveloped and powerful countries. It is common, yet it is also unique. My personal journey has led me to this new spiritual and cultural understanding that I am sharing with you here. The only reason for sharing my life’s experiences is that they are the reason for my personal evolution and a glance into what made all this come together.
My parents were born in a small village in a remote part of India. My father was not born into privilege. He studied at the village school, essentially a mud shack. He was a good natured yet serious young man, devoted to his future. He put himself through college and became an officer in the British Indian Army. He quickly rose through the ranks and became a very well-respected officer. I believe it is the example of my father’s life that gave me the courage to try and make a difference.
My mother was uneducated, but radiated a simple wisdom that has remained with me throughout my life. I had eight siblings, five brothers and three sisters, and ours was a joyful, exuberant family full of warmth. My mother was at the center of this warmth. I remember her putting me down for my afternoon nap. She would rub my back and sing lullabies to me as I drifted into that treasured state of childhood sleep. The truly amazing thing to me is that when I woke up hours later, she was still sitting by my side, rubbing my back and singing these songs. I believe that the songs she chose, which gently insisted upon my own limitless possibilities and my power to change the world, were deeply imprinted upon my subconscious and have remained with me every step of my life.
My mother was quite superstitious. In our home, clipped nails had to be disposed of far away from the home because they were thought to bring bad luck. A dog was unclean and thus would take away God’s blessings. Wasting food meant starvation in hell. Throwing away salt meant having to pick it up with your eyelashes in the next life. The list of superstitions that peppered my childhood could go on and on. Looking back at these little beliefs now makes me realize just how easy it is to take a highly suspect idea and transform it into a terrifying truth that really can cause much anxiety on the part of the beholder. The superstitions of my childhood were like mini-religious tenets in that way. The dynamic whereby something speculative becomes a feared truth is embodied in each of these. The belief becomes so strong that even when it is contradicted by scientific evidence, it is difficult to dismiss. It took me years to get past these superstitions, no matter how silly they now seem. My siblings still follow most of them religiously, fully knowing that they are not true, but they are too afraid of what will happen if they are wrong. It is an example of the power of fear to shape our beliefs and thus our actions.
My grandmother had never left the remote village where she grew up, and she had never sat in an airplane or a train. In response to her inquiries about the weird creatures she was seeing in the sky, we told her that these were airplanes that fly with hundreds of people inside them. She appeared shocked by our explanation, and that evening she sat a group of us children down to explain that there was no such thing as airplanes. She explained that the story we were told about “airplanes” was simply a ploy by “Westerners” to weaken the religious convictions of our people. The Westerners felt that they could make themselves look like gods, she explained, if they demonstrated an ability to make strange creatures fly in the air with people in their belly. We all knew she was wrong, but no one tried to argue with her.
When I was a teenage boy, a war broke out between India and Pakistan. Growing up in the backdrop of war, or its constant possibility, was something that left a great imprint on my consciousness. I saw bombs falling, buildings demolished, and people torn to bits. As my father rose through the ranks and became a senior military officer, ours became a very influential and powerful family. Because of my father’s position in the military, our family occupied a lavish house with many servants. A memory that stands out in bold relief in my mind is getting in the flag staff car with my father and going off to school. Outside our front porch, the military driver would occupy his hours shining the car to a brilliant sheen until we entered the car and drove toward the main gate. At the main gate, the guard would offer my father an elaborate salute. My father would then ceremoniously exit the car and inspect the guard and oversee the changing of the guards. As we drove to school, the police on each intersection of the small town would stop traffic when they saw dad’s staff car. I remember observing the respect given to my father with great pride. He embodied everything good and true to me, and he wore his power with great good will. He was social, jolly, and learned: a self-made man who used his power thoughtfully. I tried to emulate my father’s work ethic and nature; I excelled in school and when I was thirteen, I earned seven academic awards, more than any other student that year.
One incident from that time seems especially meaningful to me now in analyzing the path I have chosen for myself. At one time, my father received word of a mini-rebellion amongst the small group of soldiers who worked in our house to serve us and maintain the property, mainly enlisted ranks. There was a new soldier who had just arrived; he was a Muslim and most of the other soldiers, who were Hindus, shunned him and refused to sit and eat with him. My father didn’t allow segregated eating and with the new guy, that became a problem.Their feelings were deeply held and rooted in centuries-old traditions from the times of the Mughal emperors, a complicated history of conflict between Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians. Their distaste for eating or coexisting with those of another religion was a combination of religious doctrine and longstanding cultural traditions and class systems that instilled in them very real fears about their own cultural standing and spiritual security. Especially in the Hindu religion, the mixing of different classes of people even from within the Hindu faith was regarded with deep fear. The Brahmin class would never come into contact with the “Achoots,” which was considered the untouchable class. In fact, if a Brahmin Hindu even has a shadow of an Achoot cast upon him, he must go through a process of purification. The kind of intolerance my father had to contend with in this situation was deeply held and difficult to shake. The soldiers’ fear and suspicion of the new soldier became like a ticking time bomb among the ranks and became the talk of the military base, and It became imperative for my father to intervene. The situation was very sensitive, and dad received a warning from the military command to handle the situation very carefully. They suggested that no matter how small the group in question, he should not forget the lessons of the Rebellion of 1857. This rebellion started with a handful of soldiers, wherein the British rulers of the time underestimated the strong religious and cultural convictions of the Indian army under their control and insisted that the soldiers use ammunition that required the soldier to bite off the top of a cartridge that was covered with pig and cow fat. Of course, consuming anything to do with pigs is forbidden in the Muslim religion, and cows are very sacred to the Hindus, so soldiers of both faiths refused to bite off the top of this new ammunition. The British officers ordered the Indian soldiers to use the ammunition or face consequences. The Indian soldiers rebelled, and many died in the subsequent rebellion. Cognizant of the deep feelings involved, my father faced a dilemma in regard to the new soldier. He could not afford a rebellion, and yet he could not allow the soldiers who were servants in our home to refuse to eat and share dining utensils with the new member of the staff. Others in our home had tried to solve the problem by remonstrating with the soldiers. A couple of sergeants came by and tried lecturing to convince the soldiers to change their position on the matter, but this only inflamed them and the situation worsened. This problem was not uncommon. The military was made up of men from a variety of different religious traditions, many of whom were deeply distrustful of those of different faiths than their own. This sort of discontent was often present, but it usually existed only as an undercurrent of feelings. This situation, however, seemed on the verge of becoming explosive. So, my father decided to intervene. He had just picked me up from school when he sent a message for the enlisted men working in our home to meet him in the military “Lungar”, which is a huge dining hall for the soldiers. Other officers thought he was making the matter worse by bringing it in front of thousands of soldiers rather than solving it privately at home. The news of what was happening at the general’s house had spread, and the soldiers, coming as they did from many different faiths, were angered by the situation. My father was the senior-most officer in that city, and when we arrived at the mess hall, the scene was extremely tense. The soldiers were willing to die for their convictions; after all, their very souls were at stake. Everyone waited anxiously for my father’s speech. They knew him to be a religious man, but most of all, a fair man.
The Silent Speech
While my father was expected to give a speech, he did not. Instead he ordered one plate of food, some bread, and one glass of water to be brought to a table in the mess hall. Everyone watched in amazement. The Hindu soldiers from our home were expecting my father to issue an order, forcing them to sit and eat with the Muslim soldier. They were mentally prepared to refuse an order for the first time ever and face a court-martial; but my father surprised everyone. He ordered the shunned Muslim soldier to sit down and eat; and the confused soldier did. Dad stopped him halfway through his meal, sat down next to him at the table, and slid the soldier’s plate in front of himself. As everyone watched in amazement, he ate the leftover food of this man who was of a different religion and very low in the socio-economic and caste structure. There was absolute silence in the hall, and I could hear myself breathe. My father then asked the soldier to drink the water. Again, he interrupted him halfway, took the glass, and finished the water himself. He then got up and shook his hand, welcoming him to his home and his military command. He took my hand and we left.
As I walked beside him, my mind was spinning with a mixture of admiration and confusion. When we got home, my father received a phone call from the mess sergeant who reported that after we left, all the soldiers had miraculously sat down and eaten in mixed groups, something they had never done before. Usually the dining hall was segregated by religion, but today, soldiers sat with men that they had previously considered untouchable. The soldiers, for the first time, chatted with people they never thought to befriend before. It was as if tolerance was a virus that was spreading like wildfire through the group. The sergeant also reported that one particular Hindu soldier, who had a reputation for being tough and was feared by others, stood up during the meal and said, “Anyone touches this man,” pointing to the Muslim soldier who was shunned earlier, “or treats him bad, will have to face me. From today, he is my brother.”
