On May 12th Almira, an old friend and former partner of mine, died in a car crash in
I met her in
After Gangaji had left she had to ask who the man in the photo was, and where
Almira, sitting with Papaji in his living room in summer 1994
Almira had booked a return ticket. I can’t remember how long it was valid for, but it had a fixed expiry date, beyond which it could not be used. She wanted to stay as long as possible, but she knew that if she used the return journey on the ticket, she would have to leave in a few weeks’ time.
She asked Papaji what to do, and he responded by saying, ‘Your ticket has expired’.
‘No, Papaji,’ she said, ‘It’s still valid. It doesn’t run out for several weeks.’
He looked at her again and said, ‘Your ticket has expired’.
She tried again: ‘No Papaji. I can show it to you. It’s still valid and I can use it any time over the next few weeks. What should I do?’
Papaji replied, ‘I don’t want to see it and I don’t need to see it. Your ticket has expired.’
That was the end of the conversation. A couple of weeks later she decided that she wasn’t going to go home at all. She cashed in the return leg of the journey and went to tell Papaji what she had done.
He looked at her and said, ‘I told you that your ticket had expired but you didn’t listen to me’.
He knew that she wasn’t going anywhere. The moment he saw her he knew that it was her destiny to stay in
In early 1993 Papaji planned a big foreign tour. Those who could afford it had booked tickets to follow him around the world. The rest of us, who couldn’t afford the trip, were resigned to staying in
He looked at them and said, ‘I’m not going anywhere. Who told you I was going on a trip?’
Their faces dropped. Papaji told one of the people he was having lunch with to tell everyone else that the trip was off. Halls and hotels had been booked all over the world, but the whole trip was cancelled because one devotee had enough devotion to compel him to stay at home.
Almira with Papaji in a forest on the outskirts of Lucknow
Almira had had well-paid jobs in the West, but years of living in Osho communities and traveling to
‘The people who wrote this are looking for a whole house near me for a month,’ he said. ‘Move into your guest house for that period and let them have your own house. You can charge then $1,000 for the month.’
That was an outrageous sum to ask. Most of the guest house rooms went for about $3 a night. The most expensive house in the neighbourhood could have been rented for a small fraction of that amount. Almira obeyed and her tenants, a prosperous-looking yuppie couple, handed over $1,000 on the day they arrived, without demurring in any way. The next morning they went to satsang, had some sort of experience, came home and announced that they were leaving because they had got what they came for. Almira’s spirits sank because she knew that she would have to return almost all of the $1,000 she had collected from them the day before. The couple, though, were too blissed out to quibble over money. They let her keep the whole amount, packed their bags, left, and were never seen again. Almira was back in her house about eighteen hours after she left it, with all her debts paid off.
Me, Papaji and Almira in her house
That outcome of that story could be written off as a fortunate coincidence, but I don’t think the next one can. Before I tell it, I have to give some background information. When Almira was still a prosperous businesswoman, many people were putting their money into antique coins as an investment. Almira decided to do the same and did some research on the matter. She came up with the name of a coin dealer whom everyone said was the most reliable. Unfortunately, she ended up dealing with a man who was also a coin dealer who coincidentally had the same name but a far inferior reputation. He sold her $20,000 worth of coins whose value plummeted over the succeeding years. In addition to the value of the coins diminishing almost to zero, the coins themselves physically disappeared. She had left them in her mother’s house in
I would occasionally hear her pleading on the phone: ‘Please, mum, just go down there and have a look. If you find any of them, sell them and send me the money. I don’t care how much money I have lost on the investment, just sell them for whatever they are worth.’
None of these calls resulted in any of the coins being sold or even discovered. Then, one Deevali, Swami Ramanananda, an old Punjabi devotee, persuaded Papaji to do the traditional Dhanalakshmi puja in his, Papaji’s, house. A picture of Dhanalakshmi was bought from the nearby market, and Papaji personally did a puja it. The next day, as she was cleaning up the house, Almira decided that she liked the picture and asked Papaji if she could take it home with her. Papaji agreed. Now, since Dhanalakshmi is the goddess of wealth, Almira decided to enlist her help in her never-ending financial struggles. She put the picture on a table in her house, decorated it with flowers, and did a ‘puja’ to it. I put the word ‘puja’ in quotation marks because Almira had not the slightest idea how to perform a proper puja. I remember her once celebrating Sivaratri in Papaji’s house by throwing flowers at a statue of Siva while simultaneously singing ‘Happy Sivaratri to you!’ to the tune of ‘Happy birthday to you’. Any watching pujaris would have cringed, but what they would have failed to appreciate was the level of devotion she incorporated into her bizarre and child-like rituals. When Almira sang, the gods listened; if she asked for favours, quite often they would be granted. With her innocence and her devotion, she had a hotline to God.
