The red hibiscus altar

The red hibiscus altar


Jatin and his wife Jean had enthralled me ever since I was first introduced to them a couple of years ago. Jatin was an artist and writer. His wife Jean ran a village school where thanks to certain unique principles she adopted in her methods of teaching; the children from that school went out into the world as wonderfully creative young people. Therefore, when I was invited by them to spend an evening at their ashram situated some thirty kilometres outside Bangalore, I readily agreed. My life had been going through a stressful and troublesome phase and a break was just the thing that I thought I needed.

As I drove down to the ashram, the scenery around me transformed itself from bustling city into calm countryside. Lush trees and green fields surrounded me. The air smelled moist and fragrant. I was just thirty kilometres outside Bangalore but I could have been driving on a different planet. Following Jatin’s hand drawn map, I turned into a bumpy track and drove along a fence until I came to a rickety gate. As I turned my car in and parked beside a well, I was greeted by Jatin. With his long snowy white hair and beard and dressed in a flowing white khadi kurta, Jatin shimmered in the evening sunlight; his entire appearance that of an otherworldly vision.

‘Greetings!’ said Jatin as he extended both his hands to mine and led me toward the low tiled roofs of his ashram.

I spent a marvellous evening at the ashram. I was taken to the library to look at a unique collection of old books, I got to see Jatin’s paintings, I chatted with Jean while she fed me crisp hot dosas and tea, and I was introduced to Margaret, a painter and teacher from England, who showed me her sketchbook filled with exquisite watercolours of her travels in India.

I hardly noticed the evening pass by.

We sat on low stone benches and talked away. A dim lone light bulb lit up our gathering as darkness descended. The swishing of trees filled my ears with their soothing sounds. The maddening chaos of city life seemed but a distant memory amidst the tranquillity surrounding me. “This is truly spiritual life”, I thought, “I should just give up everything I have in the city and come live here in this village so that I can leave all my problems behind forever”.

Since it was too late to drive back to Bangalore alone, I was asked to stay the night. After a simple vegetarian meal, I was invited to partake in a meditation before we retired. I followed the others into a darkened room lit by a single oil lamp, where we sat cross legged around a small shrine. Placed on the shrine was one of Jatin’s paintings – an abstraction of brilliant colours. It was surrounded by red hibiscus flowers carefully arranged in a circle. By the light of the lamp, someone read a beautiful passage from Kabir and everyone meditated in silence. Finally, we said ‘namaste’ and ‘peace be with you’ to each other. By the time we had finished, I was feeling light headed and tranquil; I could have been floating on a cloud. I was then led to a neat, spartan guestroom, where by the light of the moon through the window, Jatin's strange and beautiful spiritual paintings stared down at me while I slept.

In the morning, I was told that Jean had had to rush off early to Bangalore on urgent work so I went to the kitchen to help Margaret make dosas for breakfast. Jatin came in with me and took a pressure cooker full of porridge into the dining area. Suddenly there was a loud explosion. Boom! I rushed out and saw the pressure cooker open on the floor. Jatin was standing beside it with porridge dripping off his long hair and beard. He stood there like a snowman on a hot summer afternoon - a very different sight from the shimmering otherworldly vision that had greeted me on my arrival. The tranquil, spiritual atmosphere that had pervaded the ashram the previous evening had been shattered by exploding porridge; and it had resulted in drenching me with a shower of reality as well. 
Driving back to Bangalore, I took stock of the issues in my life. Running away from my problems and avoiding them by sitting in front of an altar strewn with red hibiscus would help no one; least of all me. I would have to face the troubles in my life and deal with them systematically and effectively until they ceased to bother me. Spirituality and its associated gifts of wisdom and peace would arrive along the way.

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