Another Father’s Day, another letter for my daughter

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote you a letter on Father’s Day. Because I enjoyed doing that so much and because you felt I’ve never done anything better for you, I thought I’d turn it into an annual affair. I know I’m a little late on it this year, but it’s worth doing anyway.

Last year, I handed out all kinds of advice (to much eye-rolling when I wasn’t looking, I’m sure). This year, I wanted a little more focus.

You turned 12 a month ago; by the time I write my next letter, you’ll be a teenager. It’ll be a time of great discovery – I hope you don’t discover everything I did – and change.

A mash-up of feelings you’ve never experienced before will confuse and frustrate you. People you liked earlier – such as me – will seem infuriating. Things you enjoyed till recently will seem childish and even somebody as social as you will crave time alone.

You will discover new relationships and find old ones changing – and that’s what I want to talk about.

Relationships are complex (that must be the most self-evident thing I’ve ever said, but then you claim to already know everything I tell you). But it’s these very bonds that sustain us. They comprise the raft on which we negotiate the tides of life.

There will be times you’ll want to give up on them. Abandoning ship is easier than finding the leak and plugging it. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a chance to clamber back aboard and somehow sail to the shore.

Relationships need work. When one of you slams the door shut, the other will need to quietly open it. Again and again, if need be. One of you will need to be more mature, even if they’re younger. One of you will need to be more patient.

Relationships don’t have to end when they end. If you can walk out, you can walk back in. True love will always leave the door open. Take a few steps back, then rush right back in. As Haruki Murakami wrote, “Everything will be OK in the end. If it’s not OK, it’s not the end.”

Relationships and regret don’t mix. I read this somewhere: “When in doubt, kiss the boy/girl.” (Your dad’s telling you this, can you believe it!) You’ll regret far more the things you don’t do than the things you do.

Relationships are about being a team. I met the Dalai Lama when you were only a dot on a sonogram. During that meeting, he told me – in a different context, but it applies to relationships too – that “all too often we forget that we’re in this together”. You and your partner aren’t on opposing sides. There is no single version of reality; the perspective differs from person to person, and each of you needs to accept that. You’ll never fix things if you don’t recognise your partner’s contribution.

I’ll end with a general observation. Time is precious – and, as you grow older, the least available. You’ll never regret investing large amounts of it in a person you truly care for.

Next year, I’ll think of something less serious to talk about. After all, you’ll be a teenager and taking me seriously is the last thing you’ll do.

PS: When I told the Dalai Lama of your impending arrival, he responded with his trademark guffaw and said: “When is the new human being expected?” He then wrote in Tibetan for you: “With good wishes and prayers – Tenzin Gyatso.” That note has been preserved for you. You’ll get it when you’re older.

PPS: I love you.

The Morrison lesson

I’m reading this incredible biography of Jim Morrison – the genius poet and rock star who fronted The Doors – written by Stephen Davis.

The book is peppered with anecdotes about Morrison’s electric charisma, drugs-driven rampages and angst-fuelled verse. While all of them are intriguing, one of them struck an instant chord.

Davis writes of how one night The Doors played a set in a nightclub like men possessed – before an audience of three. Two of those three people were drunks who probably never registered a note and the third was Morrison’s girlfriend, Pamela Courson.

When she asked Morrison why the band gave so much to the performance when no one was there, he said: “Baby, you never know when you’re doing your last set.”

That blew me away. More so because in the last four weeks I have lost two close relations, which has got me thinking a lot about the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of life. It’s not as if I was unaware of death; it’s just that it seems to be making its presence felt nowadays.

I don’t mean to be morbid. In fact, it seems as if somebody’s shone a flashlight into a tunnel. My sense of the finite nature of everything – ever present but not something I dwell on – has now become acute.

After all, you never know when you’re playing your last set.

An election for the young

A strange thing happened as I settled down in front of the TV last Sunday to watch the Assembly elections’ results roll in. Sadiyah, my 10-year-old, stopped what she was doing and joined me.

As the trends started firming up, she peppered me with questions.

“Who’s winning?”


“What did the chief minister do wrong?”

“Why are all those people carrying brooms?”

“Why is that man saying no to becoming CM?”

I thought these were very intelligent questions coming from a 10-year-old. Indeed, these were the very questions the so-called pundits were asking, albeit in more sophisticated language.

In the past few years, I have worried about the way politics has been evolving in India – vastly more divisive than before and plumbing new depths of vulgarity every day. But Sadiyah’s interest had a strangely alleviating effect. Somehow, it made me feel that if children this young can show analytical thought about governance then young voters would be far more clued in and determined to make the right choice.

In less than six months, roughly 15 crore Indians are expected to cast their votes for the first time. These first-time voters account for 20% of the electorate, according to Election Commission data. About 10.38 crore of them are in rural areas.

