Vantage point

Friday, March 02, 2007

My Newfound Spirituality from Asami Asami by Pu La Deshpande

This is an excerpt from P.L. Deshpande's 'Asami Asami', a novel written in first person from the perspective of Dhondopant "Bemtya" Joshi, a middle class Maharashtrian living in Mumbai in 1960s. Joshi lives in a small house in a chawl with his wife and kids and works as a clerk in a small company. The novel is a light-hearted yet profound commentary on life in middle class India in the 1960s. One of my favourite parts is the one where Joshi goes to a religious Guru. Though written almost 50 years back, this story remains relevant, in fact even more so, to the absurdities of the religious Gurus who command irrational following. I will take you to the translation with the usual disclaimer - a lot of PuLa's humour was based on wordplay which is gets lost in translation. Yet, whatever remains is sharp enough, which goes to show why he was one of the most intelligent authors this country ever produced.

I have never been a religious man. My father didn't really care for gods and goddesses either. In fact he would often say to me,

"Bemtya, a smooth and shiny rupee is the real god. You know how even a puny letter does not budge from its place unless you buy stamps to stick on it? Similarly, even god can't help a "not paid" man get anywhere in life. So, counting cash as more important than counting blessings, get it?"

But in my office, everyone prayed to at least one god each. From Titwala's Ganpati to Wadala's Maruti, every member of the pantheon had followers amongst my colleagues. But among all of them, Kaykini Gopalrao was on a different spiritual plane altogether. First he placed faith in Shivanand, Nityanand, Swanand, Parmanand..... all sorts of Anands he could get hold of. Then he went through the Swamis in all the mutths possible. Next it was the turn of all the Murtis from A. Ramamurti to Z. Krishnamurti. Then all possible Babas, Matajis, Devis he could find. And even after all this, for good measure, he was also a regular at Mount Mary and Haji Malang.

Gopalrao was far beyond spiritual thirst; what he had was spiritual gluttony. Recently he found a new Gurudev in Juhu. And believe it or not, I happened to visit that Gurudev with Kaykini Gopalrao.

Actually what happened was, recently I had been having a few bouts of dizziness. I went to the doctor in our office, and he said "It's high blood pressure". But Kushabhau Gulawane would have none of it. He said,

"Dhondopant, I tell you... this office of the doctor..."

This was Kushabhau's own brand of english.

".. this office of the doctor is a Number 1 fool. You come with me to the family of my doctor."

So Kushabhau dragged me to his family doctor who said, "It's low blood pressure"!

The doctor in Colaba said it was high blood pressure, and this doctor in the suburbs was saying low blood pressure. This was like one of those weather forecasts for Mumbai. The Colaba Observatory predicts cloudy skies with intermittent showers, and the Santacruz Observatory predicts clear skies.

Now I told Kaykini Gopalrao about these divergent diagnoses, just to amuse him. But he got very serious and said,

"No no, you must not take chances with this. You know, you should come with me to my Gurudev in Juhu. Once he blesses you, all problems will disappear. No high, no low, no blood, no pressure, nothing."

Finally it wasn't high or low blood pressure, but Kaykini Gopalrao's pressure that made me agree to visit his venerated Gurudev.

"Make sure you wear white clothes, OK?", and then as if I had no idea of what the colour white was, Kaykini Gopalrao picked up a blank sheet of paper and waved it in front of my face. That bugged me and I was about to ask him if he thought I had never worn white clothes in my life. But Kaykini Gopalrao is a very mild-mannered and polite man. He even greets the office peon with folded hands. So I didn't feel like saying anything.

Ironically though, finding white clothes for me turned out to be tougher than finding god. Because our household believes in clothes which don't get dirty easily. So I had to borrow a white kurta from Gothoskar Dada, a white dhoti from Kushabhau, and a white cap from Maganlal Mehta. With each garment on my body from a different household, I set off to meet Gurudev.

