From a large, open-air pagoda emanates the deep-throated voice of a Swamiji offering a spiritual discourse. 50 Caucasian disciples draped in lungis are poised atop yoga mats, REI water bottles placed by their wilting bodies, awe-struck gazes fixated upon the dais. Only the bougainvillea vines, the hibiscus bushes, and the coconut palms hint at a location other than Marin County. What am I doing here? I have ventured into the unknown, only to be stuck in a new-agey ashram in the middle of a forest with no escape route in sight.
Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, where any conversation with an Indophile begins with an exposition on yoga, astrology, and reincarnation, I have developed a healthy skepticism for New Agers. It is at crystals that I normally draw the line, disappearing like a Cheshire Cat.
Why was it, then, that planning a visit to my mother in India last December, I found myself contemplating a trip to the ashrams of Kerala?
The reason was purely practical. I wanted to see Kerala, but the idea of staying alone at a tourist resort full of holiday revelers seemed less than enthralling. Then, browsing through the Lonely Planet guide, I discovered numerous mentions of ashrams and ayurvedic spas. New age had gone mainstream, even in India.
So I wrote to two ashrams: the Sivananda Yoga Ashram and Amma’s Ashram. Several weeks later, I was getting up at dawn in my home town of Nagpur to catch a plane to Mumbai and then to Trivandrum, now called Thiruvananthapuram, a name so hard to remember that Jet Airways still refers to it by its prior appellation.
Hours later, a lungi-clad taxi driver took me past villages dotted with coconut palms. A cool ocean breeze lulled me into drowsiness until I was startled by the sight of a cotton-sari-clad Indira Gandhi standing on a small roundabout at a busy intersection, gazing nonchalantly upon Communist Party slogans plastered on surrounding walls. The Keralite penchant for sculpting statues out of baked clay and erecting them in every town square would eventually become ingrained upon my sensibility. Unlike Maharashtra, where monuments loom upon cityscapes and nature surrenders to humans, in Kerala, flora and fauna overwhelm the loftiest manmade structures. The jungle undauntedly bursts out of nooks and crannies of roads and houses, forever green and lush and cheerful.
After an interminable hour, we arrived at the town of Nayyar Dam located beside a lake amidst a dense forest. Mud plastered thatched roofed houses lined the road leading up to the Ashram gates. After climbing the steep steps to the security guard’s booth, I arrived at the eerie sight I was now witnessing.
Satvik Room and Board
I peek into the adjoining office to discover a white man in a Nehru shirt manning a counter. Young men and women wander in and out with ease, as if they have always been here. My name is indeed on the roster, he assures me. It seems a minor miracle, for the ashram’s sparse e-mails have mentally prepared me to go find a hotel. The security guard escorts me to a two story, modest building serving as one of several women’s dorms.
He leaves my bags at the entrance, for men are not allowed inside women’s residences. I walk past cubicles with low partitions, each containing two beds, with just enough room in between for a small suitcase. I manage to locate an empty bed at the far end of the corridor, next to a wall separating the hall from the bathrooms.
Prior to any trip to India, I mentally prepare myself for the horror of Indian bathrooms. Once there, every visit to a public lavatory reminds me of Mahatma Gandhi’s words: “Indians think it is unclean to clean.” Whenever I travel in an Indian train, I recall Naipaul’s words in A Wounded Civilization—or was it An Area of Darkness—describing rows of Indians, squatting by the railroad tracks, performing bodily functions. How did I live here for nearly 25 years, I wonder then. I lived by not going to a public bathroom. As a young woman, I would suffer through an eight-hour bus ride without using the facilities. When our Spanish teacher recently asked, “What do you like the most about the United States?” I came up with “clean public toilets,” throwing the class into a fit of giggles.
I take a quick look now at the bathrooms and discover the toilets are western style but the bathing arrangements Indian, with a bucket and a tumbler placed under each tap and a shower overhead, both providing only cold water. The facilities are clean enough.
I unpack as a middle-aged Indian woman smiles at me from across the narrow hallway. She is here with two other couples; retirees from the U.K. who spend half of each year in India. They are taking a three-week yoga vacation, she says. My doubts begin to melt away; if they can do it, so can I.
After a refreshing cold shower, I venture outside. The ashram complex is aesthetically pleasing, with temples and pagodas scattered amid gardens of calalilies, krishnakamala, tagar, and groves of banana, papaya, fig, peepul, and other tropical trees. A faint outline of the lake is visible in the East, while, far below the hill on to the west, an illusory hamlet appears and disappears from view like a mirage, its music nonchalantly riding toward us with the wind.
