”Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee…St. Augustine
“Amal is no more,” whispered a friend, in a muted voice, at the other end of the phone. “He left a few minutes ago.”
A long silence followed. The words that I had been dreading for decades had been uttered. Ever since I had met Amal, exactly two decades ago, and had made him my best friend, I had wanted him to live forever. I could not imagine a world without him. He had made me who I was. He used to call himself the Pygmalion who had chiselled the Galatea out of me. I was eighteen and he eighty—eight when we met for the first time. But, from the very start, we got along like long lost friends. The friendship seemed rooted in ages. In response to the letter I had written to him after our first meeting, he wrote, “Just as I am present to you the moment you close your eyes, so also you are fixed in my memory in a most vivid way. The accompanying feeling is as if you have emerged into recognition from some depth in me where you were quietly nestling.” These lines filled my heart with warmth adequate for a lifetime.
Being with him made me feel completely secure, understood and loved, as if I were cherished and held in the hollow of his hand—the care, attention and affection showered by him was unsurpassed and unparalleled. I used to often wonder—if Amal had not been there, how could I have ever found such complete understanding and support? How could I learn and grow and live? Such thoughts would result in an overflow of gratitude in my heart towards him. Along with it would also come the fear of losing him.
And now it was happening right in front of me. Amal had gone. How come the world had not collapsed? How come it was still carrying on its petty business of living, as if nothing had happened? How come nothing was changing? How come I was still alive and breathing, the sun still shining, the breeze still blowing, and the flowers still blooming?
Though Amal had been bedridden and indisposed for a while towards the end, his wrinkle-free, lustrous face and his ageless countenance had made us feel that he, like Bhishma, would live forever. Even while his body was being lowered into Mother Earth, I felt that he would sit up, smiling, at any moment and give us a happy surprise. So it took some time for the unbelievable news to sink in. And when it did, memories of a lifetime were relived in an instant. It is strange how the entire past can distil itself into one feeling, one sensation—in this case, that of an irreparable loss, not felt to be of a personal nature alone, but as if the whole world was going to miss something forever—the sweetness and strength of the inmost psyche, which radiated out in every thought, word, and action of Amal’s.
I had first met Amal at the Nursing Home in 1991. A meeting that was supposed to have been scheduled for 15 minutes extended to two long hours. Time had, as if, tiptoed silently past, unnoticed. In the course of the conversation against “the flush of crimson across the sky” outside the window, I had mentioned to him that I do not have a best friend in this world. Immediately, he had offered, “You can make me your best friend.” I did not accept it very enthusiastically because I had thought then that there would be a gap of a few generations between us, and being old, he would not be able to relate to me. But as the friendship progressed, I realised that there was a generation gap, no doubt, but it was the other way round; he was ahead of me in his thinking, more modern in his outlook, and I was the old-fashioned one!
This meeting changed my life. I was a mere child when I first met him. I had many questions about the aim of life, the purpose of living, and the eternal questions like ‘Who am I?’ Not only did he put me on to the path of finding answers to these deep questions of the spirit, but he was also my finishing school in matters of the world, for, to him, they were not mutually exclusive. In fact, one seamlessly complemented the other. He made a lady out of me, as it were, correcting my pronunciation, my ‘Indianisms’ and other incorrect idiomatic expressions in English, and teaching me general etiquette and table manners. On one occasion, while having lunch with him, when I bent slightly over the table to have a bite, he corrected me, “Always sit straight while having food. Remember, you should never go to the food, it is the food that should come to you.” And with that, he downed a perfect spoonful with a perfectly straight back as a demonstration of the lesson.
