Category Archives: Philosophy

That Sacred Place

Yes, I know this post is long overdue. I’ve been meaning to put pen to paper for quite a while now, but I have been really swamped under. I was out traveling to Benares for a while, after which I was (and still am) sorting out and editing my photographs. Then I was in Bombay for a bit on work and busy with a few projects going on. And work reminds me of a status I posted on Facebook a few weeks ago: “No, I am not a professional photographer. I am a management consultant. I photograph only because I love it – that’s all”. Of course, I got some interesting comments on my status; an accomplished and talented photographer and curator, Susan Aurinko (and you can see her work here and here) said this: “But, if someone should happen to ask who you are, tell them that you are a photographer, please.  Though what you do might be a management consultant, who you are is definitely a photographer.”

And that got me thinking – how true those words are. Photography has permeated each part of my life, the depths of my soul, every bit of my being.  I have changed. No, read that as: photography has changed me. Those who know me personally can safely testify to this. I have this website, I write these posts only because I love photography, I love writing. There is no other reason. Do I really need a reason when I am in love? One of my all-time favorite songs is “Annie’s song” by John Denver – its lyrics best express how I feel for photography:

You fill up my senses
Like a night in a forest
Like the mountains in springtime
Like a walk in the rain
Like a storm in the desert
Like a sleepy blue ocean
You fill up my senses
Come fill me again.

Or maybe on a relatively more contemporary note, I could just about use the words of Bryan Adams:

To really love a woman,
Let her hold you
Till you know how she needs to be touched
You’ve gotta breathe her, really taste her
Till you can feel her in your blood
And when you can see your unborn children in her eyes
You know you really love a woman

And this magical feeling that I live with, this can happen to anyone. To you, and you, and also to you. The only thing you need to do is to have a dream. As I mentioned a while back to a close friend of mine: “Sometimes we are so busy doing things we have to do, that we forget what we want to do.”

Find what you want to do. Dream. Chase your dreams. Discover. Strive. Persevere. Make it happen.  It might not happen. But dream.

Build castles in the sand. Build castles in the air. It doesn’t matter. Just build.

Stumble. Fall. Get hurt. But walk.

Love. Feel the joy. Feel the pain. Let your heart shatter. Yet love. Do it again.

Enjoy the ride. Feel the wind. Love the freedom. Be ready for it to stop. Find another.

Fear no loss. Be ready to win. Be ready for loss. But play the game.

Be sentimental. Be emotional. Be sensitive. Feel.

Hop. Skip. Jump. Don’t live. Be alive.

And that is when you will truly, completely, absolutely fall in love. That is when you will feel what I feel at this moment as I type. You will be in a place where there is no one but you and the Creator. Because that is when you will know that Heaven is just another place on Earth. Because that is when you’d have stepped into:

That Sacred Place.

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And you shall receive

I went to Benares for a purpose. And no, it had nothing to do with bathing in the Holy Ganges and cleansing myself of my sins, however much I am more a sinner than a saint. I had gone there to change (or at least attempt to) the style of my photography somewhat. It was something that I needed to do for a while.  I had to step outside my comfort zone to someplace else, someplace where I couldn’t rely on my past experience, someplace challenging, someplace different.  I needed to feel different to be different.

For those who haven’t been to Benares (or Varanasi) yet, it is sensory overload. Benares is the perfect example of organized chaos. And you will see that from my photographs which I’ll post by and by.  But as I always do, even within this melee I gravitated to people.  I observed them, found some whom I thought were interesting and chatted with them. I made friends. And then I photographed them. This time, I wanted to capture them, their expressions just where they were in their surroundings, so that I could tell their full story, not just a part of it with close-up portraits. I loved each moment of it. And believe me, it isn’t easy at all to photograph in the at-times-six-feet-wide (narrow?) gallis (lanes) of Benares where you could be crushed and trampled on, either by people or by cows or worse, both.

It isn’t easy to photograph the people I do.  It isn’t easy to photograph. Period.  It’s simple though – but not easy.  From those I have photographed for a year now, I have learnt this difference, this distinction between simple and easy. They have a simple life, not an easy life. Think about this. When you learn of their life, you’ll know what you want to be is a storyteller, not a spinmeister.  When you learn of their life, you’ll know that all you want to do is to love them.  When you learn of their life, you’ll know all you want to do is to give. Which is what I am attempting to be, and to do. But what then is the meaning of “give”?

