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August 30, 2011

Summer is over. As always, it was too fast. I suppose I squandered it. Lost in the fuzzy realm of attempting to keep a toddler from squishing a baby, the days melted away. As always, I’m behind in my new novel. It certainly is a challenge to write when my daughter is running around my office doing her ‘underpants dance.’ I can’t imagine Leo Tolstoy or Henry James having to confront those types of challenges. But I’m determined to get it finished. I’ve postponed my deadline for my first draft until the end of the year. (I’ll keep you posted….) Meanwhile, I’ll return to teaching full-time at Ocean County College next week.

As far as updates regarding news from the cast of characters in Cartwheels, earlier this year, I had written about a lawsuit in California filed against the Sri Chinmoy Center. It was the first time that the Sri Chinmoy Center had been sued, and it seemed poised and ready to be quite a remarkable case. However, as I suspected would happen,  I just learned that the case was settled in a confidential agreement. As far as the details, of course, there aren’t any. Suffice to say, I am sure that the Sri Chinmoy Center is very happy that it won’t have its day in court.

On a much happier note, there is exciting news to report about ‘Chahna,’ who is actually Mala. She and her husband, Dave, will be opening a restaurant in September. If you happen to be in the Montclair, NJ, area, you must go. True North Osteria specializes in using local ingredients for the modern American table—from grilled pizza made with their own handmade mozzarella, to brochette on their fresh baked bread to seasonal specialties. It’s been fascinating to see their vision come to life. Although I tease her that she is finally opening up her ‘divine enterprise,’ (not painted Guru-blue), I can’t be more proud.

 

May 24, 2011

Today, the Huffington Post published another blog. I hope it offers some ideas to mull over, argue about, and, hopefully, write back to me about. Click here.

 

April 27, 2011

Image of bookcover_Forgotten Boroughs: Writers Come to Terms with Queens (SUNY Press)

It’s all about Queens. Not only am I currently working in Queens in my position as a visiting professor in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Queens College, but also I have a piece in a new book  that is entirely devoted to Queens. Edited by Nicole Steinberg, Forgotten Borough: Writers Come to Terms with Queens (SUNY Press) is an anthology of surprising, gripping, and insightful writing about the Borough known best for its airports and losing baseball team.  The poems, stories, and essays from writers such as Julia Alvarez, Marc Landas, and Ron Hogan and so many others are as varied as Queens’ diverse neighborhoods.

When I was approached to contribute to the anthology about Queens, I really struggled. Cartwheels in a Sari had already come out, and I wanted to write something new, something else. Surely I thought I could write about my former home and not write about the Sri Chinmoy Center. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t separate one from the other. No matter what I attempted to write about Queens, it always came back to the realm of Sri Chinmoy.  After weeks of false starts, I figured there must still be something new to tell.  It was during this time, a number of former disciples came out and told their stories about being sexually abused by the late Guru, and so, I decided that while I had already told my story, in this new book, I could tell their story. The result is “God Lived in Queens.” It’s the first piece that I ever wrote using second-person point-of-view.

Reading through the entire anthology, a larger narrative appears about Queens. It is indeed a forgotten borough, a place hidden by the shadow of the glamorous Manhattan and the hipster Brooklyn and in areas that are overlooked, so often that is where the real stories dwell.

Link to Article: http://www.nydailynews.com/ny_local/queens/2011/04/28/2011-04-28_putting_in_a_word_for_the_boro.html


April 14, 2011

What began as an article about the horrible acts of the Florida cult leader, Terry Jones, ended up being something else all together. I guess that is how it goes sometimes. Anyway, here is a link to the article that appeared in today’s Huffington Post.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jayanti-tamm/the-c-word_2_b_848340.html

 

February 1, 2011

It was a sort of surreal homecoming. Yesterday was my first day as a Visiting Professor in the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Queens College. Circling the snow-covered blocks in the hunt for the ever elusive parking spot, it struck me that nearly fifteen years had past since I had last been scouring the perimeters of campus, hoping to find somewhere to legally park my car in time to make my first class. As an undergraduate, there was never enough time for all that I wanted to accumulate, to amass. I didn’t know how to prudently portion the hours, and it didn’t matter. I was free and set loose in a realm of ideas with Manhattan literally the imposing backdrop just beyond the library’s clock tower. Yesterday, returning to campus, the same backdrop anchored the end of campus, a heavy reminder of the ‘real world’ of ‘if-you-can-make-it-there,’ so students can never really forget what they will eventually be up against. In many ways, everything was the same. A few new buildings, some upgrades and renovations, but all in all, it seemed to have remained, shockingly and wonderfully, the same.

Crossing the snowy quad and entering the English Department, inside the angular hallways, some of the same faculty who had been my instructors greeted me with generous, welcoming hugs. This time, out of my book bag, rather than handing over assignments that were past due, I pulled out photos. My two daughters. My husband. This, I was trying to say, this is what you helped me become. This is where I went when I left you.

I have never had a Monday like that, a reunion of past and present—former self meet present self—and have it witnessed by the same rare, generous muses—Kimiko Hahn, John Weir and others—whose words of encouragement all those many years ago, had offered me hope, options. When Nicole Cooley, the MFA director and mastermind behind the program’s founding and rapid growth, asked me if there was anything that I needed, I stood with the key to my office in hand—the same office to which I used to line up outside for office hours—and said no.

Later, in the classroom, looking around at the eager students, I couldn’t help but imagine how I had once sat, pen poised in its take-off position. I attempted to steady myself, to portray a sense of calm, of normality, to talk syllabus and introductions, when all I wanted to do was to marvel gratefully and wonder which of these students would find themselves returning, having their own homecoming years from now.

December 21, 2010

And so we’ve reached the end of another year. Am I the only one still not used to writing ‘2010’ and now the year is over? To make it more shocking, is it possible that another decade has passed?

The house is finally quiet. My girls and my husband are all asleep, and while I’m dying to continue reading Jonathan Franzen’s  painfully wonderful book, Freedom (I once went to a lecture by the great poet Billy Collins where he gave the sagacious advice that you should read and read and read until you find a writer so fabulous that you become jealous of the writing; at that point, Collins urged, you then work hard to figure out the brilliance of that writer and attempt to absorb it and then recreate it as your own. Well, I’m certainly in awe of Franzen, and yes, I’m jealous too. The goal then remains the process of trying to absorb and then recreate it---lots of luck on that one!), I wanted to write one last blog for 2010.

Cartwheels in a Sari is now out everywhere in its latest incarnation as a paperback, and my editor gave me the exciting news that it was selected by Target stores to be part of its ‘Emerging Authors’ book program. My book will be in Target stores starting the day after Christmas. I feel lucky that the book will have the chance to find more readers who might find within its pages something that will resonate for them.  It’s been a little over three years that I finished the book and handed in the manuscript, and while it’s starting to feel distant to me, I still find myself left with so many questions that I’m not sure will ever be resolved. The more I grapple to understand the motivations, momentum, and mysteries of cult life, Sri Chinmoy, and the Sri Chinmoy  Center, the more I realize that I will never truly understand all that is involved in surrendering one’s life and will over to another.

2011 is here. Let’s welcome and fully reap all of its days and hours. Let’s not miss out on a single moment. There is so much to explore, to write, to love.

 

November 21, 2010

As I sit down to write this—the first blog in a long, long time—I’m bleary-eyed, unshowered, and wearing clothes festooned with spit-up. Since the birth of my daughter Anisa two months ago, it has been a blur of feedings and changings interrupted only by my three-year-old’s schedule which includes pre-school, ballet class, and her constant insistence on role-playing where she casts me in such diverse roles as Farmer, Baby Kitten, Teacher, and Samurai. The chaos that now pervades my home is overabundant, filling every corner.

Thanksgiving is this week, and what a perfect time to stop, breathe, and offer thanks. With Anisa, my family is finally and ultimately complete. Two healthy, vivacious daughters. I am grateful for their love and for the gift of motherhood. It was never, ever something that I thought would happen to me. My husband jokes that our task should be to make sure that our daughters have such a ‘normal’ childhood that they would never be able to write a memoir about their experiences growing up and that if they do garner enough material for a book, then we know that we unequivocally failed as parents.

I am grateful that Cartwheels in a Sari continues to receive such positive responses from people. I receive so many letters from people who feel inspired to share their own stories with me about experiences from their own lives. From students who read the book as required reading in a class to family members of former and current disciples, it is humbling to know that the book has opened a door and provoked a desire to know more. Now that Cartwheels is set to emerge in its latest incarnation—as a paperback, due out everywhere on December 7th—the question that I receive most often is ‘what is happening now with the cult?’ Of course the answer to that depends on who you are. According to the Sri Chinmoy Center’s official website, they are fully engrossed in the inspiring mission to spread peace, love, and light across the world. With a myriad of activities groomed for public consumption—races, mediation classes, concerts, world-record breaking stunts—they continue on, committed to carry out the vision of the late Guru.

However, recently, for the first-time in the entire history of the cult, a law suit has been filed against them. (To clarify—I am not involved in the lawsuit.) The lawsuit was brought by four former disciples from the San Francisco area. All four of these former disciples were longtime employees at Ananda Fuara Restaurant, one of the San Francisco ‘Divine Enterprises,’ the businesses run by disciples. The case was initially filed in the State Court but was moved to the Federal Court. The former disciples are suing for a number of reasons including wrongful dismissal. Here is a section of text taken from the official court document:

 Besides working at the Ananda Fuara Restaurant, Plaintiffs also were followers of the teachings of Chinmoy Kumar Ghose and members of a spiritual group called the Sri Chinmoy Centre, a named defendant in this action.Each of the Plaintiffs was assigned by Ghose to work at his enterprise business, the Ananda Fuara Restaurant.The Plaintiffs were promised by Defendants that they would have a job at the restaurant as long as they wanted to work. While working for Defendants, Plaintiffs also observed Defendants’ practice of continuing to pay former employees when they became too old or infirm to continue working.

Plaintiffs had the expectation that Defendants would likewise continue to pay them when they
became too old or infirm to continue working.In agreeing to work for Defendants under these
conditions, each of the Plaintiffs gave up opportunities to pursue other gainful employment.
During their 62 collective years of employment at the Ananda Fuara Restaurant,
Plaintiffs each received from Defendants a fixed weekly stipend that never amounted to more than
$150.00 per week.The stipends bore no relationship to the actual number of hours each Plaintiff
worked.As a result, Plaintiffs were not paid minimum wages or overtime wages in conformity with
the rates set forth in the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), the California Labor Code, the San
Francisco Minimum Wage Ordinance or Wage Order 5-2001.The Plaintiffs also were required by
Defendants to relinquish the tips they collected from the customers of the restaurant and give the tip
money to Defendants.

Between November 6, 2009 and January 23, 2010, each of the Plaintiffs was
terminated from employment by Defendants because the Plaintiffs discussed allegations that
appeared on the Internet that Ghose had engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct with several female
members of the Sri Chinmoy Centre.Some of the allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct
against Ghose came from a female former Ananda Fuara Restaurant employee, who was known to
the Plaintiffs.Plaintiffs allege that their termination under these circumstances violated Labor Code
§ 232.5, which protects employees who disclose information about the conditions at their work.
Since their termination, the Plaintiffs have not succeeded in obtaining full-time
alternate employment and continue to accrue damages.

What I find so interesting is that inside, what is essentially a case about unfair labor practice, is the other charge that when the disciples openly ‘discussed allegations’ about ‘inappropriate sexual conduct’ that the Guru engaged in with various female members, they were immediately terminated from their job (of course they were immediately banned from being disciples as well—any person who expressed any criticism or question about the Guru was instantly ex-communicated and shunned). The trial date is set for next summer. Undoubtedly, it will be intriguing to see what unfolds. Again, prior to this, if the Guru ever had legal trouble, it was always handled quickly and quietly, without ever going public, let alone ending up in a public court.

As my daughter awakens, yet again, my brief time writing is over. (Oh, the race between the baby and the book? The baby certainly won. The progress on the novel, right now is nonexistent. It will just have to patiently wait until the piles of diapers and the crying decreases.) But who can complain? It’s a Thanksgiving I will never forget.

 

June 5, 2010

Soon everything will change. My current life will begin a brand new amazing, exhausting, and joyous adventure—I am expecting another baby in September.

We found out that it will be another girl, so my daughter will officially become a big sister, and we will officially be headed for lots of drama and crazy times ahead! Since the weather became hot, I already feel pretty sluggish and bulky, and I have the entire summer ahead of me to be slow and swollen. My hope is to find a patch of shade when I’m outside, and otherwise try to remain inside the air conditioning. Of course, my ever energetic daughter always has her own agenda, and I end up trying to keep up with her, chasing her, summoning her to return to me when she figures out how to open the back gate and dart down the driveway.

My real promise is to attempt to put my efforts into trying to finish a first draft of my new novel. It’s time. I need to concentrate nurturing both the growing baby and the growing book. The goal is to have the full first-draft of the novel by the time of the baby’s birth date of September 20th. It will be a race to see who is born first….

 

March 24, 2010

Yesterday I finished recording the audio version of Cartwheels in a Sari. The audio book is being released on April 1, 2010 and can be purchased and directly downloaded through Audible.com. Ever since I made the transition from being a New Yorker with a quick and car-free commute to a New Jerseyan with a long commute, I have reveled in the pleasures of listening to audio books. I haven’t found anything quite like listening to a riveting story to soothe over the frustration of being stuck in traffic. It offers an escape and often makes a long ride seem faster. Duane also has a long commute, and so we often swap audio books and use it as a way to keep up with each other’s reading list. It wasn’t until recently that my daughter began repeating sentences from the books, that I realized that I would have to watch carefully and edit what my future choices were when I ride in the car with my daughter (I learned the hard way that Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake is not exactly appropriate for a two-year old).

When my agent first informed me that audible.com had bought the audio rights to Cartwheels, I didn’t know that I would be the one reading the book, so when I received an email from audible in January asking to set up studio time to record, it was really thrilling. When I listen to books read by the author, I find it to be especially intriguing, as though the author will secretly give away a hidden, deeper layer of meaning through reading the text directly to the listener. Because Audible’s headquarters is in Newark, NJ, the entire process was so simple. We originally scheduled four full days for recording the book, but by the end of the very first day, I was already more than halfway done. In their penthouse suite, Audible has a number of small recording studios. With two small lamps, a stand to hold the manuscript, and a large microphone, the soundproof glass room peers directly into the room where the recording engineer sits. Equipped with the latest technology, the engineer is able to swiftly stop, correct, and re-record any and all errors, misreads, and noises. It is a fast and efficient process that quickly put me right at ease. Nervous because I had never done anything like this before, the engineer wasted no time to adjust the sound levels of my oversized, padded headphones and explain the fact that if there was an error, she would queue up the recording to pick up right where we had left off. I have to say that the most stressful part of the experience was that I discovered three typos in my book! (They will be fixed for the paperback version!)

It took just two and a half days to record the entire book. The next step was that recording went through a series of editors and engineers that both adjust sound levels and also search for uncaught errors. They found twelve of these errors, and so yesterday I returned one last time to Audible to re-record those twelve glitches. Fifteen minutes later, I was done. The engineer shook my hand and welcomed me to the world of audio books. I felt so proud. As I write this, I have not heard the finished version, and I hope that listeners enjoy it, and perhaps maybe, just maybe, find a hidden, deeper layer of meaning in it.

 

January 5, 2010

Oslo statue image
Life-size Statue of Sri Chinmoy unveiled in Oslo, Norway next to the Eternal Peace Flame

At book events, I’m often asked, “What happened to the Sri Chinmoy Center? What are they doing now?”

The answer is beside clamping down and expunging any current member who might be raising questions over the latest round of former members who have recently shared their painful testimonials of having been manipulated into engaging in sexual acts with Sri Chinmoy, the man who claimed he was a celibate incarnation of God on earth, the rest of the group is carrying doing what they seemed to do best—publicly glorifying Sri Chinmoy.

