The Wrong Question-Janet H Swinney

Illustration by Ilisha Dhond

The guru was not in the mood for guru-ing. The burfi from the day before lay heavy on his stomach. The minute he’d touched eighty, he’d developed a sweet tooth. Kheer that had been days in the making, and dahi with a nice thick crown of malai on top had him licking his chops, but badam burfi, with the nuts nicely toasted was his absolute favourite. His disciples were well aware of this and, as yesterday had been his birthday, had brought him box-loads of the stuff, which he had been unable to resist.

It feels like a public holiday, the sort of day when everyone heads for the ghat. Long before one gets to the yoga shala, one can tell who’s heading there. Groups of five and six thread their way through the town’s back lanes, dressed in their best. The Western men wear shorts with multiple pockets and sandals that bristle with straps, while the women have been shopping in some over-priced emporium and have chosen cotton kurtas with crude, block printed patterns and over-generous pants. This is their take on authenticity. The locals have a different view. The men are dressed like bank managers in stiffened shirts, and well-pressed trousers; a daughter or a servant has polished their shoes vigorously for them before they left the house. The women are cocooned in silken saris that are as tightly coiled as croissants from the German bakery. Sleek plaits, as thick as tyre tread, hang down their backs and wag across their backsides. On street corners, the fruit and vegetable vendors uncloak their barrows, wondering what trade they might attract at this early hour of the morning.

The trickles of pedestrians begin to merge on the main thoroughfares from homestays, apartments and four-star hotels. Shirin from Shiraz grazes cheeks with Ruth from Tel Aviv. It is a friendship that started to develop from their first morning in Café Coffee Day and, so far, has involved intense discussions about their practice and what they want from life. Andris, from Uppsala, leads his mother, Lara, carefully down the polished steps of the Shree Krishna Hotel. Lara’s arthritic hip grinds painfully in its socket. Despite this, she is wearing sandals with three-inch heels. Bright pink toenails sprout through her Louboutins, resonating with the purple of her spiky hair. A thick, gold charm bracelet clunks on her wrist. Meanwhile, Petra and Gavin, two pallid Britishers, put aside an argument that started a month ago at the check-in in Heathrow airport to stalk side by side with the matching strides of a long-time couple. Only Oleksiy, from Crimea, is on his own. His English is atrocious, and he’s sick of trying to make himself understood. He tries to put himself into a transcendent frame of mind. Yoga is his only goal.

Gopal has brought his whole family along. True, he’s the only one who regularly attends the practice sessions, but his wife sometimes comes to lectures on a Thursday evening, so she’s happy to accompany him. His mother-in-law is in favour of any jamboree, spiritual or otherwise, and his two daughters, in their party dresses, have minor parts in the celebration. Birjoo bowls past them on his scooter. Whatever he shouts is muffled by his helmet. His wife is on the back, trailing a glorious pallu of copper silk shot through with red. ‘Kanchipuram!’ thinks Mala, Gopal’s wife, with a twinge of envy. Mrs Birjoo gives a quick wave and then has to divert her attention as they encounter a sizeable bump in the road.

Shirin wonders about taking flowers. As they near the footbridge over the river, it becomes apparent that this is the norm. A handful of perspicacious businesswomen have set themselves up on the ground surrounded by mounds of marigolds and baskets of jasmine, and are doing a roaring trade. Shirin seizes on two garlands of jasmine.

‘Will there be refreshments?’ Gavin asks Petra, ‘We’re going to be there for hours.’ ‘Usual bloody chaos, I should think,’ sniffs Petra. Gavin shrugs. ‘Yeah, Indians!’ he agrees. He buys some peanuts and some biscuits from a roadside stall and jams the packets into pockets in his load-bearing shorts.

The gates of the yoga shala stand wide open, and bunting floats along the top of the wall. A crocodile of visitors winds up the hill, people stepping on each other’s heels. At the main door, the shoe racks are already full, and a tidal wave of footwear spews down the steps. Lara thinks nervously about the Louboutins. She’s made a stupid mistake. She deposits them amid a swamp of sweaty trainers.

