And so we arrive at the monastery: “The Hugging Mother Ashram” in Amritapuri, Kerala. We have all decided upon the maintenance of a state of militant open-mindedness for the full duration of our visit. Ashrams were set up all over India by Ghandi as places for spiritual healing and discovery. People travel to them from all over the world, check into one of their many empty rooms and devote themselves, whether for a week or for a lifetime, to the attainment, we are soon told, of a “higher level of consciousness”. This is to be achieved through a strict daily routine of meditation, prayer and volunteering. Eat, sleep, pray. We will be expected to rise at 4:30 in the morning for the chanting of 1000 sacred mantras before two hours of meditation on the beach. Food will then be provided, before we are then lead to the composting tent where we will recycle our leftovers by mixing them with horse poo.
We fall off the bus (“Ashram, all out here!”) in what at first appears to be a sleepy beach village. Sea and sand on the right, small huts and palm trees on the left.The place is deathly silent apart from the audible disapproval of the locals at our fat bafflement and bawdy knees. A dog – half fir half rotting flesh, a sideward lilt when he walks and a nervous jabber – skulks down a small path, unwittingly exposing the way. We follow. The Trudging Procession; just the sort in need of enlightenment. Heads are down, fixed on the birds-eye-view of toes in mud and, in my case, of my Barbie-pink, platformed ‘SPANK’ sandals; the only footwear available in my size when I had stormed the market, barefooted and desperate. I glance behind me; bags of The Trudging Procession sit not only upon weary backs but also pendulum from necks like cowbells on kept animals.
Then suddenly there it is. A monastery and a decidedly modern monastery at that.A colossal, industrial hulk of spiritual cement imposing tyrannously on its sleepy surroundings. Whilst the centre piece of the complex is a multi-coloured Hindu temple not dissimilar to those we have already encountered, it is the buildings around it which raucously hog our attention. To the left stands what can only be described as A Block Of Flats, although, admittedly, it is A Block Of Flats Supreme. A terrifying Soviet landing.A wonder of the world in its own right. The storeys stretch higher than I can crane my neck, sun mercilessly discarded behind. Even the taller palm trees only just reach the third floor. Bars on all the windows. I hadn’t envisaged that the world of spiritual healing would look so angry; so military.
I begin to think that it is a good thing that I decided to shave my head, deciding that now, at the very least, I look the part. Having been told that the lower sections of my legs might alarm and offend any poor soul trying their very best to reach a higher state of consciousness, I have chosen to wear my best skirt.
Whilst you might look at the maroon sheet hanging from my hips and finishing around my ankles with the thought that it might look more at home on a middle-aged female Sunday School teacher named Ruth, to the population of South India this is the epitome of male power dressing. It is known as a lurgi. You can wear it long and flowing with a shirt tucked in, or you can pull it up and tie it at the front with a Tshirt. It’s not dissimilar to the fabric that Victoria Beckham forced upon her husband in the early Naughties much to the ridicule of the rest of the England squad. At least, admittedly, he had had the sense not to team his lurgi with a pair of Barbie-pink, platformed SPANKs.
We are soon invited to fill in forms, and to hand in our passports before checking into our dormitories. I am asked for my first name, my second name and my spiritual name. I look over to Susannah’s form to see that she has entered ‘Beyoncé’ as her spiritual name. Beth has opted for ‘Punjab Babe’. I panic under the hurrying gaze of the receptionist and scribble ‘Tree Snake’ as mine. The form then asks me this question: ‘When and where did you meet Amma?’ I don’t quite understand what I am being asked, leave it blank, and hand it back to the receptionist who, whilst maintaining sober, unmoved eyes, flashes me a laser-white top row of teeth. Like a pirate. “Dinner is being served in the Great Hall,” he says.
The Great Hall might well have been an airport in a past life. Or a dinosaur paddock. From the outside it looks like an oversized battery hen farm – corrugated metal, iron girders, sliding bay doors – yet from the inside it is determinedly a temple. There are chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, an ornate stage, and large, illuminated panels depicting a slightly chubby, middle-aged woman in various positions of meditation and contemplation. On one portrait she seems to be in trance on a golf-course and on another she is cross legged on a waterfall. Except she’s not actually on a waterfall, or even at a waterfall for that matter. The jagged edges around her head betray the crude photoshopping. This must be Amma, I think to myself.
A man walks up to us, with a slow, measured gait and a clean, airy faced. He is wrinkled and weathered yet seems oxygenated and youthful at the same time. He is, of course, wearing floating white trousers and a floating white shirt. Feet are strapped into non-descript sandals; clean and airy. “Welcome to The Hugging Mother Ashram,” he says with practiced charisma. Indian food is free and on the left side of the Great Hall. We all collect clinical metal trays from a large bin, queue up behind various food stations at which various coloured slops are presented to us in splats by joyless cooks. Upon sitting down, we see that the way to eat said slops is to whirl them around with your fingers until they resemble one glorious, conglomerated slop, which is then catapulted towards the tongue, dripping, sticky and cold.
