Sunday, June 28, 1992

Holiest of Holis

Padmanabhakripa, nee Jonathan Fitzwilliam-McDonald stood six foot tall in his bright orange robe. His blonde pigtail stuck up above his neatly shaven skull, giving him an extra two inches. He frightened me nearly witless by marching up and demanding alms. It was my first trip to England and I stood on Oxford Street, London W1, innocently gawking at the other tourists, totally unprepared for this strange apparition and his pack of chanting, ranting, cymbal-clashing Hindus. No one else seemed to notice; they blended well with the strange racial mix thronging the pavement. Intrigued, I followed them.
Jonathan was in the schizophrenic state of mind of one who has recently had his name changed. Seated, his costume turned from outlandish to merely eccentric – and he himself lost much of his former ferocity. Off duty, so to speak, Jonathan was no longer a religious maniac. Glimpses of the confused schoolboy peeped out from under the robe like a vest. “Just call me Padma,” he introduced himself, in a transparent attempt to avoid articulating the troublesome ‘bh’ in his new name.
It turned out that these were disciples of Swami Mahaboolshetra and among the novitiates, Padma had won the distinction of being selected to pursue his mystic studies at the Swami’s ashram in Bombay.
Back home some months later, I happened to visit the ashram in connection with a story I was following. The devotees were gathered at prayer and among the bowed heads I was pleasantly surprised to see the unmistakable blonde pigtail sticking up in the air.
When we parted in London he had been brimming over in excitement at the prospect of his imminent visit to India. But the Padma that greeted me now had bags under his eyes and the tortured look of a man whose dreams have recently been shattered. He was clearly on the verge of a breakdown. “I haven’t been able to sleep since I arrived,” he confided.
It had taken him a few days to orient himself, to reconcile the realities of Bombay with his scheme of things. The beggars, the noise, the dirt were passé; the BBC’s portrayals were realistic if not downright uncomplimentary – and hadn’t he seen the film Gandhi several times?
But the reality transcended these. For one, nothing had quite prepared him for the digestive exploits to which his stomach led him, in restaurants across the length and breadth of the city. Having stepped off the plane with appetising visions of Beef Madras floating delectably in his mind, Padma was dismayed to find that such a thing simply did not exist. And, sample as he may, not one decent curry did he ever come across – at least, nothing to compare with what the Indian restaurants back home had led him to acquire a taste for.
Returning to the ashram from one such expedition, Padma was seized with a terrible fit of cramps which caused him to buckle over in agony. The nearest toilet was godknows how many miles away and in any case the quaint old taxi was not moving towards it. It stood there, motionless, in a tremendous pile-up of traffic. It was the festival of the elephant-headed god Ganesha. Noisy, colourful, thronging processions carried enormous idols of this extremely picturesque god on their shoulders to be immersed in the sea, completely disrupting the traffic. Unable to revel in this joyful explosion of living culture, Jonathan sat there writhing in his tattered back seat, prevented from committing the unspeakable solely by force of his tremendous yogic powers.
His dignity was preserved – for the time being. He was to part with it some days later at a pedestrian crossing in the city. Here he was prevented from crossing the road by two policemen with a rope in a ritual peculiar to Bombay.
And so, it was no surprise to me when I bumped into him again a few months later at the airport, on his way home for good. His pigtail was damp and his robe – which, surprisingly, he had not abandoned – crumpled. A companion from the ashram who was there to see him off confided that on their way to the airport Jonathan had had a bucket of water thrown over him by a complete stranger. This quaint custom of the spring festival Holi appeared to have damped his last spark of enthusiasm. He smiled weakly at me. “I guess it’s back to frightening the darkies on Oxford Street for me,” his eyes seemed to say, but he remained silent. That was the last I ever saw of him.
first appeared in Saturday Times on 27 Jun 1992