The hall is more than half full already, and the press of new arrivals is steadily increasing. The breath of marigolds is in the air. The statues of the gurus of the lineage are already heavy with garlands. Incense curls from several pots along the front of the stage. A huge satin banner declaring: ‘Happy 95th birthday, Guruji!’ covers the back wall. In front of the banner is an elaborate throne, draped in white cloth and titivated with gold tinsel, on which the guru will sit. It’s all rather splendid.

Newcomers are relieved of their tributes by the senior disciples. They hand them over reluctantly. There’s not a single person who wouldn’t prefer to load their garland round the neck of the guru and receive his personal blessing. But of course, he’s old and frail, and such a thing with so many people just isn’t feasible.

By ten o’clock, the hall is so crammed you can barely move your ribs to breathe, and ugly skirmishes break out over possession of the floor cushions. Lara curses when she’s obliged to relinquish a couple of bolsters she thought might see her comfortably through the morning. But in the end, as it reaches the point where, regardless of age, gender or colour they are all sitting in each other’s laps, petty animosities are put aside in the spirit of celebration.

As a matter of fact, the guru has spent a lifetime in the grip of what he refers to as ‘incontinence of the appetites’. As a boy, he’d ducked school to play endless games of chakri , and failed all his Maths tests; in his teens, he’d been fixated on a particular kind of paan that made his teeth wobble and his gums sting. As an adult, he’d married late, just before Partition, and he and his wife had been blessed with two fine boys. He’d spent over a decade teaching history at the local college, trying to bring in a steady income and maintain a decent home for them. However, just at the time when he should have been busy building a scholarly reputation for himself, one could find him out on the rooftop every evening putting Persian high flyers through their paces. Then, once the boys were grown, and one might have expected the urge to abate, he found himself bothering his wife unduly for sex. More recently, the matter in hand had been Spider Solitaire which had come ready-loaded on a laptop a disciple had given him. So now it was these damned sweeties.

Things begin to stir: there’s a flurry of activity on and about the stage. Microphones are being fixed and tested; lights adjusted. ‘For Gawd’s sake!’ fumes Petra. Gavin notices the narrowness of her face and reads what she’s thinking. It occurs to him that Petra is never off duty: always ready to recognise and denounce fault. Suddenly, Gopal spots Birjoo climbing onto the stage in a rather handsome yellow shirt. So that’s what he was on about: he’s actually compèring the day. After more kerfuffle, Birjoo leans into the microphone and clears his throat nervously. ‘Urm,’ he says, ‘Ur-hurm.’ He waves a hand, which someone misinterprets as a signal to get things moving. The guru emerges abruptly from behind the satin wall hanging, escorted by several of his senior disciples.  An uncertain applause starts, mounting to a tidal wave. Birjoo stands, discomfited, by his microphone while the guru is helped on to his throne and his saffron robes are adjusted by a forest of fussing hands. At last, the guru is ready. He places his palms together and, bowing his grizzled head, he turns to the various quarters of the hall. ‘Namaste,’ he murmurs. ‘Namaste,’ the crowd reply. The light glints on one of the thick lenses in his spectacles. Lara wonders if that is a genuine beam of spiritual enlightenment or only the look of someone who is rather pleased about the number of people who have turned out to mark his birthday. The guru wags his hand, like someone patting a dog: ‘God bless. God bless you all. You are all welcome. You are all my children.’ He drawls the word ‘all’ so that it rhymes with ‘Parle’, and sounds truly expansive. Shirin tightens her grip on Ruth’s hand and tears spring into Oleksiy’s eyes.

The guru begins to recite. They all press their hands together in prayer and look sternly into their chests, joining in dutifully.

‘Yogena cittasya padena vacam…Malam sarirasya ca vaidyakena….’

With the culminating ‘Om,’ they breathe a collective sigh and look up at him expectantly.

‘You see,’ he says, settling himself to the task in hand. ‘What is yoga? This is what I want to say. Yoga is the controlling of the activity of the mind. Only if the mind still does your true nature emerge. No matter where you come from, whether East or West, your mind is full of this and that. Taking your children to school every day; doing your job at the office; worrying about your promotion; cooking your husband’s dinner. So many things are there. So many small decisions also: rice or naan; paneer or gobi; trousers or pyjamas. But while your mind is busy over there, there is no peace, there is no stillness. It’s like the machine, so many of you Westerners use in the gym, or like the buffalo grinding corn in the village. People are thinking: how can I stop this treadmill? How can I get off? Am I right?’

