All Saints’ Day in Paris
1 November 2001, Paris
Even before nine this morning the queue was long — it stretched for perhaps 200 metres from the entrance. Yet, at that same hour, the hall was already half-full. By Amma’s arrival time, the hall was full — and the queue just as long as it had been.
This is Europe; Paris; since it is All Saints’ Day, many workplaces are not open. This is a boon for the people here who take their work commitments very seriously and yet would have wanted to be here for Amma’s first day of programmes. They are here, perhaps already two thousand, ready to spend the day, and most of them the night as well, sacrificing the “personal space” expectations in this society and sitting packed close to strangers, most of them on the floor, in this huge meeting hall.
What’s the draw? It is the small woman in a white sari, sitting in a chair at floor level, barely visible to most of the people most of the time. She will sit for as many hours as it takes to embrace each person who comes to Her, to whisper “Ma fille cheri,” or “Mon fils cher,” or perhaps “My darling daughter” or “My darling son,” or the equivalent in Tamil or Malayalam or Hindi.
It’s true there is a small group of people sitting on the stage behind Amma, singing devotional songs, accompanied by tabla, harmonium, electronic keyboard, the more traditional handbells, occasionally a flute. Their music is lovely, but it is not the draw: it is the background. The draw is Amma giving darshan as She does everywhere in the world: hugging, whispering, listening, smiling, wiping someone’s tear and perhaps shedding one Herself as She shares in Her children’s suffering.
And who are these people? They are not all Parisians, nor even French, any more than the people a couple of days back were all Londoners, or British, or the people before that all Belgians or Germans or Swiss. And though this is billed as “Amma’s European Tour”, they are not even all Europeans. Watch for a while:
There is a woman alone, holding a picture of a young man and woman and, obviously, their first-born: her grandchild. She puts the little family into Amma’s hand and nestles close while Amma touches each face in the photo with sandal paste. The woman wasn’t so alone after all.
Here is a crowd! Two young girls, behind them two preteen boys, then a mother, a father, and a matriarch — you can tell by how she shepherds the family into place and keeps a proprietary hand on the mother’s back. Once each has been kissed all are drawn into one large hug; see how Amma’s fingers “walk” along the shoulders of the farthest boy and draw him closer, and then stretch a little so as to be touching two people at once: all are being touched, embraced.
Next comes a bold, fiery teenager whose spiked hair is orange up to the tips, which are green. He is at home in the all-welcoming lap, which, once he leaves, welcomes as readily a grandmother — no, a great-grandmother, no doubt — in a demure grey suit and a single strand of pearls.
A plate heaped high with fruit, sweets, a split coconut, and flowers is held towards Mother: an offering from one of Paris’ two Hindu temples, one dedicated to Vinayaka (Ganesha, Remover of Obstacles). The priest and his assistant offer dakshina to Amma, and a stack of magazines about their temple; a crowd of members of the congregation, many Tamils, comes forward for the darshan of the visiting saint.
Two middle-aged professionals approach. She hugs the first one, who is dressed in the impeccable style of a banker. A pinch on the cheek, prasad, and Her arm reaches out for the friend. Casual in golfer’s slacks and a V-neck pullover, this one too is welcomed to Her embrace. She draws both close at once, scatters petals, kisses their hands, and they move aside.
The sticker on the blouse of the next woman tells Mother this is her first darshan. Nonetheless, she must know something of Amma’s universal outlook on religions, for in her cupped hands, she is bringing Amma a rosary, its silver crucifix shining. Amma kisses the rosary, touches it with sandal paste, and holds her new daughter close.
A German family comes, looking reminiscent of “The Sound of Music”: a mama in a dirndl, a papa in lederhosen, sons in shorts, and daughters in full skirts. Blond hair, rosy cheeks, and an armload of delicate wildflowers.