When Sri Chinmoy was alive, his obsession was fame. He hungered for celebrity far worse than today’s pantheon of reality show personalities who shamelessly and incessantly clamor for stardom. His craving of honors, awards, and media-attention was boundless, and he dedicated every resource at his and his disciples’ disposal toward attaining accolades and preeminence. Every move he made was carefully calculated to celebrate his own glory. Using the financial resources of his devoted disciples to pay for all of his schemes, he commanded members around the world to work to have significant sites such as the Statue of Liberty, Niagara Falls, the Mekong Delta, the Great Barrier Reef named in his honor. From renaming cites, town, states, and countries for him, to attaining medals, awards, and honorary degrees, the relentless goal was to have his name, his own personage, heralded. Teams of disciples world-wide were paid to labor full-time to persistently nudge government officials and media editors to acknowledge and celebrate the humble holy man. What made it all so much worse than simply attempting to satiate the insatiable appetite of a narcissist was that Sri Chinmoy feigned that all of his efforts were for ‘peace.’ This, of course, preyed upon the true, noble intentions of people who were cleverly convinced that by renaming a public garden or airport a ‘Sri Chinmoy-Peace-Blossom-Site,” they were actually making a genuine gesture toward publically promoting world peace. World Peace? What could possibly be wrong with that?

Well, everything.

If Sri Chinmoy was ever truly interested in simply promoting peace, then why did all of his efforts carry his own name and image? Nothing was ever simply for peace. Peace was always hyphenated after his own agenda. It was him and him alone that mattered. He never cared for or about world peace. He used ‘peace’ as a clever marketing ploy to publicize concerts that he wanted to play in venues that he wanted to play in, such as the Royal Albert Hall and Carnegie Hall. He used ‘peace’ as an ingenious way to attach himself to the United Nations, so he could shamelessly promote himself as a UN dignitary. He used ‘peace’ as a code to enter into the elite world of heads of state and dignitaries such as Nelson Mandela, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Princess Diana. He used ‘peace’ for everything he craved, and it worked brilliantly. In fact, more than two years after his passing, it is still working for him.

Recently, I was informed that his disciples are still at it, still carrying out their deceased Guru’s incessant desire for celebrity. This new cunning campaign, like all the others, still uses ‘peace’ and still, of course, substitutes Sri Chinmoy’s own image, a full, bronze, like-size statue, in its place. If you happen to travel to Bali, Indonesia, Prague, Czech Republic, Oslo, Norway, and most recently, in Mazatlan, Mexico, you, too, might stumble upon Sri Chinmoy. He stands in a prayer-full pose with folded hands, flowing robes, and to make him ever-so humble, with bare feet. These elaborate statues have had inauguration ceremonies attended by mayors, local politicians, dignitaries, and the media who believe their new site is dedicated to peace.

Of course, they probably will never know that it is they have been fooled. Nothing about affixing a life-size statue of a man who never took a brave, courageous, and selfless stand to assist the suffering in the world and to relieve the ravages of war and conflict to create a peaceful society represents peace. If anything, it just goes to show how with enough money and clever influencing and public relations finesse, the selfish self-interest of some will continue to prevail over the trusting and often naïve believers.

Mexico statue image
Another life-size statue of Sri Chinmoy in Mazatlan, Mexico

November 18, 2009

In Cartwheels in a Sari, I write about another disciple who was raised in the Center, my dearest friend, 'Chahna.' Chahna's actual name is Mala. Over the last few weeks, like so many other former disciples, Mala and I have been struggling to process all of the new and stunning allegations of Sri Chinmoy's acts of incest and sexual abuse with other women who, like us, who grew up in the Center. I asked her if she wanted to write something, to share some of her own feelings, her own storm of emotions. Below are Mala's words: 

An Essay by Mala (who wishes Sri Chinmoy was still alive so that she could kill him herself) 
There aren’t many photographs of our family in the early days.  There is my parent’s wedding.  My father in his Center whites and a tan blazer and my mother in a white silk sari with the dupata drawn over her head in a composite homage to the Virgin Mary and Alo Devi stand before a photograph of Sri Chinmoy as a judge officiates the ceremony.  Then there are photos of my mother in the hospital just after my birth.  She is wearing a badge with one of Sri Chinmoy's Jharna Kala paintings on her collar.  Jharna Kala is the name Sri Chinmoy gave to his abstract paintings.  My mother’s birthday is on Jharna Kala day (the annual celebration of Sri Chinmoy’s art work) and she is an artist.  This badge must have had great personal meaning for her and had become a talisman brought to ensure a successful delivery.  Then there is a large 8 by 10 glossy photo of my mother holding me up to Sri Chinmoy for my first blessing.  In this black and white photograph against the background of a grassy field my mother cradles me in her arms as Sri Chinmoy smiles down at me with his hands upon my fuzzy soft skull.  My mother’s gaze is focused on Sri Chinmoy. 

As a child I learned about the world with Sri Chinmoy intertwined into every lesson.  It was fact, not faith to me.  The sky is blue.  Guru is God.  Curry is spicy.  Guru will protect you.  Don’t swim after you eat.  Always do as Guru says.  I did not come to the Sri Chinmoy Center as a seeker looking for a savior to believe in.  I did not have the advantage of meeting Sri Chinmoy and forming an opinion of the man who claimed he was a God realized soul.  He was always there and he was always my God.  I did not have “faith” in him as other disciples did.  His divinity and authority was my truth.  

I imagined I was the luckiest little girl in the world.  I did not have to interpret Gods will thru prayers and mystical signs.  He spoke to me and gave me direct instruction on how to make spiritual progress.  I knew that my thick curly hair was not spiritual, not like the pin strait hair of Indian ladies.  Sri Chinmoy told me to put linseed oil in my hair to straighten it.  Exactly seven drops.  Not six or eight drops, but seven.  By following his instructions I was rewarded with his praise.  “Bah, good girl!” he would exclaim at the Center function and I would feel the small flame of aspiration inside my heart grow and fill me with his holy light. 

I never had any ambition as a child.  I did not dream about what I would be when I grew up.  I knew when the time came, Sri Chimoy would instruct me as to what I should do.  My hope was to be one of the lucky disciples dispatched to work at the UN.  When I left the Center on the verge of adulthood, I had no desire to be anything.  I applied to community college (it seemed the logical next step) and enrolled in secretarial classes.  I learned typing and short hand in the hopes that I could still land that job at the UN.  That was as far as my imagination could stretch into the “outside” world of independent adulthood. 
I did not play with dolls as a child.  Stuffed animals were allowed, but no baby dolls.  Surely the older disciples would frown upon a little girl’s game of being a mother.  This would be interpreted as a sign that I would be easily tempted off the path by the lure of marriage and motherhood.  When I did daydream about my future, it was always a solitary life.  I accepted that I would never marry and never have a family of my own.  Even though, as I grew into adolescence I was desperately lonely, I knew I would have to sacrifice my desires to further Sri Chinmoy’s mission.  Guru had promised my soul that he would take me to the golden shore and my payment to him was a celibate and cloistered life. 

Years after leaving the Center I did get married.  It was a small nontraditional affair.  I would not allow myself the luxury of a real wedding because deep down I felt guilty about getting married.  I wore a black dress in private protest of my own wedding.  By that time I knew I could never return to the Center because my vital was too strong.  Sri Chinmoy himself named me after his cousin in India who he said also had a “great enthusiasm for life”.  That “enthusiasm” grew into an insatiable curiosity in my teenage years and adulthood.  I grew to crave freedom, not drink, drugs, sex, or any of the other forbidden indulgences of the Center, but freedom and I knew I could never go back to the Center.  Even though I wished I was strong enough to fulfill my souls promise to Sri Chinmoy, I knew my human weaknesses prevented it.  What should have been the happiest day of my life and a celebration of my future was tainted by the guilt that my actions were causing my Guru pain.  As I sat cross legged in front of my shrine before going to the court house, I prayed for Guru’s compassion and forgiveness. 

When I left the Center, it was a chaotic and heart breaking process.  I did not want to leave the Center, but I could not stay.  I did not lose my faith as many adults did.  I did not come to a point where I felt the Sri Chinmoy Center could no longer afford me any spiritual progress.  I did not have a disagreement with Sri Chinmoy or other disciples.  I simply needed freedom.  I felt that my selfish desires had broken my souls promise to Sri Chinmoy.  I knew I was causing my parents shame and a loss of face among the other disciples, but I was suffocating and I needed out.  Deep down, I still longed to please Guru and I couldn’t.  My faith in my Guru was absolute.  It broke my heart and soul.   

This relationship with Guru is true for all the little girls who grew up in the Center.  Being cloistered and innocent we had no life experience to draw on.  We could not understand the things that go on between a grown man and woman behind closed doors.  If your Guru, your God, tells you to take off your sari and lie down on the floor, you do not have the life experience to see through the trappings of this “special blessing” and recognize it as a man’s sexual desire for you.  It is a “special blessing”.  Lucky you! 
The knowledge that Sri Chinmoy abused my sister disciples this way is outrageous.  This is a far more sinister abuse of power than any sexual escapades he had with women who joined the Center as adults.  Some of them could see thru his holiness and decide for themselves if they were willing to indulge him or not.  The children who grew up in the Center do not have that ability.  They have been cloistered and kept ignorant to such things.  They truly see him as their father and God.  It may not be incest in the technical terms, but it is.  There is a crucial difference between the women and the “little girls” who were involved sexually with Guru. 

The lioness that sleeps within all women has been awoken in me.  My sisters were abused and I find myself tensed and ready for a fight.  I would fight even my long ago beloved Guru to protect these girls.  But he is gone and they do not want to be rescued.  What can I do but look in from the outside in anguish.

November 16, 2009

This is what we were.jpg
A photo of us, some of the ‘little girls’ in the early days.

This is what we were.

I was born into it, and the others were brought into it when they were a few months or a few years old. This is what we were.

Growing up in the Center, Sri Chinmoy was our father. He raised us. He set the rules and punished us when we disobeyed. He was our father, and we desperately strove to please him. From our earliest days, he told us that we had to surrender and obey him unconditionally. The word ‘unconditionally’ was embedded into every muscle, tissue, and bone. We knew it meant there was no reserve when it came to our Guru; nothing to hold back; nothing to save for ourselves. Whatever he asked of us was what we were expected to do cheerfully, enthusiastically, and soulfully.

As children in the Sri Chinmoy Center, we did receive special attention. Every Wednesday night, we were summoned onto the stage for a meditation and prasad. We were assigned plays to perform where with a crown and a peacock feather, we would instantly transform into Krishna and recite lines about being able to guard and protect the poor schoolboy, Gopal, from any harm. We were given special heats to run during athletic events and won special ribbons. We were taught songs and sang them upon stages before thousands of people. We presented bouquets to world leaders and held plaques at dedication ceremonies. We distributed cups of water at all- night ultra marathons, and we marched in parades distributing lollipops with Sri Chinmoy’s photograph.

This is what we were. A unique clan. A family united by its dominant father whom we loved fiercely, proudly, and fearfully. He overwhelmed us; he overmatched us. He dominated us; he developed us.
We were entirely his. We were his daughters and his sons. He called us the “children’s group.”  Eventually, as we became teenagers and beyond, he continued to do so, refusing to revise and update us into teenagers, then adults. Despite how old we grew, we remained the “children’s group,” and the “little girls’ singing group,” as though he’d rather think of us always as his very own children, his own group of little girls.

This is what we were. Obedient and surrendered, entrusting to him without any restraint, our futures, our lives.

Sri Chinmoy carefully raised us, controlling the way we wore our hair, our clothes. He raised us, his young girls in the strictest orders to live puritanical lives instilling notions about chastity where even gazing a boy in the eye was a forbidden act which required his forgiveness and compassion for salvation. He regularly scolded us, his little girls, for being too undivine, too impure. We cried and begged for his compassion, for him to tolerate our stained souls. We believed we were hurting him with our endless bouts of longings and desires.

This is what we were.

When I had handed in an early draft of Cartwheels in a Sari, I had included one memory in which we were on a trip to Rarotonga  in the Cook Islands. One morning, as we were waiting for the bus for a flight to Tahiti, one of my closest friends, another ‘little girl’ disciple, looked nervous and upset. I could tell that something was bothering her. Finally, after repeatedly badgering her as to what was wrong, she whispered if Guru had ever asked me about sex.

What????

I remember being so shocked to hear the word “Guru” and “sex” in one sentence, that I nearly fell out of my chair. She told me that late the night before, Guru had invited her into his room and asked her if she had ever had sex. From my stunned reaction, clearly, she realized that what had happened to her had obviously not happened to me. When I asked her what occurred next she quickly mumbled something about Guru “meditating on me to purify me.”

That was it. I never heard from her or anyone else anything else like that again. Years and years passed and that episode was stored away in some unsettled compartment inside me, until as I was working on Cartwheels in a Sari, I remembered the sound of her voice and the overwhelmed and lost look in her eyes. She had been trying to reach out to me, trying to figure out if there were more, or, if she was the only one. I, of course, had been totally oblivious.

Gratefully, nothing like that ever happened to me during my entire lifetime as a disciple, and I don’t believe that I would be here today if it had. The demands that the Guru put on me were already beyond what I could absorb; the sick perversion of incest would surely have been my undoing.

When that page in the manuscript came back with a polite note from my editor informing me that retaining that scene would require a lot of additional information to be able to expand on the claim that those few lines made, at the time, I didn’t have that information, and I deleted it. It seemed best not to go there. Just to leave it out. Besides, it wasn’t my story, wasn’t my experience.

This is what we were. A group of children raised by him, many of whom, we are now learning, he sexually molested, exploited and abused. It is hard enough to fathom the Guru orchestrating sex with many of his adult female disciples—that too is an unforgivable trespass, an abuse of power—but to begin to process the revelation that not only was the Guru having sex with his own children, but that he had developed an elaborate ring of female victims whom he summoned and partnered at his whim. All of this, of course, was deeply buried, hidden behind the guise of the World Leader, the United Nations Peace Ambassador, the humble holy man, the celibate guru, the doting dad.  We knew nothing of it. No one did. The only ones who knew were the ones pledging him their lives, their trust.

There is so much more to come, so much more to unravel. This has occurred because a few courageous women shattered their former lives by speaking their truth. They are brave and have been punished for it by being harassed, discredited, and abandoned by their ‘spiritual family.’

This is who we were. The full extent of Sri Chinmoy’s incest and abuse among the ‘little girls’ world-wide is yet known, and for former disciples, for children of the Sri Chinmoy Center like myself, our shared past affords us this present time to rage and roar, embrace and weep.

November 5, 2009

“Channel your inner Christie Brinkley!” 

I had to laugh. The night before my first formal photo shoot, the Art Director, Holly Keeperman, called to discuss her “vision” for my layout for the December issue of Greenwich Magazine. She told me that she imagined me cloaked in black—the lone outsider--the wind blowing my hair as I posed on the grounds of Greenwich Academy. Behind me, on the site of my former school, groups of kilt-clad current seniors would walk engaged in laughs and conversations, en route to their carefully scheduled lives.
“OK…” I said, dreading the entire experience.

To be honest, I go to extreme lengths to avoid looking at myself in the mirror. In my bathroom, I leave the medicine cabinet door permanently open in order to block the mirror. At the hair salon, I immerse myself in endless magazines, so I don’t have to stare at my own unfiltered and fully lighted reflection.
I’m pretty much the same about having my photo taken as well, although I’ve learned how to fake my discomfort with it. I’ve realized that making a fuss over having a photo taken makes other people irritated when all that is required is simply pausing for a second without covering one’s face or blinking. Two years ago, when Adam Chromy, my agent, told me that I would need to have a headshot for promotional material for Cartwheels in a Sari, I remember dreaded the idea. I found a bit more comfort in having a friend and fine photographer, Eric L. Curley, visit to my house and patiently spend many hours as I fidgeted, blinked, and squirmed, before he was able to extract a workable shot.
“It’s easy,” Holly Keeperman said on the phone. “Have fun with it. And really, channel your inner Christie Brinkley!”