The first puja she did to Dhanalakshmi was to ask for tenants for her guest house. The next day enough people arrived to fill all the rooms. The following day, while I was in her living room, she told me how Dhanalakshmi had filled her guest house and asked me what else she should ask for.
As a joke I said, ‘Look at the picture; she seems to be in the coin business.’ Dhanalakshmi, the goddess of wealth, is always depicted with an open palm from which is cascading a shower of gold coins. ‘Why don’t you ask her to inspire your mother to go down into her basement and find those coins?’
Almira thought this was a great idea. She collected a huge basket of flowers and some candles and threw petals at the picture while she narrated the story of the coins in a made-up unmusical chant. ‘O Dhanalakshmi, fifteen years ago I bought these coins for $20,000, but now my mum has lost them,
A few hours later the phone rang; it was her brother calling from
‘I was down in the basement, looking for something when I found those coins that you have been asking about. I took them to a coin dealer and asked how much they were worth now. I remember you saying that they were virtually valueless. The dealer said that prices had gone up recently and that your collection is now worth $10,000. What should I do?’
Almira sold them and the money kept her going for a long time.
This idiosyncratic way of approaching God was known to everyone in
Almira had no inhibitions. Though she could rarely manage to hit six right notes consecutively, she never practiced or thought in advance about what she was going to do. Her only preparations would be to bring a large basket of rose petals. When her turn came, she would burst out with sunny, optimistic children’s songs which affirmed that all was well with the world. Her favourite was:
My, oh my, what a wonderful day!
Plenty of sunshine heading my way!
Mister Bluebird’s on my shoulder.
It’s the truth, it’s actual
everything is satisfactual.
Wonderful feeling, wonderful day!
Closely followed by:
When the red, red, robin
comes bob, bob, bobbin’
there’ll be no more sobbin’
when he starts throbbin’
his old sweet song.
Wake up, wake up you sleepy head,
get up, get up, get out of bed,
cheer up, cheer up, the sun is red,
live, love, laugh and be happy.
What if I’ve been blue,
now I’m walking through
fields of flowers,
rain may glisten
but still I listen
for hours and hours.
I’m just a kid again, doing what I did again,
singing a song,
when the red, red, robin
comes bob, bob, bobbin’ along.
The only item in her repertoire that was remotely philosophical was:
Row, row, row your boat
gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
life is but a dream.
All these would be sung with an unselfconscious gusto as she hurled handfuls of petals at Papaji’s feet, or up in the air. Papaji had somehow removed large portions of her intellect, leaving only a child-like jiva who delighted in children’s songs and games. People relate to God in different ways. Almira’s relationship to Papaji was of a small daughter who tried to please her stern and occasionally wrathful daddy with love and children’s songs. People who watched her perform in front of Papaji would have been astounded to learn that she had a PhD, and that for several years in the 1980s she was a financial enforcer for the World Bank. She would go to Latin American countries that had taken loans from the IMF, march into the offices of the military rulers and tell them which government enterprises had to be closed in order to meet the terms of the IMF loan that the country had been granted.
One aspect of the Hindu tradition that she really did relate to was worship of the Guru’s feet. Papaji normally didn’t go for this kind of thing, but there were a few devotees who loved performing this ritual so much, he let them do it. Almira was one of them. Even so, he only let them do it on Guru Poornima. In the mid-90s a British sculptor,
Papaji resting his bare feet in the bronze casting that was made from them. You can see the indentation under his left big toe.
Papaji had a liking for sweets, fried food, and just about anything that would raise his glucose and cholesterol levels. He was a diabetic with high blood pressure, but he didn’t care what he ate, or what it did to his body. Those who looked after him would try to make him cut back on salt, sugar and fried food, but they were rarely successful for very long. If his diet was being too strictly enforced at home, Papaji would accept invitations to eat in devotees’ houses, where he knew he could be guaranteed a good supply of forbidden foods. He would sometimes take some of us with him, but to make sure that his dietary treat was not curtailed, he would occasionally give us a lecture on what he called ‘Indian customs’.
