Description of content for corresponding English title Living in The Presence
These reminiscences date back to 1942, when the author first met the Mother, and describe how she eventually came to settle permanently in the Ashram in 1951, while still a teenager. Dance and music were her interests and later, in the Ashram, they became her field of work and sadhana. As well as performing, she taught singing and arranged cultural programmes. In this book, translated from the original Bengali, she gathers memories recorded over the years in her notebooks and brings them to life in a series of vignettes. Through the intimate details of her exchanges with the Mother, a vivid portrait of her spiritual journey emerges from the pages.
Review of corresponding English title Living in The Presence
It is now forty years since the Mother left her body. In these four decades, in most people's minds, she has acquired almost a mythic presence. People read about her, a figure who was at the head of such a large organization as the Ashram, and who led a group of seekers in every way. Sometimes we hear about how she healed someone or predicted a misfortune several years before it happened. These stories of divine intervention have been told and retold, and over the years they have taken on a far greater importance than the details of her day-to-day life. People in general now do not know very much about how she interacted with people and her way of working.
During the years when the Mother was in her physical body, people did not speak about their inner experiences, not even the words that were spoken in a personal context with the Mother. Deep spiritual experiences were supposed to be kept to oneself, as speaking about them could easily take away from what was gained from them. Because of this tradition, many never spoke about their personal exchanges with the Mother. Over the years, these precious moments remained unshared and unknown. Those who have died have taken away with them the stories of how the Mother worked on them as a part of her greater work for the whole of humanity.
Those who did speak about their contact with the Mother only shared what could be publicly recounted. These stories came down to the younger generation repeated by word of mouth, and everybody assumed that these stories were so well known that there was no need to write them down. This is why coming across a book where we read about personal experiences and the Mother's advice in particular situations is a rare thing. In this book, Living in The Presence, written by Shobha Mitra, we have the opportunity to look into the Ashram's day-to-day activities, and how the author was guided by the Mother in the most practical way.
The original Bengali book is titled Sri Mayer Divya Sannidhye, and was published in 2012. It was never in Shobha-di's mind to write a book, but those who are close to her persuaded her to put down in writing her memories of the years spent in close proximity with the Mother. Since she put down her thoughts in the language in which they spontaneously came to her, it was in Bengali that this book was first written. Shobha Mitra is a well-known figure in the Ashram, at least among those connected with its school. She has been the head of the music section since the 1960s. Half a century of work in a spirit of dedication in the field of music forms only one part of this book. The beginning is about how she came to the Ashram, and that in itself is a dramatic story. But from the beginning to the end it is the story of her contact with the Mother.
The book starts with Shobha Mitra's childhood and the story of how she came to the Ashram. Her life in Calcutta is depicted with vivid details, and, when the book moves to her early years in the Ashram, we can see the contrast between the two worlds. Born into a well-to-do family in Calcutta, she visited the Ashram when she was nine years old with her mother. She felt a deep attraction for the Mother, and was charmed by the life of the Ashram. When she joined the Ashram, along with her mother, at the age of eighteen, she became a student at the Ashram School. She was among the students of the second batch to complete their studies. From then on she lived a life completely dedicated to the ideals of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo. As one reads the second half, one sees how everything in Shobha-di's life before coming to the Ashram was only a preparation for the real work she had to do.
There is an entire section about how she began the activities that were closest to her heart – singing and dancing – in the Ashram. Against all odds, she organized the music classes as well as the performances by visiting singers and musicians. And, in all this, we see the help she got from the Mother. The Mother's advice regarding introducing music to small children is noteworthy. She says, "Yes, make them hear good music. Listening to music is very beneficial. If they are very small, then ask them to lie on mats during the class. Ask them to relax their bodies and close their eyes. Play the music, then. Let the music flow, flow through the nerves and tissues of their body. Let it be absorbed."
Considering that there are few first-hand accounts of life in the Ashram, Living in The Presence has a historical value as it is a record of events and patterns of life through those decades. The story begins in the 1940s and ends in the early 1970s. We see in great detail the outward life of the Ashram through those years, and we can sense the inner life of the community that animated it. Through these episodes, we understand how an individual lived in constant touch with the Mother, and how the Mother guided the sadhaks and sadhikas in their inner and outer progress.
The great advantage Shobha-di had while writing this book is that she already had a notebook in which she had written down everything that the Mother had told her. The most important part of the book was already there. But she had to go back in her memory and remember all the details of the incidents in which the Mother had said those words. It was this work of writing down all that happened that took her so much time—four years. To those who know Shobha-di very well, this book will still come as a revelation because there are many things that are really personal that she speaks about for the first time. Not everybody would have had the courage to speak about such episodes, especially when the Mother points out faults and weaknesses.
To those who do not know much about the Ashram, this book will come as a treasure-house of information. It will show them that this Ashram is unlike any other. Instead of keeping away from singing and dancing, here is an Ashram that takes these forms of expression and turns them into a means of spiritual progress. People will discover how the head of this spiritual institution was so accessible and so close to each member. Most people who are not devotees cannot know how sweet and intimate was the Mother's relationship with her children, or how much she wanted this community to live as a real family in a true fraternal atmosphere.
The English translation is smooth, and at no point do we feel that we are reading a translation of a Bengali book. The translator's hand is almost invisible. Translating from one European language to another is difficult in itself but translating into a language of a very different culture brings some fundamental difficulties. There are many words and expressions that cannot be translated with exactness. Sometimes one has to find an expression or a word that is close even though it does not represent a precise equivalent. That is where the translator's intuition comes in. Maurice Shukla has done this work with great skill.
This English edition has many photographs, and these pictures speak volumes. A special effort was made to add photos that show how the Mother participated in the activities of the School and the Playground. A whole new dimension is added to our comprehension when one can see the Mother watching a performance or present during a music concert. The book is full of anecdotes of how cultural programmes were prepared for the anniversary of the School and how she herself gave suggestions to the performers.
This book could be just what a young seeker needs. Here is an example before us of a life consecrated to an ideal. It is one thing to read the letters of the more experienced sadhaks concerning their inner difficulties and the Mother's answers to them, but it is quite another to read what was going on in the mind of a young woman when she put her questions to the Mother and how she then followed her guidance. The anecdotes provide the context in which these questions were asked, and are truly inspiring. After reading her book when it was first published in Bengali, many living in Kolkata even told Shobha Mitra that they had found there the answers to their own problems. Those who are looking for spiritual direction can see that such a journey towards perfection makes life worth living.
Sunayana Panda, who holds an MA in English Literature, was a student at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education. She is on the editorial team of The Golden Chain, the alumni journal of the SAICE, and has been actively involved in the staging of many of Sri Aurobindo's literary works.