simply the best job of my life

the simplest way to offer yourself a little greenery!
Azeem’s garden kitchen: the simplest way to offer yourself a little greenery!

started in October this year and will end in the middle of January.

I worked as a cook’s assistant – chopping vegetables, pounding spices and washing dishes – for Azeem Amarshi, the owner and chef of Dhanyaa, a vegetarian Indian takeaway 2 minutes on foot from the Lausanne train station. I only get to work there for four to five hours every afternoon, but they’ve been the best hours of the day these past few months, time spent learning, learning – and panicking that I’m nowhere near being deep enough a receptacle to avoid losing most of what was imparted.

I suppose it doesn’t “technically” even qualify as a real job, more of an internship really. But who cares!

The point is that I learned:

  • how to prepare kohlrabi (and made its acquaintance in the process), leak, celery stalks, carrots, Brussel sprouts, purple cabbage and occra
  • the most efficient method to do large quantities of dish-washing without a dish-washer
  • all about rice-washing (not talking about washing rice here)
  • how to wash and dry a chef’s knife
  • how to wash and drain mushrooms and spinach
  • how to get at the leaves of swiss chard for washing and chopping
  • what goes into his wonderful chai masala
  • how to make carrots-in-orange curry
  • the simplest way to prepare garlic for Indian cooking: grate it!
  • how to use asafoetida – basically, never in combination with onions and garlic
  • the quick way to make the most delicious pakoras
  • his tofu burger recipe
  • how to make energy balls from “dry fruit”
  • how not to cut potatoes
  • the fascinating history of chia and how to make a simple desert with it
  • about the various kinds of yoga and meditative practices
  • also, a little about letting go, about freeing oneself from the weight of the past and the future
  • about Gary Crowley and his passing of the jelly
  • about living, as opposed to conforming to images, as opposed to the pretence of control

During this period, I had two week-long panic attacks during which I was unable to work or even let Azeem know when I would be coming back to work. Both times, he allowed me to resume work. Quite naturally, the second time around, he advised me to get serious help for my anxiety issues. So, I saw deep compassion in practice, not just towards me, but in his absolute acceptance of everyone as they are.

Update: I forgot to say that Dhanyaa closes definitively on Saturday, January 18th, passing the baton to Crock-en-Stock, a group of passionate “alternative-foodies” (as I tend to think of them), who dove in at the last minute to preserve rue du Simplon 13 as a vegetarian address. They plan to take the alternative logic further, use only organic ingredients, and offer vegetarian recipes of their own invention as well as those inspired by other cultures (other than Indian, that is), in addition to raw food supplies and vegan dishes. So, if you’re in Lausanne, drop in any day between the 4th and the 18th (Sundays excepted) and sample the amazing food and the “vibe” of the place!


The quality without a name

This wild freedom, this passion, comes into our lives in the instant we let go.

It is when all our forces can move freely in us. In nature, this quality is almost automatic, because there are no images to interfere with natural processes of making things. But in all of our creations, the possibility occurs that images can interfere with the natural, necessary order of a thing. And, most of all, this way that images distort the things we make, is familiar in ourselves. For we ourselves are, like our works, the products of our own creation. And we are only free, and have the quality without a name in us, when we give up the images which guide our lives.

Yet each of us faces the fear of letting go. The fear of being just exactly what one is, of letting the forces flow freely; of letting the configuration of one’s person adjust truly to these forces. Our letting go is stifled, all the time, so long as we have ideas and opinions about ourselves, which make us hug too tightly to our images of how we live, and bottle up these forces.

So long as we are still bottled up, like this, there is a tightness about the mouth, a nervous tension in the eyes, a stiffness and a brittleness in the way we walk, the way we move. And yet, until one does let go, it is impossible to be alive. The stereotypes are restricted; there are very different configurations. The infinite variety of actual people, with their vastly and utterly different forces, require a huge creation, to find the resolution of the person: and in finding this resolution truly, one must above all be free of the stereotypes.

