Monday, June 22, 2009

Zero Sum Game

In the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, many small businesses in New York failed, including The Blue Lotus. It hadn't helped any that Guru refused to visit the store himself, declared he'd never give the place a spiritual name, and forbade his close female disciples from patronizing it.

Nirbachita had sunk what for a disciple was a fortune in inheritance to start up the beautiful little cafe in the upscale Queens neighborhood of Forest Hills. The one-two punch of the economic downturn and Guru's lack of support (to put it nicely) destroyed any chance for success The Blue Lotus may have had.

That's not to say that there weren't disciples who supported Nirbachita and her cafe. There were. A handful of guys and gals helped her build and stock the cafe, and supported it throughout. Among them was Pinak.

From his station at Guru Health Foods -- where he was then acting as a day-to-day manager -- Pinak ordered supplies and called regularly to offer his help and support at a time when Nirbachita needed it the most. Not surprisingly, a friendship developed between them. By late 2001, Nirbachita had left the Center and decided to drive back to California to start life anew.

Pinak decided to join her.

For the next six years, Nirbachita and Pinak lived together, eventually settling in Puerto Rico where they opened a health food store together (and where Nirbachita was the president and driving force behind Amigos de los Animales, the best organized animal welfare nonprofit on the island). The story of their treatment by the Center during that time period is theirs to tell. Suffice to say that it wasn't positive and that Nirbachita was blamed for "luring" Pinak away.

That meme was ridiculous and ultimately counterproductive. So, it was no big surprise to me that neither Nirbachita nor Pinak expressed any interest in attending Guru's memorial services.

Pinak's absence, however, seemed incomprehensible to those of his family who were in the Center and in New York at that time. As I've noted before, it appeared to me that many of the disciples considered appearance at the memorial services a loyalty test for those of us no longer in the Center. Guru had been under increasing scrutiny in the years preceding his death, and I think some of the disciples rightly saw our presence at the memorial as a show of public support.

That's why Saraswati approached us on our first night in New York.

At Guru's memorial services, "friends of the Center" -- ex-disciples like me and Jeevan and Guru's other non-disciple well wishers -- had been invited to walk past Guru's open casket at designated times over the weekend, once during the day and once during the night. At those times, the two long lines of disciples -- one line for girls, a separate one for boys -- came to a standstill for us.  (Here's a picture courtesy of the Times.)

It was a very classy thing to do -- allowing "outsiders" in. I can't think of how the weekend could have been carried out with any more grace than it had been. It was an auspicious start for a new era of the Center.

After our first walk past Guru, Jeevan and I lingered on the driveway just outside the tennis court mingling with our many old "brat pack" friends still in the Center (some of them seen here in younger days). Despite the circumstances, the mood was often joyous as we shared old stories and laughed in remembrance. Identifying with the disciples' new found circumstances, I remember looking around at them all -- everyone in white -- and thinking what an interesting time for them.

They had nobody to tell them what to do anymore. How frightening. How liberating.

It was there -- outside the tennis court -- that Saraswati and her two sisters (whom Sudhir wickedly referred to as "Patty and Selma") approached me and Jeevan. Operating on the mistaken premise that our sister was preventing Pinak from making the pilgrimage to New York, they hoped that we might intercede and persuade Nirbachita to let Pinak come see Guru one last time.

We spoke for just a few minutes that first night. It was bit awkward. I sensed -- perhaps wrongly -- that Saraswati felt a little sheepish approaching us with such a request. I told her that I doubted Nirbachita was the reason Pinak was reluctant to come to New York, but that I'd nevertheless be glad to call and find out. 

As it turned out, Nirbachita had actually been urging Pinak to make the trip. I don't know why he was reluctant.  I hadn't spoken to him.  I suspect part of it was Pinak's natural loyalty.  He sensed -- rightly, I think -- that there had always been a subtle effort by Guru, by some disciples, by his aunts, to drive a wedge between himself and Nirbachita. They dearly wanted Pinak back in the Center. Those efforts, however, weren't appreciated. I think Pinak probably felt that giving into these pressures would be a sign of disloyalty towards Nirbachita.

Whatever the case, Nirbachita wasn't to blame for Pinak's hesitancy and I told Saraswati so the following night. We were again on the driveway of the tennis court, but this time it was just the two of us. Saraswati was at times demure, direct, flattering, and evasive. For what must have been an hour or more, we stood off to the side of the other disciples who were milling around and negotiated our positions like seasoned diplomats.

Her position was simple and earnest. She wanted Pinak to see Guru one more time. My position was that I wanted Saraswati and her family to treat Nirbachita with respect. In the midst of our discussions, I noticed that we were attracting the attention of some of the disciple passerby.

In fact, one young woman disciple I had known for some time named Suchatala came over to where we were standing. She stood patiently by for a pause in our conversation and then interjected. "I just want you to know that if it weren't for Yogaloy, I wouldn't be in the Center," she said to Saraswati. It was a nice gesture and I appreciate it. With that, Suchatala walked away.

