Literary Week

Last week was, for me, a very literary week. 

It started on Monday with a visit to Jamia Millia Islamia, the university next to our neighborhood. There’s a poetry club there that meets bi-weekly and attracts a varied group of poets, some students, some not. The purpose of the gathering is to facilitate and celebrate the public reading of original poetry. A man named Amit, a large and jolly poet from Haryana, organizes it and pastors the group with a gentle spirit.

This was my second time at the reading and the first time that I came ready to read my own poetry. 

Upon arriving at the venue, however, I bumped into an elderly poet named Idrak Bhatty. I had met him a few months earlier when we were both attending the Mussoorie Writers Conference at Woodstock School. Today, I assumed that he was attending the same reading, maybe as a guest poet. He was not. But Mr. Bhatty was, in fact, launching his newest book of poetry in the building next door and he invited me to sit in for the event. I accepted the invitation, along with others from the poetry club, and we heard a couple long speeches and some good poetry, mostly in Urdu, read by some good readers, including the likes of film actor Tom Alter. I would have preferred to hear more poetry and less pomp and praise, but I still felt privileged to be there among the crowd and smiled to myself at how I had stumbled upon it. It was the first book launch I had ever attended.

Afterwards, the poetry club convened for a few rounds of reading. I read three of my poems. It was the first time I had ever performed my poetry in public. Amit was gentle and affirming. Others read also, providing me with much inspiration and stimulation. As several of us went out for coffee after, I further appreciated the depth of engagement with people who were willing and ready to reveal something more about themselves than just their names. 

One result of this week’s encounter with the poetic was a new clarity about a certain aspect of the novel that is within me, and is slowly working itself out. With fresh inspiration, I began to write a poem that will hopefully appear in the novel itself.  

More than that, I was also compelled to contact an elderly man living in Delhi who has inspired a character in the novel. Incidentally, he is the character who will, in the story, gift the main character with the aforementioned poem. In real life, his name is Kavi Singh and we also met at the Mussoorie Writers Conference back in October 2008.

I called Mr. Singh on Tuesday of last week and asked if we could perhaps meet on Friday. He was very friendly and willing. He suggested that I show up at the Delhi Golf Club at around 4pm when he usually would be finishing his round. 

On Friday afternoon, I made my way over to the Golf Club, a prestigious Delhi landmark for generations and a most impressive patch of green in the very heart of the city. Kavi was finishing the ninth hole when I arrived. After we sat down for fresh lime sodas on the veranda, he asked whether I’d be willing to walk a few holes with him and talk as we went. I obliged without hesitation. As we walked, I also met Kavi’s golfing partner for the day, a strapping Sikh man named Balkar, a fascinating man in his own right who will perhaps soon require his own blog entry. After briefly hearing about my love for the Bible, Balkar was very eager to arrange a meeting when we could discuss Jesus’ pilgrimage to North India and the Hindu philosophy embedded in the Book of Revelation.

Kavi Singh has been involved in teaching, writing, editing and publishing for many years. He was born in 1931 and was in boarding school at Woodstock in Mussoorie from 1939 to 1947. At age 79 he still teaches English to children at a very unique school in Delhi called Mirambika. He is also an avid supporter of Woodstock and has fond memories about his time there. Kavi visits the Delhi Golf Club on a daily basis mostly to walk and socialize, but he still does at least a couple rounds of golf every week.

When Kavi and I met in Mussoorie some months ago, we made an instant connection and he struck me as a very interesting character. On the one evening of the conference we walked together and talked a lot about Woodstock, Mussoorie, and Delhi. Almost immediately I began to think not only about including these places in my novel but also about constructing a character in the likeness of my new friend. Slowly, the pieces began to fit themselves together in my mind.

Before Kavi and I parted ways last week, I told him about my novel and asked him if I could do a series of interviews with him to get acquainted with his story and the history of these places. He was delighted and we agreed to meet again soon.

On Saturday night, my literary week came to an end with another book launch, my second in six days. I had received this random email through a network that we’re a part of in Delhi. It’s a network of young parents called Delhi Babies. It usually provides information about playgroups and where to buy good diapers in the city. But sometimes people on the network who have lives beyond their kids post information about other events. This time a young dad named Rana Dasgupta announced the launch of his second novel, Solo, and he threw wide open the invitation to the party at the Park Hotel.

