I left the Center in 1990.
Since then, I've kept in contact with just a handful of disciples, none of them more so than Sudhir. Aside from my brother and sister, Sudhir was the only person I spoke to about spirituality with any frequency.
We emailed mostly, perhaps once a week. Every few months or so, though, we'd catch up on the phone. It wasn't all (or even mostly) spiritual talk. We'd talk about Center gossip, the latest developments in the world of professional cycling -- the Tour de France was of particular mutual interest -- and we'd talk about Sudhir's health.
He had been diagnosed with colon cancer and we'd discuss the latest treatments he was trying, some with apparent success at the time and all with harsh side effects.
Through all of that, I had become closer to Sudhir than I was with any other disciple. It was fitting then, I suppose, that Sudhir was the first person to call me with the news that Guru had died. As I explained in my very first post, Sudhir caught me shortly after I had arrived at my office in San Diego on the morning of October 11, 2007.
Less than 48 hours later, Jeevan and I were camped out in Sudhir's basement apartment in Jamaica, New York. For the next two and a half days, our visit felt like Celebrations to me (that twice yearly gathering of disciples in New York to see Guru), though tinged with somberness. It turned out to be the most moving trip I've ever made to New York.
It was impossible to escape the impact that Guru's death had had on all those active disciples who (unlike me) had remained dedicated to the Center to the end. Everywhere Jeevan and I went that weekend -- the Smile of the Beyond, the tennis court where Guru's open casket lay in state, Ketan's new cafe (Panorama of My Silence Heart), even a local Indian restaurant where we had dinner with some of the guys -- there were tears being shed by some, and many more with red, puffy eyes. It was very moving.
The disciples were also incredibly warm. From our first step into the Smile after arriving on Saturday morning (October 13), we were not just welcomed, but embraced. I quickly lost count of how many of my sister disciples I actually hugged that weekend. Hugging loved ones, particularly in a time of personal loss, is not something that would normally merit special mention. In the Center, however, where segregation of the sexes was near absolute, the gesture was striking to me and lovely.
At the time, I couldn't help but wonder whether the openness that Jeevan and I were experiencing simply had to do with our decision to show up. While it really wasn't a decision on our part -- there was no doubt that we'd make the trip out -- I think many disciples, in the backs of their minds, saw the memorial weekend as a litmus test for us ex-disciples.
Ever since some ex-disciples critical of Guru had loosely organized around an online message board, I think the active disciples had been feeling a bit under siege. It struck me that just our showing up that weekend was a vote of confidence on our part, one that was warmly welcomed by all we saw.
One of the best memories I had that weekend was standing just outside the tennis court in a circle of friends telling old war stories and belly laughing to near tears. It was particularly fun to watch Ketan, Sahadeva, Golapendu, Devashishu, and Jeevan -- the real brat pack of the Center -- recall their many youthful antics.
The laughter grew so loud at one point that we drew a shushing admonishment from some pious soul trying to meditate nearby. The shush -- and our complete and utter disregard of it -- was classic. The idea that some visiting disciple, who had never spent years serving Guru directly, would find the behaviour of these boys disagreeable was laughable (and so we laughed).
Another fond memory was a late night dinner at Lucille's diner with a dear friend. Lucille's is located right across Hillside Avenue from where the Center's old meditation hall -- Progress-Promise -- used to be located. Back in the day, it had been the one diner not off-limits to local disciples (the other local diners, like the Fame diner, were to be reserved so Guru could have places he could go to without being ogled by disciples while he ate). Lucille's was also probably the very first diner (except for the Smile) to offer vegetarian burgers.
Anyway, after spending hours at the tennis court on Saturday night, Sudhir, Jeevan, and I met up with Tejiyan at Lucille's. Tejiyan was like an unsheathed sword in intensity. We all talked for a few hours. It was a great end to our long first day in New York.
The purpose of our trip, of course, was to see Guru.
As Jeevan and I found out shortly after arriving, "friends" of the Center -- ex-disciples like us -- could see Guru twice daily: from noon to 1 p.m., and then again from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. So, that's what we did. At just before noon on Saturday, Jeevan, Sudhir, and I walked to the tennis court, which no longer resembled one.
As Jeevan and I walked up the driveway to the court and approached the gate leading inside, Prabhakar kindly instructed us to go right in. The gallery was full. There were two long lines of disciples -- boys on the right and girls on the left -- leading up to Guru's open casket at the head of the court, in the spot where he once sat long ago after rounds of tennis, where I had seen him many times before (here and here).
Those lines were stopped and the atmosphere was quiet and intense. We formed our own much shorter line up the middle of the tennis court. Flowers were everywhere and the air was filled with incense. (I'm sure there must be some beautiful pictures of it somewhere, but the only one I have found is this one from Guru's New York Times obituary.)
Because the "friends" line was so short, I initially felt a little rushed to get my shoes off and get up to the front, but as I did, I slowed myself down. The line itself ended maybe 15 feet away from Guru's open casket. Observing others, it appeared that, when it was your turn, the protocol was to move up as close as one wanted to Guru, take a minute or so, and then move on so that others in the line could have their chance.
Being an ex-disciple at any Center function, I'd always felt people's eyes on me (whether they were there or not). The feeling was magnified as the whole of the Center stood still to let us have a chance to pay our respects, too. As I came to the head of the line, however, and then moved forward towards Guru, it was just the two of us for a few short seconds.
Guru looked peaceful. He'd had a long and productive life. In a very real way, it had been as if Sri Ramakrishna had been given Swami Vivekananda's body and dynamism. As Swamiji liked to say, "Better to wear out, than to rust out." Well, that's exactly what Guru had done.
As I stood before Guru, I mentally prostrated myself before him in gratitude and then let the others behind me follow.
I'm not sure who actually took the beautiful picture of Sudhir, above, but I took it from this beautiful slide show about his life put together by his best friend, Harsha.