‘Mataji and the Hippies’ is a contemporary Punjabi Indian short story penned by Punjabi dramatist, short story writer and novelist, theatre professional, and academic professor Balwant Gargi. Gargi is mainly known as a Punjabi language writer, and this short story too was initially written in Punjabi and later translated into English. The story is a mid-twentieth century culturally powerful story of an unmarried woman who has taken the life of an ascetic and has renounced worldly pleasures for the sake of enlightenment. The woman is addressed as Mataji and is the prime character of this story. Mataji, however, is full of depth and the real reason she took to the life of an ascetic is because of a failed love affair. The story also highlights the hippie culture of the 1970s, which brought countless white American and European youth to India to seek enlightenment from a guru or teacher, wisdom in the holy books of the Hindus, intoxicated enlightenment via psychedelic drugs, or mainly to avoid the war games being played in their own Western countries. In a subtle but slightly lurid manner, the story brings out the lives of six intoxicated and highly addicted Americans who have let go of their earlier bonds in life and their past and future roles as citizens of a slowly emerging globalized world. Balwant Gargi brings out the rhythm of the lives of these Americans and Mataji. They have abandoned every claim of theirs for the sake of true knowledge, mysticism, and intoxicated psychedelic states towards what they believed was allowing them to make headway towards union with the Almighty. This story has a fable ending because Mataji meets up momentously with her old lover Mangal Gargi again. However, instead of rejoicing, the reader is left to wonder whether Mataji ultimately sacrificed her body and very life to the Ganga or the funeral pyres or whether she took off, leaving her six American disciples to remain in their state of intoxication and delusion.
The story titled ‘Mataji and the Hippies’ centers on the disturbance in the minds of the youth from the Western countries because of their country’s involvement in Vietnam and other wars from the nineteen fifties to the seventies. The child of the sixties and seventies had decided to protest peacefully against the never-ending war in Vietnam and other places around the globe. The opening of the borders between East and West introduced these youth to Eastern lore and Eastern religious literature and music, which they took up for study and life. These youth began to call themselves hippies, and thus the psychedelic era truly began. In the name of seeking enlightenment, these youth traveled to India to take tutelage under a guru who would lead them into the ways of the ascetic or world renouncer. It was a given that these White American and European youth were also seeking enlightenment via drug intoxication, free love, the study of holy scripture, and living in communities with their head guru. In this story, Balwant Gargi relates how Mataji had taken under her wing six American hippies, all of whom she managed to intoxicate on a regular if not never-ending basis with marijuana. Mataji’s deity was Lord Shiva, also known as Bhairawa, Shankar, and the god of the cremation grounds. She teaches her disciples to live in the constant presence and worship of Lord Shiva, and her method was to smoke marijuana.
Marijuana is the sacred herb of Lord Shiva the Destroyer and the last holy being of the Hindu trinity. It was not unusual to see plenty of licensed marijuana drug sellers at every nook and corner of India at the period this story is set. Mataji herself states that there were almost eleven authorized marijuana sellers in Banaras, the Holy city of the Gods. At the same time, marijuana consumption was slowly being banned, especially from 1986 because of the increasing drug menace. The Hindu and Indian communities have different views about marijuana consumption mainly because of its religious symbolism. In the holy name of Lord Shiva, Mataji smokes her sacred marijuana through a chillum and pipe contraption and shares her dosage with her slowly dwindling disciples. Seeing their condition indicates their extreme devotion to Mataji and their full faith in her ministrations.
The six Americans mentioned in the text who are helpless and highly addicted disciples of Mataji are:
- Nandini, the only American girl in the group.
- Rama, the American boy with a thick black butcher’s beard.
- Bharata, the blue-eyed American boy.
- Lakshmana, the American lad who wore a saffron dhoti or loincloth and sadhu earrings.
- Kumbhkaran, the American youth in shorts with a Genghiz Khan moustache.
- Prem Das, the American seated in a lotus position wearing a yellow dhoti with the holy name of the Lord Ram printed throughout it.
