How to approach a Yogini
“Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self”
- The Bhagavad Gita
Powerless to be herself, Sita Johnson jumped off the balcony of her Tuscan home, hidden unassumingly in the suburbs of Atlanta.
She had become overwhelmed by the steepness of expectations. Perhaps, she should never have come to this cruel country. She could have continued to be a Yogini in her own land.
Sita had short dark hair, and her brown almond eyes longed in despair for a home. She wore a red and white flowery Versace dress, blue Christian Louboutin shoes, and on her fingers contemplating over the fence of the balcony was a gold wedding ring. Sita looked down the balcony and saw her daughter Amy, a brunette with dark eyes, shaded by the branches of the Autumn cherry trees, watering the flowers beside the cobbled brick path. Amy waved at her, and Sita smiled for her.
Sita would never belong.
Amy remembered feeling content watching the soft dance of the butterflies. When she saw her mother, her dress fluttering in the wind, jumping from the balcony to crash on the stone motor-court, Amy froze.
“Mama?” her voice shocked as she stared at her mother lying on her blood that stretched over the cobbled gray stones of the motor-court. The butterflies sustained their dance, some over her tranquil body, some about Amy’s appalled face.
Amy’s father, James Johnson, was driving his blue Porsche into the motor-court, when he saw his wife jump. He slammed on the break, froze, horrified, and whispered;
It took a few long minutes for father and daughter to understand what Sita had done. They gazed at each other, shocked, and then looked back at the body on the ground.
‘Mama!’ shouted Amy, rushing to her mother’s dead body.
James opened the door, and stood beside his car, watching, stunned, at his daughter wailing over her mother’s body.
For the next few weeks, James felt as though life was drifting. The calls he had to make, the arrangements for the funeral, those he had to thank for their kindness, all seemed like a bad dream. It felt he had to awaken from the motions of that dream, only to see his distraught Amy giving the eulogy in that small church, and it broke his heart.
‘My mother was an immigrant’ spoke Amy to the audience of family and friends ‘When she was young, she was a Yogini’
James studied the closed casket, and the portrait of Sita as a young woman, wearing a Sari, smiling.
Twenty years ago, James was a stranger in India, in Kerala. He was a rebellious young man who thought of travelling the world before settling into a career in finance. He was mesmerized by that India village untouched by modernity, cycling down those dusty streets of noise and exotic scents, sporting a blue shirt, khaki shorts, and sandals. There were not many white people here, he thought, and he knew he seemed strange to these curious brown faces, on that large Hero bicycle.
Tired, he stopped by a stall, where he ordered some tea.
‘Chai?’ he asked, holding a few coins in his hand. It was among the few words he knew.
“Well, ain’t that something” spoke the tea seller in a Louisiana accent ‘A white boy on a Hero bicycle?”
James stared at the tea seller and could not hide his smile. The man selling him his tea was his countryman, an elderly African American. The man shook James hands as though they were old friends.
“Chai’s on the house’ said the tea seller. “What’s your name. Where you from?”
“James” came the reply “I’m from Georgia…. Atlanta.”
“The name is Gerald, but I go by Thambi now.” Explained the Tea Seller “I was born in Louisiana, but I’m from these parts.”
Thambi looked past James, smiled, and spoke in the Malayalam language at a customer. James turned back and saw a young lady wearing a red half sari, and long jet-black hair that flowed to her knees, as was the custom of the women of this village of India. On her forehead was a red dot, and she wore her sari.
James could swear that in that one minute they had looked at each other, the streets grew silent, even the bark of the dogs.
Being the sort of person, she was, Sita attempted to hide a smile and walked towards Thambi, speaking to him in that strange language.
All James could discern was ‘Thambi Uncle’ but the rest was just gibberish to him.
James seemed fascinating to Sita, as well. He wore his shirt in a way she had never seen men wear. He wore khaki shorts and she had never seen a grown man wear this.
After she left, Thambi transitioned seamlessly to English again, and spoke to James.
Thambi had also come here to this village half a century ago, and he had married a woman here, had children, and grandchildren. He did not want to leave.
Thambi was clever and could tell immediately that James could only understand this village from the point of view of his own upbringing.
‘She teaches at the Yoga school’ said Thambi.
