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Part 9

Jack’s first novel, The Fair House, began with an epigram from The Merry Wives of Windsor:

Falstaff: Of what quality was your love, then?
Ford: Like a fair house built on another man’s ground; so that I have lost my edifice by mistaking the place where I erected it. 

Jack was, of course, referring to the colonial presence in Africa, and it was a daring and foresightful thing to say in the early 1950s. Lesley must have been familiar with the quotation, but having simultaneously lost Anton and found both a society of friends and a purpose in life, she chose to remain on the sold farm.

In the poem The Blue Sky, Gary Snyder writes of meeting the great seer Ramana Maharshi in a dream. The Ramana is drinking buttermilk. ‘Where d’you get that buttermilk?’ the dream Snyder asks, ‘I’ve been looking everywhere for buttermilk.’ ‘At the OK Dairy,’ the Ramana replies, ‘right where you leave town.’

Right next to the main house, and visible through bushes from our bedroom windows, stood the double bungalow which had housed first a succession of guests under Hopper and the Luitinghs (including granny Vere and grandpa Jim), then the office from which Anton had attempted to run the farm. Being the only Hopper building built of fired bricks and cement, it was the last structure still standing from that regime, and unlike the other guest cottages, it was not round but four-square, consisting of two rooms connected by a semi-enclosed stoep. Having secured a lease, Lesley moved from the main house into this structure, and set to work converting it into a home.

Lesley’s ideological life took place in the era between the suffragettes and the feminists, and she did not have the plethora of guidebooks, critiques and so on now available in matters of gender roles. Being a bohemian, however, gave her an unorthodox attitude to her own competence and capacities, and, unlike many of my avowedly feminist friends and acquaintances, she cheerfully tackled manual work of the kind usually reserved in our social order for men.

She was good at building, and now, ten years after creating her dream-house with Anton, she re-enacted their efforts on a more modest scale on a site not ten metres away. She got pine boards for panelling and staircases cheap from the sawmill, hauled cement in by the bag from the Co-op, persuaded friends to do those fittings she couldn’t complete, and found brick, mortar and spade labour among the friends and connections who had once been her husband’s employees. She built a garage on the slope below the cottage, on top of which she had a garage-sized studio, accessed with an outside stair.

I don’t know how she financed all this expenditure, but I speculate that her mother, then living at Sunwich Port on the Natal South Coast, helped. Perhaps there was a settlement with Anton. The new owners connected the farm to the ESKOM grid, and the cottage had electric wires running to it. But Lesley elected not to use electricity, preferring gas and paraffin lamps and candle-light, which suited her new rhythm of very early rising to meditate alone in the dark.

332 lesley loungeHowever she achieved it, within a few months she had a home which many people have described to me as among the most beautiful, peaceful and creative environments they have encountered, concentrating as it did a lifetime of carefully collected and created things of beauty (though not necessarily of value) into a small, neat and well-conceived space, and managing, in spite of the great number of objects, not to seem cluttered. To me, the space seemed normal, full of the familiar and welcoming, like ‘home’ that had at last come home.

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No sooner was Anton gone than Lesley became initiated as a satsangi and began her meditative life. It is no mean feat to devote two and a half hours daily to sitting quietly with one’s thoughts, feelings, fantasies, memories, half-dreams and habits, but somehow Lesley managed it. Not only did she manage it, she appeared to like it, and, in my experience, was diligent in carrying it out, as well as all the other duties undertaken by a devotee of the Radhasoami faith.

333 Charan Singh 2What are these duties? During waking hours, the devotee is asked to fill her thoughts with a silent mantra, consisting of five Punjabi words, said to be the Names of God. This practice, known as simran, is intended as a reminder of the undertakings of a satsangi and to concentrate the mind in the inner Word or Logos. These words should form a continu-ous stream in the mind of the practitioner, guiding her towards compassionate action and away from the temptations and distractions of the world. In addition, the satsangi is a strict vegetarian of the Brahmin kind, abjuring meat, fish and eggs, but taking dairy products. This dietary practice includes the eschewal of intoxicants. The devotee is expected to accomplish two and a half hours of meditation daily, in the early morning or evening, or both. The meditation practice is divided up into two phases: in the first, called dhyan or contemplation, the mantra is repeated silently with the attention drawn to the centre or the forehead, the darkness within is contemplated, and the form of the guru is visualized in that void. The idea is to become absorbed into the light beyond the darkness and to imagine the guru’s inner form in that light. When focus is achieved, the Radiant Inner Master, the spiritual form of the guru, takes the place of the imagined figure and becomes an inner guide. In the second phase, called bhajan or listening, the satsangi pays attention to the inner sound, heard at first as a ringing bell and later as more complex and differentiated sounds, and becomes similarly absorbed in their resonance.

