“Swamiji” is a standalone chapter from a novel, In the Light of the Black Sun, that came out from Penguin in India in 1997. The novel is the only published fiction by the scientist Rohit Manchanda, and its original name was A Speck of Coaldust (a title I prefer). It’s set in a fictional North Indian mining settlement called Khajoori in the ’60s and ’70s: a portrait of both a small town and a childhood. On its publication, the book got a Betty Trask award, and I included the chapter in the Picador Book of Modern Indian Writing.
Swamiji is about wanting to grow tall and about reading comic books. The delightful self-absorption of its main characters and their obliviousness to the larger world – which exists only as a hint in the story – might have a peculiar resonance for readers now. “Swamiji” captures an interlude, joyous despite its disappointments, very unlike the joyless abeyance in which we find ourselves.— Amit Chaudhuri
Vipul was getting on in years but was showing no signs of growing tall, and this made both Vipul and his parents anxious.
The matter of the height of a child, or for that matter anybody’s height at all, was of the greatest import to the people of Jadugoda, as it was to the people of all of India’s other towns and cities. Children and their parents, at all kinds of events and places – at parties, in school, on social visits – were asked, “So how tall have you grown?”, or “Has your son touched five yet?”, as inevitably and as naturally as they might be asked their names.
A good height mattered a great deal: tall people had personality: at five-six, you had begun to be noticed, a head of hair above the crowds; at five-nine you virtually towered above them; beyond six-zero – a dream – you rose like a monument. The inches mattered most of all for marriage. The parents of tall boys received proposals from the parents of the best cultivated girls. Like the alphonso mango, the gene for tallness was in demand as acute as it was in supply short.
And so all parents, including Vipul’s, remained in perennial suspense about the state of elongation of their children, and particularly of their boys. They measured their heights every few weeks, against walls where little horizontal nicks marked the often painfully slow vertical progress of their bodies. The boys were administered growth-promoting tonics and fed vitamin-rich preserves.
Parents whose children seemed never to emerge from the darkness of the Midgets’ category in the school’s annual sports day wore humiliated, cheated looks. They and their children prayed for sudden providential spurts of growth. In contrast parents whose children advanced problemlessly into the Seniors looked becalmed, as though half the exhausting, life-long task of decently settling their offspring had been automatically and effortlessly accomplished – which it had.
For Vipul there was further cause for dismay. The Bull, living up to his name, was growing prodigiously, and looked a likely six-footer; Koyala had recently enjoyed a providential spurt; and the Mosquito, though still only as high as Vipul, had taller parents, and therefore greater potential.
Vipul had tried many techniques of accelerating his growth.
He had suspended himself from the rusty rungs of the castiron stepladder that led to the roof of the bungalow till his arms felt hot and his muscles torn. He had given up carrom-board and table tennis in favour of badminton and volleyball, which were alleged to stretch the body and provoke growth. He had jumped and jumped to try and touch with the tips of his fingers the leaves on increasingly higher branches of trees, hoping to recapitulate in this manner some of the evolutionary achievement of the giraffe. The springs in his legs grew commendably strong, but Vipul’s spine remained inelastic.
There was a waking dream into which Vipul would often wilfully lead his mind. In it he would be stranded in a jungle, and hanging by his hands from a high-up branch of a tree. He would not have the strength to pull himself up, only just enough to keep hanging. He would not be able to let go and fall to the ground because on the ground, directly below him, there would be a cobra, fanning its hood and hissing. In this state Vipul would remain until rescued, which would perhaps be days later, and by this time he would have elongated by an extraordinary amount.
And finally there was the neck rack. Known as the ‘‘Extender’’, this was a recently invented device, introduced by someone who had gauged cannily the magnitude of the anxiety of millions of height deficient Indians. He had collaborated with a Japanese firm to start its production in India. And he had grown very rich very suddenly.
