It has been 20 years since I left Ananda Marga, yet in some ways it’s as if I never left. Not only has the experience influenced me in profound ways, but the writing of my book, taking as long as it did, kept me immersed in the experience for far longer than may have been healthy. At least that was how I felt occasionally as the years (and one draft after another!) came and went. But I wouldn’t have had it any other way. It was a story that had to be told, after all, and the response I’ve gotten has been enthusiastic and truly heartwarming.
Writing a memoir is hard work. Deciding what not to write about is often just as important as what to highlight and expand upon. Because I decided that the most compelling part of the story was those years I spent in the group, most of what I wrote about my return to this country and how I readjusted to “normal” life did not make it into the final draft. Instead, I decided to include an epilogue to touch on some of these issues instead of the more detailed account I originally had. Some readers have asked me about this and said they would have liked to have read about the process of how I managed to adjust to a life so different from the one I had led as a yogic nun for so many years. Some of the material may make it into another book project I have in mind (and no, it’s not another memoir!); some I may share here.
Re-entering the work force was a particularly daunting task. Not only did I have to come up with some way to account for all those years without mentioning Ananda Marga as part of my work history, but I had to learn on the job about a work world that was far different from the one I had left years earlier. I very much felt myself to be a foreigner in my own country; I sounded different (and even spoke a kind of Indian English, using such expressions as “take food” and “take rest”), and I’d missed 18 years of music, movies, and political and cultural changes. So, much like the stories of cultural missteps in countries like India and Turkey that I included in my book, I was bound to make some faux pas. Here’s one:
The first job I landed was a two-week assignment doing clerical work at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, close to Penn’s campus. As I exited the El stop at 34th and Market, walked down 34th Street and perused the buildings, some old and familiar, others newly constructed, I reflected on the last time I’d been here. It had been as a didi, a yogic nun, in the winter of 1980. Like now, it had been a bitingly cold day. But then I’d been sure of my role and place in the world. Now, I was less sure of myself. I was searching for my place, much like the chubby college student I had been years before when I’d walked these streets on my way to classes, my arms full of books. It was as if I’d come full circle, finding myself back in the very same place I had started from. I wondered if I had made any progress at all.
I arrived at work early that first day, wearing the navy blue suit my aunt had given me. I’d bought some navy pumps to go with it. I looked all right, but I hadn’t worn heels in years, and by the end of the day, my feet ached.
The next morning, as I came in the hospital door, I noticed that many women, while all smartly dressed in their business suits (my skirt was too long, I noticed), weren’t wearing heels. Instead, they were all wearing socks and sports shoes. When I got up to my floor, I even saw my supervisor entering her office wearing a pair. Wow, I thought, I should get some of those! After work, I went downtown and looked around for some shoes that weren’t leather; all those years as a didi, it had been forbidden to wear leather, and I still had an aversion to it. After some searching, I found a pair at a Payless shoe store.
I came to work the next day wearing the brown and white checked wool skirt and the somewhat matching wool jacket I’d purchased at the thrift store near my apartment, along with socks and my spanking new white runners. Admiring them as I walked around the office, I performed my tasks with a newfound energy. It’s great that people wear comfortable shoes now, I thought. Things certainly hadn’t been that way when I’d left in the early ’70s, I remembered, thinking back to the summer of my junior year of college when I’d temped for Kelly Girls, wearing an uncomfortable, too-tight yellow dress and shoes that had pinched painfully as I made my way down the steamy summer streets of Center City.
It wasn’t until three days later, when I saw my supervisor come out of her office wearing heels that the truth finally dawned on me: women wore their sports shoes to work, but once there, they changed into their heels.
That very afternoon, my supervisor told me that I didn’t need to report to work the following Monday. I’d ended up working only one week, not the two the temp agency had promised me. I wasn’t told exactly why, something about the work having been completed more quickly than expected. But I was sure it had something to do with the shoes.
“Is it because of these?” I thought to ask, pointing at my running shoes. Then I’d go on to explain and promise to wear heels from then on. Already feeling stupid enough, I said nothing, walked out of the office, took the elevator to the ground floor, and left the hospital never to return–briskly and with a bounce in my step, for at least I wasn’t wearing those painful heels!