Monday, March 31, 2008

God's Banner

Ketan and I are tied to each other in some hidden way.

Our friendship, however, never developed the natural closeness one might expect to develop between two people who had had so many shared experiences together. Over the coming years, we would live together for a time, work together, do selfless service together, socialize together and often relax together. Had you seen us during those years, you might have expected us to be the closest of friends. But we weren’t close in that way, not in the way I had once imagined friends should be.

In some ways, I’m reminded now of David Moretti, my best friend from grade school. After leaving the Center, I met up with Dave a few times. As kids, we had shared many experiences together and had bonded as friends. As adults, however, the passage of time had changed things. We had grown apart and the shenanigans of our youth which had bound us together as kids were no longer enough to hold an adult friendship together.

That’s the sort of dynamic I felt with Ketan. Almost from our first meeting on the tennis court that August 1983, I felt a bond with him -- a bond from long ago. It was as if we had known each other before. But minor personality conflicts between us, however, prevented that old friendship from budding once more. Instead, from the time I met Ketan, I thought of him more as a younger brother than as a friend. While we might not have always gotten along and, perhaps, weren’t “best friends forever,” Ketan and I were blood close and I would have done anything for him.

Ketan’s faith in Guru was unique amongst the disciples. His wasn’t blind faith -- a trusting hope in Guru. Ketan’s faith was synonymous with knowledge. He knew who Guru was in a way that few disciples did. I'm not describing here intellectual knowledge, but rather occult knowledge -- a "knowing." That knowledge served Ketan as an internal compass that permitted him to safely navigate the very boundaries of Center life and then return home again with a better understanding of himself and the world.

Ketan reminds me of Girish Chandra Ghosh (pictured). Girish Ghosh was a Bengali playwright and actor in the late 1800s and was the proprietor of the Star Theatre in Calcutta . He became a prominent lay disciple of Sri Ramakrishna. Aside from their shared fondness for the stage, Ketan and Girish share the same fiery faith of knowledge which led Sri Ramakrishna to say that: “Girish has one hundred and twenty-five percent faith.” (See Guru's book about Girish here.)

I left the Center some 18 years ago. As a result, my contact with Ketan has been limited since then. Not long ago, though, I dreamt of him. In my dream, Ketan and I were at a function and Guru placed a sash of some kind -- a symbol of recognition -- around both of our necks and then told those present that he wished that all disciples could be both with him and for him like Ketan and me. Guru then moved to an elevated chair, like upon a stage, and I moved closer to get a good seat. Ketan, however, moved to the side of the room. He had tears in his eyes as I tried to beckon him over to sit next to me, but he wouldn’t come.

Ketan and I are tied to each other in some hidden way. I hope that someday, that bond will bring us together once again.

The great picture of Guru lifting Ketan was taken by Ranjit, whose gallery can be found here.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Made Man

There was some confusion down on the tennis court below.

It was late afternoon -- August 1983, a few days after Phanindra had received his name. The afternoon function had been cancelled, so I went and hung out at the tennis court hoping that Guru might drop in. He did, and there weren't many people there.

I quickly took a seat in the gallery overlooking the court and began meditating. Guru wasn't playing yet, though. He was talking to a couple of disciples who were down on the court itself, who had the privilege of serving him directly. They, however, appeared confused about what Guru wanted.

They kept looking up to the gallery and then back at Guru, not understanding. So, Guru took matters into his own hands. "You there," he called. "You, from San Jose, what's your name?"

Oh my God, he was talking to me!

"I've forgotten your name," Guru called out again pointing towards me in the gallery.

"Joe," I called back, with my hands folded, prayer-like, in front of me.

"Joe. Joe, would you like to be a ball boy? Please, come down."

I immediately vaulted over the gallery wall to the tennis court five feet below. The court itself was made of green clay. The other ball "boys" were Ketan (16), his younger sister Jayanti (about 12 or 13), and another young boy named Bishwas (who must have been about 12 or so). I didn't know any of them personally, nor did I know what I was supposed to do.