A miraculous transformation had occurred in almost an instant. With just one decisive action, my father had done more than could have been accomplished with volumes of books, a litany of words, or caches of weapons. He had used a human gesture of goodwill and connection that disrupted and altered thousands of years of entrenched behavior. When I realized what had happened, my eyes filled with tears and my chest became full of violent emotion. It was a lesson that I carried with me on each subsequent day. Change is possible. This insight set in motion a chain of ideas that links the dutiful son that I have described, to the person with this message I present to you now.
The Rogue Tribe
In subsequent years, my father became known as someone whose humanity came into conflict with, and often won over, his very serious devotion to duty. A couple years after that incident, the remote area in which we lived became unsettled by a particularly rogue tribe. The area was made up of a few small cities surrounded by different tribes. These tribes did not recognize the government nor the laws of the land, and it was a constant struggle for the authorities to keep them under control.
My father continually received complaints about one particular tribe that lived in the mountains nearby. Members of this tribe kept breaking the law, stealing animals, bikes and motorcycles from the people in and around the city, harassing travelers, shoplifting from local merchants, and committing other petty offenses. These outlaws were well armed, and the small local police force was unable to control them, and their reign of terror continued for many months. Being the senior officer in the area, my father was viewed as an unofficial governor. Every time he asked the military high command for permission to act, he received strict instructions not to take any action because the leader of this tribe was connected and powerful, and the government did not want to anger him. My father followed his orders, but it was extremely difficult for him. People in the town began to wonder why he was being uncaring and not taking action.
One day a frail, elderly man came to our house and reported that his two teenage daughters had been kidnapped by the son of the rogue tribe’s leader and his friends and taken to their tribal area. The old man was trembling for his daughters, fearing what might be happening to them. He cried hysterically and begged my father for help. I saw him throw himself at my father’s feet and say, “You are the only one with the means to help me. I hear you have daughters also, so you know how I feel. Please, for God’s sake, help me get my daughters back and get justice.”
My father took action. He sent a messenger to the tribal leader and demanded that the girls be released immediately. Indeed, they were released and made it back home, but their lives were devastated. They had been gang raped by the tribal leader’s son and his friends for two days. The girls not only had suffered through a terrible ordeal, but in that culture, no one would ever marry them. Their lives were over; these villains might as well have killed them. At that time, I saw my father in tears for the first time in my life; he was shaking with anger. I remember him telling my mother, “If I ask the headquarters, they will tell me to do nothing. And to do nothing is worse than death to me right now.” I remember my mother’s response. She spoke gently and told him to do what his heart and mind told him he must do, and then bear the consequences.
Justice By Force
My father ordered an emergency training exercise. He did not need anyone’s permission because it was not a military operation, just a training exercise. All the soldiers and officers knew what had happened to the girls, and they were full of anger and desire to act. Without a word being spoken, everyone became aware of what my father’s intentions were and all the soldiers supported him wholeheartedly. A large military force moved with all its armor and artillery and surrounded the area where this tribe lived. They pretended to be engaged in a simple training exercise, but they had never been so willing to fight. The tribal leader came to meet my father and threatened him. He said that he would have his job and have him court-martialed. My father said, “Look at the hardware and firepower I have at my disposal. Every man in my command is itching to take revenge for the girls. You may have power and connections, but by the time you contact someone, your little clan will cease to exist.”
The tribal lord asked in scornful amazement, “You would throw away your career for some poor girls who do not matter?” My father responded, “They matter to me, and I am willing to die for them today.” The tribal lord then offered a large sum of money to my father and this infuriated him even more. By now, the tribal lord fully understanding the righteousness of my father’s anger and the extent of his resolve, backed down and gave in to each of the demands. Not only did he return stolen items from past crimes, but he also handed over the men, including his son, who were responsible for raping the girls, for them to stand trial.
When it was all over, my father did not even receive a reprimand from the high command. In the face of such an action, the regulations and fears of the institution melted away. They saw the results, justice had been done, the tribe had been tamed, and the region was a safer place. Again, the actions of my father had revealed to me how acting out of simple human spirit of goodness, and flinging off the shackles of fear, can transform a situation that otherwise may appear to be hopeless. My father was a man who trusted his heart and his mind and although he showed great respect and devotion to the institutions around him, his independent thought led him to do truly miraculous things.
A New Career
A few years after this incident, dad retired from the military and started a small business that failed within a couple of years. This unsettled my world a great deal. Suddenly, we did not know how we would support ourselves. Dad had not saved money or made arrangements for a post-military career. We went from being extremely privileged and secure to having nothing. My father’s only experience had been military; he had fought in the Second World War and two local wars. How did one make a living off such experience? My father, though, was undaunted.
My mother told me a story once, and I remembered it during the time Dad was looking for a new line of work. She told me the story of a little bird sitting in a tree hiding from a predator bird. As the little bird watched the predator bird fly overhead trying to find and kill her, suddenly she looked down and saw a hunter aiming his gun at her. She knew if she stayed in the tree, she would be shot to death, and if she flew off, she would be eaten alive. So she prayed to God, in spite of the hopelessness of the situation. At that moment, a snake bit the hunter, who was in the middle of pulling the trigger to hit the little bird. His hand jerked with the pain of the snakebite, and the bullet hit the predator bird above. The hunter and the predator bird both died. My mother said, “Don’t ever consider something hopeless, overwhelming, or impossible. If God is on your side, nothing is impossible.”
In a similar manner, something amazing happened in my father’s search for a new line of work. He decided to go to the city to visit a friend and explore possibilities. While he was there, he attended a party with his friend where he overheard a prominent businessman talking about his factory that was located in the tribal areas of the country. The businessman was lamenting that the factory had the potential to be extremely profitable, but they had been unable to continue business there because of local tribesmen terrorizing the workers and periodically attacking them. The businessman had to shut down the factory because of his inability to defend the workers against the armed attacks of the local tribal outlaws. Many workers had been killed, and the rest of them refused to work. My father approached the man and boldly told him that he could get the factory operating in a short period of time if he were given an equal partnership in the business. The businessman had nothing to lose and a lot to gain, and so he agreed. Of course, my father’s military training and experience were the perfect tools for this situation. It does seem to me upon reflection that there were great powers at work behind the scenes, helping dad find a way to market his skills that had no demand in peace time, until this situation was revealed.
In his initial investigation, Dad discovered that the tribal leader was ordering the terror attacks because he wanted to own the factory himself. He reasoned that if he prevented the owner from operating the factory, then he would be forced to sell it for a fraction of its value. The tribal leader figured he could make millions on the deal. When the factory was reopened a few months later under Dad’s control, the terrorists were very agitated. They planned their biggest attack to date to take care of this problem once and for all, but when the terrorists approached the factory, an amazing thing happened. Dad had organized a small but well-armed security force for the factory made up of retired military personnel. He set up a comprehensive security plan including observation posts, wireless communication devices, and an alarm system. When the OPs warned of an attack, the workers were to go to their designated safety zones, which were rooms in the factory that had no windows, and the security forces would man their battle stations.
The plan worked beautifully. My father’s combat experience allowed him to outsmart the terrorists every time they attacked the factory, and the factory remained open and began operating smoothly again. As a result, my father became a partner in an extremely profitable business without any investment or business experience. Again, I felt strongly the hand of divine power in this turn of events. Rather than being incapacitated by circumstances, we felt a strong hand guide us through our hour of need. This incident enhanced my feelings of comfort, security, and strength in the world around me. I found in myself a fearless man, willing to take chances and attempt the impossible. I had faith that a power far greater than me would be there to assist me if I only had the courage to attempt great things. I explain this just in case you were wondering why an ordinary human like me can even think of attempting to change the world.
Effects Of War
Our family went from a state of power and influence but limited wealth as a military family to an extremely wealthy existence as my father made millions from his partnership in the factory. We enjoyed a very luxurious and happy lifestyle, but then another war broke out between India and Pakistan and my dad was recalled into military service to fight the war. At this time we lived in a town near the border with Pakistan that was under severe air attacks from Pakistani air force and artillery, resulting in a staggering loss of life, so my father decided to move us to a safer place. We all packed into two cars and started driving to a city farther away from the border where we would be safe. During this journey, an amazing incident occurred that further enhanced my faith in the incredible potential of the individual.
On our journey, we reached a river that was home to one of the country’s most important bridges. This bridge had been under air attack for many days, but that night the attack had reached a new intensity. The enemy was planning a major offensive, and the destruction of this bridge that night was imperative to their strategy. My father parked our cars at the river’s bank away from the road because of the heavy strafing. The planes approached with a thunderous roar and bullets were flying everywhere. An absolute blackout was in effect to keep the attacking planes from seeing their target. We huddled in the cars, shivering with fear and anticipation.
