Cartwheels in a Sari
A Memoir of Growing Up Cult
(If any tax is payable it will be calculated and shown at checkout.)
Print & copy permissions
About the author
JAYANTI TAMM is an English professor at Ocean County College in New Jersey. Visit her website, www.jayantitamm.com.
From the Hardcover edition.
In this colorful, eye-opening memoir, Jayanti Tamm offers an unforgettable glimpse into the hidden world of growing up “cult” in mainstream America. Through Jayanti’s fascinating story–the first book to chronicle Sri Chinmoy–she unmasks a leader who convinces thousands of disciples to follow him, scores of nations to dedicate monuments to him, and throngs of celebrities (Sting, Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela) to extol him.
When the short, bald man in flowing robes prophesizes Jayanti to be the “Chosen One,” her life is forever entwined with the charismatic guru Sri Chinmoy, who declares himself a living god. A god who performs sit-ups and push-ups in front of thousands as holy ritual, protects himself with a platoon of bodyguards, and bans books, TV, and sex. Jayanti’s unusual and increasingly bizarre childhood is spent shuttling between the ashram in Queens, New York, and her family’s outpost as “Connecticut missionaries.” On the path to enlightenment decreed by Guru, Jayanti scrubs animal cages in his illegal basement zoo, cheerleads as he weight lifts an elephant in her front yard, and trails him around the world as he pursues celebrities such as Princess Diana and Mother Teresa.
But, when her need for enlightenment is derailed by her need for boys, Jayanti risks losing everything that she has ever known, including the person that she was ordained to be. With tenderness, insight, and humor, Jayanti explores the triumphs and trauma of an insider who longs to be an outsider, her hard-won decision to finally break free, and the unique challenges she confronts as she builds a new life.
From the Hardcover edition.
; April 2009
305 pages; ISBN 9780307451644Read online
, or download in secure PDF format
Title: Cartwheels in a Sari
Author: Jayanti Tamm
The Myth Begins
My life story can be traced back to an address scrawled across a matchbook directing my mother to the place where she hoped her lifelong search would end. She didn't have a phone number or contact name. Although it was just after dusk, the New York neighborhood seemed empty. No one to ask, no clues. After crisscrossing the street four times, she stood before the only building on the block without a number. Wrought-iron bars covered the cracked glass of the front door. Instead of a panel of backlit doorbells, five chewed wires jutted from the brick. The door was unlocked and sighed open at her touch.
The dank stairwell had one bare lightbulb. Cigarette butts littered the floor like flattened cockroaches. She rechecked the address clutched in her left hand. This was suddenly absurd. All of it--her exhausting journey, hitchhiking from San Francisco with her two-year-old son, leaving behind her straying husband and all of the contents of her former life, bringing nothing other than one small satchel and a matchbook with the address of Sri Chinmoy, a guru recently arrived from Pondicherry, India. A drip of rusty water fell onto her shoulder from a brown-stained ring on the ceiling. This was not the place to find a holy man. They reside by the gardenia-soaked banks of the Ganges, or inside cavernous mountain dwellings, or shaded by boughs of the bodhi tree, not in dilapidated East Village tenements.
As she turned to leave, an ancient voice, gentle and lulling, drifted down to her.
"At last, at last. You have come, good girl. Bah."
She looked up. Dressed in traditional Indian garb, a pale blue dhoti, and matching kurta, Guru's gold-hued skin glowed, and he seemed to flood the stairwell with his radiance.
When she and her very first boyfriend fled Chicago, leaving behind her cross-dressing, abusive alcoholic father, she actively began her search for spiritual fulfillment. In her earnest longing for a spiritual life, she had wandered through San Francisco, the epicenter for alternative spiritual paths, kneeling in silent zazen at Zen temples, dancing and whirling with Sufi mystics, quietly reflecting in Quaker Meeting Houses, and clapping and chanting at the Hare Krishna temple, but everything, even the splashes of mysticism, felt too formal and processed, reminding her of dreaded days in Catholic school. Once, years ago, she had read that when the disciple was ready, the guru would appear.
And there he was, leaning over the railing from the floor above, as though he had been standing there, waiting for her, her entire life. Why had it taken her this long to arrive? And how could she possibly waste one more minute when her guru had finally appeared? At that moment she chose to surrender her entire existence to him. This guru was the answer to all of her questions and longings. He seemed to know her, and perhaps he could fill all the gaping holes that echoed inside.