Amy wasn’t too interested in attending, so I invited a friend of mine who is a university professor. It was a very social event with far more people there than I expected. Every other book launch I’ve ever been to has had less than a hundred people in attendance, which was the case on Monday. There were probably over a thousand people at Saturday night’s event. Apparently, most of the crowd was a who's who of Delhi’s artists and media types, meaning lots of painters, writers and journalists. Most of the people there seemed to recognize most everyone else, or so it seemed to me. I didn’t know anyone there, except the friend who came with me, and one couple from the Canadian High Commission whom we know from the Canada Club. The three of them provided sufficient social interaction for me. 

What I most enjoyed about the event was the talk by the author and his subsequent readings from the novel itself. Rana talked about the writing process and the research and the toll it all took on his family and personal life. He made it clear that it’s a mammoth task to write a novel and, by the sounds of the early response to Solo, it's probably pretty good. Though I didn’t give into the pressure to buy a copy that night, I may pick it up eventually at one of Delhi’s bookshops. First, I need to finish Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the literary masterpiece that sat unopened at my bedside during this entire literary week.

Obviously, I’m no literary giant, neither as a reader nor writer. But I enjoyed the week nonetheless, and I learned a couple things too. Book launches tend to be pretentious, and though I’m glad I had the opportunity to attend two last week, I’m not exactly eager for another one, not soon anyway. Also, and maybe in contrast to the atmosphere at the book launches, I really appreciate the bi-weekly poetry club at Jamia. It’s got a good feel. I like the genuine interaction with artists who are excited about their art and I value the social risks that they’re taking as they read their poetry. And I admire Amit’s style of leadership. I also really enjoyed my time with Kavi Singh, and it wasn’t just the idyllic environment of the Delhi Golf Club or the prospect of developing a character in my novel. There’s something about Kavi that gives me this sense that our friendship is significant, so I’m really looking forward to seeing him again soon and getting to know him. 

Face to Face

the Word of God stands, waiting

not a statue

not remaining still

not yielding to opinion


the Word stands, waiting

a person, free

free to move about

speaking loud or soft




we approach with boldness

to control the wild

to conquer ambiguity

deciphering codes

subduing wisdom

yet with cold analysis

we miss

we kill

truth submits not

to equations


but with listening hearts

we hear

we are searched

and breathed upon

truth invades

and conquers us

we submit

we fear

we find ourselves


we stand

and are embraced

Slumdog Millionaire

As we stepped out of the theatre into the dark of another Delhi evening, we were quickly reminded by our surroundings that this time the world on the screen was not far from the reality in which we presently live. This is India, in all its glory and shame. This is where children from the slums are exploited in horrible ways and also where people overcome the odds and reach the heights of success to become shining examples of the human spirit. It is arguably not unlike any other place on earth in this basic sense, but somehow the agonies and ecstasies of India are the stuff that makes for great stories, and great films.  

We really didn’t know what to expect from Slumdog Millionaire, except that it was critically acclaimed and quickly gaining popularity worldwide. We hadn’t read any reviews. None. We knew the film was something about a kid from the slums of Mumbai.

As the movie got going, we were gripped by the story and the graphic portrayal of abuse in the lives of several children from the slum. To say that we could identify with the characters would be too much, but because we live in Delhi we can at least say that we felt closer to the story. Every day of our lives here, we look into the eyes of kids like those in the movie. Though we are not involved directly in working with these kids, we try to love them and we support those who do work with them. We have hope for them, and we’ve heard the stories of transformation. In fact, as I write, I’m reminded of one young man that we know here in our area that comes from a slum nearby and, thanks to his own motivation and the help of others and the grace of God, he has experienced some radical changes in his life. Though it probably won’t make the silver screen, his story is also an inspiration.

The story of Slumdog Millionaire is so inspiring because it deals with a number of themes that touch our hearts, but especially the triumph of an undying love. At the core of this story is Jamal’s stubborn love for Latika. They are two slum-dwellers who connect in the midst of tragedy early in their lives but are separated soon after. Whereas Jamal and his elder brother, Salim, flee from their oppressors and make it on their own, Latika is taken into slavery. The driving force of the narrative, then, is Jamal’s refusal to forget Latika and his plan of salvation to be reunited with her. He comes back for her and not only saves her but wins a million in the process. In the end, they have each other, and the money. It’s sensational. It’s a movie. But it’s hard not to cheer.

