Published in Eleven Eleven, Winter 2017
The Beggar Woman's Baby
For a few glorious weeks during the rainy season, when water actually ran in the wide, sandy river course outside the ashram, my fellow American hippies and I could wash our clothes in the traditional way. As we threaded through the thorn bushes to the river, I felt wonderfully liberated from the hot and crowded confines of the compound. I imagined a romantic connection with timeless rhythms as I squatted on the coarse sand, and slapped my clothes clean on a flat slab of granite. I rinsed away the frustrations of the week in the shallow, braided water and dried my saris by holding the corners and letting the hot breeze balloon them out like pink and purple sails. For a brief moment I felt released from the spiritual strivings and petty irritations of the ashram. My soul rose as the setting sun tinged the sky with rose and gold. The towering cumulous clouds beckoned like stepping stones towards enlightenment.
But the path towards nirvana was far from easy. Like many baby boomers in 1970, I was naïve and heedless. After passage of the Civil Rights Act, ending world hunger and creating a just society seemed well within humanity’s grasp. I hadn’t needed Timothy Leary to tell me to turn on, tune in and drop out. I’d already earned wrath and rejection from my conservative Japanese American parents by dropping out of college in 1965, turning on to acid and tuning into a spiritual search that began in the Haight Ashbury and then led my then-husband David and I to India, determined to transmute our fleeting psychedelic highs into permanent bliss.
We had three months—the length of our visas—to find enlightenment at an obscure Andra Pradesh ashram presided over by an orange-robed guru who called himself Krishna’s avatar.
As we waited for the guru’s daily appearance, or darshan, we sang bhajans in a high-ceilinged, airy mandir, men on one side, women on the other, sitting cross-legged on the cool terrazzo floor. My monkey-mind was lulled by melodies soaring over the primordial drone of harmonium and vina. In the incense-scented air, birds flitted peacefully in and out of the high transom windows. I lost myself in Sanskrit lyrics and the serene contemplation of polychrome Hindu gods who embodied the myriad aspects of life. They touched me in a way that the Japanese Buddhist sutras of my childhood had not. But darshan, the gift of the guru’s presence, conferred no thunderclap of understanding, even when he took my notebook out of my hands and wrote: “I am always with you. Where is there is love, there is God.” I was stunned and pleased by the honor, but I stared the words numbly. It was still hot; it was still crowded; and the hard stone floor put my legs to sleep.
Outside, we could not escape the reality of the beggars. A knot of ragged men and women clustered right outside the ashram gates, crying “Amah, amah!!” in pitiful tones as they shoveled their fingers towards hungry mouths.
One woman held herself apart. Shanta Ma stood a dozen feet beyond the others. She never pleaded; she simply stood erect with her palm outstretched, and stared straight ahead into the distance. She spoke so rarely that I thought at first she was a tongueless mute. Every day she stood, in the same dirty red sari, with a baby on her hip and her two older children beside her.
I wondered if she was there for the same reason we were — to seek help from the guru.
Shanta Ma got her name from her eldest child. In India, a woman lost her name as soon as she gave birth. She was thenceforth known only as the mother of her child—Shanta Ma was mother to seven-year-old Shanta, a beautiful girl with classic, delicate features and tangled shoulder-length hair. Shanta’s short dress was ragged and stained, but her thin legs were strong and energetic. Sometimes she tagged along with us on our errands, chattering away in Telegu. Her high-spirited intelligence needed no translation. When she fingered little cellophane packets of biscuits at the beedi store, she knew we’d buy her one.
Shanta’s four-year-old brother Ram played in the street alongside his mother. His thick shock of hair was stiff with dirt, but his huge eyes and playful smile were disarming. When he pretended to snatch bananas out of our shopping bags, we gave him enough fruit for the whole family, feeling smug in our generosity.
We never learned the name of Shanta Ma’s baby. He never left her arms; he was very still, eyes blank, leaning his big head against her shoulder. One day, I intercepted Shanta Ma’s stare, and understood why she looked at no one. Her eyes were so hot with anger they were like live charcoals glowing out of her dark skin. Just a glance could singe the soul. She wasn’t angry with us soft, rich Americans; she was angry at the system she was trapped in. A look as wild as hers invited beatings in a patriarchial country. I learned that she had once been married to a prosperous man in Dharmavaram, the big town to the north. Her missing teeth and facial scars testified to the beating she’d suffered until she gathered up her children and ran away. With no parental home to return to, she was reduced to begging.
How appalling conditions must have been for Shanta Ma to condemn herself and her children to beggar’s lives. She must have thought it was for the best. Somehow, they’d made their way to the ashram. But for Shanta Ma, the miracle never came.
One day I saw her standing in line at the ashram hospital. Her baby looked hot and listless. Later, I learned that he had died. “Maybe it was for the best,” the nurse told us. “The child had birth defects, it was underdeveloped—a three-year-old with the body of an infant. What sort of future could it have?”
There were no ashes for the beggar woman. Her baby’s spirit would find no release. The mother could not afford firewood for a purifying funeral pyre, so she buried her youngest child in a shallow grave by the river.
The next day, we went to wash our clothes in the river, we saw a fresh mound in the sand with a few rocks on top. The day after that, the grave was empty, except for a tuft of black hair at the bottom of a shallow hole. We were struck dumb with grief; we could not look at each other. Had the wild dogs taken the body? There were plenty of dun-colored strays roaming the village, with painfully visible ribs and sores on their bony hips. They wandered the street singly and in small packs, perpetually on the hunt for every scrap they could steal, yelping and cringing when the villagers hit them with sticks, just on principle.
Shanta Ma and her remaining children disappeared. Had they found a haven somewhere? I hoped. I prayed. When they reappeared a month later, the woman had lost her spirit. The eyes that had burned so fiercely had gone flat, dull as dead coals. The little boy Ram lay curled on the ground with his thumb in his mouth.
And Shanta no longer hovered around her mother. She was with the sadhu now, the blue-robed holy man who begged nearby. Three horizontal ash stripes across his forehead proclaimed him a worshipper of Shiva, the god of destruction and regeneration. He was a good-looking, dignified man, with a long white beard, hair that flowed past his shoulders, and the barest hint of arrogance. Since many pilgrims worshipped Shiva, he collected the most alms.
We heard that Shanta Ma had sold her daughter to him. The little girl was to cook and do his laundry. In exchange, the sadhu would protect her and make sure she was fed. At first, Shanta seemed delighted, even a little officious. She was proud of her new position. She swept the banana peels and leaf litter away from the ground around the sadhu. She fanned flies off him. She was more assertive with her begging, thrusting her battered aluminum bowl towards us and cocking her head winsomely, saying, “Amah, Amah!”
But as the weeks passed, she grew subdued. Her cockiness drained into something between resentment and resignation. The sadhu’s gaze grew possessive. I was uneasy at the implications, but what did I know, really? I didn’t know the language or the customs. Maybe I was projecting my own suspicions.
The beggar woman continued to gaze out into the horizon. At nothing.
I felt tongue-tied by rage and helplessness. How can any of us be free as long as others suffer so deeply? I went to an ashram elder for guidance. The kindly old man sighed and waggled his head in an age-old gesture of resignation. “You cannot know what karma they have to work out. All you can do is love.”
I clutched my holy beads and prayed for answers.