• Sathya Saran

Nothing to Lose ...Book Review/Hindu

There is a story in this book. A cracking good story, the stuff moviemakers love: intrigue, sex, violence, love. Even spiritualism of a sort. And yes, a heroine, that’s whom the book is about. Not a fictional heroine but a blood and skin one, a gutsy, beautiful woman who led a life that allowed her to sell her story many times over to rival bidders, because each felt duplication would not dull its appeal.

But there is a trick in this book, that claims to be the authorised biography of Ma Anand Sheela, a claim substantiated in the acknowledgements by the author. The trick is to find the story.

Ma Anand Sheela has been an enigmatic character: for years one knew of her as the power beside Rajneesh’s kingdom; unapproachable, enigmatic, charismatic when she chose to turn on the charm. It is only in 1985, that the world got a chance to know more about her when she broke silence in a first ever interview to the German magazine, Stern.

More recently the Netflix series Wild Wild Country revealed in engrossing documentary style the scandalous and terrifying goings-on that were spearheaded by Ma Anand Sheela as the person in charge of the Rajneesh Commune in Oregon, USA.

All of which made this book a must read. Here at last, a story that would reveal all, even if it ran the risk of being one-sided.

But there’s the rub. The story is missing. Or it is shrouded in a snowstorm of adjectives. So for the first one-third of the book we learn about Sheela’s unconventional upbringing despite a conventional societial background. Her first meeting with Rajneesh shows her melting, stricken by an instant love., Face to face with him, she sits silent, ‘tears streaming down the sixteen-year-old’s eyes’.

Banalities abound. We are forced to follow the heroine as she steps into taxis, boards autorickshaws, and share her wonder as on her first visit to America, her soles brush against a shaggy carpet, or she stares at snow falling outside. We learn that ‘Sheela and Maya wanted to twirl and roll in it but deeply fatigued and exhausted as they were, they left it for another day. As soon as Renee bid them good night, they hit the sack and were off to la-la-land.’ And phrases like the ‘mischievous Guru was tickled pink’, ‘they (Sheela and her husband) trotted up the spiral staircase’, or ‘the Bhagwan’s elusively coy behaviour’, do nothing to add movement to the narrative or invest the players in the story with any gravitas.

Even as she follows Sheela through the milestones of her life, the author takes quick breaks to vent her views about Rajneesh. Whether this is sourced from a now-bitter Sheela, or from referenced sources is uncertain, but Sandhu’s tone when she writes about how ‘Bhagwan knew well how to use this vast unearthed resource that lay hidden in waves of red and orange, that gushed at his feet.’, is clearly antipathic. The detours pepper the book, pointing out Rajneesh’s acquisition of Rolls Royce cars and expensive baubles, his ability to fleece rich sanyasins, and his penchant for ‘blessing’ nubile young women with his special attentions. The reader is clearly told that here, again, is a ‘godman’ following the well-trodden path of hedonism and lechery.

The final segment of the book delves into Sheela’s flight to Europe from Oregon, her trial and imprisonment in the US, and her new life in Switzerland, to the present as directrix and healer of the old and infirm in her Home for the Old.

The Epilogue mentions how during a visit to India, in 2019, she captured column space and hearts with her witty rhetoric.

Unfortunately there is no sign of it in the book. And if you are looking for the drama, better watch the Netflix series.

Nothing to Lose by Manbeena Sandhu. Published by Harper Collins. Price ₹599 pp226

Sathya Saran

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