Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Biography - from Mother Meera to J.S.Haldane

Ten years ago I was sitting here in France working on my previous biography. That was of the young Indian holywoman Mother Meera (the pictures here: the first is of the front door where she was born. The others are from her new home town in India, Madanapalle: statues in her garden; the first headquarters of the Maharishi of TM renown, also in the town; and the first place she and Mr Reddy stayed when there). Research was a happy period. Other than a few books published through her organization, there were no written materials to work through, but she was young. The main man behind propelling her to international stature, her ‘Uncle’ Reddy, had died. That was a shame, he would have been eloquent, informed and passionate, but his tale would also have come with its own agenda. The other significant people on her life were still around. With her blessing, I went to southern India in search of her story.
Family members had been well briefed. Certain aspects of Mother Meera’s life were not to be mentioned. That’s easy to request of someone, but harder to achieve. Some episodes, such as the death of a sister, were still too resonant not to sound in the family tales. And names of non-family members kept arising. I chased the references across southern India till I had met with these people. They were under no obligation to keep things quiet. They had agendas too. I had to balance these things out.
One piece of paper did seem significant. The young Mother Meera was introduced into the Aurobindo ashram who compiled an official report on her. I never did find that report, though my quest led me to meetings with all the various elders involved. I loved many of the meetings I had, in truly evocative locations. Some were informative, some bracing, all intelligent. The biography had added to it something of a pilgrimage tale, something of a travel book.
I gathered many details which did not square with the official versions. I was informed that there is a divine truth which I could never approach, and a more plodding truth which is so mundane as to be wrong. I shan’t run through the tribulations that followed, though they have their own unique place of drama in the history of biography.
I worked hard to make the book objective. I wanted to bring information back for westerners who are naturally naïve when approaching gurus from other cultures. I was encouraging rather than discouraging them in such a move, since western culture has discouragement of such spiritual quests as its default mode. I took that western cultural stance into the equation when aiming for that objectivity. That meant not offering too much ammunition to those looking to find a negative angle on mystics from the East. I sat in these mountains and wrote one furious draft of 66,000 words in two weeks, just to burn it out of my system, then started again to produce the balanced version.
Clearly, however, any biography is also subjective. The subject’s life is entwined with the biographer’s own for a period of years. In looking for a new subject I sought someone whose life story was worth some years of my own, someone from who I could learn. Someone too, since I am also a novelist, whose life came with a strong, sustained narrative structure. The living people with memories of J.S.Haldane are his grandchildren. I have been on some geographical trips, but most of the journeys have been through papers discovered in libraries and archives. I make no appearance as a character in this book, but am the touchstone of the story, for the parts that tell are those that excite once I have struggled to understand them. It is a story from the two previous centuries that resonates profoundly with this one. Haldane is grand model for a life.
The other week a friend who had just read my recent novel Slippery When Wet wondered whether I had chosen J.S.Haldane as a typical character from one of my books, someone British who rubbed against all notions of Britishness. That was never conscious, but I can see how it might be true … the Mother Meera book had me challenging my own Britishness.
A decade older, a decade’s more distance, my book on Mother Meera would surely be different were I to write it now. I grew in its writing, and the years of the book have a significant place in my own biography. However I am happy for it to be wrapped in its time and place. People have since died, access to others has been closed. Mother Meera is the type of figure around whom religions are formed. My book sneaked its research in under the wire, travelling around India, discovering my own ‘true’ story before the facts could be subsumed by myth.


Anonymous Jérôme said...

And so you are the official biographer of Mother Meera!
And so you want to be a writer...and are! so strange...this echoes so deeply in me!
I am precisely beginning a " writer history " ...and, as I am out of job and dreaming of India, I've proposed my resume, my services to Mother Meera for her project of school in India...Do you know anything about it ? Could you be of any help? Only God Knows...and Mother Meera too, no doubt...Pleased to have met your blog through altavista! the web what a mervellous tool! Sincerely...

5:22 PM  

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