Around the corner from me lives Subramaniam. When I sit here at my window, I see him as he rolls by, white haired, chubby faced, rotund. Although he must be at least 65 years old, there is still something childlike about him. Mornings he sports a bed head, white hair sticking up in spikes, a look that I still (52 myself) attempt to duplicate with hair gel or wax. His clothes are different too: for the last three days he wears the same bright red baggy pants, and a loud red plaid shirt. With his hands scrunched up like a child’s, one finger pointing toward the ground, he is the resident ‘Idiot’, a fool, certainly mental.
Continuing to live on in the ashram after my Mum died, I heard a loud rapping at the front door suddenly one night. Nine o’clock is late night here, particularly in those days a decade ago. Everything had shut down, and quiet filled the place– especially so for my flat on the high road, just behind Swami’s residence. Taken aback at the rumpus, I stood behind the door (a mesh door) and asked cautiously, “Who is it?”
“Grie, Grie, it’s you isn’t it? I know your mum, where is she? Her name is T–, your sister’s name is N–, she’s married. She lives in France. You lived at 4a/1 Tank Bund Road. Don’t you know me? Why didn’t you get married?”
“Who is it?” I repeated, wondering what was going on.
“I was there, in the D— Mental Hospital from ’73’-75. Dr. D—, your dad, he’s dead. Is your mother dead too?”
“Hey, go away. I’m not opening the door. You’ll get into trouble knocking at doors after 9.”
“I’ll get into trouble?”
“Yes, you will, now, c’mon go.”
Subramaniam mulled my words over, standing behind the door for a while, and then he left.
The encounter stayed with me through the rest of the night. The details he remembered had touched a nerve, and I found it difficult to sleep.Subramaniam’s memories of his stay as a mental patient at my father’s hospital triggered my own memories of Mum and Dad. As children, my younger sister and I had played in the grounds of our family’s mental hospital. He remembered me, but I had no memory of him. My childhood years, except for sporadic bursts of random memory, remain a blank even today. But, in the years that followed after Mum’s death, Subramaniam and I developed a curious camaraderie. “Take me with you when you go to Madras. Promise me,” he’d demand off and on. Those years I was an alien to the ashram community, looked at with suspicion. Subramaniam’s memories became a lifeline to my own identity, lost as I was in no woman’s land.
Most ashram folks couldn’t comprehend what motivated me to remain, an obvious misfit, with my cropped hair, jeans, tattoos. There I was, alone in a big flat when whole families stayed cooped up in small room, a woman without work, and single. Swami keeping me on didn’t help either. He didn’t place me in an institutional framework like he did most single women of my age–he put them to work in the school, college, or hospital. Me, he kept to myself, prohibiting me even from helping out in the canteen where he’d plunked me down earlier. And, he never forced external social markers on me–long braided hair, womanly ornaments, the Hindu/ Indian red dot on the forehead. Good, womanly woman I could never be, and he left me be. Bolstered by Swami’s support, I always reckoned that social morés asked too high a price in such badges of belonging.
Eccentric alien as I was, my frequent outbursts of fury put me further outside the pale. Particularly aggravating in their holy whites, men dominate the surroundings, elevated to supremacy merely through gender. Unable to look me in the eye, the male staff talk down to women, particularly single, jobless me. My hackles rise with such treatment, especially when a few of these holy beings took to following me around. Trude, an Austrian friend and ashram habituée, joked that the ‘boys’ in white ( men anywhere from 20-40 years old) fixated on me because they longed for a dominatrix to spank them into submission. I wouldn’t have minded, in those years, a leather whip in hand to slash across their hypocritical cheeks!
Give me Subramaniam any day. Staying alone in his little ground floor room, he trundles around the place, even venturing outside the ashram gates. Leaning against the gate, mouth pursed in a perpetual pout, he watches the world go about its routine. I’ve often seen him engrossed in a chat with the policemen who guard the sanctum sanctorum, or with sundry workers. Sometimes they picked on him for a laugh, but mostly they looked out for him. A mascot, god’s idiot, one of the holy fools, Subramaniam moved out of the mental hospital into a community of spiritual seekers. Who’s to say who is closest to god’s heart? The VIPs whom Swami conversed with in the big hall, who lecture away to the public? Those whom he called in for private talks? The men who donated big bucks to ease their mercenary consciences? In Swami’s absence, those same front men, and their wives on the women’s side, use the hall for business deals, networking, routine commerce of life.
Or, are the white clad ‘boys’, running busily on errands about the hall, are they the Elect? Now that death deprives us of Swami‘s physical self and its attendant hierarchies of ‘closeness’, what defines the status quo? Seated in chairs about a marble tomb, or arranged cross legged in rows by order of importance, the pious chant sacred songs and mutter benedictions. Seated furthermost in the back are the ordinary, nondescript faithful who wait long in lines for a sight of the tomb. Subramaniam, of course, does not enter the hall. He ambles outside, sometimes pausing against a wall, belly out, lost in his reveries.
Abetting his vagaries, I keep vigil in my room, gazing out onto the garden, hearing the singing from afar. Somedays I never leave the flat, or if I do I embark only on an early morning stumble. Early mornings, I may avoid social niceties. Subramaniam, a self identified ‘mental patient,’ Grie, a self admitted ‘eccentric’ –only a thin social line separates us. I think I would cross that border and join Subramaniam, if I could only let go–of a sanity still holding me in line–to evolve into an Idiot other Grie.