Five years ago Ida and I set foot in Kolkata for the first time. I was certain it would be our only visit, since the circumstances were so utterly odd and couldn't possibly be replicated. We were searching for the roots of Buddha Bose's manuscript which had been written in 1938 but never published. The reason for its disappearance was unclear, and that's what we were in Kolkata hoping to understand.
Ida and I were the second and third wheels of Jerome Armstrong, who had tracked down the manuscript through some impressive sleuthing. He didn't want to make a trip to the other side of the world alone and so enlisted our company. How could we say no?
The three of us arrived in Kolkata in the middle of the night. Our flight landed at 2 a.m. and we stepped into the hot, humid Indian darkness. The city never quiets down, and the streets were filled with drivers leaning against their yellow cabs and passing the time in conversation. We found a proprietor who ensured us he could take us where we were going, and after Jerome hilariously tried to get into the driver's seat--located on the right side of the car in India--we were off.
Even though it was approaching 4am, we insisted on locating Ghosh's College of Physical Education before proceeding to the hotel. None of us had been to Kolkata before, and our ignorance was made worse by the blackness and the fact that our GPS didn't work in a foreign country. We were confined to guesswork and imperfect commands to the driver. After a few confounded circles we found the gate, and so our Kolkata experience commenced with a predawn photo of our trio outside the College, while those who weren't sleeping looked on with disbelief and mild annoyance.
We stayed at the Hotel Neeranand, which far exceeded my expectations with its delicious breakfast--I had feared that I would be unable to eat much food simply due to its unfamiliarity--occasionally functioning WiFi and lukewarm water. To our great relief, the room had a Western style toilet, though it had no seat. It wasn't until the last day of our visit that we realized it was a mistake. Directly prior to our departure, a new paper-wrapped toilet seat appeared in our bathroom, with apologies for its tardiness. I had resigned myself to its absence, grateful for anything that flushed.
The first day began without hesitation, as we met Buddha Bose's grandson, Pavitra, and ex-daughter-in-law, Chitralekha, for breakfast at the hotel. Since Bose had married Bishnu Ghosh's daughter, Pavitra is also the great-grandson of Ghosh and Yogananda. He looks it, with a round face and piercing black eyes. They sat down across the table from us with palpable distrust. Who were these Westerners who dared to poke their noses into Bose, Kolkata and yoga? Fair enough. But Pavitra and his mother had come to meet us nonetheless, perhaps driven by curiosity or amusement. As we sat together on the roof of the hotel in the bright morning sun, they flipped through the photocopied manuscript and became more and more engrossed as they realized its authenticity and were reminded of their love for Bose and the methods of yoga. We, the imposing Westerners, quickly faded into non-existence.
Next stop: the National Library, a goliath of storage and a relic of pre-digital organization. The building is huge, with an entryway that only hints at the vast treasures hidden in the back rooms and basements. It reeks of mildew and age, of written human history that is disintegrating one monsoon at a time. On the quest for Buddha Bose's story, Jerome had stumbled upon a later publication that Bose wrote about pilgrimages into the Himalayas, named Holy Kailas after the sacred mountain. Pavitra came with us. He had never seen nor heard of this book by his grandfather. It took a couple hours of filling out forms and waiting, dazed as we were with exhaustion from travel, jet-lag and the excitement of a new world, but eventually the library staff called our number and delivered Holy Kailas.
We returned to Ghosh's College in the daytime when it was open. Muktamala, Ghosh's granddaughter who runs the school, agreed to teach the three of us a class if we came back when the school was closed on Sunday. Cost for the class would be about $20 per person, which is outrageously expensive for Kolkata. But we would pay that for a class in the states, and how often would we get the opportunity to take a semi-private lesson with BC Ghosh's granddaughter? We agreed.
The hour-long class she led us through included lots of therapeutic exercises and a handful of postures, plus a little meditation at the end. Little did we know at the time that a yoga "class" was unusual at Ghosh's College. Most yoga there was done via individual prescription as opposed to led group class. Afterward, Jerome asked Muktamala if she would teach Westerners how to do the exercises and prescriptions. Without hesitation, she agreed.
The primary purpose of our trip was a meeting with Bose's daugther, Rooma, who runs the school that he started in the 1970s, the Yoga Cure Institute. We taxied to newer neighborhoods in southern Kolkata where the school is located and were invited into the office for about an hour with Rooma and her husband. They insisted that we did not record the meeting or even take notes, admonishing us that asking questions of the teacher was disrespectful. The student simply sits quietly and absorbs what the elder deems important to impart on any given day, Rooma's husband said. It seemed that the very fact of our coming here was offensive in its audacious curiosity.
Our discussion was polite and wide-ranging. Rooma told us that they knew of the manuscript, had an original copy, and that it was never "lost." That Bose had chosen not to publish it because of errors. They did not show us their copy or offer any evidence of their claims. She told us a few stories about performing stunts in the old days, like lying across a sword while a brick was broken on her back. And she pointed us to an invaluable new character of whom we had never heard: Dr. Gouri Shankar Mukerji, mentioning offhand that he wrote an exhaustive book in German.
I was wholly unprepared for the power of 11.5 hour jet-lag, almost completely opposite of what my body expected as far as sleeping and waking. Each day was ghostly, bright and hot while my brain tried to dream. The nights were vivid and alert, only adding to the other-worldly impression of Kolkata.
That trip would not be our last to India. Since then, Ida has gone to Kolkata at least twice every year to help at the College and to do research. I have gone back about once per year. My original assumption, that this excursion would be my only one, turned out to be absurdly false. India and Kolkata are endlessly fascinating and engrossing.
Scott & Ida are Yoga Acharyas (Masters of Yoga). They are the head teachers of Ghosh Yoga. This blog is about their experience with yoga practice, study and teaching.
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