Patriarchy Across Cultures: When The Levee Breaks

 by Tapati

whitetreegondor

Cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do you no good,
Now, cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do you no good,
When the levee breaks, mama, you got to move.

—Led Zeppelin version, original lyrics by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie.

Previously some friends had offered me shelter at their cabin in Big Bear, a mountain community. I said a tearful goodbye to my husband Mike—now known as Mahasraya following our initiation.

Their cabin was cute and had an amazing view of the snowy landscape. The main living area contained the kitchen, dining room and living room in an open floor plan. I was to sleep downstairs where there was a separate bathroom. Jayasri and I enjoyed being two pregnant ladies, drinking our red raspberry leaf tea and comparing notes about how we felt and what names we were thinking of. She was further along than I was and we must have looked quite funny waddling around with our huge bellies.

They had a lot of good books and recommended The Lord of the Rings to me. I’d read The Hobbit years earlier so I was happy to indulge in this guilty pleasure. We weren’t supposed to read things that weren’t related to our devotional service but my friends were on the “fringes” of the movement at this point and lived a bit freer of such restrictions. The strait-laced devotees were scandalized by them, in fact. I certainly wasn’t inclined to feel critical of people who took me in when no one else offered!

Jayasri and her husband seemed to have a very pleasant and even playful relationship and I envied them. I remember one night they had fun cooking together, making something they called “love tarts.” These were small pastries made in muffin tins with a filling that reminded me of pecan pie without the nuts. Incredible!

Unfortunately this interlude would soon come to an end as Jayasri began to have Braxton Hicks contractions strong enough to make her think that she would soon be having her baby. We had agreed that when her time drew near I would leave, so I packed up my things. They encouraged me to take the books I was reading with me so I could continue on through The Lord of the Rings. I was hooked by that time!

My husband, Mahasraya, was staying in a laundry room beneath the apartment of his friend Bruce. They dropped me off there, apologetically. I looked around at this room in despair. There was a water heater in one corner, ugly institutional green walls, a cement floor and a gap under the only door to the room. There was one window. Laundry hookups protruded from the wall and the floor was strewn with boxes and Mahasraya’s sleeping bag, plus an old printing press that Mahasraya had acquired. Bruce had a few things stored there as well and they were pushed under the window. There was no heat and one light fixture overhead.

I laid out my sleeping bag and tried in vain to get comfortable on the cement floor. Periodically the November wind would blow leaves under the door and a chill would sweep the already frigid room. I was huddled under the sleeping bag and a wool blanket and yet still I was cold. My back hurt from carrying my unborn child and the hard floor wasn’t helping. My baby was kicking against the confines of my womb, already very large in these last months of my pregnancy. I had horrible acid indigestion every night, feeling the acid reach all the way to my throat. It was difficult to get any rest under these conditions.

In the morning we were able to shower upstairs in Bruce’s apartment. He didn’t have a refrigerator so we didn’t try to cook there. Instead I walked two miles to another friend’s home—Srilekha’s—and did our main cooking of the day there. In the afternoon or early evening we returned to our laundry room. During the day I offered massages to devotee women in return for $2.50 per hour. Sometimes they offered items from their own food cupboards or fed me lunch. I was also able to consult a devotee midwife, Manindra, and receive a basic physical exam from her. My baby’s heart beat was strong and everything seemed to be going well despite my living conditions.

Mahasraya was looking for work. After a couple of weeks he landed a job with a printer running an AB Dick printing press. He had claimed to know more about it than he did. He had learned a bit about running one in a graphics class he’d taken. But when it broke down he didn’t know how to fix it. The owner offered to bring someone in to train him the rest of the way but I guess he was so embarrassed at his deception being discovered that he couldn’t bear to stay. So he walked off the job. When he came home to tell me I couldn’t believe it. I was furious that he’d leave a job while we were homeless! He was counting on our welfare money to come and save us both.

Prabhupada_cooking

Srila Prabhupada cooking for Krishna

On November 14, 1977, word circulated around the globe that our spiritual master, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, had passed away. The entire devotee community was plunged into mourning and uncertainty. How would we carry on without his guidance? How would future devotees be initiated? Who would lead our movement? Mahasraya and I gathered in the temple with the others, lost and wounded, knowing we would never see Srila Prabhupada again or speak to him personally as his earliest disciples had. We reminded ourselves of the inscription on Haridasa Thakura’s bhajana-kutira (meditation place):

He reasons ill who says that Vaisnavas die
When thou art living still in sound!
The Vaisnavas die to live, and living try
To spread the holy name around.

–Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakur

Our hearts were heavy now and only added to our stress level. For Mahasraya, this was the second serious loss in the same year. His temper was short and I never knew what might set him off. He would strike me on my arms or head with little or no warning. When he wasn’t hitting he was yelling or cutting me with sarcastic remarks and vulgar words. I didn’t know where the kind and gentle man I’d fallen in love with had gone but I rarely glimpsed him during these dark and cold days.

As our stay stretched past November to early December, Bruce took pity on me and gave me a foam cushion to sleep on. I overheard him saying to Mahasraya that he should get his wife a home before she had her baby.

At night my only toilet was a plastic milk jug with the top cut off. In the morning I would dump it in a corner of the yard and rinse it out. Balancing over this with my huge 8-months-pregnant-belly was quite a process, and in the dark, no less. I was so large one devotee woman told me she was saving her twin clothes for me!