The kids were all barefoot, so I started by taking my shoes off, too. The clay court was cool, having just been watered to cut down on dust. And then Guru started playing. I was in heaven. Guru had not only spoken to me, but had given me a job serving him. On top of that, he had put me in with a group of kids, all of whom had grown up in the Center.

Now, I knew from whence I came. I hadn't forgotten what debauchery I had been capable of just a few short years before, so I had no illusions about being a kid untouched by the world (as I viewed my fellow tennis ball chasers). But it felt fantastic to be thrown among them; to be seen by the other disciples in the gallery as one of the kids.

As my brother remarked years later: "You were a made man."

Being a ball boy itself wasn't hard, just a lot sprinting back and forth across the court shagging balls. The highlight, though, was tossing tennis balls to Guru during his service games. He'd hold out his hand and expect the ball to land in it directly on one bounce. It was easy and it was profound -- for the first time I was establishing a personal connection to Guru.

As a "made man," I was also immediately accepted by a small cadre of other disciples who lived in New York and whose day jobs consisted of rendering personal service to Guru. The first, most significant, and longest lasting of these new friends was my fellow ball boy Ketan, who at 16 was just two years younger than me.

The photo above is one of the great shots taken by former Paris disciple Subala, whose other fine shots can be seen here.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Names

August Celebrations that year (1983) was to be a watershed for me. By the fortnight's end, Guru would introduce me to a new circle of friends -- friends who served Guru directly and many of whom were closer to my own age.

All I knew when I arrived in Queens, however, was that I was excited to be there. Thanks to Jigisha, I was welcomed again to stay with the same local disciple with whom we had stayed the previous April, as was my French friend Francois.

He was lounging in his sleeping bag on the floor when Jigisha and I arrived. Before I could even say hello, Francois told me that he'd brought something for me and reached into one of his bags. Unexpectedly, he pulled out one of the Song-Waves' "Vive la France" t-shirts and gave it to me.

I was shocked. The previous April I had mentioned in an off-hand way that I'd admired the French choir's red, white and blue shirts, but I'd forgotten all about it. The shirt itself wasn't that big a deal, but the fact that Francois had taken note of my comment four months earlier and made a point to get me a shirt, really struck me. I've never forgotten it.

That's why I was so happy just a few days later when Guru gave Francois his spiritual name: Phanindra. In the Center, getting one's name was everything (at least so it seemed to me at the time).

In the Center, status was a function of one's perceived spiritual achievement, and since spiritual achievement was not visible to the naked eye, physical proximity to Guru became a proxy. If a disciple was physically close to Guru, then that disciple's spiritual bona fides were established. Other "evidence" factored in, too. For example, in roughly descending order of status:
  • personal service to Guru;
  • membership in a prominent singing group (in my day, the N.Y. and S.F. girls' and boys' singing groups, respectively, had some prestige);
  • having talents that coincided with Center activities (like being a good runner); or
  • the reflected glory of having friends that were close to Guru.

That's not an exhaustive list and, frankly, the benefits of such status -- if any -- weren't that apparent. But it was something I was conscious of from the very beginning of my discipleship: a kind of unspoken esteem with which some disciples were held. And it all started by getting one's name.

Guru meant the names he gave to disciples to be indicative of each disciple's individual psychic persona. Guru would say "soul," as in getting "your soul's name," but I never cared much for that term and its Christian connotation (to my ear anyway). I acknowledge, of course, that the term "psychic" being or persona carries a lot of new age baggage. Nevertheless, for my purposes the word psychic -- as in psyche -- is marginally more precise.

Though Guru never said so, getting one's name struck me as one's true initiation. Some disciples went more than a decade without getting their names, while others -- particularly celebrity disciples -- got their names in short order. If there was a typical case for a full-time, active disciple, I'd guess the wait was about five years or so. Having a strong Center leader to advocate for you could shave a couple years off that.

