An excerpt from Madhuri’s recently published memoir, ‘Mistakes on the Path’.
Into the Mystery
We stepped out of the plane and down the steps onto the tarmac. The air wrapped itself around my face like a wet wash-cloth smelling of old pee, spices and flowers.
My sister was right there to meet us. She was wearing orange – a short, fitted blouse and a long dirndl skirt. Her hair was long and rippling and she had a big white flower behind one ear. She was beaming and glowing, and I knew right then that the sister I had last seen in Italy in 1971 was no more. This was a new sister; she belonged to something else now, belonged altogether. She was not mine to reach, to know, to companion. Someone much, much bigger had got her. Someone as big as the sky. I was abashed, chastened.
Something in me drew back from this painful seeing, and yet moved even more strongly forward.
We were staying in a wooden house with intricate carvings in the shutters, in a narrow street in a warren of other narrow streets, in this crowded, filthy, decrepit city. Our hostess, a middle-aged Indian woman, was a disciple of Bhagwan, the man we had come to meet. There were servants, and dim rooms with smells of sandalwood and rosewater, unfamiliar spices, and the ubiquitous smells that came in from the streets; of shit, and diesel, and flowers, and unwashed bodies, and dust, and many a thing I could not name.
The city was terrifying to me. It seemed to be post-apocalyptic – as if buildings were eroded and covered with spiderweb; and grey and decaying. Five thousand years old, and looking every day of it. Little dead men lay on the sidewalks, with mucus in their facial hair, eyes staring up, thick-soled bare feet next to the traffic. I had never seen anyone dead before… I gulped. Even buildings under construction, scaffolded by uneven, skewy, skinny tree-trunks, seemed to have already gone into old age and ruin. I wanted to run away. It was all just too strange, too horrible, too old.
We took a bucket-bath in a well-appointed but odd bathroom. I found that such a bath was not too bad – you could get plenty of warm water over you with the big cup. It was good to get the miasma of travel off. But the toilet, in a small adjoining closet, required squatting over a porcelain hole, then washing your nether bits with water from a crusted old cup. My sister had told us how to use this. She had already taught us many things – how to make the taxi slow down – “aahista, aahista!” or speed up – “jaldi, jaldi!” That we must wash well, with non-perfumed soap, as Bhagwan’s body was very sensitive. How to waggle our heads when giving instructions to the servants; when thanking our hostess.
My sister was impatient to dress us in orange. Between her and the household, we were lent garments, made of khadi-cloth, or handloom – soft and simple weaves in a plain orange. Then we got into another taxi and set out for Woodland Apartments, where Bhagwan lived.
We drew up in front of a tall block of flats with a few trees in front, went up stairs, and knocked at a plain door. It opened. Inside was a desk, in a hallway; an extraordinary little woman sat behind it. Her eyes were Keane-huge, like those cheesy paintings so popular in the 60’s, but these were no pitiful tear-jerking orbs. They were fierce, glowing, round, dark and yet glistening. She was very thin and slightly bent; of indeterminate age – anywhere from thirty to fifty. She wore an orange cloth on her head, vaguely nurse- or nunlike; pinned to her black hair. She did not smile.
This was Laxmi.
Sarita introduced us gracefully, easily. Laxmi nodded cursorily at our mother and let her pass. Then the full gaze of those round, disapproving eyes rested on me, bored into me. I was clearly found wanting. I sensed that she did not want to let me by; but did, reluctantly, for Sarita’s sake. Sarita… the name suited my sister much better than any name she had ever been known by. Laxmi nodded towards the hallway, got up, walked stoopingly in front of us, hands behind her back in her orange pleated long skirt and long tailored top, down towards a closed door.