Members of his audience acknowledge that he is.

‘So what to do?’ He pauses for effect. ‘First, we must know that the mind can be managed. There are so many managers these days. Every company, every government department is full of managers: there are managers of sales, managers of exports, production managers, project managers, managers of IT, even managers of managers.’ He waits for people to chuckle, then he drops his voice:

‘But how many of these individuals are asking, “How can I manage my Self? How can I control my mind?” But you have asked this question; otherwise, you would not be here. So how to progress? In fact’ – he moves to an upbeat – ‘the whole of Yoga is about the process, so to say, of management studies. Through yamas and niyamas we learn to manage our behaviour; through asanas we learn to manage our bodies; through pranayama we get to manage the life force manifested in us; through pratyahara, dharana and dhyana we learn to manage our minds, and then to achieve samadhi.

My friends, I can talk to you at great length about this process. I can describe every stage. But it would be like describing the best Alphonso mango to someone who has never tried. That person can only long for that mango; he can only guess what it will be like; he can imagine its scent, but he cannot taste.’ The guru turns his palms up in a gesture of futility to emphasise his point.

‘Only if you experience the fruit for yourself will you know the taste. So you must practise.

When I was a small boy,’ he goes on, ‘my masters were always telling me I was unruly; I stuck at nothing. I ignored them. Better to run wild in the field, I thought, than to submit to their tasks. When I failed all my tests, I realised I was wrong. You cannot make progress in anything unless you apply yourself, and so I began to study. Later, when I met my blessed teacher, he told me: “You have an alert mind. You have gained so much through your study, yet you have not achieved the most important thing.” This made me think. I put my house in order. I began to practise daily: a little pranayama, a few asanas, reading some slokas from the scriptures. I changed my hour of waking so that I could practise while others slept. I changed my dietary habits so that my mind and my body could cope with this new effort. In a little while, I began to see the difference. I no longer craved a quiet life.’

The guru checks his audience. His senior disciples, including his nephew Mahesh, hold him with a glassy, adulatory stare, so that’s no guide. There are, of course, some like Mala who is mentally wandering the bazaars of Tamil Nadu searching for the most perfect Kanchipuram sari, but most still seem attentive.

‘Enlightenment does not come from outside,’ he continues, jabbing a finger at them. ‘Only you can transform yourself. You are your own garden. You have all the tools for cultivation. And so you must persist every day with the hoeing and the weeding. Some days your body will feel like wet cement; other days it will fly. Some days your mind will be like a muddy pool that the buffalo has stirred up; other days it will be clear as a sheet of ice on a frozen river. Through all this, you must persist, practise. No matter what: practise!’

‘If only I could bloody practise’ thinks Lara who is shifting her bottom about on her cushion to relieve her hip pain. The guru gazes out into the hall, over her head and over the head of Oleksiy whose brow is deeply furrowed as he tries to follow the narrative. ‘Let me ask you,’ he says, peering into the gloom at the back of the hall, ‘is there any discipline where a person does not have to practise to perfect? The golfer, he must practise his swing and his putting until he can hit a hole in one; the trainee pilot must sit before the simulator practising takeoff and landing before he is safe to fly. So why not to practise yoga?’

Ruth wonders why the guru never refers to the female half of the species, and why all his illustrations are concerned with what men do. Frankly, she couldn’t give a shit about a hole in one. Gopal is reflecting that today’s talk is very similar to the one the guru gave at his birthday celebration last year. He particularly remembers that bit about the managers.

‘You see,’ says the guru, coming to the crunch, ‘when the consciousness of your true being rises, it is like someone climbing through the storeys of a darkened house, each one a little lighter. Slowly, slowly; climbing, climbing; more light coming; little by little; practise, practise. Then, at last, you will burst out on to the rooftop where you will be overwhelmed by the glorious light of the sky of the mind. So when you have achieved this state of super-consciousness then, my friends, you will have your reward; you will have your MBA in the Management of the Self.’ He beams with delight. He brings his hands together in namaskar and raises them to his forehead, pleased with the little conceit he has pulled off.