Francois had such an advocate in Haridas.

Arriving back at our room after the evening function, I found Francois meditating at his makeshift shrine. In front of Guru's picture was what looked to be a three inch by three inch piece of paper on which Guru had written Francois' new name: Phanindra.

I asked him what it meant and he said something like, "The universal creative snake consciousness to please his Lord Supreme in His own way." Wild. Snake consciousness. I'd always thought negatively about snakes. I wasn't sure how I'd react to such a name, but Phanindra was beaming.

I was so happy for him.

I highly recommend browsing the photos of another former Paris Center member here.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Rick

This is Rick.

When I had joined the Santa Cruz Center almost two years earlier, I knew little about Rick other than the fact that he had an older brother who lived back East who was a long-time disciple (and kick-ass runner). Rick, himself, kept a very low profile.

For most of my senior year in high school, however, Rick was my savior. He drove way out of his way every Sunday night to pick me up a block from my dad's house (from where I had snuck out) so that we could then drive an hour north to the S.F. Center meetings. It was on those drives that I got to know him. He's a dynamic and eminently capable man in just about every field in which he endeavors. I owe him a lot.

Before I graduated from school, Rick had been living in his own home in Cupertino, California with his long-time, live-in girlfriend. But as my school year progressed -- and as the fledgling San Jose Center lost more members -- it seemed inevitable that we'd eventually have to hold our Center meetings at Rick's house. We couldn't do so, however, as long as Rick's girlfriend (as nice as she was) lived there.

Rick knew this and sometime before I graduated in June 1983, he broke up with her and we opened the new San Jose Center. That's where I went to live immediately upon graduation from high school that June. Not only did Rick give me a room to stay in, he gave me a good paying job at his own small landscape construction company.

Of all the reasons I have to be grateful to Rick -- and there are many -- the most important is this: he taught me how to work. I had held part-time jobs before -- mainly washing dishes at various places -- but I'd never had to work a full eight hours in a day and then be expected to come back the next day (and then the next) and do it again. To make the transition for me harder still, landscaping was hard labor.

Early in my first week on the job, for example, Rick dropped me off at a job site with a sack lunch and a shovel and told me to start digging a trench for some new sprinklers we were installing. He told me he'd pick me up at the end of the day. But I just couldn't do it. After six hours of digging (with an extended lunch thrown in), I just had to sit down in the shade.

Rick pulled up a little while later, took one look at my exhausted and defeated expression, and laughed. By the end of that summer, however, I could dig for a full day and still have the energy to go out for a run in the local hills after work.

As we moved towards August Celebrations '83, the San Jose Center was down to just Rick and me (with Elizabeth and Prakash having migrated to the San Francisco Center by then). Nevertheless, Rick and I couldn't have been more optimistic about the long-term prospects for our little Center.

We were enthusiastic. We had confidence in Sevika, our Center leader who was still coming down once a week from San Francisco. And neither Rick nor I lacked for self-confidence (for better or for worse).

I haven't spoken to Rick in a few years, but I hear he's doing well. He's married and he and his wife are raising two teen aged boys.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

"Outer" Graduation

“Joe , would you please stay just a minute.” It was my English
teacher, Mrs. Bowles.

I was just back from April Celebrations and she looked concerned as I approached her. “Joe , just before Easter break, you asked me for a progress report. I’m afraid I made a mistake on your grade. Your grade in this class is a D, not a B.”

Holy crow, I had gotten away with something!

She handed me a revised progress report. “I’m sorry,” she continued. “I had my husband calculate your grade before and he inadvertently skipped over two pages of entries in the grade book.”

As I walked out of the classroom grinning, I couldn’t help but think, “The Lord provides.” I crumbled up the progress report and threw it into the first trash can I saw.

April Celebrations had been great! Regardless of my grades, I had just two months left of school and those two months went quickly. Upon graduation, the whole family -- such as it was -- watched me do the cap and gown walk past and then gathered at a local Mexican restaurant for dinner. From that point on, I was on my own.