Everyone wants to be loved like Latika was loved by Jamal. Everyone wants to win a million too, but the need for love is even greater. The film effectively communicates that Jamal’s prize was Latika herself and not the millions. The TV game show that he gets on is only a vehicle to get her back, and the winnings are merely a bonus. The brief phone call that the two have, before the last question is answered, confirms that their relationship is being restored, despite the fact that they don’t know the answer to the question. But neither of them really seems to care about the question or the money – they care about their relationship. It’s beautiful, and we would all do well to embrace the same priorities.

After the movie, I could not help but think that Jamal’s love for Latika is not unlike God’s love for us. It’s very similar to the love story that the Bible tells. We are, like Latika, in bondage, and the coming of Jesus is God’s plan of salvation. The love of God for humankind is unconditional and undying. Just like Jamal could not forget his lover, God cannot forget us. Just like Jamal did what it took to win her back, God has done that for us in Jesus Christ. We are all loved by God, yet each of us has our own story. Just like Jamal pursued Latika, God is pursuing us, convincing us about his love.

As the movie closes with Jamal and Latika in loving embrace, I participated willingly in the sense of celebration and resolution that the story intimates. Movies are especially good at projecting the happily ever after sentiment. But I also found myself thinking about the practical implications of this love. I may have been over-thinking it, but it's hard not to imagine how screwed up this woman must have been after all the abuse she had suffered. The movie gives us glimpses into the sordid world where she was enslaved, where horrible men manipulated and mistreated her. We can only imagine how much damage and disorder this would have brought to her life. Jamal loves her, but does he know what that love will require? 

Added to this is the fact that Latika is far less developed as a character in the movie, especially in comparison to Jamal. By the end of the movie, I felt like I had really gotten to know Jamal and I was quite caught up in wishing him the best. Although he obviously felt a deep bond with Latika, I wondered at times in the story if he would have been better off to forget her and to find another woman.

Relationships are complicated and I’m not a counselor.

Again, the movie really worked for me because it made me think. I had to compare this story with my own. In my relationship with God, I’m Latika, the undeserving, messed-up recipient of tenacious devotion. Why am I special to God? Is it because of my faithfulness? How many times would God have been justified to forget me and look for another lover? I don’t deserve God’s love, but he loves me anyway. My heart melts in the presence of that love, and I am not only grateful to receive it but I am also inspired to give it, to my family, my friends, my enemies, and to every slumdog that God brings into my life.

Which brings us to the question of what inspired Jamal’s affection for Latika. Where did he find such an incredible capacity for love? After all, he’s a slumdog.

Apparently, some people have been offended by the use of such a derogatory term. Personally, I don’t have trouble with it. In fact, it’s a part of what makes the movie tick. Jamal is the underdog that people love to see climb their way to the top. He’s the unlikely hero that we identify with in his weakness and frailty. Whether we like to admit it or not, we all have flaws and things in our lives that disadvantage us. One of Jamal’s limitations was where he was from. Within his context, it was a great obstacle to overcome. It wasn’t all bad, of course, and it may have even uniquely equipped him for his later achievement. But the idea is clear that Jamal remembered where he was from. And as he scales the heights of success, the wonder of it all is magnified because he stays humble and focused, and thus, likeable. The guy with nothing gets it all. But it’s the way he does it that pleases the audience. Humility is attractive.

This whole idea of identity also strikes a chord with what the Bible teaches us in terms of how to view ourselves, that we are sinners, saved by grace. Despite our gravest sins and blatant shortcomings, we are loved and blessed beyond what we could imagine. Like the first line of that beloved hymn, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” In measured ways, we gladly use derogatory terms for ourselves to emphasize the depth of God’s love and the extent of the blessings we have received from him. In that way, we could say that we are not only all slumdogs before God, but in Christ, we are all slumdog millionaires

If that sounds tacky in some way, please forgive me. But this is sincerely where my mind took me in the wake of the movie. And that has always been a very simple and personal means for me to gauge the success of a movie – to understand how it made me think and feel.

There is certainly a lot more to Slumdog Millionaire than this, but even for what I’ve outlined here, I would call it a great success. And I wish it well at the upcoming Oscars!