Excerpt from Chapter One: Second Birth
The Path of Love
Is Like a Bridge of Hair
Across a Chasm of Fire
— an early Christian mystic
2nd October, 1961
COMING HOME . . . MY HEART WAS SINGING. This feeling of joy seized me as soon as I left the train.
The large railway station was like so many others I happened to see during my travels in India—the steel rafters, the roof blackened by smoke, the deafening noise of hissing railway engines, one train just pulling out with much heaving and clatter, the usual crowd of squatting figures surrounded by their belongings, patiently waiting for the departure of some local train, coolies fighting for my luggage, the flies, the heat. I was tired and very hot, but somehow, and I did not know why, I loved this station; just the feeling of having arrived made me feel glad.
Drawn by an old horse, the tonga (a two-wheeled carriage) was plodding along for already more than forty minutes, on the way to Aryanangar, the district of my destination. This part of the town seemed fairly clean, even at this time of the day; it was nearly 5 p.m., and still very hot.
I felt light, free, and happy, as one would feel when coming home after a long absence. Strange . . . this wonderful sensation of coming home, of arriving at last . . . Why? It seemed crazy. I wondered, how long am I destined to stay here? Years? All my life? It mattered not; it felt good. That was all I knew for the moment.
We were trotting along a wide avenue flanked with trees. Large bungalows, gleaming white, set well in the gardens behind stone walls and iron fences, announced in large letters the names of banks, insurance companies, engineering firms—large concerns known all the world over. A main post office to the right, a large hospital to the left, then a large bazaar covering a wide open space—passing glimpses into the side-streets lined with shops and barrows, goods displayed on the pavements, and all the noise, all the typical smells composed of fried oil and garlic, spices, and incense of the bazaar. I sniffed the air . . . it was good.
It was just one more Indian city, such as I had seen many a time before; and still . . . and still, this glorious feeling of coming home, there was no earthly reason for it . . . it seemed crazy.
True, I came to meet a great Yogi, a Guru, and I expected much from this encounter. But surely this was no reason to feel so light, so childishly happy. I even caught myself laughing aloud and thinking: For the rest of my life it will be . . . and immediately I was amazed at this idea. You are getting potty, old girl, I said to myself; that's it: potty. But never mind, life was so good—it was such fun to be alive, to breathe, to move, to be a bit mad and . . . to have arrived!!
We were just passing a large cotton mill, then a railway crossing. I noticed the time on a tower clock; it was half-past five. We still went on and on. How slow the horse was, and so thin—all the ribs were sticking out from under a dry parchment-like skin. The driver was very thin, too; he must be tired also, and he looked hungry like his horse. I had a sudden feeling of guilt, for my suitcases were heavy—they nearly filled out all the space in the precariously wobbling two-wheel vehicle. I sat sideways, rather uncomfortable, clasping the handle of one of the suitcases to prevent it from falling off at every jerk. The fact that I was tired and felt very hot were details—they mattered little, for I was coming home . . .
After many repeated inquiries from the street-vendors and shopkeepers on our way, my tonga driver delivered me at last to my destination. It was a low, sprawling, terracotta-red bungalow set in the midst of a large open garden, with flower beds in front, and plenty of trees in the back, and trees spaced here and there all around. The street was fairly wide, a tiny post office standing in a garden amongst palm trees was just opposite, and, next to it, a bakery. After a hot, dusty journey it looked like heaven, all so fresh and peaceful. But my joy was short-lived. Mrs. Ghose, the proprietor, told me that she had no accommodation free. She said that she wrote to Miss L. about it and seemed surprised that I knew nothing about it. "But I will take you to Miss L.'s friend, Pushpa; there you are sure to find a place to stay for the time being."
She climbed into the tonga beside me and, seated practically on top of my suitcases, was already giving rapid instructions in Hindi to the driver. This time the horse needed plenty of encouragement, and we started off again. Mrs. Ghose, stout and middle-aged, gathering her voluminous sari around her, kept talking rapidly, something about tenants and some letters, but I hardly listened. Was worried. L. had given me to understand that the place for my stay was assured, and here I was, not knowing where I would spend the night. There were no hotels in the vicinity, so much I knew from what she had told me. After a day's and a night's journey, I badly needed a rest.
I was still occupied with my thoughts when she suddenly ordered the driver to stop. "Here lives Miss L.'s Guruji." She turned to me, "Would you like to meet him?"
I did not like meeting anybody at this particular moment; my dress was covered with dust, my hair sticky with perspiration—all I wanted was a cold shower and a cup of tea. It was the most unsuitable moment to meet anyone, least of all an important personage like a Guru! But my protests were of no avail; she was already disappearing through a wide wooden gate leading into a rather dry-looking garden with several shrubs and a few trees. In the background stood a long white bungalow—a door was at each end of it, and a large, tall doorway with wooden shutters in the middle, leading presumably into an inner courtyard.
