The Ashram
by David W. Landrum

Melinda Dayton heard the whistle sound and felt the train slow and then grind to a stop. The heat, the crush of stinking bodies—human odor mingled with turmeric and curry—would soon give way to open air with smelling of excrement and dust. She turned to Stephanie and smiled to see her also soaked with sweat.

“We’re here. We’ll be out of this in a few moments.”

The sun blazed but Melinda knew the closeness of Himalayas would moderate the heat. People moved in a mass of white linen shirts and colorful saris toward the exit. Melissa and Stephanie waited for the train car to clear out, got up, threw on their backpacks, and made for the exit doors.

The moment they stepped out, a horde of begging boys and girls and men offering to carry their bags (though they were not carrying bags) surrounded them. Melinda flung handfuls of cellophane-wrapped lemon droops, which the children caught or bent down to scoop from the ground. She and Stephanie got away from the crowd of children and would-be porters. On the concrete platform near the station house, Melinda saw Edmund Rosier.

He grinned. Warmth filled Melinda’s heart and a flood of memories rolled through her mind. He looked good after thirty years. Blond and tall, his body lithe and straight, he gazed out with benevolent blue eyes and a beatific smile. Light seemed to radiate from him, which did not surprise her. He had seemed radiant to her in the past—though that very thing had caused the trouble that led them to go their separate ways. She dismissed that dark thought as he opened his arms to her.

“Good Lord,” she said. “I don’t know if you want to hug me. I’m soaked from sitting in that purgatory of a railroad car.”

But he embraced her. Once more she felt his strength. It was the same strength she had cherished in the old days when they were lovers. He kissed her hair. She pulled away from his embrace.

“Let me introduce you to my friend, Stephanie, who agreed to come along on the trip. I learned back when I was here for the first time that it’s not safe for a woman to travel alone.”

As Stephanie shook hands with Edmund, Melinda remembered when she spent her savings on an airline ticket to Bombay and took the bus north to a place where people had told her she would find gurus, Hindu monasteries, and all the necessary accouterments for spiritual enlightenment. She ran into Americans and Europeans, hiked, screwed, and panhandled her way to the north of India. She contracted gonorrhea, took treatment in an Indian hospital, and, released with an ample supply of penicillin, entered a coffee shop to eat lunch before resuming her journey north.

Two Indian men asked her destination. She told them she was looking for an ashram. They knew just the place and praised the wisdom of the sage who ran it. They bought her coffee and gave her instructions on how to get there. As they spoke, she began to feel woozy. The room and their faces distorted. She felt dizzy and cold. At first she thought she might have picked up a virus at the hospital or might be reacting to the penicillin, but she glimpsed the two men eyeing her evaluatively and realized they had drugged her. She got up, pushing the table back (knocking one of them to the floor) and summoned all her strength to stagger through the door and plunge into the crowd thronging the main street of the settlement.

She ran, pushing her way around people shopping and carrying market items. Her legs felt like they were made of lead. Soon a crowd of begging children, similar to the ones who had greeted her at the train station today, thronged her. She pressed forward as much as she could. They stayed with her, forming a cordon of safety her pursuers could not, despite their size, their curses, and their threats, penetrate. Finally she came to a restaurant with outdoor tables. She fell into the lap of a skinny, longhaired American in a Detroit Redwings t-shirt, hiking shorts, and boots.

“Help me,” she managed to say.

That was how they met, Melinda thought as Edmund charmed Stephanie with his smile, his bright eyes, and his pleasant voice.

“Let’s go to my place,” he said, “where both of you can get cleaned up and changed.”

Edmund led them to where his car was parked.

It was a BMW. When he turned on the air conditioning, Melinda shivered. Stephanie rested her head on the back of the seat and closed her eyes.

“How is Anusara?” he asked.

“Well. She has a baby. Did she tell you that?”

“She doesn’t write me anyone.”

“Something upset her when she visited you last year. What was it?”

“She didn’t tell you what it was?”

“She won’t talk about it. I gave up and left it alone.”

“I was hoping you would tell me. If you find out what it was, let me know. Is she planning to get married?”

“She and Kyle are on good terms. I don’t know if she wants to marry him or anyone else. Her career is going well. She sold out her first exhibit and made over $100,000.00. Her style is to paint for a couple of years, accumulate art, then have one big sale and make big money. Not like me: I would always be frantically painting and trying to sell my latest work to pay the rent.”

Anusara’s art fetched high prices. She had explored her own unique style to avoid the charge that she rode to fame of her mother’s skirts.

“I think she paints better than I do.”

