In the grip of a hug

Mumbai Mirror | Feb 23, 2014, 12.00 AM IST
In the grip of a hug
Amma gives her trademark hug to a devotee at her retreat in Melbourne, Australia, in April 2012

The Hugging Saint‘s PA turns whistleblower with a new book that lists sexual abuse and corruption as foundation for the spiritual mega-empire.While Sudhamani Edamannel, a fisherman’s daughter from Kerala transformed into Mata Amritanandmayi — the guru at the helm of a global spiritual empire that some reports estimate receives $20 million in donation every year — Gail ‘Gayatri‘ Tredwell was by her side. From early devotee at just 19 to head female disciple and finally, personal attendant, the Australian found herself working to death in the hope of finding God, fell victim to sexual abuse by the head swami, and turned into “her mule”, ferrying bundles of cash and jewellery from the ashram to Amma’s parents’ home in an ice chest.Fourteen years after her escape from Amma’s San Ramon centre in 1999, Tredwell, now a resident of Hawaii, offers an account of the deceit and abuse in the Mother’s inner circle.Excerpts from her just-released memoir Holy Hell: A Memoir of Faith, Devotion, and Pure Madness:

My guru, my girlfriend

One afternoon in November of 1989 Amma awoke from a brief nap, turned to me, and said, “I’m going for a swim in the river. Call all the girls, and let the madamas know, too.”

I rushed to the phone and dialed the Indian girls’ wing. “Amma is going for a swim in the river, please-,” and suddenly the girl on the line began screaming and shouting with excitement. I hung up and called the Indian householders’ wing, then the Westerners’ office. Meanwhile an impatient Amma rummaged through her cupboard looking for a swimming dress, tossing hither and thither everything she laid her hands upon. My heart sank when I saw my hours of labor evaporating before my eyes, all the lovingly laundered and ironed clothes landing in a heap on the floor.

“Amma, it’s not in that cupboard,” I pleaded, hoping she would stop. I hurried to the other side of the room and retrieved her swimming dress for her. After snatching it from my hands, she slipped on the bright-red, knee-length, baggy, strapped dress, wrapped a towel around her bare shoulders, and flew out the door. I dashed upstairs, got into my similar dress, and flung a towel over my shoulders as I hurried toward the river. There had recently been a lot of rain, so the normally brackish river was sufficiently diluted and pleasant enough to swim in. By the way, this occurred well before the ashram began dumping into the river tons of raw sewage from the multiple skyscrapers, hundreds of residents, and thousands of guests. You only had to watch out for the occasional floater from the outhouses upstream.

A mad frenzy erupted at the ashram. More than forty women representing every age bracket, height, weight, and skin color came running. An innocent bystander could have easily thought these hysterical women were being chased by a horde of infuriated wasps.

There was desperation among the ashram residents to get physically close to Amma. The women used to play what I called “asana wars.” Everyone had a little meditation rug, called asana, which they would use to reserve themselves a spot for the evening bhajans, or for the following day’s public gathering… The more frantic and needy women ashram residents owned two such rugs. They would strategically position their spare rugs, sometimes up to two days in advance, for a prime spot in the coveted weekly gatherings that took place on the roof of the temple building exclusively for residents. When they checked a few hours later, sometimes they found that their rugs had been moved.

Frequently there were squabbles, and a couple of times fistfights. Even in front of Amma the women didn’t hesitate to sit one on top of the other, pinch and push. Amma never seemed to mind. She always looked rather enamored and would giggle watching them fight to be close to her.

Amma’s children

Now at our reception in California the first one to stand up and insist that Amma take rest was Nealu, of course. His top priority was always her comfort.

Impatiently waiting in the hallway was Balu. He wanted Amma all to himself. I knew she would be okay with that, for she was always completely natural in his presence. She could be herself.

After everyone left, Balu entered. Amma told me to close the door. Then she sat on the floor to have her evening meal. His face was sad and long, for he was suffering from the pain of separation. With loving affection Amma teasingly said, “My little baby, come to mummy.” She lay his head in her lap while she ate. Once finished, she washed her hands then lay on the bed. Balu sat on the floor to her side. I was busy clearing the dishes, and my sleep-deprived brain was wondering what to do with the leftover food, when Amma sat up and asked, “What’s behind that door?”

I walked across the room and opened the door, revealing a tiny walk-in closet. “Why don’t you hop in there for a while and leave us alone,” she ordered. I was okay with the idea. I understood his desire to be alone. Besides, I was utterly exhausted. Closing the door behind me, I lay on the not-so-soft, slightly musty carpeted floor, feeling grateful for a chance to rest my weary bones. As I lay there in the dark, a naughty smile crept over my face. I realized that Amma had just discovered a way to be alone with Balu. As far as the outside world, including her other “spiritual sons,” knew, I was their chaperone. Very clever. Very clever indeed, I thought to myself…

A couple of days later Balu was seated once again in Amma’s room. Sure enough, she told me to go into the closet.

This one was much nicer than the previous closet. It had plush, cushy carpet and way more leg-room. I could really spread out. Off I went, once again happy to have some alone time and, all going well, a little rest. Time passed. My eyelids sprang open when I heard what sounded like her door opening, followed by the closing of the bathroom in the hallway. Stealthily I cracked open the closet, peeped into the room, and realized I was right. Her door was wide open, Balu had gone, and Amma was in the bathroom… That’s when I noticed Balu’s towel lying on the floor next to Amma’s bed. I approached the offwhite, navy pinstripe, checkered linen towel. I picked it up and went to put it outside in case he came back for it…Just as I was standing like a dummy with eyes bulging, a rather frantic Balu came flying back into the room. “It’s not what you think,” he snapped, yanking the object from my hand. He continued, “It’s umm… kanji vellam (sticky rice water) and bleach. Yes, that’s what it is. My towel fell into kanji vellam and bleach before I came here.”

He stormed out of the room.

The extract has been reproduced with the author’s permission from Holy Hell: A Memoir of Faith, Devotion, and Pure Madness

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