Meenal submits to the Maharishi’s revenant ritual, and finds herself desiring nothing more than companionship.
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The final day of the initiation was everything that her sister had warned her about. Meenal was killed slowly. Her sister had missed giving her the finer details. But as she stood before the Maharishi, his thumbnail swatting the air around her purple-veined neck, Meenal felt it: her oxygen pipes getting snipped, and blood fountaining out.
In those dying moments, Meenal couldn’t keep the hatred out of her face for everything that had until now marked her as a person of this world. Her gold ring, her mobile phone, her Kanchivaram sari, Bata slippers. Before she glimpsed out one last time, the stage lights in the five-star hotel’s boardroom flashed through her retinas. She heard a popping sound as if her neck had been snapped at the carotid artery. She remembered falling back, and a pair of gloved hands laying her down.
No amount of foretelling had prepared her for her own extinction, or her reawakening. Meenal awoke five minutes later, not unlike in her bed, dreamy, and tongue slapped to the floor of her mouth. Around her was the sea of first-timers, reborn like her, lying prone on the hotel’s deep-pile carpet. For five minutes afterwards they blinked back tears of fulfilment.
Of course, it hadn’t been the same for everyone. While for Meenal, the point of entry was her neck, for the girl, it was a sideways whack to her head.
“My scar too obvious?” asked the girl when Meenal had been staring at the girl’s temple for too long.
“Oh, no,” said Meenal, embarrassed. Her own mark above her collarbone was ghosted by now and the seam was closing.
They were in the Sea Lounge, where they were led, after their session finished, for complimentary snacks. They were spread out two to a table, like in a speed-dating convention. Meenal stretched her arthritic legs, and massaged life back into them. Sitting in the lotus-position for two hours had killed the nerves in Meenal’s feet.
“So, who put you up to this?” asked the girl.
“My sister has been through it. Her entire family is into the Maharishi, even my nieces, the twins.”
Meenal did not know if this was too much information. The soft lute music and the green décor made her want to forget the only family she had. But it was hard. Everyone had come here on referral or sent by a friend who had lived through the experience and shared it in thrilling bits, never at one go. They serialized their remembrances of the Maharishi, choosing to hoard bits of him until he visited India again from the US. So, they all gave a version of the following account at timed intervals: The graze of the Maharishi’s hand, his long wispy hair, the Nepali hat, the gold-encrusted crutch, his ninety-years collected only in the wrinkles.
Then they summed it up.
“My sister described it as, ‘Out of this world,'” remembered Meenal.
‘”Once-in-a-life opportunity,’ is how my mother put it.”
The girl’s tone indicated that she was here against her will. She wore a kurta, and unwashed jeans, and her hair was parted in the middle, and Meenal noticed how for someone so young she let the grey hair show.
“You shouldn’t have done it if you weren’t fully into it.”
Meenal wanted to tell their generation that spirituality wasn’t a joke, or a fling, and at this she wondered if this girl was perhaps mourning a boyfriend or burying a deranged relationship.
“No. I came because I was done with everything.”
The girl’s face turned expressionless and without another word she searched her fabric purse and took out a pencil and a notepad. Meenal wasn’t sure if she had upset the girl. Soon, the girl began sketching in long strokes. It was something Meenal’s bored students did on the margins of their answer sheets. The girl’s hand moved freely. From time to time, she looked out at the Arabian Sea through the glass partition, smiled as if at a thought, and returned to her sketch.
“You should forgive an old teacher her habit. I think I touched a raw nerve there.”
Meenal watched her disclosure take an instant effect on the girl. The girl looked up and apologized for being lost. She put down the pencil and talked about what had just happened to them. Didn’t ma’am think the last hour at the boardroom was crazy? The girl’s tongue, she said, had tasted like lint before the visions took over. After which she was dying to remove the chains that were suffocating her. The spring-action locket on her neck, clap-on adult braces…
What did hatred feel like on ma’am’s tongue?
“Like a burnt spoon,” Meenal said.
The purpose of the ritual had not been to remove every single trace of desire. The Maharishi himself wore jewellery. But the bitterness he made them taste was for the symbols of wealth that added no extra value to their existence.
“But I get it,” the girl said, “he attacked the add-ons. Like the replacement mobile phone, or the extra pair of Nike shoes you bought because it was on sale. A mind game.”