During the most intense period of the air attacks, the airplanes began concentrating on strafing the anti-aircraft artillery batteries on and around the bridge to take them out so they could bomb the bridge without being shot at. The strafing was so severe that the brave soldiers who were manning the huge number of the anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) guns started running away from their guns. It was a horrifying sight: men being blown to bits and plummeting off the bridge like they were little dolls. It seemed inevitable that the bridge would be lost to the enemy, when an amazing thing happened. Dad jumped out of the car and ran up to the center of the bridge, screaming orders for the soldiers to return to man their guns. We were all screaming for him to come back, but our voices were landing on deaf ears. At this moment, in the dim moonlight amid the flashes of explosions, I could see with horrifying clarity the bullets raining down all around him, bombs exploding, and fragments of destruction framing him in his desperate attempt to restore order to chaos. The image burned itself into my young mind.
My father, the hero, the man who was everything to me, seemed destined to die on that horrible night. He ran into the fire, driven by the need to be seen by the soldiers, to lead them back to man their AAA guns. He did not duck down or take cover; he stood tall in the middle of the bridge, with no weapon in his hands and screaming at the top of his lungs, ordering the soldiers to do their duty. I was sure that none of the soldiers would be brave or crazy enough to return to the anti-aircraft guns, but I was wrong. The soldiers saw a general, standing unarmed in the middle of the bridge, fueled by duty, ordering them to return to their guns. The first soldier to return to man his gun was a Sikh, and I could see his turban and beard clearly from my vantage point. Soon many others followed and eventually almost all of the soldiers who were still alive and not wounded ran back to man their guns. Even other soldiers whose primary job and training was not to man the AAA guns went to fill in for the gunners who were dead or wounded.
That attack failed, and the bridge remained standing. At the end of it all, my father started to get back in the car, and every single eye was fixed on him. Somehow, when all the soldiers saluted him that day, they reflected more than simply the routine fulfillment of their duty. They were saluting with their hearts, their faces awash with an indescribable look. Father seated himself in the car, and we drove off as if nothing had happened. Amazingly, after seeing all the violence, the planes, bombs, bullets, people being killed, and my father in danger of being killed, the one image that remained strongest from that experience in my mind forever was the way those soldiers saluted my father that day; the look on their faces. When I saw the NYPD fire fighters run up the stairs of a burning skyscraper during the 9/11 attack, they reminded me of the bravery of my father, and I salute them with the same feelings those soldiers showed for my dad that day.
My Father’s Death
My father was diagnosed with cancer in his later years. He became frail and slowly lost his strength. In the end, he lost the ability to carry out even the simplest of tasks like feeding himself. He could barely move. The day before his death, an amazing thing happened. He was sleeping in his bed, and my brother was keeping watch. All of a sudden, my father sat up in his bed, totally alert and in control of his faculties. My brother was shocked because in his condition, even lifting a hand was difficult. My father then spoke to my brother. “I must go. They are here to take me away.” My father was seeing visions, and he said he was seeing a peaceful, bright light and people that were there to take him somewhere, and obviously, he was not scared of them, but eager to go. Something gave him great power for those few moments. As fast as his power came, it went away, and he collapsed in my brother’s arms and went back to his lifeless state. The next day he died. This event greatly affected my belief in a life after this one.
Coming To America
Going back to an earlier part of my life; early 1970s, I was a teenager and had just finished O levels (equivalent of 11th grade in the British system of education). I felt stalled at that time; I seemed to be just biding my time and not getting anywhere or doing anything constructive. One day my father asked me about my plans for my future. I replied that I wanted to continue my education and that I would like to go abroad to do so. He asked where I wanted to go. I had known for a year that I wanted to go to the United States. My brothers had come back after living in England, Germany and France the previous year, and they had expressed that they had faced a quite a bit of discrimination there. My third brother lived in the United States and was visiting at the time. I asked him what he thought about discrimination in the States. He replied, “I don’t discriminate against anyone.” I clarified that I was talking about others discriminating against him. He smiled and simply said, “I have never really felt anything like that.” I knew that day that I would rather go to the United States for my education. So, we decided that I would go to school in the United States and come back to join my father in his multi-national business.
I was getting ready to leave for the United States, and as I packed, my mother cried. At the airport in Delhi, we stood in line waiting for our passports to be checked for the flight to Europe and on to the United States. The official checking the passports was enjoying his power and being extremely rude to everyone. The people were quietly bearing his rudeness because they did not want to risk any delay or interference with the flights they had gone to so much trouble, expense, and time to arrange. The officer demanded the passports rudely and treated each passenger with scorn and derision. When he finished with a person’s passport, he threw it back rather than hand it to them politely. I began to get a little nervous, because I knew that my father did not tolerate such behavior, and I so desperately just wanted this exciting journey to begin without a hitch.
When it was our turn to deal with the immigration officer, the man, without looking up, curtly demanded, “Passport.” I quickly tried to hand the man my passport, but my father grabbed my hand. My heart sank. “Here we go,” I thought, seeing my dream journey fade away in front of me. The immigration officer, still looking down at the documents in front of him simply barked again, “Passport,” this time in a louder and very angry voice. My father just stood there. Everyone in line and around us stared at Dad in disbelief. You could hear a drop of sweat from my brow hit the cold tile floor as everyone awaited the consequences of my father’s insurrection. The officer looked up and said slowly and with much malice, “I said passport!” Dad looked at him calmly and said, “Ask respectfully, as you are supposed to.” The man looked slightly dumbfounded, and to save face, he merely said, “Passport” again, but a little less rudely this time. My father was six feet, three inches tall, very well built, and had a presence and personality that demanded respect from those around him. The change in tone did not satisfy him. He repeated his demand very calmly, “You will say, ‘May I have your passport, please, sir.”
By this time I was nearly crawling out of my skin with anxiety, wondering how far the official could be pushed on the matter. The entire room was staring in disbelief, shocked at my father’s audacity. The immigration officer stopped and sized up the situation for a moment. You could see that he intuited that this was not the man to confront. He seemed to shrink an inch in height as said, “Your passport, please.” Dad still was not satisfied, however, and suggested in a pleasant enough tone: “Ask me by saying, ‘May I have your passport, please, sir?’” The officer broke down and repeated the statement, exactly as Dad had specified. At that, we gave our passports to the man, who stamped and returned them without even inspecting them. My father then added, “You are a government official, and here to serve the people, so please make sure that you ask every single person after me in exactly the same respectful way.” We then boarded the plane.
As the plane took off, I watched the lights of the city below me. It was then that the reality of the situation came to me. From this day, my whole life would change. It is amazing how much a single decision can change a person’s entire life; (Or the fate of a country or a whole species). The suddenness and the unexpectedness of this turn in my fate made me feel as if I was being guided into the sky by a gigantic, invisible hand. I looked at my father’s hand as I sat next to him on the plane. I was glad to have him beside me on this journey. When they announced our final descent into New York, I was ecstatic. The excitement of this colossal change in my life was giving me goose bumps. I was about to enter this great and perfect land that I had only seen in movies and on TV—the land that in my perception was perfect. The bad guys always lost, the women were beautiful like the movies, and there was justice, opportunity, wealth, organization, happiness, and cleanliness the likes of which were unheard of in the rest of the world.
Once inside the terminal, we approached the immigration officer. I was scared because my experience at Delhi airport was still fresh in my mind. But to my surprise, the immigration officer was very pleasant and welcomed us to the United States and stamped our passports after a couple of questions. When I came outside and saw the main JFK airport, I was shocked. There was litter around and people were not friendly. Everyone was in a hurry and people spoke with an accent that I could barely understand. I was surprised. This did not fit the United States I had dreamt of and seen in the movies. How could the people be rude and the streets of the airport have litter? I quickly realized that the “perfect” perception my young mind had created from the movies was not close to reality. Then, I thought about what an American would think of India if all he ever saw was Bollywood movies. A smile crept up on my face because that would be a perception so far from reality that it would shock him when he visited the country. I realized my mistake and prepared myself for further surprises. I was right in doing so, because many were waiting for me.
Our first evening, we ate dinner at a restaurant in the hotel where we were staying. The waitress could tell I was out of my element, clearly brand new to the country, so she took it upon herself to give me some much-needed advice. She warned me not to walk alone outside in certain areas and not to take the subway at night. I was shocked again. Here I was in the United States, a culture I had long dreamed to visit for all it had to offer, and now I find it wracked with lawlessness and danger. Litter on the streets of the airport I could handle, but her comments shocked me. I was wondering if I was in for a rude awakening. In Delhi, I had never worried about being out and about at night.