The advertisements for the neck rack said: ‘‘First Time in India! Inches in Months, or Your Money Back! Your Chance to Grow Tall the Same Way as Millions of Europeans and Americans.’’ The exact matter of how many inches in how many months, was left unaddressed. But the advertisements carried several persuasive ‘‘Before and After’’ pictures of initially squat, nondescript people blooming into svelte, lanky frames.
Tayaji, Vipul’s father’s elder brother, had gifted an Extender to Vipul through sympathetic concern: Tayaji’s children, too, were midgety. This is how the Extender worked: the back of the head was placed in a well-fitting saddle; ropes that led from the saddle passed over high pulleys affixed to the wall; then the ropes hung down, ending in clasps. You now pulled the clasps downward – this hauled up the saddle, and along with it your head and neck, brought you to your toes, and stretched your spine, meaning thus to elongate it.
Vipul did this exercise for hours every evening, feeling like a prisoner condemned to a rare routine of torture. It was an especially numbingly boring form of exercise: standing against the wall, staring at the blankness an inch ahead, being stared back at by geckoes with pensive cunning eyes, and simply pulling and stretching, no involvement in it of any skill whatsoever.
But even this drastic austere measure did not work. Vipul’s spine was firm. The little horizontal nick on the wall stood callously still, an indifferent spectator to Vipul’s worries. Something needed to be done urgently, but nobody had any ideas left.
Then, in the summer, fresh hope arrived.
A group of yogis set up camp in Khajoori, at its Guest House. They came from Jadugoda, where they had a small headquarters. They came as evangelists, to instruct the people of Khajoori in the fundamentals and the benefits of yoga and win them over to its tenets.
Early mornings, the air still crystalline and coaldust-free before the onslaught of the sun and of industry began, the saffron-swathed yogis, sitting in the lotus position on the floor of the veranda of the Guest House, told Khajoori’s people how yogic exercises would tone their muscles, supple their limbs; or augment their powers of concentration and strength of will; or purge their viscera; or subjugate their bodies to their minds; or, most importantly for Vipul, impart chimeric physical virtues like height. And so it became imperative that Vipul should learn yoga.
The swamis at the camp had divided themselves into two groups. One, comprised of the elder swamis, took charge of Khajoori’s adults. The other consisted of in the younger Swami Suryaparmananda, in charge of the children. Vipul was glad of this arrangement.
The elder Swamis were intimidating. The most frightening thing about them was their preternatural serenity. It was almost deliberate; and it seemed to have been honed and perfected to an art. Theirs was the serenity that associates with attaches to abstinence and austerity. But it seemed to arise not from abstinence itself, but from the sense of achievement of it, like the satisfaction that arises from doing well a job that may not really be worth doing.
And the Swamis wielded their serenity like an instrument, if not of castigation, then at least of reproof. People would wilt under the glare of their censorial serenity. Under its transmuting influence utilities seemed to turn into comforts, comforts into luxuries, and luxuries into sin. The elder swamis inspired strong feelings of guilt and self-indulgence: in tailored clothes, mattressed cots, good food, and the lack of will to renounce these pleasures.
Their glances, as they swept about, seemed to reprimand the furniture, the hangings on the walls, the ornate lampshades and carpets, for simply being there. Often they came to Vipul’s home for a meal, and every time, without uttering a word of recrimination, succeeded by the time they left in leaving the family feeling inexplicably remorseful. And the collective remorse of Khajoori’s families had the effect eventually of raising a handsome subscription for the camp.
Swami Suryaparmananda, in contrast to his elders, was milder. He was not more than a few years older than Vipul and his friends. His eyes spoke not of serenity but of a worldly restlessness which against his holy-looking shaven head and saffron robe made him appear an imposter, a fraud.
But he was most definitely a yogi, and he knew his yoga. Every morning, after he had instructed the children in the elementary asanas, he would stage demonstrations of the difficult ones. Then his body seemed to turn into to rubber; it was as if his joints forgot that they existed, and his limbs turned into octopusine tentacles. His legs went over his head, and round his neck. His arms went under his legs and up his back. His back arched into a hairpin. His limbs were like infinitely adjustable flexible tubing: you could have knotted them.