As I walked down that hall I was registering many things at once. Laxmi seemed to me like a being out of a fairy-tale our mother used to read to us; she was either the dog with eyes as big as saucers, or the dog with eyes as big as dinner-plates, which guarded the inner sanctum where the treasure lay. There was a distinct and welcome drop in temperature – it was chilly in this apartment. I smelt a sort of musty tropical fustiness, which I would come to know as typical air conditioning smell in a tropical clime, but which was now entirely new to me. I saw my sister walking ahead of our mother and me, in her orange robe, her thick honey-colored hair down her back; I saw her joy and confidence. I saw my mother with her red-dyed hair, her bulge of tummy from seven babies carried to term, under her borrowed clothes; and though she walked in front of me it was as if I could see too the concavity of her left chest; her worried expression, her brown eyes and the nearly, to us young ‘uns, lugubrious wrinkles of anxiety and care.
I felt my body in the unaccustomed khadi, light and lissome and somehow elevated. And I felt we were approaching the Door…
Laxmi knocked, looked in, said something into the room, stepped away, turned, went back along the hall to her desk. One by one we three entered the room.
I couldn’t pay attention to the others then – for all my attention was on what was happening to me – and all of my attention was incredulous, in shock. It was as if I stepped over the threshold into a wall of fragrant bliss. It pushed at me, it was unlike anything I had ever known, anywhere; it smelt of a pine forest on a clear cold day. The fragrance and the bliss and the coolness were one; I could barely step into them, I wanted to sink to my knees. But I made myself continue into the room – though inside myself, I had fallen to my knees, was crawling.
There was a man in there, sitting in a chair. Well… he was something like a man – but he was not a man. He was a light, it was shining all around him, filling up the whole room. The light was also a penetration – it saw and knew. I was just a beetle, a deer caught in the headlights of a car, a seen-through wisp of a creature without a name; and there was only one thought in my head, clearly noticeable in the x-ray light: “Why – he’s not an Indian; he’s an Everything!”
And then I dashed forward and tried to hug him.
In California, of course, you hugged people when you met them, like shaking hands; or like the French do double cheek-kisses. Not real hugs, not long body-and-energy-exploring let-goes, but distinct, hippie-world, we-are-all-inthe-summer-of-love-together hugs. Brotherly/sisterly.
So that was what I tried to do.
It was exactly as if I’d tried to hug a small iceberg. But it was more than an iceberg – it was a dry-ice-iceberg, vaporous and thus ever-expanding in its field. It did not want to be hugged. It froze at me, repelled me.
Flustered, I drew my arms back, then sat down on the floor a few feet in front of him where he sat in his lone upholstered chair, small bookshelf beside him with books in it. There was nothing else in the room; no other furniture.
My mother and sister sat on the floor nearby. We all looked up at him. He looked at us, beaming first at Sarita, talking with her a bit about where we were staying, and so on. Then he turned to my mother. She gazed at him mutely with her brown, suffering eyes. Her heart was full and her hope entire; I could see this. Bhagwan asked her a few questions – she was circumspect, it seemed to me, in her replies – then he turned and took up a clipboard from the top of the bookshelf, and with a practised motion put it on his knee. He took a pen and wrote something on a piece of paper that was on the clipboard. From somewhere he produced a mala – Sarita had told us about this. It was a necklace with one hundred and eight rudrock beads to represent the one hundred and eight methods of meditation; and hanging from it, an oval pendant with his picture in it cast in plastic. He held this necklace out in a loop using both hands. My mother bent her head and he placed the mala over it, so that now the pendant rested on her chest. He read aloud to her the name he had just written: “Ma Devadasi. Will it be easy to pronounce?”
He asked how long she was staying – six weeks. “Very good,” he said. He was glowing love into her, very soft and caring; as if she was an honored veteran, deserving of all tenderness.
Then he turned to me. And he said, “So many rings?”
It was very simple sitting there in front of him. There was just this – as if the moment had been pumped up with a bicycle pump until it was all there was; this cool bare room, this exact position on the floor where I sat, this odd vast being in front of me with its absolute authority… this sense of levitation, this slowing down so that each detail was seen curiously, as if this was the first morning of the world. I don’t know if my mouth was hanging open, but it certainly felt as if it was.
I looked down at my hands; there was a turquoise-and-coral ring, or a silver ring, on each finger (though not the thumbs). I looked back up at him. “Ready for Sannyas?” he asked jovially.
