I have been summoned to Ramakrishna. Ramakrishna is the Moms’ office, the office of the women in charge. The Moms are not necessarily anyone’s mothers, but are the leaders of our government. Ramakrishna is in the mall, above the ice cream shop and next to the restaurant. Their office is where we get called to get “boned,” our slang for getting yelled at when one of us is in big trouble. This could be anything from a tongue-lashing to a job change, from a don’t-do-it-again hug to a you-are-no-longer-welcome-in-the-Buddhafield exile talk. At age nine, my responsibilities are somewhere between child and adult—I am expected to work, go to lecture, go to school.
Without even knowing what I’ve done wrong, I drag myself against gravity to my assigned appointment at Ramakrishna. I’ve been summoned by Shanti B., the Mom in charge of the kids, for the first time. I’ve been skipping work and school, skipping the videotaped lectures Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the guru of our commune, has started putting out now that he is no longer In Silence; instead, I have been hanging out with my best friend, Sarjan, in her house. We listen to music, talk endlessly about boys and sex, about the Outside World. We fight and play chess and spend our voucher money on candy. I’ve been discovered and I’ve been summoned.
Two years earlier in 1981 when I was seven years old, my family gave up all our worldly possessions to go live in Rajneeshpuram, a spiritual commune that was starting up in the high desert in central Oregon. The land had been known as the Big Muddy, but we called it simply the Ranch. I lived with my dad at the Ranch until I was eleven. My mom remained part of the commune, but lived separately in various Rajneesh-associated ancillary homes until she later joined us at the commune when I was ten. The Ranch became a place that was famous for its guru who drove Rolls Royces and for its antagonistic relations with the rest of Oregon. But, to me, it was my home. I lived in kids’ houses where the parents would take turns “babysitting” us, but we were largely on our own. We had jobs and sometimes we even had school.
The Ranch grew more quickly than anyone anticipated. We created a small thriving city that had dairy, chicken, and vegetable farms to feed our citizens. We had built a dam that created a lake for recreation. We had a mall with retail shops for visitors to support our community. We even had an airport for four small airplanes that we used commercially to get visitors there quickly from Portland. Adults worked seven days a week, twelve hours a day to make this happen so quickly, and they did it joyfully. Kids worked, too. I’d had jobs that included working on a cleaning crew, prepping vegetables for the community dinners, sorting supplies in the warehouse and, finally, helping the mechanics at the airport.
When I was nine, word came down from on high that the world was going to end, that Rajneesh wanted us to build caves to live in so that we might survive the inevitable nuclear holocaust. We would be the chosen people to populate the world and create a society full of love and laughter. It escaped our notice that this was at odds with the fact that Rajneesh so strongly discouraged procreation that in four years in a city of nearly 5000 people, there was only one single birth. In any case, they began to fill our heads with visions of horror.
I already knew about death. I remember the exact moment I learned about it. When I was three, I must have asked a question that led to a matter-of-fact discussion wherein my father explained that we are all alive now, but some day, we would all die. My eyes must have widened in shock when I learned that we would end, that he would end and that I would end and that nobody knew what would happen to the me in me. From then on, throughout my life, I have intermittently worried, pondered, fretted, and very infrequently, accepted death.
“We will all die, sweetie. But don’t worry; I will die before you do. You will live a long, long time.” My dad has always had an unfortunate habit of assuming my worries are the same as his. He lost his birth mother as an infant and his father at age nine, so he had his own preoccupations with death. He worried about his own death, but never mine, because that was too difficult to even consider. This did not comfort me. I could not fathom that my dad would disappear and that I wouldn’t know what happened to the him.
“Daddy, I don’t WANT you to die first!”
He tried his best to calm me down, to assure me that it was natural and that I would be all grown up before anything happened to him. But I already knew that he couldn’t possibly know that. I could see the fear in his own eyes when he told me what he knew.
I used to play a game with myself: who should die first, me or daddy? When I was very little, I could never come up with a good answer. Death was so scary; I couldn’t put myself first. Whoever was left would suffer equally. I still couldn’t imagine living without my dad and I knew he felt the same way. This is not to say that I was some morbid type who spent childhood thinking only about death. My preoccupation came and went.
In school on the Ranch, they read us Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, about a girl who lived in Hiroshima at the time the bomb was dropped. In the book, the girl develops leukemia and dies a graphic, horrific and heartbreaking death. This book rekindled my obsession with death. Maybe it even led me to what would become my career in oncology.
Shortly thereafter, we were gathered in our community room after dinner where they told us we would be required to watch a video, the made-for-TV movie The Day After, a Cold War era gem that depicts a nuclear attack that takes place in middle America. This was not for our entertainment; it was for our education. It was obligatory. I was so terrified by the silhouette stains and ashes of people in the wake of the mushroom cloud, I spent most of the rest of the movie hiding in the bathroom, with my maternal friend Mouna comforting me.
I saw my dad less and less. He was frequently sent off the Ranch to do recon work for the Moms. He had been a historian and was an excellent researcher before we joined the commune and so he went to Portland often to do legal research. I felt free to do my own thing. But when Shanti B. summoned me to Ramakrishna, I knew I’d been discovered.