“Non-sense. No one is your equal, Melinda.”

They arrived at his house. Surrounded by walls, it sat, a simple white structure shaded by trees. Two servants rushed out to attend them when the call stopped. Melinda noticed how young they were. She and Stephanie followed Edmund inside.

The interior was air-conditioned. In the entry room, Melinda’s eyes rested on the portrait she had done of Edmund many years ago.

“I haven’t changed,” Edmund quipped, gesturing at the portrait.

“It will stay young and you will get old—The Picture of Dorian Gray all over again.”

He showed them to their rooms. Stephanie wanted to bathe and lie down. Though musty from sweat and tired, Melinda wanted to be with Edmund. Her heart felt the old warmth of him. A galaxy of memories filled the space of her mind.

He showed her he felt the same by putting his arms around her and giving her a long kiss on the lips.

“I stink,” she said, looking at him and smiling.

“Reminds me of the old days.”

She kissed him again.

“Stephanie’s occupied, I think.”

“Aren’t we too old for this kind of thing?”

“We can find out.”

Bodies change, Melinda knew, and women show the sagging of age more than men do, but when they embraced in his bed they both could have been twenty-five again. The ecstasy of their joining transported her. She felt the weight of emotion and the joy of sexual intimacy with a man she truly loved rocket her into realms of pleasure that made her feel age did not matter at all.

After they finished, he propped himself on one elbow. She remembered him doing this in the old days.

“You still turn bright red,” he laughed.

They had joked about the intensity of her post-orgasmic blush the first time, which was out in the open under a tamarisk tree, beside a snow-fed brook. It had been their private joke ever since.

“I’m glad you still like me,” he said.

“How could it be any other way? I think I’ll go back to the room. I want to shower before Stephanie wakes up.”

“Who is Stephanie?”

“Not my lover-girl, if that’s what you’re wondering. Just a friend. I didn’t want to travel alone—and Anusara didn’t want to come with me.”

She kissed Edmund, wrapped a sheet around her body, and crept to the washroom. Stephanie reposed in an exhausted slumber in her bedchamber. Melinda drew a warm bath and sank into the soothing water.

Edmund had defended her from the kidnappers that day so long ago—though he did not have to do more than lend his presence. The men who drugged her melted back into the crowd when they saw him.

If she had not escaped, Melinda reflected, savoring the warm water, she would have been abducted for the international prostitution trade. She shuddered, thinking how close she had come to that. After washing off, she changed into shorts and a loose-fitting smock, relaxed in her room, and read The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Stephanie woke an hour later.

“So,” Melinda smiled, putting her book down when Stephanie had come fully awake, “what do you think?”

“Quite a man.”

“He is.”

“Is he Anusara’s father?”

“Yes. We were an item way back when. I left, he stayed. I took the baby with me.”

“He seems to have done well for himself.”

“When we were together, a guru ran the place. Edmund became his disciple and runs the place now. He has retreats and people come here as residents to do yoga and meditation. I think he owns a couple of factories here too.”

“What do they manufacture?”

“Ceramic items. He provides jobs for the locals. The pottery they make here sells all over the world.”

She and Stephanie relaxed. Edmund had a meditation to lead in the guest section of the monastery. Around five a young Indian woman came in and told them dinner was served.

They followed the woman to a large room set with long tables and benches.

“I hope you’re up for vegetarian the next few days,” Melinda told Stephanie.

The conferees drifted in—forty or so in number. Half were older but the other half young—mostly white, though she saw a couple of Indians and three conferees who looked like they could be Japanese. They chatted and introduced themselves to Melinda and Stephanie. Most of them knew of Melinda through her reputation as an artist and were delighted to meet her.

“I never expected to run into you in India,” a man said.

“Years ago, Edmund and I came here. We were young. We lived here together four years.”

Edmund entered the room. People fell quiet, turned, made namskar, and took their places. Servers—some Indian, some European, and one Asian—bore food in large, steaming bowls. They chanted an invocation and everyone began to eat. Edmund introduced Melinda and Stephanie. The people around her asked about her involvement with Grace and Liberty.

“Really, I didn’t know about the organization until my daughter told me about it.”

“Grace and Liberty was an organization dedicated to eliminating slavery and sexual trafficking. Anusara, Melinda, and several other artists had contributed to its cause and had done portraits of the women and children the group had rescued. The organization circulated prints of the portraits. A couple of the portraits had become iconic. Posters Melinda and Anusara did for the organization also gained recognition by the public.

“It’s a worthy cause,” he said. Then he added, “You’ve done some remarkable work, Ms. Dayton.”

