An excerpt from Steve Small’s book, ‘Mind the Gap’; impressions of his arrival in India and Poona and doing the Enlightenment Intensive.
October 1977, Bombay (later Mumbai) Airport
The sky is so much bigger here. This is my first impression as we disembark from our charter plane at Bombay airport and smell the moist atmosphere of late monsoon season. Before we set foot off the steps from the plane, I sense an intense heat coming off the runway tarmac, even though dawn has not yet broken. Then again, overwhelming all other impressions is that sky. Even at night its Prussian-blue canopy is so vast compared to England. Meanwhile, a thousand scattered yellow stars whisper down to me, Where have you been all this time, what took you so long?
We have left behind a declining, fractured England, strewn with spiky-haired punks, which within two years will see a new Tory Prime Minister quote St. Francis of Assisi on the steps of 10 Downing Street, before proceeding to smash the country apart. Happily oblivious to this future prospect, Rajan and I are already forming a bond like Araldite, stronger than the materials it joins.
The Maharashtra terrain is flat for about a mile either side of the tracks, until majestic peaks appear in the hazy distance.
“Hey, look at those hills!” Rajan keeps exclaiming. “I dreamed of them last night. Look! They’re exactly as I envisioned them.”
But I can’t look where he’s pointing, as tears fill my eyes, flowing from a certainty that I have been here before. It is all so very unfamiliar, yet intuitively familiar from a previous lifetime. All human life plays itself out, both in and between the stations, which for some people provide their only reliable source of water and indeed living quarters. I can even see one person in a chair, some distance from the track, getting a shave with a white barber’s towel around his neck.
Before the train even comes to a halt in any station, thirteen-year-old vendors press against its windows, proffering metal trays filled with sweets and soft drinks, crying out their Marathi variants of London street-market calls. The words sound primal, so potent when you didn’t know their meaning. Coins and refreshments change hands through open windows and, meanwhile, an elderly blind man with a ravaged face is led through the carriages by a small boy aged ten or eleven. The old man sings a loud, off-key dirge, possibly an old folk or religious song, which to my ears is as movingly lyrical as it is excruciating. Several people throw loose change into the boy’s bowl, either in appreciation or quite possibly to hasten the duo away to the next carriage.
Although Poona is only 90 kilometres by train from Bombay, no Indian rail journey is ever high-speed, so nightfall descends before we reach Poona Rail station and check into a hotel. Lying on an unfamiliar bed with heavy white cotton sheets, I listen to the cacophony of traffic noises outside, including rickshaw horns squawking like exotic birds. Tears overtake me again as a deep dark gap opens. Calling it a Void with a capital V would sound more ‘spiritual’ than merely a gap, but this does not feel spiritual in any way I had imagined. However, I’m about to start learning, in India, how this gap between wishful thinking and actuality is an ongoing fact of life.
I was finally in my evening darshan, in the enclosed garden at the back of Bhagwan’s residence with a group of about thirty seekers, facing his empty armchair on the marble-floored courtyard. Bhagwan suddenly appeared in his white ankle-length robe, “like a being from Outer Space,” as Rajan described it, giving a smiling namaste greeting to everyone, his hands pressed together.
Eventually my name was called and a bushy-haired bodyguard tapped the ground where I was to sit. I noticed Bhagwan’s manner had shifted from beaming, all-giving love to a markedly reserved demeanour. His teachings were described as syncretic, meaning they often contradicted each other, depending on whom he was talking to. Perhaps he switched manner in the same way. Or maybe my inner door was too closed for his beam to penetrate? To my surprise, he recommended a series of quiet, meditational courses. “Ever done anything like an Enlightenment Intensive?” he asked with a twinkle.
During the three-day Enlightenment Intensive course, around fifty westerners faced each other in two long rows. One person asked a single question of his or her opposite number: “Tell me who you are,” whereupon the other answered with the first honest response that occurred to him or her. Which might be, “I’m a robot,” “I’m a grasshopper,” or “I’m a mythological princess.” After five minutes we swapped roles. After twenty minutes, we swapped partners. And that was the structure, from morning to night, fifteen hours a day for three days.
