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.

This tone is particularly appropriate to her mild descriptions of some of the religious practices in which her mother became involved. Soon after K (as many of his biographers call him) had undergone the Process, a spiritual experience not unlike a fit, he took to fondling Rosalind’s breasts. ‘This behaviour,’ comments her daughter, ‘hardly helped confirm, for her, the spiritual implications of the event.’ K, conscious perhaps of a certain blip in the atmosphere, ‘professed to believe that Rosalind was his long-lost mother’ and tried to prove that reincarnation had actually taken place. He dealt with ‘the inconvenient fact’ that Rosalind was already two years old when his mother died by hoping that ‘the Masters could account for such untimely paradoxes.’ If seems they did not rise to the occasion.

K having attracted so much attention in the course of his long life, a great deal of Mrs Sloss’s material is of necessity common knowledge; in the index of any book about his life and work, Williams, Rosalind, married D. Rajagopal 1927, has to be present, and so do column after column of already familiar people and places. But given the relationship of author to heroine there is a great deal that is new. Who but young Radha could have constantly witnessed Krinsh – her childhood name for him – creeping up the stairs to her mother’s bedroom with a flower in his hand? And who but the adult Radha could know the inside story of an incident which biographers went on copying slavishly from one original manuscript?

I refer to the account of K and the Process. The accepted version is contained in a letter addressed by Nitya, K’s brother, to Mrs Besant and other interested parties, back in 1922. The occasion, an essential part of K’s spiritual progress, was obviously of the greatest importance to the five people present that evening, one of whom was Rosalind; and Nitya, ill as he was at the time, did his brave best to give it its due. The setting was a small house in the Californian valley of which the author gives a luminous picture and which was to be the scene of so much that happened.

After three days of pain, restlessness, groaning and shaking, described by Nitya with considerable eloquence (a paraphrase is unavoidably tame), K was induced to sit under a pepper tree in front of the house where in due time and after prolonged chanting on his part, a great star appeared and the Lord Maitreya came to him in splendour. And then Rosalid’s face shone with divine ecstasy (I quote Nitya) and she cried out repeatedly: ‘Do you see Him? Do you see Him? According to Nitya, Rosalind was the only one who actually did.

Nitya’s beautiful story went round the world. It was much later that Rosalind told her daughter that she had in fact seen nothing and nobody. She had simply gone to sleep, as she tended to do in the cool of the evening after a day of nursing Nitya and latterly Krishna too. The radiance in her face must have been caused by some refreshing dream of her own. She and Nitya were in love, in a high-minded sort of way, and this would account for his imagining her ecstasy and her refraining from spoiling his story.

The love affair of Krishna and Rosalind began in the early Thirties and broke up in the late Fifties. Radha chronicles it straightforwardly but with welcome reticence as to the details. Though she is occasionally quizzical about it, she is not judgmental. The worst failing she accuses her mother of is naivety. Even after several pregnancies Rosalind still believed that K was taking precautions simply because he said he was and she still believed in his tender care even after she went off to have her abortions and his support was limited to getting her on and off the bus.

As to K’s morals, however much he betrayed the normal expectations of friendship by having this relationship with the wife of his almost lifelong friend and colleague, as Rajagopal was, he was not transgressing his own rules; he was not, in this instance, a hypocrite. It is true that in the earlier days of his teaching, from within the Theosophical Society, he was vehement in urging young girls to decide on a life of celibacy and to give up all natural dreams of a husband and family. He got very shirty when any of his followers became engaged and did his best to dissuade them from marriage; in their own best interests, I need hardly say. Later, when he repudiated the Society he began to modify many of his general views, one of them being the concept of chastity. As Philip Larkin has told us, ‘Sexual intercourse began/ in nineteen sixty-three’ and K had changed with the times: in fact, he changed much more briskly that they did. By the end of the Sixties he had formulated his new ideas and was preaching what he had long been practising.

Why have you made sex a problem? Really it doesn’t matter at all whether you go to bed with someone or whether you don’t. Get on with it or drop it but don’t make a problem of it.

Quite so.

