HOW TO SUCCEED AT ALMOST EVERYTHING
12 years ago I met a woman with a very strange life story, who in turn kept referring to me as an exceptional eccentric. In all honesty, I felt like a blameless Mr Joe Average, in comparison to let us call her Sarah, as the only things she could instance as my offbeat behaviour were that I was a writer, that I didn’t make much money from it, and that my wife Annie, in a reversal of the usual gender expectations, made most of our income. Strikingly Sarah had spent no less than 3 decades, involved in a kind of costly and worldwide therapeutic journey, not to overcome her personal problems, but simply to endure and accommodate to them. While my writer’s income was modest, Sarah was a very well paid IT manager, as was her husband Roger, from whom in a complicated way she had long been alienated. We met in late 2003, on one of my UK fiction courses, and were both aged 53, and both had been married a long time. Sarah who was short and slight, with handsome expressive cheekbones, had married young at 23, and had been wed for 30 years. She also had 3 grown up kids, all in their 20s, all unusually living at home, two of them students, and one working as an accountant. She was a Canadian of Indian extraction, who had emigrated from Bombay to Toronto in 1960 when she was 10. In Toronto she was still surrounded by her Indian diaspora family: uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews, and she spoke of it as both claustrophobic, but also enjoyable and heartening at times, all those people who you could claim as your kin, and who took an inordinate interest in you and your doings. It reminded me in all its vigour, vehemence and ebullience, of those early Naipaul fictions, especially the excellent first novel Fireflies of the late Shiva Naipaul, younger brother of the eminent VS Naipaul. By a coincidence I told her, the younger Naipaul had been at the same Oxford college a few years before me, and had studied Chinese as opposed to my Sanskrit, and I even knew some of the lecturers who had taught him. At any rate, eventually I suggested Sarah might consider mining this Indian diaspora material for her fictional material. Given that she had written precisely nothing by the age of 53, but claimed she was ambitious to succeed as a writer, I thought it time she homed in on her possible head start in terms of subject matter, for not everyone has the advantages of such a colourful and resonantly comic fictional milieu.
Our contrasts were profound. I had been married almost 25 years to Annie, and very happily so. Sarah claimed she had been unhappy for almost all her 30 year marriage, which obviously begged the question of why she had had 3 children over a 7 year period, by an unsatisfactory husband. Roger was also a senior IT manager, and was of Scottish extraction. By now, they slept in separate bedrooms, and she had made it plain to him she wished she could depart the marriage, whereas he still claimed to love her, and had no wish for them to divorce. Roger had had no compensatory affairs in those 3 decades, and Sarah had had one very long one, which was still underway. She had enjoyed a sporadic 20 year relationship with a married man called Gordon, also in IT, but in a different office in a different part of Toronto. While Roger was all depressingly sport and down to earth banal interests, Gordon who was frustrated in his own lengthy marriage, happened to be a massive intellectual who was phenomenally well read and spoke several languages fluently. As Sarah put it, he was the most brilliant man she had ever met, and this was the definite and overwhelming power of his charisma. Over the last 40 years various women have confessed to me, that for them the possession of much money is very erotic in a man, and by contrast others have sworn that a small tight masculine backside, has been that which tipped the scales from enamourment to addiction. But Sarah wasn’t the first woman I have encountered, who emphasised that a man with brains was oh so wondrously sexy, and that in Gordon’s case a huge brain was hugely sexy. The only problem, she explained, was that in 20 years they had only made love once, and it had been, and possibly this isn’t the best word, an anticlimax, if not a dud. In both cases, they could not give up on their lousy marriages, because they could not leave their kids, even though all of them (Gordon also had 3 children ) were in their 20s and all at home. Indeed 2 years ago Sarah had moved out of the family home for about 6 months, but had had to move back, because although she didn’t pine for Roger at all, she missed her adult children very much indeed.
Aside from her lover Gordon, with whom she had been ensconced in 20 years of intellectual and sexual chastity, Sarah had attempted a definite strategy for coping with her 30-year failure of a marriage. She had devoted herself to the exploration of different types of meditation, most of it Oriental and derived from Hinduism or Buddhism, or from associated quasi-Hindu sects. This fascination with meditation had been for a good 30 years, i.e. the whole of the time she had been Roger’s unhappy wife. Sarah made it plain that she had spent 30 years meditating (1973-2003) in order to cope with 30 years of depressing marital disharmony (1973-2003). Self-evidently all this rigorous spiritual discipline had not helped her to break away from her marriage, but it had helped her, she assured me, to survive it. This struck me as exceedingly eccentric, though I did not tell her as much, whereas, as I’ve indicated, Sarah labelled me an eccentric because I was a writer who made little money out of writing, and more or less accepted the fact, as indeed did my breadwinner wife. The point was I told her, that neither my wife or I were fools, and would obviously have preferred me to make decent money from my chosen art, but neither did we pointlessly agonise about the fact that I didn’t. As Annie always put it, as long as the money came in, and we both did what we wanted to do and were suited to do, and given that I made her life special by preparing delicious gourmet vegetarian meals virtually every night of our life together, it didn’t matter who made the income that kept the show that was us on the road.
