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This article was published 26/4/2009 (2980 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Cartwheels in a Sari
A Memoir of Growing Up Cult
By Jayanti Tamm
Harmony Books, 272 pages, $26
Reviewed by Jeff Presslaff
It is 2009. Jim Jones, Adolf Hitler, Charles Manson are within living memory. Piles of books, films and TV shows relate the hazards of falling under the spell of a charismatic, controlling leader.
Who needs another? Should there be any sympathy left for those who forsake the responsibility to lead their own lives?
These are some of the questions being directed at Jayanti Tamm, whose memoir Cartwheels in a Sari recounts her 25 years as a disciple of Sri Chinmoy, the Bangladeshi self-proclaimed holy man who amassed a worldwide following in the last decades of the 20th century.
But Tamm is not your ordinary cultist. She did not, like her parents, flee modern alienation for the safety of an all-knowing guru who would direct her life.
She is also unlike other children born to such parents, who either take to the community or fall away with little consequence.
Tamm was the Chosen One — a soul allegedly called down from heaven to serve history’s greatest avatar (his own assessment) as his most devoted disciple.
Or perhaps the Guru simply finessed an awkward situation.
Having established himself in a poor neighbourhood of one of New York’s outer boroughs in the 1960s, Chinmoy began to attract followers to his evening meditation sessions. Gradually, he asserted complete power over their lives.
Tamm’s parents arrived at their first session separately — as strangers — and left having been commanded to marry. Soon thereafter, Chinmoy decreed that all disciples should be celibate, even the married ones. And soon after that, Tamm’s mother was pregnant.
Chinmoy could brook no disobedience, yet these two disciples were valuable to him. His solution was to declare the incipient child a gift from the "Supreme" to be his special follower.
Thus was Jayanti Tamm given over to her spiritual mentor while still in the womb. From then until the moment of birth, and for many years after, every decision — her name, schooling, what TV she could watch, where she would work, who could be her friend — was made by "Guru."
This arrangement seemed benign in her early years. She was worshipped by the other disciples, and led a privileged, sheltered life. But the hermetic seal around the community had its weaknesses, and against Guru’s better judgement, little Jayanti does eventually go to public, then private, school where seeds of doubt send down tentative roots.
By adolescence, she is chafing vigorously against the constraints of her situation, especially concerning relationships with boys.
Her transgressions, mild by nearly any standard, begin a cycle of punishment and reconciliation with Guru that lasts until her final expulsion at age 25. Abandoned and shunned by all save her mother, devoid of independent life skills, she slowly learns to flourish in New York’s challenging social and economic environment.
Tamm’s writing is clean and never overwrought. She reveals her community’s painful contradictions passionately, but without rancour.
When extreme devotion generates its humorous moments, Tamm relates it with a light touch. This is more miraculous than her supposedly divine birth, considering how monomaniacal, manipulative and somewhat off the wall her Guru became as his fame and influence increased.
Tamm’s memoir is worth reading for the reminder of how wide the amplitudes of cognitive dissonance can swing when one relinquishes independent thought, and also for a familiar coming-of-age story compellingly told from a unique point of view.
Jeff Presslaff is a Winnipeg musician.