She woke me from my daydreaming when she asked to take my order. I decided to try a good old American steak. She asked me how I wanted them cooked. I was again surprised. What kind of a bloody restaurant was this asking customers how to cook the food? Just bring me the dish the way it is supposed to be cooked. I was also embarrassed not knowing what to tell her. I asked her what my choices were and she said, “Rare, medium, medium well, or well done.” I did not know the difference between any of these so I just asked her to cook it the way she liked her steak. She said she liked hers “Rare” but was not sure if I would like it. The response to her comment in my head was, “You don’t know who you are dealing with, lady. I have had the spiciest food you can ever imagine. I can handle a ‘rare’ steak.” But I just smiled and requested her to bring me the steak cooked rare. I was glad I finished with this weird question after choosing my dinner that had made the ordering process so difficult. Next, she asked which “sides” I wanted. I was again crawling out of my skin. I did not want to come across like I was stupid and did not know answers to these evidently simple questions, but I had no clue why she would ask so many questions and not just bring me a dish I ordered with whatever it comes with. I again asked her for my choices and recognized “baked potato” and immediately made my choice. Wow, I was glad I got that done, but no such luck. My next dilemma was what I wanted on the potato. Again, I asked for my choices and did not understand most of them. I had never heard of sour cream, chives, bacon, etc. So I picked the familiar word “cheese” and ordered that. Now I was hoping that she would leave and my interrogation by USDA and FDA would end here, but no such luck. What type of salad did I want? Okay, there are many types of salad here, and I obviously don’t know any of them. I again asked for my choices. I could tell that she was aggravated with and was enjoying my newness at the same time. I picked the first salad she mentioned and she smiled and asked me what type of dressing I wanted. I was ready to cancel my dinner and run up to my room, but I could not be so rude. I again asked her for my choices and picked the first one she mentioned, and I was almost in tears. I was just glad I got passed my first hurdle in United States and anxiously waited for my dinner.
When my dinner finally arrived, I could not believe my eyes. It had blood around the meat, which was very raw. I was not sure if it was a practical joke or just a bad dream. I just thanked God for the potato and salad and had these as my first meal in the United States. I could not believe how difficult getting a simple meal could be in a different culture. Even simple things can hold many surprises for a newcomer. I have never ordered anything cooked “rare” since.
We went to live with my brother and his family in Chicago. I was surprised to see people of every race, type, color, and religion in the United States. For some reason I had assumed that most of the people were white and a few were black. I guess movies don’t always project a culture accurately. One of my first ventures out in this community was to the neighborhood convenience store to buy a pack of chips. I remembered the advice of the waitress in New York and decided to leave my wallet at home. I went out with two dollars, which I calculated would be enough to buy chips. (It was early 70s, after all.) The clerk at the store said, “Dollar ten please.” I thought, Wow, this country is very expensive. Ten dollars for a pack of chips? That is five to ten times the price in other parts of the world. So, holding my two dollars, I said, “Sir, I sincerely apologize for inconveniencing you, but I did not bring enough funds for this purchase with me. I will be right back with the rest of the money.” The clerk looked at me with surprise. “You got two bucks right there, man,” he said. I understood then that “bucks” meant dollars, and I replied, “Exactly. And you said ten dollars.” He replied, “I didn’t say ten dollars; I said dollar ten.” so I just placed my two dollars on the counter, and he picked them up and returned ninety cents to me. I had just picked up another American idiom. Back in India, I had tested at a genius level on a IQ test, but I felt like a perfect idiot during my first few weeks in the United States.
I was in for more surprises, including people driving on the wrong side of the street. My early experiences in the United States had my head in quite a spin. The process of moving to a new culture was indeed a shock, but not in quite the same way that is detailed in countless tales of immigration whereby an impoverished third-worlder gasps at the bounty of the United States. Having come from a very privileged background, it was difficult for me to adjust to a more prosaic lifestyle in the United States. Because it was extremely difficult to send money in any foreign currency from India, I was forced to live on a budget, something to which I was not accustomed. I had to cook for myself sometimes, clean my own apartment, and wash my own clothes! I had never before dreamt of doing such things. In my former home, we had nine full-time servants and many part-time ones. I would not even have thought to get my own glass of water. But I soon became accustomed to the “do-it-yourself” ethos of my new surroundings.
Life In The USA
The initial sense of personal deprivation was countered by the amazing bounty I saw around me; so much merchandise, so many choices, so much complexity. It made my head spin. Take, for example, the grocery store. The size of the store was beyond my ability to fathom. In India in the 70s, I was accustomed to the smaller marketplace in which one small store or outdoor stall would sell chicken, spices, and vegetables. The variety in the American grocery store was breathtaking to me. How could people possibly require so many types of cereal or soda? I had never imagined there were so many types of simple things like milk, yogurt, and chicken. Milk was just milk, after all, and here I was confronted by skim, 1 percent, 2 percent, milk in plastic, milk in paper, milk in gallons, milk in pints. I found it simply unbelievable. Another aspect of the grocery store I found shocking was its cleanliness. The fruits and vegetables section contained no dirt from the fields. The chicken and fish section did not smell like chicken or fish. It was amazing. I so enjoyed my early trips to the grocery store.
People, I noticed, possessed the tools and equipment necessary for any happenstance in America. Say the weather turned cold; Americans had the gear to deal with it. They pulled out their coats, hats, boots, earmuffs, snow shovels, portable heaters, and four-wheel drives. Should you experience a heat spell, a whole alternate set of merchandise was marshaled: a different wardrobe, sunscreen, portable fans, and a convertible car. Americans seemed to have a tool to accomplish any purpose. Where I came from, people had a limited number of possessions that they adapted for different purposes. One tool might have to imperfectly fulfill many roles.
I was overwhelmed with the readily available quantity of stuff. Even a modest store clerk or janitor could expect to own a car and have an air-conditioned apartment chock full of possessions. The decadence of this consumption was beyond my comprehension in the beginning. I had come from a privileged background and was used to power and money, but the proliferation of merchandise in the United States was simply unreal to me. Rather than feeling satisfied with a lifestyle in which most of their needs were fulfilled, people seemed caught in a never-ending cycle of desire for new items. They didn’t just want these superfluous luxury items; they seemed to grow to need them. Girls in their early teens had more make-up and clothing than grown women in most of the third world could imagine. People had to have designer goods and lots of them. Huge cars carried a single person around. One person being ushered through life with six cylinders and a good deal of horsepower: I just couldn’t fathom the waste. In India, even today, a 0.8 Liter engine pickup truck will be carrying ten or more people. I noticed how people often replaced things before they wore out or broke, just because they did not like the color or the design.
I found the food service in restaurants strange. Instead of the food coming in a common container and everyone helping themselves onto individual plates, a separate plate arrived for each individual, making the amount thrown away much greater. The portions were so large for an individual that they could easily feed two or three people. It scared me at first to see the amount of food that was constantly discarded. Growing up, we were used to eating everything to try not to waste. Even though we were wealthy, this was important. If you did want to get rid of food, there were so many poor people to give it to, that it would be almost an act of impudent cruelty to toss it in the garbage. But in the United States, even family members or friends usually did not seem interested in eating each other’s leftovers. I had heard a statistic before coming to America that a child born in the United States would consume 3,000 percent more of the world’s resources than a child growing up in India. Now I could believe that this was true. Something troubled me about this way of living. I remember having a hard time throwing away so many plastic containers and bags. I was not conscious enough to worry about the environment at that time, but I kept thinking, “This is such a nice container; I will use it for something else.” However, within about two months, I was throwing away disposable containers and bags without a second thought.
Right And Wrong
One incident that gave me insight into American culture and how it differed from mine took place at my university. I was telling my girlfriend how a company with whom I was doing business was overpaying me by mistake. I was looking forward to profiting further from the error. She responded by saying, “But you cannot do that!” I replied, “Sure I can. There is no way for them to know or for me to get caught.” To this she replied, “But you still cannot do that.” I tried explaining the logistics of the situation, how I was totally “covered” and could not get caught, but she only repeated, “I understand all that, but you still cannot do that.” I was aggravated at this point and asked, “Why not?” She replied, “Because it is wrong.”
Growing up in my culture, my main concern was whether or not I could get away with it. Her answer hit me like a steamroller. We all know that not everyone in the United States thinks this way, and there are those in India that would have focused on the moral implications of the matter. But overall, I have encountered a greater emphasis upon right and wrong amongst the American people, not the government, and a “what can we get away with” attitude in the culture in which I was raised.