Srilekha asked me to please come along and babysit her daughter Kishori while she taught Sunday school to the young children from Indian families. It was a program designed to affirm their spiritual heritage. On the way back the brahmacari who was driving our car rear-ended another vehicle and I and my friend Tribhuvanesvari were pretty banged up. I remember closing my eyes and chanting Hare Krishna, then boom! I was surprised to be alive when I opened my eyes.

I was terrified that something had happened to my baby. I didn’t feel any kicks for awhile after the crash. The paramedics checked me out and said I looked fine but suggested I go to the ER to be safe. I didn’t have insurance coverage yet so I said no thanks. Tribhuvanesvari couldn’t walk under her own power–it hurt too much. She needed an x-ray to make sure her legs weren’t broken. It turned out that they were badly bruised. We both hit our shins on the back of the front seats but hers were far worse than mine.

Finally my baby kicked and I was so relieved. I was limping heavily though. Srilekha offered to let me spend the night so I could have a chance to recover. The next day I felt like I’d been beaten and I had bruises all over. Srilekha told me that she and her husband, Sri Govinda, were going on a trip for a few days and Mahasraya and I could stay at her house.

When she returned things felt very strained between us and I wasn’t sure why—was she getting tired of my using her kitchen? I tried to help out by washing her dishes and cleaning up the stove and counters. It turned out that she was also thinking I should offer to clean the floors and bathroom but I hadn’t done so because I was so worn out and it just didn’t occur to me. I walked two miles just to get to her apartment and wasn’t sleeping well.

One morning I was quiet because I was angry at Mahasraya for not bringing back milk in time for breakfast. I had an upset stomach and hoped that food would settle it. I was probably frowning as I sat there waiting. Srilekha started yelling, telling me that I seemed so resentful no matter how much she did for me. She also complained about my not cleaning more. I was stunned, denying that I resented her in any way and offering to clean whatever she wanted me to clean. Mahasraya walked through the door and my grandma called just then. Everything was happening at once.

When I got on the phone with my grandma, she offered to fly me back home to have the baby. I burst into tears and gave Mahasraya the phone. I couldn’t talk. It took me awhile to calm down and tell everyone why I was crying. Srilekha was apologetic and I explained why I looked so unhappy at the breakfast table. I was so torn between going back home and having a roof over my head that didn’t include a cement floor, but I didn’t want to have my baby in a hospital or return to my family. I finally calmed down enough to talk to Grandma and let her know that I didn’t want to come home and that I’d be all right.

I realized that I couldn’t use Srilekha’s kitchen any more. Obviously she was feeling the strain of the arrangement and I didn’t want to inconvenience her anymore. Mahasraya agreed so we made the best of Bruce’s kitchen and got a little Styrofoam ice chest. I was getting a few bucks here and there from doing massage, he had his departing check from the printer job, and the BBT was sort of shamed by public opinion into giving us a bit of a settlement towards finding a new home. So we were able to buy potatoes, lentils, brown rice, milk and butter. Once in awhile we got a little cheese or made popcorn. Not the best diet for a pregnant mom but I had carbohydrates and protein at least.

Mahasraya began to talk about painting the walls of the laundry room and installing carpet and an electric heater. I looked at him like he was crazy! I stated as emphatically as possible: “I am NOT having my baby in a laundry room.” Yes I was afraid of him but I had my limits!

Bill Fregd, an old friend from Mahasraya’s Chicago days, arrived at the L.A. temple for the Sunday Feast. He was driving a sports car he’d purchased entirely with the money he made selling psilocybin mushrooms he picked in Florida. Of course Mahasraya was very excited. He never met a get-rich-quick-scheme he didn’t fall in love with! He started buying psilocybin identification books and bringing home toadstools to identify. The room reeked of mushroom odor and my sensitive nose and queasy stomach rebelled at this. To this day I can’t bear the odor of fresh mushrooms and try to avoid cooked mushrooms as much as possible.

magicmushrooms
Samples of psilocybin mushrooms

He never did find any psilocybin mushrooms but he read up on the methods for cultivating them. He decided that when we got a place to live he would send away for the mycelium needed to grow the mushrooms and start his business that way. I was not keen on this idea because I could so easily imagine getting busted and having my child taken away from me. Mahasraya was growing so volatile that I was afraid to argue the point.

I tried to keep myself together by reading incessantly. If I couldn’t get away from the laundry room any other way, I could enter another world by reading. I was absorbed in Frodo’s quest and the growing shadow of Mordor. Would Frodo throw the ring into the Crack of Mount Doom in time? Could Aragorn and Gandalf save Gondor, could Eowyn and Faramir find love and healing? Would we get an apartment before I gave birth? It all became linked in my mind. I read on, torn between hope and fear.

There are some things that time cannot mend. Some hurts that go too deep…

–Frodo, LOTR, JRR Tolkien

LOTR
One ring to rule them all
and in the darkness bind them

tapati

Tapati McDaniels is a freelance writer who started a forum designed to meet the needs of former Hare Krishna devotees at http://www.gaudiya-repercussions.com.

She is working on a memoir and her personal blog can be found at http://tapati.livejournal.com

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