The man in the white linen sits down with us on our Hogwarts long table. “So when did you first meet Amma?” he asks us, mimicking the voice of the entrance form. He is from The States and has one of those vintage, academic American accents which sounds like eat word has been carefully removed, weighed on scales, and then replaced after having been subtly smoked over a wood fire.
“Actually we don’t know who Amma is really…”
“I thought as much…” He seems pleased about this, as if hungry to take our Amma virginity himself. Amma, it turns out, built this Ashram. She also built a few other Ashrams, a university, a hospital, a few thousand Indian homes, and so on and so on. Quite a woman, we all nod in agreement. She is known as the ‘Hugging Saint’ as she personally hugs all of those in need. Statistics tell us that the woman has embraced – two pudgy arms around the waist and a compassionate kiss on the cheek – over thirty three thousand devotees. Once she even hugged people for twenty two hours without breaking for a wee or a Starrbucks’. There is a photo of her doing this, in fact; she is on a small, raised platform amid a Wembley arena sized sea of well-wishers and pilgrims, tirelessly cuddling those who have politely formed an orderly queue. There are two electric fans directed towards her at close range, which attest to just quite how thirsty this particular line of work must be in Indian heat.
And now for the childhood of Amma.
“Amma grew up in a very spiteful family, you see. A very big, yet a very spiteful family.Amma was the youngest and because her skin was darker than the rest of them, because it was blacker than the rest of theirs…” he is repeating this for effect, but we have allunderstand and we all watch his now awakening passion with some scepticism. “…because she was darker, they treated her like the servant… like the slave…” – again he searches melodramatically for vain emphasis – “making her do all of the chores around the house, calling her names… taking her for granted…” Oh, I know this story… Cinderella, isn’t it?
“Then one day, with the family beginning to get more and more annoyed with Amma and her unwillingness to get married, to honour the family, to be a traditional Indian woman, they met her with an ultimatum: either she pull herself together, except her role within the family and get married, or she would no longer be allowed to live inside the house…” One more look around the group to check not just that we are all still listening but also that we are riveted. “And so what did she decide to do? Well, of course, she couldn’t just give herself in to marriage… no. She took her things and moved into the yard outside. She lived in the yard. You see, she wasn’t going to stay inside the family house but she was prepared to live outside… in the rain, the monsoon, the night, the cold…”
Susannah realises that none of us have said anything for quite some time, or even twitched a muscle on our faces in encouragement. Valiantly, she makes an attempt at a grunt of appreciation, or even awe. Unfortunately, the air pacing down her throat trips on a hazardous spittle speed bump and the sound she makes sounds more like the tired whooshing of air out of a flat tyre or a sad party balloon squeakily farting about a room with a puncture. The man carries on either undeterred by this or entirely oblivious to it altogether. I decide that it’s the latter.
“Amma was certainly special from a young age.” He grins at this, his eyes far off and sparkling as if he was referring to his very own child. “She would sit outside and… if you don’t believe me there are even photos of this, I swear!… a cow would walk up towards her from a field nearby and just stand and watch her as she meditated… imagine that! She would momentarily break the meditation, lean forward, and drink from the cow’s teat… from its udder! And then the cow would just walk away… as I said, if you don’t believe me, just look at the pictures of it!” We assure him that we do believe him in hurried mumbles. “An eagle would fly over a nearby river, pick out of it a fish, fly back to Amma and just drop the fish on her… so she would drink the milk straight from the cow and eat the fish raw that the eagle had brought her… you see, for Amma, there was no difference in anything. There was no one controlling God which dictated which life forms were more important than others, or more intelligent, and so she just ate everthing that was in front of her…”
I sit for a minute, digesting what I have just been told. I am not quite able to grasp the link between Amma’s believing all life to be equal and her eating of absolutely everything put in front of her like a human lawnmower. One more furtive glance at the omniscient portrait of the notably rotund Amma sitting on the golf course with her legs crossed and each hand, thumb and third finger pressed together in the traditional meditative pose, rested on each knee. The Hungry Prophet.The Hungry Lost Prophet.The Get-Off-The-Fareway-Madam-We’re-Trying-To-Play-A-Shot Hungry Lost Prophet.
“There’s one thing I missed off!” garbles the man. Now he’s worried that he hasn’t quite impressed us enough. “When she was a baby Amma never crawled. She.Never. Crawled… She would just sit, in her cot, in the meditating position, with her legs crossed, and when it was time for her to walk, she quite simply got up and walked. But she never crawled.” We ooh and aah on cue.
We decide to quiz the man further. He is 48 and hasn’t left the Ashram for twenty years, and isn’t ever planning on leaving. He will live and die in the Ashram. His wife also lives in the Ashram. He tells us openly of their courting period in the US where he had been confused during the early days of their relationship before finally summing up the courage to admit to her that, actually, he quite wanted to become an ascetic monk. She had taken the news surprisingly well, and had decided to come with him to the Ashram, at which point Amma, it is said, that given to her the gift of an apple, a bag of sweeties, and whispered in her ear that she must stay with her husband in the Ashram forever. “An apple!” the man enthuses. “An apple and some sweets! You see, Amma is always thinking of other people, and she never ever asks for anything in return. She never asks for recognition.”