Aside from the charm I found in American culture, I did notice that the culture of the United States was very insular. To me, this is the most problematic feature of American culture. In other areas of the world, countries are very interdependent and aware of each other. There is an international spirit in much of the world: international politics, international sports, international music, an understanding of different cultures and their histories. However, because the United States is so large and has such a bounty within its borders, the majority of American citizens seem completely unaware and uninterested in anything outside their own country. In fact, this ignorance of the current events was not just limited to other countries. Most people could not tell you the names of most of their local or national elected officials, or what was happening in their cities or the nation in any great detail. I was puzzled at the blithe ignorance that I encountered. The average person knew little about the affairs of their own country: the Civil War, the American Revolution, America’s involvement in World War II, and so on. Also, they knew almost nothing about the rest of the world (1970’s). People asked me: “Do you have cars in India?” “Are there tall buildings or just mud shacks?” “Does your family own a camel?” When I mentioned that India is highly industrialized or that it has one of the largest militaries in the world and so on, people were surprised.
I was also surprised about the scarcity of people’s knowledge about anything outside of the United States. I had assumed that a nation so great and powerful must have a well-educated citizenry, versed in history and world affairs. I wondered about the meaning of this. Was knowledge of history and of the world of little use in this culture? Whose interests did this ignorance serve? I began to wonder about the consequences of such a powerful democracy limiting its understanding and interaction with other cultures to only small pockets of its population. No matter what happened in the world, genocide in Rwanda, or if the monetary system in Europe was undergoing a radical transformation, or if hundreds of thousands of people were being slain in a distant revolution, it really did not seem to matter to the majority of Americans. The rest of the world I had visited would become swept up with such events. You would expect to hear discussion on the streets, but in the United States, people seem to regard these events from the very corner of their eye, for a split second and then discard it as if it was something concocted in Hollywood for their momentary amusement. This frightened me, even as a young man. I could see the danger in such isolation. If it were a tribe of aborigines in Australia that was ignorant of the rest of the world, this wouldn’t hurt anyone. But if the stewards of the greatest superpower with the world’s largest economy and military, are isolated and lack understanding of the rest of the world, then there is an extreme danger to the United States and the whole world. The people, in their naiveté, can easily be misled and manipulated, like they often are.
All of the new impressions that surrounded me interacted with the insights and security of my upbringing. I was filled with new thoughts; things that seemed natural or given to me suddenly gave me pause, caused me to wonder and think. Entering new cultures and observing things from an outsider’s standpoint provides a person with incredible analytic energy. For the first time one can really “see” the texture of one’s own life and analyze one’s upbringing and at the same time, only the newcomer can really “see” a culture. Nothing is invisible when it is strange, and all that was invisible about the familiar, becomes visible when compared with something so entirely different. When you grow up in a culture, things around you are so familiar that they become considered “natural,” and so people cease to notice. Traveling from one culture to another also allows you to evaluate your “home” country. What was “natural” to you before opens itself up to analysis and you begin to see things in an entirely different light that did not shine before. You suddenly see things to which you had been blind in your former life. It is like being surrounded by trees in a forest and then suddenly being given a bird’s eye view of the entire forest.
When you have experienced different cultural approaches to life, you begin to see that very little is truly natural. Most of our cultural practices are simply longstanding habits that could easily be altered. Again, I learned that change is possible. There are so many ways of arranging our lives, so many ways of living on this planet. While I did experience great influence, both positive and negative, from my new homeland, I did not entirely assimilate. Rather, I became something new—something not of my past home or of my present. I was filled with newness; new perceptions, new ideas and new energy. My own insularity in culture, family, and religion was broken down and the process of rebuilding my life and my psyche with all I had learned became an immensely creative process. It became obvious to me that there were both magnificent and offensive aspects of every culture and the best possible reality would be one forged in a combination of the best things that a variety of cultures have to offer. I could see clearly that this was the fundamental reason for the magnificence in the American culture, the true melting pot of our planet.
Lessons In Tolerance
One of the most important lessons that a global traveler begins to learn is tolerance. My first United States-inspired lesson in tolerance came to me in my first few days in this country. When I arrived, I was a young Indian man eager to meet other young people from India. My family introduced me to a bunch of people, among them many young men from India. Many of them said things like, “Let’s get together sometime,” and then I never heard from them again. I did not even have a driver’s license in the United States and was not yet used to driving on the “wrong” side of the street. So I was immobile. Within a few days of living in the States, a friend of the family came by. It was a very uncomfortable experience for me. He was a Pakistani. I had grown up witnessing bombs falling and people dying in the wars between India and Pakistan, and so I grew up hating Pakistanis. As a child growing up in a military family, all I wanted to do was to grow up and join the Indian military to fight them. Here was the first “Pakistani” I had ever met in person, and I was trying my best to not like him. He made this effort very difficult; he proved every one of my preconceived ideas about his “type” wrong. He was very nice, friendly, and easy to get along with. He invited me to come with him and his girlfriend to dinner the very next night.
We got together regularly for many years, and he showed me how narrow minded I had been. How shallow of me to judge someone so negatively before I had even gotten to know him. I was disgusted with myself, and I promised myself never to judge someone based on any preconceived ideas about their “type.” I determined that I would let them show me who they are. I realized that I had acted like the soldiers in the mess hall before my father showed them a better way. I could not believe I had forgotten such a wonderful lesson. The Pakistani I met then is one of my best friends to this day, and thanks to this encounter, I have had occasion to visit Pakistan many times. I am sure that if Indians and Pakistanis were to meet each other and become acquainted as my friend and I have, the animosity between the two countries would dissolve. It is amazing that Indians and Pakistanis who live abroad, like in the United States, live in complete harmony and socialize together regularly, but those living in India and Pakistan have disliked each other for decades. This is another example of how we are a product of our surroundings.
I encountered another instance of racial stereotyping in the United States after I had lived here for many years. I was exhibiting in a trade show for the first time in a small town with my partner at the time, a tall blonde woman who was once a model and continued to dress like one. We became aware of strange “looks” from the other exhibitors. There was an uncomfortable feeling there, and we knew that we were at the center of it. During the setup period, the people around us were very unfriendly and would not even look at us or would look away if our eyes met. We were very uncomfortable and wondered why we were being treated this way. So we decided to give them a taste of their own medicine and started ignoring them and adopted an unfriendly attitude towards them.
The morning when the show was opening to the public, my partner and I were having coffee at our hotel. Both of us were dressed in suits and we looked very different than the informal, small-town people who were all around us and at the show. I tried to imagine how the people of this small town must have felt, seeing us there. We might as well have been aliens. We were such different people than they were accustomed to seeing. We looked different; we acted different. It occurred to me that maybe these people were not unfriendly, discriminating or antisocial at all. Maybe their reactions were just a result of the fear of the unknown, of people and things that are unfamiliar, that many of us experience from time to time.
I conveyed this thought to my partner, but she disagreed. She maintained that these were just narrow minded and unfriendly people. When we got to the show, I decided to test my theory. I went straight to the neighbor in the booth next to ours, extended my hand, and introduced myself with a big smile. She was taken aback, but shook my hand warmly and introduced herself. I chatted with her, telling her who we were and that we were from Los Angeles and it was our first visit to their city. I also asked her about the good places to eat and visit. She turned out to be the nicest lady I could possibly have imagined. Encouraged, I repeated this greeting with every person in all the booths around us, and except for one person, who seemed angry at life in general and with everyone there, everyone met me with warmth and with great respect. We all became friends. Everyone smiled at us every time our eyes met. The couple in the booth in front of ours invited us to their home for dinner after the show. The lady to the side baked us cookies. Two friends who managed a clothing booth had drinks with us. We became such a lively bunch that the show ended up being absolutely wonderful.
Please excuse my simplicity, but I believe in this pleasant instance lie the seeds for global change. I truly believe this and I beg you to believe this with me. So many of our problems stem from our ignorance and fear of each other and the way we view our differences. I had people ask me in India, “Do the Westerners really not wash after using the toilet? Do they really just wipe themselves with paper and stay dirty without washing themselves?” I also have had close friends in the United States ask, “Do people really wash themselves after using the toilet? Is that not very unhygienic to clean yourself that way?” Excuse the unusual example, but this is just a simple way of seeing how perceptions can be different about the same thing. I have tried both methods, and I will attest to the fact that when executed properly, they are both very good and work perfectly well.
In my ancestor’s village, men gather for after dinner Hookah, and burp and fart at will. They are not being rude, it’s a natural function to them and they can never understand why someone will consider it rude?
I have been asked by my American and European friends why men in Middle Eastern cultures like to keep their women in prison like conditions? I also have faced a question from the conservative middle easterners regarding the western man flaunting his women half naked in public, and not being a man and protecting them? The difference in our perceptions can seem like we are not even talking about the same subject.
So the men, fathers on both sides, are doing exactly the same thing; wanting the absolute best for their children, based on their culture and understanding. In the mind of the conservative Middle Easterner, his love for his daughter is infinite. He would die for her any given day. He wants her to have the values and culture of his ancestors, and that’s why he has her follow the traditions that he feels are beautiful. They protect her from harm, keep her safe and pure. She loves him for giving her such a sacred and safe environment to grow up in.