I eagerly arrive at a temple at the far end of the complex and, adding my sandals to the pile of shoes, join rows of diners sitting in lotus positions on straw mats, facing stainless steel thalis and tall steel cups. The latter are filled with a delicious ayurvedic herbal elixir, I am told. I lower my limbs on to my allotted space, shifting my weight from one haunch to the other, while all around me, hip white women in ankle bracelets and harem pants are sitting perfectly cross-legged, like the very incarnations of Goddess Laxmi.
Dinner is as festive as at an Indian wedding. Male and female servers bend over our thalis, ladling sambar and rice, salad and veggies out of huge pots. I have traveled here with cashews, long-lasting soy milk, and fruit, staples I carry regardless of whether I am going to Miami or Mumbai, so as to maintain my low-carb diet. I wonder if I should eat more at this early hour of 5:30, so as not to awaken in the middle of the night with pangs of hunger.
This satvik food, I discover, is delicious. Soon, foreigners around me are digging in with their fingers. Across from me, an Indian man mixes sambar and rice into a tennis-ball shape and puts it into his mouth; a woman scoops rasam with the ladle of her hand, then slurps it noisily. And with that gesture I travel in time to serve dinner to my father, who is sitting on a low wooden paat, slurping kadhi. A dining table did not arrive in our house until I was in college and then, too, only upon my insistence. Spoons and bowls were rarely used; daal was served in the plate with rice just as it is served here. Knives and forks did not enter our lives until an American pen pal came to visit. The utensils would be stored away for years in a built-in glass cupboard, and provided by my now-deceased father during my own visits from America.
Faith, and Other Motivations
After dinner, I follow the diners down a garden path to a row of deep set, rectangular, stainless steel washbasins lined with taps, just like the ones we used to have in high school. Steel bowls containing sprigs of coconut husk, brick powder, and ash are provided on the ledge above for scrubbing our plates. The few Indians in our company gargle loudly; there are signs above the basins instructing devotees not to put their plates down for this very reason. Gargling is one habit I myself have not been able to abandon after all these years. My American coworkers often eye me curiously as I nonchalantly rinse my mouth after lunch, convinced that this ritual is solely responsible for most Indians’ gleaming white teeth.
I idle into the garden as dusk settles over the bushes and the trees; why is it that tropical evenings have that wistful quality, I wonder? I sit on a brick and clay bench circling a tree; it reminds me of a large tulsi vrindavan. A young Indian man is sitting on the bench at a distance. He is from Delhi and has never done any yoga; he is here to retune his personality. “I have been smoking and drinking,” he says. “I am prone to tamasa, feelings. I want to be calm, to be at peace.”
“You have to think of this life as maya,” I say. “You have to dissociate your ego from everything and not expect anything.”
“Can you teach me how?”
I smile, but deep inside, I am gripped by that indescribable panic that has been with me ever since I separated from my husband. I feel I am floating in space, not connected to anyone or anything. There are times I am not even sure if I can wake up and go through the motions of living; preparing tea, getting ready for work, meeting my staff, cooking dinner for my children, going on hikes with my friends, learning Spanish, dreaming of travels and exotic gardens and tropical beaches and longing for that one soul mate to share it all with. How do we go on, not knowing the future? Other times, I find myself in the grips of the God dilemma. There is no God, I tell myself; if there were one, he would not willingly want generations of Indians to die on the streets of Mumbai; if there were a God, he would not cause needless suffering and disappointment in the lives of my own relatives.
The young man and I speak of life’s impermanence and randomness; of balancing acceptance with struggle, desire with detachment, energy with calm. Dusk throws me into grips of melancholy; as an adolescent, I would walk to the Ram Temple at the end of Cement Road at dusk, ringing its bells and circling its inner sanctum, all the time remembering my father’s words, “Arre, there is no proof that God exists.”
In deepening dark, I tread on shadowy pathways toward the small store where devotees are purchasing videos, books, incense, shirts. I buy a yoga mat, then head to the darkened main temple where evening meditation is already in progress. Sitting on a cushion, I am eerily taken back to 1992, when a colleague had taken me to the Sivananda Ashram in San Francisco where I had learned these very chants. Could it be that my subconscious has brought me on this journey? The chants come back to me now with ease, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Sita Rama, Hare Hare. I cringe at the harsh intonations of the American Swamiji who is butchering the Sanskrit pronunciations, even as I am moved to tears by memories of long ago chants heard from the house next door in Nagpur.