Almost immediately, I moved out of dad's house. It was all rather anticlimactic. I had focused on that moment for so long, that when it came the move seemed rather pedestrian. I moved in with Rick. He owned a house in Cupertino -- which by that time had become the new San Jose Center -- and ran his own landscape construction outfit. Rick not only offered me a place to stay, but he also gave me a job at a generous hourly rate. I'd remain there for the next year and a half.

That same month -- June 1983 -- Guru visited Victoria, British Columbia. The Center there had put on a successful triathlon for years, attracting as many as 700 competitors, so Guru made a point to visit. I drove up with a few brother disciples from the San Francisco Center.

At one of the functions, I snagged a front row seat and again attracted Guru's attention. As was his habit, Guru asked me my name, how old I was, and what I was doing. He also asked me about Charlie again. I hadn't seen Charlie since graduation and said so.

"I graduated, Guru," I said with excitement (not the excitement of accomplishment, but rather the excitement of liberation).

"You graduated," Guru said, seemingly amused with his eyes almost shut. "That is the outer graduation. Now you need the inner graduation."

The inner graduation. Yes, that's what I needed. That June, I completed one school (barely), and took my first big step into an entirely new school.

I was on the Path full time.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

April '83

April Celebrations ’83 was fantastic! I flew to New York, managed to secure floor space smack dab in Queens throughout, made a new friend, and to cap it off, Guru spoke to me again.

As for staying locally, I really had Jigisha -- a San Francisco disciple I had become friends with -- to thank. He knew a local disciple living in Queens who needed help promoting some meditation classes he was planning to give.

Jigisha said that I could crash in this guy's room during the Celebrations as long as I agreed to do some leafleting. I hated leafleting, which amounted to standing on a Manhattan street corner trying to get passerby to, well, join a cult to be frank about it.

I really hated that approach. I mean, if that was the approach to recruiting new disciples, why not just go all the way -- shave our heads, go to the airport, and play finger cymbals?

I sucked it up, however. A few hours of public humiliation was a small price to pay to stay local and avoid the hinterland hotel. Ashrita wasn't happy with me when he found out that I had circumvented him and secured my own lodging, but there was nothing he could do about it.

Those downsides -- having to leaflet and getting off on the wrong foot with Ashrita -- were immediately counterbalanced by the new friend I made. His name was Francois and he was a member of the Paris Center. He was laying in his sleeping bag on the floor reading comic books as Jigisha and I made our way into the room and set up camp.

Like me, Francois was young, about 21 or 22 (I would turn 18 in a matter of days). He was skinny, pale, and had sharp features and orange hair. At that time, the Paris Center was led by a musical genius named Haridas (great pictures of Haridas here), and Francois was his right hand man. Haridas made wonderful choral arrangements of Guru's Bengali devotional songs and put together a choir named Song-Waves, which apparently toured France.

When I saw Song-Waves perform at Celebrations, I was blown away. I particularly liked the song "Vive la France," which the group performed with a patriotic red, white and blue t-shirt emblazoned with that motto. Back at our room that night, I told Francois how much I liked the performance and the t-shirts.

After so many years, I don't remember much else about that Celebrations, except the end. Guru wanted to go watch the Boston Marathon, so quite a few disciples travelled north to watch the race, which Joan Benoit (Samuelson) won in a blazing time (pictured above). (She would go on to win the Olympic Marathon the very next year.) Immediately afterwards, I got early word that Guru would be at a local meeting hall, so I rushed over there.

When I arrived, there were very few people there and I got a seat right up front. Almost immediately, Guru took notice of me. After giving me a once over, he asked me to remind him what my name was and what Center I belonged to. Then he asked me how old I was, which was a question I loved to answer -- it made me feel special.

"I just turned 18, Guru," I said.

"Eighteen," Guru repeated with a smile on his face. "What do you do?"

"I go to school," I said.