The westerner has infinite love for his daughter, wanting her to live life to the fullest. Play sports, enjoy outdoors, have the freedom to dress the way she wants and be safe in her life.
It is so easy to find faults in one another, to find the other person’s culture or beliefs as weird or wrong.
MY UNIQUE VANTAGE POINT
Fast forward to today, and I am past my mid life, I have been an Indian and American, Believed in two different faiths. Lived amongst many different types of people on 3 continents. I am not talking about having visited different places and seen different people only, but having been and believed in different things from different faiths and cultures. This vantage point is very unique, actually having “thought and felt” from both sides. I grew up in India in a very conservative family where it was unimaginable to even think of one of my sisters ever dating. My mom would be angry with me for even making a reference to this, if she was still in this life. I grew up in the tribal areas of the sub continent and understand the culture of these tribal people, including those whom we call the Taliban. Although some of them are a prime example of being victims of the brainwashing that a religion can be misused for, but most of them are just decent people wanting to make a living and peacefully raise their families, and let their children fare better than them. But I have also lived in the most liberal cultures of the world. It feels like I have lived two lives as two different people, in the same lifetime, and that has given me the ability to see things from different perspectives, that I would not have been able to otherwise; and thus my realization that the divine and magical attribute of tolerance is one of the key ingredients in bringing peace to our world, and the quickest way to tolerance, is understanding each other.
Morality And Perception
After being in the United States for many years, my wife, my daughter and I were in the swimming pool with some friends, and I realized that we were in our bathing suits and were exactly as “naked” as people had seemed to me when I first came here. This made me give some thought to the different perceptions of “modesty and morality” I had witnessed in my life. Once I put them all together, it just blew my mind. I was told a historical fact that thousands of years ago in the deserts of Arabia, the Arab tribesmen would bury their daughters alive at birth because they could not bear the thought of a man having sex with them some day. They would then attack other nations and kidnap their women for their own wives. When I lived among the tribal people in the frontier areas of India, I remembered the tribal men looking at us with disgust because the women in our family were out with us and not covered in “burqas”. There was a military officer serving with my dad whose family was very liberal and his daughters would wear blue jeans in the late 60’s in India. We used to think of him as an immoral person for allowing such vulgarity in his home.
When I traveled through Europe with my dad, we stayed with one of his friends in Amsterdam. This gentleman told Dad that his daughter’s boyfriend had confided in him that she had no interest in any intimate relationship and so the father was taking the nineteen-year-old daughter to a shrink to make sure that she was okay and was able to lead a normal life. He was a very loving father and a good man. At the time, this blew my mind and it took me many days to absorb the facts. The father was taking the daughter to a shrink because she was not intimate with the boyfriend. My head was spinning, but as a teenager, I also wanted to just stay in that country for a long time. I have known one family in the United States and a few others in Europe who have clothing-optional rules in their home and swimming pools. After analyzing all these different views on morality I had encountered in my life, it became clear to me that, “The ultimate mistake is to judge another person based on one’s own vantage point on the huge spectrum of opinions on morality”. There is always someone more conservative and more liberal than any one of us, and we are definitely not the only ones at the only right spot.”
After I had been in the United States for some time, my wife and I returned to my birthplace in India for a visit. From there we traveled to Lahore, Pakistan, to see some close friends. We were invited to dinner by my friend Nasir, who was a generous fellow and gave us a list of fine restaurants from which to choose. Since he knew the area, we insisted upon leaving the choice to him. He seemed a little hesitant, but finally he smiled and said, “You may not like my choice. It may be too strange for you.” We assured him that anything would be okay with us, that we were easygoing about such matters. So that evening we departed from his house and drove for quite some time, leaving the high-end parts of the city behind. The traffic was crazy in the area we left behind, but it was absolutely insane in the internal parts of the city that we were now traveling through. The thick black smoke spewing from the tailpipes of three-wheel rickshaws and overly decorated buses and trucks was unbearable. Every driver was making full use of the most important instrument on every vehicle in India and Pakistan—the horn; My ears always start ringing within minutes of going out on the streets in these countries, and tonight was no different. Every few minutes I witnessed a near-miss accident. The most tiring part of visiting India and Pakistan is always the traffic.
The sun was going down and the shadows of the night were beginning to engulf the city. An amazing thing happens in this part of the world at night, when the biggest “rush hour” starts in the evening at about eight to nine p.m. It made me realize how so many cultures in Europe and Asia work to live while we in the United States seem to live to work. I started thinking about how precious time off is to everyone. Even people who can barely afford to eat make sure they take a lot of days off from work. A huge number of events, celebrations, and religious and national holidays ensure that people keep taking time off. My mind wandered off to my life in the United States, and I started thinking how my six days a week lifestyle was so different from the more relaxed way of living in this part of the globe. The previous day we had attended one of the ceremonies that are part of the month-long wedding process and there were over forty couples present for this celebration in the middle of a working day. I could not believe that so many of them could, and did, take time off from work to attend this ceremony. I started wondering about the two extremes between these two cultures regarding our priorities in life.
Red Light District
All of a sudden my daydreaming ended with a sudden realization that we were heading toward the red-light district of the city of Lahore, which is called the “Shahi Muhalla,” which means the “Royal Neighborhood.” There are many sub sections of this area, the most famous of which is called “Heera Mundi,” or the “Diamond Market.” Prostitution is quite common in India, and I had seen similar red-light areas there, so sitting in my comfortable space in the car, I was not unsettled. I found the area through which we drove an amazing scene, as it resides right next to one of the most magnificent mosques on earth: the Badshahe Mosque. As we took in the sights, we felt sure that we would drive right past the red-light district on our way to some other destination. Imagine our surprise when we drove right up to its edge and parked. I reminded Nasir that our wives were present—hardly an appropriate moment for a visit to an area known for centuries for prostitution. He just laughed and said, “I warned you, and you insisted on leaving it to me. So now you must trust me.”
Getting out of the car, I was shocked when I saw signs indicating that almost every man on the street ahead clearly made his money in the prostitution trade or was looking for a hooker, and most of the women there were for sale. It was unnerving. The dark and painful life of the neighboring streets seemed to spill out onto the sidewalk our feet seemed to cling to in horror. I harbored a secret fear of being arrested for merely being in the proximity of this neighborhood, and being a foreign national in Pakistan, I did not need that trouble. I worried about being seen in this disreputable area, and I worried most of all about our safety. Yet, I let Nasir lead us. Our wives received stares from men passing by. This was a common occurrence in that part of the world, but being so close to the Shahi Muhalla made these men particularly lustful with their stares. They were clearly wondering if our wives were “available”. My level of discomfort was steadily establishing new records and by now I was sure that I would regret letting Nasir lead us into whatever he had on his mind for this evening.
I was seriously debating grabbing my wife’s hand and getting back in the safety of the car, but we just followed Nasir toward an ancient building that was on the other side of where we had parked. To my surprise, the man at the door greeted Nasir as if he knew him well. He obviously visits this strange place frequently. For some reason, this door man knowing Nasir was very comforting, for some reason. We jumped over a small stream of sewer to reach the old building next door that we were being led toward. There was a cigarette shop nearby that was a four-by-four foot wooden box with the shopkeeper somehow shoved inside with a huge amount of cigarettes, snacks, and paan around him. Paan is a local favorite that is somewhat like chewing tobacco. The men who were standing around the cigarette stall were all staring at us, and I felt like telling them to look away, but I certainly did not act on that stupid idea. I looked toward the main part of the Shahi Muhalla and could see girls on balconies talking and acting suggestively to the men passing by, trying to attract good customers for that night. You could hear traditional musical instruments like sitars and tablas being played at a distance.
The door man accompanied us to the second floor, through a narrow, winding stairwell of old mud steps. I wondered if this passage was safe; it was clearly not up to any building code of which I had ever heard. I found it claustrophobic, and this feeling, mingled with my nervousness about being in such a torrid environment, put me in quite a state. On the second floor, my feelings of unease began to deepen as I saw old wooden tables and chairs scattered about like a restaurant, but there was no one there eating at that hour. Dinnertime in that part of the world begins at about 9:00 p.m.; I guess it was even later in this area that comes alive at night. There were paintings all over the walls like nothing I had ever seen. Some of them were huge, sprawled across the wall in what seemed a grotesque display, and all of them seemed very unusual to me. I squinted around the room and noticed in a sort of half-conscious way that within each painting there seemed to be a contradiction. A painting would contain one aspect that was very happy and another that was very sad, housed on the same canvas. The paintings each seemed to exude both positive and negative energy, and I began to feel as if I was inhabiting one of those surreal scenes. Was this a bad dream? On one hand I felt nearly panicked and profusely uncomfortable; on the other hand I felt a strange sense of expectation, as if I had stepped into a new world.