As Kahlil Gibran wrote beautifully in “The Prophet”:

“Then said a rich man, “Speak to us of Giving.”

And he answered: 

You give but little when you give of your possessions. 
It is when you give of yourself that you truly give. 
For what are your possessions but things you keep and guard for fear you may need them tomorrow? 
And tomorrow, what shall tomorrow bring to the over-prudent dog burying bones in the trackless sand as he follows the pilgrims to the holy city? 
And what is fear of need but need itself? 
Is not dread of thirst when your well is full, thirst that is unquenchable? 
There are those who give little of the much which they have – and they give it for recognition and their hidden desire makes their gifts unwholesome. 

And there are those who have little and give it all. 
These are the believers in life and the bounty of life, and their coffer is never empty. 
There are those who give with joy, and that joy is their reward. 
And there are those who give with pain, and that pain is their baptism. 

And there are those who give and know not pain in giving, nor do they seek joy, nor give with mindfulness of virtue; 
They give as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes its fragrance into space. 
Though the hands of such as these God speaks, and from behind their eyes He smiles upon the earth. 
It is well to give when asked, but it is better to give unasked, through understanding; 
And to the open-handed the search for one who shall receive is joy greater than giving 
And is there aught you would withhold? 
All you have shall someday be given; 
Therefore give now, that the season of giving may be yours and not your inheritors.”

And you shall receive.

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For I have loved

It’s been a while since I wrote last and writing a post seems almost alien to me. I’ve just returned from Benares, or Varanasi, or even Kashi, as you’d prefer to call it. It was such a fascinating trip – what a city with such a unique character! But I’ll write about Benares (the place) in another post (or maybe even posts).  I’d gone there for a specific purpose actually – before I’d left I had been feeling for a while that my portraits were not “quite there” according to me. (Of course, after I wrote that many of you who read it felt otherwise and for that I’m grateful – so thank you.) Anyway, I went to Benares to photograph people, to allow them to touch me in the deepest recesses of my heart again, to let me know what it means to feel. It was spiritual – maybe not in the classical sense of the word, but perhaps ambrosia to quench the thirst of my soul.

Someone had asked me many weeks back: “Do you have any fears?” to which I had then said “No, I don’t.” But now after meeting so many people in Benares and feeling the love of strangers, I can safely say: “Yes, I do. I fear losing this capacity to feel – which is why I love each day.”

In 1897, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, the renowned Indophile, said of Varanasi: “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” Nothing could be truer than that. Unto and of itself, Benares is its people – residents and birds of passage, all the same. Full of characters, both devout and dubious, Benares is a photographer’s dream – and I was a child in a candy store there.

Everything there happens in the name of, and for, God.  Despite the deluge of outsiders, the people of Benares cling to their roots almost as if diaspora in a foreign land. Each of them has a story to tell…this man brought his wife of many years for a dip in the Holy Ganga (or Ganges) to wash away their sins and remit their karma.

And he is a fruit-seller who was born here; he has sat in the same place for as long as he can remember selling fruits to pilgrims. He said to me that he wants to die here as dying in Kashi is salvation, and ensures release of a person’s soul from the cycle of its transmigrations.  (In the Rigveda, the city was referred to as Kashi, “the luminous one” alluding to its historical status as a centre of learning, literature, art and culture. In one verse, the Hindu god Shiva, the Destroyer in the Holy Trinity says, “The three worlds form one city of mine, and Kashi is my royal palace therein.”)

Then I met this Brahmin who only sits and prays at this small temple day and night, every single day of the year. All for the Lord. This is what teaches me the meaning of love, of devotion, of sacrifice.

How can Benares be complete without a paan-wallah, the ubiquitous betel-leaf seller ? He offered to   have a word with someone so that I could have a vantage view of the evening Ganga aarati (prayers) – for a princely sum of course.  I politely declined but not before I got his permission for a photograph!

As I was navigating the labyrinthine streets known as gallis near the ghats (bathing steps), I saw this child behind a closed door, surreptitiously peeping through this lattice screen and observing me most closely. I smiled to him, pointed at my camera and he nodded in silent acquiescence…

All of these are people I love and respect. This is the reason I photograph. I remain in touch with reality as it exists, not as I would have it. I am on a journey of (re)discovering love each moment, every single day. It is beautiful. I wouldn’t have it any other day.

