I saw her first in a one day introductory meditation course. She was sitting beside me, quiet and composed, wearing a bottle green salwar kurta, which, I thought, was too big for her small figure. She was a good 5 inches shorter than me and sitting there side by side in the circle of aspirants we must have looked quite a pair - me in hip hugging jeans and top showing off my newly acquired athletic figure, my hair short and unruly, my nails painted, my eyebrows plucked in the newest fashion and a 'I don't give a damn!' expression on my face, and she, sitting demurely beside me wearing a long well oiled braid, a big bindi on her forehead, her dupatta carefully wrapped around her body with her eyes downcast like a proper Indian woman should be.
She seemed to represent all that I hated. She looked like the epitome of the classic Indian stereotype of a woman which, according to me, was that ever enduring, every crying, weak, spineless creature who thought all men were superior and her husband was the greatest God in the world. 'Amma', I thought, 'here is the perfect Amma like they show in the movies!'
On the other hand, I considered myself liberated. I was this high flying careerist who asserts her freedom of choice. I was someone who takes her own decisions and follows her own instincts and is extremely vocal about her rights and liberties. I considered myself a strong woman with a sharp, perceptive mind. I had shunned the traditional Indian image of a woman and was taking pride in my westernization. Whether being drawn to meditation was an inner calling, an academic curiosity or just a fad, I don’t really know but somehow I had come across this meditation institute and had enrolled instinctively.
During our initial introductions we were supposed to tell about ourselves and our motivations to practice meditation. After I was done telling about myself, she looked up at me and smiled. I probably returned a half smile and half smirk, because the smile on her face waned and she cast her eyes down once again.
"Sister, can you tell us about yourself?" the trainer asked her.
She did not seem to have listened for she was still looking down. I nudged her and told her the trainer was talking to her.
"Vasudha” she said in the tiniest of the voices.
"What?" the trainer asked. "Please speak loudly sister, don't be nervous", he added.
"Vasudha", she said again, "I am Mrs. Vasudha Anand.", she said a little louder this time, still looking at the floor. "My husband has been practicing this system for some time and I want to join him." She informed and looked at the next person indicating she was done.
'That’s it?’ I thought, 'She has no other reason for doing something apart from the fact that her husband is doing it! What’s wrong with this woman?' I wondered; a little irritated. In my own little speech I had spoken about what compelled me to learn about meditation, how much I had read and all the questions I was seeking answers to. My speech was peppered with all the philosophical jargon I had acquired over the years reading Osho, J. Krishnamurthy et al. I wanted everyone to know that my decision was intellectually motivated and I was a perfect candidate for practicing this system for I had the intellectual understanding of eastern philosophy. And here I see this woman saying simply that she was doing it because her husband did it. 'So much for independent thought!' I remarked to myself.
During the day we listened to lectures by various trainers about the system and several other topics about philosophy and meditation. "Surrender, faith and renunciation are the three basic elements of practice.” emphasized the trainers again and again. Yes, surrender, faith, renunciation, I knew all about them! After all I had read about them in so many books, I could give a lecture about them myself! I was full of questions during the sessions - asking, debating, and challenging the concepts. All the while Vasudha remained quiet, arranging and rearranging her dupatta, her gaze fixed on the carpet. I wondered if she even understood what was going on or she did not really care as this activity was already validated by her husband.
After the lecture sessions were over, we were asked to wait. The trainers were going to evaluate us and tell us whether we were accepted into the system. Once accepted, we would be assigned a trainer of our own who will help us in our progress in meditation and spirituality. When the trainers came out after a while, there was a hushed silence. All of us sat in attention to listen to what the chief trainer was saying. For once, Vasudha was looking up. Her dupatta finally seemed to be in place and she looked like she was paying attention to what was going on. Vasudha and I were both accepted. We were given loads of literature to read and understand which included the requirements of daily practice and a lot of information about the stages in progress of our path towards spirituality. As we left the institute, each struggling with the information in our heads and hands, I saw Vasudha grappling with her books, her dupatta and a huge bag that she had brought along. Somehow she managed to haul everything into her husband's waiting car. As she perched into the seat beside him, she waved at me. I waved back and smiled, balancing my own load and walking back to my house which was right across the street.
I saw Vasudha often after that. We would meet for group meditations in the evening. She would always be there when I arrived. Clad in traditional Indian clothes, a big bindi on her forehead, her long hair tied in a well oiled braid, she would be sitting in the corner- her eyes closed in meditation. I would sit besides her trying to make as little noise as possible, hoping that nobody noticed I had arrived late. After the meditation, we would write our names in the diary confirming our attendance. Vasudha would write hers in a delicate cursive handwriting. She would check it again after she was done writing and pass on the diary to me, always with a smile.