I went into further gap-state, and out of it came – “Yes.” Purely a polite reflex, because I didn’t know what it was about at all – Sannyas, a Master, a Disciple. Sarita had been telling us many things, about both her own ecstatic surrender and the history and culture of gurus and disciples; but I didn’t feel connected with these ideas. Intellectually I didn’t at all know what this person had to do with me. Energetically, factually, I was agog and in shock, utterly gotten-to. It didn’t matter how many dissertations you delivered over a fissure in the earth somebody had lain a stick of dynamite in. The stick of dynamite mattered, though – very, very much.
Now, Bhagwan was holding up the loop of the mala. I ducked and he placed it over my head, onto my shoulders. I sat back up. He wrote on another piece of paper on his clipboard and then held the paper out to me. I looked at what was written: Ma Prem Madhuri, and the date, 9.12.1973.
He did not tell me anything about the name.
My mother and I had brought a few photos, as instructed by Sarita. They were supposed to be of people very important to us. Sarita was holding them, and now they were produced and Bhagwan looked carefully at each one: our oldest brother Garth, his wife Kathy, and their two small sons.
Bhagwan gave each of them a name and a mala, though they had not asked. I showed him a photo of Herb, big and bearded. Bhagwan said, “We will make a sannyasin out of him!” I showed him photos of one or two friends. Then he gave me a meditation to do: every day for one hour I was to imagine I was making love. I was to invite the lover of my choice and go through the whole act, with sound and movement and all – not a masturbation, he explained, though if orgasm occurred that was fine – but an acting-out. I sat with my hanging jaw.
Then he and Sarita discussed what we three were supposed to do until the meditation camp in Mt. Abu in January: Dynamic meditation on Chowpatty Beach in the morning. Lecture the next evening. And then, as soon as train tickets could be got, we were to travel up to Baroda and stay and work at a farm belonging to Sheela’s parents. (Sheela was a young Indian disciple.) Bhagwan and Sarita had an easy flow between them – she sat with her beautiful big eyes, her full mouth with its perfect square teeth; and she glowed trustingly, sweetly, at him. It was as though this role was more natural and more known to her than any other she had tried to inhabit in her short, rocky life. Then we were leaving, namaste-ing as we had been shown.
As we went back down the stairs to the street Sarita was explaining to me helpfully that my name meant “Sweet Love,” and that I had been given it because there was actually a really sweet interior to me (the implication was clear that this was contrary to the exterior, which was obviously a brittle, damaged mess!) She had already explained that “Ma” meant “mother of the universe,” and that that is what all women are. The next word, “Prem,” was a prefix. You were either on the path of love, if it was “prem,” or the path of awareness, if it was “anand.” The third name was Bhagwan’s recognition of our personal true being.
Here was a taxi, as Sarita was explaining our mother Devadasi’s name to her: “Servant of the Nature Gods,” literally, but historically temple prostitutes have been called that; Sarita explained the original meaning and beauty of the custom, but Devadasi was already beginning a long upset-ness over her name! This prostitute business, temple or no, was not at all palatable to her! (I was thinking, though, of her great joy in the woods, in the mountains – to me she seemed to have a direct link with the nature gods.)
But as I sat silently there beside my mother and sister I was noticing alarming symptoms in my body, which continued and increased as the day went on. The mala weighed around my neck, and I felt mildly electrocuted by it in a rather distressing way. We went on a boat to the island of Elephanta, very close to shore, and toured some caves in the heat; Sarita seemed keen on the carvings in them, but I just felt bleak, awkward, un-enthused. Later we went back to the house, where the servants brought to a large dining table little dishes of spicy beans and vegetables and rice and chutneys. Our hostess ate with us and was chatty and solicitous. We bathed again and went to bed… And, god, how strange, all the while a terrific buzzing was going on in a place in the middle of my forehead, just above the eyebrows. It wouldn’t let up… and simultaneously, sharp, queasy electric currents passed through the arches of my feet. It seemed I did not belong to myself any more – bad custodian though I may have been; something had taken me over, and was making life uncomfortable indeed. Before we went to bed I gave all my rings to the servants. They looked at me reproachfully, as if disappointed. Perhaps they would rather have had something else.
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