If Truth Be Told: A Monk's Memoir (2 page)

BOOK: If Truth Be Told: A Monk's Memoir
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It was nearly 6 p.m. by the time we resumed our hunt for accommodation, and we finally got lucky at Pooja Guest House, where they gave me a room. I let Manish go and asked him to come again the next morning.

Even though I had a room now, I couldn't sleep because of the fatigue and dehydration, which was evident from the colour of my urine. I hadn’t known I was so fragile. There was a time not long ago when I had played badminton daily, spent hours at a stretch on the golf course, pumped iron and run 12 miles regularly, and all this had felt effortless. But today, just one day spent in the ‘real’ world, and I found myself stretched beyond what I could take. My belief that I was fit and strong seemed merely a conceited notion.

I realized that my body was far from ready for the hardships of monkhood. If I couldn't even tolerate the heat of a day, what chance did I have to endure the rigours of meditation and the harsh life of an ascetic? I had no idea how to prepare my body for intense penance. Yet, I knew that life would teach me. I had only to be open and willing.

I lay there thinking about my worldly journey thus far.

 

2
The Mystic
 

 

My mother was raised in a deeply religious environment and grew up revering religious figures. She would never lose an opportunity to seek the darshan of mystics and saints who visited our town.

One day, during the lunch hour at work, she went to get the blessings of an unusual saint she had been told about. It was said that he never slept; he didn’t even blink. He observed silence most of the time. Perpetually wandering, he wouldn’t stay more than one night in a place, and he never returned to the same town again.

              'In the month of Margashirsha, when the moon is waxing, you will give birth to a special soul,' he said as soon as he saw my mother.

              My mother was brought up not to question saints, but she wasn’t expecting this blessing from the mystic who rarely spoke.

'Babaji, I already have two children.'

              'It doesn't matter,' the sadhu said. 'One of us is coming after a long wait. A saint.'

              My mother's heart sank. One of them? A saint? That meant he wouldn’t lead a normal life but give up everything. She lowered her head and sat quietly, trying to calm herself.

              'Yes, he will renounce,' he said, reading her mind. 'Please remember me when he is born, and touch some tulsi leaves to his lips as an offering from me.'

              She bowed before him and got up to leave. Her thoughts were in turmoil. Her family was already complete and there was no need to have a third child. Yet, the thought of losing this third child, to have him become a wandering sadhu, was unbearable.

              'You are merely the medium. Don't resist the ways of the Divine,' the saint said as he gave her a pinch of holy ash. 'Eat this ash on ekadashi. At his birth, petals will shower from above and a rainbow will be seen.'

              My birth might have been foretold but it certainly wasn’t planned, my father would tell me later. After losing their first child, my parents had gone on to have a boy and a girl, and were neither planning nor hoping for a third child. But, fifteen months after the holy man’s prediction, in the month of Margshirsha, on the twelfth night of the waxing moon, I was born in a government hospital.

Except for a light drizzle, nothing else fell from the sky and there was no rainbow in sight. I was delivered before my father or other relatives could even reach the hospital. The customary gutti, the giving of honey to the newborn baby, usually done by mother's brother, was given by a nurse instead. My mother had remembered to carry the tulsi with her though. Squeezing three leaves between her thumb and fingers, she touched the juice to my lips. My father reached half an hour after I was born and named me Amit.

              Hoping she might avoid what was written in the book of fate, my mother kept the mystic’s prediction to herself. It was only after my renunciation, more than thirty years later, when she saw me in my ochre robes, that she would reveal what had transpired long years ago.

 

 

              The years went by, and I was now five. The summer vacation had just started. One day, my parents were at the office while my siblings and I were at home. Rajan and Didi were playing outside but I wasn’t interested in their games. Looking for something else to occupy me, I began browsing through the cupboard in the living room and came upon a stack of comics in the bottom shelf. Curious, I sat down on the floor and began to flip through the pages.

              Within moments, I was entranced by the attractive illustrations though I didn't think I could read the sentences. But, when I paid attention to the dialogue bubbles, much to my surprise, letter by letter, word by word, the sentences formed. This was my first experience of reading sentences.

My mother used to tell me bedtime stories every night, but I now discovered a whole new world of stories. Every word I read filled me with an inexplicable joy and I remember giggling as I read. It was as if a narrator was talking to me personally, telling me those wonderful tales. I felt I was walking with someone through a dark forest, being guided by the lamp he was holding up for me. With every step we took, the space before us lit up and a whole new world unfurled. I sat there reading one issue after another as the morning rolled by.

              Finally, Didi came in to ask me to eat; it was lunchtime. I ignored her. I didn't want food, I wanted stories. She came again and then again, and I sent her away each time. She was only eleven herself but, being the eldest, was responsible for giving me the lunch my mother had made for us before leaving for work.

'It's already 4 p.m. You must have your lunch now.'

I kept reading.

'Amit?'

I didn't answer.

'Amit! I'm talking to you.'

'I don't want to eat.'

She gave me a peck on my cheek and said, 'It's very late. Please, have your lunch.'

She knew it was impossible to push me into anything even if it was in my own interests. Love was the only way.

'Okay, after five minutes.'

'You've been saying that all day.'

'I promise this time.'

              Didi came back half an hour later and the same conversation took place: I asked for more time. But she was having no more of this behaviour. Heating my lunch, she brought it to me.

              'I'm not hungry,' I said without looking at her.

              'Please, you must eat,' she said. 'Mummy and Papa will be home soon.'

