Getting on with it

Patricia Beer writes about the charismatic sage Krishnamurti, less chaste than people thought

  • Lives in the Shadow with J. Krishnamurti by Radha Rajagopal Sloss
    Bloomsbury, 336 pp, £17.99, May 1991, ISBN 0 7475 0720 1

I doubt it any reviewer has ever converted anybody to anything. But there have been cases where the reviewer has been won over by the book under consideration. Mrs Besant, reviewing Mme Blavatsky on Theosophy, was converted on the spot. So I approached Lives in the Shadow with J. Krishnamurti (an oddly-worded title) with some caution. It proved unnecessary. Radha Rajagopal Sloss is no proselytiser in general; she seeks to convince us of one proposition: that Krishnamurti was less Chaste than his followers assumed him to be. Specifically, he is said to have had a long affair with Mrs Sloss’s mother, Rosalind Rajagopal, née Williams – an American devotee both when he was operating under the aegis of the Theosophical Society and later when he went freelance.

This rather moth-eaten scenario of a spiritual leader going to bed with a female acolyte cannot be dismissed with Rhett Butlerish cries of ‘My dear, I don’t me a damn.’ For the part of a hundred years, in 90 of which he was alive and only five dead, Krishnamurti has been world news. This would be motive enough for the writing of such a book. But there seems to be more to it than that. The main theme, of course, is quite original: Radha Sloss is not a pious daughter trying to refute the fact that her mother was an adulteress; she is positively trumpeting it; she is proud of it. And this is not her only source of joy: she sees herself as inspired by a pure and overmastering desire to ‘put the historical record straight’. She cannot be thinking about the vicious and prolonged legal battle between Krishnamurti and Rajagopal, which concerned property and money; she discusses it fully but the results have been accessible for some time. She is definitely referring to the affair.

When it comes to revelations about people’s private lives I doubt if manipulation of the records is helpful; we are no wiser surely for being told after years of concealment that Ruskin did not consummate his marriage and that Charlotte Brontë fancied the headmaster. Still, it was Mrs Sloss’s decision; and she was right. I think, not to be held back by any thoughts of the distress her frankness might cause the faithful. There was a time, certainly, when it might have caused total prostration, but both public and private opinion have of necessity got more robust every year, and in any case those who would have been bitterly distressed must have already left this vale of tears.

Leaving aside motives and messages, Lives in the Shadow is an enjoyable book. Radha Sloss is no great stylist, certainly. Too many of her sentences cry aloud to be illustrated by Glen Baxter: ‘Krishna was bowled over by the Parthenon,’ for example. But she has a distinctive voice, which is exactly suited to her material. It is a tone of gentle scepticism that never quite becomes sardonic. It must be natural to her for we hear it even when she is not writing directly about her protagonists. Of the swimming off Sydney in the Twenties, for instance, she says that the swimmers were ‘supposedly protected from sharks by nets across the harbour’; the one word ‘supposedly’ conjures up a picture of bitten-off limbs bobbing in the sea.

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