Before I even had time to recollect my thoughts, three bearded Indians emerged from the door opposite the gate and were advancing towards me followed by Mrs. Ghose. All three were elderly; all three were dressed in white. I stood up, jumped down from the tonga and, joining my palms in the Indian way of greeting, looked at each of them in turn, not being sure which one was the Guru. The oldest and the tallest of the three, who looked exactly like a prophet in a nativity play—long, grey beard, blazing dark eyes—walked ahead of the other two, and, as if in answer to my thoughts, pointed to the one walking closely behind him. This was the Guru.
Next moment he stood in front of me, quietly looking at me with a smile. He was tall, had a kindly face and strange eyes—dark pools of stillness they were, with a sort of liquid light in them, like golden sparks.
I just had time to notice that he was the only one to wear wide trousers and a very long kurta (a collarless Indian-style shirt) of immaculate whiteness; the other two were clad in rather worn kurtas and longhi, (a straight piece of usually cotton material tight around the waist and reaching to the ankles).
My mind had hardly time to register it—then it was as if it turned a somersault, my heart stood still for a split second. I caught my breath . . . wild cartwheels were turning inside my brain and then my mind went completely blank.
And then it was —it was as if something in me stood to attention and saluted . . . I was in the presence of a Great Man . . .
"There is no accommodation for me with Mrs. Ghose," I said quickly, looking at him confused and insecure. I was aware that I was saying it just to say something, anything, for I felt helpless, completely lost. Deep down in me there was a sort of complete terror, a kind of excitement, and at the same time I felt annoyed with myself for feeling shy and confused like a child.
"Miss L. wrote to me that you will be coming," he said, and his smile deepened. It was a pleasant, baritonal voice; it suited well the general aura of peace which seemed to surround him.
Mrs. Ghose stepped forward and began to tell her story all over again, that she wrote to Miss L., that she had nothing free, but perhaps the letter went astray, etc., etc. He nodded slowly: "You will be able to stay with Pushpa, and," he added, "I expect you tomorrow at 7 a.m."
Some more polite words were exchanged; he asked me about my journey, but I hardly had any recollection of it, could not think, hardly understood anything.
Shortly afterwards we arrived at Pushpa's place. It was a large two-story house with a very small garden. She herself was pleasant-looking, plump with a pretty face. She came to meet us, her father-in-law following her, an impressive figure, dignified, all in white, with a large Alsatian dog at his heels. Mrs. Ghose once more began her explanations.
Soon I found myself installed in the guest room on the ground floor; it had a bathroom attached to it and a ceiling fan. In front of the two windows was a high brick wall covered with a luscious flowering creeper, and the light filtering through the leaves covering the windows made the room look green and cool.
The bliss of a cold shower, a short rest, then a lovely Indian meal with the whole family seated around a large round table in the dining room. The Alsatian dog was also present under the table at Babuji's (Grandfather's) feet, licking himself and smelling to high heaven; but again, it was only a detail, and it too fitted somehow into the frame of the whole experience and was accepted as such by me.
HOW WELL I SLEPT under the humming fan, but could not go to him at seven in the morning as he told me.
Breakfast was at 9 a.m. All the family kept piling questions on me, about England, my travels, about myself—everybody had something of special interest to ask—and it was only after ten when, at last, I was free to go. Pushpa sent her boy-servant to show me the way.
Already, when passing through the garden gate, I could see him seated in his room in a very large chair opposite the open door, from which he could see part of the garden and the entrance gate. He looked steadily at me coming towards him. With a brief nod he acknowledged my greeting.
"I expected you at seven, " he said, fingering his mala (a kind of rosary much used in the East). "It is not exactly seven now."
I explained that the breakfast was late, and that I could not get away earlier.
He nodded. "Yes, it would have been discourteous," he remarked, and told me to sit down.
The room was silent. He seemed to pray, bead after bead of the mala sliding through his fingers. I looked around. It was a corner room, not large, rather narrow. Another door to the right flanked by two windows was also leading into the garden. Two large wooden couches (tachats) were standing along the left wall which had two recesses built into it, filled with books. A row of chairs and a small divan for the visitors stood facing the tachats, with the backs to the windows and the side door, leaving only a narrow passage to the third door at the opposite end of the room. It was covered by a green curtain and led to the next room, from which one could reach the inner courtyard. All was clean and orderly—it could easily be a student's room. The sheets, cushions and covers on the tachats were spotlessly clean. He was dressed all in white—wide pajama trousers as they used to wear them here in the north of India—but his kurta was unusually long, rather like a robe, as I noticed it yesterday.
