In 1998, I read a newspaper report that Leonard Cohen was in Bombay. I was a big fan of his music and poetry and tracked him down to a small hotel in Kemp’s Corner. I asked if he could autograph the CDs and books I intended to leave at the reception. But Cohen came out and invited me to stay for a chat. It turned out to be a five-hour discussion – the start of a friendship for the next 18 years. We exchanged our last emails just five weeks ago, on his 82nd birthday.
Every day in that autumn of 1998, Cohen was reciting the verses of the 13th-century Marathi bhakti poet Dnyaneshwar. He was in the city to attend the satsangs of Advaita guru Ramesh Balsekar at Warden Road. He wasn’t just reciting the verses by rote: he knew the English meanings of the words. He was pondering the concepts of sagun (the worship of God with form) and nirgun (the worship of God without form) and why both were essentially the same.
When he arrived in India in 1998, Leonard Cohen was already a Zen monk. He had spent five years in deep meditation and silence with Zen guru Roshi in Mount Baldy, near Los Angeles. It had been a decade since he had recorded new music or performed. The guru of 1960s folk and poetry had entirely stepped out of public life. Instead, his life-long quest for knowledge and inner peace had completely consumed his time and attention. He was led to Bombay by his curiosity to meet Balsekar, the author of a book titled Consciousness Speaks he read in his monastery.
Cohen spent much of 1999 and 2000 in Bombay, and then made brief visits until 2003. It was always for one purpose – to attend Balsekar’s daily morning satsangs and spend time with the teacher. Many of these conversations during the satsang have been preserved in audio and video recordings by Balsekar’s devotees. Between the Buddhist teachings of Roshi and the Vedanta teachings of Balsekar, Cohen finally found the inner peace that he had been seeking all his adult life. Sylvie Simmons’s excellent biography, I’m Your Man explains this very well. He got back to writing poetry and sketching in his art book.
Some Sunday mornings, Cohen took us along to Balsekar’s satsangs. These were Vedanta question-and-answer style discussions at which Balsekar’s philosophy appeared to have answers to every big question in life. The teacher’s clarity of thought and his delivery in English had attracted many Western seekers. During most sessions, Cohen sat quiet but attentive. As the friendship between Cohen and Balsekar developed, they would spend time alone in the evenings too, away from the satsang devotees.
A quiet life
A typical day in Cohen’s Bombay life involved walking from his hotel room at Kemp’s Corner to Balsekar’s apartment 1.5 kilometres away. On his way back, he would stop for chai at a roadside stall and then drop in for a swim at the exclusive Breach Candy club. The rest of the day was spent in his room, reading, in meditation, sketching and writing. He accessed his email on his laptop and communicated with his daughter, Lorca, his son, Adam and his manager in Los Angeles, Kelly.
Indian philosophy was not new to Leonard when he first visited India in 1998. His understanding of both Buddhist and Vedanta thought gave him great insights into the everyday life of India. He was in his mid-sixties and not keen on travel but he was keen to know the average Mumbaikar. The chaiwallah, the hotel cleaning staff and the taxi drivers were the Indians who interested him the most. He politely refused invitations from the elite of Mumbai, who he would sometimes run into at the club or the satsang.
On one rare Sunday though, we did manage to take Leonard Cohen out to see some sights in the Kala Ghoda area in South Bombay. We took in an exhibition at Jehangir Art Gallery and a show of cartoons by World Word II Bombay refugee-artist Rudolf von Leyden at the Max Mueller Bhavan next door. Then we peeped in on the restoration work underway at the Army and Navy Building opposite. We’d already had several discussions on Judaism, so it was interesting to accompany Cohen to the synagogue in the area for a discussion with the rabbi. Over lunch, Cohen joked that we should find him a good Indian Yehudi wife for him to settle down with in Bombay.
But a dark cloud was looming. During the years that he was spending time in Bombay, Cohen’s manager in Los Angeles had been siphoning money out of his bank accounts. By the time Cohen discovered this, he was broke, and going to court didn’t help. This is when he went back to the studio to record new music and undertake new world tours. When he performed spectacular shows between 2008 and 2014, Cohen’s spiritual strength was evident every time he stepped on stage.
My wife and I had relocated from Bombay to Europe in 2003 and kept touch with Cohen over email. On his Europe tour of 2009, we had tickets for his show in Prague and we pinged him to ask if he wanted to meet. I received a polite refusal immediately. On performance days, Cohen and his team were very focused and wanted no distractions. But he didn’t forget about this. Onstage, he said namaste to his friends who come from far – from India. That was the last time we saw him.
Leonard Cohen was the perfect gentleman, a healer, a man with a keen desire to bring unity and peace. He even created a symbol for this – the Unified Heart – which he would often email in his replies to friends. Leonard Cohen was much more than the poetry and music he is known for. To those of us who had the good fortune to know him, he was the very definition of saint he had once articulated in his daring 1960s novel Beautiful Losers:
“What is a saint ? A saint is someone who has achieved a remote human possibility. It is impossible to say what that possibility is. I think it has something to do with the energy of love. Contact with this energy results in the exercise of a kind of balance in the chaos of existence…He rides the drifts like an escaped ski. His course is the caress of the hill. His track is a drawing of the snow in a moment of its particular arrangement with wind and rock…His house is dangerous and finite, but he is at home in the world. He can love the shape of human beings, the fine and twisted shapes of the heart. It is good to have among us such men, such balancing monsters of love. “
Ratnesh Mathur worked as a banker in Mumbai until 2003 and then set up an Indian outsourcing company in Europe, where he worked until 2010. For the past five years, he has been working on social development projects in Uttar Pradesh.