Guru chuckled. He really got a kick out of my youth. "What was your friend's name? Do you still see him?"

"His name is Charlie. I do see him at school, Guru."

"Do you still speak to him," Guru asked.

"No, I don't, Guru."

Guru was silent for a little while, then said: "You are a very good boy, very good. I'm very, very proud of you." That was it. I was on cloud nine.

That evening Guru was going to give a concert at one of the local college campuses, so before it started I took a short train ride to my Aunt Mary's place (my mom's older sister). My mom was living in Boston at the time and we all met there. Mom and my cousin then accompanied me back to the concert that evening.

A day or two later I was back at school and I ran into Charlie at the cafeteria. He asked how I was and I told him about my trip back to New York. I told him that Guru had asked about him, and Charlie seemed genuinely touched.

With that, I had less than eight weeks left of school. Hallelujah!

Making the Grade

With the dawn of the new year (1983), I had one goal: April Celebrations.

Despite my success sneaking out to Center meetings twice a week for the last few months, I couldn’t disappear for two weeks unnoticed. I had to get dad’s permission if I were going to go to New York over spring break. Even before asking him, though, I knew what his answer would be: you can go to New York if your grades are good.

Fat chance. My grades wouldn’t be good. They sucked. Just look at my first semester grades above! I wasn’t cutting classes like I used to. I wasn’t smoking dope or getting drunk anymore. But neither was I studying outside of class; I never did homework. True, I wasn't technically flunking out, but could I be any closer?

A few factors were in my favor, though. The April Celebrations that year would take place before our mid-term progress reports issued at school, so in order to prove my grades worthy, I’d have to ask my teachers to issue tentative progress reports early. In other words, the progress reports would be issued before my grades sank to their lowest point.

Also, my class load wasn’t the most demanding. It was my last semester of high school. I was taking: American government, wood shop, math, creative writing, and Spanish. I felt good about wood shop. Also, I liked my government teacher and my Spanish teacher. Math and creative writing, however, would be the sticking point.

Finally, I would probably be the beneficiary of the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” My grades were so low on such a consistent basis that expectations for me were way low. I didn’t have to score straight As. All I probably had to do was show dad that I was nowhere near failing (no easy task). So it was that I approached my teachers at the end of each class and asked for the progress reports. Then, I had nothing to do but wait.

As I recall, I got the progress reports back about a week later. As I’d suspected, I did great in wood shop (A), American government (B-), and Spanish (B). All good grades – especially for me. They wouldn’t be good enough, however, to rescue me from anything lower than a C in either math or creative writing.

In math, I got a C-. Not good. In light of that grade, I didn’t think a C in English would suffice. That C- alone in math was probably enough to tank my chances of going to Celebrations. So, I was pretty heavy hearted going into English class that day to get my grade. After class, the teacher asked me up to her desk and handed me the progress report. “Congratulations, Joe,” she said. “You’re doing much better than expected.” B-. She chatted away for a few more minutes, but I wasn’t listening. I had a B- in English. No way!

I was in. Even with the C- in math, I knew dad couldn’t deny me. Of all my historic bad grades, math had always been the worst. I was no math whiz and in light of my other grades, which were actually pretty good, he wouldn’t fault me. When I presented dad with the progress reports that afternoon, he was pleasantly surprised. While he reminded me that I’d have to put in some extra work in the math department, he said he was pleased and I could go to New York .

Score! I felt like I was getting away with something. I was going to New York! Now, there was only one thing left for me to do: find a way around the rule that forced new disciples like me to stay at that out of town hotel during Celebrations. Whether Ashrita liked it or not -- come hell or high water -- I was going to stay locally in New York .

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Alo Devi

It wasn’t just Charlie’s departure that bothered Sevika.

She was also worried about how a certain group of disciples might affect me. The disciples in question were secretly (and derisively) referred to as “A-bombers” within the Center. They earned that moniker by devoting themselves not only to Guru, but also to his little-known consort or spiritual partner Alo Devi.