He motioned for her to follow him inside his crowded apartment where the guests sat upon a bare wood floor in silence. Through swirls of sandalwood incense smoke, Guru instructed her to sit beside a young hippie, barefoot and with a sour odor. After hours of potent, silent meditation, Guru stated that if she wanted to "jump into the sea of spirituality," she would marry the long-haired man.
That, according to my mother, is how she met my father.
The blond mendicant, my father, was also at Guru's for the first time. He drove from Yale University, where he was a graduate fellow studying philosophy. Born in a refugee camp in Augsburg, Germany, to Estonian parents who had fled when Stalin's troops invaded their homeland, my father's family immigrated to America and settled in Bismarck, North Dakota. Thoroughly dissatisfied with Bismarck's status quo, by his late teens, my father devoured drugs along with sacred Sanskrit texts as he hitchhiked, journeying through communes and churches for answers to his questions on the meaning of existence. He found the ancient tradition of asceticism appealing. After arriving at Yale, he began his own intensive course of study to become a sadhana, which included renouncing all material objects and attachments. He welcomed personal discomfort and self-denial as important steps toward inner strength. He roamed the Yale campus barefoot, even in the midst of the New England winters, as part of his spiritual practice. According to my father, the night he entered Guru's apartment, he planned to take a vow as a sanyassi, a celibate monk, to learn about the realms of the inner world first-hand from a true Yogi.
The last thing he expected that night was acquiring a wife and stepson.
When Guru blessed them both, pressing his hands over their foreheads, they felt a river of warmth course through them, awakening their senses. With closed eyes, Guru chanted in Sanskrit, and in the incense haze and overheated space, his words felt familiar. He praised their inner aspiration, welcoming them into his "golden boat that will steer them safely through the ignorance-sea to the golden-shore of the Beyond." My mother and my father were both fatigued charting their own courses, and the guarantee of safe passage to the golden-shore of the Beyond was not something to pass up. This guru felt homespun, humble, and lacked the trappings of protocol, profits, and proselytizing over which other religious groups obsessed. This was different--just a small circle of devoted seekers guided by a simple sage. It was exactly what my mother and father yearned for. Though neither one had a desire for marriage, they were thoroughly entranced by the idea of a life with Guru. They bowed their heads, accepting Guru's wisdom.
And so on that night my mother and father became Sri Chinmoy's disciples.
Almost as soon as my parents committed themselves to Guru as full-time disciples, Guru rapidly changed his small informal meditation circle into a structured organization. Since Guru wanted all his disciples to expedite their spiritual growth, he prescribed a lifestyle that, according to him, would guarantee the quickest route toward self-perfection. He prohibited all activities he considered dangerous detours: alcohol, caffeine, smoking, drugs, TV, radio, movies, music, newspapers, magazines, books not written by Guru, meat, dancing, and pets. In addition, all disciples were to remain single. According to Guru, traditional families created insurmountable tangles and distractions that at best delayed, but more often derailed, true seekers in their quest for enlightenment.
There were, however, a few exceptions. Guru sanctioned certain unions that he arranged and labeled as "divine marriages." Created to encourage intensified spiritual practice to achieve "faster than the fastest progress in their inner lives," Guru paired a number of new disciples with the mandate that they marry but remain celibate. Shortly after my parents' "divine marriage" in 1969, my mother became pregnant, clearly violating Guru's policy. The problem of my mother's pregnancy drove an immediate thorny wedge between the newlyweds, who were still strangers to each other. Nervous to confess to Guru, they felt ashamed and embarrassed.
Guru scolded my parents for being undivine and indulging in "lower-vital forces" that threatened to eradicate all of their spiritual hunger. My parents were mortified and pleaded with Guru that their failing was due to weakness and not out of deliberate disobedience. Eventually, Guru's infinite compassion intervened. He pleaded with the "Supreme"--his preferred word for God--and told my parents that the Supreme was so moved by Guru's prayers that he decided to allow Guru to turn what he called this "undivine" episode into a spiritual boon. Guru then announced that he had contacted the "highest heaven" and arranged for a special soul to incarnate as his chosen disciple. My grateful parents humbly vowed to never again indulge in "lower-vital activities," and renewed their undying commitment to Guru to never permit the "trappings of family" to deter them from spiritual progress. They understood that what held them together was Guru and Guru alone. He served as the foundation of their marriage and lives.
