“Like I’m falling out of bed from a long dream. Finally I’m free of all the weight I’ve been carrying…if you think this is over, then you’re wrong.” Separator, Radiohead
This is the part of the story that takes an unexpected twist—for both of us really. You see, I am writing this from my nephew’s bed in Califon, New Jersey. It’s 4:28am on the morning of July 19th and I can’t sleep.
As I sit here in bed writing to you, I am reminded that a little over a year ago I was doing the same thing, writing on my MacBook Pro into the night because once again I could not sleep. At the time I was back on the east coast for more than two weeks, which was the longest visit I had had to my hometown since I left 9 years prior. For five nights in a row I laid in bed writing and rewriting, the only difference being that a year ago I was writing my mother’s eulogy, trying to figure out the best way to honor a woman who gave me everything.
A year later on June 22nd, the one year anniversary of her death, I was sitting in my hotel room at the Hotel Ajanta in Dehradun, India, partaking in my morning routine of sipping my tea and ordering room service, which the kitchen had come to know as a bowl of fresh fruit with honey on the side, two eggs over-easy, and two chapatti. Looking out the window upon Raijpur Road and thinking about my mother, I decided that the best way to honor her was to fly home and surprise my family for a family reunion. I booked the ticket that morning and from that point on, the rest of my time in India felt like I was just killing time. Since I had a little under a month left and since I felt I hadn’t seen what I felt was enough of India—that was when I decided to go to Kashmir.
I’ve been home now (home meaning the place where I grew up and not Seattle) for a little over 24 hours and barely know where I am. I slept for about two hours last night and when I woke up I thought I was in a hotel in India. One minute I’m in Janpath Market by Connaught Place in New Delhi walking among the masses of disheveled rickshaw drivers, street vendors, tourists, touts, beggars, and cheats—my olfactory bombarded by the scents of steaming, rotting garbage, human shit and piss, and India spices—and the next thing I know I’m in the rolling hills and manicured farmlands of New Jersey where people mow their lawns in patterns like the outfield of Yankee Stadium. And it seems to me like everyone around me is driving Range Rovers, Mercedes, or large Suburban trucks; and everything I need is just a short, traffic-less drive away; and the most simple tasks happen with speed and competency. It leaves one feeling somewhat confused and conflicted. You’re excited to be back in your western world of convenience, and yet a part of you still craves the madness, the chaos, the grime, and the dysfunction of India. The fortunate news for me, however, is I don’t have to jump right back into the reality of my life as I knew it. New Jersey is just one of two stopovers before I leave for Vietnam, China, and Thailand. More on that later.
The two great tragedies of India for me are 1.) that I didn’t get to say a proper goodbye to MC, and 2.) that I didn’t get a good interview with him. I was after him for more than a month to interview him and he would laugh and say in his accent, “Ok, Ok…” While I tried to explain the importance of the interview in regards to our work and fundraising efforts—how I wanted to publish several articles about him, and at the end of the article have readers be able to go to the Web and listen to him in his own words—he was always too busy, spinning like a top or a whirling Sufi dervish. It was not until my last day in Dehradun that I got an interview with him. I was at his house having breakfast with his family yet again and told Mrs. Mehta what I was trying to do. She must have cracked the whip behind closed doors because that afternoon I finally got the interview, even though I only had a half hour to conduct it.
While I haven’t listened to it yet, I’m not feeling it. I should have taken the reigns earlier and pulled him in. It was a rookie move on my part to let him steer far off course in the answers to his questions. He didn't realize I was trying to guide him in a direction, but how could he since I wasn't guiding.
The previous day I had just read the first chapter of his book and had a hundred more questions than I previously anticipated because the opening chapter could be right out of a Hollywood movie. It begins with him as a lawyer fresh out of law school in his home state of Jammu & Kashmir. The political turmoil of the state was running a high fever and MC was asked to lead an independence movement. He was angered that his peers nominated him but reluctantly he took the role. One by one the people who supported him disappeared because they needed to earn a living, tend to family needs, or because the risk it involved was too great. It seemed MC was standing on his own when he began going door-to-door and village to village.