To some of his asanas he ascribed names which sounded as impossible as the postures themselves: Poorna mastyendrasana, Parivritti janushirshasana. Thus, at the end of each lesson, he showed off his prowess.
They called him Swamiji. He instructed them to bid him ‘‘Hari Om Tatsat’’ instead of ‘‘Namaste’’ in the mornings. He taught them a clip of the Gayatri Mantra and made them chant it time after time, slowly, in one a single breath each time, until the mantra seemed to become a reflexive part of the very act of breathing, so that with each exhalation the incantation ‘‘Om’’ seemed to emanate naturally from the recesses of the lungs. And he taught them to sing:
Have no home,
Food nor money nor wishes have I none,
Still .. ll I will .. ll
Be Aa .. aa .. anandam,
over and over again. This they all chanted, the children who came from and returned to comfortable homes, who harboured a hundred ambitions each, but who savoured, through the chant, a little of the arcane flavour of the Swamis’ asceticism.
It was somewhat like the Bible History lessons Vipul had to take at school. They studied the parables of the Old and the New Testament, they learned how to deduce the allegorical significance of the improbable events in the lives of the prophets; for forty minutes on each of three days every week they dived into all this, and for the remaining nine thousand nine hundred and sixty minutes of the week quite forgot about anything to do with the Bible, turning heathen untutored minds to marbles or dragonflies or comic books or lord Krishna or goddess Durga.
Swamiji taught them all the simple exercises, of strength, of endurance, of agility, of meditation. He seemed at the time of the lessons to be much older than they were, and very much wiser. He knew mantras and shlokas, could recite them offhand in Sanskrit, and casually said primal-sounding things that seemed to make him an anachronism.
The days went by; many of the children, including Vipul, became plastic and strong to varying degrees, but...but Vipul was not gaining any height.
Swamiji had not so far taught them any specific height-increasing asanas, and Vipul was not bold enough to make the demand. His father or his mother would ask after every lesson whether the necessary all-important asana had been taught or not. Then they would say reflect, “Probably a right time for every asana; its time will also come.”
Eventually Vipul became impatient. After class one morning, and after Swamiji had shown off some more of his contortionist tricks, he went up to him and said, “Swamiji, I want to learn a particular kind of asana.”
“What kind?” said Swamiji.
“One that can make me grow tall.”
Swamiji laughed. He said, “I knew you would ask for this. Everyone asks to be taught such asanas. I always teach these right at the end because once they learn such asanas people forget about the others. All they want is to grow tall, as high as date palms. How high do you want to grow?”
“As tall as Tarzan,” Vipul said.
“Tarzan! How tall is he?”
“Must be six-six at least, judging going by the pictures. Or even as tall as Tony Greig.”
“Which comic book is that?”
“No, no. English cricketer. South African-English mixture. He’s six-seven-and-a-half. He scored a century against Australia some days ago and also took nine wickets in the match. A great all-rounder, and very good-looking,” Vipul said.
“Cricket I cannot understand. But listen. Do you have any Tarzan comic books?”
“Tarzan comics? Of course. But why?”
“May I read them?”
“I want to read them.”
“You must be reading only religious books, but.”
“Those I have to. But comics I like to.”
“Then you must read some of my comics.”
“Do you have any others? Richie Rich, Laurel and Hardy, the Phantom?”
“I have all these, and many others too. Swamiji you know a lot about comics.”
“When should I come to your home?”
Swamiji came the same evening. He looked around at the appointments in Vipul’s home in a way that was quite different from the way the elder Swamis looked. There was neither censure in his eyes nor reprimand. He seemed fascinated by everything he saw.
Vipul showed him the collection of comics that he and Sameer had built up. Their father had sanctioned each of them the purchase of two foreign and two Indian comic books every Saturday, when they went to the Jadugoda market. It was understood that this was their pocket-money, in kind. Books were under a separate head, debited to their mother’s account.
They bought comics sensibly strategically. They collaborated with the Bull. They did not buy the comics he bought; and they exchanged comics with him. The Bull had different tastes. He preferred Superman and Wonder Woman and Flash Gordon and Zorro: action comics, he called them.