‘I thank you all for coming. I salute you. God bless. God bless.’

They all clap like seals. This is what they have come for: to partake of the wisdom of their guru at first hand. This is far better than any package holiday to Ibiza or back-packing around the Antipodes. Shirin and Ruth look at each other knowingly. Tomorrow they will start common practice. Petra already practices like a lunatic, and her body is as hard as nails because of it. Gavin wonders how he can ever rival her, but decides to try. Oleksiy is calculating how he can carve out yet another hour of the day before the start of his shift at the Mykolaiv shipyard to intensify his practice. Gopal ponders whether he will ever be able to tear himself away from the early morning comfort of Mala’s backside to pursue spiritual perfection. He thinks maybe in another lifetime.

The guru is escorted down into the body of the hall, where he takes up pride of place on an elevated divan. Birjoo now has the thumbs up to proceed, which he does with relish.

The guru heaved himself upright on his mattress. He considered the talk he had given the day before. He had been at his best, he thought: to the point, without being heavy-handed. He worried about them all. Indian youth were tamasic, while the young Westerners who came here with their eyes wide with expectation had no focus. None of them was familiar with the concept of discipline. He could not emphasise the importance of the point enough.

He had some qualms about what they might infer from his talk, but he hadn’t gone out of his way to mislead anyone. All right, so he hadn’t managed to detach himself from every human appetite – there was still the business with the sweeties – but he had eradicated many forms of dissipation from his life, and his practice was still rigorous even at this age. So no, he hadn’t actually experienced fully the bliss that would accompany absorption into the sky of the mind. However, he had stumbled out onto the rooftop now and then and taken a good look at the view. Being able to maintain the state, that would come with further practice – he knew it – it was just a matter of time. On the whole, he was satisfied with his effort, and particularly that reference to the managers, which had just come to him on the spur of the moment. All the more disturbing then, the way things had gone later in the day. The cold fingers of pre-dawn gloom stroked his gnarled ankles as he lowered his feet to the floor.  He pulled his dingy shawl around him and shuffled to the toilet.

Birjoo starts by introducing a singer in the North Indian classical tradition. Though she kicks off confidently in her bright pink sari, she seems to be a stranger to the conventions of both pitch and rhythm. Gopal catches his mother-in-law’s eye and wags his head from side in disparaging commentary. His mother-in-law rolls her eyes. It’s a relief when the singer subsides into silent discomfort. The audience applauds courteously. It was, after all, the voluntary contribution of an amateur.

Next, comes a Bharat Natyam dancer, a man well on in his middle years. His belly fat strains against the wall of his kurta, as he judders round the stage, his anklets tinkling like a fall of spring rain. Blinking through his perspiration, he pouts and grimaces as he acts out the intricacies of some ancient tale. His rouged cheeks and painted lips seem excessive to the Western eye. Gary looks away in distaste. Gopal and his mother-in-law give fulsome applause: the man’s footwork is flawless.

The last performance before lunch is given by a troupe of children that includes Gopal’s two daughters. The children look sheepishly out into the audience and begin a faltering assault on some verses from the Gita. Gopal wills them on, but things go from faltering to shambolic. The situation is redeemed briefly, round about verse twenty-three, by a girl in the back row who sings a plaintive solo, but the others cannot match her style. Chaos resumes. At last, the boy next to Gopal’s daughter, Anjali, steps on the skirt of her peach-coloured taffeta dress and it rips. Anjali starts to cry. The performance is abandoned as Birjoo musters a round of supportive applause from the audience. Gopal and Mala spend lunchtime comforting their two little princesses.

The guru sat on the edge of his bed waiting impatiently for the boy to bring his tea. The breeze from the mountains, skirting along the river to make its last raid on the town before sunrise, shuffled the leaves on the trees outside his window. He pulled his shawl up to his eyes and drew his legs up under him. At last the boy appeared, snivel-nosed, and wearing a dirty shirt and some peculiar kind of culottes. He hovered at the bedside, extending the tray on which sat a cup of pale-coloured tea heavily freighted with condensed milk. The guru eyed this for some moments as though he were in dialogue with it, and then sighed at the inevitable. With an unsteady hand, he loaded several spoonfuls of sugar into the drink as though he weighed out the ingredients for a scientific experiment. The teaspoon stuttered in the cup as he stirred.

