Interview with Tehmi Masalawalla

Poet and translator of The Adventure of Consciousness


by Anie Nunnally

Tehmi Masalawalla was one of the first sadhaks to live in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram’s Golconde residence from as early as 1947. When I visited her room, I was immediately struck by the atmosphere that prevailed. She seems to live in a vast, internalized sea of calm and peace. Her energies are very inner-directed, while outwardly she remains poised and dignified. Her ascetic room denotes a being who does not have the need to live enveloped by the clutter of material objects.

Golconde, in any case, is a minimalist’s ideal, but photos of Mother and Sri Aurobindo, her books, and a small vase of flowers seem to be sufficient for Tehmi’s needs. The name Tehmi dates back to a well-known lady in Persian history, Tehmina, who was the wife of Rustom, one of the great warriors of ancient Persia.

Tehmi was born 17 January 1917 into a deeply religious Parsi family in Bombay. Her father used a brief French phrase, succinct and to the point, which he often repeated to the family and even hung on the wall of their home. It read, “Sans dieu, rien” (“Without God, nothing”).

Her father was a surgeon and took a post as chief medical officer of the Bhopal Hospital in Bhopal, India. I mentioned to Tehmi that I remembered meeting her father in Golconde in 1968 and how elegant he was. She told me that the Mother had also commented on the aristocratic nature of her mother. Her mother was a doctor too and graduated from medical school in Ireland.

Tehmi recalled rich stories of her parents’ home and her childhood in Bhopal. Bhopal was a Muslim city before India’s independence, and the family lived in a large wing of the begum’s (female Muslim ruler) palace. Tehmi and her brother had ample room in which to run and play, and used to scamper about freely in the hallways and on the large sweeping stairways and marbled balconies of the palace.

Tehmi recounted how darbars (official assemblies) would often take place, and sumptuous dinner parties would be held for all the dignitaries of the time. The children were not allowed to attend, but they would peek down from the balconies and view the dignitaries as they entered the palace—viceroys and other important gentlemen in their official attire and ladies wrapped in gold-trimmed saris and jewels.

Tehmi said the streets were sometimes filled with parades of camels and that the nawab (begum’s son) had a stable of beautiful Arabian horses that were often paraded through the streets during times of pageantry and festivals.

Tehmi and her brother (who also became a doctor) were sent at ages eight and seven back to Bombay to live with their aunts, as there were no good schools in Bhopal at that time. Tehmi went to Queen Mary School in Bombay and was finely trained in the arts, academics, and gymnastics by the excellent English teachers there. She told me that she excelled academically, achieving the highest marks, as she had an innate and natural ability to concentrate. She studied English literature at Saint Xavier’s College in Bombay and was taught there by many of the Jesuit fathers. She obtained degrees at Bombay University. After graduation, she taught literature at Sophia College in Bombay.

The flame of God

Anie: The Parsis I have met are all highly refined people and very developed in the fields of art, music, literature, poetry, and the sciences. Do you attribute these special qualities as having come from the practice of the Zoroastrian faith? If so, what is it in the religion that allows for this special development so prevalent among Parsis? Zubin Mehta, the internationally famous conductor and musician comes to mind as one example, plus all the fine Parsi poets including yourself and Amal Kiran here in the Ashram.

Tehmi: It is because of the Parsi symbolic worship of fire. The religion has a direct contact with the Divine with no intermediaries. There is a deep aspiration to express purity. The purity of purpose gives power and clarity to the mind and the vital.

Anie: What do you mean by “worship of fire”? Could you briefly describe the doctrines of Zoroastrianism and tell something of the history of how it developed?

Tehmi: The Parsis are described as fire worshipers because fire is their central symbol—the pure flame of God. There are fires burning in the temples at all times. The fires burn day and night and are never extinguished.

Zoroaster was one of the great prophets who lived during the Vedic period. He wrote twenty-one or more books on various subjects such as astrology, astronomy, and medicine, as well as the scriptures that he brought down. He went to a mountain top for forty years, and during his time there he practiced tapasya (spiritual disciplines). He brought down great words of wisdom and spiritual knowledge and began teaching and preaching in the courts of Persia (Iran). He and his teachings were highly revered and soon became widespread throughout Persia.

The Zoroastrians left Persia in search of religious freedom. From their temples in Persia, they brought burning lamps with them on their ship that crossed the Arabian Sea. They fled to the Udwada section of Gujarat in India, where the ruler of Gujarat welcomed them and gave them religious refuge. They promised to live as his own people. One of the Zoroastrian high priests asked for a cup of milk, which he then mixed with water. He said, “we shall live as one people, just as this milk has been mixed with water.”

Early days

Anie: How old were you when you first discovered Sri Aurobindo?

Tehmi: I did not discover Sri Aurobindo right away. At age fifteen, I began to read Sri Ramakrishna and books on other Indian saints and mystics. Later on in my search, my father discovered Sri Aurobindo and gave me some of his books to read. I was still teaching then at Sophia College, but came to Pondicherry for a couple of visits. Some years after that, around 1948, I came to stay permanently. My parents joined me a few months afterwards.

Anie: Did you ever consider marriage and the family life?

Tehmi: By the age of sixteen, I had immersed myself totally in the spiritual search and was fully committed to living that life. I did not consider marriage or family. This came about quite naturally.

Anie: Would you describe your first darshan with Mother and Sri Aurobindo, or share any of the darshan experiences you had with them?

Tehmi: I saw the Mother twice a day. She used to give darshan in the mornings in the meditation hall. In the evenings we would go up for darshan to the top of the staircase. My first darshan with Mother I saw her sitting at the top of the stairs wearing the most exquisitely beautiful blue sari. Her eyes were something indescribable. I was overwhelmed by the experience. She took us over immediately.