They cherished their comics. They handled them with a care that approximated reverence, turning their pages delicately as though they were archival material, sensitive to the touch. They preserved them in neat stacks in cupboards, and had them bound into volumes of twenty five each. Each volume, with its flower-papered hard cover, became a treasure chest that would periodically be reopened and its contents re-examined with as much fresh enchantment as when they were first read.
They went through the comics studyingly. They looked long and deep into the clean simple luxurious world that they contained, illustrated in sunny colours, particularly in the American comics: just-right houses; just-right lawns, skies, trees, avenues; everything pastel and easy on the eyes; placid dustless uncrowded manicured towns; and an all-pervading air of quaintness and of wealth.
All so different from – so superior to – the coaldust-shrouded, glamourless, congested towns that Vipul knew. How spartan yet how voluptuous everything there seemed to be, and how lush yet how indigent everything here was.
Swamiji looked at the books greedily. He picked up all the loose comics one by one, and as he picked each, said, “Can I take this?”
Then he leafed through the bound volumes. Continually he made noises of recognition and of pleasure. He seemed to want to borrow them all. Eventually he picked two, Woody Woodpecker and Dennis the Menace.
Vipul’s mother had prepared toasted curry-potato sandwiches and a sweet lime drink for the evening snack. Swamiji had his share with relish and at an astounding speed, and, without waiting for Vipul’s mother’s offer, asked for more. He did not raise the issue of abnegation. As he ate he said to Vipul, “You have a nice home,” “Your mother is very nice,” “Do you have snacks like this every day?”, and “What great comics! I shall really enjoy myself.”
Vipul asked Swamiji about life at the Ashram. Swamiji said it was not easy. The swamis got up at three-thirty every morning. They said their prayers and freshened up by four. Then for two and a half hours without a break, they practised yoga exercises. After this they washed, bathed, put on fresh saffron cloths. Throughout the day there were several chores to do.
Being the youngest and still an apprentice, he had to shoulder the largest fraction of the chores while the other Swamis meditated, disputed, studied, and held court for visitors and sponsors. In the mornings he swept and swabbed the floors of the ashram, cleaned the toilets and bathrooms, prepared lunch.
In the afternoons, after an hour’s nap – that much was granted – he swept the courtyard, tended to the ashram’s vegetable garden, made tea. Then there was another hour of yoga, and another bath. Finally he helped prepare dinner. Dinner was at seven-thirty; by nine the ashram was asleep.
He said, “Compared to that, staying here at the Camp is like a holiday. Everything is taken care of by the guest-house servants. I’ll have plenty of time to read the comics.”
“But where will you read them?” Vipul said. “Will the other Swamis not object?”
“I have a padlocked trunk in which I keep a few things of my own. No one will see the comics. And sometimes I am on my own.”
As Swamiji was about to leave, Vipul said, remembering, “Swamiji, those height-increasing exercises?”
“Of course, of course. In the next class I’ll teach you one. Within weeks you will have learnt several of them. All the ones I know I’ll teach you. You can be sure you’ll grow tall. Yoga is like magic. Hari Om Tatsat.”
“Hari Om Tatsat,” said Vipul.
Swamiji turned to go, then turned around. “In fact, we can have an arrangement,” he said. “Among friends...now we are friends.” He patted the bundle of comics he was clutching under his armpit. “You keep lending me comics, and I’ll keep teaching you those asanas. Will that go?”
“It’ll go fine,” Vipul said.
“Hari Om Tatsat,” Swamiji said, and walked away, and in the distance his vestment rippling about him was like an unquiet saffron vapour in the coal-dark air.
During the weeks that followed Swamiji taught Vipul a few height-increasing asanas.
The most effective, he said, was the Tadasana, or the Heavenly Stretch Pose. For this Vipul had to stand on tiptoe, feet together; interlock his fingers, evert his palms; then raise his arms, stretch his neck and tilt his head so that he looked straight up.