He eventually reinvigorated the movement and in the process was being hunted by the police, and so he was constantly on the move with the police right on his tail, sometimes missing him by hours. In his wake the police tortured his friends for information about his whereabouts but they never gave him up. Sometimes he would be on the move for days, barely eating. With just ten rupees in his pocket, he staged a protest that drew 20,000 people. Everyone came to hear MC speak but the police cordoned off the area. It seemed there was no way in so his friends put him in a disguise. When he took the podium the place ignited and he gave a fiery speech.
The police dared not move in because of the possibility of a riot ensuing. When the speech was over, hats began to be passed around to collect money for the movement and in the melee he was cloaked in a shall and ushered through a window where he had to climb to the roof of a building, then jump from rooftop to rooftop to a place where a motorcycle was waiting for him below. When he reached the waiting motorcycle, the jump gave him pause because it was almost two stories to the ground. Upon turning around to look for another way down he saw in his line of vision a large monkey gnashing his teeth and coming at him and so he jumped to the ground below where he was knocked unconscious. When he came to he was put on the motorcycle and sped out of the city at breakneck speeds. This was one of two instances that began MC Mehta’s career. In this opening account of his career, it is apparent that from the beginning the fight against injustice has been in his blood, and judging from some of the other events that have happened to him in his life, I would have to say all 36 million Hindu Gods were looking out for him.
The purpose of my interview with him was partly selfish, because I wanted to know what made a man of his character tick, but I also wanted to make his work known—more specifically to potential donors so they could hear MC in his own words, words that burst forth from the man’s soul with passion and love for the earth and for those who don’t have a voice to speak.
The problem with interviewing him was that when the interview began, MC the man disappeared and the lawyer appeared. Everything he said was slow, deliberate, and methodical in his thinking, unlike the man I know who is quick-witted, charming, and as funny as can be.
As an example, one afternoon we were taking a vikram through New Delhi. If you’ve ever been to India, you know that at any given stop light there will be people trying to sell you magazines in clear plastic wrap or plastic trinkets. They will not leave you alone and if you ignore them, they tap your arm and open their palms towards you. On this afternoon, a child came up and was trying to sell us this plastic chicken whose head bobbled while making a most awful, cringing-inducing sound. The child was relentless. MC and I just stared forward in an unacknowledged uneasiness that said, I feel compassion for this poor kid but what to do? The stop light was endless, and finally MC looked at me, pointed to the plastic chicken and said with perfect comedic timing, “Indian ingenuity.” It was brilliant and broke the tension and I almost fell out of the rickshaw laughing. Off we drove, both of us still giggling and grinning wildly until we got to the next stop light where we would find yet another vendor selling magazines and small plastic flower pots with flowers that bobbled.
That morning, well before the interview and breakfast, I sat with MC on his side porch and chatted with him over chai. As an observer, in my eyes his life had occurred in three parts; his formative years, which I speak of above; his middle years, when he became discouraged with law, met his wife, and she encouraged him to take his fight to the Indian Supreme Court; and his latter years, which was where we were and included his desire to build an international climate change center.
I said to him, “I wanted to ask you this question in our interview, but I’ll ask you now. If your life were a 3-part play, where would we be? Third act? Curtain call?”
He went into his deep thinking trance and began telling me about those early years as a grassroots organizer and then how a chance meeting with a man began his career as we know it today.
At a public meeting MC was invited to, a man stood up and lambasted lawyers saying that they were all criminals and that lawyers used to be important productive members of society during the freedom movement. Now they represented nothing but greed.