The girl was mystified by what she termed as the most remarkable trick of them all. Their skin parting and closing, like a screen. And the mark, too. The Maharishi’s fingers hadn’t even touched them.
“You can choose to believe in it or not,” said Meenal. “A trick or treatment, have your pick.”
As they ate into their free pastry, Meenal learnt that the girl was a student at the JJ School of Art. Her name, ‘Shyamala’, rang a bell. The girl reminded Meenal that it was the famous Indian painter she was named for.
Shyamala carried a scrapbook, kneaded eraser, and a pencil for whenever a stunning image begged to be represented. From where they sat, two stories above, they gazed down at Mumbai’s shoreline that was being lit up along its edges. The lights as they came on from the road-lamps twinkled on the blue-green swells. Shyamala showed her rendering of the sea to Meenal, who was reminded of the twins’ lazy coconut trees on craft paper but realized that this was something else.
“You have a talent,” said Meenal.
“But what use, ma’am, if you don’t have the money to pay for the college fees.”
A minute later, after Shyamala dug into one of her silences, her pencil drawing, she clarified that she wasn’t after Meenal’s money. That this wasn’t a pitch. Meenal didn’t think so, too, but a measure of Shyamala had begun to form, of a girl who didn’t call attention to herself, no matter what her troubles, which were, Meenal sensed in those blank stares the girl gave her, at a remove from the girl’s own consciousness. The girl’s impenetrable troubles that had led her to the Maharishi, as hers did, were caused by characters that Meenal imagined all too well: A no-good father and a 24/7 working mother. Then, when Shyamala, as if reading her mind, gave her the exact same tragic backstory, Meenal related to her type even better. How many of her poorly-scoring students had come up to her, with a similar background, appealing to her leniency?
“You seemed to have figured out how to handle your problems, unlike many I know,” Meenal said.
Shyamala shrugged and aimed her eyes at a gull raking the sky.
In the corner of the cafeteria, liveried men with top hats balanced a sugary cake that Meenal couldn’t touch. At any rate, she decided to do a diabetes test upon reaching home to know for certain if the sugar levels were under control.
“My mother’s money is hardly enough to run a house. And so,” Shyamala said, “I am going to strike out on my own. That was what my namesake did. She quit her studies halfway through. My mother should have known that by naming me after her, I was going to be a runaway.”
One evening, after a tiring class, Meenal looked up the painter Shyamala in her college library. The painter’s photo in the withered edition bore the blueprint of an style ascendant in the 70s. The dark hair combed and parted down the sides, and tortoise-shell spectacles. Her features were stern and didn’t reflect her art, which was free-flowing and influenced by Mughal architecture. Shyamala had converted to Islam soon after dropping out of college, and took up in a quiet way with practices of that religion, ruffling not a few feathers along the way. It led to her banishment from her family; and in her reduced lifetime on earth – thirty years – she did her oils in her shack, where they were discovered in her Godrej almirah along with her suicide note, which was not a note at all if you considered its aphoristic message: Be Yourself. Always. I was.
Shyamala, the girl she had met two weeks ago, had seemed to Meenal as if she was on the edge of something. Like a cliff or a tall building, ready to leap. Meenal’s mind raced towards more deadly outcomes: knife to the wrist. Ceiling fan. Railway tracks. Worse: the Arabian Sea. Maybe it was the book that was sparking these visions. The biography mentioned Shyamala had overdosed. Meenal couldn’t know if the girl would copy the same strategy.
Back in the staff room, Meenal made the call. The admission officer at JJ School of Art was an old friend and ran the name on her database. There were fifty Shyamalas! Meenal blamed herself for not getting the girl’s surname. Remembering, Meenal then asked her friend how many had quit mid-semester, and there was only one. A Shyamala Gopal. Meenal took down the home address. The next day was a Saturday, and when she set out in her Maruti, the sun was low.
The map on her phone pointed her down lanes that were red rivulets of dumpster-truck traffic. Thirty minutes later, she slowed next to a squat, four-storied walkup on the other side of the tracks. She got no further than the grilled door that was opened a slit on the first floor. The photo that Meenal glimpsed on the plastic table-top in the living room was a giveaway. Little Shyamala in a blue frock, arms in the air, beckoning her.
“You came,” a voice from inside reached Meenal, and soon its owner, a woman in her fifties, appeared, limping, out of the door, her tenderness turning to despair.
