The Hugging Mother of Kerala

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.

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 some­one 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.

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 cus­tomised 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 real 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 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 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 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 holy 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 embrace 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.