And as the day came to an end, I met this beautiful old lady who sells flowers for a living. I still wonder what lies hidden within her heart? Resignation? Indignation? Unbearable pain? Memories of another life? Or even wishes for another life? But all I know for now is that she touched my soul.

And yes, I’m not embarrassed of confessing here that I had tears in my eyes after I made this photograph of her. It reminds me of a line I wrote many years ago: “When your reason to cry and your reason to smile are both the same – then you truly have loved.”

I know.

For I have loved.

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On photography by Steve Jobs

Since Sunday I have wanted to photograph – you know that insane desire to step out and create something.  Unfortunately with the imminent change in season here in Delhi, the weather, and the light, is tending to be unpredictable.  I did manage to today – walked for an hour-and-a-half in the sun completely drenched in sweat trying to find something, anything really, and finally photographed whatever was in front of me in the last 5 minutes or so of that time. Not for anything else, but because the desire to hear the sound of the shutter was overwhelming. I knew within my heart that those photographs were rather ordinary to say the least, and so I’m not using those. (In fact, I don’t know which photographs would be appropriate for this post…). And then I started thinking of inspiration.

I guess I need to do something different, “think different” as Steve Jobs would have said. Many people, many things, many circumstances influence my photography and my life – Steve Jobs happens to be one of them.  Leonardo da Vinci is another, but I’ll write about him sometime else. And importantly, all of you who read what I have to say, though I write for myself even today, influence me by your art and your words, and even more importantly those utterly “ordinary” people whom I photograph who teach me indelible lessons of, and for, life.

Even the slogan of Apple is just that – Think Different.

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes.

The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them.

About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They invent. They imagine. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward.

Maybe they have to be crazy.

How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art? Or sit in silence and hear a song that’s never been written? Or gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels?

While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

When I read this (and I do it often), I dream of making a difference, of changing the world and I vaguely know how.  It reaffirms my need to dream. To dream a really, really big dream. It won’t be another Apple that I’ll create for sure, and it has nothing to do with professional photography (that’s something I am not going to do). It’s a dream using photography to probably make a difference in the lives of many, many people – at least I hope so.  I’ll try and I’ll try my utmost best.  And yes, photography happened to me by chance. As also did many things in my life. I didn’t know then what an influence those happenchances, happenstances would have on my life. The same is true for anything you pursue and love with your heart.

But since this post is about what Steve Jobs would have said if he had to tell me about life and photography (or whatever it is that you might love), I guess it would be this:

Lesson #1: You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

Lesson #2: Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

Lesson #3: Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

And finally, he would have said:

“Stay hungry, stay foolish”.

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Again. And again. And again.

I write about photography, and I write about how it has influenced my life. But you could just about substitute anyone or anything that you love for “photography” and whatever I write will still be equally true.  And you and I both know that often I don’t write about photography at all. I just use my photographs and juxtapose them with words to say what I have to say. Sometimes I don’t even know what to say. But I know that there remains something to be said – you know that feeling deep within your heart of unsaid words bound and shackled by reason, yet overwhelmed by passion we let them escape. So I let them out, I allow myself to say whatever comes into my heart, I create photographs that hopefully reflect my feelings, and use words that describe how I felt. Maybe there will be a day when I’ll quote Ansel Adams and be quiet: “When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.” Until then, I shall photograph, I shall write.

When a musician tunes his instrument before a concert or performance he touches it gently, longingly, almost as a mother would hold her child, that same expression, the same caress, wondering what next? That is just how I feel when I touch my camera. Wondering what next. Wondering if I’ll ever be able to say what remains unsaid within my heart. It is a feeling of unspoken words, it is a feeling of falling in love. It is a feeling of being in love. And you know it is true when each day you feel more in love.

It is a feeling that even with all my words I find it difficult to describe. I can’t define love. I can only feel it. But the closest was when someone questioned me as to how would I describe a photograph of mine which I really love. And I said that I love a photograph when after I make it and step away, I feel as if I have left something behind, an indelible part of me, and ironically, paradoxically, contrarily, that is when I feel even more complete and willing and ready to leave a bit of myself yet again with someone, someplace. Isn’t that how love is?