After lunch, the gathering is blessed with an illustrated lecture on the development in design of the Hindu temple. This is given by an archaeologist from the state university. He quickly loses sight of the nature of his audience and disappears into intellectual mazes where the plebeian horde cannot follow. The enthusiasm of the audience dwindles rapidly. Slide follows murky slide, each one less decipherable than the last. Birjoo attempts to intervene, but the lecturer is unstoppable: he has plenty more ammunition left in his carousel. The hall grows unbearably oppressive. The ceiling fans slowly slap the sluggish air. Lara’s hip screams that it needs to make a run for it; Mala flaps at her face with a leaflet she’s found in her handbag, and despite his best efforts, Oleksiy nods off several times.

The audience is in a truculent frame of mind when the next ‘act’ appears. Petra hisses at Gavin: ‘Let’s hope it’s not more of the same. Some people are just egomaniacs.’

A boy of about eleven steps up to the microphone. Birjoo tousles his hair and sets him on his way. The boy appraises his audience with a keen but open gaze. He has a broad smile, bracketed by cheeks that are still plump with puppy fat. He shows no sign of nerves. He waits. Silence falls. He breathes into the microphone:

‘I did this last year,’ he says. ‘ Same thing. Everybody was laughing. On the way home I asked my mother: “Why was everybody laughing?” She gave me a smack. So really, I’m none the wiser. So that’s enough about last year.’

The audience hoots with laughter. An escape valve has been pressed. The guru leans down to one of his senior disciples: ‘Who is this boy?’ ‘Beginners’ class,’ says the disciple. The guru doesn’t remember him at all from last year.

‘My mother tells me I am always asking the wrong question. When I was small, she was dragging me to the bazaar, when I saw an airplane going overhead. I became very curious. “How,” I was asking, “does an airplane stay up in the sky?” I became so absorbed in the question that, even though my mother had me by the hand, I fell down in the dirt and grazed my knees. I got another smack. So much for the wrong question!’

There is more laughter. After hours of sitting in stiff concentration, the audience is grateful for this ditsy good humour.

‘So now I’m trying to remember what it was I had to remember to tell you so that you could remember what yoga is all about. Are you with me?’

You might mistake the boy for an idiot savant, except for the fact that he works the audience like an old pro. And except for the fact that there is something in the room with them beyond what he says, something like a warm tide lifting a grounded vessel from a reef.

‘Yes!’ chant Ruth and Shireen, along with a chorus of others.

‘Ah yes, I remember. So what I wanted to tell you was this: Yoga is unity, the unity of the mind with the body and the body with the soul. It goes back to the days of the rishis, and even beyond. They say yoga is the gift of the god Shiva to his consort Parvati. A gift is given with love and received with love. A gift is given with joy and received with joy. A gift is given with blessing and received with thanks. So why are you pounding on the door begging, “Please may I come in?” My friends, this is the wrong question. The door is already open. It has always been open. In fact, there is no question. All you have to do is thank the One who has given you the key.’

Gavin feels the band that encircles his chest burst. He and Petra look at one another and know that they will not be going home together and that this will be all to the good. Oleksiy is weeping into his t-shirt.

‘Now that’s enough from me,’ the boy continues. ‘If you want more, then one person must come and do their very best pose here on the stage without assistance.’ This is the cue for everyone to develop a sudden interest in the rush matting on the floor or in the clothing of the person in front. ‘Then I will choose,’ he says. His gaze moves steadily across the audience until it halts two-thirds of the way over. ‘You,’ he says. Rising to the challenge, Gavin stands up. ‘No,’ the boy shakes his head. Gavin sits down again, embarrassed. ‘Behind.’ Lara points the finger at her chest and raises her eyebrows. ‘Yes,’ the boy nods. Lara gets up. A ripple of surprise runs across the hall. What will this old and somewhat bizarre bird of paradise with her flapping kaftan and her ridiculous crest of hair be able to do? Lara straightens up. Her nervousness drops away. ‘What the hell?’ she thinks. ‘The boy needs a student: it might as well be me.’ The boy’s gaze fixes on her like a tractor beam, drawing her towards the stage. Andris wonders how she is managing without support, but she moves fluidly between the people seated in front of her and climbs onto the stage without help.

