21 May 2021

I was sitting at my desk today when the ceiling fell on my head

Cyclone Tauktae
Cyclone Tauktae

I live in a rooftop apartment, so every year before the monsoons, my roof needs some work done. Mostly they patch the holes and try to waterproof the whole thing. This year, the work was about to begin two days ago when Cyclone Tauktae became the strongest storm to hit the west coast of India in 20 years. Water dripped in from the ceiling and flowed freely in from an electrical conduit. I put a bucket under the big leak and had to empty it every 20 minutes during the worst of it. There were 4 other buckets strategically placed around the room, and the entire wooden floor was covered with towels that were soaked. Winds gusted to 100 mph (160 kph). The cat and I cuddled closely all night.

The Sea Was Angry That Day, My Friends
The Sea Was Angry That Day, My Friends

I took a walk the next day. Most people stayed inside, but I grew up in Miami, and I knew that the day after a hurricane is beautiful. The weather was cooler and cloudy. There were palm fronds on the ground everywhere; blocking streets, in apartment compounds, outside shopping malls. There were even a few large trees on the ground. I stopped to chat with fruit vendors, the shopkeepers, and my fellow pedestrian.
Kal pagal tha, na? Bahut pani tha! We nodded knowingly at one another. 

The Streets of Mumbai the Day After the Cyclone
The Streets of Mumbai the Day After the Cyclone

Today, the work on the roof began in earnest. There were three of them up there, right above me. My ceiling is made of a sheet of drywall, and above it is supposed to be a roof made of concrete panels. But it was a mess up there, with corrugated iron roofing mixed among the concrete, and many holes and cracks. Unbeknownst to me, they decided to remove the entire roof and replace it. As the day wore on, sunlight began to angle into my room from spots where my ceiling had holes and the roof above was dismantled. I began to realise there was nothing above my ceiling except structural 2x4s. There was noise all day, of course, loud, sudden, noise, of heavy objects being dropped above me. The punctuated sound of dust and wood planks and tools and roofing materials landing above me, echoing around the room. William T. Cat was quite perplexed, and spent a lot of time staring at the spots above where the noise was coming from.

And then it happened. An ordinary moment, at my desk, with my laptop, and then suddenly there was a crashing noise and dust all around, and a chunk of drywall about the size of an extra-large pizza came crashing upon my poor unsuspecting skull. I was suddenly hit by the light, and for a moment I think I wondered if it might be transcendental. Then I realised it was a beam of sunlight. There was nothing between me and God’s blue sky. Meanwhile, I had no idea what had happened to my head. The chunk of concrete landed right on top, cutting my forehead and depositing dust all in my hair. I sat motionless for a few moments, then I think I uttered a few choice expressions of displeasure, including What the fuck was that? And The fucking roof fell on my head! 

the hole in my ceiling, now covered with wood
the hole in my ceiling, now covered with wood

What had happened was that one of the workers tripped over an internet cable and fell. He used his hand to brace his fall and landed on the drywall instead of one of the two by fours. His hand went right through my ceiling, right above my head. After the collapse, he stuck his head in the hole to see if I was alright. I was not. I was freaked out, and a little bit in shock. And there was a drop of blood wending its way down my forehead.  Billy the cat freaked out and ran into the bedroom to hide in the almirah. I stood up, a little dizzy. I went downstairs to tell the landlord, who lives below me, what happened. They saw the cut on my forehead and ran to get turmeric to put on the wound. I sat on the stairs because it suddenly became difficult to stand. It was more the adrenaline than the head wound, I thought. I was pretty sure. The landlord’s family offered to take me to a doctor. I refused at first, went upstairs, and took a shower. I’m skipping the part before the shower where I couldn’t find Billy T. Cat and I started to lose my mind thinking he ran away downstairs to get away from the craziness up here. I definitely panicked and it wasn’t fun.

the workspace in question with the hole overhead
the workspace in question with the hole overhead

Fortunately, Billy was just hiding amongst my clothes. Poor baby was scared out of his mind. He didn’t come out for 4 hours. After I cleaned myself up, I felt a little better, but I still had a headache. I felt a little traumatised, both physically and emotionally. Really, I can be so sensitive about these things and they wipe me out. I actually think I inherited some trauma, or rather a reduced ability to deal with it, from my father, who was a holocaust survivor. One theory talks about epigenetic inheritance, or the idea that trauma can affect one’s DNA, and those changes can be passed on to future offspring. More likely is simply the emotional effect that persists in the parent and is subconsciously passed on to the offspring. In any case, I can be cripplingly sensitive to traumatic events. In this case, I was exhausted and light-headed, and starting to feel a little sad. Just to be safe, I took my landlord’s family’s offer of taking me to a doctor. I got on the back of a motorcycle and rode winding roads through the hills of Pali to a small doctor’s office. Every doctor older than 50 reminds me of my father, and this one was no exception. He had me lie down, examined my neck, looked at my head, and proclaimed me generally fit. He wanted to give me a tetanus shot, which I allowed, and antibiotic pills, which i refused. I’ll keep the wound clean and use topical antibiotics. I don’t want to tweak my whole system with antibiotics if not completely necessary.

