Saturday, 27 March 2010

Why are you here?

I’ve written about my radio extraordinaire friend Sangeev many times over here. In particular, I took great pleasure in recounting how, after years of separation, we came back together to not only revive a close friendship, but to recreate a mutual passion for radio which had, in the past, resulted in some ground shakers and award winners! We’ve both changed direction now in so many ways, but our creative passion lays open and itching to be let out, so when Sangeev invited me to do some evaluation on his community broadcast project, I jumped at the chance! It was paid work, with a friend who I dearly love, respect and admire, plus it offered a chance to enjoy great food, fantastic conversation and nights of soul searching, the stuff of dreams (and of future programmes!).

Part of my evaluation would involve sitting in on Sangeev’s training sessions, and providing feedback on his performance, as well as attempting to monitor how affectively he communicated his message to the trainees, and in turn, how their learning altered their ability to broadcast (or not, whatever the case may be!). I felt something of a cheat, a trespasser: after all, here am I, mistress of toilet role control jobs, years out of radio, trying to put a figure on the success of one who is light-years more successful than me. “forget it, Roshni” I thought, money is money, and when you can’t fill the fridge, you sit back and do as your told!

The first thing that struck me was our difference in approach. I had conducted a wealth of radio training in the past, and while mine was driven by my personal journey and likes/dislikes within contemporary broadcast media, Sangeev was driven more by a movement for change within. I wondered how his audience were taking this: in my experience you have to know the guy to get it! Here is some one, who claims he is a capitalist, but lives to much more of a socialist ideology. Who has given up on religion, but who has a value base and code of ethics that would give most so-called scholars a run for their money! While most would-be radio presenters are plotting their journey to fame and fortune, he sees broadcasting as much more of a stance against conformity, the chance to become unique, to make ordinary life extraordinary, to make people think, to encourage them to give up the facade that I often refer to as armchair activism and become some one for family, community and self to be proud of.
I marvelled at his persistence: a room full of 18-year-olds, who were forced in their by the department for Work and Pensions, because they had nothing better to do! On the other side were the Asian radio presenters who had been kicked out of sunrise (so they really must be the worst of the worst!), but who still believe they are the best thing since instant roti! And then there are those who just dream of the cheques!
I sat through this almost hypnotic address, cringing all the while and trying to keep my mouth shut, relief only setting in when he got to the bog standard nuts and bolts, and had every one bent over their exercise sheets! The day from there on was more or less as I expected. We had lunch and began the process of winding down. It was 3 PM now, and I had a migraine coming on. I moved to the back and opened the window, downing black coffee all the while and trying to hold on desperately to the power of concentration. As I played absently with my nails and wondered what we’d eat tonight, a phrase in Sangeev’s charismatic closing address stopped me frozen in my tracks!
“ultimately”, he said “you need to ask yourself that most fundamental of questions! Are you here because your parents had a dam good night some years ago, or are you here to contribute something wonderful for the benefit of humanity!”, …, silence, you could have heard a single pinhead drop! I waited for a reaction, but there was none, and when I couldn’t hold it no more, I bent over in uncontrollable fits of laughter!
“I love it, oh jaan I love it!”, I sobbed through my tears and snot! I sat up eventually, feeling all eyes in the room on me. No one quite knew what I was doing there any way, and then, here was this sober looking woman dressed in hijaab and abaya, getting a kick out of an ill placed, rudely delivered commentary!
When later, over dinner, I asked him why he’d done it, he just looked at me blankly as though it was obvious, as though I’d failed to comprehend the very nature or reason for his existence in the first place!
“they need to be woken up!” he said, “to see life for life, to leave the comfort zone, come to terms with reality, I was doing them a favour!”.

Maybe that’s true, I thought, but a favour is only a favour if taken as such, a fertile seed planted on poisoned ground loses its potential to grow the very moment it is placed upon the spoilt earth! When I look at my own community (mainly Muslim), I see an overwhelming sense of detachment, an all-encompassing lethargy which justifies doing nothing, and accentuates the need to isolate one’s self, not just from the community, but actually from doing any thing that might be considered remotely useful!

