(2 April 1928 – 19 May 2020)
Nick Swift writes about his father, Deva Gireesh (aka John Denzil Houghton Swift):
Dad never gave any instructions for his funeral. When we asked him about it he always said ‘I don’t give a damn’. A phrase he often used.
I think he was a man of contrasts. In some ways quite traditional and old fashioned, in others very unconventional and adventurous.
He enjoyed being with people, but was not really a people person and certainly not a ‘people pleaser’. He was very direct – sometimes unnecessarily so. He also spent much of his life alone.
He had a great love of reading – literature, history and philosophy – right up until his death. He was also a spiritual seeker and this was a major theme of his life.
Gireesh was born in 1928 and had a privileged, but emotionally austere childhood, though he probably wouldn’t have described it as such.
In 1947, when he was 18, he was called up for national service in the army. He found he had an aptitude for army life and enjoyed the camaraderie, decided to apply for officer training and was accepted into Sandhurst. When he graduated as a commissioned officer he felt successful and that his parents were really proud of him for the first time in his life. He stayed in army for 9 years and left as a captain at the age of 28.
He kept a gruff, military manner for most of the rest of his life, though it hid a very soft heart. He married and had three children with Suruchi (then Liz), and they lived what seemed to be a fairly conventional life. However they were both looking for some kind of spiritual meaning, and spent several years in a Subud group in Somerset.
In 1976 his mother died and he inherited some money, which meant that he was free to give up work. He went to Pune and took sannyas [on 14 May 1977, ed.], being given the name Deva Gireesh – which means Lord of the Divine Mountain. Osho explained to him that his path up the mountain to enlightenment would be a solitary one. And so it proved.
He was soon followed to Pune by the rest of the family – Suruchi, Nick, who briefly became Itihas, Samvida and Sargam. Back in the UK he bought a beautiful house at Gara Bridge in Devon, which became a centre for family and sannyas life for a while. But Suruchi and the children had been spending more and more time in Pune, so eventually he and Suruchi parted ways, and the house was sold.
Gireesh stayed involved with Osho and the ashram, meditating and taking part in therapy groups and travelled back and forth to India. But in the end it seemed that his heart wasn’t in it anymore.
Over the next few years, in his mid 50s, he spent a lot of time alone and seemed to lack a sense of purpose, though he continued to meditate most days. Gradually he got through all his money until he only had a few pounds left in the bank. Then he suddenly kind of woke up and decided that he needed to get a job.
He was nearly 60, hadn’t worked for many years and the only job he could get was as a hospital porter and cleaner. He set himself a tough routine, getting up at 4am to meditate, off to his cleaning job and then a very physical job wheeling people around the x-ray department at the hospital all day. He worked as a porter for over 15 years, the physical work keeping him fit, and finally retiring at the age of 76. Like in the army, he enjoyed the camaraderie and banter of working at the hospital and flirting with the nurses.
Gireesh had been brought up in an affluent family, with a cook and nannies, shopping at Harrods etc. But here he was, working as a porter and cleaner. There was something very humbling and almost like a spiritual practice in his lifestyle.
(Pankaja adds: I remember one story – while wheeling Isaiah Berlin, the well known philosophy professor off to have an operation, he couldn’t resist asking the patient on the gurney a deep philosophical question about one of his books!)
After retirement he moved to Hastings to live in a flat in Sargam’s house. This was a great arrangement because Gireesh remained independent but enjoyed the love, warmth and care of being close to Sargam, her partner Agzi and son Marlon.
He spent a lot of time with Sargam’s family over the following 15 years, frequently joining them for meals, and being able to share in family birthday and Christmas celebrations. He also saw a lot of Sam, who also lived in Hastings, and Nick often drove over with Suruchi to visit. He and Suruchi had never stopped loving each other although they had lived separate lives for several decades.
In the latter stages of his life, Gireesh started to suffer from mild dementia, Alzheimer’s, from the age of about 86. Around Christmas in 2017, at age 89, he fell and broke his hip . It was clear that he could no longer look after himself and the family took the difficult step of moving him into a care home.
Sargam found the right place for him, a wonderfully airy, high ceilinged room, with space for his oriental rug and books, and kind, loving staff; he often used to remark on what a lovely room it was.
On her visits Sam felt that they were able to share jokes and laughter in a more enjoyable way than ever before. Rather than deteriorating it seemed that he had a kind of renaissance, a whole new phase of life when he moved into the care home.
He had a rather childlike quality about him; his short term memory was poor, but the main thing was that he seemed to be consistently very happy, so delighted to see the family every time they came to visit, always very open and affectionate. He seemed to be completely accepting of his situation and without any judgements about himself or anyone else. Maybe this was the fruit of all those years of meditation.
Gireesh had never seemed to care what people thought about him. This was admirable, but also gave him a hard quality. It was more like ‘I don’t give a damn’ rather than ‘I’m happy as I am’. Like a protective shell, it served him for most of his life, but only allowed glimpses of his gentler side and often kept people at a distance. Although he mellowed a lot as he got older, he still had a gruff side.
When he came to the care home it was like he no longer had to struggle, no longer had to maintain that shell, that tough persona. Nothing to achieve, nothing to protect. He could just sit in his splendid room, surrounded by his books, attended by kind young women, whom he could also have a bit a of laugh and a banter with. How bad can that be?
Rather than being what could have been a rather sad add-on to his life, these final 2½ years felt like a gift, when Nick felt that he really came to know the essence of his father. When they sometimes talked about death in the last few months he said that he was ready to die but had no desire to die. He still had an appetite for life and was enjoying it. And physically he was well, without any aches and pains.
His death felt rather sudden and abrupt, in a manner that seemed quite typical of him. He’d been ill for a day or so, and was only in hospital for a couple of hours, Nick and Sam waiting outside because they weren’t allowed in, before he suddenly died.
Often at social occasions he would suddenly decide that he’d had enough and just get up and go, without explanation. Perhaps he saw all these people in masks, visors and gloves and thought sod this – time to go.
Thanks to Pankaja for forwarding text and photos
Gireesh’s cremation was held in Hastings, on 9 June 2020.
Gireesh’s sannyas darshan
For real questions there are no answers – David (Gireesh’s Subud name) came to darshan some weeks ago. A friend of the English novelist, Pankaja, David is a potter, and at his first darshan told Bhagwan that he has been involved in Subud, writes Maneesha.
The life of a wanderer – Suruchi tells her life story