'tis but a flesh wound
'tis but a flesh wound

I made it back home, finally coaxed Billy out of the closet, and now I am taking rest, as they say. Billy is sleeping next to me. The hole in my ceiling has been covered by a sheet of wood, and the workers are coming back tomorrow to replace the roof and then waterproof it for the season. I’m not exactly sure how they’re going to handle the hole in my ceiling. They apologised profusely. I forgave them. And I’m grateful to my landlord who really does treat me like family. Pretty close, anyway. I’m having Moti, our houseboy, check in on me every couple of hours, just to make sure I’m ok. I’m a little afraid to go to sleep tonight, but that’s probably an overreaction. I’m sure I’ll be fine.

poor baby, finally asleep after a scary day
poor baby, finally asleep after a scary day

23 September 2020

Ocean Poetry

The sound of the waves
Is the original beat
The source of all rhythm.
The regular pulse, driving,
the rock and roll that comes from forward movement, into new beginnings, unknown adventures.
The odd meters, the sevens and elevens and all the waves that come in one beat too early or late, and also are perfectly on time.
The quick tick of a dance beat, forcing the body to move, more flow than will.
The slow grow of a love song, arriving gently, then swelling with power, not afraid to scream out at its peak, losing control for a moment, then gently placing itself on the shore, sweetly.
Life and the sounds of life too, were born where the sea joins the sand.

18 Nov 2017
Om Beach, Gokarna, Karnataka, India

Waves are like people. They're all the same, yet no two are exactly alike. They travel at different rates in different directions, have various sizes and energies, all the while passing one another, joining, separating, joining again. If you stick around long enough, you'll see some pretty strange ones, extreme in enthusiasm or velocity, more quirky than the others, definitely going their own way. Some of those can be scary, but others can be really fun. And when you find yourself surrounded, you have to learn to breathe in rhythm, and sway with them, and not fight against them, while standing your ground. 🌊🌊🌊

23 June 2017
Arugam Bay Beach, Sri Lanka

08 October 2019

Good and Evil

In the Western religions, the Garden of Eden story is often used to illustrate humankind’s rejection of God, or as a cautionary tale designed to induce children and other humans to obediently follow rules. 
To me, it works better as a metaphor for the spiritual and moral evolution of humankind. When Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, it represents our unique ability to divide things into good and bad. Other animals don’t generally make such a distinction.  They do what they do, without calling them good or evil acts. 
That is the sense in which humans are poised between the animals and the angels; that is our blessing and our curse. For with such awareness comes the obligation to maximise the good and minimise the evil. That is our job as humans. 
The Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which starts tonight at sunset, reminds us that we can always choose good, and that such a choice, made despite an awareness of our flaws, can transform the world. 
In Hindu mythology, Dussehra reminds us of this. Good can indeed triumph over evil. With our feet on the earth, and our eyes on the gods and angels and demons, we are reminded that even with all our flaws, all the times we fall short, good can and will ultimately triumph over the forces of evil. Or as Martin Luther King Jr, the great disciple of Mahatma Gandhi, once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. Or as it says in the Jewish book of ethics Pirkei Avot, “You are not obligated to complete the work but neither are you free to abandon it.”
I apologise to all I have wronged this year. I will try to be better. In the Buddhist (bodhisatva) sense, I will try to be as balanced as I can be, so that I can respond to each situation with Love, and so I can forgive myself when I fall short. 

Happy Dussehra and G’mar Chatimah Tovah to all. 

27 January 2016

Today in Mumbai

Wow. While walking through Khar Danda this morning, past an area where a local mechanic keeps some junk cars parked, I heard the familiar strains of, "Uncle, Uncle!", in plaintive, muffled, high-pitched voices. That's what the local kids call me, call many older men, out of respect. 
At first I thought it was in my head, as when a song you've been listening to repeatedly starts to play on its own. I hear that refrain often, from neighbours and strangers. I stopped and looked around anyway, and didn't see kids tugging at my shirtsleeves as I half expected. There were just a few men working nearby. 
Then I saw the shell of a car next to me. No wheels, but cabin and windshields intact. And inside were two small children, banging their fists against the glass. I walked closer and saw their dusty faces streaked with tears, their mouths twisted into pleas. 
I walked around to the passenger side and opened the door. The kids poured out. The inside door panels had been removed. They had entered the car to play, and couldn't get out. I don't know how long they were in there. 
I followed one boy as he ran to his nearby dwelling, the kind of small shack, with tarp flaps for a door, that is common in this fishing village neighbourhood of Bombay. His mom was squatting outside, washing dishes in a bucket. He was explaining to her what happened. 
I don't think they were locked in there for a long time. Though no one was close enough to hear them, it's a busy street with people passing frequently. Surely someone would have heard them eventually. But they were pretty freaked out when I opened the door, and ran away from that car as fast as they could. I don't think they'll be playing there again. 