We sat down at one of the tables while Nasir spoke rapidly to a man I assumed to be the waiter, though at this point I was still unsure that it was dinner we would be receiving. Before I knew it, though, plates were being laid upon the table—a wonderful profusion of colors and smells that quickly turned my mood from apprehensive to jolly. The food that was eventually served was absolutely magnificent Pakistani food—the best we had ever tasted. After the meal, we pushed our chairs back and complimented Nasir on his choice. We felt glad to have been brought to this odd place. He smiled and a hint of sadness entered his face, reminding me of the paintings all around us. He paused and then said, “I know, the food is wonderful here. But that is only part of the reason I have brought you here today. There is a story—a history—I want you to know.” What he told us next left us forever changed.
Born Into Prostitution
There was a little boy who was born to a very good mother. She loved him dearly and raised him as well as her situation would allow. He also had a sister to whom he was very devoted. The siblings did not like to see their mother rise each day only to go off to work, but this was the reality of their lives, and they grew used to it. In their early teens, the sister and brother began to look about them and notice things about their environment. They watched various male relatives escort unfamiliar men through the rooms of their house. This made them feel uncomfortable and alien in their own home. They saw the women in their family—their beloved aunts, the friendly in-laws, their older cousins, and even their mother herself—enter rooms with strange men and then emerge later, sometimes after long sessions of singing and dancing, and sometimes after just silence. Some men would only come around once or twice, but some the boy saw over and over.
Through a slow process of realization, the two siblings discovered that they lived in a home where sex was sold for money, and that their entire community, the “Shahi Muhalla,” was what is known as a red-light district—a place where “respectable” people did not live. As they grew to maturity, they grew to learn what this meant for them. In this world—the only world they had ever known—almost every boy who grows into a man will become a housekeeper and caretaker of the children or a pimp, while the women “worked,” and every girl will become a prostitute.
The little boy received this knowledge with the natural sense children have for fairness and the openness they feel toward change. “Why can we not just leave this bad place and run away to a better one?” they asked their mother repeatedly in many different ways. The mother, with tired eyes, patiently explained to them that wherever they might go, Shahi Muhalla would follow them. “If you are of Shahi Muhalla, no other place will ever accept you. You must stay and accept your lot.”
A Human For Sale
The brother, though, could not accept his situation as inevitable, natural, or right. He was discontent. Others continually told him to accept his place in life, and that it would never change. But something in the young man would not let him accept that. He silently and with great determination, decided to take on fate. He began secreting himself away, educating himself when he should have been doing work in the sex trade. He devoured books and took up painting.
One day when his beloved sister was only thirteen, the women in their family started a long process of giving her baths with skin softening oils and potions that made the skin fairer. Finally her hair was done nicely and she was dressed up in beautiful but provocative attire, and was “displayed” in the main room of the house. A few special guests arrived and started checking out the merchandize. They started an intense stage of negotiations with the elders of the family, and the last two finalists in this human auction were also allowed a few minutes alone in the room with her. They were allowed to check the goods for sale with their hands. The final winner of the bidding process was one of the most respected businessmen-turned politician of the city, who was married with 6 children, including 3 daughters. The young girl was sent off with him for a month. When she returned, she was a different person. Being raped and physically abused by this old man for a month took a toll on her body that she could possibly have recovered from, but the emotional and psychological damage to her was beyond any medical procedure. This event started his sister’s life as a prostitute and a bread earner for the family. The young man was absolutely disgusted with this life.
Breaking The Shackles
Finally, when the time was right, this young man accomplished the unthinkable and penetrated respectable society. One by one he broke through barriers, attended a university and gained a prominent reputation as a writer. But he did not forget his tortured community. He took the risk and wrote about his experience in the red-light district for one of the major newspapers, providing priceless insight about the injustices there to a wide audience in his country. His writing career remained successful, and he started teaching at the local university. Somehow, what everyone told him was impossible became reality. He had changed his fate and had become a “respectable person”. People who had once been unforgiving, willing to throw him away as “undesirable,” became sympathetic to his story. He had also changed the fate of his community, just a little bit.
I now realized that the restaurant we were eating in belonged to that boy from Shahi Muhalla. He was the brother in the tale to which we had just listened with rapt attention. He chose to open a restaurant right outside the red-light district where he had grown up, to stay close to his community and to help them. Filled with emotion, I looked around again at the paintings on the walls. Suddenly they didn’t seem strange or repellent to me; they completed the story.
In most of the paintings the woman and the girl, who I now knew were the man’s mother and sister, were wearing very nice clothes and jewelry. This was common with most of the prostitutes in the area. But in the paintings, the jewelry intermittently incorporated big bulky chains, locks, and handcuffs. In another painting, a happy image of a family seated eating dinner was transformed by a grotesque monster lurking in the background. One of the largest paintings suddenly hit me with emotional force—it showed his mother’s dead body on the day she died. She was lying on a bed and the young boy and his sister sat next to her, their shoulders hunched and eyes shining in desperate grief. Several figures were playing a “shehnaee” next to her bed. This might have been puzzling on first glance. A “shehnaee” is an instrument played at weddings and other happy occasions. I saw clearly how his mother’s death was indeed a mixture of profound grief for an adored mother, but also a cause for relief and celebration that a miserable existence had mercifully ended. My opinion of the paintings now transformed; they were immensely brilliant, meaningful, and moving. I was in tears and in deep thought. This experience changed my life forever.
The Search For Answers
As we got up to leave, Nasir suggested that we climb to the top of the building and see the view from the roof. We followed another narrow and treacherous stairwell, as we ascended to the roof. There we were able to see a deep and dramatic contradiction of our world. On one side of the roof sprawled beneath us was the red-light district in all of its busy squalor. On the other side, brightly lit with a golden incandescence, we beheld one of the world’s most cherished and holy places: the Badshahe Mosque. It is there that God’s children come in prayer, vowing to lead good, clean lives. That evening standing there on that rooftop, I came to many precious realizations—realizations about fate, our Creator, the unfairness in the world, and human purpose. That night I decided that I would use my life for more than just living. That night I decided that I will do everything in my power to make the world a better place.
Because it was the scene of such personal transformation for me, I could not stop thinking about the strange subculture of the Shahi Muhalla. What had previously been something I would want to avoid with disgust, began to fill me with concern and wonder. Somehow, the vision of this neighborhood seemed to be whispering to me that it was keeping some secret, some strange insight for me to uncover. So began my attempt to understand this strange subculture. When I told my friends that I was planning to research the Shahi Muhalla, they laughed and made all sorts of jokes. “Oh yes, many people enjoy researching this area.” “Very pleasurable research, huh?” And so it went. It felt strange to have such suggestions made about me, but I did not let it dissuade me from my mission of opening my mind and filling it with a new understanding.
The Shahi Muhalla is the one place in that region where the birth of a girl is celebrated while a boy’s birth is not heralded as good news. This is opposite of the mainstream regions of India and Pakistan where a boy’s birth is met with celebration and congratulations, while a girl coming into this world brings a sobering realization of the huge expense of marrying her off and providing her with a dowry, which is usually demanded by the boy’s family as a pure business transaction. Usually parents go deeply into debt taking care of this obligation. The “unlucky” parents of a daughter may even be offered condolences following the birth. But many such social norms are turned upside down in the Shahi Muhalla. Observing this strange culture was like watching an apple rise from the ground and go to the tree; a defiance of all the usual forces.
I discovered that the prostitutes of the Shahi Muhalla fall into two categories. They are either kidnapped, bought, or otherwise “acquired” through some criminal means from different parts of the country. However, the majority of them are a result of a controlled breeding process. Once a prostitute has lived her productive days as a prostitute, which usually begin when she is about thirteen or fourteen and ends when she is about thirty; her purpose in life changes. She is now responsible for giving birth to one or more beautiful girls, who will then be trained to support the family and join the family business. To ensure that their daughters are beautiful and fair complexioned, an important commodity in that part of the world, the mother will choose a good looking man amongst her customers to become the unknowing “father” of her offspring. This seemed to me a deep irony. These men go through extreme measures to ensure that their families, especially their daughters, are kept in a very safe environment far away from the filth of the prostitution trade. But what they don’t realize is that in their illicit support of the prostitution trade, they may very well be conned, and the future prostitute may be their own daughter.