This morning when I arrived on the campus of Greenwich Academy, the crew was already there. They had selected the location and even raked away the leaves on the gorgeous landscaping that surrounds the stately buildings. Although part of me wanted to stay in my car and quickly drive away, Holly’s humor and ease was enough to lure me out of the parking lot. Greeting me was not only Cynthia Coulson, the Editor of Greenwich Magazine, but also many members of the school’s staff including my own former classmate and the current Director of Alumnae, Megan Tyre Lindemeyer. Having a group of people standing to watch certainly made me feel more self-conscious.

Luckily, the photographer, Visko Hatfield, clearly picked up on the fact that he was dealing with a photo shoot virgin and offered me simple suggestions from where to place my hands to how to hold my chin, all while making everyone laugh. When the student volunteers appeared to recreate Holly’s vision, I saw how utterly relaxed they all were, taking everything in stride. No big deal. I decided to take their cues. I could act the part—famous alum author returns for photo spread. No big deal. Something I do every day.
“What’s my motivation?” I joked with Visko.

When my tense shoulders eased, and my tight smile relaxed, I took in the scene: a perfect chilly November morning filled with a group of people creating something together. It was Holly’s vision and Visko’s execution; Greenwich Academy’s hospitality, and Cynthia’s master plan. The students and I were merely part of the larger story. 

The next thing I knew I was enjoying the experience, gazing toward the lens of the camera. When Visko had the shots he needed and called it a wrap, two hours had vanished, and, yes, during that time, somewhere at some point, my inner Christie Brinkley, so deeply buried, was indeed channeled.

October 30, 2009

As an English professor at Ocean County College, my favorite part of the fall semester is the “Visiting Writers’ Reading Series.” Every October, we invite two authors to visit campus to give a lecture about writing. It’s a program that I founded when I began teaching at Ocean County College, and I’m  fiercely proud of what has been created for our campus and the larger community. In the four years that I have directed the program we have been fortunate to have hosted an esteemed group of critically acclaimed writers including: Da Chen, Lee Blessing, Moises Kaufman, Michal Govrin, Manil Suri, Alice Elliott Dark.

This year’s program was no different.

On October 8th, we had a fascinating talk by the award-winning graphic novelist, Howard Cruse. Cruse spoke about creating his masterpiece, the graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby, and the elaborate process of unifying the visual and written elements that comprise the graphic novel. Cruse is an engaging speaker whose presentation was a powerful education about a unique, literary form. A generous and warm person, Cruse extended his visit so that he could later meet with art students in a two-dimensional drawing class to offer advice and encouragement. The students were transfixed by his artistic vision and Cruse’s ability to communicate that to others, and the reading was a memorable day for us all.

Today, the 2009 “Visiting Writers’ Reading Series” concluded with the visit by the celebrated playwright, screenwriter, director, and fiction writer, Neil LaBute. With enviable ease and candor, LaBute shared with a full audience the unique challenges of writing both for the screen and stage. In particular, he spoke of his fondness and admiration of the monologue, and its unique properties in illuminating characters on stage before the silent witness of the audience. To elucidate his discussion of monologues, LaBute himself read aloud a monologue from a play that he recently completed. LaBute’s visit was heightened by the fact that he shared the stage with one of his own actors, Piper Perabo.

Piper Perabo was one of the stars in LaBute’s Broadway debut, reasons to be pretty, that was nominated for a Tony Award for Best New Play. Engaging and energetic, Piper Perabo commanded the attention of the entire audience with her rendition of a monologue from reasons to be pretty. At the end of the event, Perabo and LaBute performed a portion of a scene from one of his new works that showcased not only why Perabo is one of the finest actors in her generation but also why LaBute continues to stun and stir audiences with his often raw and brutal excavations for truth.

It was a pleasure to witness the magic of theatre, the power of words. In an unadorned gymnasium with no stage or sets, hundreds of students were captivated and tantalized by the possibilities of writing. That, for me, is the type of day that gives me goose bumps.

October 24, 2009

As all eyes are focused toward the Bronx, waiting for the Yankees to clinch the title and head to the World Series (Go Yankees!), my focus is on Queens, (and it isn’t in mourning for the dismal year from the Mets).

Last week I was in Queens meeting with a wonderful book club. Composed mostly of teachers, the book club was a dynamic group of women who are insightful readers. We met at a beautiful home of one of the members in Little Neck. Little Neck is one of the towns closest to the Long Island border. With a strong sense of community, Little Neck has more of a suburban rather than urban feel. Although the subway line is nowhere to be found and the grocery stores are large enough for full parking lots filled with minivans and SUVs, Little Neck is still in Queens.

As the evening wore on, and we spoke about Cartwheels in a Sari, it struck me that while we were only a few short miles away from where the book is set in Jamaica, Queens, it felt as though it was an entirely different state. Out of the twenty-five Queens residents in the book club, only one woman had even heard of Sri Chinmoy, let alone really knew the neighborhood where the book was set. This, to me, was pretty shocking. It seemed almost impossible that with all of the various meditation classes, concerts, parades, races and endless events that for decades the Sri Chinmoy Center staged throughout Queens in endless efforts to ‘spread Sri Chinmoy’s mission,’ that Sri Chinmoy remained unknown locally. None of the women had ever eaten at any of the ‘divine enterprises’—the businesses owned and managed by disciples—or had passed by the main temple in Jamaica or the church in Bayside. They all seemed surprised that the story within the book occurred close to them since in many ways the lives depicted in the book and the ones that they lived were so impossibly far apart. On my drive home to New Jersey, I took a detour, veering instead to my old neighborhood, the home of the Guru. As the rain fell, I drove around the familiar blocks. It struck me that as a child and young adult, I, like the other disciples, was convinced that everyone in New York City knew about the Guru, and if, for some reason they didn’t, then it was our duty to be the ones heralding the joyous news that God himself lived right here in Queens. When I drove past the house I used to live in, the house long ago sold by my father and now owned and occupied by strangers, I saw the blue lights of TVs shining through the windows and wondered what, if anything, remained the same. It’s startling to be somewhere that is so achingly familiar and yet, at the same time, so completely distant.

The next day, I had to smile when I received an invitation to submit a piece for a new anthology about life in Queens. FORGOTTEN BOROUGH will be published by Excelsior Editions, an imprint of SUNY Press, in early 2011. Tonight, with Queens still on my mind, I have another chance to write about the all-encompassing Borough that contains my past.
 

October 3, 2009

At the annual conference of the International Cultic Studies Association in Denver, Colorado, I found myself seated in a circle in a workshop designated solely for “SGA”—second generation adults. The SGAs are people who were born into or raised inside a cult. Unlike those who chose to join cults, the SGAs are considered to have a unique set of experiences and specific difficult challenges. This was the first time that I had ever attended a conference about cults, and it was certainly the first time that I was ever in a room filled with other people like me—other SGAs. As we went around the circle, speaking about our particular background and the nature of our former cult, I was struck by the similar stories, emotions, and experiences. It is not an everyday occurrence that one meets other people born and raised in cults, and it was such a bizarre and really fascinating experience to be considered just another person inside this group. From small Bible splinter cults in Ohio to psychic healing cults in Florida, the questions and longings, the bitterness and strength of the former members was so similar.
I have to admit that I was skeptical about the entire conference. I was.

My hesitation stems back to my childhood, remembering throngs of angry crowds outside of many of Sri Chinmoy’s public gatherings shouting, banging on glass, throwing rocks. They held signs declaring us ‘evil cultists,’ and they terrified me. I was afraid that they would harm my Guru or my fellow disciples. They seemed so filled with hate and rage, and I could tell that they despised us with true venom even though they had never met us personally. I later linked this same mob as the ones who later kidnapped and dragged away disciples who had, as independent adults made a choice to follow Sri Chinmoy. These were the ‘deprogrammers’ who supposedly held down and rid the disciple of the ‘brainwashing,’ that had possessed them. Often I remember those disciples returning, bruised and battered; they never were the same.

To be honest, it was with all of those frightening memories that I approached this gathering of the cult crusaders. However, clearly the times have radically changed. The days of kidnappings and locked down brainwashing sessions are done; instead, there are open ‘intervention’ sessions with licensed professional who utilize traditional methods of therapy with cult members who are free to leave at any point. The rants and chants are replaced by scholarship and academic panels. The sponsor, the International Cultic Studies Association is the leading non-profit dedicated to the study of cultic groups and the work of assisting families and former-members in recovery. The ICSA is comprised of renowned professionals—psychiatrists, therapists, counselors, professors, psychologists—as well as former cult members and families of current and former cult members. It hosts conferences and informational sessions nationally and internationally, and it produces publications including a scholarly journal. At the luncheon, I sat with a table of clever, thoughtful and engaged people who kept me enrapt as they spoke of their life journeys that had landed them at the conference.


In the late afternoon, I spoke about Cartwheels in a Sari followed by a wonderful question session. By the end of the day, I felt exhausted and content. I had been welcomed with open arms into a very giving and generous world.

September 12, 2009

One of my favorite things to do is to see live theatre. Seated in a crowded theatre, when the lights go down and the curtain rises, I feel an exhilarating sense that anything can happen, that I’m suddenly departing to an unknown destination. The immediate and unfiltered experience of actors interacting with the audience, of radical departures from even their intended directions, always feels adventurous. It is truly something that I love, and something that I wish I had the time to do much more than I currently do.

Therefore, a few weeks ago when I received an email from Charles Breinig, the producer of a brand new play about to have its world premiere at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, I was immediately intrigued. The producer wrote that he had heard me interviewed on NPR, and he believed the subject material would be of interest to me—it’s about a young woman in a cult.

I have to admit that I was skeptical about the play and imagined that it might be nothing more than a clunky anti-cult tract presented by some religious group with its own agenda to push, or perhaps even worse—just plain bad theatre. I can happily certainly report that the play was neither.

Presented at the Walnut Theatre’s Experimental Studio in Philadelphia, Salvation Road is written by D.W. Gregory and directed by Aaron Oster. With a minimalist set and costumes, Salvation Road successfully dramatizes the story about the decisions and consequences that affect a family after a young woman joins a Christian cult. I watched the play on its closing matinee performance to a packed house. A small but wonderfully talented cast portrayed the complicated issues of choice and faith, control and freedom without feeling pedantic or preachy. The playwright clearly had researched key elements of cultic groups, and the audience was immediately engaged, as was I.

Directly following the play, I had been invited to speak as part of a panel on cults, and alongside two therapists who specialize in counseling former cult members in their recovery, we answered questions and connected some of the issues from the play to our own experiences. Although the play closes tonight, the producer is intent on having the show go on, so if you happen to see a notice for the play Salvation Road, I recommend that you travel that road. It’s a worthwhile journey.

 

September 7, 2009

It’s official—Cartwheels in a Sari is headed to audio. I signed the contract today with Audible.com. Audible.com has the largest selection (with over 60,000 titles) of digital audio books for downloads. It is inexpensive, simple to use, and since it’s all digital and avoids all forms of plastic and paper, it is environmentally friendly.

Since I moved from Manhattan and needed a car, I have been an avid fan of listening to books. It helps ease the snarls of New Jersey traffic and the drudgery of having a lengthy commute. When I start the car, I feel as though I’m travelling with my own private storyteller who whisks me into a compelling narrative that takes me far away from bumper-to-bumper jams on the Garden State Parkway. Sometimes I get so engrossed in the story that when I’ve arrived at my destination, I’ll look for ways to stall to remain in my car by looping around the parking lot or picking up all of Nadira’s tossed Goldfish crackers on the seats and mats until I’m late. I’ve found that at the end of a hard day, having the narrator poised and ready to pick up where we left off, is a comfort that helps shed stress. I can start the book and the characters, once again, safely pull me into their world.

Knowing that Cartwheels in a Sari is going to be available as an audio book is a special thrill. My secret hope is that I will be able to read the book, but the production decisions are made by Audible. Until I know more details, I’ll leave it at that. In the meantime, my current audio book, Schulz and Peanuts by David Michaelis, is a fascinating biography of the late cartoonist, Charles Schulz. The Peanuts have always been my absolute favorite comic strip, and Michaelis’ biography is a detailed account of the life of one of America’s greatest philosophers.

September 1, 2009

Once again, the US Open tennis tournament is in full swing. For two glorious weeks, the US Open glitters and dazzles, transforming Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, NY into the place to be. I’ve been going to the US Open for years. It’s my one and only sporting tradition. Of course the reason why I first started going at all was because of Sri Chinmoy.

In the 1ate 1970s, Sri Chinmoy took up tennis. As with all of his interests, they became the disciples' interests as well. Soon, I had a mini tennis racket, and I was smacking balls against a wall. For inspiration for his own game, Sri Chinmoy used to go to watch the great players during the US Open at the old facility in Forest Hills and then later when it moved to Flushing Meadows Park, he went as well. Eventually, the Guru decided he’d rather not venture out into the crowded stands and would prefer if the disciples bring the best tennis players in the world literally to him.

By this point, Sri Chinmoy had his disciples build him his own clay tennis court on a piece of land that used to be owned by the Transit Authority and was bid on and won by my father at a land auction. It was on that private tennis court that the guru spent thousands of hours practicing his strokes, his spin serve, his wicked drop shot. As the guru practiced his game, every late August and early September, the legends of tennis were literally a few miles away in Flushing Meadows Park thrilling the crowds.

Flushing Meadows Park felt like my personal back yard. It was the venue that the guru chose to host road races from sprints to multi-day runs. Year round, no matter the weather, we stood on various mile markers handing out water, cheering on runners, and singing the guru’s songs, as normal park visitors picnicked or played soccer. The Sri Chinmoy Center was a regular park fixture, and no matter what event was happening—an all-night relay to celebrate the guru’s latest weight lifting feat or a spontaneous marathon in honor of the guru—people didn’t seem fazed. Except during the US Open. For those two weeks, I remember, the park was always different. There were special areas for parking, more police patrolled the grounds, and throngs of visitors wearing pristine tennis gear seemed lost until they entered the tennis enclave. Back in those days, however, the security was still lose, and so on occasions a group of the disciples who played tennis, including my father and myself, would sneak inside one of the back gates to watch the matches. Our visits to the US Open, however, were never without a larger purpose—we went as ambassadors from the Sri Chinmoy Center bearing invitations for the top players to receive a special blessing and honor by coming to the guru’s private tennis court. Carrying packets of information, including photos of the guru with star athletes and world leaders, I remember waiting outside the player’s entrance and talking with Yannick Noah, Gabriella Sabatini, Emilio Sanchez, and Jimmy Connors. Most of the time, these players, intent on their larger purpose of the tournament at hand, would briskly but politely brush me off. It was an unspoken competition between the disciples to see who could land the biggest ‘get.’ I was always terrible as a sales woman, and tended to feel embarrassment about what appeared to be an intrusion into their focused world. Other disciples had the brazen confidence to continue to push and finally convince many star players to come for a private meeting with Sri Chinmoy. Of course, having achieved ‘the get,’ was huge—it meant that person had won. The guru would be pleased, very pleased, and that person would be given lots of attention as the liason to the teenis star. For the tennis players, a special function was arranged for the occasion complete with many gifts, songs, foods, and activities. Sri Chinmoy got a special thrill by having the tennis stars agree to play tennis with him, and so from Mats Wilander to Monica Seles, they kindly and gingerly fed the ball back to Sri Chinmoy and even allowed him to win a point off them. Those were the ones, I felt, had been the most receptive.
As a young adult who enjoyed the game and found pleasure in working on the concrete skills necessary to play, I found that time of year magical when the heroes of the game came to meet my hero in life. Everything seemed to merge so perfectly. In my book, Cartwheels in a Sari, I write about when my favorite player of all time—Steffi Graf—came to meet Sri Chinmoy, and my great disappoint with how that turned out….

