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The colour orange: Life of Ma Anand Sheela

Hoihnu Hauzel | Updated on October 08, 2020 Published on October 07, 2020

Rewind mode: Manbeena Sandhu (right) realised that Ma Sheela was looking for an author she could trust   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

A controversial member of spiritual guru Rajneesh’s commune, Ma Anand Sheela opens up about her past in a new book

Manbeena Sandhu switched on her laptop on the flight taking her back home to Toronto. She began typing, and the pages over the next few months turned into a book — the life of Ma Anand Sheela, a controversial member of spiritual guru Rajneesh’s commune. Born Sheela Ambalal Patel, the 70-year-old former personal secretary of Rajneesh was convicted in 1986 of a 1984 act of bioterrorism by a US court. Interviewed extensively in a 2018 Netflix documentary called Wild Wild Country on Rajneesh and his ashram, Sheela now lives in a village near Basel in Switzerland where she runs two care homes.

Nothing to Lose / Manbeena Sandhu / HarperCollins India / Non-fiction / ₹599

 

Sandhu’s interest in the cult took root when, as a college student in Chandigarh, she picked up a volume on Osho from a book fair in 1993. Now based in Toronto, where she is an addiction counsellor, the 46-year-old author describes her just-released book Nothing to Lose as an official memoir of Sheela. Edited excerpts from her interview with BLink:

What were your first observations of the Osho Commune in Pune?

I had read a book on Osho and was so blown away by it that I decided to visit his ashram. But my first visit to the Pune ashram in 1993-94 left me disappointed. Osho was gone by then, and the air was listless. But once there, I befriended many sanyasis, who had fascinating stories to narrate. My personal interest in Osho’s philosophy waned in a couple of years — mainly because of the hedonism present in the community and contradictions in his philosophy — but my friendships continued.

What is your impression of Ma Anand Sheela, the subject of your book?

Ma Anand Sheela was the figure that towered above all in the stories I heard. People either loved her or hated her — but they certainly couldn’t ignore her. When I first spoke to her on the phone and expressed my desire to pen her biography, she was not willing to commit herself until she’d met me. She asked me to visit her in Maisprach, a charming Swiss village near Basel where she lived. Gracious and kind, she received us at the airport with her chauffeur. I was looking for her when I heard a tiny but crisp voice calling out my name. When we met, I realised that she wanted to find someone she could trust. She could sense my openness and non-judgemental attitude. She pointed to the many framed pictures of her past on the walls of her home. For the next few days, she just talked and I listened.

Why did the story of Ma Anand Sheela intrigue you?

She was the constant backdrop to the sanyasis’ stories of the bygone Orange Era. Rock strong, mysterious, fearless, beautiful, commanding and captivating — how could I ignore her? I had been trying to trace her for many years. I knew she was in Switzerland but didn’t know where. After Wild Wild Country was released, she was in the open. I found her phone number and called her up. When she wanted to see me in person, we — I, along with my very supportive husband and children — packed our bags and flew to Switzerland in June 2019. When I first saw her at the airport, I thought she was dainty and fragile, yet in some strange way strong as a mountain. The fine lines on her countenance reflected wisdom and her eyes glinted with the sparkle of many untold stories that I was holding my breath to hear.

The next day, when Ma Sheela and I sat down to talk, we connected on a higher plane and gelled right away. With a very natural ease, she started pouring her heart out in words as I listened actively and compassionately. She told me that when she first saw Osho, he was lecturing in an auditorium in Baroda. She was only 16 and lost her heart to this charismatic speaker.

Tell us all about the making of the book.

I started writing on my flight back from Switzerland. Apart from the talks that we had shared in Ma Sheela’s home, we now discussed everything over the phone every day as I wrote. Ma was very supportive, trusting and co-operative. She stuck with me over the phone as I wrote page after page, chapter after chapter. It would be my delight each time she would smile and say, “You just reminded me of something I had completely forgotten about.” And then she would relive those forgotten memories and relate them to me over the phone, on FaceTime [videophone] mostly.

The book refers to an incident when Osho suddenly asked Ma Sheela to get him 30 new Rolls Royce cars. “Seela [he called her that], buy me thirty new Rolls Royces this month,” he said. He, the book says, had a litany of demands that petrified Sheela. In that context, do you think she was used in some ways by her beloved Bhagwan?

Yes, she absolutely was, in my personal opinion. But my personal opinion has not tainted the book in any way. As I have said, I have tried to stay as non-judgemental as possible. To me my subject and my reader are both equally important. And I have done my best to create a neat melange of Ma’s words and experiences and things as they happened. And I leave it to the intelligence of my readers to make their own personal judgements.

Hoihnu Hauzel is a writer based in Delhi NCR

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Published on October 07, 2020
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