334 lesley doorwayDescriptions of the experience characterize it as blissful, but for most, it is anything but. Restlessness and boredom are common among meditators. If the radiant inner Master and his Logos can blossom in the field of the self-reflective mind, then so can a host of fears, projections and unconscious images more common in dreams, in addition to the gamut of habitual mental patterns. Satsangis undertake not to disclose their meditation experiences or their inner experiences in general, but some find it possible to hint that they ‘have had’ some find it possible to drop clandestine hints about their private spiritual experiences, but withhold details. Lesley was among this latter group, and after some years I understood that she was an ‘advanced’ meditator, and that the unrevealed contents of her meditation were certainly enough of a spur to keep her coming back for more.

At some time in the later 1970s, Vere came back from Sunwich Port to what had been Luitingh’s Guest Farm to die. She moved into the spare room of Lesley’s cottage and lay there, full of cancers, getting thinner and thinner until the colony of cells that was her body lost its ladylike identity, and she died. Lesley did her best to nurse her mother and provide her with comfort and ease, but in the end she told me that she felt guilty – that she might not have done enough to feed her. The autopsy, she told me, revealed that there were no cancers or growths at all. Vere, over ninety, had simply died of old age.

The small inheritance that resulted allowed Lesley to clear her debts and to travel, although she still painted and sold paintings whenever she could. Between 1970 and 1989 she travelled to India perhaps a dozen times, as well as making several journeys to Hong Kong, Europe and the United Kingdom. Each time she went to see her Master, Charan Singh, to receive the benediction of his physical presence and gaze, and each trip was a fervid devotional experience. Seen through the eyes of devotion, the Indian landscape was transformed for her, and many trips included side excursions, to stay on a house-boat in Kashmir, to see the Taj or the Red Fort, to stay a day or a week with Indian friends. She did not, to my knowledge, go to Dalhousie, where the Grewal Singh family maintained their summer retreat. She shopped in New Delhi and Mumbai, in Rajasthan and Kashmir, and she brought back brightly coloured fabrics, shawls, small artworks, domestic utensils, clothing and embroidery which she used to decorate her home and to distribute as gifts to her friends and fellow satsangis. She never dressed faux-Indian, though she often wore a Kashmiri meditation shawl around her shoulders, and it is thus that I chiefly remember her during that time. Her presence, which was calm, intelligent, devoted, light and humorous, was an inspiration to other satsangis who saw in her life an example of what they aspired to in theirs.

336 lesley 20s 336 lesley 60sLesley in her sixties (and on the right we see her at sixty-two) bore a strong resemblance to Lesley in her twenties. She once told me that the urge that had brought her to Communism was the same one that later brought her to the Radhasoami faith: a wish for things to go right, for suffering to be ended, and for people to live in love and harmony.

It seems to me that there are a number of other parallels between the two faiths as they have manifested in South Africa. Both are total systems with a master narrative purporting to explain the world and its workings, which offer programmes of action and conduct intended to address human suffering. Each gives meaning and purpose to the lives of the followers. In being total systems, they have special terms and critiques which demonstrate how rival philosophies or groups fall short, and thus offer an exceptional sense of community to the faithful – a feeling of being among the vanguard or elect, the sole possessors of truth who, in both instances, meet in small, like-minded groups and form friendships within these groups which replace other social or familial ties. Both groupings offer, in Albie Sachs’ phrase, the energy and the excitement and the feeling that there is another world. Both are hierarchically structured while making egalitarian claims, have a sectarian literature and especially value the writings of their Victorian founders.

Where they most markedly differ is in the claims they make about the world. In the Radhasoami faith, the world is an illusion riven with misery, the cause of the misery is ignorance, and we can escape by turning inward. For the Marxist faithful, the world is real, misery is substantially caused by material relations of production, and this can be changed by altering these relations. Each system would regard the other as sadly misguided, but maybe in a general sense both are correct – happiness cannot be achieved without modestly decent material circumstances, but circumstances, no matter how constructed, are no guarantee of happiness without the inner contentment born of reflection.

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If Jack had spent his life pursuing the pharmakon of the written text, a medicine that acted as a poison was finally what did him in. In early May of 1991, he had gone to see an NHS doctor, a young woman with a Maggie Thatcher hairdo, complaining of pains in his chest. Having had a pretty serious heart-attack a few months before, he mentioned his worries to her. I do not wish to make a scapegoat of the doctor, but she neglected to ask him about his stomach, and prescribed ibuprofen, an anti-inflammatory and painkiller often classed with aspirin, the side-effects of which include abdominal discomfort and pain, nausea and vomiting, serious gastro-intestinal bleeding or activation of peptic ulcer. The drug activated an already existing ulcer, which perforated the stomach lining, spilling the contents of his gut into his abdominal cavity and spreading infection everywhere. They moved him into the cardiology unit of the Stevenage Hospital, in Hertfordshire, where he was monitored for the wrong things. Hearing the news late, I flew to the England, but he died while I was still in the air. The pain must have been excruciating, and there was no family member, or even another South African with him during that hard time.