I concluded by telling Saraswati that our two families could not be like the Hatfields and the McCoys. It was incumbent upon the two of us to do our part to bring our families together. I had high hopes, I only half-joked, that if Nirbachita and Pinak ever got married that the two of us might share a dance at the wedding. (Saraswati had no response to that feeble jest; all I heard were crickets.) 

In the end, though, Pinak made a last trip to New York.

Photo credit above goes to Prashphutita, whose other nice shots can be seen here.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Golden Boy

Where to begin?

Perhaps, as Joan Didion did with such great effect in her wonderful book The Year of Magical Thinking, I should start over again at the beginning of this memoir and start peeling away another layer of the proverbial onion.

For me, this memoir began with Guru’s death on October 11, 2007. I’ve already recounted my initial reaction to that news and my subsequent trip to New York in the ensuing days with my brother, Jeevan. I didn’t report everything that happened on that trip though. There was a minor to-do about the fact that my sister’s boyfriend didn’t make the trip to see Guru one last time.

I didn’t report that part of the story in my earlier posts because it just didn’t seem relevant to my story at the time I was writing. Now, though, I think it might be a good jumping off point.

My sister – Nirbachita – didn’t attend Guru’s memorial services. And why should she have? Guru had treated her like shit. (I addressed some of these issues here and here.) At the time of Guru’s death, though, she was living in Puerto Rico with her boyfriend, Pinak. This fact was a source of long-standing drama within certain well-placed circles in orbit around Guru.

A native of Puerto Rico, Pinak was raised in the shadow of the Center. His uncles and aunts were in the Center. Especially aunts. Doting aunts. And one in particular had risen to prominence within the Center’s status conscious hierarchy – Saraswati.

As was true with almost all the girls in the Center, I only knew Saraswati by appearance. She’s strikingly beautiful – in my imagination, her celebrity lookalike is a svelte Salma Hayek in a sari. More than anything, though, it was her job that gave her prominence and influence within the Center. She was – and is – Alo Devi’s personal assistant. Along with her male counterpart – Savyasachi – Saraswati travelled with Alo night and day, around the globe, for decades.

The importance of Saraswati’s service to Guru in this respect cannot be underestimated. Frankly, Guru wanted to maximize the time Alo spent away from the Center’s headquarters in Jamaica, New York. This was accomplished, in part, by having Alo scout out new locales as possible winter vacation spots for Guru and the rest of the disciples at the end of each year. Saraswati (and Savyasachi) made that possible. But I digress.

Suffice to say, Saraswati had Guru’s confidence in a way that very few others ever had. She’s smart, capable, and perhaps most importantly, she’s discreet.

Saraswati also had Guru’s ear. As I wrote about in my own case, having a high-placed advocate who could, on occasion, direct Guru’s attention towards you was a fast way to, well, get attention from Guru (which was, in turn, the source of all status in the Center). Saraswati was such an advocate for Pinak.

Pinak was the golden boy. He came to the Center while still a teen and quickly found himself living in New York. I first met him at Guru Health Foods, where he worked assisting Ashrita, the store’s manager. Ashrita’s primary job, however, was that of Guru’s messenger or emissary. He was, among other things, the official mode of verbal communication of personal messages from disciples to Guru and vice versa.

Most disciples, you see, did not speak to Guru directly – nor did he often speak to them. Disciples could always write Guru letters, but he didn’t typically respond in kind. So, for most disciples, if they had urgent news or an important question that needed an answer, they called Ashrita. Likewise, when Guru needed a message delivered, he often used Ashrita to deliver it.

Many of these telephonic communications passed through the health food store. For many years, there was a phone in the back room that only Guru called. When it rang, Ashrita would rush back to answer it, pulling an ever present list out of his pocket containing questions, answers, and issues to run past Guru. This is the environment in which Pinak cut his teeth.

Pinak – like his aunt Saraswati– is capable and discreet. During his tenure at Guru Health Foods, the store expanded and thrived, as did his status within the Center.

Then, one day, he fell in love with my sister.

That's Pinak, above, as he appears today. What a great guy. He's like part of the family.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

More to Discuss

I'm deeply ambivalent about re-opening the blog. A recent revelation, however, compels it.

A female disciple -- a woman I know, trust, and whom I was indirectly responsible for bringing to the Center in the first place -- has reported that Guru pressed her into engaging in sex acts with another disciple. This is a shame.

Before I write anything further, though, I want to first say how deeply impressed I am of my friend (who still remains publicly nameless). As I told her personally, I'm very proud of her and the strength of character she has demonstrated by telling her story (and allowing my sister to publish it).

I see this new series of posts as an opportunity to explore some important issues that I had planned on addressing in the blog the first time around, but for reasons I'll address later, I did not.

I expect that some -- if not all -- of these posts will disappoint some of my readers, including some whom I consider friends. For this I am sorry. 

Photo credit to James Jordan on Flickr.