Allow me to explain. About a week back, I’d gone to Old Delhi to photograph and in one of the many lanes that crisscross that part of Delhi I came across this man who was sitting in a shaft of light in the morning sun, in an otherwise dark, dusty, dingy lane. As I always do, I chatted with him for a while about what he does, made a couple of photographs of his friend who was also there while talking to him and then finally asked him if I could photograph him. Getting a yes, I made this photograph.

Now I might be wrong but to me he looked dejected, sad, forlorn, lonely, tired early in the morning and I wondered why. It touched me. So I sat down again with him, shoulder-to-shoulder and spoke with him a bit longer…and then after a few minutes he reached out for my hand, held it gently in his surprisingly soft hands and whispered: “God bless you”.  He meant it. And I felt love. I can tell you honestly that I would tradeoff that moment and those words from a “stranger” for every photograph I ever made. And then he smiled and I stepped up to capture that frozen in time.

I could describe all of this in more words that could possibly fill many pages, but if you close your eyes and reflect, you’ll feel just what I felt. As Einstein said: “It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.” 

So I open myself each day to give love – unconditional love, because it is only then that I am loved. I am not perfect, but I promise I try. Because it is only then that I fall in love.

Again. And again. And again.

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I believe in magic

I am out traveling, but even then I wanted to write a short blog (yes, different from my oh-so-long ones). As I see more places, more people, more things, I see how beautiful this world truly is. And I believe in much more today than I did yesterday.

I believe in dreams. I believe in soulmates. I believe in love at first sight, candlelight dinners and roses. I believe in unkempt flower beds. I believe in sunsets. I believe in running barefoot on a sandy beach. I believe in a walk in the rain. I believe in dancing in the rain.  I believe that the smell of babies is the best in the world. I believe the fragrance of the first rain is the second best in the world. I believe that it is ok for real men to cry. I believe that tough men do dance.  I believe that gentlemen open doors for ladies. I believe in past life connections.  I believe in life after death. I believe that it is fine to be a child at heart and never grow up. I believe in what Robert McCammon said. I believe in magic.

“You know, I do believe in magic. I was born and raised in a magic time, in a magic town, among magicians. Oh, most everybody else didn’t realize we lived in that web of magic, connected by silver filaments of chance and circumstance. But I knew it all along. When I was twelve years old, the world was my magic lantern, and by its green spirit glow I saw the past, the present and into the future. You probably did too; you just don’t recall it. See, this is my opinion: we all start out knowing magic. We are born with whirlwinds, forest fires, and comets inside us. We are born able to sing to birds and read the clouds and see our destiny in grains of sand. But then we get the magic educated right out of our souls. We get it churched out, spanked out, washed out, and combed out. We get put on the straight and narrow and told to be responsible. Told to act our age. Told to grow up, for God’s sake. And you know why we were told that? Because the people doing the telling were afraid of our wildness and youth, and because the magic we knew made them ashamed and sad of what they’d allowed to wither in themselves.


After you go so far away from it, though, you can’t really get it back. You can have seconds of it. Just seconds of knowing and remembering. When people get weepy at movies, it’s because in that dark theater the golden pool of magic is touched, just briefly. Then they come out into the hard sun of logic and reason again and it dries up, and they’re left feeling a little sad and not knowing why. When a song stirs a memory, when motes of dust turning in a shaft of light takes your attention from the world, when you listen to a train passing on a track at night in the distance and wonder where it might be going, you step beyond who you are and where you are. For the briefest of instants, you have stepped into the magic realm.”

That’s what I believe in.

I believe in magic.

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Invictus

I don’t think I’ll write long this time. But I don’t know. Each time I start to write, some more thoughts come to mind and then one thing leads to another, one seemingly unrelated thought connects to yet another. Just a few days back I was editing some photographs of doors and windows that I’d made across quite some time, and when I posted those, someone questioned me as to why were those photographs almost always of closed doors and windows? That was quite an interesting observation because I’d honestly never ever thought of them that way. To me, those doors were just waiting to be opened and for me to enter inside, cross the threshold into the unknown. I didn’t see the “closed” sign – what I noticed was “enter”. What had intrigued me was not so much the architecture or the design or the texture, but the fact that there was something beyond, something hidden waiting to be discovered, and something mysterious waiting to be unearthed…

That’s just the way it is with me – each and every day, I need to cross that threshold into the unknown, and by doing just that, I learn something more. Across the last few days, I’ve spent much time writing down a list of places I must go to and photograph, things I have to write about, photographers I need to meet, and by seeing just those, my calendar seems full for the next few years. Yes of course I dream, I dream about many things – but I don’t live in that world of dreams at this moment, today. My today is when I work to make those dreams come true – someday they will. And even if they don’t, I’ll at least be happy and satisfied that I tried my all without giving up. My today is where I cross that bridge into the mysterious.