              'I must finish my comics, Didi. Please don't disturb me. '

              She prepared a bite of chapatti, vegetables, lentils and pickle and brought it close to my mouth, just below my nose. My mouth watered, and I let her put the food into my mouth, reading all the while. I don't know how many chapattis she fed me but I ate whatever she gave. I kissed her cheek and went back to reading. It was my favorite habit, kissing my mother and sister every morning and evening. On the days I was happier, I did so more frequently. They looked after me with great love and I always felt secure and happy with them.

              As she got up to take my plate away, Didi said, 'I'm glad you ate. Mummy will be relieved.' My parents worked in the same government organization, though in different departments. For nearly three decades, they had left the house together every morning and returned together in the evening. My father drove a scooter while my mother sat sideways behind him in a ladylike fashion. Patiala was a small town and their office was only fifteen minutes away. Like my parents, half of this town worked for the state electricity board; the other half worked for a nationalized bank. Or something like that.

One day, our family of five went out for dinner. Next to the restaurant was a shop outside which scores of magazines and comics were on display. Within, shelf upon shelf was crammed with books from floor to ceiling. I didn't know such places existed, and was overwhelmed at the sight of these books. I was a tiny piece of iron and here was a giant magnet: it was impossible to resist and I couldn’t think of anything else. My dinner, the restaurant, my family—all of it ceased to matter. I had to be in that bookshop and have every comic and magazine of my interest. My father promised to take me there after the dinner but I couldn't wait. I insisted on going right away, and he finally gave in.

Till now, I had only seen magazines and comics being delivered at home with the newspaper. I hadn't even realized you had to buy them separately; I thought they just came with the newspapers. Buy. This was the keyword. You needed money to buy them. If I had a lot of ‘rupees’, I could have bought all the books in the shop.

Back at the restaurant, I couldn't stop adoring the magazines I just bought. At home, I couldn't sleep because I wanted to read them. At school the next day, I couldn't concentrate because I wanted to get back home and read. The more comics and magazines I read, the more I wanted to read. My obsession only got worse with time. Whenever my parents wanted to buy something for me, I asked for books.

But how many could they buy after all? There was a limit. So, my first visit to the library was scheduled. It was nearly 5 km away from our home and, on my way there, I felt like an astronaut on his first space trip. When I entered the library, the visual stimulation and intellectual arousal I experienced at the sight of so many books was beyond what my little mind could assimilate. I looked at the librarian and thought he was the luckiest man in the world, for he could read all these books. He had no smile on his face though.

Almost daily, I read for a couple of hours at the library, took two books home, finished them and exchanged them the next day for two more. Two was the limit per person.
              'Do you actually finish the books you take home every day?' The librarian asked me once.
              'Yes, I do.'
              'What's the rush? Why don't you enjoy them and read them slowly?'
              'I do enjoy them, Uncle. But I want to read all the books in this section.'
              He laughed. 'No one has ever done that.'
              He was right. I never got around to reading every book in the children's section. Still, after all the time I spent there, and twelve library cards, more than fourteen hundred books and two years later, he gave me a box of sweetmeats.

Many tales in the various magazines and books I read featured gods who would slay demons, create miracles, grant boons and help those who prayed to him. He could fly, he could appear and disappear at will, he could shift shapes … he could do anything he wished. And every story I read, I assumed to be true. I started building my world around God, with God, in God. I wanted to see him, I wanted to talk to him. I didn't like him being invisible. Perhaps God had appeared before people in ancient times, and maybe it was no longer possible to see him. An incident, however, changed my perception.

One evening when I came back into the house after playing outside, I saw my mother sitting by the altar reading a thick book. I threw my arms around her and kissed her.

'What are you reading, Mummy?'

'
Ramcharitmanas
. The story of Lord Rama.'

'Haven't you finished it yet? You are always reading this book.'

She laughed. 'This is our holy book, son, this is about God. Each time I read it, I receive something new.'

'Is Lord Rama God?'

'Yes.'

'Then what about Lord Shiva and Lord Krishna?' I pointed to the two pictures at the altar.

'They are all God, the same God, just different names, different forms.'

'Where is he then? Why can't I see him in real life?'

'He is everywhere. Those pure of heart see him, those who worship him see him.'

'But you worship him. Why don't you see him?'

'My worship is not the purest. Sometimes, I have to tell a lie and God doesn't like lying. Only those who always speak the truth see him.'

'Why do you have to lie sometimes, Mummy? And can I see him too?'

'Yes, why not?' And she narrated the story of the five-year-old prince, Dhurva, who went to the woods to pray to Lord Vishnu and saw a manifestation of the Divine form. I shivered.

'Can I read this book as well?'

'Of course, I'll read it with you.'

'No. Don't read it with me. Only help me if I get stuck.'

That day, she was reading the Uttar Kand, the last chapter of the
Ramcharitmanas
, and I glanced at the page she was on. She told me that it was the ‘Rudrashtakam’, a eulogy to Lord Shiva. It was written in simple Sanskrit. Since Hindi and Sanskrit shared the same script, I began reading. After some sentences, I got stuck at a long word: ‘saffurna-mauli-kalolini-charuganga’. My mother helped me with the pronunciation and told me that it meant ‘from the matted locks on Shiva's head gushes forth the beautiful Ganga’.

I didn't know what the eulogy meant but the rhythm and the sound drew me in. I felt different, as if something had melted within me. From devouring candies to being awake well past my bedtime, I had experienced various kinds of childish delights and felt good on many occasions, but this was a different feeling altogether. This was not a wave of happiness that rose and ebbed but the gentle flow of a river, a river of strange joy. It seemed to me that I had just experienced God. For the first time, I sensed that it was possible to see him.

BOOK: If Truth Be Told: A Monk's Memoir
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