After I finished my MBA, I opted for a career in Chennai because I sought to combine the best of both worlds this way. Work during the week in Chennai and visit Pondicherry in the weekend. I used to start on Saturday mornings and, after a quick darshan at the Samadhi on reaching Pondicherry, rush to Amal’s house, where he would be waiting for me for lunch. One day, my vehicle broke down on the way. Since mobile phones had not come of age then, there was no way I could inform Amal about the delay. Instead of 12 p.m., I reached Amal’s house at 2 p.m. And what do I see? He was sitting in his wheelchair, near the door of his house, with the front gate open, waiting for me, without having had his lunch. When his friends and neighbours, on seeing him there, had asked him what he was doing, he had told them, “I am waiting for Gitanjali.” He refused to have lunch when they asked him to do so and told them that he would wait till I came. When I reached and saw him there at the door, I was humbled beyond words. I wheeled him inside and served him food. Then I asked him, “Amal, what have I done to deserve so much of your love and care? I am so small and insignificant in every way. Why do you lavish so much of your attention on me?” Without answering me directly, he remarked instead, “On the contrary, I often wonder how you can bring yourself to enjoy so much the prehistoric company of this fossil. The fossil, of course, feels highly flattered on being brought so charmingly up to date.” It was this self-effacing humility that endeared him to one and all.
Though I was a student of physics and mathematics in my undergraduate days, it was Amal who instilled in me the love for literature. And he did it more by example and influence and less by instruction! He used to say that, one should, in order to write great poetry, also read great poetry because then one creates an atmosphere around oneself which is conducive to the flow. He would keep quoting from Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri and the rest of His collected poems, especially His Sonnets, from Shakespeare, Shelley, and, every now and then, from his own collection of poetry, and end his recitations with a question rendered musically, “Who said that?” This quizzing improved my knowledge of literature tremendously because not only would he reveal the name of the poet, but also the deeper meaning and symbolism of the verses, comparing and contrasting them with similar or differing verses by other poets. He would also teach me how to recite Savitri, how to differentiate the pronunciation of the words which began with a ‘v’ and those that began with a ‘w’ by making me repeat ‘very well’ after him. It was also amazing to see him win hands down repeatedly in a game that we used to play, a game in which one opponent says a word and the other recites a poem containing that word in the first line. One day, out of sheer admiration for him, I said, “Amal, I want to become like you,” and he began to recite from his poem, At the foot of Kanchenjunga:
Become like thee and soar above
My mortal woe
And to the heavens passionless
And mute, from dawn to dawn address
Thoughts white like snow.
The lines flowed absolutely flawlessly, and I asked him, surprised, “Amal, how is it that when you speak, you sometimes stammer, but when you recite poetry, you don’t?” He said, “How can I when, instead of blood, it is poetry that flows in my veins.”
I once asked him who he would have liked to have been in his last birth, and promptly came his reply, “Dante,” the famous Italian poet, whose Divine Comedy is considered the greatest literary work composed in the Italian language and a masterpiece of world literature.
It was his book, Light and Laughter that drew me to him. The book had such a deep impact on me that I went to SABDA and picked up all 14 copies that they had left and distributed them among my friends. A few years later, when I went to pick up some more copies, I was told that the book was out of print. Then and there, I vowed that of all the things that I would do in this life, one would be to have a publishing company that would keep Amal’s books always in circulation! Though the task was taken on instead by the Clear Ray Trust, that thought of mine perhaps became the seed for founding Helios Books, several years later.
Once, when I reached Amal’s home, I found a few people there engaged in some intense discussions. Since Amal was not a participant, he could welcome me and spend time with me. After some time, when I asked him out of curiosity what those people were discussing, he said that they were exploring the possibilities of nominating him for the Nobel Prize for Literature! “Why are you not participating in the discussion then?” I asked him, surprised. “Who cares for the Nobel Prize,” he said dismissively, “when my poems have been seen and appreciated by Sri Aurobindo Himself!”
Our favourite topic of conversation was always the Mother and Sri Aurobindo. For those of us who have not had the chance of meeting Them physically, it is always a royal treat to hear about Them from the fortunate ones who have. I would ask him about how They looked, how They spoke, how They smiled, how he felt when he was with Them and so on. My biggest regret in life was this: that I had missed meeting Them physically. Amal sensed this unspoken sadness and remarked one day, “One cannot but love Them after having met Them. It is easy. But to have this love for and trust and faith in Them without having met Them is something remarkable.” This thoughtful consolation did bring a smile to my face. When I asked him how he had felt on first meeting the Mother, he said, “She was Beauty incarnate,” and his sigh at that time, like St. Augustine’s, was, “Too late have I loved Thee, O Beauty so ancient and so new, too late have I loved Thee!” And Amal had been only 23 at that time!