Alo wasn’t “in the brochure” as they say. I didn’t find out about her existence until just after I had joined the Center. And when I did learn about her, it was only through a whispering campaign and innuendo targeted against her.

As I would later learn, Alo was born in Canada and was named Beverly Siegerman. She was about Guru’s age. As a young woman, she traveled to India and landed at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry. That’s where she met Guru.

In 1964, at the age of 33, Guru left the Ashram and emigrated to the U.S., where he secured a clerk’s position at the Indian consulate in New York. (To read about this period in Sri Chinmoy's own words click here.) Ms. Siegerman, an educated and well-traveled woman at that time, was instrumental in Guru’s move.

I’m not a Center historian on this matter and, obviously, wasn’t there at the time, but it seems safe to infer that -- at least early on -- Guru relied heavily on Ms. Siegerman. (See, for example, this short story of those years and Guru's reference to Alo making him lunch -- apparently, every day.) He gave her the name “Alo,” which means “divine light.” And from those earliest of days through the mid-1970s, Alo’s status as “first disciple” grew to include a share of the throne (pictured below with Guru around the height of her influence).

By the time Guru gave up his day job for good, Alo not only lived in his house when in New York , but she also sat next to him on stage at functions, meditated on disciples, and gave out spiritual names to her devotees. It was not uncommon to hear Guru say, from time to time, that he and Alo were one and the same.

By the late 1970s, however, something had changed. While never openly demoting Alo or breaking from her, Guru began undermining any credibility that she may have had by circulating the news that Alo had “fallen” and that she wasn’t the divine being that some people thought she was.

Because the whispering campaign against her was just that, not everyone got the word. Guru didn’t want the word getting back to Alo. In fact, if a disciple raised the issue of Alo's status with Guru directly, he'd kick the disciple out of the Center altogether. That’s exactly how we lost one of our members that fall (1982).

The disciple -- Peter -- had heard the same whispers and innuendo that I had. Because the whispering campaign didn’t jibe with what he was seeing (i.e., Alo sitting up front with Guru, acting as the Mother of the Universe), Peter wrote Guru and asked, point blank, whether Alo was his equal. Guru summarily kicked Peter out of the Center that very week.

I didn’t see a need for such a letter myself. Not just because of what had happened to Peter, but because the secret information about Alo did not contradict my own understanding.

From the get go, nothing about Alo attracted me. She didn’t repulse me, but neither did I feel any special connection with her. Through the ensuing years, this feeling of neutrality allowed me to escape the petty, mean-spirited, and contemptuous attitude that many of the disciples "in the know" showed Alo and her devotees. Truth be told, though, her staunch devotees didn't make it easy to like them.

The hardcore, male A-bombers tended to be a little creepy. So much so, for example, that many of the S.F. Center disciples refused to help one such died in the wool A-bomber, even when he was out giving meditation classes and trying to recruit new disciples for Guru.

I, therefore, volunteered to help the guy. That’s why Sevika made a point to make sure that I knew about Alo. Sevika was on a mission to completely rid the S.F. Center of A-bombers. In this, I think she succeeded. Even this particular hardcore Alo devotee eventually saw the light.

I’m not sure what conclusions to draw about Alo. When I reflect upon my years in the Center, the one recurring regret -- the one recurring embarrassment -- to me was my absolute baseless certitude. I wish I could look back upon my time there and see some measure of humility when it came to passing judgment on others and their actions and circumstances. I don't want to repeat that mistake here.

I wasn’t around at the critical time Alo came to power or when she supposedly “fell” from grace. I, frankly, have no clue as to their true relationship. What attracted them to each other in the first place? I just don't know and, therefore, am hesitant to issue summary judgment on Guru and his treatment of Alo.

I think it's safe to conclude, however, that the way Guru dealt with the situation -- which was basically by not dealing with it directly -- lead to some low level dysfunction amongst the disciples. I'm sure Guru had his reasons, but I never heard what they were. As I'll discuss in further posts, there were plenty of things about the Center and Guru's decision making that I didn't always see eye to eye with. This was one of them.