The great film, Ikiru – to live – describes it in the life of an old man

He has sat for thirty years behind a counter, preventing things from happening. And then he finds out that he is to die of cancer of the stomach, in six months. He tries to live; he seeks enjoyment; it doesn’t amount to much. And finally, against all obstacles, he helps to make a park in a dirty slum in Tokyo. He has lost his fear, because he knows that he is going to die; he works and works and works, there is no stopping him, because he is no longer afraid of anyone, or anything. He has no longer anything to lose, and so in this short time gains everything; and then dies, in the snow, swinging on a child’s swing in the park which he has made, and singing.


It has above all to do with the elements

The wind, the soft rain; sitting on the back of an old truck moving clothes and baskets of possessions while the gentle rain is falling, laughing, crouching under a shawl to keep from getting wet, but getting wet. Eating a loaf of bread, torn in pieces, hunks of cheese cut crudely with a hatchet which is lying in the corner; red flowers glistening in the rain along the roadside; banging on the window of the truck to shout some joke.

Nothing to keep, nothing to lose. No possessions, no security, no concern about possessions, and no concern about security; in this mood it is possible to do exactly what makes sense, and nothing else: there are no hidden fears, no morals, no rules, no undercurrent of constraint, no subtle sense of concern for the form of what the people round about you are doing, and above all no concern for what you are yourself, no subtle fear of other people’s ridicule, no subtle train of fears which can connect the smallest triviality with bankruptcy and loss of love and loss of friends and death, no ties, no suits, no outward elements of majesty at all. Only the laughter and the rain.

— Ch. 3, “Being Alive”, “The Timeless Way of Building” by Christopher Alexander, OUP New York, 1979

“Against that accusatory finger…

“Against that accusatory finger…

there are four more pointing back at you.”

— famous Chinese proverb (according to a someone much better-read than me)

What do you do with a Judas?

He opens so many doors to so many people – yet he lets so many die… or worse, participates in, precipitates their deaths, or the death of their dreams. There are many such examples in today’s world of billionaire philanthropists.

Here, I am mainly intrigued by a Pakistani entrepreneur who has had a major influence on our lives at a very basic level: through the introduction of cheap, food-grade packaging solutions. This company has enabled the agri-business sector (and possibly alleviated unemployment a tad bit) and instead of being another burden on the balance of trade, it has contributed positively to it via exports and the avoidance of imports. Yet, it has brought about a revolution in the sales reach of packaged foods so that you can now find biscuits, chips, milk, cream of more or less questionable quality in the khokha of the smallest hamlet of the country. The environmental degradation, health issues due to consumption of these “non-organic” food products esp. among children, and cultural costs due to the disappearance of so many cottage/home industries brought about by this sea-change are issues that the next generation will have to deal with. Did such intelligent people as those working on these projects not see what they were doing? Or they did not care? “Negative externalities” is the right term to use I believe – which sounds like the economics equivalent of collateral damage.

At another level, the same person has proven to be a visionary: establishing academic institutions that are some of the best in their fields in Pakistan. Well, at least as per the generally accepted standards in these matters. More penetrating analysis might provide alternative, possibly more useful, perspectives. What cannot be denied is that these institutions have been steadfast bastions for a population in need of knowledge, critical thinking and creativity.

So it’s all the more puzzling that he should continue to be associated with a global trans-national corporation that is either the biggest or second biggest food processing group in the world – and it keeps growing, gobbling up smaller companies, expanding its “portfolio”, cowing and cajoling governments into “liberalizing” legislation for fatter profit margins. I don’t doubt that its competitors follow the exact same practices – else, they could not possibly keep up! But it does mean that this company – and its major competitors – care only for the “bottom line”… and even there, only for the profits of its big shareholders and upper management. For many shareholders of this company have tried to hold its feet to the fire on multiple violations of international treaties and national laws (in Europe, Africa and Asia) and have had no more than partial success – such is the power of Manon. For a very balanced, painfully careful account, you can read Mike Muller’s Guardian article from a few years ago: Nestlé baby milk scandal has grown up but not gone away

By providing a public space for Nestlé to comment, this article succeeds in drawing out a revealing response from its chairperson, Mr Peter Brabeck (see comments below the article), which allowed a civil society campaigner to point out some crucial inconsistencies and omissions in Mr. Brabeck’s response.

