“So, you want to extend your stay here by one more month?”
“Yes, but I actually heard from a devotee today that one can volunteer here. If that’s possible, I’d like to stay a while and volunteer, please.”
“Hmm…” A long silence followed.
Rajiv ji, the administrator of the ashram, and I had just sat down to discuss the extension of my stay. It was October 26, 2019, five days since I’d arrived.
“You want to volunteer?” He looked at me piercingly.
“Why?” he asked simply.
To be honest, I don’t remember what I said in response to his loaded question. Maybe I spoke about wanting to figure out my spiritual path. Or perhaps I mentioned that I felt at peace here. I’ve no clue. I do remember these words though.
“My skillset is in working with children,” I said enthusiastically. “If the ashram is looking for any help in that area or teaching in local schools, I’m happy to do whatever’s needed.”
And this was the exact moment I was subjected to ‘the stare’.
Having worked closely with Rajiv ji for over a year now, I’ve become familiar with this stare. I’ve come to understand that it is his thinking face, his way of processing information before coming to a decision. This is a regular occurrence in our meetings, right after I’ve given my two cents on something quite confidently. The stare lasts a good couple of minutes, if not more. Now, a couple of minutes may not seem like a lot. But imagine a hundred and twenty seconds of one person staring at another, unblinking, unwavering and altogether entirely unnerving the other person.
That afternoon, he hit me with the stare for the first time. He didn’t say anything while I spoke about how children were my life’s joy and it was the work I was meant to do. It was my calling; it was not a choice. He occasionally nodded to show he was listening and when I had eventually run out of things to say, I paused. He didn’t say a word, just continued to look at me.
Basic psychology suggests that when subjected to a piercing, unflinching gaze, a liar will keep talking to cover up his nervousness and eventually blurt out the truth. I was no liar. But I was a person fast losing my confidence in the face of such a gaze.
The silence stretched on while he just stared. Would he say something? Should I? I attempted a meagre smile. One corner of his mouth tilted upward slightly but not much else changed. I wondered if getting up and doing a wild dance would evoke a reaction. Perhaps not. The stare seemed frozen in time. I tried staring back but quickly gave up that idea. Never tangle with an expert.
I took a breath. And just like that, I was blurting.
“Look, Rajiv ji, I’ll be honest. I don’t know why I feel the need to volunteer but I do. I feel at home, for the first time in my life. I can’t leave. Even if I want to, I can’t. Something is pulling me, holding me here physically, and I can’t shake it. If you want me to leave, you’ll have to take my bags, literally dump them outside the ashram and push me out. That’s the only way I’ll leave.”
He continued staring.
“Hahaha.” I laughed lamely before trailing off.
He cracked a smile at last, probably more out of pity than anything else. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s talk after the event and figure out what you can do. We’ve some work for you at the ashram and we’ll see how you can help in the local schools.”
I was ecstatic! I had just gotten the opportunity to live in an ashram for six months, figure out my spiritual path and work with children. It was the ultimate jackpot.
Little did I know what was about to go down. Swamiji had just begun to play and I’d stepped into the arena without knowing that only He could throw the knockout punch.
Let’s jump ahead to two months down the line. Working with children was nowhere in sight. Instead, I found myself one morning standing in an empty space near the ashram entrance, listening as Rajiv ji enthusiastically outlined his plan for a coffee shop. It was a lovely idea and I was excited to jump on board, eager to do whatever I could. Perhaps I could design the interiors or come up with a quirky menu, maybe figure out mood lighting and aesthetics. Oh, what fun!
“What do you think?” asked Rajiv ji, as he finished his explanation.
“I love it!” I exclaimed. “It’s really innovative and it would give people a great place to hang out.”
“Great!” he smiled. “Because you’ll oversee its construction.”
My jaw dropped before I quickly rearranged my face into a smooth, confident expression.
“Yes, of course, Rajiv ji,” I said, as dignified as possible. “I’ll do it.”
I waited till he walked off before I let my dismay show. Construction?! I didn’t know a thing about construction. What was I supposed to do?
The obvious answer was there was nothing I could do. I had signed up to help in any manner possible. If construction was where I was needed, that’s where I would be. So thinking, I squared my shoulders and arrived at the site the next morning, ready to supervise the living daylights out of that coffee shop. I met the small team of workers who would build it, mostly boys from the surrounding villages.
