Monday, June 14, 2010

Sahara House Days ...

I couldn't have asked for a more raggedy bunch of people to be a part of my life, but there they were at Sahara ready to shed off their skins and renew their lives. Sahara was and is a unique substance abuse rehabilitation house, its initial start given by Dave and Angie, two Australians with more than an average amount of commitment.  The place while being very secular also had a distinct flavor of Christianity through its program of prayers, hymns,  therapeutic spirit, meditations, sessions and of course the great tenets of hope, faith and charity. In time, Dave and Angie judiciously handed over the reigns to other Indians for all kinds of people and animals who wanted to get a taste of rehabilitation without the white uniforms. Over the years, Sahara's connection with Australia remained strong by the constant steam of visitors from the Aussie land itself. Sahara accommodated them all, along with its own, plus anyone on the periphery as well. It was a large community of motley faces and more so of all kinds of idiosyncrasies. While a lot walked in drenched with confusion and shock, the Aussies seemed to arrive with commotion in their back packs and a quest to understand humanity. Over time they managed to exchange the load on their backs with the lightness of being. Nonetheless, the  Aussies still received some rude shocks by the acute water shortage and misbehaving Indian toilets, which many times joined forces to make life in Sahara unbearably heavy. The Aussie girls however did manage to rectify this situation by setting some hearts fluttering and all would be forgiven till the next jamming time. Offering good competition to the Aussies was our very own Woo Master Gerard himself. Gerard wooed his way in and out of hearts, countries, and continents with his smile and glib talk. When he smiled we wondered what he was up to and I hope I continue to wonder about Gerard's smile.

Like others, I too was intrigued by the concept, and essentially because I had never before seen the likes of so many recovering addicts and alcoholics. That was something I had rarely given a thought to, being altogether involved with my own studies, friends, and other vagaries of life. I came to Sahara with a friend from Film School to attempt an audio-visual on the place and the process. Instead I went on to become a part of this family for many years after that. All my time after college hours was spent there. In fact, in the ensuing days, I completely forgot what I was there for. We however did manage to complete the project at some point. Like all families, this one too was full of eccentrics and crazies. From all its successful graduates, Matli the dog emerged as one of the most memorable ones. According to Ivan, 90% of the dogs in the area were his children and grandchildren. In fact, Matli was so popular that Sahara people gave Matli's name to one inhabitant who was renamed from Peter to Peter S. Matli because of the same blond color manes. There was Agha who perpetually got stuck in bathrooms, thresholds, cupboards, stairs, and could not cross roads or streets. No amount of practice runs across roads helped him. Agha still took hours to move. It would have been certainly easier to carry him from place to place. At such times Tootsie, the other dog came and helped.  Just her bark would move Agha - a man who a few moments ago would be immovable as the mountains themselves. I miss Agha and his talks and hope he's coping well. The good old Homeopathic medicine Hyoscyamus Niger would have done well for him. 

Another eternal figure Govind filtered in and out of Sahara. He was the perfect combination of a philosopher and an evangelist. If ever a need for including a special clause for Sahara funds were concerned, it would have had to be done for Govind. He wanted to get paid for 'praying for Sahara'.  When Govind lay down to sleep, people around him also slept - but with a collection of chappals. At the first sound of a snore from Govind, chappals went flying to knock out all snores from Govind. Govind remains a heart warming character and maintains his goings and comings to Sahara. There were a few from Afghanistan and much to their annoyance were simply known as Kee Gee Bees (KGB). The place had more writers, poets, actors, musicians, singers, and artists than an art school or an artist's colony itself. It had a surgeon and a dentist. It had some healers and some who planned on becoming priests as well. I'm surprised it didn't have its own post office as well. Sahara could very well have been a city by itself. Basically all the ingredients of physical, mental, emotional, psychological, and the spiritual were there in this place. This was the place where I heard different genres of  music and just being with people and songs was indeed an invigorating experience. I exchanged poetry, writing, and even art with some. Niko was one of the best artists at hand. He worked with everything from old jeans to pillow cases and I still have one of his creations. I felt at peace in Sahara; I was accepted without being invited; I became one with it without asking. 

