In 1983 I was in
At our first meeting, which was a kind of interview for the job, we ended up talking about Plotinus, a neo-Platonist mystic. I knew about him from his writings on mysticism, and the professor knew about him because he had apparently written the world’s first treatise on optics. The professor decided that anyone who could talk intelligently about Plotinus was OK with him, so I was given the job.
He took me to the house next door to introduce me to the neighbours. He didn’t want them to call the police when they saw a strange man entering the house. I was introduced as someone who lived in an ashram in
‘My brother went to live in an ashram in
I laughed and told her that this was my ashram as well. Curious to hear more about her brother, I asked what his name was, and when he lived there.
I learned that her brother had been stationed in
She told me his name and I was a little surprised that I had never heard of it. There were not many permanent foreign residents in Tiruvannamalai in the 1940s, and I thought I knew the names of all of them. I asked the woman if she was sure that her brother was staying near Ramanasramam, and not some other ashram. She went off to another room and came back with a folder of his letters that she had kept. They were headlined ‘Ramanasramam’ with 1940s and 50s dates, and other foreigners such as Cohen and Chadwick were mentioned in them.
I can’t remember this man’s name either, but I did write it down because I wanted to check in Ramanasramam to see if anyone remembered him there. On my return I spoke to Kunju Swami, Ramaswami Pillai and a few others, but none of them could remember this mysterious British ex-soldier who had fallen in love with Bhagavan, moved to Tiruvannamalai, and died there. S. S. Cohen could probably have told me all about him, but he had passed away a couple of years before.
We went back to the professor’s house, where he gave me a quick briefing on my duties. They were not particularly onerous. He had inherited the house in the 1950s and part of the inheritance was a large tortoise who lived in the garden. He was several decades old, impressively large, but not very intelligent. The garden was terraced and the tortoise had a life-long habit of walking off the edge of the terrace walls and falling down to the next level, where he would often end up on his back. Ramps had been specially built for him to walk between the different levels, but he often forgot to use them. Tortoises apparently cannot live for more than twenty-four hours on their backs. My only household duty, said the professor, was to go out into the garden once a day, locate the tortoise, and make sure that he was the right way up. For this, I had the run of a millionaire’s mansion in one of the most expensive and desirable corners of
It was a huge mansion, and everything in it seemed to be antique and valuable. The floors were covered in old Persian rugs; the bookshelves with leather-bound 18th and 19th century first editions; the paintings, unsurprisingly, were originals; and even the kitchen was stocked with valuable antiques. I found this out after I had had my first bowl of breakfast cereal. I washed up and left the spoon to dry on the draining board. A couple of hours later, when it had gone black, I realised that it was solid silver. I checked the hallmark and then turned over my bowl. It was
Down in the cellar there were thousands of bottles of what I assumed was very good wine. That assumption was based on the prices on the unopened boxes, rather than any knowledge of the subject. I found out later from my friend Piers that one reason I was given the house by the professor was that he thought it unlikely that a sadhu from
There was a living room in the centre of the house, although I suppose its various owners had probably given it a more grandiose name. It had huge bay windows that overlooked the terraced garden, which sloped down away from the house. Hampstead is on a slight hill. Beyond the garden wall the whole of
The professor, who had gone on holiday, was a creature of habit. Each year, in the same month, he headed off the
All this was told to me on his return. He had dismissed the story of his neighbour’s brother being buried in Tiruvannamalai as an odd coincidence, but he was genuinely shocked when he discovered that his oldest friend had been a Ramana devotee for years and had never spoken to him about it.
I suppose the story should end with the professor seeing the light and turning to Ramana, but it was not to be. As I said, he was a creature of habit. He went back to his music and his art, and probably used his Ramana story as a conversation-filler on social occasions. I never saw him again.
With that story reaching a dead end, I will continue the narrative with Piers, the friend who had introduced me to the professor. I had met him in Tiruvannamalai in the 1970s, where he was a regular winter visitor. He worked as a gardener or a house painter in
There was one other aspect of his sadhana that impressed me. He would write letters to Ramana about all the things that were going on in his life. He would then ‘post’ the letters by putting them through the slit of a box that was under his Ramana photo. That way, Piers felt that Ramana would be up to speed on all the developments in his life.
Piers is about my age. A few years ago a thought suddenly popped into his head: ‘What’s going to happen to me when I get old?’ He had a job that required physical stamina; he had no pension, no savings, and no home of his own. A sudden thought such as this might have induced some sort of panic in most people, but Piers decided that he would just tell Ramana that he had had this thought and leave it to him to deal with it. He wrote out his story and posted it in his box.
Meanwhile, his mother Annie, who, incidentally, is also a Ramana devotee, was visiting a friend of hers in Hampstead, the same area where my art professor had had his house. This woman was in her early eighties and had no family. She asked Annie if she could leave her flat to her since she had no one else to pass it on to. Annie, knowing nothing about Piers’ letter, said that it might be better to put it in her son’s name since she had a house already, whereas he didn’t. Then she added, ‘He’s fifty years old and still living at home. I will be good for him to have a place of his own.’ The friend, who had never met Piers, agreed.
So, after posting his letter to Ramana, a complete stranger left him a valuable flat in a very expensive area of
Piers, incidentally, was instrumental in launching my professional writing career. In 1983, around the time I lived in the millionaire’s house, I was unemployed and eagerly looking for work that would give me enough money to go back to
I was living in a millionaire’s mansion in Hampstead and getting turned down for litter-picking jobs, and every other kind of job I applied for.
At some point during that summer Piers introduced me to the owner of the house that was next to his mother’s. I was staying in this house at the time, camping out in a sleeping bag in the basement. The owner was a lecturer in philosophy at
My ears pricked up when I heard this. I had at that time already written No Mind – I am the Self and had had a brief period as editor of The Mountain Path. Writing a book on Ramana was something I felt I was more than qualified to do. I obtained the editor’s phone number from the philosophy lecturer and called it, but with not much expectation of success. I had spent most of that summer being turned down for menial jobs, and my limited experience of authors was that, after writing your first book, you then spent the next year having it turned down by a succession of publishers.
However, far from being given the cold shoulder, the woman whom I gave my pitch to got very excited and said, ‘Put the phone down and come here at once! We want you. Don’t go anywhere else. Come and talk to me as soon as possible.’
Having been laughed at or been ignored by potential employers for several months, I have to say that this made a very pleasant change. I went, was ushered into her office, and emerged half an hour later with a contract to come to back to
All I can say now is that I was destined to come back to India and write about Bhagavan, and whatever power had organised this script had also determined that this woman would say, in defiance of all sound commercial judgement, ‘Here’s a contract. Sign here. Go to
I leave the last word on this to Bhagavan:
The feeling ‘I work’ is the hindrance. Ask yourself ‘Who works?’ Remember who you are. Then the work will not bind you; it will go on automatically. Make no effort either to work or to renounce; your effort is the bondage. What is destined to happen will happen. If you are destined not to work, work cannot be had even if you hunt for it; if you are destined to work, you will not be able to avoid it; you will be forced to engage yourself in it. So, leave it to the higher power; you cannot renounce or retain as you choose. (Maharshi’s Gospel, page 5)