Just as Einstein could explain the Theory of Relativity effortlessly to a child, Amal could explain the deepest of metaphysical truths easily because he had assimilated them so integrally, not only in his mind, but in his entire being. Recently, when I asked him to explain Sat, Chit and Ananda, he replied, “Sat is that which never changes; Chit that changes all the time, and Ananda is that which expresses both.” How beautiful and succinct, I thought! Encouraged, I delved further, “What is Reality or Truth?” He replied, “God realising his own dream.” It is this poetic touch and his lucid expression of original research on the most difficult topics that make Amal’s books my favourite read.
“What is my swadharma?” I asked him once. “A combination of Brahmin and Kshatriya,” he replied, “because, like me, you not only seek the Truth, but, if required, can fight for it and lay down your life for it.” Surprised, I asked, “You, a Kshatriya? I thought you were a Brahmin through and through.” He replied, “The moment I was born, the big lamp in our drawing room flared up. My father had to run from my mother’s side to prevent a fire. The English lady doctor who was attending on my mother considered the flaring lamp as an omen and said, ‘The boy will be a great man.’ She perhaps went beyond her brief and should have just said, ‘The boy will be a fiery fellow’ because, from the very start, I displayed a very hot temper. It is quite possible that I might have become a soldier or a man of action had my steps not been dogged, literally, by misfortune that came in the form of infantile paralysis.” The samurai-like spirit with which he used to defend Sri Aurobindo’s works and His philosophical ideas in his letters to people who had misunderstood Him was ample evidence of this aspect of his temperament. Whenever I would display a similar streak, he would fondly and lovingly call me “pocket Amazon”—the miniature version of Penthesilia, the notable queen of the Amazons, the women warriors of classical antiquity.
Amal broke all moral and conventional stereotypes and looked at the real thing instead. For instance, he used to tell me, “What is so spiritual about getting up at 4 am?” What he meant was that just the act of getting up early means nothing, especially if it is accompanied by a sense of pride and a superiority complex. The most important thing was the attitude of surrender, of equality, and of remembering and offering, at every moment in one’s life. He always emphasised being free, even from the so-called ‘virtues’. Born in a vegetarian family, I was averse to the sight and smell of non-vegetarian food. Not only could I not stand its sight, but its smell made me feel nauseated. One day, when I was having lunch with Amal, he asked me to have a piece of chicken. I was surprised at his request. But he explained to me that, in yoga, repulsion or aversion is as bad as slavery or attraction. And one should be free in the mind with regard to everything. Since, by then, I used to follow every advice of Amal blindly, I just closed my eyes and ate a tiny piece of the chicken. The taste was nothing to write home about; it reminded me of soya chunks—fibrous and rubbery. But the after-effect was that I became absolutely free from it; the repulsion had vanished. It helped me a great deal because, when I lived in the hostel during my MBA days, fellow students sitting all around me at the canteen dining table would be having non-vegetarian food and I could bear it. Had I not overcome the aversion, I would have starved. He told me once that this freedom and wideness of mind was perhaps the reason he never had a headache in his entire life.
Similarly, when I wrote to him once that I was unable to attend get-togethers and parties as I could not bring myself to do the ‘small talk’ that is required, he wrote back, “I don’t advise too much seclusion. Books, no doubt, are fine companions, but some touch of common things is healthy and necessary in the conditions under which you live at present. To be cut off from people calls for great inner resources if one is not to become morbid. A bit of frivolity, which is not lost in a swarm of triviality, can be accepted:
A little non-sense now and then
Is relished by the wisest men.”
