Thursday, August 27, 2009


I was climbing down the long flight of stairs that rode on the back of a long rocky natural slope, on top of which sat the South Delhi Kali Bari (house of goddess Kali) when the guard called out “Arrrey… Arrey... !! Mataji toh gir jayengi”. I turned back to see an elfin figure in a saffron saree hanging on for dear life from the railing that ran along the staircase. But instead of holding the railing to climb the stairs, this elderly woman was on the other side of the balustrade, trying to haul her way along the slope. I rushed to her aid. By now, gravity had bent her body into a downward pointing arrow and I mulled over the appropriateness of giving her a firm push to help her along but then decided against it. Though precariously placed, she seemed determined and proud, so instead I just stood behind her so that I could break her fall in case she slipped…

As things turned out, it wasn’t necessary and granny managed to make her way towards a rocky outcrop on the slope and sat down. Considering her actions and surroundings, I had expected to see a weather-beaten face, undisciplined and stained teeth, like dirty naughty children breaking through the line at the morning assembly and a disheveled and disorientated air that accompanies every tramp. And yet, when she settled down on that rock face after giving the spot a thorough dusting, she turned towards me and smiled with the sort of poise one might associate with aristocratic grand dames one might encounter at polo grounds on a Sunday afternoon. “Thank you, young man”, she said and smiled through her sparkling teeth. She wore her downy white hair short, and her saffron robes were clean and crisp. She looked like such an oddity on that mossy outcrop that I just had to ask “What’re you doing over here, ma’am?” She seemed a little surprised by the question. “Me? Why, whenever I come to Delhi, this is where I choose to stay…” But why not inside the temple? Why here, exposed to the elements on a rocky slope where one can’t even lie down and sleep… “Well, that’s my little experiment. I don’t intend to sleep but instead I’ll chant through the night… And anyway, I don’t like restrictions… neither rules nor walls… I’m happy under the open sky (and she said the last bit in a rather refined Anglo-Bengali English).” I was carrying a packet of Britannia cakes with me and so I asked her if she was hungry enough to want to eat a few…? “No, no, son, I shouldn’t… I’m 82 (she was remarkably nimble for her age and her unlined face didn’t seem to be much older than someone in her late 50s or early 60s) now and have managed to keep myself away from every ailment till now but I should watch what I eat or else… (she grinned) I will get into trouble…”

Mataji doesn’t want me to reveal her either of her names, neither the one she has as a sadhavi, nor the name her parents had given her, but this is her story… in her words…

“I was born into the raj bari (royal household) of Kumilla which was a part of the state of Tripura. After the partition, Kumilla became a part of what is now Bangladesh. It was a very happy childhood and while my mornings and aft ernoons were spent running around the corridors of the raj bhawan and in the arms of my uncles and grandfather, listening to stories and playing pranks, my evenings were spent sitting on a cot in our courtyard with my grandmother while Shiraj kaka, the Muslim cowherd sat at our feet. His nimble fingers would work on the jute ropes he made and his soulful voice would seem to bring the stars to life as he sang beautiful songs about everything from the joy of the monsoons to the pain of separation… life couldn’t have been better. Then one day, one of my favourite uncles died, just like that… Suddenly, the man who carried me in his arms and told stories about kings and saints every afternoon was gone the next afternoon. I couldn’t get over it. I asked myself, where did he go? Why did he go? And if we are all to die, mother, father, grandfather, grandmother… everybody, then why bother with living? I didn’t know whom to ask…

One of the saints my late uncle oft en told me stories about was Swami Vivekananda. So as I grew older I started reading his books. This was the time when Bengal was in the grip of nationalistic fervour and Vivekananda’s nationalistic ideology inspired me a lot. Somewhere I read thathe felt that while India had produced more than its share of lions in every field, we still hadn’t supported the women of this country enough to help them emerge as the true lionesses they are meant to be and to that end he resolved to set up an educational institution and ashrams for such women. While still a child, I wrote letters to organisations that run in the name of Maa Sarada (Rama Krishna Paramhansa’s wife) and Sister Nivedita (Swami Vivekananda’s Irish student who dedicated her life to Vivekananda’s ideals) and soon as I was old enough to join them, I told my parents I had made up my mind never to get married and dedicate my life towards becoming the lioness Vivekananda wanted the women of this nation to become. I wanted to work towards alleviating the suffering of the poor and the needy as well as in the service of the Almighty, and it really was tough to tell where one ended and the other began. My mother had always been very supportive but my father was your typical conservative and domineering zamindar and he wasn’t too excited about my plans. However, I’d made up my mind to never do something just because I have to, and from that day, till today, I have lived my life on my terms… Of course the tremendous respect my parents and the whole family had for Rama Krishna Paramhans, Maa Sarada and Swamiji, and the powerful tidal wave of the spirit of independence that had engulfed Bengal helped them let me go.

After finishing my schooling I went to Kolkata and started working as a volunteer at a refugee home. This was in the days just before the partition and I found it difficult to come to terms with the horror and suffering of that time. And then I met Madame Lizelle Reymond who took me under her wing. I was her ‘little friend’ and it was through her loving teachings that I was born again in her heart.”

Hmm… Lizelle Reymond! The Swiss lady who authored Sister Nivedita’s biography and was a student of the spiritual master Sri Anirvan… Mataji hadan impressive spiritual and philosophical lineage. She had also had interactions with ‘The Mother’ (Rishi Aurobindo’s spiritual collaborator and successor). And in spite of spending her days walking along the mountain trails beyond Almora, painting images on smooth river rocks by the Ganga in Haridwar, and sleeping under the great blue dome, she keeps abreast of national issues. “All this brouhaha over Jaswant Singh’s take on Jinnah is just a storm in a tea cup. I remember the great killings in Noakhali when the Britishers emptied the whole Bata shoe factory in Kolkata of all its 300-odd Muslim workers and sent them to Noakhali with instructions to rape, murder and pillage for three days, assuring them that the cops would be held back. My maternal uncle was the police chief in Begumganj and he kept requesting for permission to protect people from the mob but the permission was never granted. He saved as many people as he could… Carnage like Noakhali’s was then used to incite Hindu mobs and this forest fire of hate ended up dividing us.”

I asked her if she ever got lonely, living her life all alone, never having considered marriage or family. “No, I don’t get lonely. I find friends everywhere. And then I have my books. I carry some with me. And some characters from some books stay with me forever, like friends that have come alive from the pages of a book. I find my best friends in Tagore’s books…” And her answer? Did she finally figure out why people die? And where do they go when they die? “No, I didn’t find the answer, but I did figure out that it is ok to die. I have lived my life without regret and there is nothing more I want. No Moh, no Maya… and yet my life has been touched by so much of divine love. Now all I want is a beautiful death” and she smiled a beatific smile. But what is a beautiful death? She said, “When my time comes I should embrace my passing, not knowing who I am, or where I might be, without a thought, a care or an unfulfilled desire…”

I left her on that rock that night, a picture of dignified calmness and contentment. Some might call it happiness… I can’t be sure. But if there is happiness in renunciation, perhaps that picture came very close…


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