Nowadays, my tennis skills are terribly rusty, and I haven’t really played in years. The bulk of the players that I knew and followed have all but retired. My life is so incredibly different than it was in those years when Flushing Meadows Park was like a second home. I haven’t spoken to or seen any of the disciples in years and years, and my father lives across the country. But as part of a revised tradition, I still make a pilgrimage to Flushing Meadows Park, Queens, to attend the US Open and remember the past.

August 22, 2009

On Thursday I had a reading at River Road Books, a wonderful bookstore in Fair Haven, NJ. With a warm staff and a fantastic selection, the store is truly a gem. Since space is tight, the event took place at the very front by the windows where chairs were tucked into the aisles and still people ended up standing. Right before I began speaking, a woman approached me with a serious face. She also seemed hesitant. When she finally spoke and asked me if I knew her sister, my mouth dropped.

“Yes,” I said. “We should talk.”

After I finished answering questions and signing books from the enthusiastic crowd, I saw that this woman was patiently waiting for me. As the patrons left the store, and the workers began cleaning up, we pulled chairs together to make a tight circle which included her daughter as well as my dearest friend, Mala.

“So,” the woman said. “What is my sister like?”

It had been twenty five since she had last seen her sister. Decades earlier, after her sister became a disciple of Sri Chinmoy’s, her sister followed the guru’s orders and cut off all contact from her family.

“What does she look like?” the daughter said about the aunt whom she had never met.

It was bizarre, yet it felt so normal. This was routine. This was what happened when disciples obeyed the guru’s philosophy that people, even family members, who were in the ‘outer world’ were bad influences and potentially fatal to one’s spiritual life. They were abandoned.

Mala and I told the woman and her daughter everything that we knew, from the special singing groups to which she belonged, to her assigned seat for meditation, to the way that she wore her hair. We tried to recall episodes that might offer key insights into who this person was today.

Apparently, for years her family had tried to send birthday cards and invitations, but they never received any reply. We tried to reassure the sister and daughter by telling them that this was actually ‘normal’ behavior in the Center; in fact, rejecting one’s ‘outer family,’ was exactly the type of behavior that would be celebrated and rewarded as proving one’s true devotion to the guru.

When I was asked if now that the guru was no longer alive, if I foresaw a possibility of this person changing or even leaving the Sri Chinmoy Center, Mala and I looked at each other and both were pretty certain that the answer was no. This particular disciple, a member of the true inner core, is a true believer and has way too much invested. It’s really been a lifetime.

As the store lights went dark, and we walked out into the balmy night, they thanked us and said that they had much to reflect on and process. Driving home, I felt a thick coating of sadness thinking about all of the unnecessary pain that so many family members have had to experience and still experience as a result of what Sri Chinmoy began decades earlier.

August 16, 2009

I went into a Barnes & Noble the other day to buy a gift for a friend. I figured since I was there, I wanted to spy on my own book. I had done this at various bookstores—slyly track it down in whatever section it was place in—memoir, new nonfiction, or religion—and then see how many copies were there. Sometimes I’d secretly straighten them, arranging them so they were neatly in order, the spines prepped for easy grabbing. But, today, after looking around at all the usual spots where it might be shelved, I couldn’t find it anywhere. I decided to go and ask.

“The store no longer carries it,” the man behind the information desk said, without looking up from his computer screen.

He then told me that he could ‘special order’ it, but I thanked him and walked away.

Apparently, this is pretty standard. After about four months, the books are returned. Sent away. Stored in a warehouse.

I left the store saddened.

I suppose I knew that this happened—of course there wasn’t enough room to keep every single book in stock—but it still seemed like a type of finale, and that I’d no longer have that amazing thrill of seeing Cartwheels in a Sari in a row of other beautifully bound hardcover books.

There are so many aspects to the process of birthing a book that I had never considered. Indeed, this seemed to mark the end of one enormous period, and it moves into the beginning of the next.

In the meantime, as I wait for the next chapter in the life of Cartwheels, I am proudly at work in the early stages of a new book…

August 6, 2009

I’m writing and revising, rushing to complete an editorial that will be published in this Sunday’s Washington Post. It’s a thrill and honor to have my work accepted for publication in the legendary newspaper at America’s epicenter. Now, I just have to somehow figure out how to finish my edits as a twelve men crew of tree cutters are chain sawing massive tree limbs on my deck then dragging them into the enormous wood chipper. In the midst of all this chaos, Nadira is running from window to window, knocking and shrieking with joy at the all the action.

“Big Truck!”

“Big Truck!”

“Cutting Trees!” she repeats, pointing and insisting that I stand with her, peering out at the men on ropes and ladders.

I laugh, wondering if this is what Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein faced while struggling to meet their deadlines.

July 26, 2009

It’s that point in the summer that I look at the calendar and panic realizing that it’s already the end of July. It seemed as though it was just yesterday that the academic year ended, and ahead of me stretched a voluminous amount of months of summer. I had endless to time to work on all the projects I planned and visit all the people and places I had envisioned. So much for that. I can’t even keep track of what has happened. It’s all been so quick, a blur of book events and chasing after Nadira as she darts around, daring me to catch her as she charges up stairs, climbs on chairs, and perches atop the sink.

Last night, I had a reading at a retirement community in Tinton Falls, New Jersey called Seabrook Village. The place is incredible; it’s designed like a vast university campus, complete with its own TV studio, fitness center, nature preserve, and auditorium. It bustles with activities—clubs and social groups where like-minded residents converge. Throughout the bulletin boards hung notices about a slew of upcoming engaging lectures, films, and concerts.

When we found our way into the Community Center, I stood in the foyer of the auditorium where I would be giving my talk about Cartwheels in a Sari. As I was speaking with the woman in charge, about the microphone options—lapel or podium—Nadira darted off into the auditorium, bolted down the aisle, climbed up the side stairs, and ran onto the middle of the stage! There she was, center stage, twirling. The audience, already nearly full, was instantly delighted by this unexpected performance. Nadira clasped her hands together and swayed as she received a spontaneous round of applause to which she, too, started clapping and laughing. A natural performer, my daughter clearly is a ham and doesn’t suffer from stage fright. When I ran up on stage to delicately escort her off, she led me on a wild chase, until I finally swooped her up with much resistance and squirming. She was intent on staying up there; she wanted to give them all a show! Luckily my husband, Duane, was there to maintain law & order and keep her from usurping my talk altogether!

By the time my lecture began, and I stood behind the podium, I looked out into the packed hall and found that three people in the front row were keeled over completely asleep. I had to prevent myself from laughing. Seeing their heads bobbing up and down and their chins resting on their shoulders, I thought back years ago, to the endless nights at the Sri Chinmoy Center where, inevitably, during each and every meditation, a large section of the disciples—understandably exhausted from the relentless pressures of working for the Guru—were totally conked out asleep. The familiar sight made me smile. It felt like home.

Speaking of home, I’m excited because tomorrow, Vanaema, my 95-year-old grandmother is coming to visit us. Fresh off a trip to North Dakota (her home for many years and the current home of her son, my father, Rudra), Vanaema is being driven by Rudra for a quick visit before returning to her home in Maryland. At 95, Vanaema’s energy is awe-inspiring; she still attends regular exercise classes, does all her own grocery shopping, cooking, and cleaning, and only recently (with heavy resistance) did she stop driving. With a vivacious spirit and amazing energy level, Vanaema is also an extremely proud grandmother and now, great-grandmother. Although they are only staying for a few hours, the visit will be precious, a true highlight to savor during this fast moving summer.

 

July 20, 2009

When I’m driving in my car, I have a wonderfully difficult decision to make—do I listen to the New York Public Radio Station, WNYC or, do I listen to the Philadelphia Public Radio Station, WHYY?

Luckily for me, where I live both stations come in perfectly clear, giving me a tough choice nearly every time I’m in the car (except for when my husband turns on the Yankee games on WCBS). Most times after checking the programs for each, I make a choice and stick with one complete show. Although sometimes, when both stations have on engaging guests, I find myself flipping back and forth, trying to keep up with the conversations on both stations, and usually missing a lot of key points that leave me scrambling to catch up.

In April, I was so honored to be invited on National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation.” The show was recorded live at their studio in Midtown Manhattan. It was my first live radio interview. Going into the show, I was so nervous that my hands were shaking holding onto the papers that I brought, just in case I might forget what my own book was about! For moral support, my husband had taken the day off from work to accompany me, and when we met my publicist, Emily, in the lobby, he asked her how many people listened to the show.

“About 3.4 million,” she said without hesitation.

I felt woozy. That certainly didn’t help my nerves! The other element that made me so nervous was that the program’s host that day, the brilliant Lynn Neary, was in the Washington, DC studios hundreds of miles away. I sat in a glass room by myself, wearing huge headphones and speaking into a microphone. Almost as soon as the introductory music faded and Lynn offered a synopsis of Cartwheels in a Sari, it felt as though time was on fast forward. Before I knew it, the show was over. I had made it through. I had done my first live radio interview before an audience of millions.

I’m so excited that I’m having the chance to try it again, but this time I will get to be in the studio with the host because I am invited to appear on WHYY’s show “Radio Times” with the ever-engaging Marty Moss-Coane. The show will air live on July 22nd at 11:00 am. On Wednesday, I hope I’m not as nervous as I was in April. This time, I’d like to be fully present and enjoy the surreal experience of being a guest on a program that I’ve been listening to for years. I hope you will all tune in!

July 12, 2009

I’ve been thinking a lot about teaching stories—parables whose purpose it is to provide the audience with a life lesson. Religions across the globe employ them to powerfully and succinctly impart profound truths. The stories are usually immediately accessible, understandable, on a certain level, to both children and adults alike. They usually reinforce expected virtues and values, lessons leading to further growth.

The reason I can’t stop thinking about teaching stories is because last week a former disciple of Sri Chinmoy who recently left the cult, after reading Cartwheels in a Sari, contacted me and shared one of Sri Chinmoy’s tales. The Guru, like so many other leaders, frequently used teaching stories. Many were hand-me-down tales that he offered with his own distinct twist. But some seemed utterly unique to him. According to this former disciple, in the period close before Sri Chinmoy’s death, the guru told this particular story to his followers:

Once there was a master who had many students. One day, the master asked the students if they were prepared to obey the master unconditionally. All the students initially said yes, but when the master asked them if they were willing to burn down the house of their own families, all the students changed their minds. Except one. This student agreed and went and burned down the home that housed his own wife and child. The master then told the rest of the students that they were not and would never be true followers because they were not surrendered to the master.

According to this former disciple, Guru then told his own disciples that the moral was that “spirituality trumps morality.”

Spirituality trumps morality. Of course, as a disciple, once the guru said this, it was held as a sacred truth, unquestioned, treasured. His utterance would be transcribed and then distributed for disciples around the world to receive and revere.

Spirituality trumps morality.

The more I thought about it, the more this pithy statement helped clarify so much that for decades seemed so incongruous to me. For Sri Chinmoy, his belief that spirituality—albeit his own version of it—trumps morality could be used to explain much about how he lived and behaved and what he expected from the world around him. What has been haunting me, is that most religions or spiritual paths are centered around attaining morality, but for Sri Chinmoy, spirituality was something separate, a license to break all the rules and create his own.

July 5, 2009

Thanks to Cartwheels in a Sari, I have been contacted by many former disciples from all over the world. It has been incredibly rewarding to receive letters commenting on my book and sharing their own stories about the Sri Chinmoy Center. As I’ve written before, the greatest joy thus far has been that the book was what reconnected me with my dearest friend (“Chahna” in Cartwheels). Growing up in the Sri Chinmoy Center, there were about twenty children who formed what Guru called the “Children’s group,” the core of children who were disciples in the Tri-State area. Of course over the years, many of these children left the cult either because their family decided enough was enough or because they were old enough to make their own choices. Only about five of the original group remain as disciples. For the others, once they left the cult, in typical fashion, they were banished and not allowed to remain connected to those left behind.

When Cartwheels was released, I had hoped that I would be able to find that core group, the ones who spent my childhood with, and be able to reconnect and share experiences. In the last few weeks, I have received letters from a few of these ‘children,’—they are now grown, scattered throughout America and Europe; some have families of their own, careers, homes, and full lives, while others seem to be still drifting, searching for a safe community, a connection to something larger than themselves.

Yesterday was an amazing day because it was spent with one of the ‘children,’ whose family had become disciples of Sri Chinmoy in the early 1970s. For hours we reminisced about people and events that seemed so impossibly distant and yet so clearly preserved in our shared experiences.

“Do you remember the trip to Niagara Falls?” the former disciple asked, and launched into the song that Guru had taught us along the way.

I burst out laughing. In around 1986, Guru told all the children that he was bringing us on a special bus trip to see Niagara Falls. No parents were allowed. This was to be an outing solely for the children—plus two invited grown-ups, his personal guards. We were to meet at Guru’s house after mid-night, and then we loaded in the mini-bus clutching our pillows. Guru showered us with sugary prasad and taught us songs until we all fell asleep. When we arrived at Niagara Falls, he took us all on the famed ‘Maid of the Mist’ ride that creeps close to the thundering water while the spray soaks everyone. Guru always enjoyed boat rides; it was an activity that he selected as an outing. Normally he would sit on the boat’s deck, resting or singing songs while having his feet massaged as the disciples sat around meditating upon him, but on this boat ride, the noise and spray kept even Guru standing and peering out at the immense power before us. Later in that same day, Guru had the driver bring us to a shopping mall, where he gave us all a small amount of money and time for us to roam and then reconvene. Shopping was another one of Guru’s favorite pastimes. He was a phenomenal bargain hunter, and from his childhood in Bangladesh he had mastered the art of haggling with shop keepers for a better price no matter the price tag. In posh department stores, Guru used his charms for a reduced price even when the item wasn’t on sale. As kids, having our God set us free in a mall with a pocketful of blessed cash, was pretty outstanding. During the long bus ride home to Queens, Guru composed a song in honor of every one on the trip, and we sang for hours, swelling with pride at our fortunes. In fact, the entire trip felt that way. It was a unique time where without our parents and without any of Guru’s important events such as concerts, lectures, meditations on the agenda—Guru made us—his children—the center of his world—and in his company, we all felt like a true family.

Yesterday, reflecting back at those years, we laughed over many experiences when we followed our Guru’s wishes and whims, no matter where it took us. We talked about how, years later, Guru created a campaign to have national and international sites renamed in his honor. The program was called the “Sri Chinmoy Peace Blossoms,”—the idea was to present to officials the concept of dedicating significant monuments and natural wonders to world peace. Of course in doing so, Guru would ensure that his own name was added in as well; thus, the sites could be viewed as being renamed for him. One of the most significant places that Guru coveted was Niagara Falls. And, like most of his desires, the disciples got Guru got what he wanted.

In 1992, as Center ‘children’ we were a lot older and more distant, when an official plaque was affixed to one of the main vistas overlooking Niagara Falls, declaring it an official “Sri Chinmoy Peace-Blossom” site. That trip—so different from our first one—was an official visit, with press and dignitaries, and Guru was far too busy for boats and shopping expeditions. By then, too, we, the children, were undergoing our own changes, peering out at the world, longing for what we couldn’t have.

But yesterday, with an old friend, while our own children played together, for a few hours, the pure excitement of that trip away with just a bus load of children and our Guru, came flooding back.

I don’t know if the plaque is still up at Niagara Falls, (If anyone is planning to visit this summer, do look and let me know!) but below is a photo of Sri Chinmoy in 1992 at the dedication of Niagara Falls as an official “Sri Chinmoy Peace Blossom.”

