I was born in Paris. When I was 17 I found a French translation of Sri Aurobindo’s: Essays on the Gita. I bought it not knowing why… something attracted me to it. I read the essays for two years. And I can say without undue modesty that I understood them not at all; but I was compelled to continue reading them. One day something opened and they became clear — they must have been absorbed somewhere. Something then happened which was so important for me that I didn’t immediately grasp that these essays had been written by a living person; at the time Sri Aurobindo was still alive, so technically I suppose I could have taken a plane and come to India…it never occurred to me to write to the publisher.
I did however go on looking for other books by Sri Aurobindo; I found The Synthesis of Yoga — only the first volume had come out. I read it to the exclusion of everything else for several years. Finally, when I found out the author had started an Ashram in India, I also found out he had just left the body.
This must have been in the early fifties.
Exactly. In any case, I wanted to come to the Ashram for I knew if there was a teaching for me anywhere this was it. It looked as if it would be difficult to get to India — I was married, living in South Africa. Someone urged me to write to the Mother: I explained I had long wished to come to the Ashram but it seemed impossible. A reply arrived a few weeks later — my first from India. I was excited but it just said when the time came I would certainly come to the Ashram. I thought: That’s nice and encouraging, but I couldn’t see much chance. Not long after, I had to leave Africa — I was living in Mozambique — to look after my dying mother. This made me realize that if I could leave for six months it was perhaps possible to also go to India. In 1959 it did happen; I had to go a round-about way and not startle my family too much: through Manila for a UNESCO Conference, then Japan, which was all right too, then India, which was my true destination.
You came straight to the Ashram?
Oh yes — it was a pilgrimage, although I wasn’t sure what would happen. I came to the Samadhi of Sri Aurobindo, and something did happen…I knew I had done the right thing. But there were things in the Ashram — the Indian form of devotion — which I wasn’t prepared for; things which can be startling to the Western mind. I associated this with the Mother rather than Sri Aurobindo. I wasn’t too happy seeing photos of Mother’s feet stuck up everywhere. And when I was offered photos of Mother which had been blessed by her, something in me withdrew and I became upset. It seemed to me if the Ashram Sri Aurobindo had founded wasn’t working, where else in the world could one go?
Someone who knew about this turmoil going on in my mind suggested I ask Mother for an Interview, she being entirely responsible for running the Ashram. Well, when I saw her, all reservations fled; in fact, when I looked into Mother’s eyes, everything resolved and tears began pouring down my cheeks. Nothing else mattered — nothing mattered at all. Then I realized something I had read in Sri Aurobindo’s books but had never taken in: her consciousness was the same as his, though it manifested differently. When I understood that, I didn’t mind what was going on in the Ashram — it was irrelevant to the fundamental thing I had come for. That consciousness touched me, so I never again worried about the things that had first worried me. I went back home to put my things in order, then returned to stay for good.
Does that mean you had the approval of your family?
No. My husband realized once I came here it would be the end of our marriage. My mother had died, but I can’t say my father and brother regarded it favorably, yet when they saw I was happy here, after some years, as it were, they gave their blessings.
What did you have in mind once you decided to stay? Did you wish to meditate, do seva, or get into the crafts?
It was entirely yoga. When I was in Africa I was meditating for at least six hours a day and I read for another three hours. The moment I got here everything stopped: I didn’t want to meditate, and soon I stopped reading. There was a part of me that hadn’t settled down in India — to Ashram life — and found itself jammed-in and went on strike. It was difficult; obviously the major part of me — the soul — had chosen to be here, and it wasn’t going to be at peace anywhere else. But something else would say: No! — and block complete integration. I started thinking that is the end of my yoga for this life…I just have to sit it out.
This went on for two years, and my health was affected by the conflict…the heat didn’t make it any better, but I have since found one can live with the heat if all else goes well. I had such constant dysentry that I had to leave for a while — my father sent me an air ticket. But when I was out, and in spite of the lovely climate, I wanted to get back.
Did it take long for you to be able to return?
Only two months — I never meant to stay away. But suddenly everything became unblocked: then I suppose I had the decisive experience of my life by yoga.
It was an inner awakening?
Can you speak about your relationship with Mother?
Well — it was rather close…that’s most difficult, rather personal, you see…
Did she give you any form of initiation?
People were touched by her and recognized her as their guru — yes — there was an outer form.
She gave a mantra?
Yes, in fact, but one can only speak personally. She gave me a mantra without my asking. But if people asked for one she would give one. It wasn’t like in other Ashrams where once they accept a disciple a form of initiation is automatically given. The mantra she gave me was in French; I haven’t seen it anywhere else…but it was given for a special reason.
Mother didn’t lay much stress on doing meditation?
In the years I was in contact with her, in speaking to her and through reading disciples’ letters to her in which they asked for meditation instructions, she didn’t encourage it much, no. She used to say: I never had time for meditation, and what I understand true meditation to be is when something takes you by the scruff of the neck and compels you to meditate; to sit down and expect the mind to be quiet is often fruitless and you would do better to read Sri Aurobindo.
You must have spent much time helping her with letters.
Yes, indeed. Everybody would write — there were hundreds of us, thousands! From little children to — well — everybody…You see, she wasn’t seeing people towards the end; most people only saw her once a year on her birthday. So people wrote to her, and that was the main form of contact other than inner contact. She was running the Ashram at a practical level also. I wasn’t the only person reading the letters to her, though. There was a time when she was available three times a day, but when I came she had stopped going out or playing tennis, which she loved.