Over the next few months I was struggling to find time for this new activity. It was just another activity at that time, nothing else! I was not willing to substitute it for anything else that I was doing. It was hard to let go of any of my aspirations. Work, money, fame I was struggling to achieve it all - struggling and failing. If I got what I was seeking, I would want more. If I did not get what I wanted, I would beat myself and crave for it anyway. There was no end to wanting, no end to struggle for life. Faith, surrender, renunciation - all these terms just remained somewhere in the literature I was given to read - unopened gifts forgotten in the corner of my mind.
Spirituality is not an object you possess; it is a way of life. You have to make changes in your fundamental premise if you were to achieve the lasting peace that we all crave so much.
But I was blinded by the burden I was carrying - the burden of desires, the burden of expectations and burden of comparisons. Like a tortured fly caught in a spider's web I was shaking my limbs blindly to get out only to be pulled in deeper. I don't know when desires won over the quest for peace and meditation finally took a back seat in my life. My visits to the institute became infrequent.
Many times I would arrive home late and see the aspirants leaving after the group meditation or I would be leaving for parties or movies when it was time to go to the institute. I would feel a pang of guilt as I would see Vasudha, hurrying in or out of the institute, always carrying her huge bag and meditation mat, fresh and cheerful as ever. Whenever we crossed paths, she smiled at me, her eyes showing not a hint of rebuke or criticism, only a pure delight at having seen me. We had never had a proper conversation, but she would seem to be so happy to see me as if we had been old friends.
Then one of those days when I did go to the institute I noticed Vasudha was looking a little plump and her face was glowing with the magic of pregnancy. She was as reticent as ever, but her eyes betrayed a glimpse of secret joy that was hers and hers alone. I could not help but notice how beautiful she looked and how steeped and satisfied. I felt good to see her like this, to see her fit snugly in a slot in the world. In her life there seemed to be no frayed corners, no jagged edges. That image of this happy little woman lingered in my mind for a long time. Little did I know that this moment of idyll was not to last and both of our lives were on the edge of a tornado. The next time we would see each other our worlds would have turned upside down.
I can't really tell when it all started in my life. That day when my boss sneaked in my office was it really the beginning of collapse or was it a brutal landing? It was late at night and I was in the office, working at my desk, preparing the presentation for next day's client conference. I had been working on this deal for a while now and the fate of it hinged on what happened the next day. I was determined to give my best. If only I could pocket this deal, I would be able to slam it in the face of all those who mocked my progress in this company. I had more than a few enemies as my rise in this company had been nothing short of meteoric. I had joined as a marketing assistant and my job then was a cross between a receptionist and a secretary. Soon, my boss, the CEO of the company, a charismatic man in his mid forties had noticed me and taken me under his wing. He had started training me about ins and outs of marketing and had also started involving me in almost all his client meetings and conferences.
He would talk to me for hours about new deals and business ideas and ask my opinions and would also advice me. I was flattered and at the same time proud of my abilities. In less than three years I was promoted from a marketing assistant to a marketing manager. This was the first time in this company that anyone had rose so fast up the ladder, my boss had assured me when he told me that I was being promoted. I had beamed with pride and basked in the glory of my success - a result of hard work, dedication and intelligence, as I used to believe.
My coworkers were really nice to me on face, but secretly I knew they were jealous of my progress. They did not believe I deserved it and I was determined to prove them wrong.
I was so engrossed in my work that I did not notice when he came in and closed the door behind him. Suddenly I felt hot breath on my neck and my shoulders were held by a pair of clammy hands. Startled, I whirled about to stare in the face of my boss.
I was shocked and pushed him back with all my strength. He was reeking of alcohol and was barely able to stand. He charged at me again. I struggled and fought and was somehow able to free myself and run towards the door. As he came behind me, I grabbed a vase and with all the strength I could muster, hit him hard. He was shocked and hurt, but stopped in his tracks. I ran as fast as I could out of the door, without even looking back.
I heard him scream behind me cursing and using the foulest of the language I have ever heard. The only words I caught were, “Who do you think you are? I gave you all this and you run away when it is time to pay back!”
I was running, my heart aching with fear, anger and sorrow, my eyes brimming with tears. I could not believe the person whom I considered to be my friend and mentor would do this to me. This was an insult to my competence and also my womanhood. But I was not taking this lying down. I was determined to fight back.
I did all the right things - filed a complaint, hired a lawyer and sued my company and my boss. I fought hard but I failed. Evidence was tampered, witnesses were bribed and it was proven in court that I was doing all this to hide my incompetence. My colleagues went against me and my so called friends abandoned me. My dreams were shattered and I was left alone and disgraced.
