I would like to think that I would have made a swell monk were it not for some shortcomings in my personality. Right on top of the list is the fact that I’m not an early riser, a mandatory requirement it seems, in joining any monastic order, the Opus Dei and the Wine Club of India included. And apparently, being an unbeliever doesn’t help anyone’s monastic aspirations.
Also, let’s just say that being disciplined isn’t one of my strong points. But while the armed services never appealed to me for its strict adherence to the chain-of-command principle — “Hazra, jump off the cliff for god and country!” “Er, you’re not being serious are you, sir?” — the religious monastic life, with its controlled obsession that resembles true scholarship, always seemed attractive. At least in theory.
And, No. 34 on the list of obstacles but not No. 34 in importance, is the plain truth that I was never keen on sublimating my erotic requirements by singing hymns full of double-entendres or by having just a ‘spiritual consort’.
At the foundation of monastic life lies the principle of Disorder Within Order. And what can better illustrate this lifestyle choice than the physically pro-active, worldly wise (the ‘order’ bit) but the metaphysically grounded (the ‘disorder’ bit) Ramakrishna Order of monks. Started by the chief disciple of the 19th century mystic Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Swami Vivekananda, in 1897, the Ramakrishna Math is all about using soft power (a cultural force like cricket and Bollywood) for “one’s own salvation and the welfare of the world”. When on the morning of the last day of 2008 I visited the Ramakrishna Mission at Belur, an hour’s drive away from my parents’ house in Calcutta, I felt it: I was Anakin Skywalker-turned-Darth Vader visiting the headquarters of the Jedi knights. The Force was temporarily with me, a one-time potential monk now moved over forever to the Dark Side.
My decision to forgo yet another Park Street pub crawl on the morning of December 31 raised quite a few brows. Someone wanted to know whether I was getting religious in my old age. I had to deftly point out that dolphins don’t have to breathe through gills to appreciate sea life. And that a vegetarian can derive pleasure by studying non-vegetarians. Well, I didn’t give either of the convoluted analogies as explanation, but you know what I mean. I don’t have to be a believer to be impressed by the aesthetic delights of the sprawling grounds at Belur Math. After all, I grew up under the jolly gaze of the Jesuits — a model for the Ramakrishna order in their mix of intellectual, spiritual and humanistic explorations — and I never gave up cracking Jesus jokes.
But I must confess that my visit to Belur was based on a more personal reason. As a kid, I would tag along with my grandmother, who I suspect saw Ramakrishna as a sort of long-distance boyfriend. (She did bear an uncanny resemblance to the Kali-worshipping ‘mad’ mystic’s wife, Sharada.) And away from the Disorder Within Disorder of the Calcutta of the 70s and 80s, Belur would provide a quiet, clean, ordered day trip filled with river breeze and incense smoke. The monks were impressive in their bearings and I loved the no-fuss, no-nonsense look and feel of everything that marked this as so different from any other religious place I had been to.
Last week, even as I noticed that Calcutta was crumbling away at a much more furious pace than even Rajiv Gandhi could have foreseen when he called Calcutta a “dying city” in 1985, Belur Math, like one of those famous clubs of Calcutta, offered a grand, peaceful and inviting contrast. My New Year’s Eve trip was about nostalgia, about admiring these missionaries, and about being a genuine fan of the ‘much-Freudian’, ‘much-loony’ Ramakrishna and his my-grandma-resembling mystic wife. It had nothing to do with religious faith. As ‘Swami’ Henry Rollins, punk rocker, philosopher and guide, once pointed out, being a monk was about having ‘iron in the soul’: madness with order, passion with strength.
Have a great new year and keep your noses clean.