Monday, September 29, 2008

Sumati


Shortly after leaving the Center and returning to California, I got a telephone call from Giribar.

Though the call was out of the blue, I was glad to hear from him. We spent a few minutes catching up and then he came to the point.

"Sumati called me," he said. "She'd like to meet with you." I was taken aback.

Sumati had been a long-time, San Francisco disciple, but it was rumored that she was now actively working against Guru by supporting the efforts of a group of cult deprogrammers. By doing so, Sumati was not merely persona non grata in the Center, she was reviled as a "hostile force."

"Sure, I'll meet with her," I told Giribar.

We agreed to meet for dinner at a hotel restaurant in South San Francisco, near the airport, which was about halfway between where I lived and Berkeley, where Sumati was apparently living.

I agreed to meet with Sumati for one reason: to destroy the influence of "magical thinking" upon my actions. If Sumati was pure evil -- as Guru had made her out to be in the months before I had left the Center -- then I wanted to see it for myself. I left the Center in order to stand on my own. If I wasn't capable of doing so -- if I was still afraid of the bogey man (or woman, in this case) -- then I should probably return to the cocoon of the Center.

I first met Sumati at the old San Francisco Center in the early 1980s. She was not a prominent disciple then, having joined the Center just a year or two before I had. But with the departure of Sevika's husband from the Center, Sumati became Sevika's best friend. The two of them seemed to do everything together. And when Sevika replaced Ratna as our Center leader in San Jose, more often than not it was Sumati who accompanied Sevika on her hour drive south to our little Center from San Francisco.

Sumati was extremely funny. I don't remember now what her background was -- if she had ever told me -- but her extroverted personality was reminiscent of a slightly less morose, female Larry David. Whether she was actually born there or not, Sumati had a kind of self-deprecating, irreverent, Brooklyn-Jewish sense of humor that was very funny.

As Sevika's number two, Sumati naturally came to prominence in the Center. Her laugh was infectious and Guru would often call her up to the front of the room and have her do impromptu stand-up routines that had most of us -- including Guru -- belly laughing in a matter of minutes. When I finally moved to New York, it was Sumati to whom I had given my old car.

Sumati's final role in the Center was as one of Guru's weightlifting publicists. (There were three of them, primarily: Sumati; a younger female disciple named Mandabi; and an older male disciple from Seattle named Agraha.) I've already written here and here about my ambivalence for Guru's weightlifting efforts.

For better or for worse, there's no doubt that the efforts of Sumati (and her two colleagues) generated a lot of publicity for Guru. But sometime in the last year or two of my discipleship, both Sumati and Sevika left the Center (though I don't now remember the exact chronology of their respective departures).

Sometime shortly thereafter it became common knowledge in the Center that Sumati was actively working against Guru, that she was working for a group of deprogrammers. Since the days of Pulin's kidnapping, I held a special contempt for so-called deprogrammers. That said, by the time Sumati left the Center, I was on the way out myself and wasn't much concerned with what she was up to.

I should also note that I didn't actually know first hand what Sumati was doing after she left the Center. I only knew what I had heard, and I heard a lot. Guru was really pissed off about her activities. Sometime in the last year before I left, Guru went on at some length about Sumati's supposed deficiencies. It must have been after a Wednesday night meditation, because Guru was at P.S. 86 when he let loose one evening.

In particular, I remember Guru recounting -- with a mix of indignity and sadness -- his very first conversation with Sumati. It was a story I'd heard Sumati recount with humor at least once in the past. But there was no humor in Guru's re-telling.

Apparently, in Sumati's early days -- when she was still "Robin" -- she worked at Dipti Nivas, a near-legendary vegetarian buffet restaurant in San Francisco owned by Devadip and Urmila Santana. (If you missed the food at Dipti Nivas, then you really missed something special.) In any event, one day Guru called the restaurant and the young Robin answered the phone. The initial problem was that Sumati couldn't understand what Guru was saying.

That was a common enough problem for new disciples, but more important: Sumati didn't even recognize that it was Guru on the phone. In hindsight, that fact isn't all that surprising either. If I had never heard Guru speak and then he called me at work, then I doubt that I would have figured it out either.

In Sumati's telling, the story was hilarious to everyone, including Guru. In Guru's later telling at P.S. 86, however, the incident foretold trouble. Guru said that at the time of the call, he felt a strong urge to summarily kick the young Robin out of the Center. What kind of disciple, Guru asked, doesn't recognise their own Guru? Against his better judgment, Guru said, he decided against kicking her out.

In effect, Guru said that Sumati was now a "hostile force" -- like an evil spirit personified. In no uncertain terms, Guru made it clear that nobody was to have any contact with her going forward. And as I recall, Guru went the extraordinary -- though not unprecedented -- step of rescinding Sumati's spiritual name.

All of that was on my mind as I drove north on Highway 101 to our scheduled dinner meeting. In the end, though, it was all rather anti-climactic. Both Giribar and Sumati looked largely the same (no noticeable horns or forked tongue on Sumati).

The three of us caught up with each other and as we chatted, it became clear to me that there was something on Sumati's mind. I sensed -- perhaps wrongly -- that Sumati was looking for supporters or other ex-disciples hostile to Guru. When she asked me why I had left the Center, I took it as my cue to let her down.

"Sex," I said. "I left the Center because I wanted to have sex." Pure and simple. Although I had no more interest in the spiritual life, I told Sumati that I didn't leave because I no longer believed.

"Guru had a positive effect on my life," I continued. "I'll always be grateful for that."

As I drove back to my dad's place in Morgan Hill that night, I felt a sense of satisfaction. I had gone a step further in rooting out the remnants of the magical thinking -- the fear that some imagined, lurking evil in or around Sumati (or any other person) could somehow infect or affect me was put to rest for good.

Photo credit here.

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