‘Is it appropriate for me to visit her school?”
‘Why not’ chuckled Thambi ‘You’ll learn many things. Most importantly, you will learn the proper way to approach a Yogini.’
At the time, Sita was a Yogini, the daughter of a Yogini named Devi, and they taught in the outskirts of a temple in Kerala. When she had turned the age to inherit the school, her mother imparted to her that she came from a long line of Yogini’s who had taught in this same building made of teak, roofed with red tiles, in this same indoor courtyard. Sita did not want to be a Yogini. It felt more like a chore, a duty to all the mothers who had come before her. Her mother was not just the strong willed Matriarch and Guru. She was a Brahmin lady who believed in social justice, progress and modernity. Many of her views were revolutionary to the villagers, yet they never spoke evil of her for she was respected and wise.
James had arrived late to the Yoga studio the next morning, and the class was just finishing up. So, he respectfully stood outside, and peeked through a crack in the blue walls. He was mesmerized by the grace with which Sita, seated in front facing her young students, was able to end her class with what seemed to be a chant, a prayer.
There was something pure and innocent about her chant. Everything about her was a novelty.
When the students had all left, James entered the studio.
It was only natural that his first statement to Sita was ‘I’m told there is a proper way to approach a Yogini’
She did not understand.
Perplexed, she signaled him to sit down on a mat on the floor, then went inside.
James took out his Malayalam – English dictionary, searching for the words that combined to form the sentence he was looking for. When he was satisfied, he had created the sentence, she had already returned with a cup of tea and a tray of some local snacks.
He spoke to her the same sentence in Malayalam, hoping she would understand.
She did not. He said it again slowly, and she still did not understand. James became frustrated. His heart fell apart. It was when he was about to give up that he saw Thambi enter the studio. James looked to Thambi with hope.
‘Hello, Mr. James’ said Thambi ‘I had a feeling you would need some help.
James stood up to greet Thambi.
‘I’m trying to ask her if there is a proper way to approach a Yogini?’
Thambi translated the sentence. Sita burst into laughter and said something quickly in her exotic tongue.
“Who told you that?’ Thambi translated.
‘You did!’ said James, pointing his finger at him. Sita laughed and Thambi again translated.
‘Thambi? Oh, he’s just spewing nonsense for foreigners.’ said Thambi ‘There is no proper way to approach me! One minute, let me bring my mother out here.’
She left the room, leaving Thambi and James to feast on the chai and noon day snacks.
“Many Lifetimes ago, I was a student here.’ Said Thambi ‘It was Sita’s grandmother Aradhana who taught me. I was her favorite student. Aradhana taught me the great secret that would give me the power, before she died, and Devi inherited the school”
“Power?” asked James
“A secret that is powerful”
By now, James was beginning to suspect Thambi was a bit mad.
“A secret?” said James “Interesting”
“A secret that is not meant to be a secret” explained Thambi, staring blankly at his memories.
Devi came out to greet James. Then Thambi conversed with the two ladies in their language.
James felt awkward, because he could not understand what they were saying.
Thambi sensed his uneasiness.
‘I had already told Devi that you had a liking for her daughter” he said
“You did what?” asked James.
“I’m explaining to the mother that you come from a decent, proper family. That you have a good job, and good prospects.’
‘Well, that is not a lie’ said James
“Oh, that’s good” said Thambi “They say caste and religion is not a bar for this family. They are a very modern family.”
The two continued to speak in their language. Devi smiled at James adoringly. He smiled back at her.
“What are you saying”
“We’re talking about the marriage” said Thambi
“What marriage, who’s marriage?”
“If you like her, we can arrange the marriage”
“What? no!” James stood up. “What?”
Sita and her Devi seemed shocked by James’ nervous shouts.
“Well, you have to make a decision, and you better make it quick” said Thambi “Either you marry her, or she moves on to another suitor”
James stood there, unable to move. He considered Sita. He had never seen anything so exotic, with her long black hair that blanketed the ground. He was infatuated with her almond eyes, and he wanted to love her in a way he could not understand himself.
The minute seemed like a game of Russian Roulette to him.
‘Hell, why not?” he answered. “What now?”
“We wait for the priest.”
“You want me to getting married… now?”