“Well, I finally am reaping some financial reward for my painting—now that I’m too old to enjoy it!”

The meal went by pleasantly. Afterwards, Edmund went to give a dharma talk followed by a yoga class. Melinda and Stephanie went for a walk.

The mountains moderated the heat, so that by dusk the air might seem even chilly. They walked the dusty streets, the disagreeable odors of the city near the ashram mingling with the smell of spicy cooking and the scent of flowers. They turned a corner and came upon a large building made of corrugated steel. White steam gushed from an aluminum lever at one end of the structure. Forklifts carried flats covered with bagged clay up to a loading dock. Young boys in khaki shorts loaded a fleet of Isuzu trucks with boxes. The site had no signs to identify it, but Melinda assumed it must be Edmund’s ceramics factory.

“Let’s see if they’ll let us inside.”

A guard stopped them. Melinda explained who they were. The guards—polite and well mannered—remained firm: they could not allow them into the factory. When Melinda perceived further talk would get them nowhere, she and Stephanie continued their walk.

That night, lying with Edmund in his sleeping chamber (not where their initial sexual encountered took place), she asked him if she could visit the factory.

“I’d love to show you thought, but I can’t—liability considerations.”

“You know I wouldn’t sue you, Edmund.”

“I know. But it’s just after to have a uniform policy and apply it to everyone. If any of the conferees find out you walked through, they’ll want to—and the rock starts rolling down the hill.”

“I see.” She paused and then asked. “Have you been by yourself all these years?”

“I’ve never married. I did have a couple of long-term relationships. It would be difficult to run the ashram and be married. And I travel a lot—speak at yoga conferences and do cruises and retreats.”

“You’ve made out quite well.”

He laughed. “Me? You’re the millionaire.”

“Children?” she asked.

“Anusara is the only child I have.”

Melinda had three other children—two from the first of her two marriages, one child she bore at age thirty-eight from a man she was dating at the time. When she counted her progeny up, four seemed like a lot, though when she looked back on her life, pregnancy, childbirth, and child rearing all appeared to her as small matters.

“I wonder why she is upset with you.”

“Who can tell? Kids are enigmatic.”

Melinda supposed Edmund meant “one’s children” by the word “kids.” Anusara was almost thirty. Did he still think of her as a little girl?

The week passed pleasantly. Melinda spent time with Edmund. She even went to some of his yoga classes (she had not practiced in ten years). Touring the village, they learned how the local people venerated him. “He is a white saint,” one man said. Others called him The Master. Melinda sketched. She found art supplies and began a painting—more abstract and spiritually oriented than her recent art. When they slept together at night, Edmund opened a skylight. Melinda gazed in amazement at the wild tangle of blazing light above her. The clear air and lack of pollution enabled her to see the sky the ancients had known—what it must have looked like when God took Abraham outside and told him to number the stars. Like everything, this brought memories of the old days, when the two of them would wrap up in a sleeping bag under the vast, pulsating sky and sleep in the open with only the air as their canopy.

It had been a good trip. Melinda enjoyed the old sights, old memories, and (she would smile) her old lover. Stephanie began a shy, tentative romance a young man from among the conferees.

The last full day there, she and Stephanie went to the train station to check on departure times for their trip south to Deli. As they walked out of the depot, an Indian man approached them and bowed. Behind him stood five boys, barefoot, dressed in white shorts and shirts.

“Missus,” he said, in heavily accented English, “you are a friend of the Master, no?”

When Melinda understood his question, she smiled.

“Well, I suppose I am. Yes, I am his friend.”

“Then you will do me the grace to deliver these boys he has bought for his factory. I was to deliver them but must return to my home at once. There has been an earthquake and I must go there. If you would take the slave-boys to him, I would be grateful.”

Melinda blinked.

“Slave boys?”

He gestured. “The boys who work in his factory. The Master has sent money to their families and I have come from them to deliver these. I fear for my own family now. If you could deliver them so I can ride the next train for my village, it would be a work of mercy.”

Melinda stared at the man. The boys eyed her curiously.

“These boys are slaves?” she finally asked, intoning the last word.

The Indian man did not know English well enough to catch the tone of horrified incredulity in her voice.

“Yes. He has delivered the money and here are the deeds to them.”

A train whistle sounded. The man shoved a thick manila envelope into Melinda’s hands.

“This train will take me to my village, Please, Missus. The Master will not be angry.”

Melinda stared. They could hear the ancient locomotive chugging not far away. Melina broke out of the stupor of astonishment that had seized her.

“Of course,” she said, gripping the envelope. “Yes. I will deliver these boys to the Master. Catch your train, sir. I hope your family has not been harmed in the earthquake.”

