A visit to see Amma

December 29, 2007 at 7:52 pm (blog)

Alexandra Palace in north London on a grey morning in December – a Thursday. An Indian-looking man in a bright orange parka is guarding the driveway to the grand Victorian exhibition centre at the top of Alexandra Park. A banner next to him announces the presence of Amma – born Mata Amritanandamayi – “The hugging saint.”

White women in white saris, men clad in white, wearing beards, smiles, or looks of utter seriousness, make their way in and out of the main hall which, as their feet testify, you can only enter in socks.

Some consider her a deity. She was blue when she was born, it is said, indicating an incarnation of Krishna. That’s the sell, anyway: You feel blue, I have been blue, let me, Amma (Mamma) hug you. The catch? You’ll end up spending more on pakoras, samosas, chai and battered aubergine slices than you could ever dream.

I waste no time in collecting a token. It’s in the Ks. Amma is currently hugging the Bs – it’s a good few hours before my turn. At the opposite end of the arena, away from the alphabetical rows of seats filled with people waiting for their fix of divine-mother energy are stalls selling Amma-branded wares, with her own logo. At £60 ($120), the handmade and rather voodoo-like dolls were far too expensive for cuddly toys but probably reasonable for heavenly trinkets. The tannoy advertises “Amrita TV”, a cable channel broadcasting footage of devotees in ceremonies to other devotees.
Also on offer: bracelets and necklaces marked ‘worn’ – and thus ‘blessed’ – by Amma; shower cream, shampoo, soap, and in a car-boot-sale twist, a Leprechaun. (One blessing was surely that there were no Amma toilet rolls.)
Designated cashiers issue vouchers you can then shop with – ‘spiritual’ garments, iffy oil paintings of Amma, everything short of Amma Fried Chicken (she’s vegetarian).

Eventually I too am inched forward and then join a line on my knees. You surrender your glasses, any bags, disbelief and intelligence as your status shrinks. Then, before you know it, you are facing the woman herself, your every movement monitored and guided by the ushers.

Amma is doused in lime-smelling perfume and she has a hoarse motherly voice. She puts her head to your temple, mumbles a blessing, and you leave feeling rather elated. This elation can be explained: first and foremost, she does impart something, if only relief that the wait is over. Her disciples, as you approach her, cross you with a scented wax, like a lip gloss, leaving the pleasant smell. They even ask you what language you speak, although this is a con, Amma goes ‘mwoa-mwoa-mwoaa’, which translates into most languages as ‘mwoa-mwoa-mwoa’.

It would be disingenuous to say it’s not a good hug. Thousands flock to her. In the same way that a writer can send you into rapture with the turn of a final sentence, so Amma can with her expectation management and marketing technique. Amma worked for three days, taking a break in the mid-afternoons, and returning in the early evening for the long haul – 6pm to around 9am on the last sit, and, in a true sign of godliness, she doesn’t even take a pee break.

Ally Pally turns into a city of hug-seekers, children and adults milling about, people asleep in sleeping bags, waiting, lining up for food, in their hundreds, to be embraced. Now, she was on the stage, invoking the spirit of Devi Bhava (a business guru sacred to charlatanism), on a podium all dressed up wearing a crown. Oh, for a carpenter, half-naked on a cross or a smug fat bloke in robe, or a chap so humble he must in no shape or form be depicted. Impressively, though, Amma doesn’t shy from people, there is no Popemobile distancing, she is truly hands-on. Access is her USP – you try hugging the Archbishop of Canterbury.

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A look back at the year

December 26, 2007 at 12:13 pm (1)

The first six months:

January
Meet Bunny for a coffee. I’ve known Bunny for years, he is a doctor. Both of us face a stretch of unemployment. He’s looking at being struck off after turning up to work dressed as a rabbit and me, well, as usual I have failed to plan and none of my contacts are using freelancers. These are dark days, I tell Bunny as I spoon a mouthful of tiramisu. He is optimistic though. I spoke to my boss, he says, and they think I can be an entertainer in a children’s ward but not a radiologist. The woman who is serving us is French, I can tell from her fingernails (they are shaped like the Eiffel Tower) and, of course, her nose.

February
After such an eventful January I start this month with hope: things cannot get more hopeless. The sky is grey and forms a lining under my skin. I bring a carpet into my apartment, a giant roll bought at a discount. Then the guy around to fix my broadband tells me he can fit carpet too. A week later I come home to find my laptop has been carpeted.

March
The sense that my months happen in an afternoon seems to accelerate my sense of a trot towards death. Twelve such afternoons to a year, multiplied by 30, or to be generous 31, and I’ll be dead in a month. I decide to forget about the carpet and do some of the things I’d like to do before I die. I go to the British Museum and book a day-return to Ipswich.

April
Autumn has arrived. My hair graying, the carpet in my living room is a monument to mishap. I turn it into an altar and I pray that this month, unlike last month, will not wither away. Josephine calls. She’s getting married. Oh, Josephine! Wait! My carpet will be fitted, my laptop rid of its fleece and I can take your hand. But women don’t wait — there are guys out there with no carpet on their laptops. With Josephine – who I had promised to return to once I got my house in order – married, I decide to cover my fridge and TV set with carpet, and then my bathroom mirror.

May
I am alone in my bedroom which I do not intend to leave until July. I will catch up with my reading and self-flagellation
.The bedroom will be the limit of my world. Some nights I am cold and hug my blanket to keep it warm. When it gets really chilly, I allow my blanket to cover me. I have a few books on the go but I do not want them to end without one of my teeth falling out.

June
Bunny calls. Lunch? he says. I haven’t eaten for weeks: a few dry cornflakes here and there but mostly water and vitamin tablets. You must be hungry, he says. Yes, but unable to ingest. He drives around to pluck me out of my supposedly divine degeneration. There is meaning to this life, his smile says. Always scrubbed up
, he’s a pleasure to be around. His teeth are intact and he has no discernible desire to rot. We have a coffee. The French waitress’s English has improved. Bunny’s still in his job, he tells me. He agreed to only wearing fancy dress on Thursdays when he is in the research lab.

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An update :0)

December 24, 2007 at 9:23 pm (1)

The journey to work each morning kicks off at south London’s Oval station, where a hefty waft of Tube air is inhaled by everyone on the platform as the northbound Northern Line arrives. The mood is grim — that air seems to cast a film on your face that lasts all day. You could wash it off, but washing your face in the office takes effort. At around 9.15am the train is jam packed. Sometimes you have to forgo (or is it forego?) the first arrival which allows you to take in another Hefty Waft caused by the city’s intestinal stirrings. Anyway, all this and the return on the rush hour in the evening, after a day of juggling with other people’s words leave little appetite for updating your blog: apologies to regular readers for the dearth in updates of late. Happy Christmas. Soul Bean resolves to update more in 2008.

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