So I open those doors. It is only by pushing me to the limits that I learnt of my own limitations. It is only through faith that I learnt the meaning of doubt. It is only by loving that I learnt what is hurt. Challenge your limits, don’t let go of faith, and find love. I never knew what photography would mean to me when I started two years ago, and I never knew I could write when I started posting in March, but here I am doing just both. Because I tried. Because I wasn’t afraid of that darkness. Because I didn’t care what anyone would say. Because I opened that door. Because I believe what Matthew 7:7 says: “”Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Remember that. Always.

And if the Bible gets too heady, just remember what William Ernest Henley wrote in 1875:

“Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the Master of my fate:
I am the Captain of my soul.”

Invictus.

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November Rain

At the sum of it all, photography is a matter of perception – yours and mine. I see something which arouses my sensibilities, I photograph it with the intention of capturing the feeling within me – that is my perception, and you see the same photograph with your perception. And of course, our individual perceptions are a function of our environs. But then this post is not a polymath’s thesis of such things.

I was actually thinking of what I’d mentioned in my last blog about failing many times in the past. Yes, I confess that there were occasions after such instances of failure when I would be despondent and dejected, all the while wondering how and why I failed and thought it to be the end of the world. For much time after that would linger the “wrong-side-of-the-bed” syndrome, feeling blue without realizing in the least that the world continued to be a wonderful place to be, resplendent in all its beauty and opportunity. I should have just remembered Richard Bach when he wrote in Illusions: “What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly.” All a matter of perception.

I would be entrapped in a maze of doubt, thinking, feeling, believing that my failures, my problems, my sorrows were unique – but nothing could be farther than the truth. We all go through ups and downs.  What I never realized at that point of time is that what goes up must come down – so neither the good times nor the bad times last forever. Not any longer. I have now learnt that the path to success is strewn with failure. Before that singular amazing photograph, thousands will be iffy. Churchill said: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” Just keep the faith. And so along with perception, it is also a matter of attitude.

Quick example. Just the other day, I was driving to someplace in Delhi in peak traffic and those of you familiar with the traffic here would agree that rush-hour (or any hour) is not the right time to be on these roads. When I got back home, all of a sudden to my absolute surprise I realized that nothing had bothered me all that while on the road. I didn’t even notice the traffic. Not once did I cuss the driver in the adjacent lane, no one had affected me. Where I was had had no effect on me. I had great music going in the car and all the while I was thinking of the beautiful places I need to photograph, all the lost corners I have to travel to, all these yet unwritten words. I was effusive and buoyant and nothing else mattered. And in another post, I will write about where I am in life today for a QED to this point. You see it is, and always has been my choice to see things either as half-empty or half-full. My perception. My attitude.

We all are free to make choices of our own volition. Now these are all photographs made a few hundred yards of each other, within half-an-hour or thereabouts which I feel show how we can see the same sunset in many ways. All different perceptions of the same environment. 

As I photographed this, I remembered what Ansel Adams, the brilliant landscape photographer said: “Sometimes I arrive just when God is ready to have someone click the shutter.”

And my thoughts as I saw the sun go down: it is our choice to remember that the light of day will always be followed by the darkness of the night, surely as it in turn will be followed by the dawn – a new beginning. It is what we call the circle of life, the light at the end of the tunnel, when winter turns to spring.

It is just what Axl Rose sings:

So never mind the darkness,
We still can find a way,
‘Cause nothin’ lasts forever,
Even cold November rain.

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The Ultimate Truth

As photographers we’re always searching for the next subject, the award-winning photograph, as writers for the next word that follows, the elusive bestseller, as scientists for the God Particle, the “reason” we exist. There is nothing new in this. Our forefathers, the hunter-gatherers searched for the next morsel of food. And the legacy of search continued. But before this quest even begins, we need to figure out what is it that we search for?

