‘Can you take the risk, even for just a second, that you are not what you think you are?’ Swami Atmananda
Every one of us is a Great Magician. We conjure up illusions every moment of every day and hypnotize ourselves into believing they are real. The most brilliant of these conjuring tricks is the fancy that this unwieldy and capricious amalgam of skin and bones, loves and hates, persuasions and complexes, abilities and quirks that is sandwiched between history and imagination, has an independent substantive reality.
The illusion becomes even more of a show-stopper when we elevate this hodge podge, this tamasha, to Celebrity Status. Say hello to the Inner Selfie.
We have come to regard the universe as little more than our personal Paparazzi, with lenses zooming in and out in relation to our activities on the World Stage. Every ‘click’ is another reassurance that we are somehow solid, permanent and important. It is our misery that deserves the most attention. It is our happiness that is the most desirable. But how is this possible on a planet of almost seven billion people?
Our whole life is filtered through our relationship with this imagined interest in our personal welfare, continually reinforcing our sense of separation and distinction. Most of our relations with others work to validate the boundaries that we are forever re-drawing and thus enhancing our sense of identity. When calamity strikes, it is a personal affront. When things go well, it is a personal reward. In this illusion what counts is what separates us from others, what makes us ‘special’. But actually we distinguish ourselves only in order to conform. We are led to believe that what makes us unique is whether like bananas instead of apples, blue instead of red, whether we prefer warm or cold climates, whether we do or do not believe in astrology, and endlessly on and on.
We become obsessed with trivia, with the small print on the packaging of our personalities. And with this obsession we buy into the biggest conformity of all—that this role we are playing is who we truly are. It is a performance worthy of an Oscar. On the contrary, radical difference—the kind of difference that questions this state of affairs —is frowned upon. Radical difference threatens to disturb the collective hypnosis that informs the socially-sanctioned theatrics. Every now and then someone will go off script. The Matrix might tremble for a moment, but more often than not, the errant performer will be reabsorbed into the drama after finding themselves temporarily shunned by the majority. They may even manage to convince themselves that their snatch of insight into a world beyond the sawdust and floodlights was the illusion, not the play itself. For some this experience is so isolating and alienating that they are careful to never venture there again.
The desert gets our attention on the hushed velvet stalls beyond the drama, and hints at a life outside the theatre itself. In the desert we can turn our vision inward. Reshape our identity like the wind reshapes the sand dunes. Stretched out beneath the firmament ringing with infinity, we get to reconsider, our limited and finite identity. It is not easy to manage a night in the desert. Deserts abide on the edge of civilization, and to enter them requires an intention. More often than not it involves long train rides followed by long drives in off-road vehicles. Deserts are not a side trip.
Such was my first visit to the Thar Desert in far Eastern Rajasthan, an hour’s drive from the gold-baked brick city of Jaisalmer; it’s very sound evoking images of silver bell anklets jingling under the moon and old turbaned men singing poems to the wind. I had just come from the set of Viceroys, a period film about the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. I was an extra. One of about fifty fished by casting agents out of cafes and beaches from Rishikesh to Goa. Most of us were no-make up tee-shirted traveler types, who became miraculously transformed into British Raj ladies of leisure by the costume and make up department. We emerged wearing clothes that require an assistant to get into, fractal hair dos, foundation applied with a trowel, and lipstick that could hold its own through a clash of civilizations.
The hours were brutal: we began at four in the afternoon and went straight through to four in the morning, two days straight. By midnight the first evening, the glamour had worn down to the husk, and we were rubbing blisters from impossible shoes, giving impromptu massages, and generally getting grumpy. One 20 something Israeli complained to me afterwards that she had repeatedly asked for a coffee to no effect. Everyone had promised to get it for her, but no one had come through. She seemed to have missed the fact that there wasn’t anyone on the set, except for the stars themselves, who had access to coffee.
“I felt like a nobody.” she pined.
“Darling,” I was tempted to respond. “You are a nobody.”
We turn somersaults to get the camera’s attention, and high five one another when we do. We abhor obscurity, being overlooked, being insignificant. Being a nobody.
The blissful wails of Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan provide the perfect soundtrack as our driver, Fatan, battles the auto rickshaw down a dirt track, careening full throttle towards the setting sun as if he intends to meet his Maker in its corona. Without suspension every bump bashes our heads against the roof Auto rickshaws are not off-road vehicles, but in India anything can be made ‘fit for purpose’. Today this battered little two-stroke three-wheeler, mmmming and zuzzing like an over-sized honeybee, is playing the role of a mighty all-terrain SUV, carrying myself, Sharif and Hazan into the Thar desert of Rajsathan. We set up camp and I step away from the fire to be alone. We are only twenty kilometres from Pakistani territory. Camel drivers from both countries used to regularly cross the border and drink chai together. But these days the border is under much tighter control and such mingling is no longer possible. The night lovingly undresses the Milky Way and drapes it across the firmament. I had forgotten this kind of silence.
Even with Fatan and Hazan chatting around the campfire and a couple of dogs barking in the distance, the silence is numinous—almost like another kind of sound. Sharif hands me a plate of food and sits down next to me. The lights from our mobile phones as we try to see to eat begins to attract grasshoppers. One hops right onto my mouth, and (thankfully) promptly out again. Interpreting my quietude as boredom, Sharif talks non-stop, about nothing and anything, his train ticket back to Jaipur, his plans for a garden, his partiality for Milky Way chocolate. His talk is like a shield, held up to the silence. But he is feeling the strain. As if he too can sense his inner ‘selfie’ begin to ripple and distort.
In the desert we are all extras. The stage lights dim a little to make way for the real A list: Venus, Jupiter, and tonight a Grand Appearance by the Incomparable Constellation of Scorpio. Even they are awed by this silence. Perhaps that is why people like to go to the desert in large groups. The presence of other people validates our inner selfie. In places such as these, where human insignificance is prominent, it is dangerous to be alone. The environment is unforgiving, but it does not just threaten our physical reality, it threatens to smash down the fortress of our inner reality also. It is no coincidence that Jesus chose the supreme aloneness of the desert for his final surrender to Divine Will. The Desert Fathers knew this.
The desert does not care about our story. A thousand stories like yours and mine are scattered with the bones of the dead—sandblasted into submission. The desert will peel your story away from you, scene by scene, unraveling your narrative to leave you dangling by a thread—if you’re lucky.
When we are hypnotized by our stories, the silence of the desert is a chasm that begs to be filled. But when the trance begins to wear off, this same silence is a clarion call. It is a call to escape the role we have conjured out of the flotsam of perception. To escape the confines of the stage that has limited our actions to a handful of worn out scenes repeated over and over. To discard the script that keeps our imagination trapped inside a few predictable lines. It is only when we step out of the glittering limelight and dip a toe into the void beyond the stage, that we begin to know the noble quality of this freedom.
It is an exquisite irony that the praise and adulation of the whole world cannot begin to compare with the honour of being a nobody.