In the darkened hall, I finally resolve to believe, not in the evocation of that illusory and unjust God, but in the notion that meditation and chanting have been scientifically proven to be beneficial for the mind and the body.
The evening session ends in an aarti and we line up for prasad prepared with semolina, sugar, bananas, and raisins. Then I am off to bed where I finally meet my cube-mate, a young French woman who has been backpacking around India for several months and is planning to stay at the ashram for a few weeks. I am envious of her lack of itinerary, the absolute freedom of her young life. Soon I am lulled to sleep under my cozy mosquito net, listening to the roar of lions in the sanctuary across the lake.
A Day in the Life
I awaken at 5 the next morning for the morning chant. Volunteers armed with flashlights check our names in the roster, for all activities are mandatory. Afterwards, we march out under the trees to fill our tall steel glasses with steaming tea poured out of aluminum kettles, each bearing a different label; tea with milk but no sugar, black tea, tea with milk and sugar. Every small pleasure brings intense joy in this harsh regimen, and reminds me of monks in a French abbey, partaking of their meals in transcendental silence.
I head to the beginner’s yoga class after tea; within minutes, I am being ordered by a Caucasian male teacher wearing a microphone to twist my body into a coil, to balance myself on my hands, to wrap my legs around my shoulders. “Get down on your toes in the plank position, chest to the ground, hips up,” he admonishes. I don’t even come close to assuming the posture. If this is the beginning yoga class, what must the advance yoga class look like? I am wearing yoga pants and one of the two sleeved t-shirts I have with me; apparently, I did not read the web instructions carefully and failed to realize that baring of legs, knees, or shoulders is not permitted here.
After the class is lunch at 10:30 a.m., accompanied by spiced buttermilk and chapattis. I haven’t eaten a thing since 5:30 p.m., and yet I am not hungry. The man at the counter was right; in this heat, this diet is totally adequate.
I venture out of the gate after signing the thick registration book set on the Gurkha’s counter in the afternoon. Finding a path by the lake, I walk under a thick shade of trees. The air is much cooler here. I sit on a bench to call my brother and mother; the ashram does not allow the use of cell phones on its grounds. I describe the food, the sleeping arrangements, the strict regime. “I wish I could bring you here,” I say to my brother. The injustice of the situation haunts me once again. Here I am, having a yoga vacation, while my brother is trapped in Nagpur looking after my ailing mother. But I am trapped, too, in the life I have created for myself in the United States. Afterward, I climb the steps back to the ashram, long absences from which are not permitted.
At 2 p.m., the attendees gather around the brick platforms again, to partake of fresh pineapple and tea.
At night, men with painted faces walk on to the stage wearing frocks ballooning with bukrum, their voices oddly melodious, their limbs moving in stylized gestures, recounting the story of Shurpanakha to a mesmerizing rhythm of drums. As the music reaches a crescendo, I recall Arundhati Roy’s kathakali dancers in the God of Small Things, passing the melancholy hours of the night even as the village descends into decay. My first association with kathakali was as a child, when, after our regular kathak dance lesson, our teacher, Mr. Shivankar, would sit us down to recite the characteristics of various classical dances. Mr. Shivankar would one day drop dead on the stage while dancing Shiva’s tandav nritya, but his descriptions of kathakali would stay with me.
This evening is long, however, and soon, the maniacal videotaping of the Westerners lulls into lethargy.
Everyone is relieved when the evil Shurpanakha is slain and aarti begins.
Swamiji declares that we are to go on a hike the next morning. “Bring your cameras,” he says, “for we will have some beautiful views.” I set the alarm on my Indian cell phone for 4:30 a.m. As anxious as a child on the eve of a field trip, I wake up at 4, however, and donning my clothes, carry my flashlight to the road where dark silhouettes are already huddling. Swamiji blows the whistle and we are off, walking down a sloping, dark road, wondering where the pavement ends and the dirt begins. It is that eerie hour of the morning when no moon shines, the stars have gone to sleep, and all we can hear are the cries of the owls. The last time I saw a morning like this was probably in Nagpur, years ago, as a little girl, when I would wake up before dawn on a Divali morning to bathe in the ritual powders so as not to end up in Narak, the Hindu hell.