The grooming of a prostitute has historically followed a well-choreographed sequence. After the girl is born and the celebrations are over, she is well protected and almost never let out of sight. She begins her singing and dancing lessons from a very early age and an “ustad” (teacher) is assigned for this training. Once she is ready, she is presented in front of special clients for a suggestive dance called “Mujra.” The better she looks and performs, and the more seductive she acts, the better her chances of attracting a good offer for her first “sale”. The girl’s virginity is zealously guarded by the family as the most precious commodity in the culture. The deal with a client is called a “shadi,” which means marriage. The girl is showered up and prepared for the client by her family and then sent off to be his sex slave for the duration of the deal. This process is called “Nuth Utarwai,” which basically means the loss of virginity. The “recent” virgins are pawned off again in the same fashion, and future clients are arranged, attracted again by the seductive dance, the “Mujra.” There are a lot of functions and celebrations in India and Pakistan for which a Mujra is arranged. Sometimes no sex is involved at all; it is just for the dance.
Another discovery that I made in my investigation was that a real threat in the district is the police, who are known to harass, rape, jail, beat up, and create every imaginable form of trouble for these people and their clients, so that they can extract money from them. In fact, a police inspector posted to this area must pay a huge bribe, called “pugri,” for the post because it is so lucrative. The inspector in this district also knows that he will be transferred in a short period of time, and the position “resold” by his superior officers. So he must recover his investment and make a profit quickly.
I now wondered what was next for me. What did I intend to do with my research? I now understood a shameful process that exploits helpless people who are no different than others, except by virtue of the circumstances of their birth, or a result of kidnapping or human trafficking. I learnt how they are exploited by others for money and lust. But I still had no idea what my new knowledge meant for my own destiny. This realization did not come to me right away, it gradually became apparent when I let go and just let it all percolate in my consciousness for some time. Now the lesson is clear to me, and it is so incredibly simple and obvious in its meaning, but so magnificently powerful in its implications;
“Our core beliefs are not always a a product of logical evaluation. They are usually the result of the environment into which we are born, where the messages that we are sent from birth are accepted as reality, and most of us will not question that reality for the rest of our lives.
Imagine this: if you could go back in time and take a very decent family and cause them to be born into the Shahi Muhalla, the chances are overwhelming that their daughters and mother would be whores, and be pimped to strangers by the father and brothers. . And in the same vein, if you were born in Afghanistan to a Taliban family, chances are incredibly high that you would engage in the fight against the “infidels” who have attacked your country and be willing to die for that cause. If you were a woman, you would think it quite natural to wear a veil and you might even fight against the evil Western influence that might seek to “free” you of such restrictions. If you are a woman from one of the more conservative eastern cultures, and you were born in the Western world instead, chances are great that you would be perfectly comfortable wearing a bikini in a public pool. The differences between us are almost entirely created in the cultures in which we live and the religion we are born into, something that we cannot control. We can control, however, our ability to see beyond cultural differences and recognize our common humanity. We can evaluate our religious and cultural beliefs and see if they make sense.
The Power Of Brainwashing
It is incredible how powerful brainwashing can be. Especially by what we are taught as children and young adults by those we trust the most as the “only and absolute truth”, and what we know as “normal” in the culture where we grew up. Many of us are suffering from this most incredible brainwashing power which has caused a state of hypnosis, or blindness. This power is evident from events all throughout history, and all around us today; everything from suicide bombers in the Middle East, to other religious extremists in so many forms all over the world, including my home country; USA. In India, in a very small sect of the Hindu religion, when a girl has her first period, she is taken to the priests in the local Mandir by her parents for a religious ceremony. This ceremony includes the priest’s gang raping the little girl, sometimes as young as nine years old. The parents are not only present in the Mandir, but they insist on this cleansing ceremony for their child. Thousands of girls each year suffer from this despicable religious ritual. Is it surprising at all that these priests came up with this ritual? Do you think that these lustful men wanting an endless supply of virgins to rape had something to do with the making of this ritual? Most parents all over the world are full of love and affection for their children, and are willing to give their lives for them. Then why do some of them get convinced to put their daughters through the misery I described above?
I know that many Hindus from my country of birth will hate me for telling this story, but it is a documented fact and there have been documentaries done on this ritual. In Africa, one third of the girls go through female circumcision, without which they would be considered unclean and immoral. Female circumcision is a technical name for cutting off the clitoris of these young girls so they can never enjoy sex. Again, the parents of these girls absolutely insist on this procedure. In case you are assuming that such miserable things only happen in some remote third world countries, then just look at the cults in the United States that have convinced their followers that it is a sacred religious act, for their children to be used for sex by the leader of the cult.
I am not trying to scare you from world’s religions, including yours if you follow one, but I definitely am trying to open all our eyes to the interpretation given by others of these religions, that you need to evaluate with open eyes.
HEAVEN ON EARTH
We are meant to create a heaven on Earth. This is no chip off the shoulder of the heaven that most of us believe we will get in the next life, but we have been given the goods, mentally and materially, to create a heaven in this lifetime, not just for us, but for all mankind, and that is the “Prime Directive” of Axiom. It is a tall order, but we will accept nothing less. But to create this heaven, we have to first get rid of the hell that exists in many parts of our planet.
Change Is Possible
The thoughtless acceptance of things as they are is a significant problem for our world. Accepting the status quo as natural or right just because “it is the way things are” is the way to assure that things will never change. The truth is the reality that “we” try and understand, not one that is spoon fed to us. If the reality is unfair, painful, or damaging, we must change it. Many of us believe there is nothing we can do to change “reality” or that it is someone else’s responsibility to create positive change. This is how evil and injustice continues to exist and prosper in the world. There are too many good, intelligent, and logical people in the world to allow such conditions to continue. I look around and notice that everywhere “reality” varies and the way we behave as humans is very malleable. We can change; we do change. If you grew up in a society where bathing once a week was the norm, believe me, you would bathe once a week or maybe twice if you were the cleanest bunny in your clan. When I lived in India, cutting someone off in a line was the norm, but I don’t do that in the United States.
Learning about the “norms” of the Shahi Muhalla culture made me see how we are tyrannized and tyrannize others through the various “realities” we accept unquestioningly, generation after generation. Finally I understood why I had been so drawn to study the painful history and traditions of this “secret area.” It was an extremely bad and unfair deal that these people had been dealt, but they accepted it as their “reality”, their fate, the norm for them. When I started blaming them for just accepting their reality, I realized that we are behaving in exactly the same manner on our planet. I believe that the feeling I had after listening to the story of the boy from Shahi Muhalla was calling me to beg the world for thoughtfulness and positive change. I can’t stand the thought of another generation of young girls being born into prostitution, the hatred between another generation of our planet’s citizens caused by differences, another murderous rampage like what mankind has embarked upon numerous times in the past and is repeating, or the irreversible destruction of our planet in the name of progress. We simply must stop the practice of turning our faces away from injustice, evil, suffering, and destruction. We must face it; we must investigate it; we must change it. All it takes is for us to open our minds regarding what constitutes “reality” and take action. Whatever is “acceptable” today, is only so because we accept it. Think about that, majority of the time, all it takes for something to change is for us to stop “accepting” it and it becomes “unacceptable”, and thus changes sooner or later.
This change can only come from logical and good-natured effort from good-hearted humans who have the courage to look around, think, speak, write, brainstorm, and bring about positive change with their combined positive energies and efforts. Ordinary people like you and me must examine our experiences and add our wisdom to the complexity of the times. A great number of us together become an unstoppable force, compelling every major institution, government, and industry to listen to us. Inaction will ensure the destruction of much, the murder and rape of many, and eventually the destruction of our planet and our species. What do we choose? I cannot tell myself that others will fix our planet’s problems, not while I look into my daughter’s eyes knowing that we are destroying her future and I am sitting on the sideline not only watching, but being a party to this atrocity. No one else can do what you or I can—no one.
When I look at the world and the huge set of problems and the astronomical changes that are needed, then just the thought of people like you and me even attempting change of any kind at a universal level seems simply foolish. Then I wonder what would have happened if the half-naked fakir from my country, who brought one of the greatest empires in history to its knees, thought of the monumental difficulties he would face and never tried. He changed the thinking of hundreds of millions with his simple message. I idolize this man, Mahatma Gandhi, and consider him to be one of the greatest people that ever lived on our planet. I truly believe that it does not matter whether he was a Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh or Jew; I guarantee that whatever the reward is in the next life, let’s call it heaven, he is enjoying that reward.
He is also the role model that we will follow to bring change beyond anyone’s wildest imagination, into our world. Dictators; no more. Fineto. Khalas. History. We the people of the world said “when”. we said enough, your days are numbered. We the people of this planet are going to stop accepting any group, family, state, or individual, keeping others enslaved for the benefit of the few, at the peril of the masses. It is “Unacceptable” because we stopped accepting it.
Please continue reading the Ideology section for further information.