As in all great faiths of the world, Guru, too, had stories to answer the unanswerable, to explain the unexplainable, to rationalize the irrational. His story was me--the miracle child. In the history of the Sri Chinmoy Center, from its humble beginnings in 1964 to its present-day expansion with more than seven thousand followers around the world and the hundreds of thousands of ex-disciples and seekers who, for however fleeting a time, came to experience Guru's presence, I, according to the legend originally told by Guru and then repeated endlessly by disciples around the world, am the only soul to have been personally invited, selected, or commanded to incarnate into his realm on earth. Though mine wasn't proclaimed a virgin birth, he announced that I descended from the highest heavens to be an exemplary disciple; I was to be the Ananda to Buddha, the Peter to Jesus, the Lakshmana to Rama, a devoted, sacrificial being, selfless and tireless, pleasing the master unconditionally.
The myth of my birth was one of Guru's favorite stories that he repeated over the years. Although it changed slightly depending on his mood, the standard version is the following: At 6:01 on a warm morning in September 1970, my soul entered the world, landing in a Connecticut hospital. My exhausted mother beamed and clutched me tightly to her breast, while my father was in the parking lot waiting for Guru. Guru was being chauffeured from Queens, New York, and as soon as he arrived, my father escorted Guru directly into the nursery.
According to Guru, my first dharshan, official blessing, occurred an hour after my birth. Guru walked up to the window and spotted me. I, like the other shriveled, stunned newborns, was asleep. Guru had brought with him my name. In Eastern traditions, a spiritual name means receiving a new life, a new identity. My mother, originally Kathleen, was given the name Samarpana by Guru, and my father, originally Tonis, was renamed Rudra. My parents would never have considered naming me themselves. I was Guru's. He picked out the name, Jayanti, meaning "the absolute victory of the highest Supreme."
Guru started meditating on me, sending me an inner message to wake up and respond to his presence. In the first of many of my great acts of disobedience and disappointment, I continued sleeping. Again, Guru intently concentrated on me, attempting to stir me, yet I offered no reply. Feeling frustrated, he inwardly told my soul, Is this your gratitude? I specially chose you from the highest heavens to come to earth to be with me, and this is your gratitude? You do not acknowledge your Guru? Bah. At this point, I uncurled my fingers and moved my hands together in a prayerful pranam, opened my eyes, and slightly bowed my head and neck into my chest. It was a perfect moment, an act of unconditional surrender, of pure bhakti, devotion. It was miraculous and yet expected. It was my first test, and I had passed it, cementing my status, cementing my bonds.
For the first six months of my life I was homebound because Guru told my mother that my special soul, so dazzlingly beatific, needed careful sanctuary while adjusting to the vibrations and consciousness of the chaotic world. Unquestioning, my mother obeyed. That was the requirement necessary to be his true disciple: obey and please Guru unconditionally, and, in return, he would deliver the disciple to the golden-shore of perfection. It was his guarantee.
All of my childhood memories involve trying to obey and please Guru. My earliest memory is of my third birthday party in Queens. The meditation that night was at the house of a disciple who lived a few blocks from Guru. My mother dressed me in a sari of Guru's favorite color, a shade of light blue the disciples officially dubbed "Guru-blue." Saris were the required uniform for meditations--six yards of fabric, carefully pleated and draped, that modestly concealed the body. When worn well, saris produced goddess-like silhouettes. The disciples' saris included many colors, from jewel-toned silks that evoked the splendor of strutting peacocks to pure white cotton that suggested nunlike severity. For my mother, trying to keep six yards of slick blue polyester pinned and tucked on a three-year-old determined to waddle around, kicking and spinning, was a true challenge. I kept tripping over the pleats, even though my mom had safety pinned my goddess draping to my undershirt.
When Guru summoned me to the front of the room for my birthday cake, a bus-wheel-size mound covered in sugar icing and pink rosettes with three thick candles, I marched over, anxious to blow out the flames. But, as always before any activity, first came the meditation. Guru motioned for me to stand still in front of him.
