Jayanti Tamm starts her wonderful memoir with the story about how her parents, total strangers to each other, were married by Guru Sri Chinmoy after a meditation session, agreeing to dedicate their lives to his cult. Tamm, the child of their supposedly celibate union, was hailed as the Chosen One, with a coveted relationship with the charismatic Guru. She grew up wearing saris, spending her nights at meditation sessions, competing for Guru’s attention and signs of his approval. Guru controlled the lives of his followers, distorted family relationships, chased after fame for himself, and eagerly sought celebrity converts. As a teenager, Tamm saw the hypocrisy in Guru’s world and desperately tried to separate herself from the cult. With the hard-won insights of a survivor, Tamm tells how she endured the ostracism of friends and family and the anguish of losing the only safe haven she had ever known. This is an unusual and very absorbing coming-of-age memoir.
I heard Jayanti speak about Cartwheels in a Sari, read the book, and was delighted when she agreed to an interview. You can find out more about Jayanti and her memoir at www.jayantitamm.com
Roz: What made you decide to write a memoir at this point in your life? Was it a difficult decision?
Jayanti: When I was banished from the cult in 1995, all of my energies were focused on trying to create a life in the ‘outside’ world. Attending college, forming relationships, and discovering the realms that had been forbidden to me, took all of my energies. I was also too angry and confused to be able to clearly analyze everything that I had gone through. In fact it wasn’t until after my parents were banished from the cult in 2002, that, for the first time, we were able to speak openly about our experiences. Prior to that, as ‘good disciples,’ we had always kept our concerns and feelings about the cult to ourselves. Therefore once my parents left, I felt as though it was safe to explore my past. I began therapy, which was extremely helpful. During that period, I realized that if I was ever going to be able to fully understand and process all that had happened to me, I needed to examine my past. As writing was always something that I had enjoyed—I’ve been keeping diaries since I was five—it seemed that writing my story would be a way to better understand my own life, and to possibly be able to help other people by sharing my story.
Roz: You recall some very personal memories in your book. Would it have been easier for you to fictionalize the names and places and write it as a novel?
Jayanti: I believe the best memoirs are the ones that honestly and openly head directly into the areas that are deemed as the most shameful, personal, and hurtful. It is exactly there, riskily venturing into those hidden and secret memories, that the writer finds the most important lessons.
For me, writing my memoir was part of my own healing, so I knew that trying to hide my truth through fiction would not serve my true purpose.
Roz: Guru discouraged normal family relationships: the most important relationship for you, your parents, and your brother was the one each had with Guru. Once you left Guru, how hard was it for you to understand what a good relationship between parent and child could be?
Jayanti: Since I never had a ‘normal’ family—the guru was the central figure in our lives, the one who made all our decisions—my family never partook in traditional family activities—weddings, birthday parties, and barbeques. It is only now that I have my own family—I’m married and have a baby daughter—that I am learning and testing out what it means to have a family on my own terms.
Roz: How did your parents react when you told them you were going to write a memoir? Have there been any unexpected consequences?
Jayanti: Because my parents had left the cult in 2002, when I told them that I was writing a memoir about growing up in the cult, they were incredibly supportive. Both my mother and father were gracious and generous about sharing their stories with me for my book. I’m so grateful for all of their support. Without their input, it would have been impossible to have fully told the story of my family.
However, not everyone in my family has been supportive. My brother and my aunt are still devout disciples, and they have not spoken to me in years. When the news leaked out that I was writing a memoir, my brother sent my mother an angry email, chastising her for supporting my efforts.
Roz: Has writing your memoir changed your view of that time of your life? Did you learn something new about yourself from writing your memoir?
Jayanti: Writing Cartwheels in a Sari has been a life altering experience. I have gained so much by the entire process, and I feel so humbled to have had my story published and to have received wide-spread critical acclaim. From both writing and later in speaking about my memoir, I have gained an understanding about just how complicated the subject matter truly is—there are no easy answers.
Often at book events, people ask me why a person would decide to join a cult? And why did the leader have such a powerful hold over the followers? In the memoir I explore those questions, and though I offer a series of possible explanations, there isn’t a single, clear answer. Much of what occurs in the memoir has to do with the amorphous issue of faith—when one possesses faith one views the world a certain way, and when that faith suddenly disappears, the world is permanently altered forever, even though, in a sense, nothing has actually changed. It’s truly fascinating.
Roz: Have your childhood experiences as a member of a cult made you skeptical about organized religion in general?
Jayanti: Currently, I have no desire to follow any type of religion. I’m extremely skeptical about placing my trust in any leader or teachings. I’m very happy enjoying the secular world and being my own teacher.
Roz: What was the one area of your memoir that you wondered if you should put in? Are you glad you did?
Jayanti: Every episode that I initially hesitated to use, that filled me with a sense of apprehension, even dread, was what I understood had to be included. A memoir is the last place to withhold and censor truth from the reader. It has to be open and honest, bearing all that has occurred.
Roz: Do you feel that your memoir is strictly faithful to what happened? Does it matter if memoir is not strictly faithful to what happened? Could it ever be?
Jayanti: Memoirs, of course, allow for the author to reconstruct events by splicing memories with emotions. The memoir presents the truth through a personal filter. My memoir is the truth as it happened to me and my family.
Roz: What are you reading now?
Jayanti: Because my new project is a novel, for inspiration, I am delving into novels by talented and prolific storytellers. I just finished reading Anne Tyler’s Digging to America, and now I’m reading Nick Hornby’s About a Boy.
Sounds like an interesting book. I would like to have had more hint as to what type of cult this was, and what the author felt she received from the group, and what forced her to be “banished.” But perhaps these topics are best left to the book.
Naseem–I didn’t want to give away all the details–the book is excellent–I highly recommend it–and now that I’ve met Jayanti, it seems even more remarkable that she survived such a frightful childhood to become such an accomplished successful adult.