This part I find especially hard to stomach, and look away uneasily. Amma doesn’t ask for recognition, no, apart from the Ammagiftshop – this sells Amma photos, cars, pens, Tshirts, necklaces amongst other paraphernalia – the Amma pharmacy, the Amma bakery, the Amma portrait of Amma meditating on a golf course… Amma even has a toy doll available of her which can be bought from the Ashram’s roof terrace doll shop. The doll is wearing an ornate head dress, the iconic white Amma sari, and has her hands in the air as if addressing the masses. Dolls that are sold in the same series as the Amma doll include Ganeesha and Jesus. Amma is selling herself amongst the Gods. The question of recognition is a sticky one.
Now for the guided tour. This is to be carried out by a woman from the Czech Republic who has been here for four years and counting. She has an impossibly pronounceable, long Czech name, yet insists upon shortening it to a monosyllable as if leaving it as it was before, in all of its unabridged complexity, might be perceived as a direct threat to the humbleness of ‘Amma’.
She takes us into the temple (“Shoes off please!” – the SPANKs are dutifully removed), sets out five plastic chairs in a line, and opens a cupboard in front of them to reveal a television. She does all of this with the delicacy of an airhostess, delighting in the brittle opening of the wooden doors, the careful extraction of a DVD from its box, and the light, motherly tap she gives the disk as she sends it on its way into the DVD player. She takes a seat beside us and, despite clearly having seen the film already enough times to be able to mouth along to the narration, glazes over with pride and amazement. Amma.Amazing Amma.Her amazing Amma.
Having allowed the doting voice-over to guide us through Amma’s Tsunami charity work amongst other humanitarian triumphs – none, we later agree, light tasks and none to be sniffed at – we are pointed out Amma’s internet café, Amma’s clothes store and Amma’s juice bar. Amma’s brand.
Later that night we will meet a man in the queue for the veggie burgers who will laugh raucously when we ask where he is from before telling us, in an unmistakably Australian accent, that he is “from the Universe” and another extraordinarily large man who will push into the food queue, having heard that we too were in the mood for a chocolate brownie, before buying every single remaining one. All of the brownies. Swept, not even cut up into separates, into one large tray.
A cackle will arise as a French madam (we will remember her from an earlier time just outside Amma’s vending machine when she screamed at us that all the flies in Amma’s café should be killed, or else we hadn’t done our work correctly) will shout sarcastically at Susannah “AND MAY ALL OF YOUR CHILDREN BE MILLIONAIRES AND MAY YOU YOURSELF BE A BILLIONAIRE!”
She means this as an insult of course. Being a millionaire or, God forbid, a billionaire would be far too materialistic for Amma’s liking. Humble Amma who never asked for anything in return.
We set about wondering what class Amma travels in when flying to and from her various humanitarian engagements. Something tells us that it probably isn’t economy.
For the time, anyway, it is to bed. An ascetic naked mattress in an ascetic bare room. We will be up at 4am for chanting.
The following morning:
Somehow we manage to sleep through the 4am chanting. I seem to remember opening one eye or two at 4am, but not much after that. You can’t see very much from our 11th storey hovel in The Tower – looking down is a bit like seeing the Earth from space – and I’m not entirely sure I knew where I was.
At six o’clock another alarm goes up, and this time the girls are determined not to miss out on six thirty meditation on the beach. I appear now to have forgotten all of the pent enthusiasm leading up to our arrival at the Ashram and hurl vitriolic abuse at my colleagues as they strip me of my naked ascetic sheet and leave me naked and ascetic upon my ascetic bed.
We waddle to the lift and press the button. Amma is watching us from the corner of the lift from a sticker. She is smiling softly down on us; an accentuated piece of costume jewellery glistening from her nose. The doors close mechanically, and Amma’s face pops out from each. “Oh, Amma it’s you again! Hullo, hullo!” She slides like an ambushing snaked, but a cheery ambushing snake which grins at you after the initial shock and lures you into feeling guilty and silly for ever having felt startled.
The Ashram is deserted, and so is the beach. The only life to be seen is a woman gently rocking on a bench, fixed on the waves, and a Chinese man waving his arms loosely at the rising sun. Then he helicopters his arms, and begins jangling his legs too. He is, it can be seen, older than time itself and reminds me greatly of the senile protagonist of A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian who, when finally sent to an old people’s home, greets the sun naked every morning with a salute; an unabashed bottom wobbling free as the day it was birthed.
Humpfs all round. The Trudging Procession makes its way back to the eleventh storey of The Tower just as it begins to rain. They must have seen this coming – that’s why no one is meditating on the beach.
We take one look at our bags and decide to leave immediately. No voluntary poo mixing. No chanting. No Amma’sgiftshop or juice bar. No more separation of the sexes (“Women and men are like water and oil…” the American man had told us just yesterday, doing his very best to convince us that he had never visited the West and knew absolutely nothing of gender equally, “all you need is…” – wait for the completion of the hopelessly mixed metaphor – “one little spark and…” – his hands gesture a ‘BOOM!’ of sorts) and no more self-mortification, enforced silence or chocolate-brownie monopoly.
Goodbye Amma. For the moment, we’d be better off with a spag bol and AC.