I got so thoroughly soaked in Sahara that I felt I had to move out in my own place just to take in all its strangeness. I wanted to be there whenever I wanted. I was unable to explain to my Mum the concept of Sahara, my late hours of doing 'nothing' there and consequently arriving back at her house at weird times. But it's also when I moved out that I felt the pangs of hunger and the sheer inability to cook a meal for myself. Having been a boarder most of my life, I did not learn this essential skill of housekeeping. That is why the daily meal of daal and chaawal at Sahara was like manna from heaven. There were moments of rajma and the rare beef curry. To break this monotony Bashir the Sahara chef occasionally made 'hidge pidge' which was his hodge podge of all kinds of left overs and some vegetables. However the regular dessert of tea took the cake. Bashir was perhaps one of the worst cooks known in the culinary circles (except me who couldn't cook at all). He watered down all food so thoroughly that it was impossible to detect even the most tenacious foods. On the other hand, he put such a minuscule amount of tea leaves in the chai that at best it was just colored water. Bashir nonetheless was quintessential Sahara himself and I thought he needed to be rehabilitated the most. God alone knows what he smoked or drank but he was there and not there at the same time. I saw more dancing and singing come out from him than a decent meal. He allowed visiting Australians to take over 'Indian' cooking while he sat and smoked bidis in the balcony or just danced his way across the halls for no good reason. That was also the time when visiting Aussies would decide to help by plopping in the pot whatever was at hand. These were also the exact moments when I seriously questioned my decision to leave my mum's delicious cooking and her house. 

Hymns kept the place alive and reverberating. The boys sang loud and clear. Others moved vigorously back and forth with the rhythms. Guitars, drums, banjos, flutes were good accompaniments to the singing. There were prayer sessions and quiet times, the latter also times for quick naps for many. People filtered in and out of Sahara. Some remained at the periphery while others moved in to either work as volunteers or just hang around. Some ran away or just walked off never to return. Others stayed on never to leave. I never understood how the place ran in terms of money. But what I did understand was the deep faith that kept the place going and the knowledge that help was just around the corner. Sahara was a two or three storied rented house and many times the rent was due. But the landlord never locked its doors just like Sahara's doors were never locked. What I heard  later was that the landlord either donated the house to Sahara or sold it to them for much below the market price. At one point, I did get to see the funding process in occurrence. Some funding agency people from Australia happened to drop by. They were given moras to sit on right in the alcove beneath the steps to the house and of course Bashir's tea was served. Balancing Bashir's tea while sitting on the wavering moras was quite a challenge. During this meeting, Matli the dog and I joined in just because no one else could be found. Neville the mad-one also the one-in-charge had to be yelled for. And when he was found - came by looking more disheveled than Einstein himself. It was always difficult to explain that Neville indeed was the person that people with funds should be talking with. At all times, Neville gave the impression that he might be more interested in soccer than the funds themselves. Despite its dismembered look, the place managed to run just fine. like the universe itself, Sahara was organized chaos. Money was there when needed otherwise everybody just did without it.

Neville and other wise members of the House created Core Groups and some boys became a part of it as a mark of 'moving up' and taking on responsibilities. However, this concept needed a quick intervention as 'lollipops' or medications intended to ease the process of 'turkeying' for the Saharites were sometimes mostly consumed by the boys of the Core Group, leaving the others stranded and shivering. Serious discussions of manhandling by the soccer police were some other topics taken up by the core group. I am sure Govind would have loved to pray for such untoward activities, including the nocturnal flying chappals ones. The so called soccer police aka some resident volunteers sometimes terrorized the boys who hated workouts and soccer especially at 5 a.m. These shirkers were sometimes picked up manually from their beds and dropped to the floor. Other Core Group activities or distractions were matters of the heart and romance and how much was optimum for people still finding their way. After all, re-discovering small mercies and delicacies of life was going be the next big thing for struggling members after living a life steeped in drugs and alcohol and other such impulses of life. Anything could tip the balance of the mind and body. Leaving an old life was going to be hard work and sorting would take many months and years. Layers of self would have to be peeled off and new sensations, emotions, feelings would have to be accommodated. It was going to be the full journey of discovery. 