June 25, 2009

I was recently asked if there were other memoirs written by either current or former disciples about their experiences as disciples of Sri Chinmoy. Although it seems as though there would be too many to mention them all—there aren’t. In fact, despite the fact that tens of thousands of people have been followers of the late guru, there have only been two public accounts—besides Cartwheels in a Sari—written about being a disciple of Sri Chinmoy. The first exception is a memoir written by Deborah Santana, the former wife of the famed-guitarist, Carlos Santana. Space Between The Stars: My Journey to an Open Heart, recounts Deborah’s entire life from childhood to motherhood and her own spiritual search. Her relationship with Sri Chinmoy is explored in one single chapter in which she describes her experiences when she and Carlos were Sri Chinmoy’s disciples. It is an interesting to read about Deborah’s faith and subsequent loss of faith in Sri Chinmoy, and how she eventually discovered a satisfying spiritual life on her own terms—without a guru.

The other exception is a blog, http://abodeofyoga.blogspot.com/ written by Yogaloy, a former disciple who joined when he was only sixteen and spent many years in the guru’s inner circle. Yogaloy’s blog offers a very personal account of his own struggles in his inner life and his outer discipleship. Like Deborah, his blog covers his entire life story and his journey as a seeker of truth. Unlike Deborah, he was not a celebrity, and thus experienced the Center without the special perks of being famous. His connection to the Center has extended into the recent past. It is also very current in that it is the only public account of some of the ‘private’ details of Sri Chinmoy’s death. He recently decided to reopen his blog in order to wrestle with some new allegations that have leaked out about Sri Chinmoy. It is a compelling read.

If someone else has written about their years with Sri Chinmoy, please let me know, so I could include it onto this list. The more personal narratives, the more we can expand our understanding. Perhaps someone reading this will be inspired to begin to chronicle his or her own account of being a disciple of the self-proclaimed ‘Avatar of the Era’…..

June 19, 2009

Sunday is Father’s Day. My daughter Nadira and I will be taking my husband Duane, our favorite Dad, to a minor league baseball game. Hopefully the rain will be kind enough to give us a few hours without its presence, so we can enjoy the afternoon and revel in celebrating the day with sunshine, baseball, and junk food.

The other day, when I was on the phone with the stadium ordering the tickets, it struck me just how far I had come. As a child, I never celebrated Father’s Day by going with my dad for a special outing. In my life, Father’s Day was never a unique day reserved for my father; Father’s Day was yet another grand occasion to honor and adore the Guru. Sri Chinmoy called himself our “Spiritual Father,” and thus he trumped all the regular dads. I remember trying to shop to buy Guru something that might not end up for sale in one of the many “Guru garage sales,” where items disciples had given him, from running shoes to figurines, were sold by his close disciples with the profits all returning back to Guru. I had wanted to give Guru something that he would find so precious and extraordinary that it would stay inside his house, buried in his treasured possessions forever. From sets of pens to wind chimes to hand carved recorders, although I tried, I never knew what to give my Spiritual Father, to the guru who has everything. Besides bestowing gifts, Father’s Day meant having special gatherings in the morning that often ran throughout the day and into the evening. Often, Guru would address all his disciples with a Father’s Day message in the form of an aphorism, song, or lecture. Over the years, disciples who lived outside of New York, began making a pilgrimage to Queens to be part of the blessing. From Melbourne to Montreal, Krakow to Kansas, disciples flocked to be in the presence of the man they considered their true father.

Of course, being a father comes with certain duties and responsibilities, and for Guru the duties and responsibilities were passed on to his ‘spiritual children’—his disciples. The disciples were charged with the impossible task of remaining 100% obedient and surrendered to their spiritual father. With most healthy father-daughter or father-son relationships, there is an amount of give and take, of bending and accepting, of giving and receiving. Every Father’s Day, Guru would take the opportunity to remind his spiritual children of who exactly was in charge—him.

I wonder if my own father ever felt left out on Father’s Day. If he ever did, he certainly never expressed it. It’s only now, years later, and with my own family, and the joys of planning a simple outing to celebrate the father of my daughter, that I wonder about all of those years where every holiday and every ordinary day were occasions solely to surrender to the Guru.

June 13, 2009

Last night I was invited to meet with a local book club. As soon as I pulled into the cul de sac filled with parked cars and women walking in holding Cartwheels in a Sari, I knew I was in the right place.

Inside the beautiful home of the host, the members greeted each other, catching up on upcoming summer plans and news about their children’s last days of school. The women ranged in age from recent college graduates to retired grandmothers. For eleven years, every month, the group has met for the purpose of sharing their love of reading with their sense of community. With careful attention to making the group a true democracy, they vote on their book selection for the year based on the members’ suggestions using secret ballots. Their choices range from the pivotal classics to the most recent releases.

As I watched them open their copies of Cartwheels in a Sari, highlighted and pages creased with intent study, it was evident that this was a group that took their reading as serious as though they were enrolled in a literature class. We sat in the spacious living room and for hours they asked questions, commented thoughtfully on each other’s opinions, and extracted paragraphs for close analysis. I was so overwhelmed by their keen insights and perceptive comments. During our discussion, they shared the connections they had made to their own life stories and their own searches for truth. From funny moments where one woman asked if her blouse was indeed the proper shade of ‘Guru-blue,’ to moments of revelation when a woman talked about losing and then regaining her own faith, by the end of the night, I felt as though I had an entire new room filled with dear friends. What a magical night! In this rushed age of computer connections and virtual friendships, book clubs are, in a way, a return to the old days of sitting together, telling stories, and sharing the true joy of each other’s company—a true treasure.

I’d love to continue meeting with book clubs, so if you are a member of a club or know someone who has one, please feel free to contact me at info@jayantitamm.com and I’d love to arrange a way to meet, either in person, or virtually, with your group.

June 9, 2009

The other day my friend Jose was visiting, and we were talking about Cartwheels in a Sari. I was telling him some of the many stories that had to be edited out of the book because the original manuscript that I submitted to my editor was too large, and she had asked me to pare it down and to chop away. As we were talking, I thought that I might have in one of my many trunks of photos, some pictures of some of the specific people and episodes I was describing. We sat down, and I began digging through the photographs, pulling out mounds, briefly pointing out a few I thought might be of interest. Suddenly, my friend picked up a small photo with an excerpt from one of Sri Chinmoy’s lectures. This photo, like countless others, had been personally distributed by Sri Chinmoy as an item of prasad.
“Oh my God,” my friend said, after reading the small font.
“What?”
“This is some crazy shit!”
He read the text out loud:

“Obedience, obedience, obedience. At every moment if you are obedient to me in the inner world and in the outer world, then you can’t make any mistake and you can run the fastest, fastest, fastest. Obedience, intensity, intense oneness with my will and intense determination to please me every day, at every moment in my own way: this is what I need from you.”

Listening to the Guru’s words, his demands of obedience and his insistence on constantly pleasing him, is so deeply absorbed into my very foundation, that even all these years later, his orders felt familiar, and even normal. Of course the painful reality of trying to actually carry out his impossible orders, to me, was the endless and turbulent insanity. So much of Sri Chinmoy’s stern warnings and lectures, proclamations and predictions, when viewed by someone outside of the Sri Chinmoy Center, are shocking. My friend was literally stunned by this, while to me it was almost blasé. It’s just the normal, everyday expectations thrust upon his disciples. It was relentless and unyielding. Reading it over one more time, it seems so obvious that what he is asking for cannot be the base of a fair relationship; it is as one-sided as would be in the realm of an Absurdist drama where the audience might be laughing because they know that the playwright is showing an imbalanced person. One doesn’t need to be a relationship expert, a trained social worker or psychologist, to know that ordering someone else to obey them unconditionally and promising that the result of that obedience would be a mistake free existence, is deeply troubling.

However, sometimes it takes a friend to quickly put it all in perspective and show how indeed crazy it all was.

June 2, 2009

This week we celebrated our wedding anniversary. Four years ago, I married my husband Duane at sunset on Trunk Bay, a stunning beach on the lush tropical island of St. John. Our wedding was simple—just us, the ‘minister’ that we had discovered online to make it all official, and the photographer that we also had found online who insisted on trying to take photos that we knew we never needed—such as close-up shots of our fingers with our wedding bands. The evening that we were married, Trunk Bay was a vast, empty stretch of white sand, and the water shimmered, capturing the colors bleeding from the sky. For years prior, I had been skeptical of why we should marry, arguing that it wouldn’t make any difference, that our relationship didn’t need any official government document to make it real. It wasn’t until after our wedding that I realized how wrong I had been. Of course it makes a difference; it’s a monumental difference. As soon as we were wed, it seemed, our relationship was instantly granted an elevated status—we rose above the juvenile and flaky realm of ‘girlfriend’ and ‘boyfriend’. And, yes, I must admit, it also did alter how I viewed us, too. Being married erased that constant and nagging question of ‘should we marry,’ and it made everything feel securely anchored in a safe and steady way.

That is why I find it so disheartening that our great country does not currently provide the same opportunity to marry for all those couples who are deeply committed and ready to promise a lifetime of loyalty and love. It is not only clearly perpetuating a harmful and archaic idea that there are people who deserve less than other people, but it is also keeping alive legalized discrimination. Marriage is a fundamental human right and should not be a privilege reserved only for heterosexuals. My hope is that perhaps by my next wedding anniversary, we will be taking the right steps to ensure that this fundamental human right is obtained by all.

May 27, 2009

During many of the interviews that I have had for Cartwheels in a Sari, I’ve been asked about various allegations of sexual abuse by Sri Chinmoy involving former disciples. Those of you who have read Cartwheels know that the book stays tightly focused on my own experiences and the experiences of my own family. Since Cartwheels is my memoir, I didn’t feel it was appropriate to write about other people’s stories. I also thought that since many of the very dark and disturbing accounts of the late guru had allegedly occurred years and years ago, and they were presented by former disciples who were a generation older than me; they weren’t from disciples in my age bracket, from my friends.

But then Liz, a former disciple and good friend of mine, posted a very troubling allegation that was shared with her by another former disciple—another friend of mine—about Sri Chinmoy. When she sent this to me, I felt alarmed and unsettled; I also felt outraged. Sri Chinmoy’s alleged behavior would not only be a clear violation of trust, but would also be perversely incestuous. Ultimately each person needs to decide what they believe is the truth, but I felt that by continuing to publicly ignore this entire other reality of Sri Chinmoy felt wrong.

Since I first read the testimonials of other former disciples who had bravely told of their own alleged sexual abuse by Sri Chinmoy, I had been trying to sort out who or what I believed. It seemed, in so many ways, improbable that the same Guru who I had known since my birth could have been living a double life. It was also hard to know that such terrible abuses were occurring, and we were all oblivious. But this latest account, written by a trusted friend, erased any and all doubts. For me, I can honestly say that I believe these women, and I believe their allegations.

After receiving permission from both Liz and the woman who bravely shared her story, I decided to post her account. I imagine that this may provoke great shock for many people and may outrage others. Liz’s post certainly adds to the continuing debate as to the full story of who Sri Chinmoy was:

“I joined the Centre in 1986 in California on the coattails of my two brothers, Jeevan and Yogaloy, at the age of 18. I spent most of my disciple life working at the San Francisco Centre "divine enterprise" restaurant Ananda Fuara. After about twelve years, and struggling to make the lifestyle continue to work for me, I moved to the Seattle Centre and then finally to the New York Centre where I stayed until I left the path voluntarily at the end of August 2001.

A year before I left the Centre I received an inheritance from my grandfather and grandmother and started to work in preparation of opening a cafe in Forest Hills, NY. While under construction I got in trouble for not reporting flirtatious glances between two teenaged disciples directly to guru and guru ostracized me, prohibiting people from coming to my cafe, talking to me, saying he wouldn't come to the cafe, didn't want to hear about it and wouldn't name it. I went ahead and opened it anyway in May of 2001 after I came back from the Christmas Trip in Bali.

About this time rumors were circling in Queens about the sexual allegations against guru. Although still a disciple, I heard about the rumors through one ex-disciple and one disciple who came into my cafe fairly regularly. At the time, I was troubled by the allegations, but wasn't sure I believed them, and wasn't seeking them out on the Web (no computer at home). I, personally, had never had even an inkling of suspicion about that kind of thing with respect to guru. I never picked up on weird vibes, and had never heard rumors like that before. I knew of Sevika and Phulela, and eventually their stories, but didn't know either of them well enough to blindly believe what they said and pitch 14 years of devotion to guru and the Centre.

Shortly after opening my cafe my friend Rupavati (Rose) left the Centre. She had been my friend in New York and we had both gone on the Christmas Trip. On that Christmas Trip I steered clear of Rupavati because she seemed like she was in a perpetual and monumentally bad mood every time I saw her. After we came back from the trip she left the Centre within two months' time. Very soon after that a story began circulating that she was put into a position on the Christmas Trip in Bali where she was told she must perform sexual acts with another woman disciple as a form of surrender and to help this other female disciple with sexual urges she couldn't curb. When I heard the allegation, I locked myself in the cafe bathroom and called Rose myself to hear the story.

Truthfully, I didn't know what to believe. Although I felt Rose a friend (as much as any of us had friends in the Centre that wouldn't sail us down the river on a dime in allegiance to guru if given the chance), at the time of the Christmas Trip another person said Rose was having a hard time because she was having jealousy problems. Over the next many years, I would weigh that bad mood and the other disciple's opinion of it.

Shortly after 9/11, I moved back to California. There I read most of the allegations against guru, the Centre and the disciples. Many of the stories against other disciples I knew to be true and/or had a particularly close source who knew them to be true, or extremely plausible, including Rose's story. I think we all agree that some terrible things happened in the Centre notwithstanding the allegations against guru himself. It makes me so sad to think that some of the Centre kids were molested (and no one held accountable, either inside or outside the Centre), that families were broken apart and lives essentially discarded through indifference, incompetence and worse.

That said, I sat on the fence for eight years around the allegations against guru for sexual misconduct/harassment/abuse, whatever the terminology. To me, even though I thought the Centre was a massively dysfunctional place at that point, I still just had a hard time believing the sexual allegations; no offense to anyone, I just couldn't take that stand--I needed something more.

Just a few days ago, I got that something more.

About one to two years back, while living in Puerto Rico, I started having dreams of a disciple that had been a friend and a person I have a long history with that predates the Centre. In the span of a couple months I probably had 15-20 dreams of her, but respecting the disciple code, I chose not to contact her and figured if she needed me she would contact me--although I did ask about her through other people, and those other people said she was going through, or had gone through, a difficult time.

While on the path together our lives took different routes and our friendship was pretty nonexistent by the time I left the Centre. She was the member of a prominent singing group that guru controlled implicitly and I was a black sheep working my tail off just trying to keep my cafe open.

Shortly before I moved to San Diego, surprisingly, we reconnected. I couldn't imagine she'd left the Centre, but she had. Not wanting to overstep my bounds, and not knowing where she stood on "all things Centre," I treaded lightly in our first conversations. Although I honestly felt nothing for guru, and by that I mean I just didn't feel anything one way or the other--no love, no hatred, no anger, perfectly groomed by life in the Centre you might say--I was/am respectful of others and their position. It doesn't need to be black or white for me.

I could tell by our first conversation that something had happened to her, and I told that to a few people close to me. I couldn't get a sense of where she stood exactly by her words, because she used words that sometimes showed she cared, but she was resolute and firm that she would never go back to the Centre and that she only wanted to look forward and get on with her new life. I didn't press her, but I knew there was more to the story and that she'd tell me when/if she wanted.

A few conversations later, and partially because she felt it would help me "off the fence," where I told her most likely a lot of us sat, she repeated that "nothing" would surprise her with respect to the Centre, not even the sexual allegations against guru. Over the next two days, she told me her story.