“Jai Sri Hari!” I smiled brightly. “Kaise hain sab log?” (How is everybody?)
There was a pause before some of the boys smirked and turned away. I smiled uncomfortably. Insecurity shot to the forefront. How would I tell them what to do when I had not the faintest idea how a structure was constructed? Sullen teenage boys were a nightmare on my best day and here I was, ready to direct them on a building project. I was way out of my comfort zone and it was about to show.
“Madam ji!” The supervisor of the site came up. “Shuroo karne wale hain. Pehle pole khade karke phir masala se bhar denge.” (Madam ji! We’re about to begin. We’ll erect the poles first and then fill them up with masala.)
I looked at him blankly. “Kya masala, garam masala?” (What masala, garam masala?) Why would a construction site need garam masala?
He burst out laughing, thinking I’d cracked a joke, before he caught my expression. “Acha. Aapko sacch mei pata nahi? Masala, madam ji! Cement daalenge reth aur bajri ke saath.” (I see. You really don’t know? Masala, madam ji! We’ll put cement along with reth and bajri.)
What the hell was a bajri?
“Ah, acha acha,” I said wisely, trying to appear knowledgeable. “Haan, masala! Theek hai, theek hai, please kar deejiye.” (I see, I see. Right, masala! Yes yes, please do it.)
He shook his head and walked off. Clearly, I was fooling nobody.
I sat down heavily on the ground, despair filling me. Could I do this? Yes. Yes, I could. I had to. There was no other choice. I gave myself a pep talk to pull myself together and stayed where I was, watching them erect the poles and cement them into the ground. (Bajri, it turned out, were the small grey stones we see at every construction site. A mixture of cement, sand and these stones is called masala. Why? Because India.)
A couple of hours later, I saw Raghu Swamiji walking up to the site and groaned. Over the past two months, we had butted heads on numerous occasions when it came to developing the ashram gardens. (Or rather, I butted at empty air while he grinned unrepentantly.) I would suggest an idea, it would be approved and then, one of two things would happen. Right when work was set to begin, Raghu Swamiji would appear and point out a dozen practical things we hadn’t considered that would affect the project. Or when work was nearly complete, he would appear and do the same. We hadn’t thought to put in a drainage line. We hadn’t done “grotting” to set the foundation properly. We were building over a septic tank. We had laid the brick walls too thin. So on and so forth. The worst part was, he was always right. With over two decades of construction experience, how could he not be? But I was too proud to admit it.
It was an ego bashing like no other because ultimately, every single idea I suggested would be scraped. And he would smile teasingly. “Aapka kaam kharaab kar diya hum?” (I ruined your work?) I’d glare and turn away mutinously.
What was he going to say now? This could only go one way.
And sure enough. “Haan ji,” he grinned. “Kya supervise kar rahe hain? Pole saara tedha kar diye.” (What supervision are you doing? All the poles are crooked.)
I looked at him, confused. What did he mean? He pointed towards two poles at the front and then I saw it. We’d set out to erect poles in two straight lines, three per line. Simple enough. But somehow, under my watchful eye, two poles were in a straight line while the third pole in each line had taken a detour. Instead of two straight lines, I was now staring at a half-formed diamond. And as I watched, a worker slapped the last bit of masala in place, cementing the misshapen horror forever.
With such a structure, we couldn’t construct the walls, floor or put up a roof. I had just supervised the coffee shop into oblivion.
“Ho gaya, madam ji.” The worker stood up, proudly beaming at his handiwork. “Aapka base thayaar.” (All done, madam ji. Your base is ready.”)
Unskilled labour, a more unskilled supervisor, and a grinning Raghu Swamiji opening his mouth to point out a dozen more errors I had overlooked. What else could possibly go wrong?
Like I said, Swamiji had just begun to play.
To be continued 🙂 Part 2 coming soon.
(Parts within a many-part series. What can I say? Inception is real.)
Disclaimer: The opportunity I got to volunteer at the ashram was entirely through Divine Grace 🙂 Every person who wishes to volunteer at the ashram must either fill out an online form or meet with the administration before a decision is reached. Selection is at the discretion of the management only.
Rajiv ji, the administrator, is one of the most sincere, dedicated and passionate people I’ve ever had the privilege to work with. I admire him deeply, both, for his surrender and commitment to Swamiji which is awe-inspiring and his heart which truly is made of gold 🙂