Alo is still alive and well, apparently living in Hawaii at a Center-owned property there. My brother and I spoke to her at Guru’s memorial services, where, despite the passage of years, she seemed to recognize us both.

After receiving some feedback from friends both inside the Center and out, I have slightly revised this post from its original form. Specifically, I cut some of the rather judgmental language that had followed what is now the third to last paragraph.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

A New Leader

By the beginning of 1983, the San Jose Center was down to just three disciples: me, Rick and Elizabeth. (By then, Prakash was attending the much larger and established San Francisco Center.)

Elizabeth, whom I haven't yet introduced, was a classic Santa Cruz hippie. Though only in her mid-20s then, she was a throwback to the 1960s. While we never really got along with each other, I must give my props to her.

She was a plank owner of the Santa Cruz Center. When the Center moved to San Jose, she moved with it. No doubt, Elizabeth was a devoted disciple. And as a former jock myself, I had to hand it to her: Elizabeth was tough. At about that time, Guru had issued a challenge to all of his disciples to see who could break certain times in the marathon. For the guys, the standard to beat was 2 hours, 30 minutes for the 26-mile race.

For the girls, the standard was 3 hours, 30 minutes. Elizabeth promptly ran 3:28. She was the first girl disciple to do so worldwide.

As for the rapid attrition of our Center, Guru was apparently concerned. It looked as if the San Jose Center was on the verge of disappearing all together. Such concern no doubt increased when our nominal Center leader -- Ratna -- left the path. At that point, even though Rick, Elizabeth and I were already attending Center meetings in San Francisco once a week, Guru decided that we needed some adult supervision. So, he told S.F.'s esteemed leader -- Sevika -- to become our new Center leader.

Sevika must have been in her mid-30s then. In some respects, she now reminds me of the late Katharine Graham (pictured), who with little prior experience, inherited the leadership role of the male-dominated Washington Post Company and made it work, despite the initial resistance from the guys.

Through the mid-'70s and early '80s, the S.F. Center had been a spiritual powerhouse: the most prestigious and accomplished Center outside New York. It was largely driven by a cadre of dynamic and capable young men led by Sevika's then-husband, Saumitra. By the early '80s, however, those guys began to sour on the Center. Saumitra was the first of them to go, unceremoniously dumping Sevika for another woman and leaving her as the sole leader of the Center. Apparently, most of Saumitra's friends knew about his affair for some time before he actually left and were not terribly sympathetic to Sevika's plight.

I wasn't phased by that nonsense. I liked Sevika from the start and was glad to have her join our San Jose Center meetings each Wednesday night. Almost immediately, she began teaching us Bengali devotional songs written by Guru, with the idea that we'd perform them at the next April Celebrations.

I found Sevika to be a very warm person and she seemed almost protective of me (though I didn't think I needed it). She was concerned, for instance, that Charlie's departure from the Center might affect me adversely, so she talked to me about it from time to time. I also found her to be down to Earth and funny.

One time, after meditation at the S.F. Center, the disciples were hanging out in the upstairs living room after meditation. Venu -- a particularly likable and energetic disciple -- asked me about my wrestling career at school. In a sheepish way, he admitted that he, too, had been a wrestler in high school. He then, half jokingly, suggested that we should wrestle some time (intimating, I thought, that he could beat me).

Immediately, someone else said, "Why don't you wrestle right here?"

Venu -- beginning to show his nerves now -- looked to Sevika and said, "We shouldn't wrestle here. It wouldn't be appropriate."

With a mischievous twinkle, Sevika said, "Sure, go ahead." She was all for it. Like most of us, Sevika got great joy in seeing Venu's reaction: a kind of deer in the headlights look as it dawned on him that his secret wish was about to be fulfilled.

In any event, the disciples made some space. Venu chose the down position to start. I pinned him a few seconds later.