As for me I chased my dreams, almost all of them. Whatever I wanted to do, or thought I should do, I went for it. Some came true, some didn’t. But even dreams change with time, what we desire (or want or need) changes with time. It’s the process of evolution. My experience tells me that though change isn’t easy in itself, it’s still relatively easier to change than for people to accept that you’ve changed. Isn’t that ironic?

Of course I failed along the way, and failed miserably at that, many times across many years. I believed that I had the Midas touch, unfounded arrogance at that, I chased rainbows for that pot of gold, till enough hard knocks proved otherwise. And each time I failed, I wondered what had happened to my touch, where was that rainbow, little realizing that Midas was mythical, the real one and the pot of gold is here and in such.

With time (and I don’t mean to sound old and gone, but age does make a difference), I realized that failure is good, failure is humbling. It teaches me. As Michael Jordan said, “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” I believe him. Now I dream without fear of failure, so what if I fail? No big deal.

Coming to the search, the quest – of course, I have a dream. Maybe not as big as Martin Luther King’s was, but as important to me as his was to him. I have been thinking for quite a while now of something, someone to photograph which hasn’t ever been done before and do it in a way that is different. Quite a tall order isn’t it? Almost everything seems to have been photographed. But then why not dream big? In the words of Salman Rushdie: ““Go for broke. Always try and do too much. Dispense with safety nets. Take a deep breath before you begin talking. Aim for the stars. Keep grinning. Be bloody-minded. Argue with the world. And never forget that writing is as close as we get to keeping a hold on the thousand and one things – childhood, certainties, cities, doubts, dreams, instants, phrases, parents, loves – that go on slipping , like sand, through our fingers.” I’d only add photography to writing.

 I feel the need, the perhaps inexplicable desire to walk this path. 

For months, I obsessed over the subject of a dream so big and just a few days back, I was lying in bed tossing and turning and finally when the answer came to me at 03:00 AM, I jumped out of bed, switched on my laptop and said let me figure out if this has ever been done before. I researched extensively. And no it hadn’t. I wondered why though? Why hadn’t someone yet photographed what I am thinking about and in the way I’ve thought of? The closest I can get to the answer is maybe no one ever believed they could do it. You see we give up before we even start because we think something is really difficult. I won’t give up, I never give up. This is something I’ll do. And God be my witness, I’m not doing it for all the “wrong reasons” of fame and fortune, but because I know that this is what I’m meant to do someday, sometime, somewhere – when I do not know really, the how I know. What I do know also is that this will bring me happiness. I might fail, but I’ll still try. My photographs and words might not find their way to National Geographic, the Holy Grail for most photographers and  some writers, but I’ll still photograph and write. And I also am aware that there will be naysayers along the way to whom I could say just as Clark Gable did: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”, but I’d much rather use Mother Teresa’s words:

People are often unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered; Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives; Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies; Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you; Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight; Build anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous; Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow; Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough; Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God; It was never between you and them anyway.

So that really is: The Ultimate Truth.

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Of photography and of shan shui

You could say I explore, but I actually wander – not only literally, but also figuratively. At any point of time, there is this entire smorgasbord of seemingly unrelated thoughts oscillating in my mind. Though I must admit there are a few instances when my mind is really still, when my thoughts slow down – when I write, when I photograph, and when I walk in solitude in the shadow of high mountains. When I sit down to write how I feel, I honestly don’t actually know where or how it’ll end. I know vaguely, but not precisely where and how. It happens to be the same with my photography. I recognize my emotions deep within and attempt to capture those in my photographs.  I want the images I create to express: “I felt this”, not “I saw this”. Whether I succeed or not is a matter of conjecture really. I create through my photography and my writing because I believe that beauty is in the act of creation itself, and not so much the creation itself. Both writing and photography for me are spiritual – meditative, reflective. And I said I’d tell you how I felt in the mountains. So this is it – the last in the trilogy of mountains.

About the end of last year I made a trip to the Mt. Everest and Khumbu region.  So why did I head to Everest? Quite honestly, I can’t come up with a one-line answer. Perhaps, I should plagiarize – George Mallory is famously quoted as having replied to the question “Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?” with the retort “Because it’s there”, which has been called “the most famous three words in mountaineering”. Of course, I don’t claim to be anywhere in that league, but my answer is just the same!

