Please Note: This is Ep.15
Please click here for Ep.14
This one is a little longer than usual. I thank you for your time and patience in reading it. Jai Sri Hari! 🙏🏻
(As everything I write is true, names have been changed to protect identities.)
“You stayed here last night, didn’t you.”
It clearly wasn’t a question.
She was in her pyjamas, on her hands and knees, glaring at me under the desk, on my hands and knees, in her son’s pyjamas.
The moment the door had opened, without a word, she’d made a beeline for the desk. Call it a mother’s instinct, she knew without a doubt what was going on, and here we both were now, on the floor, peering at each other, my cheeks burning as red as the paisley pyjamas I was wearing.
After that one line, Maanav’s mother didn’t say another word; she simply got up off the floor and left the room, allowing me to come out from under the desk with my tail between my legs and get dressed, able to leave with some semblance of dignity intact.
The same morning, after Maanav had dropped me home, I had a call from him. His mother had extended an invitation for me to have dinner with his family that evening.
Holy crap! If I ever marry this man, this will forever be the story of how I met my mother-in-law for the first time!
And so, this was how I met Maanav’s mother. Not the best circumstance or object to meet under (I mean, under a desk?), but hey, it could have been worse… Cringe.
That evening at dinner, I don’t remember the conversation, but I do remember how lovely they all were. What a relief! His two sisters, one who was just nine years old and the other who was getting her degree at the London School of Economics, were delightful. As nervous as I was, the family was witty and chatty and made light of what had happened in the morning. The sisters even comically repeated their mother’s now infamous one-liner, “You stayed here last night, didn’t you!” perfectly imitating her strong Gujarati accent. They were hilarious.
The other thing I remember was the food! I absolutely love Mexican food, and Maanav’s mother had made burritos that evening. I ate three or four (or maybe more! I can’t remember now) whole ones to myself. I didn’t realise it was a household record, and later on, no one remembered the initial awkwardness, just how many burritos I’d eaten! Even though it had started out so cringe-worthy, it ended up being a day to look back on and laugh at.
Now Maanav and I were out on dates or around each other’s houses all the time, spending time with each other’s families, and so a couple of weeks after meeting his family, as they were holding a gathering at their home, they invited me too.
They were hosting some aryikas (female monks who followed Jainism), also known as Jain sadhvis, who had arrived from India. In honour of the sadhvis, a grand meal was prepared, and friends and family were invited to receive their blessings, eat together, and sing devotional songs along with the singers and musicians they’d hired with their array of traditional Indian instruments.
Although I was about to meet their entire circle for the first time (and it was a lot of people, the whole ground floor of the house was full), I wasn’t nervous at all because Maanav’s family had already lovingly accepted me and this was a spiritual gathering. I was in my element. I already loved wearing sarees and singing devotional songs as I had done often at the ISKCON temple and at my parents’ home when we used to hold bhajans there every week, and I already knew the words to many of the bhajans they were singing as they were a mix of Jain and Hindu ones. I sang my heart out with them and even performed a solo ode to Krishna. It clearly endeared me to everyone, especially the sadhvis and the elders in the family; they showered me with love and blessings, and I felt so welcome and at ease.
After that gathering, I began to spend more time getting to know the sadhvis. I loved their simplicity. They had short, cropped hair, which I only caught glimpses of as their heads were covered by a drape of their cotton sarees. Although I wore colours, my sarees were either very simple or one solid colour. I wasn’t into fancy prints, embroidery, or anything flashy, and I was enamoured by their plain, cotton, pure-white sarees. As is traditional in Jainism, in order to minimise violence and uphold their core principle of Ahimsa, they also wore muhapattis, a piece of white cloth over their mouths which were covered at all times except for when they ate, which they did in private, so I never saw the lower half of their faces.
One of the sadhvis was truly an inspiration to me; she was young, in her twenties, spoke immaculate English and was in London for some time to pursue her PhD and teach Jainism. She was staying at a modest derasar (a Jain temple of worship) which was in a converted house close to where my parents lived.
I loved to hear her speak at her public discourses at the community centre, I loved her wisdom. I’d go to visit her sometimes at the derasar too. She rekindled my love of reading, and we discussed books, spirituality and life. Maanav had just given me the novel, A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, and I was surprised she’d read it too. I realised there was more to the sadhvis than met the eye. They were not living a repressed, archaic way of life. They were intelligent, worldly and spreading wisdom, love, peace and joy. This sadhvi wanted to lift the veil of ignorance around Jainism and teach people the difference between Lord Mahaveer’s teachings and nonsensical traditions.
I also attended her evening Jainism classes along with Maanav’s mother, and soon his mother and the sadhvi asked if I would like to teach the children’s classes. I was honoured and agreed in an instant.
My class was comprised of Maanav’s youngest sister and her friends, and I had an absolute ball with them. Although I was only sixteen years old myself, not much older than they were, they were so sweet and disciplined from the outset. They respected me and allowed me to teach them everything I learned from the sadhvi.