Then comes a man who has clearly seen better days: patched jacket, soiled neck-scarf, the smell of cigarettes and cheap wine, three or four days’ grey stubble. She pulls him close and holds him a long time, rocking, gently moving Her hand up and down his tired back. His eyes show a kind of surprise when he pulls back…and more surprise when She draws him close again for whispered word and a kiss.
An African father with his three children approaches; he has tribal scars on his face, but the children do not. They are holding a photo — is it their mother? Amma looks, kisses it, kisses them all and draws them into Her lap. She hands the photo to the father and showers it with flower petals.
A much-loved daughter and her parents come: the daughter is in a wheel chair, and her mother has been sitting beside her, stroking her forehead, making loving yet shushing gestures whenever her child would start to make moaning or crooning sounds. The daughter may be twenty or thirty, it’s hard to tell; she is severely retarded; the peace shining on both parents’ faces is inspiring.
When Amma leans forward to hold the daughter, a look of recognition crosses the girl’s face; the family has been coming to Amma for years; the love is familiar.
Accompanying the family is a gentle golden retriever, who also knows the procedure: it sits quietly, watching Amma’s hand. When She stretches forward with an unwrapped sweet, it is gratefully gobbled! As the family leaves, Amma’s affection for the dog overflows; She calls it back for a second sweet and some more pats on the head, after which line monitors are needed to persuade the gentle animal to leave Amma and return to its duties.
A family of three, he bearded and in a turban, she in a long black dress, their child in jeans and a Winnie-the-Pooh shirt, comes to Amma with a box of home-made sweets; they ask for blessings for their family back in Afghanistan, and Mother holds them all close, promising that She will pray for them.
Back a bit in the line is a child of two — just the age for curiosity and insecurity. She is stretching to see this brown lady everyone is moving towards, but as they draw closer, she retreats to her mother’s arms and peeks from behind a large and bushy bouquet. Her hiding place disappears as the flowers are handed to Amma, and she shrieks! Without a blink, Amma is holding out a bright orange-wrapped sweet to the child, who manages to see through her tears and decides to take a chance. Amma hands her the sweet and swoops her close for a quick kiss. She squirms free and stands back watching doubtfully (while unwrapping the candy) as her mother is hugged and rocked. Deciding it must be OK, she sidles closer — and is handed yet another sweet!
Here is a Christian monk who hands Amma a carefully written letter. The translator standing nearby puts the question into Malayalam. “Okay!” She says with delight, and pats his balding head. “Okay! You come.” He had asked whether he might move to Her home ashram, Amritapuri.
Suddenly, all together in the line, there are six people in white — the colour people who’ve known Amma for some time often choose in order to signal a bond with Her. They have known Amma for ten years; when She’s not in Paris, they meet weekly to share prayer and bhajans, maybe a video, a meal — and memories. Now they’ve come for their annual hugs. Amma’s eyes light up with recognition and this one She teases, that one She condoles, a third She scolds, a fourth She listens to carefully, nodding from time to time; another She holds close, almost lets go, and then pulls close again, and the last one She laughingly chides, pantomiming smoking a cigarette… each is remembered, each uniquely greeted.
Blue jeans, a down vest, T-shirt sleeves rolled up, a chain hooked from his belt loop to his back-pocket wallet: this tough guy has a white and yellow daisy in the tattooed hand he stretches out towards Amma. She takes the flower in Her hand and his head in Her lap and whispers. When he lifts his face, She bends to kiss his hand, and he kisses Hers at the same time — they almost, but not quite, bump heads.
Quiet and composed, a Japanese woman holding a delicate flower arrangement and a picture of Amma makes her way forward, bows halfway as she moves toward the welcoming lap. Amma chuckles softly and bows slightly Herself, remembering the custom from Her Tokyo visits. Then there is the warm embrace, another small bow, and the woman moves not far, to sit at the side and watch.
“What kind of people come to you?” a reporter asked Amma not so long ago.
Then, as always, the answer was the same as on this All Saint’s Day: all kinds. Amma says She sees Herself in each of us; “All Saints’ Day” has a new ring to it.