Kaykini Gopalrao was waiting for me outside his house. With him were two more people from our office - Keshar Madgaonkar and Appa Bhingarde. It took me a few moments to recognize the usually slobby and unwashed Bhingarde in such clean white clothes. And Keshar had taken whiteness to a new level. Except for her hair and face, everything else was ultra white. She reminded me of the way our chawl looks after being whitewashed once every 10 years or so.

"Miss Keshar, didn't know you were a religious person." I said

"I tell you, Mr. Joshi, after all spirituality is the only thing that makes any sense in this world these days." she replied, and I guessed that she and her boyfriend were having some problems.

"And Appa, you too?"

"What do you mean, me too? I have always been religious. You know in my house, we have one of those rare Ganpati idols with the snout curving to the right." Appa Bhingaarde said, bllissfully unaware that at that very moment, his poking the end of his handkerchief into his nose was making him resemble a rare Ganpati idol with the snout curving to the right.

Finally at about five in the evening we reached our destination, a palatial looking house near MHADA. At the door, Gopalrao said to us "Remove your footwear and keep it here".

As soon as he said that I took out a bag from my pocket. My father always used to say, "Whenever you are going to a public place, always carry a bag with you, in case you need to remove your chappals. You don't want them stolen by anyone, do you?"

Gopalrao saw me putting my chappals in the bag and said "Don't worry, don't worry. Your sandals are safe here."

Now calling my ragged chappals "sandals" was like calling a hawaldar a Police Commissioner. But when I looked around and saw all the imported leather shoes, high heels, sandals with intricate embroidery, I realised that a thief coming there and stealing my chappals was as likely as a robber carrying out a daring heist on a bank and taking with him only the security guard's cap. So I left my chappals there with its more distinguished looking friends and entered the house.

The thick velvet carpet in the corridor was tickling my bare feet. Kaykini Gopalrao's spirituality had turned out to be very plush and luxurious. Growing up, I always thought spirituality meant standing barefoot on just one leg on the scorching hot ground next to a river for days at end. Surviving on nothing but water. Smearing your body with ash. When I was a kid, a religious person meant someone who braved hardships and difficulties.

Now of course, it is entirely possible that spirituality in the remote impoverished region of Konkan can mean one thing, and spirituality in Juhu can mean something completely different. After all, there is a difference in what my son gets as gifts at his birthday party and what the son of my chawl owner gets. His son gets a lot of cash, expensive gifts. My son gets a grand total of ten rupees, and if he is lucky, some Sane Guruji books.

Gopalrao took us to the upper floor. I saw that a man looking just like me, with a white cap, white kurta, white dhoti, was walking towards us. I stopped in my steps, surprised, and he stopped as well. I thought maybe it was someone I knew, so I folded my hands to say namaste, and he did the same. Then I realised.... it was a mirror covering the whole wall!

Now don't think me stupid. In my defense, I had never seen such a massive mirror in my whole life. The mirror I have at home is pretty small, and I can never see both my cheeks at the same time when I am shaving. One reason of coruse is that it is chipped. Plus my wife keeps wiping her fingers on it after she puts kumkum on her forehead. So whenever I am shaving I feel like like I've cut myself. But this mirror was huge.

I was standing there admiring the mirror, when a woman who looked like she might be a film star, went past us. Appa Bhingarde twisted his neck in a way that would make a corkscrew proud, and drank in every inch of her body with his eyes.

"Suvarna Kapoor", Keshar Madgaonkar said.

"Who?" I asked

"The one in 'Police Ki Beti'" she said.

"The one in what?"

"The one in 'Police Ki Beti'. She was also in QattalKhana - The Slaughterhouse. You must have seen Qattalkhana for sure." Keshar explained.

"Qattalkhana? Why would a Joshi from Kadmadey in Konkan ever see a Qattalkhana?" I asked.

"Oh Mr. Joshi, not an actual slaughterhouse. It's the name of a film. She is an actress."