The murmur of anticipation within the hall increases. Lara lies down flat on her back. She draws her feet towards her bottom, and places her palms over her head, beside her ears. She exhales deeply. Using both hands and feet, she lifts herself into urdhva dhanurasana . It’s a pose she’s not been able to do for six years. Her charm bracelet slithers down her arm and clunks onto the floor. The medallion she wears around her neck flops onto her nose. The audience starts applauding. She can hear them ooh-ing and aah-ing. But there’s more. She walks her feet in further so that the bow tautens; she lifts the leg on the arthritic side of her body and points it directly at the ceiling, like an arrow ready to be released from the bow. The audience goes wild. There’s whooping and cheering and whistling. She maintains the pose for a while to show that it’s not a fluke and then releases. The whooping and cheering follow her back to her seat where she sits dazed by what has happened. ‘Good one!’ Cry some Indian men in the row behind her. Andris gives her a hug.

‘Now, let’s not make it too long,’ says the boy, back at the mike. ‘To end, let’s do the most important thing: let’s all join to wish our guruji a very happy birthday.’ ‘Happy Birthday!’ they all roar. Ruth and Shireen embrace and thrill to their first kiss. Whatever obstacles their respective societies place in their way, they will find a corner of the world where they can live together. Oleksiy is sure now that he will not be returning to the shipyard: he wishes to become a mendicant monk. Gopal takes Mala’s hands. ‘You are the most beautiful and most sexy garland God ever gave me,’ he says. Mala’s face softens with delight, the warmth of her husband’s affection outstripping the charm of any sari.

Lara and Andris hold hands as they walk down the hill, but not because Lara needs assistance. Halfway down, she realises she has left the Louboutins behind but doesn’t bother going back.

‘Damn!’ the guru thought. ‘Of all things, a devotee of bhakti yog in their midst. And soon that bhakti boy would be a bhakti bhagwan .’ Now no-one would practise anything with any rigour. Instead, they would be swooning and swaying, and fawning over statues. His attempts to find a successor had been fraught with difficulty. His two sons had shunned his teaching and opted for banking and agricultural engineering instead. And Mahesh, despite his highly aspirational name, had turned out to be a feckless student. He knew now that Mahesh would not take his place. People were fickle. In a year, or maybe two, they would be congregating in some other yoga shala to hear the teachings of this new, young master.

The guru positioned his cushion carefully on the floor. Then he positioned himself cross-legged on the cushion. As the temple bells began to sound further down the valley, he prostrated himself. Slowly, he inhaled: ‘Om na ma bha ga va te; vah su de vay making: I submit myself to the One who is the creator of everything. Practise, practise!’

Janet was born and grew up in the North East of England, and now lives in London. She has worked in post-16 education in roles ranging from teacher to inspector. She has travelled widely in India, and this experience has influenced her work.

She has had a number of short stories anthologised. ‘The Map of Bihar was published both in the UK (Earlyworks Press) and in the USA (Hopewell Publications), where it appeared in ‘Best New Writing 2013’ and was nominated for the Eric Hoffer prize for prose 2012.

‘The Work of Lesser-Known Artists’ was a runner-up in the London Short Story Competition 2014, and appeared in ‘Flamingo Land’ (Flight Press, 2015). ‘The Menace at the Gate’, a story set in Punjab at the time of the Sikh unrest, was published online in  the Bombay Literary Magazine in January 2016, ‘The Queen of Campbeltown’ appeared in ‘The Ball of the Future’ (Earlyworks Press, February 2016) and ‘Drishti’ appeared recently on the website of Out of Print literary magazine.

Janet has had commendations and listings in a number of competitions including the Fish International short story competition. In 2008, she was a runner-up in the ‘Guardian’ newspaper’s international development journalism competition with a piece about the education girls in Afghanistan.’