The man folded his hands and bowed repeatedly. After thanking her for the tenth time he scurried off, catching a passenger gondola just as the train began to pick up speed.

The boys instinctively moved closer to Melinda. Stephanie touched her.

“Melinda?”

“I’m all right,” she said.

Stephanie looked at the boys. They were curious. Perhaps they had never seen a white woman before. She also discerned that they were her responsibility now. Their families had sold them off. They were in her custody.

Wild thoughts of freeing them entered her mind, but immediately the impractability of doing such a thing halted the impulse. Five boys. If she let them go, what would they do? Left alone, they would become prey to the type of men who had tried to abduct her so many years ago—men far worse than Edmund.

Edmund. Her blood boiled. Jolts of angry energy shot through her body.

“What are we going to do?” Stephanie asked.

“I suppose,” Melinda returned, trying to gain control, “we need to take them to Edmund. If we leave them here, someone will kidnap them. They have nothing and can’t return home. We’ll take them to him. It’s the only thing we can do.”

“Just what I was thinking,” Stephanie replied.

Melinda smiled at the boys. She dug into her memory. Living in India four years, she had become competent in Hindi. Miraculously, words floated up from deep in her mind.

“Come, children,” she said. “Come with me.”

The boys looked amazed and relieved. They felt safer, she could tell, with someone who spoke their language. Melinda turned. The boys fell in behind her. Stephanie brought up the rear. They began walking in a line back toward the ashram.

As she went along, her heart pounded with anger and astonishment. Jolts of energy kept shooting through her, reminding her of the time her second divorce had sent her into traumatic depression. She tried to calm herself. She could not let depression claim her again. She thought of Edmund. Strangely, this calmed her. She had uncovered his hypocrisy. She could confront him with it.

Anusara had also found out the truth. This was why she despised her father. Her involvement with Grace and Liberty would have alerted her to signs of slavery. The ashram loomed into sight. Melinda turned to Stephanie.

“You may want to go,” she said. “This could get ugly.”

“I’ll stay with you.”

They walked through the gate of the main compound. The sun had receded below the mountain, though its light still lit with sky. The cool air soothed Melinda’s face. Clouds of insects hovered. Birds sang. Tree and pond frogs began their nightly chorus.

She and Stephanie, and the young boys, approached the dining hall. The smell of curry drifted to their noses. They walked into the full, animated dining room.

Silence fell. The two women posted by the door, the five boys between them like small volumes supported by larger, paler bookends.

Edmund, alarm on his face, whispered to an Indian man standing near the table. He strode over and spoke to the boys in Hindi. Even though she did not understand his words, Melinda could read his tone, and it was sternly imperative. The boys blinked. The man pointed, his face menacing. The boys turned and exited. He followed them out the door.

Melinda stood a moment, turned, and hurried outside. Just past the door, she vomited copiously.

Stephanie came up and took her arm.

“Are you all right, Melinda?”

“Let’s go. I need to lie down.”

They went to the main house. Melinda rinsed her mouth, splashed her face, and lay down. Stephanie sat on a chair beside the bed, silent, vigilant, like a nurse with a patient or a disciple tending a sick guru.

Melinda felt her mind and emotion churn in a dangerous state of flux. She had to get a grip on herself. She breathed in and tried to bring calm to her soul. Her agitation ebbed a little.

“Get me some wine, please, Stephanie.”

Edmund’s ascetic regimen forbade not only meat but also intoxicants at the ashram. Knowing this, Melinda had packed four bottles of good wine. She had no idea she would need strong drink to help her focus and establish mental equilibrium. Stephanie brought her a full glass of red. She sipped it thankfully.

“This is sort of like being hit in the face by a brick you didn’t see coming,” Melinda finally said.

“I’m sorry, Melinda.”

“I can’t even put what I feel into words.”

“You don’t have to.”

Melinda drank. She remembered, oddly, when Anusara was born. The pregnancy was a problem. They were poor. Edmund suggested an abortion, but Melissa demurred. Her orthodox Jewish upbringing (even though she had largely cast those beliefs off) made her squeamish about aborting her child. And she did want to have his child. After one or two low-level arguments, he consented.

When the child came out of her (an easy delivery, like all the children she had birthed), the tiny girl struck her as a ripple of beauty and grace on the water of human life.

“Anusara—ripple of grace,” she said, trying to remember her Sanskrit.

He smiled. “Well, it’s actually ‘flow of grace,’ but the same idea.”

