Cover image for Familiar strangers : uncommon wisdom in unlikely places
Familiar strangers : uncommon wisdom in unlikely places
Chopra, Gotham, 1975-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Doubleday, [2002]

Physical Description:
xxii, 186 pages ; 22 cm
Format :


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BL624.2 .C487 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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A flip through the newspaper or a glance at the evening news reveals a world in which old ways are dying and new worlds are beginning, often in the midst of violence and chaos. In the face of these massive changes and disruptions, many people are questioning their roles as individuals: Why am I here? What is my purpose? InFamiliar Strangers, Gotham Chopra travels from China, Sri Lanka, and Kashmir to Chechnya and the Yucatán in search of answers to these age-old spiritual questions. Everywhere he goes, he encounters people who have had to dig within themselves to survive horrible realities and bear heart-wrenching losses. From his New York to Los Angeles flight on September 11, 2001 to a harrowing week spent among young boys toting guns in the contested hills of Kashmir and a sojourn in a small Yucatán village where he witnesses firsthand the collision between the romance of the past and the uncertain promise of the future, Chopra shares the wisdom, idealism, and sense of purpose he found in ordinary people living under extraordinary circumstances. Rich in drama and insights into cultures far different from our own, the stories Chopra recounts articulate, as well, anxieties and fears we all share. While acknowledging that his travels often take him to the extreme edges of civilized society, Chopra shows that the questions that arise in times of peril or in the face of great dangers are not so different from what many of us ask in the course of our daily lives--whether after a grueling eighty-hour work week, a six-hour exam, or a fiery argument with a lover. The challenge, he argues, is to use these moments of revelation as the first step in moving beyond self-imposed fears and limits and embracing new opportunities for spiritual growth.

Author Notes

Gautama Chopra is the son of author Deepak Chopra and is a correspondent for Channel One. He divides his time between New York and Los Angeles.

