My conversation with dancer and Thirupaavai Upanyasam expert Zakir Hussain for my ‘The Happiness Road’ Series that appears in DT Next every Sunday. Read the conversation on the DT Next page here. ‘The Happiness Road’ is also my next Book. Photo Credit: Vinodh Velayudhan
“Being myself is happiness to me”
There’s an endearing quality about Zakir Hussain. He doesn’t mince his words. And he’s clear about who he is and what he does. “Being myself is happiness to me,” he says as we sit down for this conversation at the legendary Krishna Gana Sabha. He was born and raised a Muslim, he went to a Christian Mission school and he devoured Andal’s Thirupaavai out of sheer passion. So, who then is the real Zakir? “My bliss is to inspire audiences to soak in the beauty of Andal’s Life and the message of Vaishnavism while promoting secularism. I am blessed that my profession and my passion blend to give me boundless inner joy,” explains Zakir.
Even so, I wonder how he manages the pressure and challenges of being a Muslim, a male Bharatanatyam dancer and also one who is a Thirupaavai Upanyasam expert. “Every moment, you are facing and overcoming challenges. So, I don’t single out my identity and calling to conjure up a special challenge there. Yes, what I do may appear to be unusual. But I am doing it to spread harmony, to inspire people to be happy being who they are. I don’t see anything wrong. If someone has a problem with it, I just let them be. I don’t see any need to justify anything. Discretion is the key to happiness,” he says.
Zakir adds that living your Life in full public view means that critique and criticism are unavoidable. “When people’s remarks hurt me, I sleep over them to douse my anger. Silence is a good weapon. No one can fight anyone’s silence,” he points out, laughing heartily.
But why exactly does he dance or spread Andal’s message through his Upanyasams? “I am convinced that I am able to be in communion with the divine. You must live in this real world and experience divinity here, in the now. That’s what happens to me when I dance or when I deliver Upanyasams. I see myself as offering my mind, body and soul to the divine. I become that,” avers Zakir.
As a parting line, he reiterates that he is not unique: “I truly believe that we can all learn to be happy and content with who we are, with what we have, when we carry in us the constant awareness of our impending, unavoidable, death.”
That truth about Life is like Zakir himself is – unputdownable!
Can we just be human, pleeeaaassse?
My good friend Girish Pradhan was stopped from entering the famous Kapaleeshwarar temple in Mylapore yesterday. The temple authorities wanted to ascertain that he is a Hindu. Girish sports a beard and apparently that’s why the “clarification/proof” was sought.
I have been thinking about this episode ever since Girish’s wife Weena posted a status on Facebook last afternoon. And interestingly, adding to the discourse brewing in my head, I ended up watching a Subhash Ghai film “Black & White” (2008, Anil Kapoor, Shefali Shah, Anurag Sinha) on TV last night. The film deals with some searching questions on Hindu-Muslim unity, on how a terrorist is born and why most acts of terrorism are led by Islamic fundmentalists. While the film was engaging for most parts, it didn’t quite answer all the questions it raised. And that is the problem. No one seems to have the answers – even though a majority of people think peace, think secular! We are all, as well meaning citizens of the world, stuck in a situation where a few people hold us to ransom with their anti-human ideas of religious fundamentalism.
Before this post is conveniently misinterpreted and given a communal flavor, I must hasten to confess that I was born to Hindu parents. But I refuse to call myself a Hindu. My religion is humanity. Period. And Life is my God. In fact, later this month, on 29th April, Saturday, I host famous dancer Zakir Hussain on my popular show – The Bliss Catchers – at Odyssey Bookstore, Adyar. Now, Zakir is a Thirupaavai Upanyasam expert. Had Zakir and I tried to enter the Kapaleeshwarar temple, and if we were asked to prove ourselves as Hindus, undoubtedly, Zakir would have won himself an entry ticket! And I would have failed miserably – I don’t wear my poonal (sacred thread), I don’t know any shlokas and, of course, I may have well refused the test. To me, a God who resides in the smelly, dark, sanctorums of a temple, or for that matter who is ensconced in any “place of worship”, watching over apathetically, even as people fight each other in the name of religion, is no God at all.
Clearly, we cannot afford to be like God. Not anymore. We must not sit back and allow the rot to happen. I believe each of us has a responsibility to heal our world. I am not even talking of healing the entire world. I am suggesting we begin with our small Universes, our circles of influence.
