A review of Jayanthi Tamm’s book, subtitled ‘A Memoir of Growing Up Cult’ – by Madhuri.
Cartwheels in a Sari:
A Memoir of Growing Up Cult
by Jayanthi Tamm
2009, Three Rivers Press, New York
Imagine… Your parents meet in a guru’s living room in the Bronx – the first time there, for each of them. They are not attracted to each other and are not looking for a partner, but for enlightenment. The guru instructs them to marry and to never have sex. They marry, and soon enough the wife is pregnant. The Guru decides not to punish them but to welcome the child as his darling-most Bliss-Child who will love and serve him and be his Golden Child. He is present at the birth and names the baby. The parents never love each other but serve the guru together. You grow up with the guru as a sort of beaming dad who nevertheless expects everything, all your time and all your devotion; and has exacting standards – including, as you grow up, that you never talk to boys, and remain celibate always.
What a strange conditioning! Though not really any stranger, I guess, than what the rest of us have to contend with. Just less usual.
I didn’t know anything about Sri Chinmoy before reading this so I looked in Wikipedia, which speaks very respectfully of this Bangladeshi orphan who came to New York to seek his guru-fortune. His photo looked quite nice, but all this celibacy nonsense was just… silly, because so impossible and so not fun, and so distorting of the human being. Nobody in the book seems to have heard of Tantra.
His richly-endowed organization seemed to me to lack creativity – both in the ways he taught and how he had his people live. We see lots of cityscape, grubby and forlorn, and lacklustre interiors. A lot of his ministry took place on a tennis court, where disciples were obliged to sit from morning till night, watching him play with whatever toys he was into then and listening to him giving pronouncements.
According to the author, Sri Chinmoy boldly courted famous people in order to publicise himself; he also managed to insert many disciples in the U.N.
I found the book fascinating, and very sad – the tone is quite light and breezy, but as you go more into it the pathos begins to emerge. The author eventually escapes and suffers the lostness of the cult-flee-er; but later finds her feet and revels in her freedom. Education had been denied her – it wasn’t approved of by Sri Chinmoy – but she became a Professor of English (which has not prevented a great many grammatical errors in the prose). The life she had led made the normal world seem like bliss. Interesting!