10 March 2015

Privileged but not Entitled

Recently, I was taking a walk through the city streets on a busy weekday late afternoon. Traffic lights here are exceedingly rare, reserved for only the most traveled and convoluted intersections, and stop signs are virtually nonexistent and universally ignored.

The way it works is something like what happens at a 4-way blinking yellow light in the States, but far more chaotic; each vehicle slows down as little as possible, beeps like an angry sheep, and tries to avoid being hit by cross traffic. This applies to pedestrians, bicycles, motorcycles, three-wheeled autorickshaws, small cars, big cars, small trucks, big trucks, and the occasional fisherman on horseback. As per tradition, the largest vehicle has the right of way, and pushes itself through with a deep beeping that is more threat than warning. When a rickshaw does find a gap, it moves in deftly, followed quickly by others close on his tail, as if they could create a new vehicle, a serpentine train that collectively could overpower the trucks and cars. Fortunately for pedestrians, these vehicular exchanges often result in a stalemated gridlock, and those on foot can easily scurry across.

So I was walking around, and came to an intersection. From the right, a fancy car was approaching. From the left you could hear a siren, and then an ambulance came into view.

In the US, of course, cars generally get out of the way of ambulances (although I have seen drivers in LA freeze sometimes in the middle of intersections, unsure of what to do). But here, to some, an ambulance is just another vehicle. I stood and watched as the car coming from the right cut in front of the ambulance and came to a stop in front of a shop, blocking the ambulance (and other vehicles) from moving past. Out of the back seat a well-dressed young woman emerged, on her mobile phone, seemingly unaware of anything around her. I was a little shocked. It was like no one else existed, or mattered.

I have encountered this sense of entitlement before in Mumbai. Only a few days before, I was standing at my favourite local street dosa stand, ordering a delicious dosa, when a similarly new and expensive car pulled up right behind me. Out from the car emerged what we call an India Auntie; a woman in her 50s or 60s, well dressed, exuding an air of self-importance. She pushed me aside (not kidding) as if I wasn't there, and started barking orders to the dosa chef inside the stall. No one else in the world mattered.

Where does this come from? It''s related to the extreme class (and caste) differences here, where some of the wealthy are used to having lower caste cooks, drivers, maids, and other workers catering to their every whim.

As a foreigner, I realize I have privileges that are unknown to some locals. Although there are times that I'm charged more for things than locals, in general, I have access to opportunities that some locals simply never will have. From the ability to splurge on good meals and imported candy, to the demand for voiceover artists with American accents, to easy admission to clubs and shops, I can go places and see things that many locals never could.

I only hope, despite this privilege, that I don't cross over into entitlement. I hope I can appreciate the ways in which I'm fortunate while never taking it for granted, or taking it out on those in a less privileged position.

There is a story of a teacher who sat his students in rows, put a garbage can at the front of the room, and told his students to ball up a piece of paper. He then announced that anyone who could throw the paper into the garbage in one throw would get an A for the semester. As the paper started flying, the students soon realised that those in the front row had a much easier time hitting the garbage can, and the further back in the class the student was, the harder the task was. Not everyone in the front made it, and not everyone in the back missed, but it was clear where the advantage was. Only the students in the back complained. The students in the front were focused on their goal.

The teacher told the class that's what privilege is like. It's not a guarantee of anything, but it gives some a head start, and makes it harder for others to achieve the same. “Your job", the teacher said, " — as students who are receiving an education — is to be aware of your privilege. And use this particular privilege called “education” to do your best to achieve great things, all the while advocating for those in the rows behind you.”

I realise I'm at an advantage in some ways being a white foreigner here with a clean English accent. I appreciate that fact that it's easier for a Westerner to come to India than the other way around. I acknowledge my privilege, and will use it to be the best I can be. But I hope I never become complacent about it, and I hope I never feel entitled to that privilege.

And now, some pictures from Holi.I played colours in my old neighbourhood of Khar Danda, and then we had a little party on our terrace at home. Holi really is such a sweet holiday, the way friends and strangers approach you and gently apply colour to your cheeks. Adults drink and dance, teenagers flirt, children run around. Courtyards of neighbours gather, play music, and prepare communal meals, and everyone lovingly douses each other in water and colour.