Books enough were written about Krishnamurti while he was alive but they all had to be in the nature of interim accounts. After his death in 1986 some really definitive biographies were expected, and duly appeared. Two of these are relevant in the evaluation of Lives in the Shadow with J. Krishnamurti, which is more of a group chronicle than pure biography. One is The Life and Death of Krishnamurti by Mary Lutyens, his official biographer. It came out in 1990 and gathers up much of what she had been writing about him, extensively and indeed repetitiously, for the previous three decades. In the Fifties she had given a charming account of how Krishna and Nitya arrived from India in 1911 as the protégés of Mrs Besant, who was now no mere convert but President of the Theosophical Society, with the idea that K should be groomed as the future Messiah. Mary’s mother, Lady Emily Lutyens, herself a disruptively keen Theosophist, took such an interest in the boys’ progress – academic, social and religious – that her children saw them every day. Mary was only three years old and can remember nothing before them, but she has remembered plenty from then onwards. To begin with, she was not particularly impressed with the future Messiah but she fell in love with Nitya. We are given an engaging glimpse of the young schoolgirl running home at the end of the afternoon to see if two pale grey Homburg hats and two gold-headed canes were lying on the hall-table. They usually were.

Nitya died in 1925. But for the next sixty years, with few intermissions, Mary Lutyens followed the fortunes of his brother Krishna as acolyte, indulgent friend and, above all, for the present purpose, painstaking chronicler. In the early days their compatability was such that there was gossip about an impending engagement, but Sir Edwin Lutyens competently scotched the rumour. In the last days, she and her husband travelled thousands of miles to visit Krishnamurti on his death-bed. In all it is a formidable testimony.

Written from a different standpoint but equally weighty as evidence is Pupul Jayakar’s Krishnamurti: A Biography, which appeared in 1988. When Krishnaji – the respectful title given him in this book – went to India in the late Forties he met two young married women, sisters, well-educated and well-connected: one was Nandini Mehta and the other Pupul Jayakar. In most accounts Nandini comes across as beautiful, gentle, good and shy. Pupul needed no accounts – she was demonstrably a forceful and public personality: Vice-President of the Indian Foundation of which K was President (with due disclaimers on his part) and later Chairman of the Festival of India Committee and close friend of Indira Gandhi; an influential woman, in fact, whose biography has a ring of authority. Like Mary Lutyens, she became a lifelong supporter of Krishnaji, looking after him on his many visits to India and at last writing his obituary for the Calcutta Telegraph. And she too travelled thousands of miles to say goodbye when she heard he was dying.

In the appraisal of Lives in the Shadow these two biographers must be regarded as the opposition for they both write as though the relationship of K and Rosalind never took place. Whatever their reasons for keeping quiet, it seems unlikely that ignorance of the facts would be one of them. Radha Sloss is mistaken, I think, in assuming that hardly anybody noticed anything. She herself relates that a woman friend, discussing the Rajagopals’ marriage, makes a remark about cuckoos in other birds’ nests, and no doubt similar metaphors were flying through the air. She also quotes her grandmother as having given Rosalind an unmistakable warning about the way she was risking her marriage. And indeed, in spite of a silence which seems more hostile as it continues, both writers do appear to be dropping hints. Mary Lutyens says that after one of K’s visits to India the Rajagopals ‘had heard rumours about Nandini, and Rosalind was very humanly jealous, having been for so long the only woman in K’s life.’ Pupul Jayakar, writing of K’s and Rosalind’s stay in Bombay a few years later, describes what she must have recognised as a lovers’ quarrel: Rosalind remonstrating with K and, by means of ‘an unending stream of questions’, trying to get out of him why he had changed towards her.

These authors are hardly likely to remain silent much longer: Radha Sloss’s book, if no longer shocking, must be a serious matter to believers and will no doubt have repercussions. In fact, it certainly will, if Mary Lutyens carries out her threat of reprisals. ‘I have seen the book,’ she said recently to the Independent on Sunday in tones that were darker than dark, ‘but I can’t make any comment on it until the author’s parents are both dead. Then I will have a great deal to say.’ A charismatic leader like Krishnamurti can always make feathers fly. My own interest in him, always detached, has also been finite. But now, though I would not know which side to take if it were required of me, I might describe myself as agog.