Cartwheels in a Sari

cartwheels-coverLong after I had stopped dressing in saris and decorating my cubby with photos of Guru in nirvakalpi samadhi, an elevated state of consciousness, the kids at Silvermine Elementary School still remembered. Tommy Frangelo, a boy who lived down the road from my house, told a legion of kids that he saw my family sacrificing a monkey and then drinking its blood. Because one of the ancient Hindu sacred signs is a swastika, it became standard knowledge that on top of everything else, the Tamms were Nazis, too.

In school, on the rare occasions I had received an invitation to a big event like Susie Thompsons’ birthday party at McDonald’s, I was not allowed to attend. Guru had clear rules that socializing with outsiders was forbidden. Even when I begged my father to go, he seemed baffled as to why anyone would even want to go to a birthday party. Social events, for my father, were worse than searching for files at the town clerk’s office. My request to attend the year-end roller skating party caused him to stare at me for a long time, as if unsure that this strange little person was somehow the special soul that Guru had selected. Then he’d ask if I had meditated that day.

Since every night and every weekend we were in Queens or somewhere else spreading Guru’s message, instead of chatting about play dates and birthday parties, I’d attempt to share news with my classmates about the many special events that occurred during our two sacred holidays: April, in honor of Guru’s arrival in America, and August, in honor of Guru’s birthday. During those times , disciples from all over the world congregated in New York for nonstop festivities that included our own parades, Olympics, and circus. But the girls at Silvermine School weren’t impressed. Soon, even the rare birthday party invitation ceased. Sitting in the cafeteria by myself, it dawned on my one day that I was labeled the weird kid not only by my classmates but by the teachers as well.

When I failed the poetry presentation in Mrs. Sanders’ class, I stayed after school for clarification. I had done the assignment, a rarity, having chosen a poet—Guru, of course—I memorized the poem, recited it before the class, and made a posterboard illustration to accompany it.  I didn’t know where I had gone wrong. Granted, all the other students chose Robert Frost and Shel Silverstein, but it was unclear to me what the problem was, until Mrs. Sanders accused me of making up the poet.

Although at the time Guru had already written more than five hundred books and was cranking out a book or two a week of short spiritual aphorisms, I kept quiet. More and more, defending Guru didn’t seem to be worth it. Leaving Guru out of school altogether felt like a wiser choice. I figured that it wouldn’t insult Guru. My academic career was never something that he emphasized, or even mentioned. When I did receive a surprisingly good grade, Guru was quiet. Education was not what he wanted from me, and he made that clear. What he wanted and expected was my unconditional obedience and undying love, and for that, I suppose, it didn’t matter if I ever returned to school. I might as well just have sat on his tour bus forever.

Excerpt printed with permission of Random House.

Jayanti Tamm was born and raised in the cult of the Sri Chinmoy Center for the first twenty-five years of her life. She is currently an English professor at Ocean County College. Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult is published by Harmony Books and is available wherever books are sold.