How we met
Those long ago peregrinations that led to discipleship owe much to a dear and now departed companion, my wife Subarata. I first met Subarata in the mid-1970s in New Zealand, our two lives intersecting in what seemed a chance occurrence in a very random, fortuitous universe.
Irish-born and fiercely independent, she had asked her parents for a one-way ticket to New Zealand as a 20th birthday present, and they had consented – and so it was that I first met her in 1975 in the city of Hamilton. Through chance or fate, she knew somebody that I knew and on this particular day both of us decided to visit this mutual friend. I hitchhiked 400 miles, she had flown 13,000 miles – and when we met on that summer afternoon long ago, in an instant we became friends.
There is a song I like called “Beautiful Collision” by a popular New Zealand musician who describes these everyday, arbitrary intersections of lives, the chance encounters, the endless possibilities of life weaving and colliding all around us. The song reminds us of how the little moments of impulse or choice shape our endless tomorrows. If we had lingered here a little longer, started that conversation, said “yes” instead of “no,” perhaps “no” instead of “yes,” taken a chance, placed a bet, passed through that door, smiled in response, made the hard choice… it might all have turned out differently. Subarata was one of the beautiful and fateful collisions that did occur in my life.
She had blue sky in her eyes and questing in her heart, a little wildness in her. I saw that Subarata was a nomad, a wanderer, that we shared the same journey – I knew I had met a kindred spirit. In a shoulder bag she carried Lao Tzu’s mystic teachings, the Tao Te Ching – she had underlined things, words and phrases, grasping at the heart of the book and devouring its wisdom hungrily. She was responding to the same things as I was, searching for her way forward, stumbling through the maze.
There are probably thousands of people out there in this world with whom we share deep similarities of interest and temperament, inner connections and spiritual kinship, people who could have filled our whole lives in the other endless possibilities of existence, the beautiful collisions that might have taken place. Mostly, we never get to know them – but we see them in our meditation classes, meet them on journeys, pass them in any street, our unknown family within the larger human race. Subarata was one of those that I actually met.
Reclusive by nature we lived in remote places, often going for months without seeing anybody. Subarata loved animals – in one mountain hideaway she acquired three pet wild pigs, two beautiful Border Collie dogs called Scruffles and Scobie, a white Palomino horse named Trigger, four nameless and disapproving hens, some zebra finches and a madly eccentric pet lamb called Darley. Goats also lurked, and once a pet fawn – unsnared from a fence – stayed for a brief convalescence. (I wrote a story called Animal Friends »)
When Subarata's visa expired the Immigration Department gave her three days to leave New Zealand, so in the small South Island town of Motueka we got married in a registry office. We were both indifferent to marriage, so there was no ring, no flowers – it was as meaningless as signing a bank deposit slip, but it enabled her to stay.
Unseen by us, the simple act of scribbling our careless signatures on a piece of paper heralded a deeper commitment. It was a postscript from some past, the prelude to some future, both a consequence and a beginning in a much greater fabric of time. We were setting forth together on a much greater journey than all of our wanderings of the earth, yet the journey’s beginnings, we felt, lay elsewhere in a faraway time.
We did not bother telling anyone of this formality – it meant nothing to us. Only years later, when the two of us were driving with my parents to a faraway town, I turned to my mother and said, “By the way, did I ever tell you we are married?” My mother, Anne, was astonished, then a little rueful we had not told her earlier. But then she laughed and turned to Subarata the nomad, the gypsy, with a great smile, hugged her and said, “You are a brave girl to marry my son, and I love you for it!” My mother loved us too much to be upset for long.
The Past is Dust
In the sweet long-ago we tried many jobs – fruit-picker, security van driver, hotel domestic, arborist, back-country farm manager, labourer, demolition worker, secretary, bogus night auditor, bored ministerial speechwriter, river rafting guide, baker’s assistant, landscaper, geological mapper – and those rootless years were littered with abandoned careers. I had a talent for writing glowing personal testimonials about ourselves, fake references and employment histories too good to see us turned away, and work came easily.
For two seasons we chased the blue skies of summer, picking fruit up and down New Zealand, our clothes stained with the red blood of raspberries, the purple of blueberries, yellow juice of pears and peach, green sap of crushed leaves. We lived in a hired caravan, worked from dawn’s fading stars till dusk’s darkening skies, the green globes of apples and other fruits melting back into the orchards’ deepening shadows. When that wandering feeling came, we simply moved on, stopped at road junctions and tossed a coin – north, west, east?
One by one we were discarding all the usual choices of life, the hypnotic lies of material happiness, like a tick-sheet of unwanted possibilities and selves: not this, not this; no, not that. We took refuge in constant change, as though discoveries would be made and happiness found simply through perpetual motion. Restlessness, a sense of relentless questing, ran like a strong undercurrent through our lives. The future was open-ended, the blank slate of tomorrows held no certainties – whimsy, chance or the murky nudgings of fate would decide.
Years later, we sat with our Guru - Sri Chinmoy - in a restaurant on Auckland’s Ponsonby Road, and he asked us a little about the bygone years. Guru somehow knew a little of my own regrettable past, the safari and hunting days, and he asked what animals I had eaten!
Before I could go into any awkward detail, Guru now mentioned all of the furred and feathered things he had once eaten – the fish, birds, animals of his childhood. Then he looked at Subarata and, with a lovely smile, confided to her, “Once I even ate some pigeon.” Before she received her soul’s name, Subarata’s name had been Pidgeon Cunningham! Guru remembered very well, enjoying this little ambiguity.
For me, Guru’s knowledge of my past unburdened me of remorse and karmic wonderings. That door was now firmly closed and the past now truly dust, even if there was a lot of it. When Guru and God – are they not perhaps the same? – came into our lives and tapped us on the shoulder, we saw that everything else had been a readying, a preparation for discipleship. One kind of freedom had been replaced by the possibility of another, the great freedom of God-discovery.