“Oh, I thought it was my daughter,” the woman said.
“Would that be Shyamala?” Meenal was ready to leave if her certainties were disputed. But the woman nodded, and once inside, Meenal noticed the Maharishi’s cut-out photo on the wall.
“Shyamala left me. So, good luck meeting her,” the woman said.
“She told me she was going to…”
“…Escape?” The woman’s eyes grew unbelievably large. “You’re her teacher, right? You could have talked her out of it.”
“I was at the Maharishi’s initiation, where I met Shyamala.”
“Agya Chakraaya Namaha.”
Meenal repeated the Sanskrit words in the same cadence.
Their breaths engaged. The Maharishi’s icebreaker of a greeting did that to them. They were strangers no more after that.
“I thought you were the teacher from her college who called last week to ask about Shyamala.”
The woman arched her back, and as she did so, her sari’s ends hitched up, revealing the blood-rimmed bandage on her ankle.
“I work at a night college for underprivileged girls,” said Meenal. “I am a teacher, and a certified counsellor.”
Meenal meant nothing by it. Except that she was as innocent as all teachers were in this matter. She understood her students on their terms. A part of them always remained out of reach to her. There wasn’t much she could do. Other than wish that these young flaky things confided more in their mothers.
As Meenal had guessed, the woman wasn’t aware of Shyamala’s quitting the college when Meenal gave her the news.
The woman took a slice of her pallu and wiped her nose clean with it. “I had it coming.”
Perhaps it wasn’t such a blow as Meenal had imagined.
The woman waved Meenal down to a moulded cane chair.
“This is a normal occurrence,” the woman said, sitting down herself on the only other furniture, a sort of a stool.
She said she was used to Shyamala taking off without notice and returning home in a day or two, out of shape and beaten by hopelessness. On this occasion, the woman had expected nothing less: a daughter materializing at the doorstep. Her own reaction was going to be just as compassionate as before. Hug her daughter and count the bones in her body one by one with her finger to ensure she was in one piece. Later, feed her pakoras. But with Shyamala gone for this long – five days – the woman was scared she wouldn’t be able to carry on without hurting herself.
When Meenal’s brows curled in incomprehension, the woman lifted her taped leg. “There,” she stabbed at it. Last evening, she had fumbled with a kitchen knife, chopping beets, and the serrated blade had flown into her, three inches deep.
“First time in my 25 years as a cook… I lost orders because of the girl. She will be the death of me.”
Meenal assumed the woman cooked for a living. The woman spoke in hesitant sentences that tangled and got ahead of themselves. A thicket of sounds and cries mixed in together. That was how the mothers who came to Meenal expressed themselves. They mostly wanted Meenal to listen to them, hold their hands. The root problem, Meenal found, was a father who was a drunk, or a drunk with an uncontainable rage.
“The father, does he have work?”
The woman’s reply, ambiguous, and slow to come, made Meenal doubt her memory of what Shyamala had said about her father.
“We lost him,” the woman said. “He is dead to me.”
The woman explained. Her husband lived with a younger girl, a train-toilet cleaner. Though his affair was the point of their fights at first, as the days passed, it had troubled the woman less and less. Her refuge in the Maharishi, the meditative neglect of her still-married-to husband’s needs, annoyed him. He tore up the Maharishi’s photo, once, twice, and when more facsimiles went up on the wall, he wrecked her puja, and took to calling the Maharishi a fake, and her a whore.
A heaviness settled on the woman.
Meenal slipped her hand into the woman’s that were small, like a creature’s. The woman’s neck, Meenal noticed, didn’t have the mangala sutra and was criss-crossed with sweat.
“The Maharishi has a name for such sceptics,” Meenal consoled. “The dog.”
As in a dog which doesn’t know its true master yet. Which wasn’t man, wasn’t god, but its own mind. Much of the Maharishi’s teaching was based on the ‘Agya Chakra’ or pre-frontal cortex’s potential to determine this self-worth.
Dry-eyed, the woman continued: After the two-timing wretch left, she wasn’t going to stand another dog. Unfeeling, and faithless. She made Shyamala attend the Maharishi’s Zoom sathsangs, making Shyamala sit through the song-drenched evenings, and read from a much-thumbed chapbook of his Greatness’ slokas.
“You forced her into devotion, then?”
“Well, you could say that.”