And then here’s something that is a source of immense pride for me. I really admire the courage and steadfastness of Syed Aamir Raza, a Nestlé baby milk salesperson from Sialkot, who, when he realized that babies in his sales region were dying because of the work of his team “influencing” doctors to prescribe Nestlé’s formula, resigned and spoke out against these practices. Despite the incredible pressure that such a large company has brought to bear to shut him out, to shut him up, he persisted and now, in collaboration with the International Baby Food Action Network, the film, Tigers, dramatizing his struggle has been released. I love this guy – here’s a regular, un-pretentious guy, trying to stand up for what’s right, regardless of the consequences. Struggling, wavering and ultimately choosing to take the road less traveled.

Do you see the incongruity of it all? A Pakistani guy, a young man from a nation reviled for the actions of its young men, from a group of countries considered “failed states”, “basket cases”, “corrupt to the core”, showing up the much bigger, “legalized” corruption of one of the largest companies in the world, based in the country that is the very symbol, in the mind of the public, of high idealism, of human rights (the UN Human Rights Council is based in Geneva) and humanitarianism (via the ICRC and the IFRC)*.

Just so it’s clear, Nestlé has consistently violated the marketing codes related to food products for infants – all over the world.

cover of the original 1974 report documenting unethical, aggressive marketing practices of companies producing powdered milk for babies
cover of the original 1974 report documenting unethical, aggressive marketing practices of companies producing powdered milk for babies

In its home country, Switzerland, and its home continent, Europe, it has repeatedly faced criticism for its unethical actions, leading to multiple boycotts and even punitive judicial action in some Third World countries with spine.

So, coming back to the dilemma – what do we do with this man? Just accept that “it’s complicated” (as per social media) and get on with one’s life? I tend towards this conclusion – with one caveat: it’s important to understand the fuller/deeper/larger story and what it means in its context. A case in point: getting a handle on the paradoxes he embodies gives me a better understanding of the highly publicized case of sexual harassment of a student by a teacher who is a member of his clan – at one of the institutions he helped establish. A case in which, despite the directives of the Federal Ombudsman that he be fired, the predatory relative was protected and the victim vilified.


I asked a friend, an economist, to review this post and he came back with a comment that he says is “standard political economy” but which untangles so many knots in six sentences: “He created a school so his class could hire cheap local labor and then there were some good things along the way for which he’s had sufficient political mileage. And he’s probably monetized that as well. I judge him neither for the “good” nor for the “bad” for they appear to me to be two sides of the same coin. It’s all good business and that’s how you do good business in a capitalist world. And then there are people […] who keeping nipping at their ankles […] And that’s quite nice.”


The deeper, really difficult question for me is: how would I behave given the same power and privilege? Would I meet the same standards of farsightedness and honesty that I expect from the enlightened don of our business “community”?



* Which opens a whole different can of worms – how to reconcile the co-existence of major UN and various international organisations that may be termed “pro-people” in Switzerland with its terrible record during WWII and the notorious banking secrecy laws – the laws that allowed Switzerland to pioneer the “we’ll keep your ill-gotten wealth safe for you” industry?

re-blogged: A Quick Note to our ‘Male Allies’

A statement from Aurat Raj on some men’s reactions to the murder of Qandeel Baloch.

Too funny: “the next best feminist since Justin Trudeau”,
and so, so right: “We are afraid and exhausted, and debating with you is very low on our list of priorities. Listen to us. And again, if you have so much to say – say it to those who are harassing, abusing, threatening, silencing, lecturing us.”

