The backwaters of Kerala are beautiful, a deluxe labyrinth of canals – some cool, coconut lined and quiet, others as packed and polluted as a Bombay flyover. Depending on your tendency to worry, it is either Venice among the palms, or a despoiled paradise – National Geographic meets the “It’s A Small World” ride at Disneyland, where shoestring backpackers and wealthy honeymooners compete for space to play at Adam and Eve amongst the natives.
Determined to escape the traffic that clogs the main canals, I hired a canoe to tour the smaller villages where the honeymoonmobiles can’t reach. Here people live much as they have done for centuries (with the addition of satellite television and mobile phones). I had a local guide with me doing most of the rowing, but I chipped in whenever a villager emerged to wave, or offer a coconut to sip. This is a Communist state after all, and I want to look like I’m doing my part.
Given the Edenic nature of Kerala, it was perhaps inevitable that I would strike serpents. And as is often the case with me, they were serpents within, wracked with nightmares after reading Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City, a study of Bombay that makes a day in that city seem like a year in Abu Ghraib. It is amazing to me that so much of it I had never heard before. Falling in love with this country, as I was, it was high time I understood its skeletons (more likely on street corners than in closets), and confusing though my next destination was, it would have been indecipherable without first reading that book.
Indeed, one has to understand the depth of suffering of so many Indian people to understand their need for people like Amma. Or, for that matter, the Buddha, or Jesus Christ. Unlike Westerners, who seek solace in makeovers, money and Oprah, believing we can fix ourselves if only we find the right dietary consultant, the Indians are quick to turn to the gods. Maybe too quick sometimes. But the habits of millennia are hard to shake.
Perhaps India’s most popular female guru, Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, or simply Amma, is beloved by locals and foreigners alike with astonishing fervour. Crossing the rectitude and indefatigability of the Dalai Lama with the big bosomed benevolence of an ancient mother goddess (with a dash of Queen Latifah for good measure … the best gods have always been masters of showbiz), Amma is a force of (super)nature. Purported to have healing powers and a direct line of communication with God, Amma’s modus operandi is simple – to hug each and every one of her followers in marathon hug-o-rama hug-a-thons, taking all day and night if necessary.
During a hug, you may ask a question (think Delphic oracle), request a customized mantra to recite, or simply have the chance to be pressed into the chest of a prophet. It doesn’t matter if you’re a catwalk model or a leper – all are welcome.
I reach Amma’s ashram by boat along the backwaters, a ferry that chugs once daily from Alleppey to Kollam, and find one or two other Westerners whose plans are the same. For (as with Aslan’s return) there are rumours abroad that Amma is in town. Most of the year, the tireless guru is on tour around India and the world, hugging away, so I had really only counted on a peek around the ashram, a propaganda video or two, and back on the road again the following day. But my hopes were rising.
Also rising, out of the mist and green of the backwaters, was a series of structures that I hoped were not the ashram – a cluster of pink apartment blocks that looked like a holiday resort in Belarus. But it was there that the boat pulled up, drawn by its strange gravity, and there we alighted, greeted by four serene women who assured us this was the ashram, and Yes, they added, eyes ablaze – Amma was there!
Tomorrow, I was promised, I might be hugged.
First stop, the New Arrivals Desk. Next, I was allocated a room number and combination to its lock, and invited to watch a video that explained how as a girl Amma was considered stupid or ill, until it was realised that – in fact – she was divine, and had healing and transformative powers. Our inductor was charming and moderate, admitting he had not seen evidence of miracles himself, but that Amma’s chief gift was her ability to bring out the positive powers within others. This seemed a reasonable claim to make of a great teacher.
My next step was to acquaint myself with the facilities, which included a (pink) temple, modern auditorium, communal dining area (where everyone eats off steel plates food served from vats that could be used to cook elephants, were this not a vegetarian establishment), and the living quarters that housed thousands of residents – permanent and temporary.
I was sharing a room – for we all shared everything in the ashram – with a Parisian named Johannes and a Swede named Jakob. The room was about the size of a cell in the Bastille, with three mattresses devoid of substance, except for the dustballs like stinky tumbleweeds that scattered whenever I entered or left. The mattresses were on the floor, of course, along with everything else (in the absence of storage space) and the fact longer term guests were responsible for cleanliness would bode ill for anyone who’s ever lived away from home. I had no intention of staying longer in the room than necessary for sleep, and the signs ordering guests to abstain from sexual contact were scarcely required, since one would struggle to find a less romantic location than that room. (Even if the view out the window towards the backwaters was tres belle).
One of the things I like best about Christianity is that, unlike some religions, it from the beginning emphasised the diversity of its adherents, even whilst Jesus lived – the centurion, the tax collector, the fisherman, the mother, the prostitute, the Jews and the Samaritans, even down to individual dispositions, allowing room for doubter Thomas amongst them. In Amma’s ashram, however, individual identity seemed irrelevant, everything sublimated beneath the personality cult of the guru, her face projected above and around the complex in a way that might make even the vainest televangelists blush – I said, might – down to a merchandising department where one could buy everything from stickers to wall clocks emblazoned with her smiling visage, all of which were eagerly snaffled up by pilgrims eager to take a piece of Amma home.
