Ambu’s Breakfast Club
By the time I met him, Ambu’s Breakfast Club was an established institution. Every morning just before eight, up to a dozen men gathered in his room and sat in a circle on mats on the floor, quietly bantering, waiting for a cup of tea. A few had breakfast too: bread, banana, tomato, cucumber and achar. All were Gujaratis, except Anurakta, a Brit close to Ambu, and Muthulingam, a loveable Tamilian who was the butt of many jokes. There was talk of national politics and Ashram affairs, and much fun besides.
A few weeks after I met him, Ambu invited me to eat with his breakfast group on Sunday morning. I happily accepted, but was trepident about how I would be received. As we sat together, everyone was cordial, asking me questions about my background to get a better picture of me. Ambu set out the food and gave tea to each one, adjusting milk and sugar according to taste. Then my test came. Before me was my plate with bread and slices of cucumber and tomato on it. In the centre of the floor, Ambu had set out a dish of green chillies, but I had not taken one. Ashok Patel picked up a sizable chilli, looked at me with a smile, and popped the chilli into his mouth, biting its stem off with his front teeth. Then he crushed it, chewed it and swallowed. Though his face flushed up, it didn’t seem to faze him much. “Can you do that?” he asked. “It will really pick you up.”
All the club members looked at me expectantly. I tried to think, but nothing came to mind. I reached out, picked up a middle-sized chilli and held it in front of me, unsure what to do. Would a small bite be enough? A middle-sized bite? Hard to say. Gathering courage, I put the chilli in my mouth, bit off the stem, chomped down on the green fleshy part and started chewing. Fire, fire! Fire in the mouth! Body hot too. Perspiration, tears, can’t breathe! Suffocating! I tried to take a breath; my throat went into spasm and I coughed loudly. The guys were dying of laughter, as if they had never seen anything so funny! Albert just couldn’t stop laughing. Harikant, not a man given to ostentation, let out a stream of hearty chuckles. Navinchandra, the shy box-maker, smiled sweetly and giggled. And Ashok Patel, leading the way, slapped the floor madly with his palms, absolutely delighted, hugely happy, broken down with laughter. Having regained my breath, I tried to speak, but no words came out. Oh, that was funny! Another round of laughs and chuckles. Then some teasing and at last things settled down. “How do you feel?” Ashok asked. “Good, huh?”
Too good really, but in the end it was worth it. I had been a good sport and survived my initiation. For the next twenty years I was a Breakfast Club regular on Sundays, special days and birthdays. After breakfast the club members wandered off, everybody except Harikant and me. Harikant would recline against the bolster on Ambu’s bed while Ambu made him a cup of coffee; after sipping it down, he would say goodbye to Ambu and saunter out the door. I stuck on and took Harikant’s place on Ambu’s bed. His clean-up chores finished, Ambu would amble over and begin his weekly discourse. Over the next hour he drilled me in the basics of the Yoga, replete with stories of men who had lost their way by veering from the strait and narrow path. Like an elder brother, he kept me safe over the years, never speaking from “on high” but rather from his own experience, talking frankly about his own weaknesses. Often as he spoke, I recognised in him the same feelings of inferiority and insecurity I found in myself. Ambu was the anchor man who held me together. In a similar way, I think he kept the Gujarati gang together. On his birthday, a big occasion for which he prepared coffee, all of them came to wish him well — Dyuman-bhai, Krishnalal, Tara, Lila and many others.
The late afternoon was foreigner’s time. Anurakta, having finished his labours as manager of the Hand Made Paper factory, ensconced himself in a deep canvas chair and plunged into the pile of magazines at his side. “Don’t mind me,” he would tell newcomers, “I’m just part of the furniture.” Most of those who came were Europeans passing through Pondicherry on a tour of India. Ambu greeted them warmly, one and all. As the resident hathayogi, it fell upon him to instruct them in asanas. In this effort the best of the man came out. Kind and gentle, he patiently led his pupils — one or two at a time — through a simple course of asanas. A hands-on instructor, he adjusted their postures and explained how to hold them safely. He also taught them how to stand, lie, breathe and relax. Possessed of a quiet vitality, he himself was a good example of the benefit of asanas. Even in his seventies he remained supple and alert. Photos on the walls showed him elegantly contorted in near-impossible positions. He was a man who had walked his talk.
