However, it was not as the gentle Sistine Child that Vivekananda appeared to Nivedita. This was a period that Nivedita herself described as one of “clash and conflict...I had been little prepared for that constant rebuke and attack upon all my most cherished prepossessions which was now my lot. Suffering is often illogical and I cannot attempt to justify by reason the degree of unhappiness which I experienced at this time as I saw the dream of a friendly and beloved leader falling away from me, and the picture of one who would be at least indifferent, and possibly silently hostile, substituting itself instead”.

There is no doubt that Vivekananda suffered equally from deep emotional turmoil and a sense of helplessness when he saw the vulnerability of his spontaneous, ebullient, adoring disciple with her flashing Irish eyes. Perhaps the harshness with which he tried to impose a moral discipline on Nivedita was his way of defending himself and her from the passionate adoration she had for him. As Josephine was to later analyse, “Although Nivedita’s feelings for him were always absolutely pure, he perhaps saw their danger.”

Vivekananda tried to do two things, harshly and precipitously.

One, he urged her, “You have to forget your own past and cause it to be forgotten. You have to lose even its memory.” Nivedita, who still considered herself as “the most loyal English woman that ever breathed in this country,” felt “I cannot yet throw any of my past experience of human life and human relationships overboard”.

In fact, she confessed, “It is the dream of my life to make England and India love each other.” It was only later, once she became aware of the extent of British racial arrogance and the unfair discriminatory policies they practised against Indians that she adopted India completely and spoke for its people as one of her own. But that took some time.

The second attempt of Vivekananda was to point out aspects of her behaviour, such as constant expressions of feeling, whether of pain, admiration or surprise, which to him seemed “shocking” and “ill- bred”. She needed, he felt, to learn reserve, reticence and be reflective in meditative silence. Perhaps he saw the sharp contrast between the shyness and withdrawn demeanour of Bengali women with Nivedita’s outspoken, often argumentative personality.

He advised her to “Hinduise” her thoughts, needs, conceptions and habits since “your life, internal and external, has to become all that an orthodox Hindu Brahmin brahmacharini’s ought to be”. The decision to embrace the life of a celibate, he pointed out, came with a strict lifestyle. Vivekananda confessed that “shadows of home and marriage cross your mind sometimes. Even to me they come now and again!” But he had steeled himself to accept brahmacharya, the vows of celibacy, which meant renunciation of private pleasure for public good. In his conception, true manhood could not be without the control of manhood. Therefore, Nivedita realised, to him marriage would be the first of crimes.

“To rise beyond the very memory of its impulse was his ideal and to guard himself and his disciples against the remotest danger of it, his passion. The very fact of ‘un-marriedness’ counted with him as a spiritual asset.” But as Nivedita also understood, Vivekananda’s dread was not of women but of temptation. Many of his disciples and co-workers the world over were women but he sought to give each of them the title of a family relationship – whether of sister, mother or daughter.

What had particularly thrilled him in America was the ease with which women played men’s sports, studied the same disciplines at university since knowledge has no sex and were free to choose their own marriage partners.

In India, he realised that marriage by arrangement had inflicted much pain on many but hoped that examples from the West would indicate other possibilities. The ideal marriage in Vivekananda’s view was one where there would be man’s acceptance of his wife as the mother, as he had seen in the case of his master Ramakrishna.

It goes to Nivedita’s credit that she withstood Vivekananda’s harsh discipline, although she did have emotional breakdowns from time to time, when she was comforted by Mrs Bull and Josephine. At the end, she could admit, “I understood, for the first time, that the greatest teachers may destroy in us a personal relation in order to bestow the Impersonal Vision in its place.” Reflecting on this relationship, Romain Rolland was to write,

The future will always unite her name of initiation Sister Nivedita to that of her beloved St Clara to that of St Francis, although of a truth the imperious Swami was far from possessing the meekness of the Poverello and submitted those who gave themselves to him, to heart-searching tests before he accepted them. But her love was so deep; Nivedita did not keep in her memory his harshness – only his sweetness.

Many years later, Romain Rolland analysed that the harshness with which Vivekananda often treated Nivedita was his own way of defending himself against her “worshipful passion”. Perhaps Nivedita had for Vivekananda a “lover’s adoration”, similar to what Madeleine Slade was to have for Gandhi, but the age difference between Gandhi and Slade was thirty years as against the five years between Vivekananda and Nivedita. Rolland concluded that although “the sentiment of Nivedita had always been one of absolute purity maybe Vivekananda understood the danger”.

The summer tour of Swamiji began on 11 May 1898 when he boarded the train at Calcutta’s Howrah station with a large group of disciples. They were headed to Kathgodam, at the foothills of the Himalayas, from where they would proceed by trekking and riding on horseback to Nainital and then further along the scenic mountain route towards Almora. On the train journey, which lasted for two nights and a day, Swamiji gave a running commentary on the diversity of Indian culture and history as the train went through various cities and changing terrain. The wealth of information and experience gathered by Nivedita was to find expression later in her many writings, from travelogues to mythological tales, descriptions of history and architecture to serious analysis of the Indian societal framework.

She began to spin the “web of Indian life” (as one of her most well-known books came to be named) from the word pictures that the Swamiji lovingly painted for them. Nivedita was to reflect, “The summer of 1898 stands out in my memory as a series of pictures, painted like old altar-pieces against a golden background of religious ardour and simplicity, and all alike glorified by the presence of one who, to us in his immediate circle, formed their central point.”

Excerpted with permission from Margot: Sister Nivedita of Vivekananda, Reba Som, Viking, Penguin Random House India.