Swamiji keeps a good pace and soon we are walking past the sleepy town with its dimly lit school courtyard. Suddenly, I realize that we have veered off the road and into the countryside, scrambling over black rocks and loose gravel. There is no trail; we are simply climbing through empty spaces between trees and bushes. The faint light of dawn breaks as we climb the last stretch over white rocks to a small plateau where we are required to remove our shoes; the Kalipali hill is considered holy. I scramble barefoot up a huge boulder to the peak where men and women have already assumed meditative postures.
Tree covered hills surround us as far as the eye can see. How many places like this still remain in India, I wonder. Swamiji begins chanting just as a cool tropical breeze envelopes us and the sun rises to the East.
The group disperses and I find myself walking alone past the village school and its azure swimming pool. Buses full of Sunday picnickers pull up in the rose garden by the dam. Malayalam music blares from speakers hoisted high atop tree tops and trails me all the way up the road and to a group of ashramites hotly debating our chances of making it to morning tea.
Staggering sweatily into the courtyard at last, we are all delighted to discover that tea has indeed been held for us; such are the small pleasures of an ascetic life.
I attend both the morning and afternoon yoga sessions, surprised by my own stamina. If everyone followed such a regimen every day, I muse, no one would ever suffer from blood pressure, diabetes, or heart disease.
In the evening, a tall, dark Indian man greets me in front of the main temple. He is a limousine driver, he informs me, and has recently discovered his gift for yoga, which he teaches at a five-star hotel in Madurai. “I need a license,” he says, “I was lucky to get a scholarship to come here to this class.”
“It is a bit disconcerting,” I tell him, “to find this ashram run by Americans while working class Indians operate on the periphery.”
“This is not really an ashram,” he responds, “it is a simulation.”
“I have been to real ashrams, deep within the forest,” he adds. “Even today, those places exist in India. They are like Valmiki’s ashram in the Ramayana. You see some old wizened woman sitting by a cottage; you ask her for refuge and she offers you love and hospitality. Those are the truly spiritual people. I don’t find this place spiritual at all. But I need the certificate, so I am here.”
That night, prior to the entertainment program organized by the devotees, Lalitha, one of the Indian retirees, approaches me and whispers, “If the Americans are intent on leading the chants, why don’t they bother to learn the correct pronunciations? Why must they ruin our ancient prayers?”
As if to answer our complaint, the one Indian Swamiji leads us in the singing of “Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram,” Gandhi’s favorite prayer, that night. As we recite the familiar verses, “Ishwar Allah tere nam, sub ko sanmati de bhagawan—God and Allah are your names, give us all good intentions,” I ponder the colonial overtones to this ashram experience. Like the Indians in The Jewel in the Crown, the noted British series, Indians here are marginal; yet I cannot help wonder if things would be less organized if the Americans were not in charge.
At Home in the World
By the third day, I have fallen in step with the strict routine, the meditation sessions, the strenuous yoga lessons. I wish I had weeks here, rather than a few days. In the evening, one of the retirees, Mr. Patel, inquires about my family. “My mother is ailing; it was hard to leave her to come here,” I say.
He replies, “I see your tears as you speak of your mother; I think you must come to India more often. There is love here that you cannot find anywhere else in the world.” Suddenly, I am grieving the lost years, when, instead of tending to my blood family, I was busy taking care of my husband and my stepdaughters. I realize, too, that only the other Indians have reached out to me here; for the occidentals, I am just a dark native merging into the backdrop.
In the morning, a woman orders me to clean the bathrooms; chides me for not signing up for seva. “Can you not give me something else? I am only here for a few days,” I plead. She insists, so I immerse myself in the task, cleaning the toilets, scrubbing the sinks, mopping the floor. Soon, the bathroom is spotless. It has never been as clean as it is now, I muse.
Emerging from the bathrooms, I come face to face with a staff member. “Are you Sarita?” she inquires. “A taxi from Amma’s Ashram has been waiting for you.”
“It is destiny; you are meant to meet Amma,” Lalitha says. “She is there at her ashram right now.” I throw a scarf over my bare shoulders and run into the office. I ask the taxi driver, a slight man in a bush shirt, to go get lunch while I pack.
An hour later, I am suddenly bidding goodbye to my Indian friends, tears welling in my eyes. “The new-agers do know something worthwhile,” I muse, as the taxi sails with me through the thick forest toward another tryst with the unknown.
|Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. A collection of her writings can be found atwww.saritasarvate.com|