To Vipul this felt suspiciously similar in both sensation and procedure to the neck-rack method of the Extender.
But Swamiji said, “That is artificial. This is natural, it is yoga. The natural way is the best way to gain height or to change body function in any way. In fact most probably the maker of the Extender got his idea from the Tadasana only. But remember, in yoga you must meditate on what you are doing. Bring your thoughts down to your backbone as you do the Tadasana. Try to feel each segment of it. And with the power of your mind, extend it, force it to stretch. You must feel yourself grow.”
Swamiji subsequently taught Vipul the Chakrasana, or the Wheel Pose, and the Ushtrasana, or the Camel Pose, which were also meant to have the same salutary effect.
Vipul performed all these exercises with diligence. He did yoga for an hour every morning and for another hour every evening; of this he spent almost half the time on the Tadasana. Swamiji had also told him that the Tadasana could be performed informally – that is, by simply walking around in the prescribed posture during the course of any normal activity. So Vipul started going about the house in this fashion, arms up, craning his neck, and trying at the same time to cast his eyes downward to see his way.
While on tiptoe, Vipul projected his mind down onto his spine and dreamed of glorious imminent height. The nightmarish prospect of hanging from a high branch while a cobra fanned its hood below receded. Now, instead of stretching downward from above he would rise from below, with the help of the Tadasana.
Five...six...seven feet tall. Then he would show them all. He would show the Bull. Inch for inch, pound for pound, he was certain he was stronger than the Bull. But the Bull had so much more height and mass. Vipul determined first to grow tall, and then to put on weight. He would exercise profusely. Every day he would eat half a dozen fried eggs, and drink three big tumblers of milk. He was sure that if he had a spurt of growth he would immediately begin to relish milk and eggs: surely a taste for these was contingent upon proper growth, and not the other way around, as people in general, and in particular his mother, believed.
He would insist on some non-vegetarian food every day. Up he would go, and beyond the Bull. He would thrash the Bull with ease, as he had done before the Bull had discovered his self-respect. He would thrash many others, on the trivialmost counts. He would become a scourge. He would be particularly severe on Koyala.
“Good,” his mother said when she saw him going about in Tadasana. “If you keep it up you’ll soon cross five feet.”
Swamiji came twice again to Vipul’s home and borrowed more bound volumes of the comics.
He seemed as voracious and attentive a reader as Vipul and Sameer themselves. He had a precise memory of the frames of illustration; he could relate the stories in vivid detail, quoting accurately the bubbled dialogues.
He said that he enjoyed the Richie Rich comics especially.
“What a life it must be in America, no?” he said. “Every second man is a millionaire.”
Vipul said, “And even those who are not – even labourers – have cars and electric blankets and televisions.”
“You don’t see them in the comic books. But I know. I once read an article about coal miners in America. The pictures showed their cars, TVs and bungalows. And just look at Indian mineworkers.”
They reminded themselves briefly of Khajoori’s mineworkers, housed in tight dark barracks, happy to afford a new bicycle or a medium-wave transistor radio or a shiny frilly nylon dress for a child once a year, around Diwali. Vipul felt ashamed.
Swamiji said, “And how free children are with the elders. They call them by their names, Mr Wilson, Mrs Grundy, Mr This, Mrs That. None of this ‘auntie-uncle’ business that goes on here.”
Vipul contemplated the Bull calling his mother ‘‘Mrs Uberoi’’ rather than ‘‘auntie’’, and felt almost enraged. However, he conceded that Swamiji had a point. He said, “And children get pocket money, in dollars and cents. They can act like adults even when they are just our age.”
“Does your mother give you pocket money?” Swamiji asked.
“No, but she buys us books.”
“Not the same thing.”
“Not at all.”
“And boys and girls are able to meet each other freely there.”
“And how forward the girls are. They wear small clothes, they go here and there with boys, unaccompanied by parents, imagine, for dinners and for picnics and for pictures.”
Swamiji said, “But really, girls should be shy and should feel shame. Without shyness and shame what is a girl?”