I have never had time for the notion that the youth are only interested in the good life or that they live in a bubble that hides the true reality of India. Ever since I began teaching – in 2004 – I realised that India’s youth are knowledgeable about national issues and savvy while casting their votes.

Time and again I have been surprised in classrooms by how well informed young people are and by their evolved views. For instance, I was told years ago by a student that governance failure at the Centre would force many to turn to right-wing alternatives that base their ideology on hate. At that time – I was a journalist then ­– I dismissed the idea. How wrong I was.

But this awareness also gives me great hope. It is these very young people who will shape India’s future. If it’s in their hands, we’ll be fine.

Golden gloves

Mary Kom coaches roughly 30 aspiring boxers at her makeshift training camp near her home on the outskirts of Imphal, the capital of Manipur province. Picture courtesy:

Chitra Ahanthem giggled in delight when I called her after Mary Kom’s win in the 51 kg women’s boxing quarter-final, which guaranteed her an Olympics medal. Chitra, a 30-something Imphal-based journalist, can be forgiven for behaving like a child who’s chanced upon a treat. She is among the handful of journalists who have tracked fellow Manipuri Mary Kom’s dogged, arduous climb to the top of the boxing world, rightfully pointing out that no other Indian athlete has been more deserving of recognition but denied it all the same.

Before Mary Kom left for London, she told Chitra that she hoped she would get land for the boxing academy that is her dream. She started a makeshift training camp at a ground near her home on the outskirts of Imphal, intending to move it to the academy once the government made good on its promise of land. That promise was never fulfilled.

Mary Kom’s husband, Onler Kom, told the ‘Telegraph’ newspaper a few days ago: “She does not touch her salary of Rs 31,000 [she holds the post of deputy superintendent of police, awarded to her for her achievements in the ring]. She keeps it for the students. But it isn’t enough and she has to provide another Rs 20,000 to Rs30,000.” Onler said that the Okram Ibobi Singh government had promised her land a while ago, and asked her to identify the site. The couple did so, but the land was never handed over.

“Let’s see how you do in London. Then we’ll talk about the land,” a senior Manipur government functionary sniggered, Mary Kom claimed to Chitra.

Chitra brushed aside my argument that at least now Mary Kom’s claims can’t be ignored. Don’t underestimate official apathy, she said. “You know what the government will be thinking?” she laughed ironically. “With Mary Kom doing well and another Manipuri, Devendro Singh Laishram, on course for a medal, they’ll be fretting about how much money they’ll have to shell out to both in state awards. Other states would lavish crores on such athletes.”

Could it be that the Manipur government will be somewhat upset at their showing? It sounds incredible, but Chitra is convinced about it.

“Do you know when it was time to give her a home, they gave her one at the distant Langol Games Village?” she said.

Mary Kom, Chitra said, has nearly 30 students, including girls, to whom she provides food and kits. The girls stay with her, while the boys make do with a rented house nearby. Since there is no space for the training equipment – which is in short supply anyway – it lies in a ramshackle structure, exposed to the rain and the sun.

“Most people don’t understand the magnitude of Mary Kom’s achievement,” said Chitra. “She won her five world championships in lower weight categories, while she’s powered her way into the Olympics semi-finals in the 51 kg category. It’s a huge adjustment.”

“The good thing,” Chitra laughed, “is that the Manipuris’ performance has forced the government to ensure we get electricity for a few hours more than we normally do so that we can watch them in the ring. [India recently suffered from two major power outages that left half the population in the dark, literally.] My mother asked why we can’t have the Olympics every day for the rest of our lives!”

Qawwali, a longing and memories of Nizamuddin

It’s very early on a Friday morning. I’m sitting alone in the office, reminiscing about the time I’ve spent at Delhi’s Nizamuddin dargah.

Through my laptop’s speakers, the Wadali Brothers remind me once again why I love qawwali and transport me to the shrine of the Sufi saint, where I fell in love with what I once called “prayer disguised as song.”

The Mumbai sky yesterday reminded me of an afternoon in August 2008, when I visited the dargah. Normally, there is qawwali at the dargah on Thursday evenings, but that Tuesday morning, as I walked in, the crests and troughs of a seasoned singing voice wafted across the courtyard. It was Gulam Hussain Sabri.

I sat mesmerised as he sang: Auron ko jo mila hai muqaddar se mila hai… Hum ko toh muqaddar bhi tere dum se mila hai…

A small crowd gathered, some circled the grave of Nizamuddin Auliya and lay flowers upon it, others tied strings to the marble mesh that demarcates the sanctum sanctorum, many lit joss sticks, everybody prayed.

And then, someone up there conjured up some magic.

As Sabri and his troupe sang, the clouds gathered, a wind blew and wall of water came down. I felt wonder and I felt cleansed.