This statement has been released by Aurat Raj, a radical left feminist group. 

We see you, tripping all over yourselves trying to make the next viral facebook status/tweet/thinkpiece/comment on Qandeel Baloch, gleeful at the opportunity to be the next best feminist since Justin Trudeau, to lecture us on our oppression and theorise on our condition. A few quick points for you:

1) PASS THE MIC. Pass the mic to the women in your lives, on your timelines and newsfeeds, the ones who taught you this feminist vocabulary you drop, the ones who fought it out with you when you were (and are) arrogant and resistant, the ones you never cite, the ones whose intellectual labours are systematically erased and whose intellectual labours you appropriate. Share their posts. Retweet their tweets. Take up less space. The world does not need any more of your mental masturbations. When you feel so…

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2005, a new round of “cricket diplomacy”, two series, one in India and one in Pakistan, thousands of visas issued to people on both sides of the border.
All excited, my friend gets the visa to go watch the match in Chandigarh.

Quite apart from the mela and the incredible hospitality he experienced there as just another anonymous Pakistani, what marked him most was his visit to his ancestral village. He’d never been there before, nor, it seems had his parents. It was his grandparents who, in the early 1900s, had migrated from the eastern doabas to the new canal colonies in western Punjab. Due to an aversion to marrying outside pre-migration sub-castes, they still retain certain distinctive features and even a specific dialect. So, the approximate directions of his relatives were enough to get him to the village deep in the countryside in East Punjab.

When they realised that he was Pakistani and that his ancestors were probably from that village, they took him to the elders and two and two were rapidly put together – even though, thanks to the two migrations, there was not a single Muslim family left. But his features, the shared accent, vocabulary and expressions, some names his grandparents had given him as references were enough. Their childhood memories came flooding back, of former neighbours and playmates, of people and local legends their parents had told them about.

They then took him to the village mosque, maintained in perfect condition, even better than if it were in regular use! They said, “We said to ourselves, ‘One day, some of our friends might visit us or move back. So, we wanted to be able to say that we had kept up your place of worship in good condition, that we had not forgotten you.’”

(I wish he’d taken some photos for me to post here! In my mind, I see it in this off-white/very pale pink shade with the mini-minarets topped with blue or maybe green. The paint is new, the walls sparkling in the bright sun, the covered section deep in shadow, cool, the open courtyard with the prayer mats deserted at 11 in the morning. The door is wooden, light brown, not painted, upright in its hinges, fits correctly in its frame. In other words, a typical village mosque of the kind I’ve seen thousands of times traveling in the countryside on our side of the border. Just that it would be in picture-perfect condition:) )

He loves trekking, hiking, has even done a little rock-climbing. That is to say, he’s connected with nature. And hates littering. None of his friends got it, mocked him for what appeared to them to be his obsessive urge to avoid littering the trails in the Margalla hills he would take them up. They just didn’t get it. I guess it’s one of those many cases where feigning ignorance is so much more convenient than the alternative – making the effort to understand an issue.

One hot day, coming down a trail, merrily bantering away and munching on chocolates (or maybe it was chips), they passed an Australian who saw his friends throwing empty wrappers down the hillside. They didn’t notice it, but he turned around and went right down all the way till he located the offending wrappers – and then brought them back up to the group. He handed them back to the surprised young macho men, saying only, “This is your country.”

It was one of those “I told you so” moments for my friend, and though it took a white person to get through to them (via our mental slavery to all things white), he remains grateful that the message did get through!


Just now, my friend Jareer shared with me a beautiful article on fearless joy:

Eventually, by working with an area I feel safest, the forest, I discovered I could let go of expectation, of desire, and when I did I experienced a greater freedom. Now, I can enjoy the forest fearlessly, because I no longer have those attachments. Joy that comes out of equanimity doesn’t have the heavy weight of happiness with strings attached. Fearless joy is lighter, totally free. Amazingly, there is no fear of it disappearing.

