Review: A Way Within; Seven Years in a Himalayan Ashram by Madhu Tandan - Hindustan Times

Review: A Way Within; Seven Years in a Himalayan Ashram by Madhu Tandan

ByNeha Kirpal
Apr 18, 2024 05:06 PM IST

A memoir of the seven years that the author and her husband spent at an ashram in Mirtola, Uttarakhand, looks at the relevance of the quest for a deeper, more authentic self

One of India’s pioneers of dream interpretation, Madhu Tandan and her husband Rajeev, left Delhi in 1984 to live in a remote ashram in the Himalayas. Set up by Shri Yashoda Ma, it is located in a village called Mirtola, about 10 kilometres away from Almora, in Uttarakhand. At that time, the place was run by Shri Madhava Ashish (Asishda), an English aircraft engineer who came to India during the Second World War and settled here.

An ashram in the Himalayas (representative picture) (Shutterstock)
An ashram in the Himalayas (representative picture) (Shutterstock)

A captivating memoir of the seven years that Tandan and her husband spent at the ashram, the book was first published in 1997 as Faith & Fire: A Way Within. It has now been revised and expanded to bring it more in line with the author’s search. It includes two new chapters about her journey after leaving Mirtola. In the prologue, Tandan questions the relevance of the quest for a deeper, more authentic self – “the discovery of which can take years and years of unrelenting practice”. It also involves “facing personal limitations, of questioning hopes and fears, and uncovering the prison of one’s beliefs,” she writes.

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368pp, ₹599; Speaking Tiger
368pp, ₹599; Speaking Tiger

The author’s deep connection with her guru, Ashishda, went back to her childhood when she noticed photographs of him in her parents’ room. Her mother visited the ashram regularly, which got Tandan acquainted with it as well as with Asishda. When she was 12, she met him for the first time while holidaying with her parents in Nainital.

As an adopted child, she had her share of complexes while growing up. However, as Tandan grew older, she learnt other complicated truths about herself, such as the fact that her mother had died of stomach cancer a month after she was born, that her adoptive mother was her biological father’s younger sister, and that her natural father was alive. In her early adolescent years, Tandan went to Calcutta to visit her natural father, who lived there with his second wife and their daughters.

Tandan’s husband and spiritual companion, Rajeev, son of family friends, had also been visiting Ashishda and had been initiated into ashram life. Tandan was 26, and had been married for six years when she and Rajeev decided to leave Delhi – quit their jobs, sell all their belongings – and live at the Mirtola ashram. Needless to say, her parents were shocked at their sudden decision. Possibly the most unusual man she had met in her life, Tandan believes she was searching for a father figure in Asishda.

The ashram seemed “a study in contrasts” – primitive at one level, with its wood stoves, pit latrines and no electrical gadgets in the kitchen; and modern on the other, with a beautifully equipped workshop, modern detergents and cheddar cheese for supper. She goes on to describe a typical day at the place and its unique “soil to soul” philosophy. 12 hours of manual work had to be offered to the temple in selfless service. Since the place aimed at self-sufficiency in food, its residents would plant, weed and harvest the crops themselves. They would also build their own tiny cottages, fertilise the fields, milk cows, deliver calves, churn butter, bake their own bread, and make their own jams and pickles. The rest of the day would consist of introspection, dream analysis and meditation. One’s personal identity did not matter here, only service did. In the evenings, Ashishda would read to his disciples from a variety of books, including Rumi, the Upanishads and Buddhist texts. Along the way, Tandan also highlights, among other things, how festivals like Janamashtami were celebrated at the Ashram.

Author Madhu Tandan (Courtesy the publisher)
Author Madhu Tandan (Courtesy the publisher)

But living in the ashram was no walk in the park and came with great challenges of its own – “wonderful, magical, all-consuming and terrifying.” Apart from the daily grind, there were squabbles and other politics that the Ashram community had to routinely deal with – as well as the anger and resentment that it would often lead to. While narrating some of the incidents, she also interprets the dreams that she had along the way and shares some of Asishda’s wise quotes. All through the years that the couple stayed there, the author kept no diary or notes, only a record of her dreams. “I lost more than I can name and gained more than I could contain,” she confesses. At one point, she had lost all hope but was unexpectedly touched by something inexplicable, which helped her carry on.

After seven years, the couple returned to their old life in Delhi as two transformed people. What hit them the hardest was the stark contrast of city life to that of the mountains. It was possibly this that led them to finally move to a cottage they built a thousand feet above the lake at Sattal in the hills of Kumaon, where they continue to live. Their life here resembles the one they had at the Ashram – no distractions, no rush to go anywhere or become anything, only the rhythm of a daily routine.

In a sense, A Way Within is Tandan’s personal exploration of what makes life meaningful.

A freelance writer based in New Delhi, Neha Kirpal writes primarily on books, music, films, theatre and travel

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