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340 Lesley and DotIn the snippet from a picture, Lesley’s sister Dorothy, our Auntie Dot, squints into the sun at the camera, while Lesley has managed to look winning by burying her face in a rambling rose. I cannot really be sure that it is Dot, for I find that I have no strong image of her face in my memory. I surmise that it is her from her resemblance to her mother Vere and her daughter Patricia, both of whom I do recall, and from the sororial way that she occupies Lesley’s body-space. There is no portrait of her in Lesley’s albums.

At some time in the early 1960s, Dot went into the bathroom of her Port Elizabeth home, put a loaded pistol into her mouth, and pulled the trigger. The single shot that she fired was instantly fatal, and the single consolation we had was that her death was quick and she did not suffer, although we did not discuss what suffering may have brought her to this impasse in the first place.

341 dotIn later years Lesley described Dot, with some tenderness, as a person who had loved only two things in life – her blue eyes and her fur coat. I do not know what family threads were woven into this harsh assessment, or its affectionate expression. It seems to me that the means Dot chose to escape from suffering were anything but vapid: irrefutable, assertive and decisive. I wish that I could remember her strongly enough to counter my mother, but in my memory, Dot’s image is inaccessible, obscured by a question burned into my imagination as a child: who cleaned up that bathroom, who scraped and patched the bullet-hole in the wall?

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Miles Linnington, a classmate of mine and at least for some of the time a co-boarder, had distinguished himself at the age of twelve, before my arrival at SACS, by stowing away on an ocean liner bound for the UK. Miles, an outrageously camp and daring boy, had mingled with the passengers, eating in the first-class dining room and sleeping in a life-boat at night, until he was flushed out by one of the crew.

In a system that seeks uniformity, difference, however discriminable, becomes a problem. Sent back to school, he conducted a one-boy war against the authoritarian regime, which tolerated neither his ambiguity in gender matters, nor his theatricality, nor his unrepentantly ironic and questioning attitude. He was not a class jack-up of the shouting, desk-banging, jeering kind, but his mere presence in a group of boys was subversive. In an English class, when spoonerisms had come up, it was an eyelash-batting Miles who said, ‘Friar Tuck, sir,’ and was immediately booked for detention. He made a splendid Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, and played the Steinweg (which Duncan Miller remembers as a Steinway) in the hall as the school filed in for assembly. But, specializing in difference, Miles attracted the disapproval of the boys as well as the staff. He became a figure of fun, and all his attempts to present himself as deliberately or theatrically funny could not disguise the mockery, rudeness and petty violence that came his way in a constant stream. He made friends with Tony Levin, a sensitive younger boy who was almost as camp, albeit in a more intellectual style. The two of them became school scapegoats, openly mocked for their homo-sexuality, their femininity, their cultural rather than sporting interests, and thence for any perceived or invented character flaw, including their intelligence and articulacy. Both the masters and the prefects punished them more than the other boys. When one of them entered the showers, someone would shout ‘Bums to the wall, here comes Tony!’

Miles and Tony became intermittent friends of mine. We were drawn together by our outsider status and our fluency in cynicism, but as I was straight, I was excluded or excluded myself from the gay side of their friendship. We talked instead about music or writing, or railed mockingly at our persecutors, the big muscly prefects who had hairy legs.

Miles’ flip and self-mocking exterior covered an unhappiness that took him, a year after school, to the edge of a high building, from whence he jumped. A few years later, Tony walked out of a psychotherapy session in a tall building in the city, climbed to the top and leapt off.

Did they really jump or were they pushed?

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Lesley always carried a handbag, which had in it the same assortment of things that women of her generation carried in their bags: brush and comb, lipstick, eye-shade, powder in a compact that flipped up to reveal a make-up mirror, a clean handkerchief, purse, keys, notebook with phone numbers, Bic ball-point pen, odd receipts and bits of paper. In addition to these, her bag contained a basic artist’s kit: 2B pencils, a blade to sharpen them, an indiarubber eraser, perhaps a fine-tipped sable brush, felt-tipped pens, as well as the productions of these tools – envelopes and notebook pages with drawings on them – the branch of a tree, an insect, a leaf or a quick sketch of the posture of someone sitting on a pavement in the sun.

