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Leela's Gift

Book Excerpt:

Two young adolescent boys ran giggling to the car and took my luggage; they gestured for me to follow them. But almost as soon as I moved, I stopped struck by the overwhelming beauty of the snow-covered peaks of the Himalayas in the far distance. They towered over the nearer hills, dramatic peaks haloed with pellucid light. They seemed to be suspended, glittering and pristine, and after a while my eyes returned reluctantly to the reality of the sand driveway. I was suddenly aware of the post-operative vision I had had a year ago, and, from where, inadvertently, my impetus for this visit in India had arisen. These were the mountains of my childhood yearning. Why had I waited so many years to come to this place, guarded and protected by the mountain buttresses of my imagination? What exactly did my heart know at the sight of them?

There was no mistaking Maharishi, standing amidst a group of solemn looking men all dressed in white. Some in the group were his age, which looked to be in the seventies or even older, some were younger, and they paused between the driveway and the gate of what appeared to be an inner courtyard enclosing a large wooden building. They regarded me with curiosity mixed with indifference. Next to Maharishi one elderly, gaunt man leaned heavily on a cane and stared with condescension. On Maharishi’s other side stood a more rotund man, about my age, maybe a little older. He smiled at me a bit unctuously. My journalistic instincts were triggered by that smile. Feeling alienated and alone, I shuddered inwardly. Did I belong anywhere in this Eastern world?

Someone else was hovering near the group, a tall Indian man, but dressed unlike the others in a brightly colored Hawaiian shirt and denim shorts. He lifted a nonchalant arm and waved. I waved back. He carried himself with Western self-assurance; maybe I would meet him soon, and I could prove if my surmise was correct.

Pausing with one hand on the gate, Maharishi looked searchingly at me, drawing my attention back to him. He wore a long, immaculate white kurta, a collarless Indian shirt, over wide, white trousers. Open sandals adorned his thin feet. In his other hand the beads of his mala slid effortlessly and deliberately through his slender, elegant fingers. His gaze seemed to penetrate my being and warmed to life many layers of an inner self that until that moment lay dormant; quickly I lowered my eyes, the force of his energy was overwhelming. The same gaze as in his photograph on Sofia’s studio altar that had captivated me months earlier—in his presence I struggled for breath.

There was no doubt that as Sofia had told me this was a great man with siddhis, spiritual powers. Simply to be in the field of his energetic magnetism opened unknown levels of awareness: excitement, anxiety, and confusion churned in me. No one, nothing, had unsettled me like this. Something shifted in my inner world; there was terror, and a sense of standing on the brink of a great, unknown precipice. The unexpected desire to prostrate myself full length in the sand driveway and touch Maharishi’s feet swelled in me. Instead, I gazed at his face again, bringing my palms together in front of my heart and under my chin, but he was already moving through the gate.

“Namaste, welcome Leela, my child.” Maharishi’s voice was deeply resonant as he looked back at me; he spoke each word slowly, lovingly, in the dry, cool air. “Leela, Leelaji, your name is auspicious, but you know what it means…”

The voice was familiar. Was it the same voice I had heard in my head in the hospital? This was unnerving. Nodding, inarticulate, I breathed desperately like a woman abandoning all restraint in love.

“I do know what my name means in Hindi,” I whispered.

Maharishi’s voice had given my name heightened significance. Now his face was clearly visible; he was elderly, white hair cropped at his shoulders, white beard full but neatly trimmed, and his face and body were almost hatchet thin. His dark, deep-set eyes were softly luminous, and they smiled as he opened the gate.

Maharishi disappeared through the gate, and at the abrupt loss of his presence I felt cold, as if I were in the Atlantic Ocean in winter. His presence radiated such heat and desire, that when he left I was bereft. Considering this state together with my urge moments earlier to sink to my knees and prostrate myself at his feet, there was every reason to ask myself with rising hysteria; what was happening to me? After five minutes at the ashram my inner being swirled in choppy eddies. Maybe I should return to the taxi and drive back to Bagdogra airport. The familiar, known world tugged at me to return—standing at the threshold to this world seemed perilous, too risky.