I like the image of the butterfly in the open hand. Even better  are those butterflies that flit from flower to flower. Butterflies are most beautiful when they are free. It’s a wonderful metaphor for me to remember when I find craving or attachment underlying something I  enjoy. Can I recognize the cause of that craving, then let go of the craving, and hence enjoy it a free manner,with equanimity?

I don’t know if I’ll ever achieve that in all areas of life, but in the places I have totally let go, I noticed that I embrace with abandon, fearlessly and tirelessly.


The image of the butterfly reminded me of the old poet in Rumi’s poem (that I think it’s time I shared with more people) – “without weeping or laughter […] beyond words and telling”:

Omar and the Old Poet

The harper had grown old. His voice was choked sounding
and harsh, and some of his harp strings were broken.

He went to the graveyard at Medina and wept. “Lord,
you’ve always accepted counterfeit coins from me!
Take these prayers again, and give me enough
to buy new silk strings for my harp.”

He put the harp down for a pillow and went to sleep.
The bird of his soul escaped! Free of the body
and the grieving, flying in a vast simple region
that was itself, where it could sing its truth.

“I love this having no head, this tasting without mouth,
this memory without regret, how without hands I gather
rose and basil on an infinitely stretching-out plain
that is my joy.” So this waterbird plunged into its ocean,

Job’s fountain where Job was healed of all afflictions,
the pure sunrise. If this Mathnavi were suddenly sky,
it could not hold half the mystery that this old poet
was enjoying in sleep. If there were a clear way
into that, no one would stay here!

The Caliph Omer, meanwhile, was napping nearby,
and a voice came, “Give seven hundred gold dinars
to the man sleeping in the cemetery.”

Everyone understands this voice when it comes.
It speaks with the same authority to Turk and Kurd,
Persian, Arab, Ethiopian, one language!

Omar went to the place and sat by the sleeping man.
Omar sneezed, and the poet sprang up thinking
this great man was there to accuse him.

“No. Sit here beside me. I have a secret to tell you.
There is gold enough in this sack to buy new silk
strings for your instrument. Take it,
buy them, and come back here.”

The old poet heard and realized the generosity
that had come. He threw the harp on the ground
and broke it. “These songs, breath by breath,

have kept me minding the musical modes of Iraq
and the rhythms of Persia. The minor zirafgand,
the liquid freshness of the twenty-four melodies,

these have distracted me while caravan after caravan
was leaving! My poems have kept me in my self,
which was the greatest gift to me, that now
I surrender back.”

When someone is counting out
gold for you, don’t look at your hands,
or the gold. Look at the giver.

“But even this wailing recrimination,” said Omar,
“Is just another shape for enclosure, another joint
on the reed. Pierce the segments and be hollow,
with perforated walls, so flute music can happen.

Don’t be a searcher wrapped in the importance of his quest.
Repent of your repenting!” The old man’s heart
woke, no longer in love with treble
and bass, without weeping

or laughter. In the true bewilderment of the soul
he went out beyond any seeking, beyond words
and telling, drowned in the beauty,
drowned beyond deliverance.

Waves cover the old man.

Nothing more can be said of him.

He has shaken out his robe,
and there’s nothing in it anymore.

There is a chase where a falcon dives into the forest
and doesn’t come back up. Every moment,
the sunlight is totally empty
and totally full


چائے (یا ہنگامی حالات میں کَوفی) میں ڈبوئے بغیر بسکِٹ کھانا۔۔۔ اس سے زیادہ بد ذوق حرکت شاید ہی کوئ ہو۔۔۔ سوائے اِس کے کہ دال چاول ہاتھ کے بجائے چمچ کانٹے سے کھائے جائیں…

(It’d be hard to imagine anything more uncouth than eating a biscuit not dipped in tea (or coffee, in extremis)… except eating rice and daal, not with the fingers, but with spoon and fork!)