"Oh, then you should have said so in the first place. An actress, eh? Must be a woman of faith, then." I said.

Gopalrao then took us to a huge living room. It was really big and was decorated very opulently. There were candles everywhere, and people were sitting on diwans. Appa and Keshar sat down as well. Kaykini Gopalrao however walked straight to the middle of the room and reverentially placed his forehead on the top of an empty throne. I decided to do the same, and for good measure, also placed my forehead on a few chairs around that throne. The people sitting there who saw me do this pegged me as a very religious man, and one rich looking guy said to me in Gujarati,

"Come and sit here, Sheth".

Sheth? Oh right, wearing borrowed clothes was aparently making me look like a rich sheth from the stock market. I quietly went and sat next to him. To my left, was a very pretty young woman and to her left, acting as if she was her younger sister, was her mother.

In the old days, women weren't allowed in the company of rishis and saints. After rishis like Vishwamitra prayed for a few centuries, Indra would send Apsaras to test their concentration. But now, at the start of my religious life, there was this pretty woman sitting right next to me. How was I supposed to concentrate? Here I was in my spiritual kindergarten and god had thrown me a PhD Candidacy question. An Apsara even before I had prayed? This was like getting the judgement in a Bombay Sessions court case even before the plaintiff and defendant die.

What the men on my right were talking about, was for all practical purposes greek to me. Tata Steel, Share Capital, bulls, bears, lakhs, crores and other such foreign concepts were being thrown around. So I was sitting there, feeling very awkward, with beauty on my left and wealth on my right.

The rich guy on my right smiled at me and said to me in Gujarati,

"Kem sheth? Su business chhe?"

(note - "chhe" is a form of "is" in Gujarati, and the word for "no" in Marathi)

"Chhe chhe chhe, business nathi chhe." I replied, "Benson Johnson company maa job chhe."

As soon as I said "job" he immediately realised that I was a ghaati in sheth's clothing and switched to Marathi,

"So you come here every month?" he asked me.

"No no, this is my first time." I said.

"OK, OK. But you should come every month from now on, OK. This Gurudev is very powerful. Speaks English with such fluency, totally high class. As if Mad in England. Kem, Gordhanbhai?"

And Gordhanbhai responded, "Chokkas(correct)."

"And this Gurudev", the man next to me continued, "is completely original. He isn't an imitation of someone else."

"Is that so?" I asked.

"Yes. He is a great man. You know, he had gone to pray for days at end high up in the Himalayas. Very high. So high, that even Tenzing Norgay would not have gone so high. Snow all around him. Freezing cold. No food, no drink. He just survived on milk."


"Yes, only milk."

I thought to myself, there was snow around him as well. Maybe he even had a few milkshakes while he was at it.

"But that's not all", he continued, "tell me, who do you think got that milk for him up there?"

"Umm... milkman?" I ventured a guess.

"Milkman?? Are you crazy?? How can a milkman go up a place higher than even Tenzing Norgay has ever climbed?"


"He got the milk from... what do they call it... a tiger's woman... what do you call that in your language?"


"Yes, a tiger's wife."

"Mrs. Tiger?"

"No no, not someone named Mrs. Tiger. The wife of a real tiger... the one with stripes and all... you know, the kind you find in zoos and circuses, and sometimes even in jungles."

"Oh, you mean a tigress??"

"Yes!! Gurudev got the milk from a tigress."

"That's amazing", I said.

"Then? This is no ordinary man we are talking about here. This is Gurudev. He didn't become this powerful by drinking bottled milk purchased in Aarey Colony. You know there's even a photograph of that in his ashram in Rishikesh. Gurudev, with one leg raised, is praying, and the tigress, with one leg raised, is feeding him milk."

I thought to myself, I wonder which photographer must have been brave enough to go higher in the Himalayas than Tenzing Norgay ever went and take this picture. Must have been one heck of a spiritual photographer, I guess.