MC asked the man what his problem was and the man said the Taj Majal was his problem—that it was suffering from marble cancer due to the polluting industries surrounding it. India’s greatest monument of cultural heritage was in a state of disarray and no one cared. No was watching or listening
MC asked the man to send him information about the Taj Majal and that night MC couldn’t sleep. To make a long story short, the man sent him the materials and MC never knew who he was and never heard from him again. But because of that man, MC filed his first case in the Supreme Court to protect the Taj Majal. What ensued was a 20-year legal battle that is still ongoing. The result of his legal victories, however, created a green belt around the Taj and all of the offending factories were forced to shut down, move their location, or upgrade to cleaner fuels and energies. In total, this included an astounding number of more than 1200 industries. For a man to take on the Indian government and all of those mafia run polluting industries—well that takes balls the size of the Jupiter and I wanted to know what that was like to have those swinging around.
We went on to talk about a lot of things that morning. He shared with me many hardships and doubts he had about himself as he was a rising lawyer, how he didn’t always know which way to turn when presented with a fork in the road, which I really found astounding from a man of his clarity and conviction.
“You know, when someone younger like me looks at your career and life, it seems like you were always so focused and had no doubts, that there was always a clear line running from point A to point B,” I said. “But it wasn’t straight and there were a lot of forks in the road you had to deal with.”
“I was supported by my faith,” he said.
We talked about faith and fear, and what a ferocious impediment fear is. We talked of how Gandhi and his followers threw their clothes in the fire and essentially had nothing to fight with except vision and the loincloth covering them, and he went on to say how modern India has forgotten its roots and lost its way. Speaking of the poor and voiceless who he has spent a great deal of his career fighting for, he said being poor is just a state of mind and health. You are poor if you’re surroundings are poor and you can’t meet your basic needs of clean water and air. But you are rich if you are happy and healthy and surrounded by your family and friends.
I was completely moved by our conversation, as I have been several times with him in India, and was fully aware in the moment that this was perhaps one of the most important conversations of my life. While I can’t tell you the particulars of our conversation, it was more of a feeling that it gave me and the tears I was fighting to control told me of the conersations importance. I realized in the moment as he was imparting all of these wisdoms that he was one of the teachers I’ve been looking in my adult life. While I didn’t tell him he was like a father figure, he talked to me the way in which I wanted my own father to talk to me. What I wanted from my father was for him to share with me what he had learned or knew about life. I think my father undervalued his wisdom, however, or maybe the complexity of being the only survivor of an attack on his squadron in World War II was a shadow he could never get out from under, a shadow that prevented him from making that emotional connection.
After breakfast, MC, Mrs. Mehta, and I jumped in the Toyota Qualis and headed out to the ashram since my preparation to return to the United States was underway. The whole ride was I was just staring out towards the mountains thinking about how the first time I had come down this road, the landscape was scorched, brown and burned out, but now that the monsoons had come the trees and the mountains were bursting forth with verdant vitality. This lush explosion of external life was a mirror of the way India had brought new life to my internal world during the previous last three months.
The thought of departing India was leaving me feeling nostalgic and my mind went on autopilot as it moved through a picture show of my life. One unexpected memory that came to mind was from 7-8 years ago when I dabbled in Reiki classes with my friend Sue. It was about a year after my father passed away that I began exploring with Reiki and energy.
Part of the Reiki class required practicing Reiki on each other. When you are receiving Reiki, all you have to do is lie back, relax, and try to be open. Sue did some Reiki on me, letting go of her conscious mind and control and moved into a place of feeling and intuition. After about a half hour she stopped and said, “This might sound really weird but I think I had a vision of your father and he was holding a brown box in his hand. Does that mean anything to you?”
“Actually, I do have a cedar box on my bookshelf that I keep random artifiacts of my life in and it was his.”
“Well, this is pretty far out there but in this vision he handed me this box and told me to open it. When I opened it there was a beautiful glowing ball of gold. He said that it was all of the love he wanted to give you in this life but couldn’t. He also said that he always wanted you to travel and see the world because he couldn’t for various reasons. He said that you should just go and not look back or question anything and that everything will work out for you.” I hadn’t thought about that incident or memory in years.