From all these disciples, Prem Das is the most vocal and narrates the possible mysteries of Mataji to the narrator. Prem Das is at the ultimate state of intoxication. We realize this because he could not eat or drink anything, mainly because he could not retain anything in his stomach. Prem Das is almost as if it were on the verge of death or madness, but he still seems sincere in his total trust in Mataji. He has complete faith in her and mentions this even to Mangal Gargi when he arrives back at the houseboat after the police raid. We realize that Prem Das knew Mataji more intimately than the others because his theory of the Gwalior story turned out to be ultimately true where the legend of Mataji’s origins were concerned. Prem Das’s innocent love for Mataji is seen mainly on the last day when she mentions to the narrator that Prem Das would be the only one not to eat that day because she was fasting herself. She coaxes him to eat indirectly by stating that she would get him rice and yogurt. This shows the reader that she cared about Prem Das but in a domineering manner.
Mataji was a worshipper of Lord Shiva, but according to Rama, sometimes the Goddess Kali or Chandi entered into Mataji’s body, and then she would be fearsome. Chandi is a Shakti goddess generally associated with the consort of Lord Shiva, namely, Goddess Parvathi. Mataji indeed shows this fearsome side of her when:
- Mangal Gargi tricked the dacoits that came to Mataji’s paan shop when she was an eighteen-year-old lass in Gwalior.
- Mangal Gargi interrupts the intoxicating session of her six American hippies and stands face to face with him in rage.
- When Mataji was asked and begged by her disciples to get more food, she told them that she had not yet received the Divine Command.
Mataji is a headstrong, wild, and independent woman. She is a strong feminist character in this story. She shows in many ways that even as a person with no monetary value or with no patriarch backing her, she can run a houseboat on the River Ganga and accept and train disciples in her way of life. The moment she sees the elderly Mangal Gargi, she recognizes him despite the lapse of years as her memory is as sharp as his. She was aware that Mangal Gargi would return to see her, and so before he approached her, she either killed herself or escaped from the sight of the narrator, Mangal Gargi, and the lives of the six disciples forever.
The descriptions of Mataji’s body are like the very image of bursting vitality and energy. It is almost akin to the definition of a holy goddess’s body, which most ascetics look like in India even today—robust and full of energy. Mataji’s drug addiction was severe and shocking. As the text indicates, she may have gotten into the drug habit from the Sadhus whom she traveled with when she left her father’s house. According to Prem Das, Mataji was so adept in drugs that she could even train a person to handle ‘the trip’ of LSD, the most dangerous but alluring of psychedelic drugs. From these descriptions, we see a woman of vitality and strenuous determination and a woman who is not made of a conventional mold. In the 1960s and 1970s, most White hippies would rather have entertained a male sadhu or ascetic as a guru. Still, here in Balwant Gargi’s short story, we see a woman with no particular financial backing training ascetics on her own.
Coming to the narrator, he was a curious personality who enjoyed being in the company of the hippies and Mataji but never partook of the drugs himself. He is the chronicler of the story and stands as a testament to the life and times of Mataji. He enjoys being in conversation with Prem Das and is amiable. He is scatterbrained, and we notice that although after the first day at the houseboat he wishes to return to it the following day, he only returns after many days. He is full of fear and is aware of the dangerous implications of smoking marijuana. He holds Mataji with respect but at a distance. She is amiable towards him and introduces him to her disciples, their new names according to the characters in the Hindu scriptures, and their prayer time.
We notice the disgust of Mataji and the cultural clash between West and East when we see Mataji complaining about the way the Americans eat with the same hand with which they wipe their bottoms. She takes her job as a guru seriously; she feeds her brood, prays with them, teaches them, washes their clothes, etc. However, when we notice the disparity in her way of making off from them at the end without even a ‘goodbye’, we realize that her own headstrong nature was too overpowering than her feelings towards those in her care; her hatred against Mangal Gargi cut deep within her which probably led her to her ultimate death. The story ends with Mataji missing and the revelation to Prem Das and the narrator that their hunch was correct and Mataji was a victim of a failed love story. However, she refuses to have any connection with the superior male in her life and therefore abandons her houseboat before he can talk to her of the days gone by. She wanted to be accountable to no one.
I enjoyed reading and analyzing this short story titled ‘Mataji and the Hippies’ by Punjabi writer Balwant Gargi. A Braille version of the short story analysis is available here. I hope to read and analyze more Indian short stories in the coming days. If you are interested in reading a book review on the ascetics of India, you can check out my book review titled Sadhus by Dolf Hartsuiker. You will get a lot of information about the lives of the two major denominations of ascetics or Sadhus of India. If you are interested in reading my multiple award-winning Indian novels based on the lives of two powerful slum-dwelling girls, you can check out my novellas titled Nirmala: The Mud Blossom or Amina: The Silent One. I hope to read and review more Indian fiction in the coming days.
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