Can you describe your life here now?
I teach at Knowledge — our center of education — what is called the higher course. This year it is on Creative Writing, although the first word is redundant to me.
Are these courses open to everyone?
No, just for our students. We believe in small classes; they are aged about 17 to 18 and are mostly Indian. For several years I did courses on mythology, legends and fairy tales. And I once taught the younger children science and English.
How long have you actually been resident in the Ashram?
It’s been twenty years now.
But how do you spend most of your day? Can you say?
I give this course at Knowledge in the mornings at 7.45. I have no set meditation times. Sometimes I go to the Ashram before I start the day’s activities. When I come back I write. Of course, when Mother was here I used to do other work for her…there were translations from French into English. Until recently I worked on the centenary edition of her work. But now apart from the teaching, the time is my own. I am involved to a certain extent with a home for little abandoned children.
This house you are living in, is it part of Ashram property?
It is. It used to be the stables of the house next door in French Colonial times — of course, we have built on to it. I love these walled-in gardens.
Could you share anything personal that Mother would tell her followers? You must have heard so much.
What can one say?… Something that she must have said to ten thousand others but every time I was with her — reading the letters, putting down the answers as she dictated them — her advice was the same: Surrender to the Divine! — Surrender! Perhaps through this constant contact with her one was able to give oneself up to the Divine will — to offer oneself to the Divine Will. It’s the only way to solve anything. I suppose this was her greatest gift; so what she said about surrender is what has stayed on with me. That decisive experience in my yoga is centred around this: One simply says yes to everything that happens to one.
I was touched the other day by a retarded child in Italy who for the first time has begun to realize she is different; her parents took her to a priest and he gave her a prayer-like mantra — very simple: Si, Signor, si, Signor. Acceptance. One always must say: Si. One never says: No — unless one is crazy. If the Divine has any interest in you He will see that you don’t say No…He will put enough pressure on you to make you understand.
Here’s something personal: one day Mother asked me if I prayed. In fact since that decisive day I don’t, because if you are saying: Si, Signor, you know everything is being looked after and you trust that, as you don’t know what the right thing is, it’s rather a waste of time praying for anything. So now, if I am hard-pressed, the only prayer is: Let whatever I do be according to Thy Will. This was the reply I gave mother. She said: That’s very good…there’s just one work lacking to make it perfect, add…spontaneously!
That was Mother’s message finally. There’s no longer any effort in anything one does once we don’t have to bend our will to it. Mother often said: For those offering to go through the transformation, they must be prepared to go through whatever they have to go through… then she would add: But be happy, be joyful!
This is how she spoke to her followers?
You know, she hardly ever spoke — she gave silent Darshans. One of the beautiful things in my memory of my time with Mother was watching people’s reactions to her. Quite often I would be asked to arrange an Interview for somebody…so many would come, it was difficult at times. I remember one person who spoke non-stop, often critically; you must know about intellectuals barging into Ashrams and what a pain they can be. For two days right until the moment she went up to see Mother this woman never stopped talking — quite amusing but snide remarks about devotees and aspects of Ashram life which to outsiders can be regarded as ridiculous. We went up at last, we saw Mother. Mother didn’t say anything. They just looked into each others’ eyes, and she was struck dumb. She left 36 hours later without saying anything, she just sent me a note: “I finally realized why I had to come to the Ashram…”
That often happened. One would take in a strutting, arrogant person and he would come out melted — weeping copiously not knowing where the door was. One had to edge them out gently by the elbow to prevent them going out through a window. They would then sometimes sit on the steps weeping helplessly, not being able to say why. It was as if the true being of the person swam up to the surface when they saw Mother. She was so kind… she would give people flowers whenever they came to see her.
What was Mother’s room like?
It was like walking into a different world; it was like being suspended half way between heaven and earth because of her presence. The room was always full of flowers and a sort of spiritual fragrance. The light was incredible. Then there were the French perfumes she wore…all this is not easy to describe: you must know what it’s like to be in your own guru’s presence.
When I left you the other day I commented on the marked physical resemblance you have to Mother. Did she ever mention this?
When I first came to the Ashram, Mother asked me where I was from. I told her I was born in Paris but I didn’t have any French blood as I was of Spanish Jewish descent, my father having been born in Turkey. She said: Oh, Maggi, just like me! Then I told her half my family were from Turkey, the other half from Egypt. She said again: Oh, Maggi, just like me! We went into whether we should speak together in English or French — she was also born in Paris. But when I told her I had learned my French from an English governess and that I spoke it with an English accent, she again burst out: Oh, Maggi, just like me! Well, I am telling you this, but it was one of those little things.
A final question. Could you say something about your writing? I was told your second novel is about to be published in London.
I write. Just novels… I’m working on the third now which Gollancz is interested in — they published the others. Obviously if you live in an Ashram for twenty years something of that life creeps into your writing. I enjoy writing enormously; I think it’s because the mind goes quiet. I’m lucky in that one is allowed to express this freely here. There are so many ways of enjoying spiritual life. The great thing is joy. We are not ascetics here, you see.
A House of Sweet Memories
Pondicherry, January 1981
From: “New Lives: 54 Interviews with Westerners on their search for spiritual fulfilment in India” by Malcolm Tillis