First, we must make religion irrelevant in our actions, in our pronouncements, in thought. Let me explain. I have another friend, who often brags that he prefers keeping his second apartment locked up, but he says he will not give it to Muslim tenants. Such thinking must stop. Religion, if at all it must be practiced, is a deeply personal affair. And must be kept that way. Flaunting your religious belief is what makes it relevant. And when there is a mass relevance, fundamentalists seize advantage, they want to induce fear, control you and brainwash you. Some of them take it to a destructive level – they turn barbaric and murderous. Sadly, this is what is happening around us, with alarming frequency. Second, let us understand the difference between divinity and God. Divinity is Life’s way of expressing itself – you will find divinity in a sunrise, in a raindrop, in the stillness of a valley, in a bird chirping, in a child’s eyes, in you, in me and in every aspect of creation. God, on the other hand, is a human invention, who does nothing to save the world from anarchy and extremism. Yes, there is a Higher Energy that governs, guides, nurtures and protects all of us. And we are all created by that Energy and we carry that Energy in each of us. So, to me, every form of creation is God. I don’t relate to God again as one Supremo who resides in a designated place of worship. This theory and its belief is downright divisive and abhorrent. Finally, can we just soak in the essence of this immortal song from Yash Chopra’s directorial debut Dhool Ka Phool (1959, Manmohan Krishna, Mohd.Rafi, N.Dutta) “Tu Hindu Banega Na Musalmaan Banega, Insaan Ki Aulad Hai, Insaan Banega…”? Sahir Ludhianvi’s inspiring lyrics remain relevant to this day – can we just be human, pleeeaaassse?
I know millions of people out there echo these sentiments that I share here. The time has come for all of us like-minded folks to step out and speak up for humanity. My prayer is this: let’s stop being closet secularists. Only when we make religion irrelevant in the public domain, can we make religious fundamentalism irrelevant and powerless.
If you are tuned to the Universe’s Energy, you will see always see – and follow – the signs that are meant to guide you along the way!
A young student reiterated this learning to us yesterday. Tawheed Sayyid is just another MBA student at first sight. He hails from Haripad in Kerala and is currently interning with a social entrepreneur in Chennai. Now, I know Kerala pretty well. I went to college in Kollam between 1982 and 1987. Though times have changed, I personally believe that while most people from that state are very creative, their potential often goes untapped and underutilized, more so if they go to college there, given the conservative, myopic, socio-political environment that they still grow up in. So, when I first met Tawheed, I was not surprised – he seemed the typical, quiet, meek, introverted kind. But when Vaani and I got to know him better, we discovered that he had, 5 years ago, lost 30 kilos over six months, dedicating himself to a fitness plan that he had found online (www.nowloss.com). Now, we found that inspiring. How does someone, who was just 17 (then), motivate himself to do something as remarkable as lose so much weight?
So, Vaani and I invited Tawheed over for a coffee. He is fasting this Ramadan season, so he didn’t even touch a drop of water. But his story left us with so much food for thought.
He says it all began when he consistently flunked in Math in his early school years when he lived with his parents in Abu Dhabi. So, by the time he reached the 8th grade, it had become imperative that he needed special tuition for Math. His parents put him under the watchful eye of an Indian teacher named Raji. Tawheed says that when he went to Raji’s home for the first time to enroll for his special tuition program, a quote by Swami Vivekananda, on her door, caught his attention and imagination. It read: “All power is within you; you can do anything and everything. Believe in that…Stand up and express the divinity within you.” Tawheed says the quote had a magical impact on him. It made him question himself. And push himself. Besides, Raji too told him that she was not going to exactly make him more proficient in Math than she was going to make him believe in himself. So, the journey began for Tawheed, in believing in himself, and by the time he reached the 10th grade, he had started scoring 80 % marks in Math – from sub 33% levels or the “Fail” grade as we commonly know it! Armed with this self-belief, Tawheed decided to go on a weight loss program. The motivation was purely adolescent in nature – his elder brother’s wedding was coming up and he wanted to “look good” by then. He stumbled on the online program, worked on it diligently, started avoiding elevators and climbed all 15 floors of his building several times a day, ate in moderation and in a matter of a six months, his weight had dropped from 105 kilos to 75 kilos. Tawheed will finish his MBA program next summer and is thinking of an entrepreneurial venture that hopes to marry people’s obsession with their smartphones with their intrinsic inner goodness, their empathetic nature – and in the process make the world a better place. Bravo!
Tawheed is just another student but what sets him apart is that he picked up, he actioned on, the signs the Universe showed him to get to where he is today – the Swami Vivekananda quote, Raji’s championship of self-belief in him, working out with the www.nowloss.com plan that came his way and his internship in a social enterprise that is making him think of making a difference apart from just wanting to make money.