She had never seen the message boards and had never heard of the allegations against guru, or at least not seen them in print. She was a twenty-year disciple by that time and close to those in the inner circle, if not in the inner circle herself as a visiting disciple. She attended a Christmas Trip and on this trip received a phone call from guru asking if she was "ready to surrender," a call I remember Rose also getting in the summer before her incident on the Christmas Trip in Bali when we were on a weekend trip to Cape Cod with another disciple.

Although she felt fear (similar to Rose), she was a good disciple and loved the community in which she lived and did want to surrender. She was afraid guru would ask her to get married and have kids, which she didn't want, but he told her no, that he would never ask her to do that.

A short time later, she was summoned to guru's hotel room. He asked her what she thought about him. She told him she saw him as her father and saw him as her "Supreme." He told her to embrace him and for her to touch his feet, then touch her head to his feet. He then asked her how many years she had been on "the path." She said twenty. He said because she had been on the path for twenty years, the Supreme now wanted her to surrender and that the Supreme had very special love for her, and that this "opportunity" the Supreme did not give to everyone.

Guru told her that he wanted her to have sex with another woman but that it was not a "lesbian thing." At this point she was utterly freaked out, shocked and disappointed in guru. Shaking inside she agreed to try to "surrender."

Guru called another woman to his room and told them both to undress and embrace each other. The woman proceeded to tell her what guru liked to see, suggesting that there was interest on guru's part in what was happening, but she said she didn't notice guru being excited in any way. When she looked over at him she said he seemed to be concentrating with his eyes squinted. Guru asked her if she was getting joy, and she told him no, that "this is not working for me." Finally guru told them to get dressed and wash their hands and told the other woman to leave.

She stayed behind and guru concentrated on her and told her that her mind was really strong. After leaving guru's room she said she felt like killing herself and that the last twenty years of her life seemed to shatter. She said it felt wrong. But over the next three to five days, her mind quieted and she thought she might be able to try again, not wanting to blow this opportunity at surrender, assuming that's what it really was.

Two times she went to the woman's room to try surrendering to guru's request. She felt it was no use and it left her feeling desolate inside. She believed her roommate might be going through the same thing, and despite also believing that she could be throwing away a real shot at surrender, she felt more strongly that what was happening to her, and possibly her roommate, was wrong. Her "strong mind" returned.

Over the next year she struggled to stay in the Centre. In July 2007 she wrote guru a letter telling him that she did not feel at all spiritual, that she felt she was deceiving her family and friends. She told him that she did not want to have sex with anyone, but if she had to have sex with someone, then she wanted it to be with a man, NOT with a woman, and NOT with guru. He asked her for forgiveness and told her he would never ask her to do it again, saying he had forgiven her many times and asking could she not forgive him?

As she continued to struggle and pull away from longtime friends, she was contacted by another woman, who in trying to sympathize with her and help her, essentially told her that there were several women that formed a ring and were on a list who would regularly perform sexually in front of guru or perform sexual acts on guru (mistakenly thinking she was now a part of this ring), some women even paired over the long term. This particular woman told her she, herself, had performed sexual acts on guru. This group consisted of young and older women, visiting and New York local disciples, mostly those considered
“inner circle.”

My recounting of her story doesn't do justice to it AT ALL. In her own words, it's a much more sordid, layered and compelling story, as much for the style in which she tells it, with amazing candor and a little humor, as for her innocence and naïveté. Unfortunately, she isn't ready to tell the story herself and wants to move on with her life and stabilize before revisiting it. She recognizes, however, that there might be other people out there, like I was, who are sitting on the fence, waiting for that story that tips the balance, and she gave me reluctant permission to post it.

It took about four or five phone calls before she told her story, and once she began, we spent as many as twelve hours on the phone while I riddled her with questions. She says she still feels a sense of duty to her friends in the Centre and doesn't want to ruin peoples' lives with her story. She feels some are still benefitting from the life they are living in the Centre, and doesn't want to take that away. She said she never imagined leaving the Centre, that she was 100% content being a part of the Centre, and likely would have stayed forever had this not happened to her. Being in the Centre for her was a lifestyle choice and she feels that is probably true of others and doesn't want to disrupt that.

Although there are quite a few people I really care about in and outside the Centre, whom I would never want to hurt, my feeling of social responsibility and social justice is much much stronger. In general, I don't make rash decisions, but have given the benefit of the doubt in situations and to people I probably shouldn't have. But in this case, I have no doubt of the validity of this woman's story. I have known her for many years, and having heard a firsthand account of both Rose's and her story, not even an iota of doubt lingers for me anymore. And I only hope that one day soon, she'll be able to tell the story herself.

As she believes, I also believe guru had real occult power. But I don't discount my own contribution to the equation of the spiritual experiences I've had. I think guru was emotionally and sexually dysfunctional, and not quite the package he made himself out to be. He could be incredibly mean, nasty and manipulative, pitting disciples against one another, almost like dealing with an alcoholic the way we had to walk on eggshells when he was in a bad mood. And yet, many were the better for knowing him, myself included. I'll likely spend a few more years trying to understand the esoteric reality of that.

Before she left the Centre, which took a year after guru's death, she wrote letters to her friends telling them that no daughter should ever have to do the things guru asked her to do, probably hoping for one of them to question her. She even read the letters and the responses she got to me, responses that read as though she'd failed at some simple surrender task, like moving to New York and working at Annam Brahma, the very fear I had when I got a message while living in New York asking me if I was ready to surrender. Luckily, in my case, the surrender asked of me was merely a temporary trip to Florida.

Thank you for taking the time to read this story. I wouldn't tell it if I didn't wholeheartedly believe it and believe it was an important story to tell. And I'm grateful that my friend is allowing me to share this paraphrased (and revised by her) version of it for the time being in hopes that it might help others.”

May 17, 2009

Throughout the process of writing Cartwheels in a Sari, my secret hope was that somehow, somewhere, the book would lead me back to find ‘Chahna,’ (the character in the book of my beloved friend). Over the years since I had seen her, I had tried to track her down without success. She didn’t appear online at any of the usual sites, and I wasn’t even sure which name she was now using. I knew that she had married, but I knew nothing about her husband or how to contact her through him. Her parents had moved from their old address, and I had no way of finding them either. I had wished to find her before the book was released, so I could give her advance notice to spare her from having to randomly pick up my book in a bookstore, open the cover, and start reading about her life story, but it didn’t work. When the advance press went out, I imagined her somehow receiving word. Each day after the book’s official release, I checked my email with finger crossed, hoping it would be her. And then, there she was. An email with the simple subject line: “I’m so proud of you.” I read her words with tears in my eyes. I knew then that everything was finally in its rightful place, and that finally, after so many years, we had each other, fully and completely, once again. I sprinted upstairs to share my news with my husband who was in the middle of a shower.

“I found her!” I yelled. “I found her!”

I plopped down on the floor to frantically write her back, as though if I dared to wait even a few minutes that maybe she would disappear, vanishing back into the great unknown once again. I knew this time I would not risk any chance of letting her slip away from me; I was determined to have my dearest friend, my true sister, the person who knew me better than I knew myself. There was no hesitation, no polite reintroduction, no formalities. I began my email with the words, “I love you.”

We used to say that we’ve been connected for lifetimes. Now, even though I now longer believe in the Guru’s philosophy of past lives, I can look back on the decades that we spent growing up together in the Sri Chinmoy Center as our past lives. We are so different today, so changed. However, when we discovered that out of the entire world, we happen to live a few towns away from each other, we both knew that our link, our bond, seems to transcend normal logic.

And just like that we are inseparable. She is an official and immediate doting Auntie to my Nadira, and her husband and my husband have bonded over gripes about the Yankees new batting order. It’s perfect. Today we spent the day together at the horse races, and although none of us hit it big, we smiled all afternoon feeling that we are indeed the biggest winners of all.

May 13, 2009

Yesterday was the last day of the semester at Ocean County College. Besides the enormous pile of ungraded papers that fill up two massive sacks, I am officially done teaching for the year. The last few weeks have been a frantic juggling act, trying to keep up with the five courses that I teach, while trying to promote Cartwheels in a Sari. I felt as though I was always rushing and never had enough time. I also was uncertain how much to share with my students about the process that a first-time author undergoes releasing a book. With the exception of my Advanced Creative Writing Class, I felt quite certain that the majority of my students would not be interested in my stories of new reviews, possible new stories, or reconnections to former disciples. I decided it was better to leave my book out of the classroom altogether.

But then they decided to start bringing my book into the classroom.

One day last week I walked into my drama class and found a number of students sitting reading Cartwheels in a Sari. Uncertain of what to do, I decided to pretend I hadn’t noticed, and proceeded with our discussion of Angels in America. At the end of the class, a few students left without saying anything, but one young woman came up to me and said, “Professor Tamm, wow. You’ve, well, you’ve been through a lot.” I thanked her for what I thought was a type of compliment.

After another class ended, a few students shyly asked if I wouldn’t mind signing their books. I agreed with the condition that they would give me their honest critique. They promised that they would.

Perhaps to a fault, I had always attempted to keep my personal life separate from my students. My intention was to stick to the text, to the task at hand. The less that my students knew about me, the better. Now, of course, with so many secrets of my past life readily available for them to scrutinize, I wondered if I needed to say something, perhaps explain myself to them. Their teacher, I assumed, probably seemed a very different person than the one they had met in January, at the start of the semester, long before the book had revealed this entire other being.

Yesterday, when I was packing up the mounds of final research papers, I found a note that had been slipped under my office door. It was from a student that I had a few semesters ago with a simple message—“Professor Tamm, Thank you for sharing your story.” It was the perfect end to a long semester.

April 27, 2009

I had been secretly dreading April 26th ever since it was confirmed months ago that on that Sunday afternoon I would be giving a reading and discussion at the Barnes & Noble in Fresh Meadows, Queens. The store is about one mile away from Sri Chinmoy’s ashram. Besides a few visits to the sickbed of a former disciple and a beloved friend, Sudhir, and then to his wake this past January, I had not returned to that neighborhood in years. Every street, every block contains so many memories. Before entering the store, I was remembering that every April and August, as part of the ritualized events to celebrate and honor Sri Chinmoy, we would partake in a parade that travelled down Union Turnpike, passing directly in front of this same store. Sitting atop floats constructed with crepe paper and life-size images of the Guru, we sang and waved, while other disciples marched carrying posters and distributing leaflets about our activities. I remember being perched on the float, gazing out at the shoppers and pedestrians, students and joggers, who were busy with their own activities. Most of the time, I felt, they didn’t register any surprise at the spectacle unfolding before them, as though living in the neighborhood, they had become used to anything.

When I entered the Barnes & Noble, hanging across the front of the store, suspended from the ceiling was an enormous banner, announcing my event, complete with my photo as well as the cover of Cartwheels in a Sari. For a second I stood in shock. Upon seeing the banner inside Barnes & Noble, I realized how surreal and poignant it was to be speaking directly where the majority of the book actually took place. I wondered who, if anyone, would come to listen to me. It was, after all, an exquisitely warm Sunday afternoon, perfect for parks and ice cream. When I met the Community Relations Manager, Gina, as if on instinct, I felt I had to apologize for the fact that she might either have nobody turn up, or, she might face a swarm of angry people. She was kind and welcoming, and her entire staff was so helpful.

To my relief, when we descended the escalator, I saw that all of the seats were filled, and by the smiles and the way that people held onto their copies of the book, I instantly relaxed. After all, this is the Guru’s neighborhood, and those were the neighbors who lived amongst the disciples, shopped in their stores, and ate in their restaurants. When I concluded reading a few select excerpts and invited a discussion, the comments and questions were eye-opening. From both disciples and former disciples, to people who had run in the Guru’s races, to colleagues of both past and present disciples, their own observations and personal experiences added to the larger story. One woman said that years ago she had received in the mail an application for a credit card endorsed by Sri Chinmoy. The card happened to be a “Master”card. She said she had been so shocked because she couldn’t understand how a religious leader would be aligning himself with a credit card company, and she had written back, explaining her surprise. I, too, felt surprise; I hadn’t remembered that happening, and it made me realize just how many small episodes had left such an enormous impact on people over the years. Listening to the audiences’ own experiences and remembrances of Sri Chinmoy and the Sri Chinmoy Center felt so liberating. I realized, for the first time, that the book is starting to have a life of its own, and that people are now claiming it as their own. What a wonderful way to spend a Sunday afternoon!

April 22, 2009

I laughed out loud when I received the following email. After sharing it with my mother and husband, I couldn’t resist sharing it with all of you. The author gave his full permission, and so voila. The way he captured a single moment, I feel, is both hilarious and very revealing:

I'll relate one of the amusing stories that portend the terror. As you probably know, Sri was incredibly vain for a shriveled up old rodent. I loved his annual track meet where he would find a few boys, a third his age, who would allow him to win a sprint or two. Whereupon he'd puff out his massive, shirtless chest and accept the adulation and awe of his followers in the stands (perhaps you were one of them at the time). The track meet was quite well run because it was the boss's obsession and supported those ubiquitous, turgid, brain-dead life homilies.

Anyway I'm sitting in the stands between my events when one of the girls gasps in horror. Evidently someone had mistakenly locked Sri's private Porta-Potty that stood in the field area away from anyone. Sri couldn't get in to relieve himself. Instead of what would be normal human laughter at a common occurrence soon fixed, panic broke out in the stands. First the girls then, the surrounding gaggle of female acolytes were shocked that anyone who loved the master would make a mistake so profound. Then the talk turned to how much trouble this person was in for having shown the swami to be as ridiculous as he was.

This scene terrified me because it was obvious the hold this old conman had over otherwise intelligent young women. It reminded me of the power Rev. Moon had to announce the mass weddings of hundreds of his pitiful flock without the men and women even meeting each other beforehand. That's a cult.

Good luck and thank you for writing this book.

Mike

April 19, 2009

Friday night’s reading at the Mercantile Library was a tremendous success! The room was packed, and we had people standing at the back. I was so grateful when I got off the elevator onto the eighth floor to find a room full of people eager to hear about Cartwheels in a Sari. I had to catch my breath (I literally had been stuck in snarls of traffic trying to get through the Lincoln Tunnel, so I had sprinted through Port Authority and across town). I thought I’d be terribly nervous, but after the Executive Director of the Mercantile Library, Noreen Tomassi, (who, in a strange coincidence realized that one of her close friends, Rebecca Lown, had designed the book jacket) gave a really warm welcome to everyone and voiced her enthusiasm about being able to host the event at the last minute, I immediately relaxed. I knew it would all be great. It was a beautiful space; I had tons of friends, family, former disciples, and eager readers ready to share my story. The time went so quickly as I picked out a few excerpts to read and then discussed the back story of each episode. At the end, I couldn’t wait to open up a dialogue with the audience, and many people reminisced about their own experiences with Sri Chinmoy and his members. After, my husband invited everyone next door for dinner and drinks, and by the time we got home, it was early in the morning, and I was very tipsy….

The next day, I felt a bit apprehensive because I had been invited to an author event back at my old high school—Greenwich Academy. I had not been back since the day of my graduation so many years ago. When we pulled up, only the historic administration building looked familiar; there were so many new buildings, such a vast expansion. I felt timid to return, especially since my years there (as one can read in the book) were not particularly happy ones as I was going through a very complicated time in my life (again, it’s in the book!). As we walked inside the gymnasium that was filled with books for a Book Fair, I was warmly greeted by other alum from years past. With my daughter pulling on my hand, my mother lugging in the diaper bag, and my husband beside me, I relaxed. Everyone there was simply trying to build community, and they had welcomed me into it. By the end of the afternoon, I had reconnected with some people I had known from my days at Greenwich Academy, and many others that I had never had the chance to meet. We strolled around the gorgeous grounds, and by the time we left, I was so glad that I had been invited (Thanks to the Director of Alumnae, Megan Tyre Lindemeyer!).