The truly fascinating irony though, was that though of Indian extraction, Sarah was not a Hindu but was an Indian Catholic, as were all her Toronto relatives. So had she applied herself to writing a vigorous diaspora novel drawn from life, it would not have been about emigre Hindus but emigre Indian Roman Catholics, a very different kettle of fish. Ask anyone not RC what the main thing is they know about Catholics, and nearly everyone will say, especially those who have waded their way through all the brilliant if sombre works of Graham Greene, is that the RCs are big on guilt. Yet here was a middle aged Indian Catholic woman, now wholly Canadianised, linguistically anglicised, and with a sophisticated intelligence, and an avid keenness for all things cultural, who had no guilt whatever about the fact that she had rejected her chosen husband for all of 30 years. And of course she had also been having a 20 year extramarital affair, albeit of a chaste and supremely intellectual kind, with a married man called Gordon. As you might have guessed, Sarah was no longer a practising Catholic, but it occurred to me for her first 10 years she had been raised in a very powerful and all-enveloping faith, and I wondered where the capacity for guilt had gone, for surely that first decade of her life, as the Jesuits would boast, had been kernel and abiding and conclusive?
Her meditation, I almost said hobby, but of course it wasn’t a hobby, her dedication to meditation, had not only been prolonged over 60% of her life, it had been expensive. Some of it had been done in her ancestral Indian homeland, but she had also attended courses in Amsterdam, Berlin, Crete, London, and some very small Scottish islands actually purchased and owned by the sects concerned. In India she had gone to the ashram of a famous native guru, who was notorious among other things for the colossal number of Rolls Royces he possessed. He was a world celebrity and attracted devotees to his Maharashtra base, almost exclusively from outside India, meaning those who could pay the 50 US dollars a day fee, which of course back in 1983 and 1993 when Sarah was 33 and 43, had been a regal fortune by Indian standards. She recalled exquisitely furnished bedrooms with modern tubular floor lighting, as well as the baffling vision of security guards possessing loaded pistols in their holsters. No, there was virtually nil chance of burglary or theft in the remote setting, and the pistols looked so decrepit, they probably couldn’t have finished off a rabbit. Strikingly the courses were so popular, that at any one time this remote mansion could accommodate up to 500 Western devotees. That meant that many meditation sessions were held simultaneously, in various spacious arenas, and one could pick from a comprehensive range. In her case, she had gone to one where she had had to meditate on the blue light of Shiva, by focusing on the yogic ajna chakra which is sited centrally between the eyebrows, a long way existentially speaking, from her artless 9 year-old Bombay RC devotions of 1959.
Sarah said that skill in meditation helped one to achieve one’s goals, in fact assured those goals, and especially if like her, one had been learning the skills and their refinements over 3 decades. To be sure the goals had to be credible and sensible, so, she explained, you could not learn to fly or levitate (I did not point out that some Hatha Yoga adepts, claim that they acquire yogic siddhis or magical skills, which allow them both to levitate and fly through the air, and more). In her case, she added, whatever she focused on in meditation, and wished for with total concentration, she had eventually achieved. So Sarah had meditated in order to be granted success in her Toronto IT sales department, which she was obliged to oversee, and so it had been. Year after year she had notched up immense credits and bonuses for herself, and her staff, far more than Roger and Gordon who both worked in equivalent fields, and neither of whom practised meditation.
There was one very obvious question to ask at this point, and yet I forgot to put it before it was too late, as she had already departed the UK for North India and another meditation course, her 21st in 30 years. If she could meditate with such beneficent focus, that it gave her massive success and personal kudos in her IT profession, why couldn’t she meditate for the end of her miserable marriage? Later it occurred to me, that maybe you cannot focus on a negative, meaning you cannot meditate with a desire to achieve the absence of something. With that in mind, you cannot focus your spiritual powers on hoping for the termination of a marriage, however fruitless and depressing. Could you though, I wondered, if you were Sarah, focus your transcendental energy on achieving a permanent union with Gordon of the massive intellect and the Olympian indifference towards the activities between the sheets? On paper it should have been possible, but perhaps in Gordon’s case, for he was also a Roman Catholic, the spiritual force of even a lapsed Christian’s sense of Guilt, was somehow getting in the way of even the most accomplished yogic meditation.