A Bit of Elegance
A fascinating character, Ambu was attractive outside the house. When he went out for work in the morning, collyrium lined his eyes and attractive perfumes sometimes wafted from behind his ears. Dressed in a white bush shirt and coloured shorts, he carried four ironed and folded handkerchiefs, one for each pocket of his shorts. A large pastel coloured handkerchief adorned his neck, providing a bit of elegance to his attire. He was a favourite of the ladies, who looked after him well.
The Saturday Night Movies
Although he could not see well, Ambu loved the Saturday night movies at the Playground. He would come early and plant himself in front, a little to the left of centre. Anurakta sat to his left and I sat to the left of Anurakta. This ritual went on for many years. In the 1970’s and 1980’s the Saturday night cinema was our main form of entertainment for the week. Television came later, not to mention videos, Internet and Youtube. The young school-children would come early to play in front on the sand, happily chasing each other. In their exuberance, they sometimes came too close and kicked sand on our mats. Ambu’s response was to throw sand back at them, shouting at them to behave. Vintage Ambu. Occasionally tensions escalated as the kids continued to play. Then Captain Mona would come and save the situation by cajoling the children to sit down and contain themselves. This little drama was enacted many times over the years. Such was life in the Ashram then.
The Later Years
Over the years I watched Ambu grow old gracefully. Though he managed to keep up his regulated life, he had less energy. His room started gathering cobwebs, for he spent less time cleaning his substantial collection of oddities acquired over the years. He had more colds and fevers and digestive upsets. How did he deal with them? He cut down on food and took rest. Then Ambu developed cataract; the operation to remove them succeeded, but recovery took a long time, and even then he complained of seeing a double image. When he poured tea in the morning, part of the fluid landed on the floor. Then he had a hernia operation, but the protracted convalescence sapped his energy. His hands began to shake. He stopped wearing a loincloth and switched to a lungi — easier on and off, I guess, but it restricted his leg movements. All these things he took in stride; though he grumbled now and then, his debilities didn’t seem to affect him much. He suffered quietly and without fuss.
The end came quickly one morning. I showed up early for breakfast to find Ambu lying on his bed, reclining on his bolster. “I feel a little weak and giddy,” he told me. I sat down to peel the cucumbers and cut the tomatoes. “I will sit with you,” he said, but I told him to lie where he was till the others came. A minute later he got up off the bed and clumsily lay down on the floor on his right side; his body started twitching and he breathed heavily. Alarmed, I went behind him and helped prop him up as he struggled to remove his dentures; when they finally came out, he sighed and said, “Leave me.” I let him down on the floor. He stopped shaking and was quiet. Dazed, I didn’t know what to do. Then Harikant came and called Manoj who lived across the hall. Manoj phoned Dr. Datta who showed up with Vishwa-bandhu ten minutes later. They tried to revive Ambu through artificial respiration, but it didn’t work. After a lot of effort Dr. Datta looked up and shook his head. Ambu was gone, the victim of a massive stroke.
That day we sat around, somewhat numbed and pensive. Our beloved anchor man was gone; he had left us simply and quietly, without fanfare, as was his way. Hundreds came to the room to see his body as it lay in state. The next morning he was cremated and the morning after that we met for tea and talked about him, but really there wasn’t much talk: one could not help but feel sad. The man who held us together had departed. The Breakfast Club was over.
The Lesson of Life
In April 1933 Sri Aurobindo penned some lines to Ambu. In neat handwriting the Master wrote:
It is the lesson of life that always in the world everything fails a man — only the Divine does not fail him, if he turns entirely to the Divine. It is not because there is something bad in you that blows fall on you, — blows fall on all human beings because they are full of desire for things that cannot last and they lose them or, even if they get, it brings disappointment and cannot satisfy them. To turn to the Divine is the only truth of life.
If there is one lesson Ambu wanted me to learn, it is this: turn to the Divine and nowhere else. Do not run after money, power, sex, name and fame. Live for the Divine, live for the Mother, and all else will be given to you.
(from Mother India, December 2017)