The other news that was so exciting was that my publicist called to tell us that the review was out in People Magazine. When I nervously asked her if it was all right, she screamed into the phone—“It’s a Four out of Four Star Review!” I was blown away!

It’s been a hectic and wonderful weekend, and I can’t wait to see what happens this coming week….

April 17, 2009

Tonight is my first reading, and I can't wait. I'm so eager to see you all there. Don't forget that the venue is Mercantile Library - 8th Floor 17 E 47th Street between Fifth and Madison in New York City. I'll write about it tomorrow...

April 15, 2009

We’re delighted that we found an ideal venue for a reading and discussion of Cartwheels in a Sari for this Friday, April 17th. The Mercantile Library, an NYC literary hub, has generously offered to host the event. We are so grateful for their invitation! It will be at 7:00 pm on the Eighth Floor. Their address is 17 East 47th Street between Fifth and Madison in Manhattan. I’m looking forward to seeing as many of you as possible there. Please tell all of your friends.

Today is day two of Cartwheels in a Sari’s official release! It’s been a wonderful storm of activity. Yesterday I took my daughter with me to two different bookstores. In the first one, I found my books on the “Biography” Shelf. I posed Nadira in front and asked the poor woman who was trying to browse for books to take pictures of us. When I tried to explain why I was doing this, she quickly scooted into the next aisle. I looked around to talk to someone, to express my joy, but no was there. As Nadira began chucking books, I figured it was time to leave. Then I went over to the Borders in Freehold where I have a reading scheduled for April 23. I was overwhelmed to walk into the store and find an entire display case of my books right up front. Nadira pointed and said, “Mama!” Again, we posed ourselves for photos, and the staff was incredibly sweet. Thanks to Marty and his crew for all of their support. It was a wonderful and surreal experience.

Finally, I’m so grateful to start hearing from those of you who have already finished the book. I’m anxious to receive your comments and to hear your own perspectives.

I really hope to see you all at the reading this Friday, April 17th or at another one…

April 14, 2009

On the eve of the release of Cartwheels in a Sari, I find out that my first public reading scheduled for April 17th at East West Books, the largest independent spiritual bookstore in Manhattan, has been CANCELLED.

Yes, CANCELLED.

How did I even find out that it was cancelled? A friend of my husband went on East West Book's website to get directions in order to attend the upcoming reading late in the afternoon on Good Friday. When she
clicked on their upcoming events page, it stated that my reading was cancelled. I had not been notified. What makes this more outrageous is that when my publicist finally got through to someone to find out what in the world has happened, the Manager said that it was a conflict because the book doesn't represent their view of Sri Chinmoy. If someone had told me that this would be happening, I wouldn't have believed it. And if it did happen if wouldn't be right in Manhattan; it would be somewhere far away, somewhere remote, somewhere else. In the meantime, we are working to scramble together to find a venue and will forge ahead DETERMINED to have a reading in Manhattan this Friday, April 17th after all!

Stay tuned! As soon as we have a venue, I will post the information! I really would love to have you all come out and demonstrate your support.

Cartwheels in a Sari is officially out there today. It's sitting on shelves in local bookstores and hovering on shelves in online bookstores. I'm so grateful to everyone who has helped to bring this story out of the hidden realm of a private, undiscussed past into a public forum where hopefully people will either gain a deeper understanding of some part of their own experience or that of a world that seems far removed. I am honored and humbled to have this opportunity.

And the story continues....

April 4, 2009

Well, it happened. I was repeatedly told that it would, that it was just a matter of time until the attacks were launched. Cartwheels in a Sari is not even released until April 14, 2009, but the Sri Chinmoy Center’s opposition has begun. I’m not naïve. I knew that writing a book about my life as a disciple would be met with hostility—I was publishing a book that was not an approved piece of pro-Sri Chinmoy Center propaganda; I would be honestly examining all facets of my past.

It is almost a cliché that when someone leaves a tightly knit organization and candidly and bravely speaks out about the truth behind the façade, the person is swiftly labeled by the organization as being ‘disgruntled,’ ‘disturbed,’ ‘distrustful,’ and only out for quick ‘monetary gain.’ Think Daniel Ellsberg, Karen Silkwood, Jeffrey Wigand, Scott McClellan.

The situation becomes even more heightened when cults are involved. Cults exist because the committed members possess extreme beliefs and allegiance to the group. Any perceived threat to those beliefs provokes an equally extreme reaction. There is a need for complete control in order to preserve unity and maintain order. One of the researched hallmarks of cults is to attempt to silence any and all people who dare to analyze, question, and critique the leader and the group itself. Rather than engaging in an open debate, the cult members resort to nasty forms of retaliation from lawsuits, slander, and base personal attacks. These methods are standard in cults around the world, and the Sri Chinmoy Center is no exception. Occasionally, in the Sri Chinmoy Center to silence voices they deemed ‘negative,’ they used honey, bribing people to remain silent with fat wads of cash or free trips to Asian resorts. Mostly, though the attacks were swift and harsh, intended to inflict severe damage and the targets included careers, family, and even personal safety.

What I find sad is that my book was never intended and is NOT an expose on Sri Chinmoy or a condemnation against the Sri Chinmoy Center. Cartwheels in a Sari offers insights into the layers of complexity and contradiction, tenderness and soulfulness, pain and challenges of living inside a cult where the leader serves as both your father and your God. I hope that the disciples will have the courage to choose to disobey the ban on reading my book and engage in critical self-examination to reflect and debate the ideas presented. My personal experiences lead me to doubt that will happen. Therefore, I will be the continued subject of their attacks.

March 25, 2009

When I came home from work today, carrying my sleeping daughter Nadira in one arm and my computer bag in the other, as I stood fiddling to unlock the front door, I looked down and saw a package. Immediately, I knew. Finally, it was here—my book.

While I received a copy of the finished jacket last week, I felt a nervous rush, as if somehow there might have been a bizarre mix-up and the cover art would be all changed, the title would be altered and my name would be misspelled. Without opening it, I put it on the coffee table and stared at it. My daughter woke up, grunted, and nuzzled back upon my shoulder.

After removing Nadira’s shoes, hat, and coat and heating up her bottle of milk, I returned to the package. This time I picked it up and slowly tore the package apart. I winced as I reached inside. This was really happening; it was really here. I counted to three and then pulled it out. Attached to the cover was a note from my wonderful editor: “Congratulations—it’s a book!”

When I had found out I was pregnant, I was already under contract with Crown Publishers to write my memoir. At the time, I told my editor that I felt that I was now working to give birth to two babies—my real daughter and the book. And now, here it was—my second baby. The realization of a dream. The product of years of having remained silent, of hiding, of my own resistance to telling my true story. I remembered all my doubts, fears, anxiety, sweat, and work that plagued me along the way.

And now, holding the book in my hands, feeling its weight, its shape, it was beautiful. The image on the cover shimmered, capturing the light. The colors are vibrant; it invites people to open it, to spend time with it, to listen to what it has to say. I felt so proud.

“Look,” I said to my daughter. “This is mommy’s book.” She stirred and when I thought she was reaching out to touch it, she clutched onto her blanket. To her, nothing can replace a good, satin blankie. As she fell back asleep, I remained peacefully settled on the couch, taking in the overwhelming joy of the moment with one arm around my daughter and the other, my book.

March 12, 2009

Since I began this website, I have received numerous emails from family members who have been estranged from their loved ones. Most often the letters I've received have been from distraught parents whose grown children are disciples of Sri Chinmoy. Since Sri Chinmoy instructed his disciples to sever contact with all family members who were not in the group, the obedient disciples obeyed. From renouncing Thanksgiving dinners to neglecting birthday visits, the more devout one was, the less one was involved in the 'ordinary' matters of family. Often disciples went to great extremes to avoid any contact from their family, moving without notification, changing phone numbers and cities in an effort to sever all ties.

The unswerving devotion from Sri Chinmoy's disciples can be admired. It takes tremendous focus and determination to cast aside the people that hold your security, your childhood, your memoires. It takes even more grit to do so for years and years. As not only a mother but as a daughter, I can't imagine being cut off from either one, not knowing where they are or what encompasses their lives. The ironic part, of course, is that I was nearly in that same situation in reverse-but that's a story that is inside the book....

It's been seventeen months since Sri Chinmoy passed away, yet for many disciples, nothing has changed. They have not bowed, blinking hard and looking around at an empty throne, then retreated back to the family that they left behind years ago. While it seems that many parents around the world were waiting for that to happen, their wait continues. Some parents are desperate to find their children, but they have no clue as to how to begin to track them down.

Numbers are unlisted; names are changed. Of course it would be impossible to attempt to pick up where they left off-everyone involved is fundamentally changed in a way that prohibits ever returning completely. But what if it could begin with a simple email? A paragraph or two? Even a few lines....

If there is someone reading this who is interested in posting a message to a family member, please let me know by email. I would gladly create a forum on this site for those people who are drifting to send a signal in order to find their way home.

February 28, 2009

Maybe it’s just me, but I often feel overwhelmed by the Internet. Of course I realize the incredible benefits of being able to type questions like “What was Danny Boyle’s first film?” to “What is a recipe for banana bread?” and having instant answers. But as I have been exploring the Web, searching for places to reach out to about Cartwheels in a Sari, the enormity of the billions of possibilities feels almost instantly exhausting and utterly defeating. How can I possibly know where all of the ‘important’ blogs and social sites are, the book clubs that are active versus the groups that long ago faded away, or maybe never got off the ground. Filling out endless ‘contact us’ forms with long, personalized emails only to have them bounce back with a message that reads ‘undeliverable,’ leaves me wanting to surrender and shut down my computer forever.

When I speak to some of my tech savvy friends, they always seem so nonchalant, so absolutely in-the-know about the latest website that’s a must. As I pull out my pad and pen to take notes—now what is the name, again?—they patiently spell out the domain name and provide me an overview of its purpose. By now it seems I have joined so many sites and acquired so many user names and passwords that I have to refer back to my official password Excel spreadsheet each time so I can log on. Just as I’m gripping about never being able to keep up with all the sites—no, I don’t Twitter, although I’m told that I must—and feeling certain that I’m Sisyphus in my absurd effort to make my presence known online, did I actually stumble across, quite accidentally, a website that I think is absolutely spectacular: www.booktour.com.

Here is what Booktour does: in one easy to use site, readers can find authors that are on tour in their neighborhood (or even way beyond their neighborhood, if they so desire). Readers can search for a specific author or just browse to see which authors are coming their way. Authors can have a free venue to promote their tour and gain an audience. It’s a win/win for all. Simple to navigate and stress-free to update, www.booktour.com is a website that connects readers and writers without any extra pretence or razzle-dazzle. It is straight to the point—convenient and helpful. What could be better?

In fact, www.booktour.com has recharged my spirit, knowing that there are probably hundreds and hundreds of great websites out there waiting to be discovered. If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them. Email me your favorites.

February 9, 2009

A few years ago, when my father packed up, leaving the East Coast for North Dakota, he visited me and unloaded boxes of old photos, books, and mementos from our past lives in the Sri Chinmoy Center. He didn’t want them anymore. He told me that I might want them someday. At the time, those dusty, tattered boxes filled with memories of my former life as a disciple seemed like the last thing that I wanted. I had no desire to reminisce. I didn’t want to open them or even touch them. Because he was in transit, I reluctantly agreed to take them, and I had my husband, Duane, lug them into our musty, cluttered basement. I figured they would probably get destroyed by water damage as a result of the routine floods our basement was prone to with every intense storm, or that they would slowly decay through mold. I had no interest in examining anything about my past. The idea of writing a memoir was the last thing on my mind.

Of course, my father ended up being correct. When I realized that the story I needed to write was the same one that I had gone to great lengths to literally hide from my sight, I ventured down into the basement to exhume my past. To my surprise, I found an additional box that I hadn’t remembered my father bringing—a battered briefcase. Inside the scuffed shell were about thirty film canisters. I had completely forgotten that in the late 1970s my father acquired a Super 8 millimeter camera in order to take footage of the Guru. While there were always many official Center photographers on hand to capture the Guru’s daily activities, my father was never among their rank. He was unofficial, choosing only to film when he pleased and not expecting his footage to be considered important archival material. I’m not sure why he eventually gave up shooting film; I imagine that it became an expensive habit, having to pay for raw film and the processing, but for what appears to be two years, he set about to preserve time.

Viewing Super Eight film is not so easy. It’s not like one has a Super Eight projector sitting around ready to go. When I called places to see how much it would cost to transfer the film to DVD, I was quoted at well over a thousand dollars. No thanks. So I was amazed when Duane came home on Wednesday with a box and a smile. He had gone to a camera store and explained to the owner what we needed. The owner happened to have an old projector that he wanted to get rid of, and he gave it to my husband for free. My hero! My husband came through with the solution, and so we were ready to travel back in time.

We turned our living room into an old time theatre. With the flickering light from the projector and its loud ticking as it wound the film stock through the sprockets, we watched reel after reel of footage that hadn’t been seen in thirty years and had maybe never seen by anyone other than my father. Although the projector lacked sound, the footage instantly transported us into the past. From the Guru meeting with Geraldine Ferraro in Washington, DC, to him having his head massaged in Tobago, to the disciples marching in the annual parade through the streets of Queens, I was stunned to watch scenes from my past play out before my eyes. There was my young mother being blessed by the Guru on her birthday; there was my brother posing for the camera; there was myself sitting with my head on my mother’s shoulder at the end of one of Guru’s concerts. I was so young; we all were. It’s my hope to cull together some of the highlights of these many, many reels, and to transfer it, so I can post some on this site. I believe it will offer a chance to step into the past and add a unique dimension to the story. Stay tuned!

January 23, 2009

On the joyous day of President Obama’s inauguration when it felt that America and the rest of the world were celebrating great hope for the future, I received a phone call that broke my heart—Sudhir had passed away.

Sudhir and Nadira, New Year's Eve, 2008

I don’t ever remember meeting Sudhir—he was just always there in my life. Sudhir was born and raised in Scotland and became a disciple of Sri Chinmoy’s around 1976. I guess it was when he made the move to Queens, New York, to be in the midst of the Guru’s ashram that I hold my first memories of him. A satirist with a brilliant sense of humor, Sudhir was one half of a comedy duo called “The Agony Brothers.” At certain functions, when the Guru wanted entertainment, he summoned Sudhir and the other Agony Brother to perform. The other Agony Brother was Ian, a young English disciple who like Sudhir, had relocated to Queens. Part Monty Python, part Daily Show, the two pushed the boundary of what was considered appropriate for the Guru and the rest of the disciples. With sharp wit and great timing, Sudhir delivered jokes and acted in skits that kept everyone nervously laughing because they never knew who would be at the center of the next joke. For all of the years when I was a disciple and the years after, Sudhir was always armed with wit, ready to transform any situation into one that could be lampooned.

What made Sudhir so extraordinary was that his gifts far exceeded his wit. In fact, he was so incredibly gifted that he seemed to be without flaw. He was intelligent, handsome, well-traveled, multi-lingual, athletic, generous, hard-working, sensitive, and ethical. In all of the years that I knew him, I never once saw him in a bad mood or be unkind to anyone. He was also fiercely loyal to his friends. When I had left the group for good, he was one of only two people who defy the strict commandment to shun me; he called me knowing that if the word got back to the Guru that he was speaking to me, he would be in trouble. But he did not care. He challenged what he understood to be wrong.

While I always considered Sudhir an uncle, he became an uncle once again to my own daughter. This past summer he took her to the Central Park Zoo, braving the heat and the mobs of tourists on a balmy Sunday afternoon. Even this fall, when the tumors had again reappeared and there were no more options left, he took her to the Safari at Great Adventure where he sat holding her in the backseat while a pack of ostriches furiously pecked at our windows. Weakened and dizzy, he rode the subway and a bus to my house to attend my daughter’s first birthday party, and on New Year’s eve, the last time that I saw him, he struggled to make it to the kitchen from his armchair in order to bring her a pack of shortbread cookies. I was in Hawaii for two weeks, and, although he was already on hospice and barely able to breathe, he listened to me and whispered suggestions for where I could see the best sunset. I returned home on Monday, planning to visit him the next day, but I was too late. He died Tuesday morning.