The American leader had a trainee German assistant, Ule, who whenever anyone protested about the sheer boredom of repetition, would urge them to “point the arrow of questioning inwards.”
Nevertheless a camaraderie built up, and there were two familiar faces from London: Heeren, an earnest musicology student, and Amanda. Bhagwan had now given Amanda a new name, Neela. With her slim build, long dark hair, wide-spaced eyes and effortless tendency to shine in a social circle, she reminded me of the Four Marys in my sister’s girls’ comic Bunty, who were the most popular girls in school. There was also a freckle-faced New Zealander called Leah, who had I am rebellious written all over her face. Sitting opposite me on the evening of Day One, Leah waited until Ule, (vigilantly checking that we were all still ‘pointing the arrow inwards,’) had walked away out of earshot, patrolling down the line of enquirers.
“I am just so sick of all this bullshit,” Leah said. “I’ve been in so many ashram groups like this one. They all put you in a pressurised structure until you have a catharsis. What’s so special about having a catharsis? Have one and you’ve had them all.”
Further down the line I could hear Neela’s voice repeating, “I’m so bored, I’m so bored, I’m bored, I’m bored, I’M BORED.” I suppressed a smile that might give way any moment to hysterical laughter and rearranged my expression into one of earnest attention to Leah’s words.
“The premise is simplistic,” she continued. “Keep searching for an answer that isn’t in the rational mind, and you’ll go beyond it. You’ll be more likely to go up the fucking wall, I’d say.”
Next day I noticed Leah had vanished. She told us afterwards that walking out of the group was the best thing she’d ever done, and indeed I envied her for what looked like strength of character. But if I’d followed suit, I would’ve judged myself as running away.
Finally, at around 10.30 p.m., even Ule realised we had to rest, and announced it was bedtime.
That first night I dreamed a ladder appeared beside me, stretching up so far I couldn’t see the top. A tremendous light emanated downwards from the clouds. Heeren came up to the ladder’s base and pointed resolutely upwards, saying, “Bhagwan’s up there, man, waiting for us to reach his level. Follow the instructions, you know where we’re going.”
I opened my mouth to say I wasn’t sure, but Heeren was already climbing; soon his visibility faded amidst the clouds. I began to follow, but before I’d gone two steps, my brother Chris appeared and held my arm, his eyes shining bemusedly. “You know that even if you get to the top,” he said, “you’re going to have to come all the way back down the other side. No one’s ever going to take the Southall out of you mate.” Chris quickly vanished without waiting for a reply. I sighed and headed upwards. Each rung seemed a lot higher than the last, and my breathing soon became laboured. Then, someone brushed my shoulder; Meeta was hovering in the air beside me.
“Why not let go of the ladder and float up?” she asked. “It’s so much easier.” With a hand-gesture conveying simplicity, she ascended past me, and I noticed little wings sprouting from her Birkenstock sandals. Or were they little jets? I hesitated. Leaning back, taking a deep breath, I let go of the rungs. Then I fell, spiralling downwards. The light receded, and soon there was complete dark.
Thinking about this dream afterwards, it was the most significant aspect of the course. However high up into the light I climbed, there always followed a fall into its opposite; but I was beginning to see that the way forward involved making friends with that blackness.
Excerpt from Chapter Eight of Steve Small’s ‘Mind the Gap: A Memoir of Enquiry’
Available as paperback directly from the author directly at: email@example.com
Read a review by Andrew Maynard: Gap Years’
At 15, Steve (Prem Sudesh) Small was inspired by the Summer of Love to get expelled from school. At 20 he left London Underground for full immersion in 70s communes, psychedelics, experimental therapies and neo-sannyas. At 35, still meditating he began teaching adults in a multi-cultural London college. At 66 he lives in rural Somerset; sawing wood, carrying water, turning compost and walking the hills and vales.