"Gurudev's fame has spread far and wide. He even has devotees in America."

Just then an old man sitting behind us got up, came near us and said,

"Gurudev loves all his devotees as the same, whether they are in India or America."

This old man then took charge of me from the Gujarati sheth.

"You know, Gurudev has meditated not just in the Himalayas, but also in the Alps. That's where he met Mayyadevi."

"Mayyadevi who?" I asked.

"Mayyadevi is a goddess reincarnated. She was originally a German, named Margaret Unterdanken. But everyone calls her Mayyadevi."

"Will we get to see her today?"

"No, she won't be here today. She isn't feeling well. She's got boils in her armpits." the old man said.

"What? A reincarnated goddess has gotten boils in her armpits?" I was surprised.

"That's part of the miracle, my friend. gurudev once had hydrophobia, even though he was never bitten by a dog. These great souls cure their devotees by taking the ailments upon themselves."

I thought to myself, it would be so convenient if Gurudev and Mayyadevi each took on my low and high blood pressure. The old man interrupted my selfish fantasy,

"Tell me Sir, have you read Gurudev's "In Tune With The Tune"?" he asked.

"Have I read what?"

""In Tune With The Tune". It's about how this universal chaos was leading into the creation of a cosmos.."

"Creation of a what?"




"Oh ok, ok, cosmos!" I said laughing. Actually I didn't have a clue what cosmos meant. Non-spiritual people like me know what kishmish is. But why would we know what on earth cosmos is? But not wanting to look ignorant, I confidently said "oh ok, ok, cosmos" as if I bandy around the word hundreds of times a day.

"Yes. When you ascend on to the supraconscious level and then encounter some occult experiences... oh I tell you, you must read "In Tune With The Tune". It costs 5 rupees."

"Have you read it?" I asked him.

"Read it? Hehehehe" he guiltily laughed, "Actually I have written it. Gurudev appeared in my dreams and told me what to write."

Suddenly a heavyset old Madrasi at the other end of the room stood up and yelled,


"Who is that guy?" I asked the old man next to me.

"Professor Kumbhakonam. He nurtures the hopes of taking over after Gurudev dies. He is a complete charlatan. Doesn't deserve any position of importance. But he is from Gurudev's village. It's all nepotism."

I didn't know nepotism existed even in the spiritual domain. Kumbhakonam said to everyone,

"Brothers and sisters. Our most reverend Gurudeva has asked me to start the prayer today. But before I do that, there will be complete silence for one minute. In which we will do dhyaaNam, of our most reverend Gurudeva."

We all shut our eyes in silence. After a few seconds I opened my eyes slightly, and saw that Professor Kumbhakonam was looking intently at the pretty lady on my left. I thought to myself, maybe he is looking at her from a spiritual perspective.

Now the irritating thing is, that minute refused to end. This is a question I have always had. If everyone is supposed to shut their eyes for one minute, then who will look at the clock and see when that minute is up? I always have this trouble whenever respects are being paid to the recently departed. In fact I worry that I will start thinking about this, and then start laughing inappropriately. The spiritual minute kept dragging on and on and I was sure I would break into a highly inappropriate giggle, when suddenly,


Appa Bhingarde. For the last 16 years, his patent sneeze has caused the walls of our office to tremor. His sneeze ended the minute of silence.

Then Kumbhakonam started with his prayer. Now what should I tell you about his voice? Wow. Imagine if a bull, separated for several years from his favourite cow, wanted to sing to her and tell her how much he was missing her. It was that earth-shattering plaintiveness that shone through Kumbhakonam's voice -

"vhaataapi ganapati vajenam... vhaataapi...paramaaa...panamaaa..."

and then suddenly, as if a mouse had entered his underwear, he went,


His prayer would have gone on for ages to come, but luckily for us, a conch shell sounded and he stopped. The curtains at the door were parted, and Suvarna Kapoor entered with a handfan made of peacock feathers. Then a man dressed like he was playing a part in an enactment of the Mahabharat entered. This was Gurudev.