20 February 2015


Dream on; dream until your dreams come true.
– Steven Tyler

If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. 
–Henry David Thoreau

This summer will be the 20th anniversary of my first trip to India. In the late summer of 1995, I quit my teaching job, bought a backpack, a combination lock, and a Swiss Army Knife, and headed to the other side of world. 

I grew up in South Florida and was raised within Conservative Judaism (which is not a political signifier- my parents were quite liberal actually- but refers to American Jews whose religious practice falls somewhere between orthodoxy and secularism).  As the grandson of a Rabbi I went to Hebrew school for 8 years and became a bar mitzvah at the age of 13. Religion was an important part of my life, and while there were certainly many years of rebellion, by the time I went to University, it was a subject with which i was fascinated. I was not asinterested in studying the religions of the world from the outside; I was much more interested in religious and spiritual experience- what it's like for the practitioner; the experience of the mystic. I studied physics, philosophy, psychology, and religion, and after a glorious 5 1/2 years of erudition, enjoyment, and enlightenment, I graduated with a degree in religion. 

I then moved to California, in the summer of 1990, and went to graduate school in Interdisciplinary Consciousness Studies. The program has since changed a bit, but it was an academically rigorous attempt to reestablish phenomenology as a way to gather knowledge about nonphysical aspects of human experience. Put simply, it recognized that there is more to life than the physical world, and that even though science can't study them, such experiences can be studied in a scientific way, by acknowledging the role of subjectivity. We looked at the role the observer plays in quantum physics, mystical or spiritual experiences and their effects, alternate states of consciousness like dreams, out of body experiences, and psychedelic experiences, and other ways in which the individual can influence experience. 

Science, you see, has turned out to be a terrific way of learning about the physical world, but is not a complete description of human experience. By definition, the individual scientist shouldn't have an effect on the results of any experiment. Two scientists should have the same results if they do the same experiment, and in that way, we learn what rules about the physical world are universal. Who the individual scientist is, what her history and expectations are, should not matter at all.

But we all know that individuals can and do bring a lot to any situation.Who we are, what our history, emotions, and expectations are can drastically effect our experience of a situation. So clearly, there is more to human life than that which can be explained with science. That's what we studied.

 Although I had been introduced to the religions of India as an undergrad, as a graduate student I studied them, and south Asian religious history, more extensively. I grew to love the subject and that part of the world, especially due to teachers such as David Komito and Vernice Solimar

After grad school, I started teaching middle school math and science, but after a few years the pull I was feeling grew inescapably compelling, and I left that school, and headed off to India.

That first trip, in the fall of 1995, was magical. From the moment I landed, I felt at home. It was (and remains) difficult to explain, but I felt so comfortable and happy among the chaos and beauty. On that trip, which lasted 3.5 months, I saw a total solar eclipse, went on a 10-day Tibetan Buddhist meditation retreat in the hills above Dharamsala, had a brief affair with a young woman from Sweden, visited the birthplace of Lord Krishna, met many lovely people, and ate a lot of great food. I got sick a couple of times, and there are always frustrating and difficult moments traveling here, but I loved every minute of it.

Twenty years and a few more trips later, I have returned to live here in Bombay, aamchi Mumbai, the 8th biggest city in the world, the most progressive and populous city in India, Maximum City, the City of Dreams, to call myself a Mumbaiker, to make this incredible place my home. I do realize how fortunate I am. I am grateful every day.

What will happen? Will I stay 6 months or 6 years? Will I teach music, do voiceovers, appear in Bollywood movies? Will I find love? So many mysteries lie ahead. I'm ready for the unfolding. I surrender to you, mother India. Take care of me, as you always have. Return my love, as you always have. 

This should be interesting...

09 March 2014

Photographic Interlude

Sunset at Carter Road, Mumbai

Namaste hands in Ahmedabad

Snack Wallah

Locals at rest stop in Gujarat

Desert Festival Parade in Jaisalmer

Entrants in the Mr. Mustache competition

Mr. Desert and me

Jaisalmer view from fort

Sunset over Jaisalmer

A boy and his camel

Sunset at the Cenotaphs at Bara Bagh

Bara Bagh

Bara Bagh

Bara Bagh

Local friend at Bara Bagh

Sunset at Bara Bagh

Sunset from Bara Bagh

Holy Cow

Wall detail near Shiva Temple, outside Jaisalmer

Shiva Temple

Ceiling of Shiva Temple

Rickshaw Driver at Shiva Temple

Clown at Car-Free Day on Carter Road

Sunset panorama at Juhu Beach, Mumbai

Hair Salon. Like the name?

Oscar the Cat.

I was sitting at my desk today when the ceiling fell on my head

Cyclone Tauktae I live in a rooftop apartment, so every year before the monsoons, my roof needs some work done. Mostly they patch the holes ...