If I think back to my years in the Center, Sudhir is one of my greatest gifts—I will treasure his friendship and love for the rest of my life. He restored my faith that there can be truly divine beings on earth.

December 15, 2008

The best part of having this website is checking my inbox. I have been so moved to hear from people that I knew in the past, either in my disciple or post-disciple years, as well as from complete strangers. As someone who, up until the launch of my website, had consciously aimed to be an invisible presence online, I now realize that my reluctance to be part of the online community was ridiculous. Clearly I have been missing out on so many opportunities to connect with people.

Former disciples have sent me messages with affectionate remembrances of the past and congratulations for the present. Many of these people I have not had any contact with in years, sometimes even decades, but they write of how they remembered me years ago, and how they are looking forward to reading my book. Our shared experience leaves us with a unique connection. Some of the people I have heard from I was too young to even remember during their days as disciples, but I remember them from whispered tales, stories hidden. After all, once a disciple left the group, the person was meant to disappear forever, vanish.

However, the emails that have been the most poignant are from disciples who joined the group when they were in their early twenties stayed with the group for decades. Now, in their fifties, they are facing the challenges of trying to regroup and create a life. Stepping into the ‘outside’ world after years of a cloistered hibernation is an enormous and overwhelming task. Some elements such as a career and friends can be resurrected or even created anew. But for the female disciples who devoted their lives to Guru and obeyed his strict policy of not having children, their reproductive years are lost forever. It has been heartbreaking to hear from some of the women who had secretly always wanted children, but had remained obediently childless. Their regret leaves a gaping, painful hole. For them, it is now too late. In their emails, while they express their own sorrow at having missed the profound experience of motherhood, they are also able to offer me their joy over the news that I am a mother, that it wasn’t too late for me and that I, unlike them, had the fortune of creating a family.

I remember once, when I was fifteen, as I was getting a ride to a meditation from a female disciple in her mid-forties, she suddenly brought up the subject that was taboo—having kids. Without looking in my direction she told me that one day I might feel a desire to be a mother, but when that happens, I need to understand that it is simply a biological urge. I should pay no attention to it, and it will go away. I remember not knowing what to say to her. At fifteen I certainly had no wish to be mom. I mumbled something about not liking kids and hoped that she would change the subject. She did. When I think about it now, it strikes me as incredibly sad. Whether or not she herself was mourning the loss of her own opportunity to be a mother, I will never know. But what I do know was that she was trying her hardest to be a ‘good disciple,’ to follow Guru’s rules, to listen to his commands. According to Guru, having families was “bad,” a “dangerous distraction.”

As I look at my daughter while she giggles and proudly wobbles her first steps, I can only feel enormous gratitude that for me it wasn’t too late. I knew very well that it easily could have been.

December 3, 2008

The horrifying attacks on Mumbai have left me frantically watching the BBC, searching for scraps of news, attempting to create sense out of the senseless. Thanksgiving felt surreal, feasting on sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows as Mumbai raged and burned. As we gathered around my mother’s dining room table, we knew there was much to be grateful for—our dear friend had managed to return from Mumbai, missing the attacks by hours and was seated with us. But we knew there were so many who were not so lucky. India is in mourning, and so are we.

In my life, India has meant more to me than any other country. It feels like home. Whenever I am introduced to someone who hasn’t met me—especially an Indian—I always anticipate the disappointment when the Indian woman named “Jayanti”—a Sanskrit name—turns out to be an American with European blood. For the first quarter century of my life, I wore saris, sang Bengali songs, ate Indian food, bowed to Indian gods and goddesses, chanted from the Bhagavad-Gita, and worshipped my Guru.

India is a part of me. The strange part is that I have never ever been there. I was forbidden to go. The great irony is that Sri Chinmoy, my former Guru who immigrated to America from Pondicherry, India in 1964, banned disciples from visiting India. Although we traveled every year across the continents, India was a forbidden destination. Guru never fully explained his reasons why his disciples couldn’t journey to the ancient land of Buddha, Krishna, and Rama. A thin reason was once offered that the disciples might become too ill during the visit, but given the fact that we were used to foraging through countries like Borneo and Botswana, I suspected that wasn’t the full story. The closest Guru let the disciples venture to India was a trip to Sri Lanka. To me, it was paradise. Everything felt familiar, magical. It was like home. Of course, Sri Lanka, clearly, is not India and does not pretend to be. I was the only one pretending that as I strolled through the streets of Colombo, I was really in Bombay. We later joked that it was “India-lite,”; nonetheless, it the closest that Guru allowed us to go. When I got older, I suspected that the reason why Guru blocked India from his disciples was that he was worried his disciples might find other Gurus in India and leave him for someone else. Perhaps that might have happened. Or perhaps not.

Even though it has been thirteen years since I left the Sri Chinmoy group, I still have not made it to India. It the place that I am most longing to go, yet it is also the one that I somehow keep postponing. Perhaps I still feel that I am not invited, that I am still locked out, forbidden from connecting to what I have always known through second-hand, filtered through the Guru. Perhaps it now represents parts of my past that I am still not ready to fully confront. What I do know is that India is the place that I am forever entwined with, and the place for which I desire only peace and healing.

November 13, 2008

My mother lugged to my house more boxes of photographs. For the last few years, my mother has been systematically ridding herself of any and all trace reminders of her decades spent as a disciple. From carting boxes of Sri Chinmoy’s self-published books of aphorisms to the town dump to discarding the hundreds of photos of himself that he regularly sold—him with his dogs seated upon his throne, him flexing his biceps, him standing on a scale to show how much weight he lost. As a disciple, these items were considered sacred—anything that Guru did or said was divine. Although displaying every picture of Guru would be impossible, the reason why disciples dove into their wallets and rushed into form long lines each night when Guru announced the latest item for sale was because it provided a rare moment to stand directly before him. The majority of disciples never could approach Guru or speak with him unless he summoned the command to do so. Flanked by a platoon of devout bodyguards (I’ll write much more about that another day), Guru kept his distance from the hundreds of followers who sat upon the floor gazing up at his throne. Therefore, when Guru wanted to make money by selling something, he either handed it out himself—which was the highest blessing because anything that Guru physically touched was instantly sacred—or when he felt less ambitious, he had the boxes placed on the ground before him, and he watched as the crowds kneeled to pick up their holy treasure. My mother was always someone who put her own needs last, so she would sacrifice the opportunity to stand before Guru in order that either myself, my brother, or, on the rare occasion my father, could receive the blessings. Since Guru’s declaration of my special status at birth, I always had access to Guru’s attention and didn’t need the prop of the latest book or photo to hope for a moment when Guru would see me and possibly speak to me, but, like most self-centered kids, I took it anyway.

Wading through the stained, curled, bent, and pressed boxes of photos, I was surprised how I had no memories attached to receiving most of them. Somehow, all the times spent in line and all of the money handed to him had faded away. The pictures, however, are still vivid in the stories that they tell, and the moments that they captured. I had decided to post a series of photo galleries on the website because I felt that it would add a new dimension to the events described in my memoir. The hard part is trying to decide which images to use because there are so many. Initially, I thought that some photos might be used inside my book, but after the final manuscript was longer than it was supposed to be, it was decided to leave them out. For the first gallery that is posted, I wrote small descriptions, and I’ll continue to do that. But as I dig through these boxes and encounter pictures that I haven’t seen in decades, I wonder what photos are simply private moments that won’t translate to a wider audience and what ones compliment the arc of the book and reveal new insights.

Sri Chimnoy with me (photo)

I have to be honest here. This picture of me and Sri Chinmoy is a mystery. I have no recollection of that day or why I was wearing tiger sunglasses. My guess is that they were a new present from Guru. Guru was always giving me presents. He loved shopping, and one of his favorite hobbies was bargain hunting; he was a master haggler and could get a reduced price on almost anything. On his national and international travels, he would buy me presents—a soccer ball from Brazil, saris from India, maple candies from Canada. Carefully holding a pencil in my left hand (Because my mother is left-handed, Guru blamed and scolded my mother for the fact that I was left-handed too. Where he was from in India, the left-hand is considered dirty, used for cleaning one’s self in the bathroom.) Guru is slightly smiling, amused at what I am writing. I can’t imagine that I am writing anything profound or even clever; probably, to please him, I am writing his name or something about how much I loved him, knowing that he always wanted to hear how much he was loved and needed by his disciples. When I stare at this picture today, the little girl I see seems too confident, precocious even. With my over-the-top sunglasses and pencil, I could almost pass as though I am signing an autograph for a fan. I certainly never suspected back then that I would have the freedom to become a writer and eventually write my own story, a story that is utterly entwined with the man who is huddled beside me, leaning in to watch over my shoulder.

October 24, 2008

On Sunday my husband, my daughter, and I volunteered to canvass door-to-door in an effort to distribute campaign literature and to remind people to get out and vote on November 4th. The weather provided the perfect late October backdrop—a thick chill, bright sun, and plenty of curled leaves to crunch against the sidewalk. When we arrived at the makeshift headquarters, we were given a brief tutorial of what not to do—never leave anything inside the mailbox, never ring the bell of a house not on our list, and never get confrontational. We received a make-shift script to cheerfully recite. I nodded and listened as the head volunteer skimmed over our duties and then took out the prepared packets with the maps, names and addresses of all of the houses we were supposed to approach. Before handing it to me, the coordinator pulled out the names and flipped through the pages.

“No,” she said, shaking her head and mumbling to herself. “These names were supposed to have been taken out.”

I asked why.

“These are all orthodox Jewish names. It’s not worth trying to speak with them. They vote however their Rebbe tells them to vote.”

As one of the other volunteers rolled her eyes and made a sarcastic comment about being mindlessly obedient, I was thinking how familiar this was. All of the while I was in the Sri Chinmoy Center, the Guru told us how to vote. It was standard practice. As a young man in India, Guru had admired the dashing, youthful John F. Kennedy. Perhaps Guru envied Kennedy’s pedigree and power, and since Kennedy was a Democrat, Guru decided that he preferred the Democrats. As soon as Guru amassed disciples who listened to his mandates, Guru urged his disciples to vote for the Democrats. Later when Guru began courting politicians, he favored the politicians who responded favorably to him either through private meetings or flowery correspondence. Congressman Gary Ackerman who represents the district where Guru’s ashram is in Queens and where the majority of the disciples live, quickly realized that by attending a few functions or writing a few letters of praise about the Guru, he would be guaranteed a solid block of voters in addition to a devoted army of campaign volunteers, he wisely cozyed up to Guru at his own convenience. Soon local politicians like New York City Council Member James Gennaro, a former member of the Sri Chinmoy Group, knew that to get the vote, they needed to get the Guru’s approval.

When I was a child Guru would talk about which political leaders were more spiritual and which ones were able to receive Guru’s inner messages. Guru especially disliked like Ronald Reagan. Guru told us that he had to work extra hard in the occult world to prevent the ultimate destruction of the universe. Guru said that if he had not intervened, Reagan would have caused a nuclear holocaust. When Guru told us that, I shook with terror and gratitude, knowing that Guru had prevented us from a horrifying and grizzly fate.

I understand that even in mainstream religions, church leaders often pontificate on which candidate represents the official church views, and they urge their flock to the voting booths armed with notions about the supposed dangers involved if the other candidate wins. Truly, it is not so different from what the Rebbe does or what Guru did.

As my husband, daughter, and I set off with our revised list of voters, I felt even more compelled to convince potential voters to do one thing—vote for whoever they want on November 4th. Ultimately, It’s up to them and them alone.

October 11, 2008

October 11th for me is a momentous and exhilarating day because exactly one year ago my daughter was born. Her birth immediately ruptured and rearranged everything else in my life, all actions and efforts suddenly had meaning. As her warm, tiny body nestled into my chest, I knew that I had finally understood pure, unconditional love.

The term “unconditional love,” had been drilled into me from my birth by my former Guru, Sri Chinmoy. He employed it daily, in his sermons, aphorisms, scoldings, and blessings. He demanded it from his disciples, and he believed that he deserved it. The order for “unconditional love,” to me, always felt impossible. It meant that I had to abandon all of my own will, ambition, effort, and love, and hand everything over to him. The result of being subservient and dominated by someone so that every trace is given away to the person in control, leaves nothing left. It seems dangerously unbalanced, absurdly unfair. For me, I was never a perfect enough disciple to achieve unconditional surrender. There was always some part of me that rooted in my sense of want, of will. To Guru, that was failure, and so I was doomed to continuously fail him and then be ashamed of my failure. Guru’s love was highly conditional; it was dependent on how much I was giving, doing, and offering him. The more I pushed myself to give him total control of my life, the more pleased he was. Ultimately, his conditions depended on me being unconditional.

On the morning when my daughter was born, as the sleeping bundle lay in my arms, I felt a surge of peace in my body; everything in my life finally felt right. And so, when my husband told me that Sri Chinmoy had died a few hours earlier, I remember being surprised by the unexpected news, but I did not have any emotional reaction. Guru was the last person that I imagined I would be hearing about that morning; I had worked hard at blocking out everything about my past life in his group. Besides, he had repeatedly told me that I should never be married, never be a mother. He wanted me to live solely for him, to offer him unconditional love.

One year has past. My daughter is growing bigger; she is healthy, funny, and wise. We are hosting a party to celebrate her birthday. For current disciples of Sri Chinmoy, I am sure the day is a somber anniversary where they will gather to memorialize and worship him. But for me, I realize that October 11, is the day where without any struggle or effort, I finally understood, attained and offered unconditional love.

September 22, 2008

Welcome to my blog and thank you for taking the time to visit my website. It is a crisp Sunday afternoon in late September, and my daughter has just dozed off for her nap. After the jubilant chaos that comes with my daughter crawling wildly, tossing toys, and yanking everything within reach, the house is suddenly silent. As I sit on the couch, I think about everything that I need to do for the rest of the day. The tasks—from making a run to the grocery store to dropping off clothes at the dry cleaners to shopping for party favors for my daughter’s fast approaching first birthday—I realize are all, undeniably normal, ordinary. To most people, I’d imagine, they are dreadfully dull. To me, however, they are liberating. Truly. Thirteen years after leaving the cult of Sri Chinmoy that I was born into and lived for the first quarter of a century of my life, I am still amazed that I have the luxury of having a weekend to myself, that all of my days and nights are no longer assigned to following my former Guru’s whims and mandates. As his special disciple, he scheduled my time so that there would not be even a single hour leftover that was not devoted to working for him, listening to him, or meditating on him. Weekdays through weekends, everyday was a Guru-day; everyday was constructed around trying to please him in his own way.

But I am getting way ahead of myself.

As is clear from this website, I have written a memoir that attempts to narrate the often amusing and, at times, shattering experience of being born and raised as the ‘Chosen One’ in the Sri Chinmoy Center. Cartwheels in a Sari is published by Harmony Books, a division of Random House and will be released worldwide on April 14, 2009. I feel so grateful to have the opportunity to share my life story. The book’s story, ultimately, is universal. Whether or not the reader used to be a member of a religious group like the Sri Chinmoy Center, the story wrestles with the complicated issues of growing up in an absurd world, family struggles, and the longing for faith and belief.

This blog will be my chance to express everything that couldn’t quite fit into the 304 pages of the book, and all that has happened since. I also hope to offer some insights for other writers who are interested in publishing and who long to hear about the often secret and confusing process of publishing. Finally, as a professor, new mom, wife, concerned citizen, and pop culture critic, I plan on posting about all of the strangely beautiful and oddly fabulous people, places, and events that move me. I welcome your comments and questions on my guest book or feel free to email me at info@jayantitamm.com.