54 Interviews with Westerners
on their search for spiritual fulfilment in India

Compiled, Edited and Mainly Photographed by
Malcolm Tillis

  1. Vijayananda
  2. Melita Maschman
  3. Brahmachari Gadadhar
  4. Bill Eilers
  5. Simonetta
  6. Swami Jnanananda
  7. Bill Aitken
  8. Bramacharini Atmananda
  9. Jamie Smith
  10. Martha Smith
  11. Radheshwari
  12. Omkara Das Adhikary
  13. Gopi Jai Krishna
  14. Ellen Schector
  15. Paul Ivan Hogguer
  16. Giorgio Bonazzoli
  17. Anil Bhai
  18. Russell Balfour-Clarke
  19. Norma Sastri
  20. John Clarke
  21. Peter Hoffman
  22. Dhruva
  23. Maggi Lidchi
  24. Sz. Regeni
  25. Baruni
  26. Michael Zelnick
  27. David and Sally
  28. Wilhelmina van Vliet
  29. Norman C. Dowsett
  30. Father Bede Griffiths
  31. Matthew and
    Joan Greenblatt
  32. Lucy Cornelssen
  33. Doris Williamson
  34. Lucia Osborne
  35. David Godman
  36. Hamsa Johannus de Reade
  37. Sir
  38. Joachim Peters and
    Uli Steckenreuter
  39. Richard Willis
  40. Chitrakara das Adhikary
  41. Aviva Keller
  42. Ma Prem Leela
  43. Swami Prem Pramod
  44. Ma Amanda Vandana
  45. Swami Anand Bodhisattva
  46. Swami Nadama
  47. Sister Arati
  48. Francis Reck
  49. H.H. Giriraja Swami
  50. Jean Dunn
  51. Raymond and
    Maree Steiner
  52. Bhikshu Ngawang Samten
  53. Ani Tenzin Palmo
  54. Kate Christie



Michael Zelnick

Outside his elegantly simple house

25th January 1981

Click for a printable view


New Lives - Malcolm Tillis

This is Sunday; Dhruva is free from his clinic so he’s taking me to Auroville for the day. We go by taxi. Auroville was created as an experiment, a centre for meditation, an international university, an agricultural revolution, an industrial adventure. It is to have a multinational community, and, with the imposing ideals laid down by the Mother (whose inspiration it is), Auroville should be a paradise on earth.

A paradise on earth? Is it possible? Has it not been tried before? We live through such confusion, such uncertainty, such despair, of course we must try. The effort itself is the salvation. If we stop caring, we die. Striving for something outside chaos may not take us straight to paradise, but the striving, the effort — yes — the plunge into the dirt, must cleanse us, as it has cleansed Baruni.

Auroville is supposed to be a city, but it’s still a latent dream. Its communities have high-sounding, meaningful names like Aspiration, Fraternity, Utility. Yes, a dream. (1)


Dhruva is directing the driver through unmade roads, over unmade fields, into unfinished building projects. We are going to see one of his patients. She is living in a stream-lined Mediterranean-type bungalow. She is also stream-lined in a cool, international but rather Mediterranean sort of way. She could be an actress, a painter, a writer; she could be married to an actor, a painter, a writer. She is beautiful - stunningly so because she is free and natural and honest. She is ageless.

After the three of us have been talking for two and a half hours, occasionally skirting round the subject that keeps jumping into my mind — the Interview, she says: You will think me a heel, but I have decided I don’t want to talk myself into your book and excite others into the life-style which I believe happens to suit me right now, it’s too easy to do all that “look at me!” sort of thing.

Her decision doesn’t surprise me, and I tell her so with much laughter. But now she is asking a pertinent question:

Has it ever crossed your mind that you may never finish this book?

Oh yes, yes…since the book was started, many things have crossed my mind. I explain it wasn’t in my power to start this project, and what is developing has nothing to do with anything I have accomplished, so as I see a greater power working, it’s that power’s responsibility to finish the book — should that be the plan: I am to be detached from the outcome. The dream — in this case — is to be involved in something beautiful. Should it remain a dream — well — it will still be beautiful.

She now asks if meeting so many different people plodding along so many different paths is not confusing.

I reply: Yes, that could be a distraction, but all I am doing is going from person to person like a bee gathering pollen. Whatever is offered I accept: I don’t have to judge or compare or criticize. I trust I am sufficiently grounded in my own guru and his teachings not to be overwhelmed by other pollen varieties. And I am seeing, feeling, learning that in essence all gurus, all teachings, all paths are pointing to one sign: How to achieve perfection. That is the great dream I am aiming to achieve. Dreams like that can’t confuse.