And this Vaani and I have seen so many, many times in Life, if you are ready and willing, the Universe will always send you signs. It may be a car sticker, it may be tangential remark you may hear, it may be a movie dialogue, a song, the title of book or a newspaper headline. I talk about many such experiences in my Book ‘Fall Like A Rose Petal’ (Westland) too. I once had a random member of my audience walk up to me after my Book Launch event at the Odyssey Bookstore in Adyar, Chennai. She thanked my profusely for what I had shared that day – she said it changed her attitude to Life completely. I asked her how did she come to know of me and my Book. She said she was buying snacks from a roadside thelavala that evening and her pakodas came wrapped in a newspaper that had a mention of my Book and the Launch program. She said she felt an instant connect with me and what I was possibly going to share. I felt the Universe had brought her to where she ought to have been that evening.
The basic premise on which Life operates is simple – all that you need is always available. But you must be looking in the right direction. Often we end up looking in the direction of our wants or, worse, we are not even looking – we are complaining, grieving, suffering over what we don’t have. Staying tuned with the Universe’s Energy simply means staying connected with abundance, with the Higher Energy that has created you and me, with the Energy which powers the Universe. As long as you are living your Life logged into this access point, anchored to this Energy, it will always show you the way. Young Tawheed’s story is a gentle reminder that this principle works handsomely. And it is not something original that I bring to you. It is the most elementary of all Life principles. The Zen Masters would often say that when the student is ready, the teacher shall appear. I’ll just tweak that slightly and say, when you are tuned in to the Universe’s energy, you will find your way, no matter how lost you feel you are.
So, look up from all that’s causing your suffering. Please look up. There’s a benevolent light waiting to guide you onward – and inward! Just see the next sign that comes you way and follow it. It will take you to where you must arrive and where you truly belong!
Only when you realize that Life happens inspite of you, and not because of you, will you see the divinity that shapes the Universe!
Two interesting things happened yesterday. My good friend Jyotsana Podaar pinged me on Facebook and posed me this question: “I wonder if Life is a divine enterprise or an ad hoc illegal arrangement…Your take on this please?” I found her question very intriguing and promised myself that I would write this blogpost exploring it today. Later last evening, Vaani and I watched this brilliant bio-pic on mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887~1920) called “The Man Who Knew Infinity” (Matt Brown, Dev Patel, Jeremy Irons). The film explores the unique friendship that evolved between Ramanujan and his professor at Cambridge University, G.H.Hardy. In one scene in the film, Hardy, an atheist, asks Ramanujan how does he get his mathematical theories? And Ramanujan replies that he doesn’t know exactly how, but he believes that it is through the grace of his Goddess, Namagiri: “To me, an equation has no meaning unless it represents a thought of God.” Hardy rejects Ramanujan’s perspective saying: “I can’t believe in God because I don’t believe in anything that I can’t prove.” And Ramanujan replies: “Then you can’t believe in me because I believe in God.” I found both my inspiration to answer Jyotsana’s question and the answer itself in the Ramanujan-Hardy conversation!
To me, the question is not whether there is God. The questions really are how we look at God and where are we looking for God?
The very fact that I am able to communicate my thoughts and you are able to understand them to the point of either accepting or rejecting what I have to say is evidence of divinity. Clearly, there’s a Higher Energy that powers the Universe – and this Energy is more intelligent, more smarter and more compassionate than all of us here! I see this Energy as Life itself. It is only because we are alive that we can experience Life. So, to me, Life is my God, my teacher who amazes me, surprises me, and takes me onward from moment to moment, teaching me continuously through each experience that I am put through. If we understand God as the Life Energy that keeps us alive and helps us experience the myriad facets of this journey called Life, we will see divinity in us and all around us. It is only because we are looking for God outside of us, and have allowed religion to divide us in this avoidable quest for God, that we are not able to find God. I totally relate to Osho’s perspective when he says that there’s no God really, but there’s Godliness in all aspects of creation – including in you and in me!
So, to me, the thought that “your God is within you” is neither abstract nor clichéd. It is the complete proof that Hardy unfortunately kept seeking and never found! Often what makes me rediscover the divinity in me, in times when I am feeling low and beaten, is the sense of gratitude that I have when I pause to reflect and consider that I have been created human – someone capable of receiving the H1N1 virus – and that I have not been created as the swine that spreads the virus. For, if Life had willed it otherwise, I may well have been born a swine and not human!
I don’t debate or argue the presence of divinity anymore – to be sure, I once used to! I only debunk the idea of fearing God and looking for God. There is no search required. And there is no need to fear God. So, I am God loving – I love the God in me, I love me. Period.
Just to clarify Jyotsana’s question further, illegality, legitimacy, success, failure, victory, defeat, gain, loss…all these are human labels. I believe that your divinity – and mine – thrives on a plane that is purely beyond all human intellect and imagination. So, let’s not even bother discussing it to understand it. We simply can’t. The best way to know the divine is to continuously experience it and celebrate it in you and in everything around you. Remember: You ‘are’ only because of your divinity!