I started to squirm. I heard the flames lick the air, then watched the candles melt into pink wax puddles on the icing. I needed to get to those candles. I needed to lick off the pink rosettes, but I was trapped. He wasn't done. I hadn't yet been thoroughly blessed. He smothered my folded hands with his left hand, capturing them, then pressed his right hand on my head, covering my entire skull, then he pushed harder, as if to ensure through force that the showering of love would be better received. I wiggled more, trying to turn my head to look for my mother. I was worried now. The candles were shrinking while people giggled and oowwd and aahhd behind me. Guru rotated me to face him. His blessing wasn't done.
Finally, with a large smile, he proclaimed, "Good girl, Jayanti, you are a good girl."
He let go. I took a step back, dazed from all the blessing, and again looked for my mother. Spotting her, with a huge smile, her eyes happily streaming with tears, was a relief. I was always relieved when I could see my mother. With both hands folded, she prompted me to do the same--keep those hands folded. I did. I brought my hands together and stood beside the cake. I then looked for my father and brother. My father was fidgeting with a camera, staring down at the lens cap, as if looking at himself in the reflection. My six-year-old brother, Ketan, glared at me with his arms squeezing his knees. He hated all birthdays that were not his own.
But then it was finally time--the big event--the sugar fortress awaited. The sheer bulk of the cake meant that I couldn't get close enough to blow out the candles properly. I tried with a faint puff and nothing happened. I looked up at Guru for my instructions. He always had answers.
"Blow, good girl. Bah, bah. Blow hard."
I tried again. Nothing happened. I didn't want to disappoint Guru. Disappointing Guru meant he did not smile at me, and my parents didn't either. More giggles and oowws and aahhs. I forced a burst of sloppy wind up from the bottom of my stomach. Again nothing.
"Oi," Guru said. "She cannot do it. Her mother, come, help her." Guru started reading a note on his side table.
I had failed. My eyes filled with tears. Guru did not look up at me again.
My mother stood up, ready as always to sacrifice herself for her family, but then, without any invitation, Ketan dashed up onto the stage, rammed his entire fist into the scripted lettering of Beloved Jayanti, and blew out my candles. So there, he glared at me. He had won.
"Oi," Guru said at the chaos before him.
From the Hardcover edition.
In the press
"The story of Tamm's birth--that she pressed her hands together in prayer at barely an hour old--was as festooned with mythology as the spiritual leader Sri Chinmoy, who deemed her his 'Chosen One.' Tamm recounts how the title meant little; as a member of the controversial religious group, she was subjected to constant manipulation....Tamm, who left the group at age 24 after having a psychological breakdown, writes with wit, but her hurt is obvious. Yet as she did after performing cartwheels for Chinmoy (who died in '07), the now happily married mother lands on her feet--and her effort is worthy of applause."
—People, four-star review
"Tamm's indictment [of Sri Chinmoy] is more effective for being conveyed, with little rancor, from the point of view of a trusting child who dutifully adored the guru and only haltingly, in young adulthood, became disenchanted."
—New York Times Book Review
“Lyrical and soulful and, at times, utterly laugh-out-loud hilarious, Cartwheels in a Sari is a modern-day Last Emperor. Tamm, the Chosen One, brought me to tears with her innocence and her soul; yet she brought me to even more laughter with the absurdity of a life that she was thrust into and made to believe.”
—Da Chen, author of Colors of the Mountain
“A moving, haunting memoir. While Jayanti’s story may sound at first like a tale of marginality, or eccentricity, it turns out, instead, to be a tale that readers of all stripes will find familiar. The quest for truth, the search for self, the hope for love–all of these are at the heart of this blunt, smart, shimmering book. Jayanti Tamm leaves her readers doing cartwheels, and wanting more.”
—Jennifer Finney Boylan, author of She’s Not There and I’m Looking Through You
"[Tamm] recaptures her youthful struggles to understand the center’s secretive, emotionally repressive world, and to negotiate her relationship with the outside world of mainstream America....Written in straightforward, unadorned prose, there are occasionally comic accounts of Tamm’s pre-adolescent sexual awakenings and of her dawning consciousness of the guru’s complex relationships with some of his nubile young disciples....An earnest memoir of an exceptional childhood."
“[A] frank, clear-eyed memoir….Witty, compassionate, and often heartbreaking, Tamm’s story offers crucial insight into a cult’s inner workings and methods of indoctrination. All readers, though, will recognize universal coming-of-age themes as Tamm discards unwanted childhood lessons and begins to shape an independent adult life.”
From the Hardcover edition.