I am being shown some of the nearby Mediterranean style houses, all white and gracious, tasteful and spacious. They remind me of the unknown Ibiza in the 1960s, even the people — yes — especially the people. I’m almost sure before the day’s out some of my old Ibiza friends will manifest.

It’s now time for lunch, but in the dining room (country-style Ibiza except for the Japanese furnishings) Dhruva is discretely asking around hoping someone else will fill the breach — half the day gone, nothing recorded! Meanwhile someone asks me if I would rent his house for a week starting from yesterday. Now I have a habit of liking to get things clear; I ask: You mean for six days? Actually — he replies — it’s only five days. The deal falls through.

And just as well, for Dhruva is plowing through more fields and rough roads — we have retained the taxi and we are on our way to the Zelnicks. Michael is American, Shyama Swedish - Oh! - an Interview from a Scandinavian?

Their house, late 1960s Ibiza — superb, with huge round window in the main room, thatched roof, and Italian baroque music zooming out of the stereo in the loft. Perfect setting to get high on Vivaldi. Or is it Albinoni? No, no, could it be Tartini?

But I am not allowed to listen because Shyama has to take to the road with a brood of small children and Michael has agreed to start.



Interview 26

The effective cause of my getting interested in yoga was through my experience with drugs which started in college, I guess in 1963. The first time I did psychedelics, I was fortunate in that I had a spiritually aware guide. I had an experience without any essential clouding ever after, and I knew I would end up in an Ashram. I spent three years and about a hundred trips getting ready, so I thought it was meandering — I knew I would eventually go to an Ashram. My interest was in Buddhism — Zen — so I practiced on my own: reading, meditating. My intention was to go to a Zen monastery in Japan. I was living in Oregon, going to school, saving money: I had set a date to leave for Japan — 1st June 1968.

I had earlier been in a Peace Corps training programme for India which I had dropped out of. But I kept in touch with a couple who, after serving in India for two years, met me on their return. They had planned to spend a short time here in Pondicherry but ended up staying several months at the Ashram. Through letters I knew they were impressed by someone they called the Mother. I was not interested then in the Hindu tradition, but when I met them after their return, I had an experience which I’m sure they were unaware of — I felt something extraordinary coming through them. Extraordinary enough to make me come straight to the Ashram in Pondicherry instead of my Zen monastery.

Did you meet Mother straight away?
No. But I had a strong enough feeling of her presence to make me want to stay. I wrote to her asking if I could join the Ashram — this was January 1969: she called me to come to see her. That was it!

Can you describe the meeting?
That’s not so easy…I saw The Mother! Until then it didn’t mean anything to me, so I wasn’t prepared for the totally overwhelming experience I had when I was with her.

Did you speak to her in French?
We didn’t speak — no words were exchanged. I was led into Mother’s room. She was in her chair…this is where a physical description becomes difficult. It very quickly became a non-physical experience because at a certain point I found I was on my knees in front of her looking into her eyes. And I had a vision of The Mother. If you want to get technical, I have since decided it was Maheshwari — that particular aspect of the Mother I got to see that day. She was the Universal Mother — the Mother of my soul: The Mother. It was an eternal moment, totally out of time: I had always been on my knees looking into her eyes. That was the reality. The rest of my life, before and after, was a dream. There was overwhelming love, compassion, understanding. That’s all I can tell you about it. I have never since that day had such an overwhelming experience of Mother although I subsequently saw her privately quite a number of times.

Did she speak to you on those other occasions?
I never spoke to her…I mean, if I had spoken, I have no doubt she would have replied. It seemed a waste of time to talk; all I wanted was to get back into those eyes. I never had any business to transact with her, I went as a bhakta.

What work were you allowed to do?
I started off working at the press as a proof-reader; after seven months it wasn’t what I wanted to do anymore. As I had a background in teaching, I wrote asking Mother if I could work in the school. She said Yes, so I started the higher course: college-age kids, 17 to 20. This I did for nine years, in fact, until I left the Ashram in 1978 to come to Auroville.