At this stage, Meenal asked her usual question.
“What kind of a girl is she at home. Any friends, or opioids?”
Meenal had to be certain; loneliness could be a trigger. Plus, she wanted to separate the two Shyamalas, the painter and the girl, cleave their fates.
“She had lots of friends, and I was amazed at how she kept up with them. As for drugs, I wouldn’t know.”
Before leaving, Meenal gave the woman whatever money she could and then some more.
Meenal kept in touch, thereafter, calling the woman every evening after class. The woman’s leg got better. The whine of the mixer-grinder in the background announced the return of her prospects. Orders flowed, and the woman asked Meenal over to taste her specials. Over sabudana khichdi, they argued about filing a missing person report. The woman was convinced that this was no case for the police. She said the gratifications, if they did come, like a discarded sock or a hairband, would take years. Meenal was against this kind of talk, which she adjudged as fear of the state. Their back-and-forth was sweet, until the woman cried, mostly into her sari. Grief climbed on to her, like a spider, faster than anything Meenal could do to flick it away.
The woman, whose name was Santhi, was fond of car rides. Meenal took her in the Maruti, windows rolled down, to the Hanging Gardens where they posed before the shoe-house. They looked like sisters in the filtered photos, Meenal the younger one, her skin pulsing as it did, high-brow, and ironed. Santhi was curious: had Meenal never considered a man? Even when her students, who giggled and leaned in on their desks, pressed her for an answer, Meenal told them what she told Santhi now, arranging her face into an unsolvable map: that she was still looking.
Meenal figured that Santhi wasn’t one for mysteries. They watched unrestored family dramas from the 70s, where the colours bled. Their eyes swam in red, chemicalized waters. Always, Meenal did her best, as she slipped out before dawn, to shut the front door fully, something that it refused to do without a latch. Santhi hadn’t got the fixtures mended after her husband broke them, leaving them to speak for themselves: the grrrrr of the loosened hinges, the rat-a-tat of the torn flex of a bulb that had tongued out of its socket and belly-flopped against the ceiling every time the fan came on.
Santhi’s torment was revealed, one day, not to be caused by these noises from her soured past, but the exclamations, no less horrific, of the neighbour upstairs. The man was dying; a machine fetched him his last breaths. His son, a techie, lived abroad, and his wherewithal, measured in a first-world currency, paid for hi-fi cameras to track his father in his own home, burping, gasping, farting, shitting.
It was through the son that Santhi got her orders, and through him that she came to know that his father had only months to live.
“You are keeping him alive with your wonderful food,” said Meenal. Santhi hadn’t thought of it this way. The old man’s upper lip, she remembered, was drawn, browned from years of unfiltered cigarettes.
“Trust me, the man complains he doesn’t want to live anymore. He’s been asking me to poison his poha.”
It had been a few weekends now. Meenal didn’t count them. She delighted in Santhi’s spreads, the aroma of mustard that sprang from the webbing between her fingers, and her legs that crossed at the ankle while sleeping. At nights when they slept together, on a floor mat, with nothing between them, Meenal curled a moist arm around Santhi’s neck. Soon the whispers began. Are they a couple? Why is that lady spending nights here? Shiva Shiva!
Over time Santhi’s quietness troubled Meenal, like Shyamala’s had, but their similarities vaporized the second Santhi faced her, and there, in her round, miserable visage, Meenal couldn’t trace Shyamala. The girl’s likeness must have been to her father, who sight unseen, Meenal gauged, also gave other traits to Shyamala. They had both abandoned a weak-souled Santhi.
“I am not weak,” said Santhi.
“Your daughter had guts. I will give her that.”
“I’m just scared… you’re alone, no one to report to. This is a society co-operative with the government, and people talk.”
There came a moment in their relationship when secrecy was not an option with walls as thin as Santhi’s. The dying man returned Santhi’s clean melamine plate with a chit on which he ahem-ed: You two ladies will kill me now with your moans.
That was when Meenal took Santhi to her one-bedroom apartment downtown. Meenal would vacuum it twice before Santhi entered. Since she didn’t employ a maid, Meenal broomed, swept, declogged and righted. The single bed was made and remade, and she kept jasmines afterwards on a bowl out front. It wasn’t lost on Santhi that Meenal was acting out an apology. Meenal’s body was warm, and shivered when Santhi held her. The times when Santhi thought about her daughter were also the times when she was released into happiness.