I mount the stairs. I don’t fight my fate. I know there is no way out. My heart in my throat, my stomach tight, I walk past the visitors eating their vegetarian brie burgers and laughing together.
I imagine what it might feel like not to be worried the axe is about to fall. What’s the worst that could happen? I ask myself. The answer comes quickly. I can be kicked out. Banished.
Shanti B. is waiting for me.
She is a slight, owlish Australian with large brown eyes that see through me. She has a severe pixie cut that has somehow not changed in length or style in the years I’ve known her. She smiles warmly, gestures to the plastic-upholstered chair opposite her, one which shows the heavy impression of many asses in trouble, “I hear you have been sloping off work several times each week.” She uses our jargon for skipping responsibilities. I wonder who narced.
I look at my shoes, my laces mud-caked and frayed.
“Yeah, I guess… sometimes.”
“And that you never go to lecture.” Seriously, where is she getting her information? I continue to study my shoes.
“You know you are supposed to go to work every day. We are expecting you at the airport every day.”
I pick at the plastic thread on the arm of the chair.
“And the Master’s lectures are the whole reason we are here. We are so lucky He is out of silence. What are you doing when you are not at work or lecture?” She squeezes that last question in there, almost as an afterthought.
“I don’t know. Hanging out.”
“Nobody. I go for walks.” I will not narc.
“Okay. Well, consider this one warning. Shape up or ship out.” This is an oft-repeated refrain from the Moms, though I never really understand what it means. Ship out is clear enough.
“Okay.” I look up at her grinning face, eyes slightly closed beatifically. She likes me. She believes me. “I will. Okay.” I exhale, relieved. She looks like she is getting up. It’s over. I stand.
“Oh Hira, how is your dad? How is Sarv? Are you seeing him much?” She saw him more than I did; he worked in her department. But I nod and think of him. “How old was he when his mom died?”
“Nine months old,” I reply.
“And how old was he when his father died?”
“He was nine.”
“Yes. And how old are you?”
She looks pointedly at me, still smiling, but now the smile is taut and her eyes are narrow. “Mm. Interesting. Careful.”
I know exactly what she means. She does not have to say any more. I need to watch my back, be on the straight and narrow or something terrible would happen to my dad. An accident will befall him, he will get sick, he will die. And it will be my fault. I know that it is true. I walk out of there steadily, tears stinging my eyes. Once out of her vision, I break into a run, outside the offices, past the brie burger eaters and people without responsibilities, the visitors. I run out and never tell anyone about that conversation.
I spent much of the rest of that year deep in thought about death. Sometimes the realization that I would no longer exist brought a chill to my stomach that led out to my fingertips. Sometimes, I casually conversed with myself. I pleaded with God, please don’t let me die before I get my period (I’d been reading a lot of Judy Blume), Please don’t let me die before I french kiss another boy, for real this time. Please don’t let me die before I see my dad again. I made no promises; I just asked for favors.
One result of all my fretting, pondering, considering, and philosophizing was that I finally came to the conclusion that I should not die before my dad. Not because I was afraid (I was), but because I knew, deeply knew, that the one thing he could not bear above all else would be the loss of me. I knew at age nine without doubt or prejudice that the only thing worse than the fear of his own death would be mine.
I lived my days in and days out on the Ranch for two more years. When I was eleven, the whole place fell apart in a public and sudden demise. My dad and I braced ourselves and left with what little we had and headed out to the Outside World. I attended public school sporting commune-issued red clothing and a commune-designed mullet, and entered school mid-year in a wealthy white suburb of San Francisco as a sixth grader. After a tumultuous transition, I learned to play the game. I finally made some friends, and eventually, grew up the rest of the way. I went on many adventures and even spent more time on the Rajneesh ashram once it relocated to its origins in Pune, India.
Over the years, I must have absorbed some of the things that Rajneesh taught us—maybe it was just in the air, maybe I paid attention when I thought I wasn’t, maybe it was just living in the culture of meditation. He taught us about dropping the ego and letting go of fear. He did it through meditation and celebration and even in talk about sex and about love. These things went over my head in childhood, and as an adult I am mostly a cynic. I have, however, experienced that letting go feeling, that loss of ego, the loss of the me in me, and it was exquisite. I’ve lost myself in dancing at a concert; I’ve lost myself in doing kung fu alone in my dojo. It has happened a handful of times, and those times taught me that the me in me is sometimes founded in fear, and that letting go of that me, there is fearlessness, there is love.
I no longer have that mortality discussion with myself. I don’t play that game anymore. I’ve grown superstitious in my adulthood and don’t want to invite death in because now I’m the worrier, the carrier of superstition. But I also know that a big part of my relationship with my dad is and has always been taking care of him. And part of that is the honesty of knowing he could not handle my death and so to take care of him, I made the seemingly selfish choice of choosing him for the impossible answer. And in letting go of the him in him, I am showing my love for him.
Photographs provided courtesy of author.