Why did you leave the Ashram for Auroville?
It was not an entirely sudden move. I had been getting…restless will do…for two years. Look, I had been doing a strict sadhana; when I joined the Ashram, the little money I had was given to Mother, I ate in the dining room with the others, I was celibate, etc., etc. But I started feeling life in the Ashram was narrow. Mother had left the body in 1973; I stayed on five more years but the place wasn’t the same. Anyway, parts of my nature wanted to spread out a bit — in fact, I got tired of being an impoverished sadhak, and I started a business while still in the Ashram making clothes for export. In Ashram jargon, let’s say I wanted to experience money power. Then I met Shyama, Shyama who is my wife now and has been in Pondy since 1965 with her previous husband. You’ve seen her, well…you know, we just fell in love. It was impossible to have this relationship in the Ashram. She was already living here; I moved out of the Ashram and came here.

Did you have to get permission to leave the Ashram?
No, no, no! I left the school and spoke to the chief trustee — a matter of formalities as the Ashram guaranteed my visa.

You didn’t have to get permission to live in Auroville?
I didn’t. Auroville is rather amorphous; from time to time there are efforts to organize things: rules for doing this and that, but…Shyama was here from the beginning; there was no problem. You just have to fit in, do a job, and not be financially dependent.

What work are you doing here?
At present it’s centred on children. Mornings I run a creche for little ones — my son is the youngest: the ages are from 1 to 3. Afternoons four days a week I have a physical education program for older kids. Previously I worked at the Matrimandir…

In what capacity?
…as a cooli, which is basic
ally what everyone does.

What is the significance of this huge building?
Matrimandir means the Mother’s Temple; it’s to be a meditation hall, a very grand one. It has been under construction since 1970 or so.

In this community life, what are the arrangements for shopping, for food?
The answer is different as there are a lot of scenes and set-ups. There is a community service which provides a grocery basket three times a week. There are communal dining rooms also. One does what one does according to one’s financial position. People having no money take all their meals at the dining rooms, others manage with the baskets provided by the service, others supplement it as best they can with shopping at Pondy. Our own set-up is that we get a basket and supplement it pretty liberally.

Does this mean each family gets the same basket?
It’s like this: the basket on Tuesdays is dry goods which one orders, like 2 kilos of rice a week and so forth. On other days it’s basically vegetables. It depends on how much money they have received during the week as to what is provided. Everyone gets the same, the quantity depending on the number of people in the household. You asked earlier about getting permission to stay here — well, as far as I can see, those supposed to be here are here, they stay here. The baskets are fairly meagre. If someone comes along and says: Please feed me, and he has no resourses, it’s a bit difficult. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a happy situation; it works — Auroville is a special place.

Do you still give time to any sadhana?
Well, now we are going to have to define our terms; obviously the life I am leading now is not the life of a sadhak as lived in the Ashram. As far as I’m concerned I’m still doing sadhana in the broad sense that this life is given to Mother as best I can give it. The centre of my life is my relationship to her and Sri Aurobindo. That’s why I stay in Auroville, which is not entirely trouble-free nor vitally exciting.

Is the life here more difficult than in the Ashram?
As far as personal relationships go, yes. One has more here. But in a sense the relationships here are more real. My life in Pondy was rather insular, and my relationships were primarily through my work. Here I’m leading the life of a householder — I have a wife and a bunch of kids running around. The whole life here throws us all together more violently. In the Ashram everything has worked for years; here everything has to be worked out as we go along; it makes for a great deal more personal interaction and personality problems and so forth. But I find on the whole life here harmonious.

Is that because everything appears to be freer?
It’s a matter of individual choice as to the way one lives. Yes, it’s much freer than in the Ashram — one has as much rope to hang oneself or not hang oneself, as the case may be. Things, unlike at the Ashram, work on a more external level, which is not to say one doesn’t have an inner life. But let’s say that we are inclined to project our inner problems into the life of the community more so than at the Ashram.

Do you see yourself living in Auroville for the rest of your life?
I don’t think about it — I don’t see myself doing anything else. It’s a splendid place for children. But the school system is only available in rudimentary form. In terms of my existence here with Shyama, it seems to me the best field to do the work I’m doing.

Michael Zelnick, 25 years after giving this Interview, writes: "I am still here in Auroville and deeply, deeply happy".

He and Shyama (although now divorced) went back to USA for some years but returned to Auroville in 1993 where he practices as a homeopath. This led to the opening of The Quiet Healing Center, a project conceived , fund-raised for and launched by Maggi Lidchi (Interview No. 23). He was the director until 2005. The Centre has become extremely successful and has a full-time staff of nearly 40 people.

There’s something compulsively appealing about these people’s honesty. Perhaps it’s due to elegant simple living. Swedish Shyama never returned with her brood — no Swedish Interview today! So goodbye Vivaldi – yes, it was Vivaldi.



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© Malcolm Tillis 2006