February – March 2001, North India
They say the hardest part of the Indian Tour is the travel. Long hours on buses, temperatures soaring as February slips into March and March turns into April, the dust and dirt and not enough chances to wash oneself or one’s clothes. But the irony is, the best part of the Tour is also the travel.
For example: you have been riding for hours, half asleep, caught between hunger and thirst, wondering why you ever chose to come on this crazy adventure. The bus stops. “There’s Amma!” someone calls out. All the energy you thought was drained rushes back and you scramble to grab your lunch box (in case it’s lunch) and your cup (in case it’s tea) and your asana (in case you’re lucky enough to sit close to Mother and She’s in a mood for talking). With over a hundred of your sisters and brothers from all cultures, you cluster around whatever place Mother has chosen to position Herself – and it is usually (for some reason She alone knows) not a “convenient” place: maybe (as on the first stop on the tour) She has placed Herself in a narrow side yard, so that instead of ranging out in front of Her, the tour members have to sit in long rows and gaze upon Her profile from afar. Or, maybe She was walking along towards the chair someone had set aesthetically under a spreading tree, and forty people have already placed themselves neatly close to it; She stops suddenly and sits on a stone wall near the path, and all plans are foiled (but since you were in the back anyhow, now you’re in the front!). Whatever the case, exhaustion and dirt are forgotten as everyone watches to see what Mother will make of this roadside stop.
“You sad?” She might ask pointedly (and the one asked, who hadn’t been frowning or crying, will wonder, “How did She know?” and answer his or her own question: “How would She not?!”). She will chuck the sad person under the chin, make a funny face, or in some other unexpected way, utterly undo the sadness.
“One story,” She’ll call out. “One joke, one story, good meaning.” She wants someone to tell a story that is funny but has a spiritual message. A brahmacharini stands up and starts out in Malayalam. “No, no! English!” She’ll order, and the foreigners, who often feel sad at not understanding a lot of what She says other times, feel championed.
Another tour member stands, and tells a story in English. Mother nods and laughs, and then, as if realign She might be giving Herself away (that’s all right; most people suspect She understands more English than She admits to), She turns to one of the Malayalam speakers, putting on a blank face so that he can come to the rescue and translate the story for Her. Then, She gets it and laughs, and calls for another story… there is no trace of the ennui or the exhaustion.
If it is evening, most likely She will sit quietly for a while, watching dusk falling, inviting everyone to meditate. Then if you open your eyes you’ll see that some of the singers have moved near Her, and someone has brought out a harmonium. Soon there is the sound of Mother’s voice, unamplified, natural, simple, singing a bhajan. The further from Kerala, the more likely that the bhajan will be in some language other than Malayalam-maybe the tune is familiar, but the words are different-Mother is practicing the Kannada or Hindi or Gujarati or Bengali version of the song, for, of course, when She goes to someone else’s home, She will do the gracious thing and sing at least a few songs in the local language. What’s special about these tea time bhajan practice sessions is that often enough the sounds in one language mean something else in Malayalam, and Mother will chortle at the changed meaning. Or maybe it will just be hard to master the new words, and when She stumbles, She’ll laugh at herself and try again and again until it comes out right.
But sometimes the bhajan times move from practice and laughter to a different mood. Once, for example, somewhere in Rajasthan, a crowd of local children and men and women had gathered around Mother and the tour group (that happens most places, actually), and they seemed to have some sense of Who She is. Respectfully, they asked for a song in their own language, and of course She readily sang one for them. They listened intently, and by the second time through the refrain they were singing along.
Or another time – it was on the night of the full moon of March. Amma was practising a new song about the Mother of the Universe. It was late, and She said we should resume our journey, as many kilometres were yet to be covered. She stood, turned towards Her car, looked up at the moon and stopped. In its full light She raised Her right arm and pointed, trying to make everyone see what She saw (and we who knew the Zen admonition not to take the finger for the moon tried to tear our eyes away from her beautiful Form and look at the moon).
I doubt that any of us really saw what She saw, whatever it was that drove Her back into song and almost into dance: She raised both arms high and sang again and again the words of the Devi bhajan She had just ‘finished’ – but this time they were more like a celebration than a song, and they were definitely not ‘practice’.
Departure time came, the last of the non-passengers got down, the train began to crawl from the platform, and Mother suddenly stood up and rushed to the end of the car. The door was opened, and She stood there looking love at all the faces that were looking love at Her – love and longing, farewell and yearning.
There had been a tradition that on this train journey Mother would call the people traveling with Her to come to Her cabin for darshan. They would come in small groups of say ten or fifteen, and She would spend time smiling and laughing, perhaps giving satsang or answering questions; then there would be a long and more-than-satisfying, very special darshan for each person. Last year, it seemed this tradition would be broken-by late at night, Mother had not called. Everyone went to bed. Morning came, and – what’s this? Calcutta was still five hours away? Yes, there had been some problem on the line, and the train had sat for hours, waiting for clearance. So guess what! The gained time became darshan time (you had a feeling Mother had known delay would not mean cancellation!) and once again everyone was called to Mother’s car.
But this year the word came around early: Mother was very tired and would not be calling the children for darshan tonight. Go to bed! Every year the tour group on the train has gotten bigger, and most of us had figured the train-darshan tradition would have to be dropped. Just think of how the other passengers felt, even though we tried to be considerate and to move quietly from car to car, and stand quietly awaiting our turns. Accepting reality, we changed into sleeping clothes, brushed our teeth, and went to bed. The soft chant of the train’s wheels lulled many of us to sleep within minutes, after all, it was nearly the end of six weeks’ travel, and there was probably no one who was not exhausted!
Does that mean that when someone came to our cars at eleven at night saying, “Get up! Mother’s calling!” we protested and turned over to go back to sleep? Not on your life! In our various states of disrepair we splashed water on our faces and tiptoed (as well as one can in a slightly rocking high-speed train) up front to Mother’s car. Mother was radiant, seated on the bench in Her compartment. She signaled twelve or fifteen people (depending on size!) to squeeze in – some She made sit on the bench beside Her (which otherwise no one would think of doing!), others crouched on the floor at Her Feet, and the rest squeezed together on the facing bench and in the corners, pressed against door and window. Mother smiled delightfully, asking how everyone was feeling (there’s a tradition of people getting bit of ‘Delhi Belly’ at this stage of the journey). Maybe someone asked a question; perhaps Mother offered a moment’s satsang (“Children, look for the good in everyone; don’t dwell on the bad!”). Then She held each one, whispered in ears, caressed, and gave prasad. The group would leave and walk back to their own places even more quietly than they had come at first-something too tender for words had happened in that car, in the middle of the night, and no one wanted to break the spell by talking. Back to bed and the gently swaying bunk, the soft murmur of train wheels, and perhaps dreams rising from a most precious time with Mother.
Yes, the travel is the hardest and best part of the North India Tour.