Reviewed by Sujata Raye
Title: The Guru Who Came Down from the Mountain
Author: Roshen Dalal
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books
This first novel by Roshen Dalal is ideal to read during a train journey or while waiting for a flight, when a cup of coffee and a racy book with intrigue and murder are sufficient to make the wait enjoyable. It begins with the introduction of the novel’s two main characters. Dev and Nityanand or Nitya. Devdarshan is Nityanand’s Guru and dying of AIDS. The initial few chapters, alternately, tell the reader the background of both Dev and Nitya.
The story is Dev’s; Nitya is only a tool to unfold it, the foil to Dev’s negativity. Nitya comes down to see his dying Guru at his ashram in Rishikesh. Out of sheer ignorance he has stood witness in the court, swearing Dev’s purity and celibacy, facilitating unknowingly, the dismissal of all cases of sexual coercion against his guru. Nitya is angry with himself for betraying the innocent. He remembers the accusations of drug dealing, of guns and weapons, of murders and deaths, while he was in Dev’s ashram in the US.
The story unfolds through Dev’s writings that he hands over to Nitya to read. That part of Dev’s life is a reminder of the recent shenanigans and expose` of several godmen in the country. It is quite apparent where the story is leading, yet the details of how ashrams are opened, how greed and weak minds can succumb to the lure of going to foreign lands – how women become easy victims of the Guru they blindly follow, keep the reader engaged.
The story of Dev’s journey from a village up in the mountain to a town, marriage to Gita, and his teaching career evokes curiosity, as in the case of Gita’s peculiar explanation of why she didn’t want a child. But Gita does become pregnant, has a normal delivery and a healthy baby, but within a few hours, Dr. Shanti calmly informs Dev that both Gita and the baby are dead. Gita is not important to the story. Is that perhaps why she is removed from it in such a curious manner? But to dismiss her and Dev’s acceptance of the deaths in a couple of sentences is totally unconvincing. Are the doctors so arrogant and the clients so blindly accepting in small towns? (In this case, Dehradun of many years ago).
After Gita’s death, Dev’s journey to becoming a guru begins, though unknowingly. He lands in an ashram run by an Italian named Enzo. It is here that Dev is introduced to bhakti and tantra. The writer has given more than a glimpse of where the licence for free sex emerges in these so called ashrams, but it is also here that Dev reads extensively about bhakti, Sufi sects, Christianity and untranslated tantric texts, but his focus throughout his readings is on the emotion `love’, especially if it implies sex. Dev seems almost obsessed with his desires.
When a new yoga teacher comes to the ashram to teach, Dev follows him and practises asanas and pranayams taught by Sundararaman. He realises that this is what he has been looking for to gain power over himself and the world. Dev’s realisation that there is a dormant personality inside him and his self-reflection, forms the heart of the story.
It is Sundararaman who recognises the potential of this student to become a ‘great teacher, a yogi and advance further in spiritual direction’, but he also senses the negativity in Dev, and advises him to be celibate and follow the yoga that Sundararaman has taught him.
At this point Cynthia, the character who takes the story forward, is introduced. It is she who helps Dev immigrate to the US and thus takes the story forward. It is her need to make money through Dev, to pay off her debts that makes her plot Dev’s murder, but she does not succeed. The pace of the narrative picks up only towards the end. The intrigue, the plot to kill Dev, the unexpected Will – the author neatly brings everything together.
After Dev’s death, the ashram heads from various parts of the world arrive to claim their position as his true successor and gain control of his ashrams and properties; also to challenge Nitya, who they think would become the successor. Nitya reminds them that Dev had left the US under a cloud, leaving behind a tainted legacy.
The author gives the reader a story about the profound subject of spirituality without being esoteric with the details. The narrative is woven through with murder, sex and chicanery, intrigue – all the elements tied up neatly.
On the flip side, the initial chapters are mild irritants because narration shifts among various locales – Delhi, Gangotri, Dehradun, Rishikesh, and one has to flip pages to see whether the narrator is Dev or Nitya.
Sujata Raye is a journalist and freelance writer. She retired as executive editor of a children’s weekly at the Sakal Group of Papers Pvt. Ltd and has published features and short stories in Marathi. She is fluent in Marathi and Bengali.