I regarded Neville and Ega as the first family of Sahara House. With the house crowding many times over, I often wondered about the pressures on this family. There was nothing called privacy for them. There was no point in them having even doors to their little bit of space because somebody or the other always needed to talk to Neville. I never saw Neville sleep at regular hours. On the other hand, he routinely fell asleep while talking to people. For a thin sprightly fellow, Nev carried many people's burdens and troubles with much grace while Ega, his other half carried the man himself. Only the lowly roach could displace this man. With even a hint of a roach behind him, Neville would have been the world's fastest man and could've beaten Usain Bolt many times over. Sundar and Pushpa - the other couple helped out stoically too. They let me sleep in their little space when I was too scared to stay by myself in my own house. Sundar was the other rock in Sahara House. In his own quiet way, he along with Pushpa provided the boys and girls with time, counseling, food, and some space from the crowds. I have no explanation as to how Nev had the energy to run the place, conduct early morning workouts and still play hours of soccer. I too joined soccer sometimes for pure fun and this was perhaps my first training at the sport, which I later used to volunteer as soccer coach for my sons' teams in AYSO (American youth Soccer Organization). In my short stint, I'm proud to say I had a winning record of 5-2-1. 

As part of the Sahara rehabilitation, there were additional activities of volunteer work at the Blind School and working at Tihar Jail with Lifers. Books were read to the Blind and much to the delight of the youngsters, free rides on motor cycles were given to them by the Sahara Boys. They impressed the then Police Commissioner Kiran Bedi and worked with her and her staff on the Delhi Police Rehabilitation programs. I helped out with their volunteer program for drugs and alcohol in the slum areas of Delhi. Jeeps were rented and half falling and even less prepared, we still managed to pull off skits and songs in the areas. Mike with his great height and kind demeanor let out the most delightful but deafening sounds at the drums. He remained in his own world and went out the same way.  Amongst the cacophony, the infamous dentist Dr Samson got his best sleep within the confines of Sahara. He treated the boys and girls free, which basically meant he drilled the life out of our teeth. He has since then given up teeth and pursues matters of the mind zealously. Another green horn James came in from the Gulf, liked the place, and became one of the trusted hands at Sahara. He now writes lengthy theses on homelessness. These two along with others of the fat-bad-mad ditch series bled me dry of all cash reserves with their never ending penchant for gulab jamums, ice-creams and pastries. With the amount of paet puja I provided directly or indirectly, I hope I have these devils indebted to me for forever.

Over the years, Sahara continued to grow and branch off into many other avenues.  I last visited it many years ago. The old fellows had left, some with whom I had shared much time, books, meals, tea, and music. Many of them are healthy and doing well. Others felt the need to go back to Sahara to recuperate.  Some picked up their lives where they had rudely interrupted it while others gave their lives a completely fresh start. I've only experienced  good in Sahara. That is why any criticism of it appalls me. Some say they became stagnant in Sahara and that it didn't prepare them sufficient to go out into the world. But a place is only a place. Whatever one finds there is only what one puts in there. How much can be done or what can be done is also dependent on the receiver. Sahara remains for me pure and unsullied. The good it it did (and does) far surpasses the little it may have occasionally missed. I hope to return there some day, take some sessions, meet its new recruits, help give the place a fresh coat of paints, drink some more tea, perhaps make a film without getting distracted, and even change the lollipops to the gentler homeopathic remedies (I am a Homeopath now). Perhaps my own kids can find it in their hearts to volunteer there one day. Sahara was not just a place for me - it was a concept complete with a sprinkling of the best and the worst of life. May it always continue to flourish - one never knows who might head there. Sahara House was indeed an insane place - yet provided enough sanity to last us a lifetime.


  1. Joyce
    This was fabulous to read especially because i know all of the colourful reality that this embibes.
    All of the characters that contribute to our lives and hours of doing "nothing " with eachother that offers us "something" significant.Lasting examples of holding a space of complexities,tensions,polarities and synergies.A greenhouse that is sahara

  2. Thank you Joyce...felt nice reading this. It's going to take a little while to get this smile of my face now.
    Cheers John

  3. John Samson:
    Sahara was an experience that defies description; like life itself at times. i find your take on it humane and humorous at the same your style and turn of phrase. can't seem to remember the part about the pastries. was jimmy there for it as well?

  4. Vandana Shah:
    An honest, touching and moving account of another one of your (varied) experience. You have experienced life in so many different quarters and touched the lives of many, in very positive ways. With your account, you breathe life in every moment, situation and being. I love your style of writing. One smiles, grimaces, ponders etc. Not a moment of dullness.

  5. I love what you did that is why it make it easy to get through the bad times...bravo

  6. Hey Joyce

    That was beautiful. Thanks.


  7. Joyce,

    Thanks for that. It was brilliantly and beautifully written.

