Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Cartwheels in a Sari (Part One)

Ours wasn't the only family drama quietly playing itself out behind the scenes of Guru's memorial.

Like Saraswati, my old friend Ketan was also grappling with the possibility that his own family members would not attend Guru's memorial services that weekend. In Ketan's case, however, there was no possibility that his mother or sister would make an appearance.

On October 11 -- the very day Guru passed away -- Ketan's sister, Jayanti, gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. Still in the hospital with her husband and mom by her side, Jayanti wasn't going anywhere.

I'm not sure Jayanti would have been inclined to attend Guru's memorial services in any event. In the years since she had left the Center, Jayanti had gone to college and graduate school, become a writing professor, and started a family of her own.

She had also signed a book deal with Random House. Jayanti had written a memoir about growing up in the Sri Chinmoy Center.

Though it wouldn't hit store shelves for another year and a half, the very idea of Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult made some disciples understandably nervous. Ever since a disaffected disciple first went online and started a message board critical of Guru, the Center had been playing defense. As my fictional friend Eugene Struthers might say, however, Jayanti's memoir promised to take such criticism to a "whole ... nutha ... level."

As I later told Ketan, the best defense is a good offense. If the Center wanted to have some control over the public narrative, it had to avoid the impulse to attack Jayanti's book and instead open up and begin competing in the "marketplace of ideas." As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once wrote: "[T]he best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market[.]"

While I sympathized with Ketan's predicament -- being apprehensive about what his sister might say about Guru, the Center, and about him personally -- I was nonetheless genuinely excited for Jayanti and eager to read the manuscript. Nothing doing. Only one person I am aware of had that honor: our mutual friend Sudhir, who was near the end of his long battle with cancer. (My previous posts on Sudhir are here and here.)

After reading the manuscript, Sudhir gave it a thumbs-up. Now, after having read the book itself (twice), I wholeheartedly agree. Jayanti has written a moving memoir of what it was like for her to not only grow up in the Sri Chinmoy Center, but also to have done so owing her entire identity to Guru (due in large part to her own parents' almost complete abdication of their parental roles).

Superficially, it was simply interesting to read about Jayanti's life. I met her for the first time when she was in her early teens and knew nothing of her upbringing, aspirations, or troubles. To me, she was just one of those blessed kids to have been brought up in the Center, having had been spared the pains and indignities of the world.

And although I'm not a big fan of the name changes and purposeful mis-descriptions that the publisher apparently required in Cartwheels -- I suppose we have the lawyers to blame for that -- I did enjoy trying to identify each and every one of them. Prema and Isha, of course, were the easy ones. (Here are my guesses to a few of the more obvious other ones: Romesh, Mayar, and Uttam.)

And, because Jayanti's life in the Center both preceded (the 1970s) and succeeded (the 1990s) my own tenure in the Center (1981 to 1990), it was also interesting to read about some of the organizational history and happenings, some of which I had heard about before and some of which I hadn't.

Those superficial joys aside, though, Cartwheels in a Sari is heartwrenching. I'm no book reviewer and based on my personal affection for Jayanti (and her mom, Samarpana), I doubt I could ever be truly objective (try as I might) about her book. Nevertheless, over the next couple of posts, I'd like to address -- in a free associative way -- some of the issues that came to my mind as I read Jayanti's fine memoir.

First and foremost, Cartwheels left me feeling sad. The revelation of Jayanti's near suicide -- that she was in so much pain, that she had nobody to talk to -- saddened me terribly.

There are many differences between Jayanti and me when it comes to our respective experiences in the Center. The single most important difference between us is that I volunteered for the Center; as a teen, driven by a combination of my own demons and an innate sense of some deeper possibilities, I studied the yoga philosophy of India, looked for a guru, and consciously chose Guru without any outside compulsion.

Jayanti had no choice.
While I had largely been left unattended in the wake of my parents' divorce, growing up on junk food and TV -- and eventually moving on to become a marijuana and alcohol prodigy -- Jayanti's parents wrapped her in a cocoon of Center lore and ignorance of the world around her.

She was allowed to watch just two television shows as a young girl, and even then she couldn't do so without taint; one wonders what possible good Jayanti's dad -- Rudra -- thought would come of telling his daughter that little Laura Ingalls (in the old Little House on the Prairie series) and her family indeed did have a guru, just as Jayanti had, but that he only showed up in other episodes.

I cringed with heartbreaking embarrassment reading about little Jayanti being sent off to a public kindergarten in a sari. True, as a new disciple at the age of 16, I wore my "whites" -- the white shirt and pants that were de rigueur for male disciples at Center meditation meetings -- to high school, but I had done so consciously, much to my own father's chagrin.

The differences between Jayanti and me (and most other disciples) are even more striking though. Guru became Jayanti's de facto father. Unwilling to make even the simplest of decisions about the upbringing, well being, or future of their children, Guru played that role for Jayanti's mom and dad. From the beginning of her life, Jayanti was raised to see Guru -- and Guru alone -- as the center of power, as the decider, as the one whose opinion mattered on all things great and small.

If Jayanti wanted her father's attention -- as all children do of necessity -- she sought it from Guru. That's what she was taught to do. At its simplest level -- represented by her very name -- Guru was responsible for Jayanti's identity. This stuff was completely off my radar screen when I first became acquainted with her. Even when some disciples suspected -- and told Guru -- that Jayanti and I were becoming "too friendly," these massive differences between us never occurred to me.

The fact that, in the end, Guru would turn his back on Jayanti -- whatever her supposed sins -- is heartbreaking.


Anonymous said...

Too Bad she plagiarized so much of it from a blog written by another ex disciple.

Y. said...

I don't think that's true. You should back that up if you can.