Over the years, I have visited the dargah repeatedly, and I’ve always left feeling touched by something special.

It’s been almost a year since I’ve visited the shrine – an unusually long gap for me since I used to visit Delhi often for several years till the beginning of 2011, and would go to the dargah on virtually every visit.

The elders in my family say you visit a shrine only when the holy person resting there calls. I’m reminded of these lines in Sabri’s qawwali:

Jab girte hue maine tera naam liya hai,

Tab manzil ne wahi badh ke mujhe thaam liya hai…

I wish to visit Nizamuddin again. And I’m waiting for his call.

Gulam Hussain Sabri (centre) at the Nizamuddin dargah.


I should have written this eight months ago. I do so today, hoping for the objectivity that time allows and immediacy denies.

Many know the profound effect my two-month stay in Kabul had on me. Very few know that there is another connection that now binds me forever to Afghanistan, one that I came to know of only after I returned.

A few weeks after my stint training Afghan journalists in the coverage of parliament early this year, my mother informed me that my maternal ancestors came from Afghanistan. My maternal grandmother’s maiden surname was Khumri, derived from the place of her clan’s origins – Pul-i-Khumri, the capital of Baghlan province in north Afghanistan.

I was stunned. I hadn’t known this when I left for Kabul. Had I known, I would have surely attempted to visit it.

Pul-i-Khumri, I found out, is a small Hindu Kush town of 60,000 that is the administrative centre of Baghlan, one of Afghanistan’s more troubled provinces. It was founded by the Kushan dynasty – who called it ‘Bagolango’ – and was part of Emperor Kanishka’s vast empire that stretched from Bactria (Central Asia) to northern India with its capital in what is today Peshawar.

Tajiks make up between 55% and 70% of Baghlan’s population, depending on which source you trust. While my mother’s side of the family has no information on whether my ancestors were Tajiks, I do notice some similarity in their features with those of my late grandmother – the shape of the nose and the colour of the skin, in particular.

I can only speculate on what my ancestors did for a living and what made them come to India. Maybe they grew cotton and beetroot, as most farmers in Baghlan still do today. Or maybe they herded the famous Karakul sheep, renowned for their hardiness and their camel-like ability to store fat (they do so in their tails). These sheep are said to have originated in the deserts of Central Asia and can survive conditions that would suck the life out of most other animals.

Maybe my ancestors came to India as merchants along the Silk Route through the Khyber Pass and stayed on in what is today Gujarat. Maybe they were part of the armies of Taimur or Babur, who looked upon India as a conquest but were won over themselves by this land.

I wish I knew.

There is one more coincidence. My closest Afghan friend, no less than a brother, Farid Ahmad, it turns out, is from Baghlan. The veteran journalist’s father is an Aimak, a Tajik sub-group, and mother is a Pashtun (we Indians know them better as ‘Pathans’), Afghanistan’s dominant ethnicity.

I was never a big believer in destiny and cosmic connections. Perhaps I should change my mind.

Under the over

September 2009. Yateen Jambhale (23) rubbed the sleep out of his eyes as he opened the door to his bungalow in Jambhuwaldi, a hamlet named after his family, 200 km south of Mumbai under a viaduct on the Pune-Bangalore highway.

Yateen’s is a story that is being played out in several villages across India, a testimony to a truism – infrastructure changes lives.

Till a few years ago, Yateen’s family depended on agriculture. They grew mainly wheat on the 10 acres they owned. But, they were far from secure – their fortunes depended on the vagaries of the monsoon and India’s notoriously poor agro support. Think distant markets, corrupt middlemen, low prices (it’s the middlemen who make all the money in agriculture; while farmers get little for their produce, grain and other food prices are skyrocketing; inflation for June stood at 9.44%) and poor storage.

The re-laid highway and viaduct changed the Jambhales’ lives. Builders paid them good money to rent a patch of their land, where they mix concrete and transport it to their sites in nearby Pune. Cell phone companies pay them rent after erecting towers on their land to ensure unbroken connectivity on the highway.

The family has now erected two bungalows and started a water tanker business, which is flourishing.

When I met Yateen, on a reporting tour across parts of Maharashtra just before the state elections, he told me he was the first graduate in his village. The next step, he said, was an MBA in human resources. When I asked him where, he casually said: “Wales.”

My look of surprise was met by a dismissive one. “What’s the big deal?” the youth clad in branded T-shirt and track pants seemed to say. Based on the family’s earnings, banks were willing to lend him money. “I’m only waiting for my visa,” he said.

Yesterday, Yateen contacted me through my blog. “I’ve completed my MBA…” he wrote. He’s now working in London for a textiles firm as a trainee manager.

Yateen’s dream has been realised. His journey from tranquil Jambhulwadi to bustling London, via the Pune-Bangalore highway, is complete.