His name, executed by naive infantile hands, hung in three frames on the wall over the tachats. One was in cut-out felt, clumsily and unevenly cut, the other embroidered in cross-stitch, the third in printed letters in Indian ink—things children as a rule give to their parents or relations on birthdays or similar occasions.
While looking at the frames, I mused over this name and was glad that I saw it written before me and did not need to ask him or anybody else. I remembered vividly how I told L. in a sudden panic that I did not want to know his name when she was giving me his address, in my tent, in Pahalgam, in Kashmir. It was baffling, and I had no explanation why I felt that he had to remain without a name, without even a face, for me.
L. told me that the fact of not wanting to know his name had a deep meaning, but refused to clarify the point.
"You will know one day," she said rather mysteriously. And here it was: right in front of me, written three times, hanging on the wall. But I still did not know why she refused to explain and why I had such a fear.
"Why did you come to me?"* he asked, quietly breaking the silence.
I looked at him. The beads in his right hand were resting on the arm support of the chair, and all at once, as if waiting for this very question, I felt a sudden irresistible desire to speak, an urgency to tell everything, absolutely, about myself, my longing, my aspirations, all my life . . .
It was like a compulsion. I began to speak and talked for a long time. I told him that I wanted God, was searching after Truth. From what I had learned from L., I knew that he could help me and told him what I understood about him and his work from L.'s descriptions.
I went on and on and on. He kept nodding slowly, as if the torrent of my words was a confirmation of his own thoughts, looking at me, no, rather through me, with those strange eyes of his, as if to search out the very intimate, the very hidden corners of my mind.
"I want God," I heard myself saying, "but not the Christian idea of an anthropomorphic deity sitting somewhere, possibly on a cloud surrounded by angels with harps; I want the Rootless Root, the Causeless Cause of the Upanishads."
"Nothing less than that?" He lifted an eyebrow. I detected a slight note of irony in his voice. He was silent again, fingering his mala. I too was silent now. "He thinks I am full of pride," flashed through my mind. Indistinct feelings of resentment surged from the depth of my being and went. He seemed so strange, so incomprehensible. As he looked out of the window, his face was expressionless. I noticed that his eyes were not very dark, rather hazel-brown with small golden sparks in them as I had noticed yesterday.
I began again telling him that I was a Theosophist, a vegetarian, and . . . "Theosophist?" he interrupted inquiringly. I explained. "Oh yes, now I remember, long ago I met some Theosophists." Again the silence fell. He closed his eyes. His lips were moving in silent prayer. But I still went on explaining that we don't believe that a Guru is necessary; we must try and reach our Higher Self by our own efforts. "Not even in a hundred years!" He laughed outright: "It cannot be done without a Teacher!"
I told him that I did not know what Sufism was.
"Sufism is a way of life. It is neither a religion nor a philosophy. There are Hindu Sufis, Muslim Sufis, Christian Sufis—My Revered Guru Maharaj was a Muslim." He said it very softly with a tender expression, his eyes dreamy and veiled.
And then I noticed something which in my excitement and eagerness I did not notice before: there was a feeling of great peace in the room. He himself was full of peace. He radiated it; it was all around us, and it seemed eternal—as if this special peace always was and always would be, forever . . .
I looked at his face. He could be said to be good-looking in a masculine sort of way. There was nothing feminine in his features—the rather strong nose, the very high forehead. The grey beard and mustache gave him a dignified and distinctly Oriental appearance. His hair was short-cut, Western style.
"How shall I address you? What is the custom?" I asked.
"You can call me as you like, I don't mind. People here call me 'Bhai Sahib,' which in Hindi means 'Elder Brother.'"
So, "Bhai Sahib" it is going to be for me too, I thought. That's what he really is: an Elder Brother to us all.
"When I arrived, I had a feeling of coming home; and now I cannot get rid of the impression that I knew you before. That I knew you always. Bhai Sahib, where did we meet last time?"
"Why ask?" He smiled, "Some day you will know yourself. Why ask? But we met before, not once, but many a time, and we will meet many times again; that much I can tell you."
At 11:30, he sent me away.
"For the first few days (he put a special emphasis on the word ONLY ), you will not stay here for long periods at a time. Be back after 6 p.m."
I left and took with me the haunting memory of his face, full of infinite sweetness and dignity, and this impression remained with me for quite a while. Who is he? I felt greatly perturbed.
* The traditional question of every Oriental Teacher to an aspirant or a would-be disciple. According to Spiritual Law the human being must clearly state his case himself. The Teacher will do nothing against the free will of the individual.