Memories of Ahalya Di remain fresh, crisp. Just a few days before she passed away, I spent a precious week with her. Though physically frail, mentally and emotionally she was as strong as ever. I see her in my mind's eye, using a walker. 'We could arrange for a wheelchair,' I suggested, 'You could sit in the front verandah in the evenings.' For years, she'd greatly enjoyed an hour or two out in front, amid Vasanta Vihar's sweeping expanse of green, colourful flowering bushes, tall trees and open skies. She enjoyed the idea, but then with a quick shake of the head, said, 'No! This is not a geriatric ward, this is the Krishnamurti Foundation of India!' I joined in with her bubbling laughter.
She had this incredible sense of balance, discretion and dignity. Living at the nerve-centre of the KFI, she harmonized with it, while preserving her own rhythms. Intensely aware of the significance of her location, she was completely at home. She chose to stay in her gracious room, with the dining hall a small walk away and the beautiful library above, unto the very end— a considered choice.
On 19 March 2013, she spoke to teachers from The School-KFI about education as freedom from the self. During this time, her blood pressure was abnormally high, and immediately afterwards oxygen had to be administered to her. The people around her looked after their beloved Akka over the next few days, while doctors and nurses came and went.
Ahalya Di, meanwhile, would grope for her iPad, listen to the news, and discuss the Sri Lanka situation with her doctor when he came by to measure her pulse! Finding that the news disturbed her, I suggested we listen to music: she accepted cheerfully. We listened to soulful Sufi and Kabir bhajans. Then her close colleague in editing Krishnamurti's works over the years came by and played a new recording of selected passages; Ahalya Di made astute comments, to help finalize this work.
She was looking forward to the Editorial Board meeting in April. She had also planned a trip to Varanasi, another to Delhi, and would have flown to her niece's wedding in Kerala if she possibly could. She planned to visit friends in Mysore in May. Yet at the same time, she was aware—choicelessly aware—of the inevitability, and the imminence, of death.
Late in the evening, she was quiet and she asked for a healing massage. Then she asked me to read out from This Light in Oneself: True Meditations. She listened, was silent, and slept. I slipped away to my room, next to hers, leaving the connecting door half-open.
Ahalya Di figured in my life from the start. She taught in the 1950s at the Central Institute of Education, Delhi University, where she met my parents. She taught them, and then they were colleagues. They struck up a life-long friendship: my father still fondly recalls their visits to Ahalya Di's home in Shakti Nagar, where her mother fed them delicious south Indian meals. Ahalya Di lived in Shakti Nagar at the time, with her parents and younger siblings, a stone's throw from the university.
By all accounts, she was a brilliant teacher. Already, she had been through much: after a carefree childhood in Rangoon, and enjoyable years studying at the University of Rangoon, she'd confronted the trauma of war. Her family walked the hard road towards north Burma; she lost a younger sister on the way. They reached Calcutta as refugees. Her father, who had headed the Theosophical School in Rangoon, soon found employment tutoring the daughters of a prosperous business family in Ara, Bihar. Ahalya Di completed her Master's at Banaras Hindu University, and began teaching at the age of 22, at the Vasanta College for Women.
When I was a child, I knew none of this. No air of gloom or depression hung about her graceful figure. She was phenomenally good-natured, and even-tempered. She was my 'Ahalya Aunty'—who loved me, with whom I could talk, share stories and have fun. She was light-hearted, and at the same time there was an extraordinary sensitivity, and a deep concern for our well-being.
She indulged us: I have this image of her gliding down the steps of an Air India flight from England, doll in hand; a little later my elder sister Ritu, Bella and I stood in line, in descending order of height! As I grew taller Bella, the doll, remained small and sturdy. When she lay down and closed her blue eyes, I imagined she slept. When she sat up, I could coax her little feet into shoes, with buckles I could fasten.
Ahalya Di gifted books to us, including our favourite tiny little Ant and Bee books. She and my mother joined the newly founded NCERT, and were involved in preparing the country's first early literacy primers, the Chalo Paatthshala Chalein—Rani Madan Amar series. These were gorgeous ladies, lovely in their silk saris, colourful cottons in summer, bindis, and perhaps a touch of lipstick. They glowed with energy and purpose, were enthusiastic and devoted to their vocation, educating teachers who would in turn teach children. They loved children, breathed ideas, enjoyed the simple things of life, and were the modern professional women of a new, vibrant, young nation.
In the early 1970s, Ahalya Di lived right next to us, in south Delhi. A white Ambassador took her to work every day, for she was then Commissioner of the Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan. Her youngest brother lived with her still. Her sister visited often, with her husband and children.
In 1973 Ahalya Di left Delhi to join the KFI. In summer of 1974, my mother, sister and I visited her in Varanasi. She lived in a sprawling cottage overlooking the banks of the river Ganga. I hardly realized she was the Director of the Rajghat Educational Centre. She never pulled rank, never forgot to smile warmly and hug affectionately. She treated us to home-made mango icecream, the fluffiest and tastiest ever, and sent us for a magical boat ride across the river. There were fat lizards in the house, but Ahalya Di was friends even with them!
Over the next years, I looked forward immensely to her visits to Delhi. We still had fun playing dumb charades. It was from her that I first heard about computers: certainly she kept pace with the times. We went for Krishnamurti's talks, when he spoke in Delhi. In Ahalya Di's presence, our household relaxed, for possibly she was guide, friend and philosopher, to each of us. Much later, after I set up home and my parents left Delhi, she often stayed with me, when here.