When I quiz my upstairs Pakistani neighbour as to why he deems it acceptable to spit paan on my stairs, he shrugs his shoulders and passes me by as though I were invisible and we never shared a common building a day in our lives! When I beg friends to assist me with my activism, even though they too as disabled people face the same barriers, the same doors being shut in their faces, they still see fit to leave it to me, contributing only when morose takes over and they find the need to tare my humble efforts apart and throw them back at me!
Lethargy is not new though, its been a common feature of Western societies for years! People become unmoved by changing images on TV screens of nations far away, wars and famine, things too unfamiliar to even touch the fibre of their heart strings! Its far away, and its “their country” and therefore “their problem!”.

I didn’t decide to become an activist one day, after all, it would have been the easiest thing in the world to sit on my growing ass and count paperclips, swig tea and take home a reasonable pay, but in truth I had no choice but to be one! Activism rushed through my veins from the moment I was born, and though my father beat me for questioning “why” incessantly, he knew it was the touch paper igniting greater things!
Perhaps you could then argue that some are born to be activists, and others have their more mundane destinations to reach, so what’s my issue! While that might be true for some, aren’t we, as Muslims supposed to be people of action any way? aren’t the shia in particular, born to be advocates, spokespeople for Imam Hussain (A.S) and his family, and the injustices done to them?
Unlike Sangeev, I don’t believe one needs to change the universe, it is after all, as large as it appears small, and why set yourself up to fail: you’ll only die dissatisfied!
All that I and activists like me would ask, is that individuals take a grip on their respective spheres and look after what is within their capacity to manage and take care of. Miracles aren’t born out of Grand gestures, but rather the small kindnesses grow in to oceans of humility and progress!

And so I say this, again and again, its not the first time I’ve written a post like this! I’ll continue writing and people will begrudgingly grant me an hour of their time, or remember activists in their prayers if they can be bothered, providing you don’t ask them again to do stuff!
It does hurt me, both personally and communally, after all, I ware a scarf too, and as long as my head is covered, I am seen as one of the great towel heads who shout lots and do little! On one hand we battle the machine that has branded us all terrorists, while we fuel it with our inability to challenge stereotypes affectively. I get angry because I don’t class myself as one of them, I am not perfect, but I do what I can, yet when all is said and done, to the masses, I’m one and the same!
I don’t really blame Sangeev and others like him who turn their backs on religion: if you judged Islam on those who make it in to the public eye, you’d be put off for ever more!
The activists path is a lonely one, and the further I trudge through it, the more I cling on to my creator for life and inspiration! I am not deluded, and I know that I alone cannot and will not remove lethargy from my people, but perhaps I do have it within me to make them see activism a new: making a difference is not always about making a name for yourself or even seeing returns on what you give, Sangeev wasn’t that far off the mark after all! But once you have ascertained your own reasons for your existence, you might only have to give a little, a smile, a kind word, a prayer and sharing the time of day are the stuff of activists, (i.e., leave the armchair for a minute, and the hours take care of themselves!).
As we lose an hour this evening and revert to daylight saving time, perhaps the poem below illustrates activism/humanity in a far better manner than I ever could, so as you read, smile for me and make a pledge that only you and your creator need know: the world can share it when you truly live it, and in truth: that is the definition of lasting success!

How fine it is at night to say:
"I have not wronged a soul to-day.
I have not by a word or deed,
In any breast sowed anger's seed,
Or caused a fellow being pain;
Nor is there on my crest a stain
That shame has left. In honour’s way,
With head erect, I've lived this day."
When night slips down and day departs
And rest returns to weary hearts,
How fine it is to close the book
Of records for the day, and look
Once more along the traveled mile
And find that all has been worthwhile;
To say: "In honour I have toiled;
My plume is spotless and unsoiled."

Yet cold and stern a man may be
Retaining his integrity;
And he may pass from day to day
A spirit dead, in living clay,
Observing strictly morals, laws,
Yet serving but a selfish cause;
So it is not enough to say:
"I have not stooped to shame to-day!"

It is a finer, nobler thought
When day is done and night has brought
The contemplative hours and sweet,
And rest to weary hearts and feet,
If man can stand in truth and say:
"I have been useful here to-day.
Back there is one I chanced to see
with hope newborn because of me.

"This day in honour I have toiled;
My shining crest is still unsoiled;
But on the mile I leave behind
Is one who says that I was kind;
And someone hums a cheerful song
Because I chanced to come along."
Sweet rest at night that man shall own
Who has not lived his day alone.

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