My bank balance dwindled and it was hard to find another job, now that my reputation was sullied. In a matter of days, my life was mangled beyond recognition. I could not take this and went into a severe depression. I lost all passion for life and would sit at home in my dark, gloomy room for days, staring at the wall. My mother who tended to me was worried. She would cajole me, coax me, and sometimes even force me to eat, to change my clothes, to leave my room. She tried every way to get me to find myself again, but it was impossible to make me understand. I was getting sucked further and further into the abyss. My tears were long spent and I was living as if in a stupor.
Then one day I heard a soft knock on the door of my room. I was too numb to react and just stared at the door. The door opened and Vasudha entered the room quietly. She was wearing a simple white sari, her hair tied in a careless bun, her arms and neck bereft of jewelry. She was smiling but her smile had lost the childlike guilelessness. It was still full of pure delight but now had an edge of maturity, serenity.
“Hello sister.” She said, “How are you today?”
I just stared at her and said nothing.
“I did not see you for a long time so I asked your mother about you. It is so nice to see you again, sister.” She said, sitting beside me.
I did not want to talk to anyone. I remained quiet and just turned away from her, hoping she would go away.
Vasudha touched my shoulder lightly and said, “Sister, your mother told me what you have gone through. I understand your pain. Would you let me help you?”
“You can’t help me, no one can. Just go away and leave me alone!” I said and walked towards the window.
“Please sister, I know how you feel. Please, will you listen to me?” She said following me.
Suddenly, inexplicably I was filled with immense rage. I hated her and all of her kind –women who fit snugly in this world, who always knew what the next step in life was because it was dictated to them by age old tradition, who lived in the cocoon of social norms that protected them from the vagaries of the world.
I whirled around and faced her, my eyes blazing with anger.
“How could you know how I feel? You, who sits in the cozy comfort of your home, serving your dear husband, how would you ever know what’s it like to be totally dispossessed? ” I snarled.
“Do you even know what it is like to dream? How can you ever know how it feels to watch your dreams torn apart one by one, right in front of your eyes? What do you know of being betrayed, of being left alone, of fighting and struggling and, all the while, wishing you were dead? Keep your sympathy to yourself, you hypocrite, and get out of here! You can never share my pain.” I lashed out, fighting back my tears.
Vasudha stood unmoving, listening calmly to by bitter invective. She said nothing, but the smile on her face was gone and her expression was grave.
“Get out!” I screamed shrilly, hoarsely, like a madwoman, shaking with anger.
Vasudha stepped towards me and with a strength belying her small figure, held my arm.
“Stop it sister” she said, her voice calm and firm, “Stop this drama NOW! Do you think you are the only person with problems in this world? Do you think you are the only one who has seen pain? Stop giving yourself so much importance, woman, and open your eyes and see.”
“See what people go through and see how they dig into their heart to gather strength and face their sorrow like a warrior.”
“You call this a fight, being holed up like a coward, letting your bitterness consume you? You are nothing but a sniveling weakling who is too self-centered to think about anybody else in the world. What kind of modernity is this? What kind of careerism, where at the first sign of trouble, instead of facing it, one scurries for cover? ” She lashed.
“You said that I knew no pain? Do you want to know what I have gone through since we last met? ”
“When I was seven months pregnant, my husband was hit by a car and died on the spot. I could not take the shock and went into premature labor. My child did not even get a chance to see this world. He was dead before he could breathe his first breath.”
“As I held the dead child in my arms, the only thing I wanted was to be in his place.
To just sleep and drown into the cold, blue nothingness and never wake up.”
“Yes sister, I know what it is like to wish I was dead. I know what it is like to be shattered and dispossessed, alone and betrayed”
“Sister, after all this I could have holed up too. I could have sniveled and gathered all the sympathy in the world. But I did not shy away from pain. I looked at it in the eye, for I had the strength of surrender. I had the power that comes from faith. I had the power of love.”
“After I clenched my heart and finally was able to stand up and gather the shards of my life, I actually looked around me. I saw so much pain in the world, so much suffering and so much loneliness. There, sister, I found the purpose of my life. ”
“I am just a simple woman who does not have the means to alleviate anyone’s suffering, but I can definitely alleviate their loneliness. I can be their friend, their comrade and empathizer. During the moments of their suffering I can hold a beacon of faith in front of them so that they can also learn what I learned during my own bitter moment.”
“Do you see it now sister, the light beyond the darkness that surrounds you? Get up sister, get up and search that strength from within you - the strength that comes from being a woman.” She said, gently stroking my hair.
I broke down and put my head on her shoulder. First time in days, I let my tears flow freely.
I knew now what Vasudha was all about. I knew that inner strength was not a product of your ambition and achievement; it was a result of faith in oneself and serenity of being. Vasudha had not only understood the meaning of the principles of surrender, faith and renunciation, she had taken them to another level, to the level of service.
For a long while after that, we sat there, side by side, in my room that suddenly seemed so much brighter; two women so different from each other, from inside and out. One a trifle stronger, other a trifle weak, but both so much wiser from the lessons taught by life.