“Yes, that’s true,” Vipul said. In his heart he preferred shy girls to brash; Chetna, for instance, to Sushma didi; one could weave loftier romances around the former. But surely there could be a compromise – surely girls could shyly date.
“Still, it would be nice to be like Richie Rich.”
“That it would.”
The time came for the yoga camp to move on to Victoria Jubilee colliery, some distance away on the other side of Jadugoda. Swamiji came to Vipul’s home to say goodbye.
He said, “I’ll be visiting Khajoori off and on, because I’ve made friends like you here. I’ll return your comics by and by. At the moment I feel like re-reading them. Now, since I won’t be back for some time, can I take two more volumes?”
He took a volume of Classics Illustrated, saying that he would like to read Moby Dick and Kim and Tom Brown’s Schooldays because he had heard the names of these books, and a volume of Laurel and Hardy.
After the camp had departed, Vipul practised the entire set of asanas that Swamiji had taught him, every day for months. There was no appreciable result. The nick on the wall remained resolutely immovable.
Swamiji came to visit some six months later; the swamis were reviewing the results of their prior efforts.
Vipul was alone at home. Swamiji had not brought any of the comics back with him. He said, “Vipul, I just forgot. But next time I’ll return them all together. In any case, whenever you want them, you can come across to the ashram in Jadugoda and take them. But can I take just a couple of others?”
Vipul thought quickly and said, “You’ll have to ask mummy.”
“But they are your comics, no?”
“I know. But mummy has forbidden me to lend them to anyone without her permission. Even the Bull can’t borrow them without mummy’s permission these days. Actually it’s nothing to do with you, it’s all that boy in my class...” here Vipul invented a name...”Dipen’s fault. He started denying that he had borrowed them and even started stealing them.”
“I see...,” said Swamiji.
“Swamiji, those asanas you taught me...”
“Those ones for height.”
“Yes, yes, I remember.”
“Swamiji, there’s no effect.”
“My height – it’s still the same.”
“Papa measures it every month.”
“But Vipul you have grown. I’m sure. You look taller. I’m cent per cent sure. In fact the first thing I thought when I saw you today was, ‘Vah! Vipul has grown by inches! But I wanted to say sorry first for the comics, so I didn’t mention it.’”
“But according to Sameer I haven’t grown taller.”
“Where do you measure your height?”
Vipul led him to the spot and showed him the unmoving nick.
“Give me a book and a pencil,” Swamiji said. “Now stand there. Straight. No, absolutely straight. Chest out. Head up. Neck straight. Up to your full height.”
Swamiji placed the book on Vipul’s head and marked the wall. “Of course you’ve grown! See? Look at this.”
Vipul came away from the wall. Swamiji’s pencil mark was a clear inch above the familiar nick. “I told you you had grown.”
“But, until a few days ago, there was nothing.”
“These things can happen suddenly. As a yogi I have seen incredible things happen. Do you know, we once had a swami in our ashram in Patna who came from Nepal and so he had very little chance of growing beyond five feet. One night he grew two and a half inches – overnight, while he slept! He woke up in the morning saying he was feeling thinner. We couldn’t recognise him at first.”
“Could that have happened to me?”
“God can do anything. See this mark. You too must have had an overnight spurt. A couple more spurts like this one, and you’ll soon be reaching where the Bull stands.”
Vipul felt warm and triumphant. He said, “Swamiji, it’s all due to your asanas.” He paused for a moment and said, “Swamiji, I’ve thought of a way you can take the comics.”
“No, no, leave it if it’s any trouble with your mummy.”
“No, listen. Mummy and Sameer are not here. You take them now – I’ll explain to them later.”
That evening Vipul kept going to the wall and looking at the new mark. When Sameer came back, Vipul said to him, “Do you know, I’ve grown taller.”
“Where have you grown taller?” Sameer said.
Vipul showed him the new mark.
“Stand there,” Sameer said. Vipul stood there and drew himself up to his maximum utmost height.
“You’re still at the old mark.”
“But this pencil mark?”
“Who made this?”
