I am typing the one common message about my morning to be sent on two exclusive WhatsApp groups, one of family (Mother, Big Brother, Sister-in-Law, Husband, Nephew, Older One, Younger One and Niece) and the other of two best friends R and S, the ONLY ten people in the world who have access to me. The rest are blocked.

Then I hear the sound of a gong and see a stream of people heading towards the Dining Hall. I look at the time on my phone and it shows 10 am. Oh, it is lunch time. Actually, Brunch time because this is the first meal of the day. I start walking towards the Dining Hall.

Soon I hear mantras being chanted. A few people are already sitting on the neatly laid-out mats and have been served their food. But they are patiently waiting for the prayers to finish. Some join in the prayer, others silently bow their heads and hands folded in Namaskar. As I wash my hands in the same washing area where I had washed my tumbler last night, I hear the prayers ending with ‘Om Shaanti, Shaanti Shaanti... Om.’ Then I sense everyone helping themselves to the food.

As I enter the Hall, I am guided by one of the Ashram people to the next available space. I sit down and see a stainless-steel plate with inbuilt cavities to mimic bowls laid out before me. It already has some rice, which looks like curd rice, some sort of vegetable, which looks like a heap of green peels, dry potato sabzi, a carrot and beetroot salad and a crispy fried papad, the latter being the only seemingly unhealthy element on the otherwise super healthy plate of food. Hmm.

As I look on at the unfamiliar plate of food, one of the volunteers comes up with a bucket-full of steaming liquid. ‘Sambhar?’ he asks.

‘Yes, please, I say,’ wondering about the bizarreness of the combination of cold curd rice with steaming hot sambhar. Bizarre in the setting from where I come from, perfectly routine in another setting, I am certain. In the coming days I realise anything made of lentils is called sambhar here. Not like back home in north India, where sambhar is the special south Indian preparation of arhar daal with vegetables, tempered with mustard seeds and curry leaves.

As I mix the sambhar and rice with my right hand, another volunteer comes up with a steel bowl full of stainless steel spoons.


‘No, thank you,’ I say as I continue to expertly navigate my food with my trained half-Dogra and half-Bengali fingers.

I tentatively taste the first portion and am pleasantly surprised at the burst of flavour in my mouth. I am having a MasterChef moment as I marvel at the way these very different ingredients come together and create a riot of taste in my mouth. Okay, before I go too MasterChef-y, I remind myself that it is my first meal after sixteen odd hours. With due respect to intermittent fasting, ANYTHING would have tasted like a Michelin Star dish right now.

‘Quiet please,’ a volunteer says loud enough for the entire hall to hear and yet calm enough without a trace of irritation or impatience.

How does one do that?

‘Please eat in silence. If you need anything, just say Om.’

Several ‘Oms’ reverberate in the room immediately. Almost everyone wants an extra papad. I sanctimoniously do not. I will not have an extra deep-fried and salted element in my meal. Probably the first and last time I do so. But as of now I do not know that.

I can see people sitting next to people they already know. The way the knees touch comfortably, the silent gestures and discreet whispers give that away. Did they come in pairs then?

After I finish my meal, I carry my plate as I have seen others do. We are supposed to clean our plates with the dishwashing soap at the washing counter. I stop short at the Counter. What you do not know about me is that I am severely allergic to detergent. Any kind of detergent. And even though Mother-in-Law had initially thought that I was making it up to steer clear of any kind of washing, she soon realised the severity of it when my fingers would break into eczema after being exposed to detergent.

As I grew older and more sophisticated, I discovered gloves that could be worn to keep the detergent from messing with my digits. I have a quick decision to make as I stand in contemplation, my plate and tumbler in hand, and the next in line shifting their feet impatiently. I decide to give it a go. I mean, how bad can it get? It is just one wash. Next meal, I will carry my gloves. I scrub the plate clean and leave it in the drying rack, feeling self-righteous and a bit martyred.

I have the more important business of the day in mind – to ensure that I do not have to change the room and share one with the one-who-sleeps-at-10 pm-and-screams-at-innocent- mobile phone callers!

‘No, madam, not possible. You will have to change the room this afternoon,’ Kailash deflates my balloon of hope.

‘But...?’ I say rubbing my right palm on my salwar. Welcome back contact dermatitis!

Kailash shakes his head and with a quick ‘Om’ disappears into his busy schedule.

I drag my feet back to my room. Why am I so attached to it? I muse as I unlock it.

I look at my slightly ajar suitcase and decide to put back whatever little I had unpacked so far. And then decide against it. I will leave it until the very last minute. I am going to cling on to the last string of hope. The Judge might still rule in my favour.

The gong sounds again at 1.30 pm, heralding the time for ‘tea’. It is officially afternoon and there has been no dreaded knock on the door for a room change. I decide to witness for myself the digression from the ‘No tea, no coffee, no nudity’ rule!

I lock my soon-to-be-let-go-of room and walk to the Tea Hut. I am wearing my Fabindia salwar and short kurta, which is one of only four sets of salwar kurtas that I’ve brought. We have been specifically asked to dress “modestly”. In fact, even for exercise gear, we are to steer clear of “tights” and cleavage- revealing tops.

Since my exercise wardrobe comprises mostly of tight tights and not-so-modest tops, I have had to do some last-minute shopping.

But here I spot many in a “uniform” that we have been informed we will have to wear once the course begins. I saw the office trio wearing it last night and the Dining Hall volunteers too.

It is an orange T-shirt (with the image of a man doing the tree pose and the words “THE UNIVERSE IS WITHIN”) and loose white cotton pants. A long line is snaking around a wooden table, which has atop it two steel dispensers. I join the line.

Some Non-Uniforms are speaking with the Uniforms in a familiar manner. When did they arrive to have become so friendly? I am confused and wonder if I too should try and make friends. I look around. No one seems to be looking my way.

Do I seem unfriendly? It has been mentioned to me by those close to me, especially Husband, that I appear snobbish and unfriendly. That I carry an air of superiority. Okay, I am half Bengali so the superiority bit figures. Snobbery could be thanks to my alma mater, the Convent of Jesus & Mary... But unfriendly? Hmmm... Maybe the Jammu genes, as the entire half of the state goes around smarting at the favouritism shown to the other half under the guise of aloofness.

I mentally shrug and change my mind; I am here to learn and experience Yoga, not make friends. As I inch closer to the dispensers, I see two steel jars with their lids on the side, revealing white granulated sugar in one and powdered jaggery in the other. Each person is picking up a small steel tumbler already placed on the table and helping themselves to the liquid from one of the dispensers. The mystery of the “tea” will soon reveal itself! As I pick up a tumbler, I see one of the Non-Uniform foreigners swearing under her breath.

‘F###, the black tea is finished again. Why can’t they make more of it? Now only chai is left!’

Excerpted with permission from Ashramed: From Chaos to Calm, Dahlia Sen Oberoi, Hachette India.