Elevate Difference

Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult

Don’t be fooled by the somewhat whimsical title of Jayanti Tamm’s memoir Cartwheels in a Sari; this account of a young woman’s life as "growing up cult" couples the childlike innocence of a cartwheel with the feeling of inertia and tumbling; she sums this up in a passage from the end of the book: "The inversion of my body, losing track of gravity and direction, was disorienting and delirious. From my vantage point, I saw Guru and all of the disciples upside-down, and no one else had... I did not know which was the correct way."

Nothing in the way of goat slaughtering or the sexual abuse, as some may associate with the dark ideas of cults, Jayanti Tamm’s experience of being born into the Sri Chinmoy Center is a more subtle meditation on the struggle with spiritual meaning and the hypocrisy of being and 'enlightened' yet blind follower. Sri Chinmoy, who passed away in 2007, was a charismatic Indian "Guru" who lived in the Bronx. He gained notoriety in the late '80s through weightlifting stunts and spiritual friendships with celebrities such as Carlos Santana and Richard Gere.  Sri Chinmoy, or "Guru," as he is referred throughout the book, essentially arranged the marriage of the two strangers who would become Tammi’s parents. Although they were married, sex was not allowed, but Tamm was conceived anyway. Through his ability to spin great PR, Guru blessed the embarrassing arrival of Tamm by calling her his "Chosen One."

Throughout the memoir, one sees Tamm struggle with the yearning for spiritual harmony with the ideas of peace and love being spoken about around her and the everyday reality of observing the strange behaviours and hypocrisy of Guru’s followers. As her parents were too preoccupied with their own devotion—yet aware of their own hypocrisy in conceiving her—Tamm was allowed relative freedom and attended public schools. As an intelligent young woman whose heart was open to the world around her, Tamm grows up to search for something real.  Her story is one with which we can all connect, even if we did not grow up with hour long meditations; having television, boys, and dancing banned; singing songs in a language we didn’t know; wearing saris to New York public schools; and being the Chosen One for a famous Guru. Tamm was a black sheep, the one who questioned her place in the world and saw things in ways the other people around her did not. More than anything, she wanted to find truth and meaning in a mixed up world. 

Tamm's anecdotes are moving and often funny. The memoir reads like a friend telling you crazy stories at a bar with the privilege of distance from what they felt at the time. We go up and down with her as she struggles to leave the cult, returns, is exiled to France, and is eventually expelled from the Sri Chinmoy Center in her twenties. From such a strange upbringing, Tamm seems relatively well-adjusted and is very open, thoughtful, and honest about the shaping of her ideas and personality. With a poignant ending, Cartwheels in a Sari offers a unique view of one woman's effort to find meaning, hope, and a place to belong.

Written by: Jyoti Roy, April 14th 2009