Actually, for all the alternative thoughts being thought by the retired librarians from New York wearing kaftans and eating lentils, the whole place felt more like Hillsong than anything else, complete with nightly singalong, a weeping congregation, and no space for dissent. Amma takes it all in her stride, and when she made her first appearance halfway through evensong that first night, the faithful jumped to their feet and rushed forward to greet her like iron filings chase a magnet. The music was excellent, so I gave myself over to the tunes and attempted to ignore the creeping fear I was the only person in the ashram not entirely convinced by the whole affair.
Despite my best efforts to the contrary, I slept in the next day, missing the opportunity to chant the names of the Divine Mother with my fellow disciples, so when I woke with a guilt chip on my shoulder the size of Ganesha’s belly, I was relieved to learn that my two flatmates had done the same. I sensed something in this, so took the chance to get to know them, during which time Johannes – a Frenchman of Tunisian descent – dropped the bombshell that as much as he admired Amma, he was really there for the food.
During the day, I took part in the seva or “selfless activities” guests are expected to partake in, in my case, carrying piles of leaflets to be mailed around the world, much of it detailing the exemplary work performed by Amma and her foundation, including the construction of hospitals, housing and schools. With all those rich Western devotees, Amma can write big cheques, and she even donated to the United States after Hurricane Katrina. And she certainly leads from the front, as photos of her wading through tsunami ravaged areas of Kerala attest, not to mention the profound symbolic importance of her willingness to by photographed hugging the poor, ill and grotesquely disfigured, people who generally get ignored by the Indian state. Like WWI generals, Christian leaders tend to lead from the rear. Not so Amma.
But as my admiration for Amma grew, my doubts about many of her acolytes did as well. Beyond the veneer of celestial detachment many affected to display – their defiant asexuality, wispy deportment and anaemic complexions almost a calculated inversion of the red-blooded bronze-skinned shenanigans of Goa – I was forced to conclude I was trapped in the company of some of the cattiest passive aggressives this side of the Ganges. At the communal eating hall, washing the dishes, or conducting chores, the air hummed with low level nastiness, usually as devotees tried to outfox each other in the holier-than-thou stakes. I made the mistake of remarking how pretty were all the Keralan tea plantations, to be shot down for supporting an industry that was raping the Indian environment (my accuser, by the by, was drinking tea at the time).
Which brings me, finally, to the hug itself. The session began early, and Amma first received the locals, who flooded in numbers uncountable. After forming queues – the most orderly I ever saw in India – they were eventually seated within the temple, and the process began. Each devotee – men from the left, woman from the right – approached the place where Amma sat astride her throne to be embraced, each given their mantra to repeat for good fortune. (There are signs everywhere in the ashram ordering one to: “Chant Your Mantra”, for those inclined to forget).
The hours wheeled by. I had been told foreigners would be dealt with by midday, but by two o’clock I was eating lunch, and by three lying on my dusty mattress. Rumour spread that – since that night Amma was bound for Sri Lanka on a mercy mission – there was a chance she might cut short her hug-a-thon. Having been issued an officially numbered Hug Token, I was sorry to hear I might not get a chance to redeem it. When at 6.30pm I returned to the temple, the final Indians were being embraced, and the Hug Board finally announced that foreigners could present themselves. Still feeling slightly fraudulent among all the believers, I joined the men’s queue and there met Andy – an atheist Jew from California – whose mere existence I found strangely reassuring. As Western pilgrims descended from the stage, eyes stained with tears, the swelling of live music and waving of hands had me thinking again of Hillsong, as far removed from that type of institution as most of Amma’s followers would like to believe they were. Would she see through me?
Finally, I reached the wings of the stage, and felt like I was approaching the Great and All-Powerful Oz. What I hadn’t expected was so many stagehands who with little ceremony grabbed me, ordered me to my knees, and pushed me headlong into the heaving breast of the Divine Being. Well, if you’ve ever been hugged by a larger woman before – one who’s been dusted in sandalwood and had the sweat of 5000 devotees wiped over her tunic – then you know what it’s like. Amma certainly gave it to me. Whereas some were scarcely offered the time of day, I was given the royal treatment, with not one but two lovely hugs. Amma whispered something in my ear that sounded distinctly like “abracadabra”, but it might have been “hello handsome,” or “you only have two weeks to live,” for all I knew.
You are actually allowed to ask Amma a question, and an Italian two people before me had left in tears of distress after doing so. God only knows what his question was, but as Amma’s assistants pushed him away, he called out over and over, “She said no! She said no! Did she say no?!?” I had actually spent some time trying to formulate a question, but after seeing the Italian’s reaction to Amma’s wisdom, I was glad to let the universe attend to itself, and just enjoy the cuddle.
I’m the kind of person who suffers abstinence badly. Make me wait for something and I want it all the more. So maybe that’s why, after a long day of waiting and delay I bounded from the stage where Amma hugged me like a man whose girlfriend has just said, “Yes”. I had a spring in my step that even the Californian atheist shared, and we skipped from the temple born again.
India is a tough place to visit at times, and an even tougher place to live. So there is perhaps no gesture so healing as a lovely big cuddle in front of thousands of other people who want exactly the same thing – whatever their reason. Some of what the ashram had on offer I soaked up, and other things I chose to disregard, and although I was glad to leave I couldn’t help but notice that for all my cynicism and doubts, for just one moment at least, as I bounded down from that stage, I had had on my face the glow of a believer.