“He was here?”
“He left a few minutes back.”
“Took more comics?”
Vipul was silent. Sameer slapped Vipul’s head.
“Idiot!” Sameer said. “Why did you let him?”
“He taught me those asanas. That’s how I’ve grown.”
“But where have you grown!”
“Put a book on my head and see, properly.”
“Why put a book on your head, when I can see anyway.”
“I’m up to the new pencil mark.”
“Why do you keep calling me idiot?”
“It’s an abuse.”
“It isn’t. Even if it is, you are an idiot, so you are.”
“You can’t call me an idiot.”
“Who says? I’m calling you one now.”
They started grappling, and there was a fight; Vipul got beaten, and he cried.
It was some months before they could visit the Ashram in Jadugoda.
Vipul’s parents thought that it was time they paid their respects once again to the Swamis. They also needed to get professional advice on such matters as how to combat the stiffening of joints or the increasing rate of fall of hair.
They sat on a thin cotton sheet on the mud floor of a room that was bare but for a few framed pictures of gods and goddesses and of renowned Swamis, and a rotund earthen water-pitcher in a corner.
Vipul’s parents told the Swamis how beneficial yoga had turned out to be for them, how enlivening and how becalming, and invited the Swamis to drop in at any time for a meal or even to stay. The Swamis listened serenely – even the way they listened was reassuring, as though the very audience they granted solved all problems. They then recommended specific asanas for each complaint that Vipul’s parents had listed.
Vipul waited, keeping a discrete discreet lookout for Swami Suryaparmananda, but he was nowhere to be seen. Vipul wondered how he might raise the question of the comic books. He had assumed that he would find the Swami sweeping the courtyard or chopping vegetables, and had schemed that he would act as though something or the other had reminded him of something in the comics, and thus bring up the question. He was too scared of the elder Swamis to ask them directly.
Then, as they were leaving, his mother said, “But Swamiji, I don’t see the younger Swami today? The one who was very popular with the children?”
Vipul said, quickly and audibly, “Swami Suryaparmananda.”
“The little boy has a sharp memory,” the elder Swami said, considering Vipul beatifically. “Our young Swami has left.”
“Why?” Vipul asked.
The elder Swami said to Vipul’s parents, “Everybody dreams and even thinks that he can live this life of hardship and penance, but in practice very few can.”
Vipul screwed up his courage. “Swamiji,” he said, “Did Swamiji leave behind any comics for us?”
“Comics? My son, we devote ourselves to other kinds of studies,” the Swami said, through a laugh. “We have given up comics along with a lot of other things.”
“No, Swamiji, not his own comics. They were ours. What had happened was...”
“Vipul, it doesn’t matter, son,” his mother said. Her voice was coaxing but her eyes chided him.
Vipul kept quiet.
Then his mother said, “Swamiji, there was another small problem.”
“Speak, my daughter, speak,” the Swami said.
“You see how our Vipul is short for his age.”
“Is he? Which class are you in, son?” The swami chucked him on his neck.
Seventh,” Vipul said.
“Yes, a little short in that case,” the Swami said, sizing him with his eyes.
“Yes, just a little,” his mother said. “But last summer the younger Swamiji had taught him some asanas for growing tall with. But they don’t seem to have had much effect.” Then she added, apologetically, “Perhaps he is not doing the asanas properly?”
“Quite possible, quite possible,” Swamiji said. “Just what I would have guessed. If instructions are not followed to the letter, yoga exercises cannot be expected to have their desired effect. Like mathematics. They may even harm. Are you following the instructions correctly, my son?”
“Just like Swamiji had taught me,” Vipul said. “Exactly like that.”
Swamiji said, ‘Good, very good. Then you’re on the right track. There’s no need to worry. Keep it up, continue with it, even increase the amount of exercise you do. You will certainly grow tall. One day you will find you have grown up overnight. Hari Om Tatsat.”
“Hari Om Tatsat,” they all said.
Excerpted with permission from In the Light of the Black Sun, Rohit Manchanda, Penguin Books (1997).