“Of course not, that would be silly. We’re waiting for the priest to read the horoscope, to see if you’re a match”
Thambi had already made arrangements for the priest, and he was on his way. They waited for hours. During those lonely hours amongst the Indians, James asked himself many times, studying Sita, if he was doing the right thing. The more he studied her, the more certain he was that she was the one. He had done stranger things in his lifetime.
The priest walked quietly into the school. He wore a lungi, and the sacred thread around his neck and his belly. He took out his map of horoscopes and laid it on the ground, where they all sat, looking at it.
The Priest said something, and Thambi translated
“When is your birthday?”
“June 3rd, twenty-two years ago” said James.
The conversation continued in Malayalam, between the four.
They seemed to grow sad at the news the priest was giving them.
“It’s bad news” Says Thambi “The priest says that according to the horoscopes, if you marry now, Sita will die before her own child. The right time is not now.”
“When is the right time?”
“In the month of May, twenty-two years from now, is the only auspicious time for the two of you to wed. He says you two are not meant for each other.”
The mother and the priest seemed to have an argument. The priest seemed to be defending his horoscopes. He angrily stood up, collected his maps, and walked out of the studio.
“The marriage shall be arranged then.” Said Thambi.
“What about the horoscope?”
“Never mind that. Her mother doesn’t believe in these superstitions. She’s a very modern woman.”
The mother smiled, walked to James.
“Touch her feet” said Thambi.
He did, and she blessed him. He looked to Sita, with her eyes brimming with love for him.
This man would be her husband, and she would be dutiful to the end.
All the village had arrived for the wedding. There were some among the villagers that complained that Sita should have married an Indian, and not any Indian. She should have married a South Indian, a Malayalee Hindu, someone of her own caste of Nampoodiri Brahmins. But they dare not say it to her face, for they all feared her mother, Devi, who was a stubborn woman. Devi did not have tolerance for the old ways.
‘The world is changing’ spoke Devi ‘Very soon, I predict these marriages between different cultures and castes and religions will be commonplace.’
Some of the men were not convinced, but they deferred to the wisdom of the Matriarch of that respected line of Yogini’s.
A few hours before the wedding, Thambi pulled James aside to the back of the house. There stood three large, muscular, burly men, and James put his guard.
In their hands, were shot glasses. On the ground, a bottle of Johnny Walker, blue label.
Thambi took a shot glass filled with the liquor and handed it to James.
‘These are her cousins.” Explained Thambi of the three men “They thought you would need the courage before your wedding”
“Cheers” they all shouted in unison, and they drank the shots.
Their wedding was as novel as anything James had seen, with a bearded Hindu priest chanting prayers, and them walking around the sacred fire.
James stumbled while walking, but the bearded priest assumed that it was because James was not accustomed to an Indian wedding.
To their relief, they discovered that when Sita read from the dictionary in English, James could understand. When there was something that did not make sense, Sita just had to point to the word in the dictionary, which had the English translation beside it. This is how they communicated for the first few years of their marriage.
There was no real airport in Kerala in those days. There was a runway, and James and Sita had to walk to the jumbo jet from Air India, and climb its stairs along with others. Before she entered the plane, Sita had looked back, waved her hand one last time to Devi, who stood in the far distance.
An Airplane was a novelty for Sita. She had gone to the tailor and ordered a custom blue pant and a white shirt. She decided on a pant because a skirt seemed too revealing of her legs, and she was not sure if a Sari would be appropriate to wear in America. When she wore it that morning, she and her mother could not help but laugh at this new look.
James wanted her to sit beside the window because he promised her the prettiest sights from the air. This promise came true. A tear came to Sita’s eyes as she saw her Kerala grow smaller and smaller beneath her. A runway had become a land of trees, into a city of people who became ants. Then she was above the clouds. It was the amazing thing she had ever witnessed in her life. She was in the air, amongst the clouds!
It was a long flight and there were really no issues, until they landed in America, where James parents were waiting for him.
All through the ride, his mother would cackle into laughter.
“I still can’t believe this” she roared into laughter “He’s done come back married!”
His mother had a deep southern drawl, and a professor at the university, an open-minded woman who had walked with Martin Luther King in March on Washington.
Sita felt at ease among James parents.
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