One day, I wrote to him: “Amal, I always feel a kind of push from within to be better than what I am, to improve, improve and improve. Is it ‘vital’ because it sometime leads to impatience?” He replied, “This push you feel is not ‘vital’ but ‘psychic’. Its giving rise sometimes to impatience does not necessarily imply that it is vital. Face to face with
The heavy and weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world
the aspiring soul is occasionally apt to exclaim: ‘How long, O Lord, how long?’ The suspicion of personal ambition enters your mind because you are not always aware with absolute acuteness that something in you pushes you forward to exceed not only your present self, but also altogether your own self, for the sake of an unknown greatness.” I do not know if these were my aspirations when I wrote him those wishes, but after Amal’s affirmation, they certainly had become so. Amal was an alchemist who, with the power of his words, could transmute baser impulses in others into their divine counterparts.
Amal always used to concentrate on the positives in everyone. He said, “Always keep your focus on the positives and the negatives will take care of themselves.” This is reflected in the Mother’s saying,
Always be kind, stop engaging in bitter criticism, no longer see evil in anything, obstinately force yourself to see nothing but the benevolent presence of the Divine Grace, and you will see not only within you but also around you an atmosphere of quiet joy, peaceful trust spreading more and more.
Once, when I went to say goodbye before leaving for Balasore, he said, “I hope to survive till you return.” The word “survive” made me very sad and I wrote to him that I did not like its use. He replied,
When you so seriously think about mutability in general and even of your own death in some far away future, why do you go at me hammer and tongs because I used the word ‘survive’ about myself. At my age, it is natural that now and then the idea of the great transition should occur. As I have told you, Einstein felt himself so much a part of the universal flow that he had no particular self-regard in the face of possible death. I feel utterly a part of Sri Aurobindo’s world-vision and world-work so that I am certain he will dispose of my life according to his will; I have no concern over how long I shall live. I am ready to go tomorrow as well as prepared to continue for years and years, savouring the immortal ambrosia of their inner presence and striving to let something of its rapture and radiance touch the hearts of all who are in contact with me. At my age, I cannot have absolute confidence that I shall definitely continue; so it is natural for me to have said to you: “I hope to survive till you return.” Along with a streak of jocularity, a teasing tinge, there is bound to be a vein of seriousness here. I understand and appreciate your pain at the word ‘survive’, your anxiety that I should not pop off soon and your deeply held wish for me to go on and on to help people remember and act on Sri Krishna’s great words: “You who have come into this transient and unhappy world, love and worship Me.” Yes, I cannot blame you for chiding me: your affection is perceived warm and vibrant behind your protest, but neither should you take me to task for being realistic. All the same, let me tell you that my heart is ever young, my mind is always ready for adventure, and although my legs are not very cooperative these days, they are out of tune with a face which—if I am to believe my friends—has no pouches below the eyes and no marked wrinkles and has, even at the age of 88 years and 5 months, all its own front teeth (9 lower and 10 upper). If my head has lost most of its hair, can’t this condition be regarded as symbolic of the spirit of youth as caught in the slang expression ‘Go bald-headed’ for things, meaning ‘proceed regardless of consequences’? I hope this picture of me makes you happy.
While handing me a copy of his book of poetry, The Secret Splendour, Amal told me, “This is quintessential Amal, who will always be with you.” While he was there, other than glancing through some of our common favourite poems, like This Errant Life, O Silent Love, Equality, Out of my Heart, Pranam to the Divine Mother, to name a few, I had not delved into the book deeply, because I could always go to him, the source, and he would recite either from the book or from memory. But after his passing, I began reading a poem a day from the book, which not only kindles the sense of sweetest Amal all around me, but also conjures up the atmosphere of
Life that is deep and wonder vast
which Amal lived and exemplified. Amal is around here somewhere. He had promised me: “Even after I go, my soul will be hovering about you—frequently, if not always.” And Amal always kept his promises.
Now I know why the sun continues to shine, the breeze continues to blow and the flowers continue to bloom, because Amal has not gone. He is right here,
He is not dead, whose glorious mind
Lifts thine on high.
To live in the hearts we leave behind
Is not to die.
25 November 1904 - 29 June 2011
Mother India, November 2011, brought out a special issue, Remembering Amal, for the occasion when Amal would have been 107. The present tribute by Gitanjali to him appears in it. Its personal touch is endearing.