Is it a job?
As a boy the orphaned UG was already in the habit of cooking his meals in the attic of the house where he slept and washing his clothes even though his maternal grandparents were wealthy and he lived in a house full of servants. It seems UG gravitated toward an ascetic lifestyle right from the beginning, a habit that continued through married life causing some tensions in the family home. UG was also preferred to buy his own books, never reading a second hand book, and because he could afford to, he traveled in first class compartments in the trains of India. He maintained his cooking habits but the extravagance of his travel style changed with the changes in his fortunes. Later, Valentine adapted his simple style of life easily during their years together, having been something of a bohemian anyway. They would share modest but independent rooms wherever they stayed. UG’s family life was never so smooth as that. His wife was used to a more extravagant lifestyle growing up and according to family members, she could not understand UG’s ways.
Once he was finished with his university studies, (after dropping out rather than failing his final exams), UG became an accomplished speaker for the Theosophical Society, traveling throughout India and the world as a representative of the society. I assume he was not working for pay since he was independently wealthy, one of the reasons that dropping out of university was not an issue for him since there was no need to obtain a degree in order to teach as a means of livelihood. When he moved to Chicago with his wife and son to get the best physical therapy and braces for his son’s polio crippled legs he spent the remainder of his inheritance on treatments and braces “to put him on his own solid feet”, as he put it. UG and Kusuma planned to stay for 6 months, but in the end they stayed for five years, leaving two daughters behind in the care of other family members. UG quit the Theosophical Society in Chicago and became a paid public speaker on a circuit around America, perhaps out of a financial need. He once mentioned that he would never take a position of power in any organization pointing out “it would limit my freedom of expression.”
At some point public speaking became repugnant to UG and he quit despite a successful and lucrative career as a circuit speaker. After years of parroting other people’s ideas, convincing others of their veracity, he was fed up with it. At this point he sent his wife off to work as a research associate for Encyclopedia Britannica in Chicago while he took over the care of their son and the baby directly after his birth. Kusuma was not at all happy with this arrangement. Having grown up a privileged child like UG, having always been more a creature of comfort, she longed for a big family and a house full of servants in India. Life in America never appealed to her and the last thing she wanted was to take up a job among westerners whose lifestyles were so strange and repellent to her. UG was always interested in the latest technology, buying her a “California Kitchen” in India, the operation of which completely baffled the poor woman. Her daughter once told me that if a plate fell off the counter when UG was away on a speaking engagement, she would scoop the children up and dash off to her sister’s house where there were plenty of servants to take care of such matters. Nevertheless, when UG started looking after his crippled son as well as the newborn baby immediately after the child’s birth and for the first two years of the infant’s life, she felt left out of her role as mother and wife. Remembering these years, UG often said that he learned as much from taking care of the baby as he did from any spiritual teachings he encountered in his life. In Chicago he also offered cooking lessons for a fee and once a week he held a Philosopher’s Corner meeting in the family apartment with a gathering of interested parties he’d met through his lectures in the Chicago TS. Of his Chicago cooking lessons he would boast of teaching the founder of the “King of Pizza” how to make a cucumber pizza. With UG, practicality always went hand in hand with philosophical discussion and a dash of boasting.
UG was involved with his family for only two more years after the forth child was born in 1958. This period also marked the end of his marrage in the wake of a fateful one night stand which also marked the end of his active sex life. Thereafter when his wife insisted on returning to India to rejoin their two now teenage daughter, UG went on a sort of global drift, abandoning his family. He wandered for several years, including a desperate period in London somewhere between 1960 and 1962 when he was homeless and penniless, and the time of his meeting Valentine de Kervan. It was then that he learned of his wife’s tragic death months after the fact, in no position to do anything about it. Little is known of that period of his life and he rarely spoke of those times aside from brief recollections about his near madness as a result of a mysterious ‘headless’ condition and his occasional palm reading for some rather shady characters in London who were his only friends by that time. A dear old friend once pressed him quietly, “UG you mean to say there was never a time when you cried?” Whereupon he paused and said something to the effect, “Well, that time in London, when I saw what I’d been reduced to, I wept.”