So, I was in Jain classes a couple of evenings a week and working as an office temp during the day (at that particular time, I was temping at the offices of the charity, the National Autistic Society). The plan was to work until the academic year started again in September, then go back to college to get my A levels (I’d already applied and gotten in to another college). Soon enough, I’d be back on track. I wasn’t smoking or taking any drugs anymore. I wasn’t in touch with any friends from my previous existence either, Maanav preferred it that way, and he and I saw each other every single day. He was the centre of my world.
Eventually, my old world and new world had to collide at some point, and six months into the relationship, it was summer and Maanav’s twenty-fifth birthday. His family held a beautiful garden party at their home and invited my parents to meet them for the first time.
I remember my parents were freaking out, so nervous about what to wear, what to bring and how to act. It was my first opportunity to buy a gift for Maanav, and my mother took me shopping. I chose a gold ring in the shape of an Om. It was beyond our budget, but my mother said it didn’t matter. Maanav loved it, the party was a huge success, and the two families met without any glitches and got on wonderfully.
By September, I’d started at my new college studying Psychology, Sociology, Western Philosophy and Buddhism. And after the first term was over for the Christmas holidays, I visited India for the second time, this time with the sadhvi and my Jain school students. There were forty children in total, and I was a team leader along with Maanav, his parents and some of the elders in the community.
We stayed at the Jain ashram (monastery) in Bihar, where the sadhvis I’d met in London had come from. We visited the polio camp and the eye hospital in the ashram grounds, where they provided free and subsidised treatment and leg braces to the needy. Bihar is the poorest state in India, and it was easy to see the destitution everywhere. We visited the neighbouring villages, and I saw extreme poverty up close. Tiny, malnourished children with matted hair burnt to straw in the sun shyly snuck their heads out from their mud houses. Most were barely clothed, and if they were covered at all, it was by ragged scraps. We were at one village to install a well and a hand pump so they could have access to water. Up until then, they’d had to walk miles to fetch water.
I’d lived in a state of deprivation myself, where I hardly had enough to eat, I’d met and talked to the homeless on the streets of London, and I’d seen poverty in the cities during my first trip to India with my mother, but it was this rural poverty where they didn’t even have the fundamental human right of water, that pierced my heart and truly opened my eyes to how some people in this world live.
No matter how poor I had been, I always had a flushing toilet, clean clothes and a daily shower. If I was ever thirsty, all I had to do was turn a tap. I didn’t know until I saw it for myself that some people actually lived like this.
My heart went out to them. My mind swam with questions. What do the women do when they’re on their period? How do they keep their underclothes sanitary? Do the children even know what an education is? We’ve come to help this one village for now, but what happens when we leave? And what about all the other villages in the world like this without water?
My only peace of mind was that Maanav’s father was the head of the charitable organisation that constantly raised funds for the ashram, the hospital, the camps and the villages. At least those connected with this institution would be taken care of.
We also visited some places of pilgrimage, including the ruins of an ancient university, the main Jain temples atop high hills, and Bodh Gaya — the place where it is said that Lord Buddha attained enlightenment. I’d never practised silence before, nor had I even heard of it as a spiritual practice, but I remember that on this pilgrimage, I didn’t feel like speaking at all. Once we’d gone into the place of worship or paid our obeisance at the holy site, I stayed introspective and silent, and I just didn’t feel like speaking for as long as possible afterwards.
The stay at the ashram and the month-long trip was an unforgettable experience for me. The children and I learned a lot and were more grateful than ever for our lives and the opportunity to serve and help others in some way.
Towards the end of our trip, on New year’s eve, the children and I performed an evening of comedy and songs for the sadhvis and Acharya ji (the head of the monastic order). That night, after the performance, we all lined up to receive Acharya ji’s blessings, and when Maanav and I bowed at her feet, she, along with the sadhvi whom I’d gotten to know well, said that we should announce our engagement once we got back to London.
They could see that we were very much in love and inseparable, we were both involved in the Jain community and the charitable organisation, and our families had met and got on well with each other; plus I was seventeen now and more mature than most kids my age.
Maanav had, in fact, tried to propose marriage to me once at the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, but it was a bumbling performance. For one, he didn’t have a ring, so I didn’t take him seriously, and secondly, there were so many tourists walking around that when he tried to get down on one knee, they ended up knocking into him, and he kept losing his balance. I was in stitches. We laughed it off and came home ‘not officially, but kinda engaged’.
But now it was going to be official. We had everyone’s blessing and were both excited for our future ahead. On the plane back to England, I was a little travel sick, so instead of playing games with the children or chatting to Maanav, I spent most of it lying down cosily under a blanket, dreaming of my future. I was inspired by the sadhvis and the charitable work we were doing. I was going to finish my A levels and go on to University. I loved all my classes and was looking forward to learning more about the mind, humanity, religion and spirituality. I wanted to make a difference in the world just like the sadhvis were doing, just like we had done on this trip.
But once we were back, as enthusiastic as I was, I didn’t make it to my first day back at college. I didn’t make it to the second day either… nor the third.
Please click here to continue to Ep.16