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Without an iota of doubt, there is a powerful mystique, an almost magical and mesmerizing aura about the Khumbu. On this trail, you tread in the footsteps of the greats – mountaineers such as Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay, Reinhold Messner, Ed Viesturs and co. Laboriously (or maybe not so) as you ascend through the foothills of the world’s highest mountain starting from Lukla, the terrain soars on all sides like jagged shards of glass and changes from green, verdant valleys overgrown with pines, conifers, and rhododendrons to a Spartan, barren, almost lunar landscape. The trails are steep, oftentimes footstep-wide and vertigo-inducing, and the altitude constantly hangs on your muscles with each belabored breath.  But in this rarified high-altitude atmosphere of the Everest region, my brain was oxygen starved, but my soul was satiated.

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I’ve quite literally traveled the globe, but nothing, nothing really prepared me for the beauty and serenity of Nepal, the graciousness and simplicity of the people, the courage and determination of the Sherpas, the austerity of homes, the smiles despite the hardships, the Zen in thought, belief and life. On a more earthy level, nothing even prepared me for the thunderous roar of the rivers, the groaning of the seracs of the Khumbu glacier, the sounds of avalanches and landslides, the grayish mist enveloping me in just a few minutes without warning…and for sure nothing prepared me for the massive earthquake, 6.9 on the Richter scale, that rattled the lodge where I was at in Pheriche so much so that the ceiling collapsed (the adjacent lodge was completely destroyed).

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All the while as I traveled in the Khumbu heading towards Everest, I couldn’t even for a moment forget the presence of a Power far greater than me, than us. Something, someone who created this all. This beauty, this magnificence of immense magnitude far beyond what my words and photographs can even attempt to describe or capture. Of course, it was reiterated by the fact that many mountains are named for deities, murals of Rinpoches dot the mountainsides, gompas, chortens, mani stones, and prayer flags map the landscape.  Each moment there reminded me of the presence of the Lord. Each moment there reminded me of how small and insignificant I am, we all are, in the bigger scheme of things. As Galen Rowell said: “This was the throne-room of the mountain Gods”.

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Which brings me to my wandering mind and rambling thoughts. The moment I put pen to paper as I started writing this piece, I thought of shan shui.  I didn’t know why it came to mind, and as I’d said I never know how my story will end when I start out. I don’t rearrange my words. I don’t edit. As it slowly starts taking shape and form as I slow down to write, I understand when my thoughts come into a semblance of coherent order. And I understand now. Shan shui is a style of Chinese painting that illustrates scenery or landscapes using a brush and ink rather than more conventional paints, and in which people and animals are reduced to tiny brushstrokes epitomizing the idea of Chinese philosophy that the environment is far more powerful than any individual. Which is just how I felt. Each and every time I composed within the frame of my camera. When you find yourself in the shadow of the Himalayas, you will know what I mean. When you stand beneath the overwhelming presence of Everest, you will know what I mean. Shan shui  is more a philosophy. So now I know why shan shui came to mind – because my thoughts converged on to the philosophy, the essence of shan shui.

Shan shui in its basic philosophy has certain unwavering, should I say, mystical rules which determine composition, form, and balance. As Osvald Siren said, in shan shui pathways should never be straight, but meander like a stream and so help deepen landscape by adding layers. The path can be the river or a path along it, or the tracing of the sun through the sky over the shoulder of the mountain.  Then the path should lead to a threshold, which is there to embrace you, to welcome you. This threshold can be the mountain, or its shadow upon the ground, or how it penetrates the sky. And finally, the heart is the focal point of the painting with all elements leading to it, and defines the meaning of the painting.

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Isn’t this how life is? As I recollected my “pilgrimage” in the Himalayas to write, I was reminded of this. There are no straight lines between any two points in life ever – our paths meander. We get lost, we stumble, we fall, we walk again. Then our journey leads us to a threshold, a destination, not the end, but a mere milestone, an interlude. The end of one chapter, the beginning of another. All the while we place one foot in front of the other, as we fall in step with the rhythms of the universe and the cadence of their own hearts. As one foot walks, the other rests. Doing and being comes into balance.

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And in the final analysis, the ultimate meaning, all we need to do is chase our dreams and follow our heart. That makes our story complete, and this makes my story complete.

Of photography and of shan shui.

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