Narikutti Swami of Tiruvannamalai
by Peter Ellingsen
It was to be more than a sand and Shangri-la holiday. But my half-brother, whose favorite destinations are Hawaii and Las Vegas, didn't understand. "Whaddya goin' to India for?" he taunted, "it's full of Indians." The bookish-looking woman on the flight over wasn't much better. "There's no poverty in India," she declared, a patronising look in her eye. She had long, black hair, rounded vowels and a husband with a creepy smile. They "loved" India, wagged their heads like clowns, and talked non-stop of "karma", as if it was an obvious fixture, like the life vests under our seats.
My only defence was a small, green Paddy Palin pack, which I continuously re-arranged; and a scrap of paper, to which I deferred when the conversation spun out of control. "Narikutti Swami, Tiruvannamalai", it said, and while that may not sound like much, it was. It told of an architect abandoning Sydney to live in an Indian cave. I did not know his real name, only that he had left Australia in the 1950s - along with Germaine Greer, Clive James and George Johnson. But instead of winding up in a London bedsit, he had chosen a gap in the side of a mountain.
For someone who had grown up fantasising about India the way other kids dreamt of Disneyland, this was exciting. I had cut my milk teeth with Kipling's Kim. Like me, he was a boy adrift, only his aloneness seemed adventurous rather than mundane. He ran barefoot through the bazaars of the Raj, encountering new worlds, the sort of places Spielberg would later strain to evoke on film. I, on the other hand, meandered around in Clarks school shoes, stumbling over little more than my own mediocre imprint.
Reading Kim had invoked a different sort of sunburnt country. It meant I could imagine a "Great Game" played with cloaks and daggers, rather than a football; a place where heroes wore loin-cloths, not baggy green caps; and an education that lay buried in intuitive tradition, not the repressed musings of English poets.
This was important for a kid who grew up in Prahran when it was still a working-class suburb, and longed for more diversity and color than the TAB or MCG supplied. I dreamt of tents, but they were not on the foreshore at Rosebud. Even though I spent most summers at the local pool, my ideal holiday was far away, and came from the pages of the books I read. I saw myself in an exotic landscape, defying convention. It was a potent daydream and meant that when, years later, a friend told me an Australian was living in an Indian cave, I saw the holiday I always wanted.
The fantasy was not only that I would find the recluse, but that he would impart some profound truth. It was a fusion of Kipling's India with Gandhi's myth. (Years later, I would locate one of the young women Gandhi used in his experiments with celibacy and see first hand the downside of great men. But that's another story).
All I knew sitting on the Air India flight was that the architect had become a monk and settled close to a town that Somerset Maugham had visited and used in one of his books. As I had no idea where Tiruvannamalai was, and could not find it on any map, I opted to start my search in Trivandrum, on India's southernmost tip. It is the capital of Kerala, a Syrian Christian stronghold that, in the '80s, was one of two communist states on the subcontintent.
It was not until I had wandered enough narrow streets, stopping with my crumpled paper in hand to ask "Do you know this place - this man?", that the difficulty of the task dawned on me. The village was very small, not marked on my maps, and I could not pronounce the name clearly enough for anyone to recognise it. As for a Westerner calling himself "Swami", that was so common that Indians I asked merely shrugged when I pointed to the name.
It was a chance meeting on a train to Bangalore, an old British cantonment city south of Bombay, that provided a breakthrough. After striking up a conversation with a school principal, Mary Roy, mother of Booker Prize winning writer Arundhathi Roy, I was introduced to a middle-aged Brahmin woman, Mrs Satyan, who nodded serenely when I stuttered out, "Narikutti Swami".
"Yes, I know him," she said. "The unpronounceable town?," I asked. "It's close by," she smiled. "I'm going there tomorrow. You can join me." The bus trip took six hours and was intensely cramped and uncomfortable, largely because the conductor, who was getting kickbacks, kept adding passengers. Wrapped in her silk sari, the remarkable Mrs Satyan didn't appear to notice.
I felt like I was off to see the wizard with Dorothy, or caught up in some kind of play. Maybe I was. Tiruvannamalai had been the home of Ramana Maharishi, the wise old man Willy Somerset Maugham fictionalised in his 1944 novel, The Razor's Edge.
As we rumbled closer to the village, the dirt road swelled with people. Most were on foot, some were astride bicycles, others hung from trucks. "This is the busiest time of year," Mrs Satyan said, explaining that soon a beacon, signifying the God Shiva, would be lit atop Arunachala, the mountain our architect called home. The best place to stay was the modest retreat where Willy Maugham's holy man had lived until his death in the 1950s. But it was booked solid. Still, we fronted up to the reception, where a sinewy-looking man in a shawl peered over his glasses and said, "A room. It's impossible. People have booked ahead for a year."
I turned to go, but Mrs Satyan glided up beside me, declaring in a tone that was more command than request, "my friend needs a room". It was like the scene in Star Wars where Alec Guiness (Obi One) mesmerises a trooper with a wave of his hand. The man in the shawl fumbled in a drawer and produced a key. "I hope this is satisfactory," he said, parting his lips in a crooked smile that revealed chipped teeth stained red with beetle-nut.
The room was little more than a cell, but opulent by comparison with the rocky outcrop where, the next day, we found the swami from Sydney. Narikutti ("young jackal") turned out to be a short, stocky man of about 50 with careful eyes, a pedantic manner and - once relaxed - boundless generosity. Unlike renunciates who meditate themselves into quiet bliss, he was outgoing, tetchy, and prone to an anxious re-wrapping of his cream, cloth dhoti.
It took some cautious circling before he slipped off his sandals and, in lilting Indian-cadenced English, explained how, but not why, he had fled Australia. "I left by boat," he said. In search of what, I asked. "Spiritual nourishment, not something you easily find in Australia, where money, not time, counts," he said.
Narikutti was well-versed in Hindu philosophy, and worldly enough to tell the genuine beggars from the charlatans. True to the aphorism, he talked softly and carried a big stick. It was kept by the door, and he used it to beat off intruders. If this was a bolt-hole, it was neither safe nor ideal. Locals stole from him, even though he had nothing but two pieces of cloth, a few plates and utensils, and several books. He did not explain what his life had been like, or if there was a wife or lover back home. "My past is dead," is all he would say. With his scalp and face covered in stubble and his skin burnt by the sun he looked a rough diamond, and seemed at home boiling a billy of tea on a tiny petrol oven.
He was the first person I had been able to talk with for hours on end without running out of conversation. Sitting on a small stool in the lean-to he had created inside the mountain, he lifted words as if they had a physical dimension, before handing them over in such a way that you could not help but marvel at their power and construction. He may have said something profound, but if he did I missed it. My mind was taken up with wondering how he could sleep in a space where cobras and thieves were regular visitors, and why it was that he stayed so long in a distant country.
By then, I had realised that India was, like the past, a foreign place where, as J.P. Hartley has observed, they do things differently. Even Kim would not have recognised it. But then he knew countries were not like books. They change, which is why, I suppose, we go away, when we go on holiday.
© 1998 The Age