“You still have hopes for Shyamala, that is good.”
“I believe she is safe somewhere,” said Santhi.
The image that had come to Santhi of her daughter was one of the painter’s, Shyamala’s, about whom she had known only from a newspaper obit a long time ago. Shyamala’s painting, now famous and widely sold by stationery shops as a wall-hang, of a dome with red minaret, was inset into her mugshot. The obit ran a caption, spelling Shyamala’s name and her doom. Santhi, who was herself a teen back then, picked up on the name, folded her tongue over it, as if earmarking the syllables for her future daughter. Meenal was surprised that this, and not anything more significant like a meeting with the painter, had been Santhi’s inspiration.
She brought out the biography of Shyamala from her satchel.
Meenal had almost put the book back on the shelf at the college library, but a fancy, perhaps the ripped spine, the egg-stains on the pages with the old-world typeface, made her pause. Now the book was in her hand, and as she slipped it to Santhi, it had for Meenal the sensation of finally letting go of all physical connections with the painter.
The book splayed open, and Santhi randomly put a finger on the top line and read it out aloud.
Was Shyamala’s conversion to Islam a sentence on her personhood?
Santhi had questions.
Meenal heard her out and knew without being told that Santhi was going to be frightened for the two of them.
Santhi began to look for others like them everywhere. She read about the working-class women who were caught kissing by the police in a metro station and beaten; the two adolescent girls who were separated by their families and reported to the local panchayat.
“State control. You see, that is the problem.”
Rarely did something make Santhi speak up these days, and nothing so much as phenomena she witnessed on the news.
“Stop watching the news.” Meenal’s half-hearted advice didn’t help.
Neither did her warm compresses, or Iodex balms as Santhi grew terribly sick on a Sunday, the last day of the twice-weekly Sathsangs when participants were encouraged to share something – it could be anything that opened their big hearts to the Maharishi. A painted-on vase, a crocheted blanket, or a ruled notebook filled with Maharishi’s name written a thousand times in hand. Slowly these exhibits came to have a worked-upon feel to them. The week before last, Meenal wanted to shake things up and showed the 10 of them on the Zoom call a dance move in which she was not yet thorough. Her missteps, and the final skip that landed her forty-five-year-old torso on the floor, where she lay somewhat split between knockout pain and embarrassment, were everything that these sessions lacked. Meenal had coined something then, a rawness, but it stood for her personality. And she didn’t suspect anyone would follow her, until someone did. Today, one of the men, older, and unused to performance, sang a bhajan.
After Meenal logged off, for hours, it rang, this bhajan, with its rhymeless notes going off in all directions. Then a harmony took over, spread the notes out on a neat line, and suddenly the whole arrangement made sense to her.
“And you think they would understand?” Santhi said.
They weren’t family. Meenal hadn’t brought up her sister or the twins to her. In a roundabout way, it felt right that Meenal was telling faces she hadn’t met in person.
“They will understand, over time,” Meenal said.
And Meenal thought of the weight of the news on her Zoom friends, and how it would change her forever in their eyes, only to change her back. To the person who danced, whooped, fell, stumbled, got up, experimented.
“Don’t give my name,” Santhi said. “At my age, I don’t need the shame.”
Santhi struggled to get up on the bed.
Her lips trembled after the words left her.
She had become weaker, her head ached more, but it had nothing to do with Meenal’s decision to come out online.
“Of course not.”
After that, there wasn’t much left for Meenal to do but wait. Wait for Santhi to cheer up, get rid of the complaints in her head. For almost a week, Santhi lay recovering; she dreamed about Shyamala letting herself in through their broken front door and finding no pakoras in the kitchen. But her girl was fat in her mind’s eye, and maybe Shyamala wasn’t looking for pakoras, but a scent of her, Santhi. And Santhi would wake up, a little bit better, or fully dreamed out, her throat dry.
The night she was able to get up, she did so without pain, and with much thanks in her blooming heart. She bent down and kissed Meenal on her forehead. Next morning was a Monday, and Santhi packed her things, of which there weren’t a lot she had brought with her, because she had worn Meenal’s nightie, Meenal’s saris, and smelled of Meenal’s soap, and when she got out of the door, one final time, Meenal stood by, watching her drape her pallu over her head to go silently, imperceptibly into the light.