I visit India a lot. I love the people, the colors, the scents and sounds, the beauty in its landscape, the architecture, and the intricate craftsmanship found in their carvings. However, when I tell people I was just in India, they automatically assume that I go there because I do yoga or am interested in Buddhism, or Bollywood, or am making a spiritual pilgrimage of some sort. I don't do yoga and I'm not a vegetarian -- though I only eat seafood. The truth is, I go to India because I like to explore new books and to be mentally challenged. I like to sit in a circle with old men who like to poke at my mind and challenge me to construct sentences using the smallest number of words to reveal the greatest wisdom. This is the truth.
I once stumbled into an old bookstore in Delhi by accident. The storekeeper there was at first very impatient with me and didn't like anybody to touch his books -- even customers. So after browsing for almost half and hour, he finally came up to me and asked me what I was looking for. I told him I didn't know, but will know when I see it. This answer frustrated him and his unfriendly manner would have immediately driven anybody out of the store. Yet I know there was something in this particular store that I was meant to find, so I stayed looking for it. I could tell the storekeeper was monitoring me closely though he acted like he was cleaning, carefully observing which books caught my eye. Then finally, he asked me, "Are you a poet?"
I asked him how he knew, and he told me that he could tell by the way I would open a book of poetry, scan a page, and put it back down with disinterest. He said the books I held in my hands longer belonged to the true poets, and the ones I put down quickly belonged to the writers who only thought of themselves as poets -- but did not think as true enlightened poets. Then he asked me for my religion, and I told him that I was a citizen of the world, and that my heart was my only temple, and love was my only religion. So then he closed down his shop and asked me if I wanted some tea.
It all began from here. For days on end, I would recite some words over tea, and Riaz would twist his beard in deep thought, and sometimes release a long: "ahaaaaahh" like a lamb. Then he would do something that shocked me the very first time. He would challenge me by replying with a line that would either answer or question what I had just recited. I wasn't used to that, and one day, instead of replying to him immediately, I disappeared for a few days to digest one of his questions before replying back. This actually pleased him, because I didn't answer just to answer. And when I finally did, it forced him to stop questioning me.
Finally I was invited to a home filled with very old wise men and poets. Most of the men there were Hindu and Sikh and didn't speak any English, so I would remain silent until Riaz would take a moment to translate words for me, or the spotlight turned to me to say something. In the beginning, the men were not used to having a foreign visitor, especially a woman -- one they knew absolutely nothing about. But after Riaz's introduction, they allowed me to sit with them, and only when I questioned one of their thoughts that challenged them, did they allow me to interject and share my own thoughts.
These men later taught me about Kabir, Iqbal, Firaq, Lucknavi, Sheerani, Chakbast, Majaz, Ludhianvi, Meeraji, Mehroom, Ghalib, Mir Taqi Mir, Jazbi, and my favorite storyteller poet -- Kālidāsa.
They said that if I took the time to learn their language, I would quickly become a reputable name in Urdu nazm. It saddens me that I have to go to India to have my words digested and savored for their meaning vs. form. While in the west, form takes precedence over meaning. This is really something to think about...because it should be changed.
I have never been challenged intellectually, for wisdom and by men of wisdom, in America or Egypt. In Egypt, under the Cairo bridge, across from a restaurant called Abou Tarek, the biggest writers in the country meet once a month at tables surrounded by smoke from hookahs. I found a home there for a little bit, meeting with songwriters, journalists, poets, and playwrights, screenwriters, and clever minds of all kinds. Yet I never felt truly stimulated or challenged there because nobody would ever question anything I would recite. It was common to receive commentary, but nobody ever made a remark that excited my mind and forced me to re-think my thoughts. Only the Indians did that. And I never realized how important it was to me until it happened.
Just sharing stories and poetry to an audience gets lonely after awhile. All minds need to challenged to stay active and stimulated -- to create even better work, and their best work. Every artist, no matter how reclusive they are, craves to have their work measured only by those that truly understand their work and are already giants with their work. Critics that cannot produce similar or greater work, have airy words that carry no worth. For example, someone who is not an artist, should never directly critique an artist (to the artist or his audience). The audience should never give this critic any attention or credibility, and the artist will never take this critic's words seriously unless the criticism comes from another artist whose work they already value and respect.
This is why I love India. For its rich literature and great love for wisdom, knowledge, and books. The number of booksellers in Delhi surpass any other city in the entire world. This is the blatant truth, yet I have yet to see this mentioned in any newspaper or magazine in the entire world.