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Her orange nightie and petticoat looked clean, her matted white hair was tied up tidily; only her nails were black rimmed and the skin of her face and body ravaged with anger, clung tightly to her bones.
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I was absorbed in ‘A Grasshopper’s Pilgrimage‘. I did not want to listen to the woman going on about the tons of money she had scattered all over the city, in businesses big and small, and her enemy, obviously another woman, who had done her out of her property and brought her to this state.
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After 30 odd minutes of listening to her raucous voice that would not stop in its complaints or abuse, I wanted to lean across and yell at her, “Shut up.” Only the fear that she would lunge at me with her sharp nails kept me silent.
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Because ‘A Grasshopper’s Pilgrimage’ is a book which put me into a reflective state, I wondered what Gopika would have done with the woman? Would she have cried, would she have laughed, would she have hugged her, filled her with her compassion? I felt very inadequate. I felt incapable of touching or even looking at the deranged woman near me.
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But wasn’t her clamour similar to the voice in my own mind, a non-stop voice and its many questions – what shall we do for more money, what about my work, why does this have to happen to me, I was so much younger, prettier, quicker, what will happen now, what if this guy does …. , why did she say …. , who did that, I never wanted this … , where will we find …. , who can take … , should I not … ?
I was impatient with the woman because her madness seemed to come from a huge ego, but her ego was no different from mine, this belief that I am important, that what happens to me is important, that if something happens to me that I don’t want or don’t like, something is wrong with the world.
Gopika accepts that she is a screw in the huge machinery of God and the Cosmos. And that gives her an immense sense of freedom from the worries of day-to-day life. Gopika is no enlightened soul, but her deep craving to be enlightened makes all other problems seem petty and fade away. She’s beautiful, spunky, irreverent, and affectionate. She is generous, warm and cranky. She can run away or run back to fulfill her quest. In that, she is completely selfish.
‘A Grasshopper’s Pilgrimage’ takes me back to those days when I read Ramakrishna, Rajneesh and Richard Bach with no discrimination (or real understanding). But there was a purity of being that came from sheer youth which still made that reading worthwhile. However, like most people I grew up to become more and more immersed in daily life, career worries, relationship problems, raising a kid, running a household. I also became more and more rational, and prone to dismissing faith, belief, anything at all to do with religion or mysticism.
God, spirituality or philosophy are put away in the closet like my mother’s wedding saree, to be taken out now and then, caressed, smelled, refolded, and put away again.
Manjushree Abhinav is able to bring God out in the open. She is able to talk about her spiritual journey without embarrassment or secretiveness. Her writing is clear and open, her laughter can be heard between the words, unfettered by what anyone might think of her. Her affection for her characters, those who understand Gopika, those who don’t, those who help her and those who don’t, reflects her warmth. Because the book has the unpredictability of fact, it’s a page turner, not something that one expects from what the ‘blurb’ calls spiritual fiction.
And yet, her very strong belief in what she’s talking about makes reading her book like a session of meditation. I read it on two train journeys, Churchgate to Kandivali, and Kandivali to Churchgate the next day. Everything fell away after a while, the mad woman, the crowds, the noise, the heat. And everything came alive in sharp colors, the mad woman, the crowds, the noise, the heat.
‘This space’, she said, gesturing to the empty place beside her, ‘cannot be filled up.” For a long time it was not, until an intrepid young woman chose to behave as if nothing was wrong, and ignoring the ranting from the mentally disturbed woman sat down beside her.
How many of us go around with empty spaces around us that cannot be filled up? Frightening away anyone who might come close, who might lend us a hug, a brief touch, a hand, a word, a smile? And how many of us are frightened of daring to enter someone else’s empty space, afraid of getting involved?
‘A Grasshopper’s Pilgrimage’ does not answer any of these questions. It just jumps over them, and for a few hours, pushes aside your fears and fills up the empty space around you with joy.