The essential self

Ambika Shaligram
Friday, 13 July 2018

In conversation with author Madhu Tandan about her book, Hemis, which she says, is an exploration of the truth behind the state of falling in love

A marital crisis urges Ajay Kapur to go on a trekking break. He flies to Leh-Ladakh, hoping that the distance would give him some perspective. The break gives him a perspective and insight, but not what he was expecting. Stranded in the region after the flash floods, he takes refuge in Hemis monastery. There the story begins...

Madhu Tandan, the author of Hemis, has penned a captivating story of the three protagonists with the Himalayan ranges as its backdrop.

Tell us about your experience of staying in a Himalayan monastery. Is Anna’s character and approach to work based on your experiences?

I was barely 26 when my husband and I decided to leave our comfortable life in Delhi and live in Mirtola, a monastery tucked away in the remote forests of the Himalayan foothills of Kumaon. It was a Vaishnav temple with an English guru, Sri Madhava Ashish, who had taken the ochre robe, fired by his meeting with Ramana Maharshi.

By the time we went to live there, a small community of seven couples had withdrawn from their successful lives in the city and had settled in the monastery. Mirtola’s philosophy inspired a simple lifestyle, in which every experience was viewed as an opportunity to grow. This meant 12 hours and more of manual work each day offered in selfless service to the temple. This was intended to cut out the messy edges of gain and profit, and yet give us the dignity that comes from working for our own food. The internal resistance to this grueling labour was to be tempered by introspection, while meditation would help stop the internal chatter of thoughts. 

The attempt was to give recognition — through body, mind and emotions — to the essential self. The entire life at Mirtola was based on a soil-to-soul spirituality, the outer life meant to direct one inwards with the single attempt of finding oneself. My first book Faith & Fire is based on my experiences there.
As for your question, Anna’s character and approach to work are not based on my experiences in the monastery, though part of her story comes from a friend who lived there. 
The subject of Rozabal line and Jesus Christ having spent a few years in India has been explored in a few other books. How does this and the idea of restraint in passion go hand in hand?  

Rozabal Line is, of course, Ashwin Sanghi’s bestselling novel. Reportedly Dan Brown, the author of The Da Vinci Code had considered writing about Jesus’s India connection. This, however, is not the main story in Hemis. One could look at the Jesus story as a literary device to explore Anna’s psyche, and advancing her story with Ajay. 

In the larger context of the book, it lends depth to Anna’s character revealing her spiritual aspirations tied in with her search for the Jesus manuscript. The search at points becomes a metaphor for understanding the theme of love and expectations, of guilt and regret. 

Though there is no direct connection between the possibility of Jesus having come to India and restraint of passion, except that all extraordinary men and women somehow use this method to sublimate their energy.  However, I am not aware of any novel that explores the theme of restraining passion without repression in an effort to transform it.

You have one chapter devoted to Swati’s direct line of thinking about Ajay, wanting him back. But there is not much about her in the rest of the pages. In fact the same can be said about Rigzin’s sangyum (spiritual friend), Yodon. They propel the story forward, by not being directly a part of the story. Was the adoption of this narrative technique deliberate?

Hemis is an exploration through love stories of the truth behind the state of falling in love. It has three love stories and in each story there is an ‘absence’. Absence can be due to many reasons — voluntary withdrawal, estrangement, or death. Yet it is this absence that is palpably present in the life of each person. In writing this book, it was a challenge to show this ‘presence’ which marks the lives of the main characters. 

And so started an enquiry for me ­­— what haunts about the absence? The absent person, or the conjuring in imagination of what could have been?  Perhaps, the imagination can create a magic greater than reality ever allows. After all, Marcel Proust did say, “It is our imagination that is responsible for love, not the other person.”

As I went along, one question provoked another and I realised I was seeking answers to the age-old questions about the unfulfillment of desire, handling its longing and relinquishment. Do you suppress it, usually at great cost; or live with the longing, that too at a cost; or transcend it, as seen in the lives of great saints?

There is politics in Hemis as well. Does politics, power, restraint etc result in compelling you to search for something that is missing in your life?

Ideally, it is our experience of living that compels us to search for something that is missing in life. The Abbot’s life displays how external factors of hardship, the wounds we carry, can be transformed. His life also points towards more central questions like — what gives meaning to life? What is this life meant for? It raises questions of what our real identity actually is.

Below or beyond the configuration of our personalities is there a deeper essential self? And is something missing in our lives because we have not been able to form a direct connection with it?

And, what is it about Himalayas that people with something ‘missing’ in their lives visit it?  

Not only the mountains but waterfalls, the confluence of rivers, the seaside also allures us. But the Himalayas have a special significance. They give birth to the mightiest rivers of the sub-continent — the Ganges, Indus and the Brahmaputra — the source of life. Awe-inspiring, ever beckoning, seemingly out of reach, they seem to promise some ultimate fulfillment. Anyone who gets a glimpse of the eternal snow-clad peaks is transported out of themselves. Perhaps, the Himalayas represent our highest aspirations, the snow its utter detachment from all mundane preoccupations.

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