As I mentally moved through the landscape of my trip and how it had deepened my connection with the world and myself, I thought about a spiritual practice called the Examen. This was a practice started by Saint Ignatius Loyola, who was the saint that my college was named after. In its simplest form, at the end of every day you are supposed to reflect and write down what made you happy and what made you sad or unhappy. From that information, teh following day every day, you should be working to move closer towards that which makes you happy and move away from that which makes you sad.
I went on to think of this in an even more simple fashion that made sense to me; the law of expansion and contraction. Every aspect of life as we know it is subject to this law, from the intangible of our thoughts to the laws of physics that hold the universe in place. I think to be happy human beings we should constantly be moving towards that which expands us—and move away from that which contracts us. It’s a simple formula or barometer for measuring when you’re feeling good. I believe that when you are in a state of expansion you are on the right path that was created with lessons uniquely intended for you. Of course you'll get the lessons from life no matter what path you choose. I think they just tend to be less painful when you are on the right path. When you are in a state of expansion, it’s as if you are being led by magnetic north to that which awaits you.
I can write statements like the above by intellectualizing and compartmentalizing life, but like much of life these are experiential discoveries to be made. The purpose of life is to drink from the cup of experience, and what I experienced in India like no other time of my life was that of expansion in every cell of my body. On the way to ashram I determined for myself that life is about the ascension to our greatest selves and the way to do that is through the expansion of the self. There is no point in playing small. Life is a ball of Playdough given to us to create something with. We’re all given the gift, but not all of us create to our potential. Hemingway said it best when he said “Every man’s life ends the same. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguishes one man from another.”
With the exception of not getting to see MC before I left, I managed to see my other three most important friends, which included Ranjiv, Bhuvan, and Mona.
One afternoon Ranjiv took me to an ashram in the mountains to meet a “holy man.” Ranjiv has been on the search for years and almost went down the path of being a renunciate and so he was interested to meet the yogi. We lasted maybe 35 minutes before the yogi kicked us out. Ranjiv was asking him questions that challenged him and made him feel uncomfortable and in the process offended him in his line of questioning. It was a bit of a let down as I was looking for the yogi to say something insightful but it never happened.
As we walked out, Ranjiv said, “I have seen a million of these guys throughout India and many of them are charlatans. They renounce the world, their pride, and their ego, and yet they act superior to you because they have done this. A true yogi would not have taken offense and would let each person find their own truth as opposed to saying there is but one truth. The real ones are simple and humble.” After my initial shock and disappointment of getting kicked out of a holy place wore off, we laughed on the ride home and talked philosophically about the essence of being, which continued over a cup of coffee at Cafe Coffee Day, becuase as their tag line says, 'a lot can happen over coffee.'
It was great as always to see Bhuvan as always, and as always he challenged my thinking in our discourses. Regarding a situation I was dealing with, he said, “How do you get a baby to jump into the pool?” He wouldn’t tell me the answer and said I had to find it on my own. I still don’t know what the answer is for me. I think he was just saying that you can’t think everything through in life; sometimes you have to take that blind leap of faith and have an experiential experience.
In another conversation he said, “All great successful people have three things in common; 1.) they find time to themselves as a ritual; 2.) They have a good core, whether it’s from family, parents, a foundation in God, or a handful of key supports; and 3.) they always have a sense of purpose and vision. They define who they are by themselves. Not by other people’s vision or expectations.”
Finally, I got to see Mona, my 75-year-old friend from Philadelphia who had been living in India for 25 years. Mona left me with some great parting words. She said, “The key to a successful life is a huge dream. Everyone’s dream is different, but it has to be big. Big enough that you want to go out and struggle to make it happen.” When she said struggle, her body tensed up as if she were reliving some of her own struggles and she pounded the table with her right fist and then took a drag off her cigarette with her left hand.
I asked her about forks in the road and what to do when those present themselves. “The dream creates the path,” she went on to say. “When the fork in the road appears, you can’t make a mistake. What you do is make a choice. It’s like driving a car. If you start going down the road and it doesn’t feel right, then you simply turn around.”