Everyone rushed to place their forehead on his feet. The pretty lady next to me and her mother also rushed ahead. I overheard them telling Gurudev that they were the members of some royal family. The mother told Gurudev that some Chandrashekhar was ill and he needed to be cured. I was wondering who Chandrashekhar was and why she didn't get him here, when she said, "He has an infection on his tail". I realised that Chandrashekhar was the royal canine. Gurudev assured her that Chandrashekhar will be cured.

But what I couldn't understand was how Gurudev would take this tail ailment upon himself? From what I could see, he did not have a corresponding appendage at the back.

People were emptying their pockets at Gurudev's feet and Kumbhakonam was putting it all inside a wooden box using forceps, making a big show of the fact that he wasn't even touching the money. The Rani Sahiba gave a big wad of currency notes. When my turn came, I put my hand inside my pocket just to save face, and surprisingly, found a crisp ten rupee note! My wife had given me just 3 rupees when I left the house. And some of it had been spent on the local train ticket and the bus fare. SO where did this ten rupee note come from?

I was about to yell "Gurudev, What a Miracle" and fall at his feet when it dawned upon me - the kurta belonged to Gothoskar Dada. And that simple man had given it to me without checking his pockets. I gave the ten rupees to Kumbhakonam, and returned to the place where I was sitting.

After a while everyone had made their donations and Gurudev suddenly inhaled loudly and said, "WHO ARE YOU?"

I thought he was asking me, so I started compiling the sentence "Sir, my name is.." in my mind in English, and just as I was about to say it, he said again,

"WHO ARE YOU?? WHO AM I?? WHO IS HE??" and he pointed upwards. I looked up, but there was no one.

Now what was I supposed to say? I was already finding it very weird that this whole spiritual exercise had been carried out strictly in English. But then Gurudev started answering his own question,

"He is the you in the I of the you. In which you in the I and I in the you are the you in the you."

Both my blood pressures suddenly started acting up. And Gordhanbhai next to me said,

"Saala su English boley chhe na? Saala fine."

After a while I started imagining that Gurudev was putting chains around everyone's necks with his "youyouyouyou" and turning everyone into Chandrashekhars. All this was getting too much for me to bear. A strong incense smell. The crowd. All the chanting. And Gurudev continuing,

"Land in the realm of.... the truth beyond the... beyond the... eternal bliss of... the altitude of... the supraconscious..."

I started feeling light in the head. I don't know what happened but the next thing I knew, Kaykini Gopalrao was waking me up. The room was almost empty.

"You are very fortunate, Dhondopant, very fortunate", Gopalrao said to me.

"Why?" I asked.

"Falling into a spiritual trance on your very first visit.... very rare. You must have lead a virtuous life."

I did not feel the need to tell him that I fall into such spiritual trances every weekend after a heavy lunch. We walked out the door. All the fancy shoes had left with their owners. My old chappals were sitting there faithfully waiting for me.

The next morning I went to Gothoskar dada's place and returned his kurta. I also returned his ten rupees. I wasn't going to rob someone of his hard earned money for no rhyme or reason. I was no Gurudev.

"So, what did Gurudev say?" he asked me.

"Gurudev said", I took a breath and said, "He is the you in the I of the you. In which you in the I and I in the you are the you in the you."

Gothoskar dada looked at me disapprovingly and said,

"Drinking this early in the day, Dhondopant?"

"I am serious. That's what he actually said" I explained.

"What nonsense? What is this you in the you? What does it mean?"

"I'll tell you what it means. My father used to say -

"Bemtya, Brahma created this entire universe using all 4 heads of his. But his favourite animal is the ass. Which is why even while creating human beings, he generously poured in a lot of asinine qualities. In this world, there are few potters. And too many asses. So if you become a potter, there is no dearth of asses to toil for you. Understand?"

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