Christmas Trips

Subarata was an accomplished and tireless shopper and for years she chided me for my own disappointing lack of interest. Occasionally, usually on Christmas trips, I would be persuaded to tag along with her while she explored the local markets, bought prasad or found a birthday gift. After an hour though of traipsing about, I would plead tiredness or a headache and head home. Occasionally we would come across Guru, and Subarata’s zeal was vindicated when he would talk to us or wave or smile. “See!” Subarata would say to me reprovingly, as though to suggest that all those long, hot, interminable hours had simply been intended for this.

In Guatemala City in December of 1997, exactly this happened. On an epic morning shopping foray, a café suddenly appeared before my relieved eyes and I sank gratefully into a chair, refusing to venture further. Subarata sighed in exasperation, then finally joined me. Suddenly Guru appeared as though from thin air and stood by our table. He spoke beautifully about his love for us and how much it pained him when we could not feel this and so became unhappy. Guru gave me 100 per cent for my smile and Subarata 82 per cent. How he loved husband-and-wife rivalry! Then Guru said his love for us would take away all our sufferings, smiled hugely and walked away.

Familiar as we are with our numerous shortcomings, and ranking ourselves well down on the “deservedly lovable” scale, we usually find it difficult to believe that we can be unconditionally loved. The reassurance of Guru’s love from Guru’s own person was always a radiant and joyful surprise that lingered in our hearts and souls for ages, banishing all the shadows in an illuming burst of sunshine.

On our Christmas trip to South Africa, Subarata achieved considerable notoriety by planting someone’s birthday cake in my face, in front of all the disciples!

During an afternoon function, Guru had invited husbands and wives who were present to tell amusing stories about each other – how he enjoyed these occasions! – and Subarata responded with enthusiasm, regaling us all with many amusing anecdotes about my quirkiness. Guru passed me on his way out of the function room, shared a huge, consoling smile and encouraged me to write down a few embarrassing stories about Subarata, telling me that he would personally read them out during the evening function. He added that I could exaggerate as much as I liked, although I knew that would not be necessary – I had plenty of ammunition!

But that night, instead of reading out my malicious tales himself, Guru invited me to read them. This proved my undoing!  Many who were absent from the afternoon function probably felt I had launched an unprovoked attack on Subarata’s good name. My tales evoked unbridled cheers from the boys but a disapproving silence from the girls.

Halfway through my stories, Subarata and one of her friends advanced on me with a concealed cream cake in hand, only to launch it into my face! Standing there covered in cream, I felt like somebody from a vaudeville show, only my eyes and mouth visible in a mask of white. Still covered in birthday cake and lashings of cream, I was invited to read one or two more stories, and so battled on.

Later, speculation abounded over a marriage in trouble and divorce, and the incident was narrated even to disciples in remote parts of Russia. Months later, disciples from faraway places were still coming up to me and saying, “Are you the one who got the cake in the face?”

The next day Guru said, “You two gave me so much joy last night!” So, finally we were happy to learn that Guru had enjoyed this small incident.

From memory, Subarata was not among the more zealous performers in our Christmas Trip plays, those dramatisations of Guru’s stories in our hotel function rooms where each evening, and in all those countries we visited, we would entertain. My appearances were even more infrequent, and usually prompted by Guru himself, who would sometimes walk past me in my aisle seat. Noticing my great effort at looking really inconspicuous he would ask, “Jogyata, you do not like performing in my plays?”

Smilingly, of course, because he had already noticed my attempts at invisibility and understood the reason. So, because you can’t say “no” to Guru’s question, you have to cast about for a play with as few lines and as few acting skills as possible – and for this reason I have played the part of a dead body twice, a mute monk, the rear end of a two-man elephant, a tree, and on one occasion, an onstage baby dressed in an endearingly frilly pink baby top with a plastic pacifier jammed into my mouth, and wedged into a tiny pram.

Even from this last role, painful memories linger. In the excitement of the ongoing play, my fellow thespians forgot to wheel me off and I was left on stage for about twenty minutes, trying desperately to remain “in character” in my pram, jaw aching from the pacifier, limbs aching from being compressed into the baby carriage, and feverishly trying to make eye contact with somebody to push me away. My plight was soon noticed by my “friends” in the audience and their mirth spread like a forest fire, with much finger-pointing and ill-concealed joy. Hard to remain dignified and composed under such circumstances!

Guru was once responsible for my performing in a larger and more demanding two-person play with lots of lines to learn. What made the play a personal triumph, though, was the fact that Subarata and several of her friends were seated front row, huge play-destroying grins on their faces, and I had to grapple desperately with the effect this had of luring me into laughter. Worse, when I glanced at Guru, searching for soulfulness and resolve, he was grinning hugely too, unabashedly in complicity with the girls and enjoying my plight and the unusual spectacle of me in a play with my meticulous fellow-actor.

Somehow grace descended, though, and we pulled it off. But I can still remember Guru's delighted and mischievous smile in this conspiracy of mirth which he and certain others shared. Though quite alone in my generous personal assessment, on this occasion I give myself ten out of ten for thespian fortitude.

In Myanmar, during the Christmas trip of 1994, Guru invited us all to buy hats and bring them to the evening function. It was one of those extraordinary suggestions of charming inventiveness and limitless entertainment in which Guru always excelled. With infinite, serene patience he donned each piece of finery and we stood behind him while he smiled for our photograph. There were princely golden crowns, naval and boating hats, a Turkish fez, berets, boaters and bowlers, trilbies and tuques, an African kofia or two, fedoras and homburgs, cricket and cowboy hats, a pork pie felt hat, plumed and floral hats, baseball caps and Russian bearskins and endless others. What amazed me was that an Asian town would stock all these multitudinous hats – why? And who on earth, other than us, would ever buy them? It must have seemed a heavenly miracle: a hundred foreigners converging on your shop and purchasing a retail decade’s worth of hats in one astonishing, madly lucrative afternoon.

Subarata purchased a wide-brimmed purple Stetson with gorgeously plumed feathers, overshadowing my own acquisition, of course; but in an act of measureless generosity agreed, after a little initial lip-gnawing, to swap hats. So in my photograph, standing with sky-high smile behind Guru’s chair, I’m actually posing with Subarata’s hat. If nothing else, that moment when an eminent shopper relinquished her carefully selected purchase for a friend, even managing to smile with his rather dubious hat for her photograph, must rank up there among the Great Occasions in the annals of true saintliness.