364 pod

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For most Hindus and Buddhists, unlike the younger Pliny, immortality is not a desideratum. Nirvana, taken literally, means extinction, the snuffing of a candle, and for many believers in reincarnation, howsoever they may understand it, the general idea is to escape from what is seen as an endless round of suffering, unpleasantness and disappointment, the fundamental conditions of life according to Buddhism’s first axiom. This is certainly also the case for the Radhasoami faith, whose founder opens his testament, the Sar Bachan, with the words: ‘This world is perishable and so are all worldly things. The sage is one who realises the transient nature of this world and all things pertaining to it.’ For him, the fact that existence is ‘a round of births and deaths’ filled with misery hardly needs emphasis, and he gets right to the business of escape. Military, political, medical, dental, nutritional and sanitary conditions in the India of Seth Shiv Dyal Singh must have been pretty similar to those at the time of the Buddha. As humans were all but guaranteed materially difficult and painful lives, the followers would hardly need to be reminded of the ever-present fact of suffering.

The great projects of mystical Buddhism and Hinduism share with Modernity the theme of escape from suffering, but throw the would-be escapist back on his or her own inner resources, whereas the Modern relies for the reduction of distress on machines, drugs, chemicals, weapons and all the other fruits that pour from the cornucopia of technological science. Another difference is that, by and large, the mystical project can be pursued within one’s own consciousness, whereas the palliatives offered within our society all have to be bought, as Modernity is at heart an economic affair.

The adaptation of Buddhism to the West really got under way in the 1970s, when Japanese Zen teachers and exiled Tibetan Buddhist teachers, having learned Western languages and made some acquaintance with the mysterious beliefs and practices of modern Western people, began to make an impact on Western religious life. At the same time, the hippie and counter-cultural movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s eagerly embraced all things mysterious and Oriental, including several of the many varieties of Buddhism and Hinduism. Over the next thirty or so years, this trend coincided with the worldwide consolidation of global capital, with its far-reaching systems of distribution and marketing. Towards the end of this period, the global system began to reach limits of growth. There are no more ‘uninhabited’ Lowvelds available for physical expansion, but grow we must. The result has been the expansion of commerce into regions previously outside its ambit. Culture, education, and whatever else business could appropriate have been appropriated, or soon will be. Under the current dispensation, educational institutions market packages to learner clients, people are dressed as walking advertisements, cultural activities become commercial transactions instead of the glue of families and communities, and religions must turn themselves into multi-million enterprises or go under.

349 tricycle adsWestern Buddhism has adapted, particularly in the US, by retaining those values within Buddhism that are desirable to modern Westerners, and ignoring or glossing over those aspects of the system that seem incon-venient or even plain silly to them. Under this dispensation, Buddhism has largely ceased to be a monastic practice dependant on the generosity of the laity, becoming instead a system of competing, market-oriented religious businesses offering products ranging from teachings, retreats and initiations to a wide variety of objects and paraphernalia specifically manufactured for sale to Buddhists or would-be Buddhists. Whether this form is a suitable one for the Buddha-dharma remains to be seen.

One of the tenets of the Radhasoami faith since its inception is that their method of practice may not be sold, nor may their teachers charge fees for the teachings they offer or any other aspect of their activity. In spite of this stricture, none of the Radhasoami schools have been averse to accepting donations in the name of their organizations, or to using that money for relief of the suffering of others, or their own suffering, or some combination of both. Although the faith is an avowedly mystical one, it shares with modernity the notion that material good works are desirable and can be bought with money.

Several of the gurus of the forty or so organizations that trace their roots back to Shiv Dyal Singh have found ways of receiving money, or sexual favours, or whatever perks of office religious leaders, like other leaders, can manage. There is no evidence that the gurus of the Radha Soami Satsang Beas, the lineage that set up a branch in White River, ever indulged in this sort of thing.

While being regarded as a Perfect Living Master and surrounded by adoring, indeed worshipful disciples might be seen as a perk in itself, it is also a duty requiring hard work. The exercise of power may be regarded as another perk, and critics of the Radha Soami Satsang Beas have pointed out that the gaddi or mantle of the guru has remained within a single family, excepting a four-year interregnum, since 1903. This powerful family has certainly received from their followers in cash and kind, but the evidence is that, in general, they have not abused these gifts: they have used them to provide infrastructure to the organization, to provide free food and to heal the sick.

One particularly interesting feature of the Radha Soami Satsang Beas is the degree to which the organization has resisted globalization. A worldwide religious establishment with well over a million followers, they do not advertise in any medium, attend conferences, or take part in ecumenical activities. Beyond the books published by and distributed through the organization, they do not sell any goods or services to the satsangis. They do not proselytize on the streets or anywhere else. On the Internet, where there is a few vociferous voices of opposition to their activities, they do not have a website, even though there are computers at the Dera, their headquarters. They do not have a logo or other emblem. Their meetings are not advertised, for example, in Link-Up, the Cape Town publication that lists New Age, Oriental and holistic activities. It is a word-of-mouth operation.

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