This was long before John Friend named a school of yoga with the same term. Anusara brought about the end of their relationship. People recognized Edmund as a spiritual teacher and paid money for his counsel. He organized his first retreat, which went off well. More disciples flocked to him. As a result, he had little time for Melinda or for his child.

When she told him she wanted to leave, he said it might be best thing. They parted amicably. They even made love just before she left to catch the train back to Calcutta and, from there, fly to the US. He saw her off, kissing her and Anusara on the platform before the train pulled away.

They kept in communication through her two marriages and three other children. After a while, though, their communication fell off. Edmund came to see Anusara twice when he visited the States to participate in yoga conferences—by the time he had achieved such high status as a teacher. Anusara was a teenager. Last year, she travelled to India to see him, which resulted in a massive falling out. Now Melinda knew why.

As she sipped the wine, sweet with blackberry and cherry, the enormity of the matter settled on her. Edmund owned three factories. His wealthy partially came from his yoga career—his retreats, writing, speaking tours, participations in yoga cruises and conferences; but the bulk of it, she saw now, derived from the high profits on the goods his factories made with low overhead because he used slave labor.

Her hand trembled. She had finished her third glass when he came in.

He wore white linen trousers, a white smock, and sandals. His blond hair had faded toward grey and his skin was pale from years of vegetarian diet. She put down the wine glass and stared at him, her emotional agitation rising once again. They gazed at each other a long moment.

“It isn’t what you think.”

“What is it then, Edmund?”

“Yes, I pay for those boys. I buy them from families who put them up for sale. Here they get good food, clean clothes, a clean environment, and an education.”

“The place they live looks like a concentration camp.”

“They get a clean environment, go to school half a day, have decent food and clothing, and health care. They’re better off than three-quarters of the boys their age in India.”

“They’re slaves.”

“Slavery is a reality here. It’s a reality all over the world. When I opened my factories, I immediately received offers to buy young boys for workers. I turned the offers down—until I thought of them working in real sweatshops run by pederasts, doing ten-hour shifts, and living in filth and squalor. So you can lambast me all you want, Melinda. I’ve lived over here long enough to know how the system works. Children will be sold as slaves—I prefer to call them indentured servants. So I make it good for them . . . good, given the harsh reality that exists for so many children over here.”

“Is this why Anusara left in an angry huff?”

“I tried to explain. She wouldn’t listen.”

“What happens when the boys grow up?”

“They’re free to go or stay. If they decide to stay, I have company housing they live in. They hire on as wage earners, settle down, and are part of the community. That is why I call it indenture, not slavery. I don’t own them I have custody of them until they turn eighteen.”

“I see.”

“You don’t see. You have set categories and can’t see beyond them.”

“Edmund, you saved me from slavery. That was how we met.”

“Completely different situation.”

“I suppose so.”

He seemed ready to unleash another impassioned defense of his actions, but he stopped. She could see him controlling himself. He drooped and sighed. She let her own guard down. Doing so made her feel exhausted.

“I’m sorry this happened, Melinda.”

“Better I hear it from you than second-hand.”

“I hope you’ll at least consider the validity of what I’ve told you.”

“I have to have time to process it.”

They did not know what else to say. After an awkward silence he asked, “When does your train leave?”

“In an hour.”

“I have to lead a yoga class. I’ll say good-bye now.”

She stood. He put his arms around her, though it was not a true embrace. Both were rigid. He kissed her. She wondered if he tasted the wine on her lips.

“If you do get to talk with Anusara, try to get her to at least consider my perspective—even if you don’t agree with it yourself.”

“You care what she thinks?”
“Of course I care,” he snapped. “She’s my daughter.”

“I’ll tell her what you told me.”

They faced each other awkwardly once more. She had planned to joke about making love

to him, thank him for the stay, compliment his success as a spiritual leader, and comment on the beauty of the mountains and the austere serenity of the ashram. Despite his defense, all of that seemed wrong to her now, an impropriety and a case of hypocritical spiritual posturing. But she held her peace.

“It was wonderful to see you, Edmund.”

“It was wonderful to see you.”

“If you’re in Chicago during your US trip, come and see me.”

“I will.”

He kissed her and was gone.

Melinda walked back to her bedroom. She did not see Stephanie. Probably she was saying goodbye to the young man she had gotten so cozy with the last few days; possibly (Melinda smiled) enjoying one last roll in bed with him before she left. A breeze rose up and rang the wind chimes on the casement outside. The wind also carried, from the compound where the boys stayed, the sound of cheering and shouting—a soccer game the boys who worked in the factory were playing. The wind chimes rang more loudly. She began to check her room to make certain she had not left anything behind.

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