A few years ago, as I travelled looking for a spiritual education, I spent a few days with an old Sufi in Ajmer. I had heard he was a poet and I wanted to learn from him. I asked him where he got his poetry from. Spreading his hands around he said, “It is everywhere. Don’t you see?”
I saw some truth to it, but also that I didn’t see the whole of it. So, I asked him how I can see the poetry. He said, “I will make you my shaagird [student] for a day if you bow before God in my prayer room.”
I was an atheist, used to rejecting all allusions to the divine. But I didn’t want to start a debate, so I said, “I will.”
He smiled and added, “There is one condition. You must not do it on khaali zameen. You must do it only on a bichhaa kaaleen [spread out rug].”
I didn’t see why this condition would change anything, so I shrugged and agreed.
He led me to his prayer room. It was completely empty, its walls thick and dark, except for a small skylight lattice. I noticed there was no kaaleen [rug] either – I’d have to buy one. Was the old man swindling a rug out of me? I shrugged again, and decided to go with it.
As I turned, however, the Sufi swiftly closed the door. I heard key turning in lock. And then a metal-on-metal clink – the Sufi was checking if the lock was secure.
Shock. Terror. Why had he locked me in? Was he going to ask my parents for ransom? All the cautionary tales that friends, teachers, parents had told me flashed before me. “There are many who will take advantage of you.”
I don’t know why I didn’t shout. I noticed I was not shouting and yet didn’t shout at all. Some part of me was telling me shouting won’t help. Something my father had said once came to me, “The people playing loud devotional music are at best only as close to God as the one saying a silent prayer.”
Is that why the Sufi had locked me? To give me cause to pray? Like, really pray? I shrugged again and I prayed – I have been taught several at school, at home, at YouTube. I prayed for what seemed like at least a few morning assemblies.
Then I remembered there was no kaaleen. This wasn’t it. Without the kaaleen, the praying won’t work. And with that thought, I just sat down.
The room was quite dark even during midday. It had only been a few minutes past noon when we had entered the room. I didn’t wear a watch or have my phone with me, so I didn’t know what time it exactly was. I only had the sun’s angle to help me. My trigonometry was silently active. I could approximate within the hour.
As the sun sank, the patch of light coming through the skylight grew wider on the floor. I studied the pattern – it was beautiful, reminding me of the Siddi Sayyed mosque in Ahmedabad, the one whose pristine latticework lends to the logo of IIM Ahmedabad. And for a moment, I regretted ever starting on this journey of self-discovery. I could have taken the plush, though soul-crushing, job I had been offered. They had even promised to fast-track my promotion. But here I was, looking for a spiritual awakening within me, and trapped in a dingy room with little light and no kaaleen.
And that’s when I saw it. Right there on the floor.
It had been in front of my eyes and I had not found it – something that always happens with the most obvious of things.
I knelt down, bowed down, touched my forehead to the ground, like a friend had once taught me. When I raised my head, I looked at the skylight again and smiled. Two dark eyes and some betel-juice-stained teeth were smiling back at me.
That night I wrote:
Andar khudaa ko paaya khud ko bhulaakar
Main sajdaa kiya dhoop ki kaaleen bichha kar
[Forgetting me, I found my divine.
I bowed on a rug of spread sunshine.]