Wake up bell–a welcome home

Coming home from very lonely places, all of us go a little mad: whether from . . . just an all-night drive, we are the sole survivors of a world no one else has ever seen.
John Le Carré

The lonely places that Le Carré mentions are experiences that seize us with solitude, not those that are geographically remote. My Goan stay had me mapping places within myself that I had lost over the years.  On my early morning stumbles along Varca beach, I had the sea for company: the sea was interrogator as well as friend.  Even the act of writing, except for occasional poems through the years, had strayed  beyond my reach, morally  and mentally.

Now, sitting here in my tiny apartment, I look out of my window onto an ashram world, wondering if these new-found words will wander away once more, lost in routine and busy work.Photo on 10-04-13 at 6.26 AM #2  Even at half past six in the morning people bustle by,  men dressed in white and women in different hued saris.  At five am the wake up bell tolls, though buildings in the  ashram have far exceeded the reach of its sound.  Cement and mortar blocks absorb the chimes:  the inhabitants of this community are now free to sleep as long as we please, only roused by individual choices of devotion, or work, or family, much like any society in the wide world outside.

‘Home’, and its attendant importunity, clamors with the bell to be heeded. I live alone here, yes, but the familiar zoo of acquaintances insist on rituals of greeting and camaraderie. I set out to source drinking water. A mere five minute walk, but I take more than half an hour. People stop me on the way to greet me, asking me, “where did you go?” Curiosity is a great inquisitor, especially when I have not moved out of the place for almost sixteen years until the death of its founder.

An older woman stops me,

“you have returned. Don’t you know what’s happened to me? My son, my son died. Suddenly, without warning. Now I’m alone. We came together to be here. Imagine, three years before him my younger son also died.”

Shrunk from the woman I remember, indomitable, loud, and authoritative, she had served coffee in the main canteen for devotees.  Wrinkles adorn her face, her hair is  grey and unkempt, the folds of skin on her neck hang loosely.  I am shocked, and sympathetic, but bereft of words.  What comfort do I offer, and in Telugu?  Fortunately, she wants more to be heard, her loss reaffirmed, the cruelty of life.  “I wait now for death to take me.  What have I to live for?”

Aptly, she buttonholes me in front of a friend’s flat, someone I have to visit to condole on the death of her mother. After hearing her out, I’ll enter there, and pay my respects. Already, the heat and the emotions of the day have worn me out although it is not yet noon. Returning ‘home’ I battle with various encounters, each fraught. An old doctor, someone I remember from childhood, accosts me during my morning walk through the various gardens and flats, “Where did you go? You have it easy, unlike us worker bees. You can do what you want.” Irritation flares. I reply, “aah, this is the reason I ran away. Everyone here has an opinion on everyone else!” For the rest of the walk, I wonder why pious judgmentality is so rife in a spiritual community.

The foreigners I see, along the way, adopt a special gait with measured steps: their white faces are calm with far away eyes. Ashram hopping is a particular kind of tourism. Readily classified on travel sites like Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, and TripAdvisor, the different ashrams are graded according to what they offer–meditation, yoga, community volunteering, gurus etc: [http://goindia.about.com/od/yogawellbeing/tp/popular-ashrams-in-india.htm;   http://www.iloveindia.com/spirituality/ashrams/] In a chatty blog, John Falk sums up the history of such holy communities, through western eyes:

In ancient India, ashrams—a name derived from a Sanskrit term meaning “religious exercise”—were cloisters set in nature where swamis, or sages, sought spiritual enlightenment through, among other sacred disciplines, the practice of yoga. Over the centuries these swamis began hosting commoners seeking spiritual instruction. Ashram life remained primarily an Indian phenomenon until after World War II, when Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, and others began blazing the ’60s Hippie Trail across Central Asia. But it was in 1968, after the Beatles retreated to an ashram in Rishikesh, on the banks of the Ganges, that the ashram concept shot straight into the Western mainstream. By the ’70s terms such as “ashram,” “guru,” and “karma” had become commonplace in the West, and yoga an accepted form of exercise. Today tens of thousands travel annually to ashrams in India. [http://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/john-falk/indian-ashram.html]

We Indians are not immune to its allure. Each seeker nurses the hope that s/he will prove special to the guru, bestowed with unique insight, yogic powers and visions.  Entering the fray about consumer spirituality in India today, Javed Aktar, Bollywood screenwriter and poet, roundly condemns,

the emergence of supermarkets for “spiritual fast food,” where people can buy “crash courses in self-realization – cosmic consciousness in four easy lessons. . . .Our Marxist friends used to say that religion is the opium of the poor masses. I don’t want to get into that discussion, but spirituality nowadays is definitely the tranquilizer of the rich.” [https://palakmathur.wordpress.com/2009/05/09/speech-javed-akhtar-india-today-conclave-session-on-spirituality-halo-or-hoax/]

Looking about me, I notice all too obvious proof of Aktar’s pithy aphorisms. An electric blue Audi sedan rolls past my apartment, another Merc follows, both on their way to the hall for darshan or sight of the tomb if not of the guru, now dead.

When I circle the hall in private homage to its creator, I glance over the walls that surround it: the elect congregate just in front of the marble tomb, ensconced in white plastic chairs. Those chaired few sit far in front of the sundry devout seated on the floor, the cross-legged, public crowd. Biliousness rises to my gorge at the scene. Earlier, much earlier, under Swami‘s eyes, the front stretched empty. Seated on the floor, the devout formed an heterodox hierarchy, comprising a shifting, vast crowd of worshipers mixed with staff. Chairs were banished to the extreme sides and back. None could foretell who would be out of favor the next time, with no option to sit at front. Unpredictability ruled. No matter the time we sat among the chosen elect, we remained at the mercy of Swami‘s arbitration. Bereft of any such apprehension today, society rules heavy handed: distinctions between VIPs, mostly moneyed, and the rabble are clearly drawn.

I remain an outsider even as I live here over the years.  Suspicious of social edicts queitly enforced behind his back (perhaps his acquiescent back), I remained a spiritual punk, a sort of court jester, a Falstaffian counterpoint to a community that grew increasingly rigid over the years.

[T]o be a true punk of any sort is to live experimentally, to live in love with emergence, with the unexpected, the chaotic, the improvisatory, to live with your arms wide open to complexity, guided by your own star, fueled by a good measure of playfulness and well-intentioned rebellion. [http://geropunkproject.org/gero-punk-manifesto/]

“Love my uncertainties,” Swami famously remarked. His capricious will induced a necessary apprehension in his presence, an apprehension mingled with awe. But, confining himself to a wheelchair in his last years, Swami  ceded to human society.  He transformed into an icon to be worshiped without trepidation, a living body that mutated, whilst alive, into a religious idol.  Uncertainty is not loved in societies or institutions.  Even gods rest safe in religious sanctuaries–temples, churches, mosques, deserts or high mountains:  societies cannot tolerate much interference with their routines.  When gods mingle with humans, often violence ensues:  Christ had to be nailed to the cross, Krishna killed by his own cowherd community, the Buddha poisoned.
Pandora bert
[shared from Pandora Spocks https://www.facebook.com/wandarinn]

 

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