“Happiness is peace of mind," she went on to say. "The greatest joy in life is not obtaining the happiness or the end goal; it’s in the pursuit of the happiness where the joy is to be found. The climbing, the going, the doing, the experiences—that pursuit to make the dream happen—that is where true freedom exists. Somehow you never get tired or warn-out because the dream is so big it keeps you going and the energy you find in the pursuit is very fantastic. That is where true happiness exists—in the pursuit. Because once you reach your goal, then you’re sitting on your ass again.”
Finally she ended with a short meditation on her own life. “Now I have another form of peace. Sitting here, letting it happen—letting things happen, letting go of the pursuit, letting go of everything. Now I have quiet time. It’s very different than the pursuit and things are coming to me. For the first time in my life what I need is coming to me and there is no struggle or fight in it. But I am tired. I’m not sure I’m going to make it another year.” I can’t begin to think of going back to India right now. For the time being it wore me out but I hope to God I get to see Mona again in this life.
This is the much-abridged version of the last two weeks I spent in India, but this story could not be complete without mentioning the most terrifying car ride of my life.
The more I got to know MC and hear his stories, I would always say, “Your life is like a movie or a TV drama.” As an example, without going too far into the backstory, there was a 36-year-old yogi who was a disciple of an older yogi who was creating a lot of stir to prevent development on the Ganges River. The older yogi looked at the younger yogi as an only son. The young yogi decided to fast unto death in protest of the development on the Ganges River. He was getting a lot of press and eventually fell so ill he had to be hospitalized. Somewhere, either in the ambulance or in the hospital, to teach the older yogi a lesson, the mafia got to the younger yogi and poisoned him. Under normal conditions the young yogi would have survived his fast, but instead went into a coma and died after a few weeks. It was all over the news, but of course, the chances of it actually making change in India are slim because the corruption is vast and big money makes the perpetrators untouchable.
MC was involved in the case as an advisor and was a friend of the yogi. He was asked to be a speaker on a live television show, something akin to Larry King Live. The broadcast was for 8pm and we were about 45 minutes away from the television studio. No problem, we thought. The studio was sending a car 1.5-2 hours early. And so we waited at MCs office, patiently. And we waited some more. MC seemed disaffected while I anxiously paced the floor waiting for the car. “What to do?” he said in his typical fashion. “Tis their responsibility. If I don’t make it I don’t make it.”
The studio began calling MC in a panic. “Where is the driver?” The driver in the meantime was circling the Moolchand subways stop where MC’s office was but was lost and had the wrong number for MC. Finally, at 7:30pm, the driver showed up. After a brief heated exchange in Hindi between MC and the driver we were off.
Traffic was heavy but the driver did not look at that as a burden. He was as aggressive as a NASCAR driver in third place trying to take the lead. When we got out of the heavy traffic, the driver opened it up, coming up on cars at about 120-kilometers per hour, slamming on the brakes, swerving in and out of traffic, and missing cars by millimeters. Had we so much as barely clipped another car, we would have been history. In the mean time, the studio kept calling and calling and the driver would just mute it every time. I could barely look up. There was no seat belt in the back seat of the small car so all I could do was surrender to the driver’s skills. The closer we got to the studio, the more risks the driver took. We barreled down two lanes roads the wrong way towards oncoming traffic. We ran red lights and we cut people off. We drove up on curbs to get around traffic at stoplights. MC laughed and said his tagline. “What to do? Tis India.” He was loving how terrified I was and that fact gave me a miniscule relief from the terror I felt.
Finally the driver picked up the phone to alert the studio we were two minutes away. When we got to the studio, the guards ran out and blocked traffic as we swerved right across oncoming traffice into the entrance with no brakes and almost going up on two wheels. The driver locked the brakes as the tires screeched to a halt on the pavement. MC’s door was opened and he was ushered into the studio right into his seat as the opening credit to the show rolled. I breathed a sigh of relief and thanked the powers that be for letting me survive another harrowing near death motor vehicle experience in India.
The end India, the end of Part I.