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

This curious amalgam of New Age spirituality and war reporting is the second book from the second generation of Chopra ruminators. (Gotham is the son of bestselling author Deepak; his first book of nonfiction was Child of the Dawn.) Its framework is ambitious for such a slim volume. Examining nine steps drawn from the life story of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha "fare," fear, refuge, surrender, discipline, temptation, freedom, compassion and death Chopra travels to the world's hot spots (including Pakistan, China, Kashmir and the Yucat n) as a correspondent for Channel One. Although accounts of touring Chechnya with a band of unpredictable Russian guides and meeting with members of the Sri Lankan army referred to by the State Department as a "pack of bloodthirsty murderers" are gripping, Chopra's analysis of age-old conflicts seems strained and oversimplified. Unfortunately, he's not always mindful of the warning he receives from a recalcitrant Yucat n elder who accuses him of being an analyzer rather than a watcher: "There's a difference between witnessing the world as it is and trying to force your own reason around it." Chopra is at his best writing what he knows, especially when he interviews a Hindu uncle who was living in Lahore when Pakistan secured official partition from India in 1947. This account of the death of another relative at the hands of an angry Muslim mob is worthy of a book unto itself in fact, it may just be the saving grace of this one. (May) Forecast: Chopra's first effort eaked out sales based on not more than his last name. Can he do it again? Moving from Amber Allen (his first publisher) to Doubleday will help, as will the September 11 tie-in. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Dream-weavers Fate On December 24, 1999, a lesser heralded hijacking took place aboard an Indian Airlines plane that originated in Katmandu, the capital city of Nepal, and was destined for New Delhi, India's capital city. At first, the media rushed to the story--it was a mere week before the new year, and news all around the world was abuzz with the potential terror that threatened to wreak havoc during the many planned new year's millennial celebrations. However, it soon became clear that this hijacking had little to do with the new year or whatever other symbolic portents it might represent or could potentially bring about, but rather was concentrated on regional politics in northern India. Within twenty-four hours of the occupation of the plane, an Islamic fundamentalist group claimed responsibility for the hijacking, and shortly thereafter they made their demands. They insisted on the release of a Muslim cleric imprisoned in India, along with a number of "freedom fighters." Since 1948, Kashmiri secessionists have supported an independence movement that in the past decade has turned violent and deadly. Along with the Palestinian struggle, Kashmir has become a flashpoint for Islamic fundamentalist grievances against the western world. Kashmir makes up a northern region in India, the control of which has been hotly disputed between India and Pakistan for over fifty years. The predominant faith in Kashmir is Islam, as it is in Pakistan, and as a result, Muslims from all over the world--especially Kashmir itself, Pakistan, and Afghanistan--have adopted the freedom movement as a jihad, or "holy war." I was familiar with the conflict taking place in Kashmir, since I had spent some time covering the story for Channel One just a few months before. Of course, no one could predict that the events unfolding in 1999 would so profoundly portent the violent hijackings that would take place less than two years later on 9/11/2001. Like so many other international news stories, this hijacking story slowly faded from the headlines of American news networks. By Christmas Day, the plane had landed in Amritsar, India; Lahore, Pakistan; and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, before finally resting atop the tarmac in Kandahar, Afghanistan. And when the first hostages were released--twenty-seven women and children--grisly details began to emerge. The group of hijackers, five young men, had boarded the plane fully equipped with hand grenades, guns, and knives. About forty minutes into the flight from the beautiful foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal they had seized control of the aircraft and forced the pilot to alter the flight course. Among the original 178 passengers and crew on board the plane were a number of young honeymooners. At least one young man--a twenty-seven-year-old honeymooner himself--had been stabbed to death when he disobeyed an order by one of the hijackers not to look directly at him. As happens with many of these terrorist seizures, this situation unwound into protracted media discussions about regional politics, national grudge matches, and international rules of terrorist protocol. By the day after Christmas, the story had become a lingering update amid headlines that were once again focusing on new year's preparations--terrorist threats and all. The chance of any deeper message emerging from the still-pending outcome of the hijacking seemed lost. I found my holiday spirit dampened by all of the above. A week earlier, the Los Angeles Times had asked me to write a very brief "millennium wish," a few words in which I would articulate my wish for the next millennium. I supposed they wanted something optimistic and hopeful, yet watching all these aforementioned events on my television, I felt depressed and cynical. I resolved that my one wish was for all of us, collectively, as a species, was to find a way to escape this "tribal" mentality--this primitive, barbaric behavior where we kill one another over disputes of land and ideas. In all honesty I wasn't convinced there was much hope of it coming true. One night after the latest CNN update, during which nothing much had changed aboard the plane, I clicked off the television, sat in my kitchen, and thought about what was happening halfway across the world. I found my thoughts wandering the way of the young man who had been killed. At twenty-seven years old, he was hardly much older than I was. Presumably, he had gone to Nepal with his new bride for a few days, excited about the life ahead of them both, bracing for the mystery of a new and long life they would spend together. And now he was returning in a body bag, stabbed to death in front of his wife because he had dared to stare a terrorist in the eyes. Some would say such are the wheels of karma. Somehow that didn't sit well with me. How would the cliche read in a case like this? Fate works not only in mysterious ways, but in terribly tragic ones as well. At the time, I was contemplating this book--how I might write it and what were the components that would go into it. I had collected a number of texts on the life of the Buddha and some of the teachings he had produced during the course of his life. I tried for a few moments to come up with some suitable explanation--some sort of cosmic spiritual law or simple phrase or fragment that justified what on the surface was nothing more than cruel bad luck. I waited and hoped secretly that I was on the threshold of some major revelation. Nothing. Instead, I found that I was becoming increasingly agitated at the thought of the hijacking--and, more to the point, the hijackers. Who the hell were these terrorists that they thought they could recklessly impede on others' lives, steal a future from an innocent stranger? Like many others around the world, I was sick of terrorists, who because of their fanatical beliefs in their narrow versions of God felt they had the right to terrorize the rest of us. And with new year's fast approaching, the world itself was bracing for what seemed an almost obligatory terrorist strike. Every news outlet--from local to national to international broadcasts--was full of stories about antiterrorist precautionary preparations. The world itself was rooted in fear, armed and poised for an inevitable apocalypse. Where, I wondered, had we managed to steer ourselves? Frustrated and fatigued, I flipped my book over and decided to meditate in hopes of quelling my emotions. As occurs rather often, I soon drifted into sleep. Fuzz At first the image is murky, and it takes me a few moments