‘When you are served in homes here, it is not polite to refuse what you are offered. If devotees serve me with love and put food on my plate, I must eat it.’
Of course, he would have arranged in advance for a particular menu to be served, one that usually included all his favourite foods, particularly the ones that the foreign devotees in his own house refused to make for him on health grounds. About ten days before he went into hospital for the last time, he was invited to the house of an ayurvedic doctor for breakfast. He went with Raj Prabhu, one of his old devotees from Karnataka, and Almira was invited to go along to look after Raj’s small daughter while they talked and ate. The doctor, who should have known better, served a gigantic plate of jelabis – sweets fried in liquefied sugar – and Papaji apparently ate them all with great relish. In this period of his life the progression of his late-onset diabetes had reached such a stage, he couldn’t walk without two people supporting him, one on each side. He couldn’t even put his pants on by himself, but that didn’t stop him from trying to indulge in foods that would make his health even worse. As an aside I will say that I am sure that he knew, to the nearest day, when he was going to die. He had no intention of trying to prolong his life by depriving himself of all the things that he enjoyed.
Living in Papaji’s house could sometimes be a bit of a dietary ordeal. Devotees would arrive throughout the day, bearing gifts of sweets and fried foods. These would be distributed as prasad, and everyone there would be expected to eat a portion. When this happened ten times in a day, it was inevitable that the weight of the people who stayed and worked there would increase. It happened to me, and it happened even more to Almira, because she spent almost the whole day there. I worked in Satsang Bhavan for much of the day, writing and researching Nothing Ever Happened, so I escaped the worst bodily effects of the prasad. Almira’s weight ballooned because she could never say ‘no’ to anything that came from Papaji. In the years she was there her weight went from fairly normal to about 50 pounds overweight. This affected her health because the ligaments and tendons in her knees were damaged. The excess weight made it increasingly painful for her to move around.
About two weeks before Papaji passed away Almira was sitting in his bedroom, cross-legged on the floor. Several other people were there. Papaji had been lying down. He sat up, swung his legs off the bed and attempted to put them on the floor, but one of his feet accidentally landed on Almira’s knee. He appeared not to notice and chatted for a few seconds as his foot rested on her knee. Then, removing his foot, he rose up and went to the bathroom. When Almira stood up she realised that she no longer had any pain in either of her knees. Papaji had watched her limp around his house for years, without saying or doing anything, but as a final parting gift he took away the problems that her devoted over-eating had caused.
Almira massaging Papaji's feet in his living room
Around 1994 satsangs had been cancelled for a few days because Papaji had been sick. During this period he suddenly announced that he wanted to have a satsang, and when some people in his house told him that he was too ill to go, he replied, ‘I have to go today. One of my old friends is waiting for me.’
Of course, we all wanted to know who it was, but he didn’t seem to know. He just repeated, ‘I have to go there today because an old friend has come to meet me’.
We all waited for the ‘friend’ to appear and introduce himself, but no one who fitted that category came up to see him. However, as Papaji was entering the satsang hall, he took a detour from his usual route and went to a newly arrived mother who was holding a six-month-old baby in her arms. He spent about a minute with the baby before proceeding to his chair.
Afterwards he told Almira, ‘Make sure this baby comes to satsang every day. If the mother can’t come for some reason, collect the baby and bring him.’
We decided that this baby was Papaji’s ‘old friend’ come back in a new form, but he never confirmed this himself. I forget what the original name of the baby was, but Papaji renamed him Madan. He and his mother, Kranti, were Korean.
Madan was a delightful baby who ate prodigious amounts of food – almost as much as I did, it seemed to me. I never heard him cry in the first year I knew him. The only noise that ever came from his mouth was laughter. His face would crease into a grin and long peals of laughter would erupt and continue for minutes at a time. When he was a year old Papaji performed the traditional head-shaving that Indian children undergo at this age, and afterwards Almira wrapped him in a small orange robe and took a photo of him. The memory of that photo has always remained with me. Madan looked like a laughing baby Buddha.
Almira decided that Papaji had somehow entrusted Madan’s spiritual welfare to her. She took the ‘make sure he comes to satsang’ instruction very seriously, both before and after Papaji passed away. With his mother’s approval Almira became a kind of godmother to Madan. She spent a huge amount of time with him, playing with him, reading to him, and taking him on trips. In recent years she arranged for him to spend two years in a
A couple of weeks ago Almira was due in
Almira’s body was cremated in