Do you know the story of the Earl of Stanhope?
It is said that upon arriving at the palace of King Louis XIV, the French King met the Earl’s carriage and held the door to the palace open and said, “After you.” Without hesitation, the Earl of Stanhope said “thank you,” permitted the King to hold the door for him, and walked into the palace. The King replied, “Truly, you are the most polite man in Europe.” The moral of the story is that when someone offers you a courtesy – even if that someone is your superior, like the King in this case – the polite response is to accept gracefully. (A similar story is recounted here about the Earl of Stair.)
This story comes to my mind often. Just the other day, while descending in the elevator on my way home from work, I told my fellow passenger “after you.” “No, no after you,” he insisted. In the meantime, the elevator doors began to close. I didn’t fight any further. Remembering the Earl of Stanhope, I said “thank you” and went on my way.
Sundar taught me that story more than 20 years ago.
For the four and a half years that I lived in Queens, Sundar was my running partner, confidante, and true friend (and it all started at the Smile of the Beyond). As you may remember from a previous post, I first started working at the Smile on a temporary basis, while the then-current manager was away on the Christmas trip. Sundar was part of the full-time staff. At work, he taught me the ropes. After work, Sundar taught me how to run.
First and foremost, Sundar was my running partner. From my first days working at the Smile, Sundar led me on a running exploration of the greater Queens region. On Friday nights in the fall, for example, we'd run to circus practice. (At every Celebrations, there was a circus, where various disciples would put on acts. Typically, I didn't participate and circus practice for Sundar and me, and a number of other guys, consisted of playing indoor soccer for a few hours until Guru called for prasad.)
Heading north on Union Turnpike, we'd run until about the two and a half mile marker -- a big, circled 2 1/2 painted both on the sidewalk and street in white paint by Guru's road crew (of which I was a part). We'd then cross over to the Alley Pond bike path, which in the early fall darkness was somber and quiet. For the next few miles, our steps and our breathing were in unison and were the only sounds to be heard until we reached the end of the path, crossed back over Union Turnpike, and ran the rest of the way to the public school where circus practice was held.
On frigid winter mornings, we might rise early and run to the Kissena Park golf course and run on the snow-covered fairways. We'd stop for a few minutes to stand still, panting with hands folded, to salute the rising sun, whose power was barely perceptible in the face of the frozen jets of air pushing south from the Canadian plains.
In the spring, Sundar and I might run in Forest Park Gardens, where the tulips were in bloom and where we might catch Geraldine Ferraro walking her dog with her neighbors. In the brutal New York summers, we might venture out early on Sunday, out the bike path and beyond, circling back to Jamaica for 16 miles and then head south to Flushing Meadows Park for 20-plus miles total. After showering, we'd meet at Annam Brahma for a huge meal, and miss part or all of the morning function with Guru.
On such mornings, we'd shrug it off. "After running 20 miles," Sundar would say, "no matter what you do for the rest of the day, you feel like you've accomplished something." I wholeheartedly agreed.
Sundar was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, speaks fluent French, and is extremely well-versed in the history and literature of Western Europe, from which he would regularly regale me with stories and anecdotes like that of the Earl of Stanhope, above, which would stick with me forever.
Primarily, though, Sundar taught me how to observe -- how to observe others and, ultimately, how to observe myself. After leaving the employ of the Smile, Sundar became a barber and took over the Center-owned barbershop (called "Perfection in the Head World"), where he's been cutting hair and holding court for more than 20 years.
Traditionally, barbershops have been gathering places for locals to meet and exchange information. That's certainly true for Sundar's shop. ("Sundar," by the way, means "beauty" in Bengali.) From his post on Parsons Boulevard, Sundar presides over a vast, informal intelligence network of disciple goings-on and Center-related intrigue. Once, wanting to share some experience I had had at Guru's house the previous evening -- but not wanting it broadcast to all -- I asked Sundar whether he ever kept secrets.
"Of course," he answered. "If someone tells me that some piece of information is confidential, then I'll never pass it on." Sundar was true to his word.
Sundar has the vibe of old world, European royalty, but not of a warrior-king -- there's no violence hidden within him -- so much as a privy counselor: refinement, learnedness, discretion. I'm not aware of any disciple who is at the same time as self-sufficient as Sundar and as steady in his practice.
When I would finally muster up the courage to leave the Center for good, Sundar was one of just a handful of my brother disciples to see me off. For that reason alone, I'm indebted to him.
Unmesh took the great picture above of Sundar and I running the Sri Chinmoy Marathon then held every February in New Hampshire.