HOMAGE TO A SINGULAR MOTHER
My own mother was devoted to me all her life, even if she was an attractive impeccable professional woman who spent most of the time outside of the home. Her one desire was for me to have everything that she did not. She succeeded. I received the best education, health care, luxurious homes, world travel… However, family life and emotional security was another matter. She bequeathed me her inner fears together with her tenacity, desire for adventure, and her American Dream. I didn’t know, or rather I should say my body didn’t know what it was to be protected and embraced, or truly valued for who I am rather than what I do. I knew all about appearance and fashion and social graces but I lacked the inner experience of being a woman, of feminine power in a feminine world.
In my late twenties and half way around the world in India, when I met a guru who would influence my life for almost two decades, one of the first things he did after giving me my personal practice, was to direct me to one of his leading woman disciples. The name he had given me, Divya, indicated the highest state of Tantra, or so he said. The woman he sent me to was to instruct me in its ways.
I never understood, at least rationally, what that teaching was about. She barely instructed me in traditional practices or even told me what to do. She didn’t explain; she was. Through the decade I was under her tutelage, she made me pause, she taught me to see and listen, to hear and understand, to be the fullness of myself even when all about me was dangerous and restraining, she helped me understand deception and simulation, and to live a mystery. I became her constant companion and errand girl, attending to her at all hours of day and night. She became my Mother, an emanation of the Earth Herself, pulsing, moist and fragrant, fiery and containing. Her well earned name was Taru, and it meant “tree”.
She sang like a powerful mythical bird in those warm high-pitched tones, so representative of Indian song, and she filled all the space around her with the resonance of hidden longings of the heart. With her eyes closed and her arms spread wide, sound would surge from inner depths like a source of nourishment in a desert, a brush of warmth in a cold night. She sang the “Arti” (the Guru Prayer) and myriad devotional mantras, Vedic texts, “bhajans” and was also the incontestable lead “kirtan” singer at festivities.
In many ways, Taru was a typical Brahmin stereotype. In India, being a member of the upper class usually meant having people obey your every beck and call. Although she had retreated from society and now resided in the guru’s community as an honored permanent guest, she commanded attention and obedience everywhere she went. She made a point of it throughout all the time we remained in India. When the community moved to the US she also showed everyone that she knew how to be invisible as well.
No relationship between mother and daughter is ever smooth, and learning is never obvious. A transmission occurs. Just as my own mother submerged me in the fluid of her memories and activities even as I lay in the womb, in humid warmth during monsoon season and all around the year, Taru would surround and imbibe me with teachings impregnated by the clean clear aroma of silk and linen saris fresh from the “dhobi”, faint patchouli breezes, and the sweet pungent odor of the digestive herbs with red “betel gum” she chewed.
Other than her inimitable voice, the most salient characteristic in Taru was her size. She was huge, and voluminous, and yet agile, graceful. She recalled when she had been a slim petite girl trained in sacred temple dance, and showed me the ankle bells she kept. Her hand and finger movements preserved the gracefully curved gestures of classical Oriental story telling. And those were the only remnants of her original size, her hands and feet. They seemed tiny and swollen at the ends of abundant bulging flesh.
To the outside world she appeared disdainful, despotic, spoiled, demanding, indifferent, as haughty as any distinguished international prima donna, and in that spiritual atmosphere, many people questioned my connection with her. Privately, she was melancholic. When she realised that my friendship was genuine, she began to open up to me, and it was precisely this intimacy that marked my “training”. Behind her inferences and complaints, I now see, were deep wounds of that aloneness which is the effect of being perpetually misunderstood – tragic trademark of the spiritual initiate. She was complex. In many ways nothing was ever enough for her and paradoxically she was always full of passion and life. She could burst into moods of sheer delight, particularly when she spoke of the guru and the grace that flows from infinite heights. From her lips would spill endless folk tales of spiritual romance with the divine, of the mythical times of Sita, Meera and Radha, exemplifying devotion and inner strength, understanding and commitment that were shared and commented among the Indian women who gathered around her.
But, there was one trait that led many people to stand in judgment and avoid her company. Taru drank copiously and she did so every day. She never lost lucidity but when she was especially inebriated, her voice rose several decibels to be heard in the surrounding buildings. In the compound next to hers, I would hear her shout my name and dropped whatever I was doing to reach her. There was never any fear or sense of obligation in my actions; I just loved her. Mostly she simply wanted me to sit by her. I assumed my favorite posture at her knees, often burying my face in her padded lap while she stroke my hair, and reminisced of the guru’s days in Bombay, of Indian mythology, and towards the end of our time in Pune, about strategy, endless plots and political scheming going on in the ashram and around us. A brilliant as well as intuitive mind, she read people clear through, knowing what was going on beyond the surface. Through her tales I was able to piece together much of the life of the guru before Western notoriety hit us. Later, I also understood about the rise and fall of kingdoms.
Taru was a phenomenon and I loved her deeply. She became, almost, a part of me. I understood her psychic and spiritual depths and accepted her. Still, she was an embarrassment for many people who believed that spirituality should be an example of reserved behavior. However, Taru was a female version of Gurdjieff, rebellious, highly intelligent, predictably unpredictable, loud and tender at the same time, running like a raging river and like a cool dark lake within my veins.
I listened and heard her, I absorbed and was moved by her. Charged with passion and emotion, she taught me all about resistance and about secret-keeping. She transmitted the essence of womanhood and most of all filled the gaps of the Mother I never had. Like the guru we both revered, she admonished and raised me in one swift breath, through shouts as effectively as without a word.
At that time the guru was the nexus that joined my world. He showed me the way and was the inspiration, providing methods and protection, challenging and urging me forward … but she, she was the backdrop, the womb of India herself, the space that harbored the texture of my becoming.
Eternally within me, she always appears smiling broadly revealing stained reddish teeth, in the midst of an ocean of Indian women, all of us sitting on the floor, rolling and roasting chapattis, chanting and telling stories. She forever exudes that particular radiance, a sweet perfume, at times shoving me affectionately in the rough manner of a mother cow with her calf, at others softly embracing me, whispering encouragement as well as warnings, and reshaping me from within, always reminding me that time is our guide.
When finally of my own accord I left the community, in many ways I was responding to the teaching she had transmitted to me, a particular blend of soul surrender and loyalty, committed authenticity, and immovable personal integrity. I somehow knew I might never see her again, and yet as I experienced the real impossibility of reaching her years later, when my letters never reached her, it filled me with deep sadness. The system I had left behind and the forces that held her to her deepest vows were as far apart as the worlds of elves from the machinations of humans. The magic and the old ways are veiled by mist, alive only in the impressions forever present in my heart.
Her shiny black hair smoothed back in a bun, her tiny hands encased in bangles and clapping to the rhythm of the darshan music, for me, today she stands at the center of the immortal Temple of the Mother.
Thank you, Taru, Beloved!