After meeting Valentine in Geneva, UG’s life took a turn for the better as she offered to take care of him as long as he wanted to stay in Europe. From that point forward the two were in charge of small households wherever they went in their nomadic life, living modestly on her small pension. In India he often took over the decoration and furnishing of rental properties as well as his hosts homes. This side of UG’s life is documented in various books like “Sage and Housewife” and “Stopped in Our Tracks” that illustrate UG’s every day practicality in detail.
In Switzerland UG and Valentine cooked meals for friends during the summer months at Chalet Sunbeam. I have heard many stories about these times from old friends. One friend who hosted UG for a period of three months in Rome in the 1970’s described how each day delicious meals awaited her upon her return from work. Another Indian woman who knew him toward the last decade of his life told me how UG cooked for her and her family during their annual visits to Switzerland. She was a hard working mother and housewife and he insisted she take a break when they came to see him. He would teach her and her two little girls how to cook his variety of soups, couscous and angel hair dishes. In London when the family stayed with him in his hotel apartment for three days due to a hotel scheduling mishap, he insisted on cooking for them during the three days of their stay, despite her protests. He somehow managed to put her at ease and she said it was just wonderful how welcome he made them.
At the end of his long life UG’s cooking habits were mostly dropped. Other people made his simple meals. The habit of washing his clothes never quite left, although most of that was done by friends. For some reason it was only at the end of his life that he allowed larger groups of people to spend entire days with him. This annoyed some of his older friends, but he didn’t pay attention to any complaints. “If you don’t like it, you are free to go at any time.” He was fond of reminding people. Occasionally he would rail against all of us hanging around “You people are restricting my freedom of movement!” he would shout, thinning the small crowd or parade of 2 or 3 vehicles following him. Then of course, he would holler, “Why are you abandoning us?” drawing us all back in again. At times it seemed sad to me that this old man was spending so much time on the road, driven from one place to another just to say ‘hi and bye’ to a lone friend or couple somewhere. His loyalty was memorable, and some of these people may not have particularly enjoyed the odd crowd who tagged along on his visits, but they welcomed us in nevertheless. I had the feeling he was checking in on people, but what he was actually up to was hard to say as long as I was there around him.
He was lifting a bucket of water in the bathroom of his apartment in Italy while washing clothes at the ripe old age of 89 when he injured his leg for the last time. Often while sitting in restaurants he would comment, “No one should serve another.” After his last fall, UG never really settled into a routine until his death. It was as though he was testing to see what the body would still accommodate with the utmost practicality, refusing to seek medical care to extend the natural duration of the living organism. We were waiting on him hand and foot during the last days, but when a couple of years later a friend who was dying asked me to look after her the way I had with UG, I realized how simple that had actually been. I couldn’t do it for another person. He didn’t need me to cook, or wash him, there was no medicine to administer, there was nothing really to do, aside from helping him with his toilet every few hours. I was never trained for that sort of thing so I had to decline the request when I was asked by the friend, whereas with UG, it was as though he didn’t much need the help. I was there and never once saw him complain about the pain or any inconvenience other than what he may be causing the people around him, myself in particular. Once, months before this final scene, we were walking in the street and he spotted an older man with a cane. Softly I heard him comment, “I never want to become an in-valid.” I don’t know if he intended to say it like that or I heard it that way, but that’s what it sounded like, as though a life of dependency was somehow, for him at least, in valid.
I wonder if this isn’t the simple ordinary life he was talking about, and if it isn’t much richer than I imagined at first. Often when he spoke with such scorching rage against the spiritual bullshit, it seemed so dark at times, as if there must still be something in there worth saving. Yet he insisted it was all thrown aside, tossed out of him despite him. Gradually it dawns on me how full such a simple life could be. Empty, and full.