    Cheers Dave

  8. Angie Andrews June 16 at 4:03am
    Dear Joyce, I loved what you wrote and made it come alive you have a way with words and capturing some of the sutations and charachters
    and life in Sahara, some ot eh charachters are fondly etched into my memory and speaking of them makes me smile.I can just imagine what you are talking about.
    Bash, the cook I used to say if we dont all die we will be lucky!!!!!!!
    Hygiene didnt seem to part of his routine!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Luv it Joyce .go girl!!
    Luv Ange

    Sweetheart . . . just read you & will never stop telling you how well you write - as for memory . . . I guess thats cause U haven't guzzled alcohol & smoked your brains out - Bravo . . I need to read this thru once more & comment further !! Muah

  10. Jim Decouto:
    The INN's & out's & the ongoing shenanigans of the reflective writer brings to life a unique bygone era. Now the past is present for us & future generations. May the force of narrative be with you singhalong and all those who might have a Sahara story to share.

  11. Marcelle Henderson Boyer:
    Joyce!!! brilliant piece of work!! thoroughly enjoyed reading it and now am feeling homesick for Sahara!!!..I gues anyone who has been through Sahara can never come away untouched!!!....I personally feel I am the person today partly because of Sahara!!! Nan said "KARMA"!!!

    Hey Joyce! thoroughly enjoyed reading this! Beautiful.
    Sahara itself is like rich tapestry woven by the likes of Aga, Mike, Govind, Alok, Carl,Gerd,Rajiv, Kanchan, Anita, Sandy, Bapi not to forget Johnny , Jimmy and Joyce hahah.
    The kids who were so much part of the whole scene - Jonathan and Tawab- Jonathan and Huxley!!! Jonathan and Kanchan-Jonathan, Jeremy and Gerd - Jeremy and Sandy/ Arjun - Timothy and Betty/Annie.
    The tapestry with varied colours and hues weaves on and on - ever changing....
    Just, in the moment of acceptance and which section we look at with fond memories

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    2. I don't know who you are, but Sahara never had 100 crores. Ega may have left the organization but she certainly hasn't decimated it because thankfully enough it is still running and from what I heard it has expanded quite a bit. Anyway every place has its ups and downs and hopefully it is still doing good without Ega :)

  13. Oh Joyce, thanks for sharing your beautiful reflections. On reading, my memories of my time there returned as if it were yesterday. I wonder how many us have experienced the pull of the Sahara family and stayed longer than planned. It seems it is still happening in one form or another. Mmmm, maybe we could meet up there again one day!!?? Betti

    An account so well written, can visualize the living experience & like the virtual tour of Sahara House. Love your style of writing Jo....keep it going!!

  15. Moushumi Johnson:
    Just read this Joyce; really well written, very engaging and so very true. You have a fabulous way with words and there are lots of lovely little touches. Thanks for so perfectly capturing the experience that is Sahara.

  16. Your art lies in glossing over what seems to lie beneath. Yet the reader has these glimpses of what one would see when the rock is overturned. For an outsider, it is like peering through the looking glass. And when we go beyond, it gets curiouser and curiouser. On the surface, Sahara is a rehab centre. But for the inmates, including the dogs, roaches, and assorted specimens of humanity, it seems to be a planet of its own…a cauldron of emotions, or the lack of, hunger, thirst, dal chawal, water masquerading as chai, assorted musical instruments, counseling, poetry, philosophy, the dentist’s drill, skits, acting dance drama, motorbikes, jeeps, Australians, heaviness or lightness of spirit, recovery, succumbing, stagnating, cigarettes, jammed toilets, gulab jamuns ,drugs, prayers, alcohol,pastries et al..churning together like the cook’s stew of leftovers. but if even one soul was redeemed, i'm sure it was all worth it.

    Post IP, we went our separate ways. And got immersed in our lives, having no inkling what friends we had spent so much time with, were doing with their lives. So thanks for satisfying this bit of my curiosity by a well written piece.
    Love chhabi.

  17. Chhabi your lines above are a like an extension of the write itself and felt as if I had forgotten to put them there. Thanks a lot buddy for taking the time to do it and that too so eloquently.

  18. chhabi

    That's because all the key words were taken from the narrative itself. when i read the blog, all that was circling like a whirlwind inside my head. Not having your literary acumen to process your thoughts cohesively and coherently, i thought i'd put it down as it was, immediately. ;)

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