ONE pothole for every sin. That's the count down the roads of Kerala, because in a lane off a state highway is, some say, salvation. If eternal truth is written in Malayalam, so be it. And, if attaining such wisdom requires one to take the clothes off, it's even better. Why should any man despair if, after his long search, he finally finds God in a nudist camp. The Lord seems to have a sense of humour but soon, an ancient man with cascading silver beard and gentle eyes will tell us that we are wrong.
As we enter the enormous gates of Siddha Samaj, we get into the mood, the wonder grows and we ponder about things like how a communist government could call its province 'Gods own country', because God could be Jew or Aryan, but the cpi(m) knows that he certainly is not a Malayalee. And we also wonder how there are places in Gods own country which He has forsaken, like say Vadakara where we are, about 50 kilometres to the north of Kozhikode - or Calicut, if you prefer. And its difficult to believe that right in the heart of a district with a strong Muslim presence, in a state which thinks that any girl in denim is loose, such an ashram where men and women wake, meditate and sleep together without any clothes on has survived for well over 75 years.
We are now inside the ashram's sprawling compound. The residents cultivate herbs here. Because of that, there is an ayurvedic kind of smell about the place. Peace is in free supply. Right in front of us is a peculiar extravagant dome and a message on a granite slab says that if you must go in, you should take off your shirt or your blouse. At this point, the philosophy is a bit fair to men.
Near this structure, we see a few inmates. The men are barechested but have wrapped a white cloth around their waist. Older women are in white sarees, the younger ones wrapped in a white cloth, the ends tucked in a nodal point just above the breasts. Its basic clothing that will come off with one tug in the meditation hall where everyone is naked. As we wonder if anybody walks nude in open, an exceedingly elderly man walks slowly without purpose, wearing nothing but a wisp of a milk-white loincloth, traversing his pitch-black haunches that shine under the bright Malabar sun, giving back everything that it receives.
We walk down a corridor to meet the wise man with the long white beard and kind eyes. His name is S. Krishnan and he is called 'treasurer'. He is one of the five men who govern the ashram. He too is in a simple white cloth tied around the waist, his healthy paunch confirming that here they don't confuse austerity with starvation. Krishnan's office is full of files and books. It is an office with barechested officers doing what is universally called a job.
A lot of people come here, Krishnan says. Everybody has problems. See, even Clinton has problems. People come here to forget the life they have lived. Some come here for a few days. Some come here to be a part of us forever. I know why certain people come here. But these people, they find out that whatever they are looking for is a very, very small part of the whole system.
The system has a strict time structure. About eight hours of each day are dedicated to meditation, during which the inmates shed both clothes and inhibitions. They are naked even during the five-and-a-half hours of sleep they are allowed. The idea is to deglamourise the naked body by making it commonplace, to dampen fantasy with bared skin, to make desires easy to attain giving no chance for adventure. Sex is not a taboo. Love is. Love in terms of passion. Nobody belongs to anybody here. But the woman has the final say in matters leading to sex. She can reject a pass if she wants to. This is because she has to bear the consequences. Abortion is not even thought of in the ashram. Life is sacred, says Vashistan, who's been an inmate here for over three decades. Children are born here. They grow up together not knowing who the father is. They are educated in the ashram. We even teach science, an inmate says. There is no bar on knowledge, any kind of knowledge. When the children reach the age of 20, they are also initiated into the ashram. They are allowed to enter the meditation hall and be a part of the rites.
As these children don't know their family, could there be incest? Brother and sister, on the spiritual bed, not knowing what they are doing? That's a narrow view, an inmate tells us. Like many others, he says that it is not important for us to know his name: Names create identities. He was born and brought up here. Incest is defined by a relationship, he continues. Relationships are nothing more than social tags. Here there are no tags.
His thoughts are borrowed from the text a man has left behind, the man who started it all. He was a police constable whose moment of truth came after he tried to control a communal riot under British India. He realised that the root of all problems was identity. He swore to create an institution where there would be no identity, where men and women would live without any past, status or desire. He founded the Siddha Samaj in 1921, prescribing a way of life that is followed even now. He is reverently called Swami Sivananda Paramahamsa, whose remains lie in the peculiar dome on the ashram grounds. There are currently about 300 inmates.
Anybody can join the ashram. But many people have found out that the paradise they were looking for has a catch. Before joining the ashram one has to write off all the wealth either to someone else or to the trust governing the ashram. One also has to produce a certificate from a police station claiming that there are no police records against him or her. And, a medical certificate to prove that the person in question does not suffer from any transmittable diseases. After this comes an endless wait on the fringes of the meditation hall.
There is a probation period, Krishnan says, suggesting that it is during this time that it strikes many that the open gates of the ashram also show the way out. During the probation period, the newcomer has to go through the grind of austere living, cultivating body hair, completely cut off from his family and friends forever. The elders monitor every newcomer. The probation period will end only when the elders feel that he or she is fully fit to be initiated.
Even after the initiation, there is a close watch to check whether the inmate is developing a bond with another inmate. If anyone is found violating the rules, he is sent back to the world he came from.
Not surprisingly, white tourists had shown a keen interest a few years ago, in what they thought was oriental decadence. But they couldn't stand the test of the probation period. Now, foreigners are not entertained. But the ashram gets funds from abroad. Rich people donate money to the ashram but our main source of income is from selling ayurvedic medicines, says an inmate. Treasurer Krishnan keeps all the accounts.
Back in his office, he is listening to a Tamil rickshaw driver, an outsider who worships Swami Sivananda Paramahamsa. He is my god, the rickshaw driver is telling him. Krishnan asks him if he needs any books published by the ashram. The man nods eagerly. Krishnan shows him two books. This one is Rs 40, that is Rs 60, Krishnan says. I'll take the forty-rupee one, says the rickshaw driver.
Krishnan laughs happily, as he always does at a world that wants salvation, if possible at a twenty-rupee discount. A long time ago he was a part of that world. He looks content as he says goodbye to us, folding his hands and meeting the eye for a fleeting second more than necessary.
As we leave, we are a bit sheepish. Because we went like voyeurs searching for a keyhole. And, they kept their doors open.