to figure out where exactly I am. But soon the familiar low hum of plane engines and the discomfort of the condensed seat alert me to the fact that I am sitting aboard an airplane. I look around, and the brown complexions of the passengers plus the dilapidated interior of the cabin soon convey to me that I am most likely aboard a plane in India. Having traveled extensively through much of the country, I know there is no mistaking this scene or, unfortunately, this smell. No sooner have I arrived at this revelation than I hear a cry emerge from the rear of the airplane. After the first cry, a succession of panicked shrieks and shouts rage throughout the cabin. Amid the chaos, a man charges into the front section of the plane where I am sitting. He is cradling a Kalashnikov AK-47 machine gun in his hands and shouting in a language that I can't really make out. Upon seeing this, I feel a surge in my stomach. And then as I rise--not yet knowing the reason why--I find that beneath my own oversize sweatshirt is a rusted, black, metallic automatic weapon. And as soon as I reveal it, the horrific shrieks around me intensify. I have introduced another element of terror into the equation. My heart is racing as adrenaline pumps through my whole being. My head is loud with words and flooded with questions. What's going on? Why am I with them--the terrorists? Why the hell am I carrying a weapon? But I am without answers, caged by my own terror and uncertainty over what exactly is going on. But then clarity comes. I am with them. I have hijacked a plane, imposed terror on its occupants, and cast myself in a horrible drama. At a subtle level I know that I detest my own actions, that I loathe terrorists, who bring about terror to innocents because of their self-righteous and primitive beliefs. But now I am driven by my own fear, my own lack of control or ability to impose order. I am helpless, wielding a weapon of killing in my hands in order to force my will. This is what I have been reduced to. I look into the eyes of a young woman in front of me, staring at me in my confused frenzy. The fear in her eyes is clear. She sits at the other end of my weapon, waiting for me, or perhaps some greater force, to determine which course fate shall follow. But I don't know what I want, so her innocent stare cripples me and makes me shake with my own fear and now quickly evolving anger. There are five of us including me, holding guns, shouting like madmen, generally terrorizing. One of the gang has gone to the cockpit. He's forcing the plane wherever it is that he wants it to go. But now my bolder self steps forward and seizes control. My emotions are hot. I turn the gun on my mates--the other terrorists gripping their guns tightly. I am overcome by my anger, my distaste for these horrible young men. I'd like to do nothing other than unload a stream of bullets, tear them apart, and eradicate their threat. Their eyes are full of fear and uncertainty. Will I really do it? They're not sure, and neither am I. I am dubious, because something tells me that that would hardly solve the problem or make the fear and anger go away. But I'm not keen on letting go of this impulse to kill these terrorists. Our journey, this wild dream, has now reached a new, critical level of intensity in that someone soon will surely crack and the guns will start popping. Except that all of a sudden things start to fade. The noise from the plane dissipates and the sound of the engines lulls. The craziness dies away, and slowly so do the faces; one by one, all of the passengers as well as the militants disappear, until finally the cabin of the plane is warm and silent and only one passenger besides me is left. He is sitting in row 6, seat C, on the aisle. I look at him. His face is calm. His eyes are soft, and his demeanor carries with it a forceful peace. I am not sure how to describe him--what I can say about his bearing except that he is not afraid. The transformation in mood has made me anxious, yet just looking at his still face, I find my emotions receding like the tide of the ocean. As I look at him from top to bottom, I can see that he's wearing only an orange robe that drops over his narrow shoulders. He is clearly the classic image of a Tibetan monk. Unsure of what to say, I find that I am silent, waiting, trusting that things are as they should be. But soon questions flood my head. Where are we? Where are we going? Why am I here? He answers. Where are we? In the midst of this dream world, we are aboard a plane--a metaphorical carrier that cruises across time and space. It is a movement that does not stop. It is a movement unafraid of the past or the future, it is simply rooted in the constant unfolding of the present. It moves without doubt because that is all it knows how to do. Where are we going? In front of us there is an infinity of destinations, the final one to be determined by the course we decide upon now. This is the matrix of time, a convoluted collection of time strands in a universe of infinite possibilities. And why are you here? Because up until now, you have always been fixed on the future, unaware that it's the present that dictates fate. To be released from the chains of the past and the future is to find freedom. And freedom is where it is. This man's answers come simply from him, his manner is effortless. I must admit that to me his words don't immediately make sense. They don't solve the riddles of life. Yet I do have the distinct and familiar impression that the meaning of these words lurks not just in the study of them, but in my own experience. So here we are aboard this plane all by ourselves. The cockpit is now empty, and the craft is flying all on its own toward an uncharted place--destination unknown. Together we sit, amid the silence, on our voyage to a place I don't know. Soon I know that he will fade away as well and I will be alone, on a solitary journey. For I have discerned that the trail to freedom is one that must be walked alone. The journey of the self is meant to be one traveled only by the self and no other. "This," he tells me, "is the one true fate that there is." Fade out. The following day, while driving to the airport to pick up a family member, parts of my dream started to pop back into my head. Like disjointed scenes from a movie, the images bob up from my subconscious. As one leads to another, I try to piece them together in a sequential order that might restore some meaning. And slowly I start to realize that will not happen. I resolve to let go, not to try to put together the puzzle with the absence of so many pieces. Surely the meaning of my subconscious encounter is lurking somewhere, and I trust it will creep up on me, most likely at some unexpected time. Terrorists and a monk aboard a lonely, lost plane--one can only wait for things to reveal themselves. On December 31, 1999, New Year's Eve, the ordeal aboard the Indian Airlines A300 Airbus came to an end. In the end, no more hostages lost their lives. In fact, the images of the hostages reuniting with their families just hours before the crisscrossing of millenniums in New Delhi provided some powerful imagery to a world that had gotten caught up in the technological game of the imminent twenty-first century. Newscasters read buoyant scripts to flickering images of teary hostages hugging their relatives in New Delhi's Indira Gandhi International terminal--scripted happy endings to a weeklong drama that included all the must-have elements: masked marauders, innocent victims, heroes, villains, and timeliness. The hijackers had managed to broker a deal. Three prisoners were released from jails in India along with the requested cleric. The hijackers disembarked the plane, were granted an allotted time to disappear, and did so successfully, but not before one of them announced to the exhausted hostages, "You'll see us again." (Perhaps one day we will know the whole horrifying truth of those words, since as of the publication date of this book authorities had not yet publicly solidified the suspicions that these same masked terrorists may have played a role in the events of September 11, 2001.) Still, at the time the story seemed to have found a strange but suitable ending. Excerpted from Familiar Strangers: Uncommon Wisdom in Unlikely Places by Gautama Chopra, Gotham Chopra All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.