Blessed with exceptional weather this summer, I spent many weekends at the beach under my an umbrella indulging in my favorite pastime: reading. One of the best books I read during this period was Jayanti Tamm’s book “Cartwheels In A Sari,” an amazing story of girl who grew up in a “cult” led by the guru Sri Chinmoy, a man who declared himself “God.”
For years I’ve seen Sri Chinmoy’s posters scattered throughout Manhattan advertising free mediations classes, so was initially drawn to “Cartwheels In A Sari” out of curiosity. Yet it was Jayanti’s exceptional writing and gift for storytelling that made me not want to put the book down.
The book is written through the eyes of child, and reading about Sri Chimnoy’s absurd demands and restrictive lifestyle that forbid followers TV, music, movies and relations with the opposite sex, I found myself both laughing while simultaneously feeling sorry for the little girl described in the book.
Here Jayanti explains the guru’s appeal, while sharing about her life after Sri Chimnoy.
How were you able to come in terms with your past and reconcile being denied a normal childhood?
At the time, first and foremost, I felt both terrified and also electrified. I was told that I would be punished by bad karma, so I was feared that something horrible was bound to occur to me at every moment, and, at the same time, I was thrilled to be able to venture forward and do what I wanted to do. Of course, my entire family remained in the cult, so I always felt tethered to it and pressured. Eventually, after I completed my undergraduate degree at Queens College, I moved to Washington, DC, for graduate school. Moving away from Queens was a very important step for me. From there, I kept on moving. I ended up seeking out a therapist, and for me, that was very useful. I also started writing about what had happened as a way to begin to work through so many of the issues that I had.
Your parents also eventually left the cult, but your brother stayed. Where are they all now and how do they feel about having dedicated so many years to guru Sri Chinmoy?
My parents both eventually left the cult, and they left their marriage as well. My father moved back to North Dakota, and he still practices law there. My mother remained in Connecticut, and she has a rich and full life. Both of them have deep regrets over the decades that they devoted to Sri Chinmoy, but they have both moved forward.
The great tragedy is that my brother, Ketan, passed away in March 2014. I am heartbroken.
It’s interesting that your father, a Yale educated lawyer, would be drawn to following Sri Chinmoy. What would you say was the common characteristic that drew people to follow guru, especially given the strict rules and demands placed on followers (e.g., no music, television, sex, etc.)?
I believe that there is no one single “type” of person who ends up involved in cults. Remember, that there is not ONE SINGLE cult that self-identifies as a “cult.” It’s not like someone wakes up one morning and says, “Gee, I want to go join a cult today. Let me go to my local cult and sign up.” It doesn’t happen like that. People are often searching for some type of connection, movement and community. They find a group of people who, at first, are very welcoming and make them feel excited about being part of something larger than just themselves. Slowly, over time, after the involvement deepens, and that is when the individual ends up following something that is not what it first appeared to be.
Yes! I had the ability to travel the world. That is a priceless experience. I also was raised with the spirit that anything could be done. That also has proved powerful for me in my life.
What’s next on the agenda for you? Is there another book in the works?
I am struggling on a novel. I have a four-year old and a seven-year old, plus I
teach full-time at a college, so it’s hard to devote my full attention right now. I can tell you that the novel is NOT about me, or Gurus, or cults! I am loving the experience of writing fiction and taking on a story that is far away from my own.