I began visiting Ahalya Di independently in 1987, in Chennai. She lived splendidly, in an old-style bungalow in the Theosophical Society grounds, cool verandahs running all around, overlooking a little forest of chikku and cashew trees. We took a trip to Mahabalipuram, talked about life. I was questioning, rebellious in those days, caught in a whirl of activism, which she appreciated —up to a point. Despite our differences, I felt with her a warm sense of belonging, caring and deep interest. I'd begun research for my PhD, and recently visited the Chipko areas. Ahalya Di got me to talk on the Chipko movement at The School-KFI in Chennai.
In the early 1990s we visited as a family—my mother, my two-year-old daughter and I. It was the most soothing trip ever—lively, energizing. For Ahalya Di, my mother was like a beloved younger sister. I will not forget how she wept when, in 2007, I called to tell her that Ma passed away early that morning. A few months later, we visited Ahalya Di—a trio composed this time of my father, my daughter, and I. As a family, she was the one we repaired to in times of sorrow, for solace and wisdom.
Our relationship ripened, over time. As I grew increasingly interested in Krishnamurti, we often read together, reflected on the self and consciousness, education and teaching. I visited Krishnamurti schools. She felt I 'belonged' here, and it is true that I do feel a very special kinship. She gently nudged me to join one of the schools, and while I was frequently tempted, I never grew fully convinced about the wisdom of relinquishing my independent, quite interesting and in its own way, quite meaningful, life. She must have observed this, for one day she said, 'I was thinking of what the place needs… But it's far more important to think of the person—what do you need?' I promptly replied that I need to be quiet and reflective, to read, and write more. Thereafter, she changed tack, and we often discussed possible Krishnamurti inspired themes that I'd like to write on. She took a detailed interest in my varied work commitments, and laughed uproariously at my hair-raising stories of the 'world-out-there'. She suggested I write a piece for the Journal of the Krishnamurti Schools, thoughts on teaching at university—which I did and found meaningful to do. It was tremendously educative to see how open and receptive she was, although forty years my senior, flexible and adaptive, respecting a different way of being, with its own rhythms.
March 19 to 25, 2013: She makes sure I come and spend this week with her. I almost call it off at the last minute, with conflicting priorities tugging at me; the quiet insistence in her voice draws me to Vasanta Vihar.
She nibbles delightedly at a gujia, for she loves north Indian sweets, and grumbles, 'You said you'd come for ten days, but you're here for just five!'
'Six,' I say, so both of us feel better. She agrees I should keep up my commitment at Rishi Valley, helping design a new course: 'It's good work'. Then she reminisces, 'Once at Rajghat, I asked Krishnamurti for advice on curriculum. He remarked, "Curriculum is chaff!"'
Continuing a long-time conversation between us, Ahalya Di says, 'You must write about the uniqueness of Krishnamurti as an educator. He spoke of education as freedom from the self…' We talk about this, quite a bit, and I take down extensive notes.
A team from Lucknow and the United States had come recently to interview and video-record her, as a 'woman leader'. Ahalya Di chuckles as she relates, 'I'm neither woman, nor leader! I'm a human being. Why should I lead anybody? Why should anybody follow anybody?' She was indignant too about being put on video, but then, since the persons were so sincere, she had allowed a small documentation.
She tries to ply me with gifts: saris, mysore pak, organic millet porridge, murukku, new clothes, new books, money ('The government has increased my pension: I've never had so much money in my life!')—all of which I decline. I accept some music and books, though, from her collection— MS Subbalakshmi and Bombay Jayashri; and a little gem of a book, A Tale of Three Cities, by Banee Sarkar. The first part, about Banee's youth in Rangoon up to the 1941 bombing, prominently features 'Ahalya, my life-long friend'. It weaves charming accounts of their excellent teachers, and college theatre, with Ahalya performing the roles of Mirabai, Annie Besant, and Tagore's heroines! It describes the Japanese bombing in 1941, Banee's family's departure for Calcutta, and later, the Chari family arriving at their doorstep as refugees. She proudly mentions Ahalya Chari receiving a Padmashree years later and Ahalya's help in getting in touch with old Rangoon families settled in south India.
One day Ahalya Di recalls: 'Krishnaji would say, "Don't throw in roots anywhere, but make the place your grave." He meant, give your life to the teachings.'
I sit by her, holding her frail hand. The oxygen cylinder has been used a little while ago. In the Hall the weekend retreat is carrying on, unimpeded. I watch a video and participate in a dialogue at the retreat. She listens with interest to my account of the dialogue, on 'don't make a problem of anything'.
More than once this week she has said, 'My time is running out'. Somehow it never comes across as a problem: simply a statement of incontrovertible fact.
25th morning: At night she coughs often, and I go across, rub her back. I feel hesitant about leaving, yet early in the morning she is up, waiting with our tea. We chat gently. When she asks whether I will come to Chennai on the way back to Delhi, I reply, 'No, not this time' and leave with a lump in my throat.
Five days later she passes away: quietly, naturally, post-breakfast, after a short coma.
Early May 2013. KFI Retreat, Uttarkashi.
One reason I come to the Uttarkashi retreat is to reflect on death… I feel Ahalya Di's presence, gentle, blessing, the spirit strong. At this retreat I feel it all the more, for she was deeply concerned with nurturing such spaces, this whole earth with all its vibrant beauty.
Late one morning, sitting in the verandah of the library cottage, amid pine and jacaranda trees, the Ganga flowing way down, I hear a number of birds—mynas, parakeets, jungle babblers, a brain-fever bird—shrilly scolding. Something is amiss… Suddenly I see what it is: a long yellow snake ripples down the pine tree closest to the verandah, baby bird in mouth. Settling at the foot of the tree, it masticates and swallows, oblivious to the birds' swooping and scolding. It devours its prey and ripples away, scales glinting in the morning sun. So death comes—in many guises!
I am just so grateful, at the end, for those precious moments, down the years.