Sri Aurobindo’s power was quite different. I saw him only when he gave dar-shans four times a year. We passed by him quickly one by one, but he transferred so much force into each of us in such a short amount of time. I remember one April darshan in the afternoon sitting in the courtyard waiting to go upstairs. I could feel, palpably, the entire courtyard rocking back and forth from the amount of force emanating from his presence. This is one of the reasons children were not allowed in the Ashram until a certain age. The force was too strong and they would often fall ill.

During my first darshan, as I was approaching the inner room, when I reached the door I could feel two rays of light entering my chest. I was still standing at the door when I felt this. When I stood in front of Sri Aurobindo it was as though I was in a trance. I walked away still in that state.

Once, however, I was talking to the Mother prior to a darshan with Sri Aurobindo. I said, “Mother, I don’t ‘see’ Sri Aurobindo during the darshans. Of course I see him physically, but I feel that I don’t see him inwardly.”

The Mother said, “Yes, it is true, this is very difficult.”

“But Mother,” I said, “others tell me that they ‘see’ him.”

“Then perhaps they are only pretending.”

After that next darshan, I “saw” Sri Aurobindo in a totally different way. The Mother had opened my inner sight and given me the ability to truly “see” Sri Aurobindo.

Anie: What was it like to live in Golconde in those early days?

Tehmi: I felt it was such a blessing. Since it was called a guest house, I thought surely Mother would put me somewhere else. When I went to her for an interview, I asked her, “Where shall I stay now?”

Mother said, “Why, you will continue to stay here in Golconde—Mona likes you very much.”

So this has been my home for fifty-three years.

Anie: What work did the Mother give you in the beginning days and throughout your years in the Ashram?

Tehmi: I had grown tired of my teaching post at Sophia College and was hoping that Mother would not give me a teaching assignment. I just kept saying, “Let Mother give me any other work!” So she put me to work in the Carpentry Department supervising all the carpenters! I had a nice boss and could see the ocean from my office. My boss said, “Mother wishes that one should not read nor meditate during work hours,” so often when I had no immediate work, I would just sit and dream.

I did this work for two years, and after that I worked in the library. I also did hand painting on cloth for Mother’s saris and shawls and the special cards she gave to people. I mostly painted roses, but other flowers as well.

One day, however, during pranam, the Mother asked me if I would take a class in the school. She had heard of my qualifications from some of the students. I accepted. I was a teacher of poetry and prose and taught sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds for twenty-five years. She also put me to work for the Bulletin of the International Center of Education. It was clerical work taking care of postings, getting addresses ready and accounts for subscribers. I still do this work with some help from others. At this time I only take care of receipts and subscriptions.

The Adventure of Consciousness

Anie: How and when did the Mother give you the work of translating Satprem’s Adventure of Consciousness?

Tehmi: When Satprem finished the book in French, Mother expressed a wish to have it translated into English. Jayantilal, with whom I worked in the Bulletin office, heard about this and told me about it. He asked me if I would be interested. He asked the Mother about it and she said, “Yes, she can do it.” I had done my B.A. in French literature and had read almost all the major French writers in French. I had also translated Mother’s Questions and Answers into English.

Anie: Did you have many meetings with Satprem regarding the book?

Tehmi: I had many meetings with Satprem, probably eighteen or more in all. He was very pleased with the translations and quite overwhelmed. He would go to the Mother with my work with praises about the translations. I also did the work rapidly. He used to come to Golconde and go over everything with me.

Anie: Satprem once told me that Sri Aurobindo dictated every word of Adventure of Consciousness through him and that he “just held the pen.” Did you have a similar experience with the translation?

Tehmi: Yes, Mother and Sri Aurobindo were all the time with me. The Mother had told me that she and Sri Aurobindo would help me with the work. I could feel the help coming from above my head as I was engaged in the translating.

Anie: Did you translate other works of Satprem?

Tehmi: I translated his book La Genese du Surhomme [On the Way To Supermanhood], and after that there were no other translations of his works done by me.

Anie: The Adventure of Consciousness was an important book for Americans in the 1960s and brought many people to the yoga. I still recommend the book for newcomers to the yoga, although I miss your translation, which is out of print. When the book first came out in 1964, the New York distributor sent a copy to my home in New York City with a note enclosed that read, “At the behest of the Mother!” It opened and widened my consciousness and was just the right book at the right time.

Atmosphere and sadhana

Anie: Is there a difference in the atmosphere of the Ashram since Mother and Sri Aurobindo left their bodies?

Tehmi: There is no real difference. The presence is still powerful. I feel it everywhere. Some people feel that the force has dispersed, but it is very vital, very alive.

Anie: Is there a disadvantage in never having seen Mother and Sri Aurobindo in their physical bodies?

Tehmi: It is difficult for me to judge this, really. It meant so much to have the Mother’s personal touch on a daily basis. She had so many ways of training our consciousness from the inside out. One was elevated to new heights and turned inside out by her. What power there was in her eyes and in her smile. Sri Aurobindo said that the Mother worked on people through her eyes and smile.

Anie: In what way has your sadhana changed since the Mother left her body?

Tehmi: For me the sadhana has remained the same. However, in the early years, all the work we did was done for the Mother and her alone. The Mother had given us our work and all our work was dedicated to her. No one questioned this, it was simply the natural way and the thing to be done. In the evenings we would go where the Mother was, to see her play tennis; she taught classes in French with us, did gymnastics. She participated in all the life of the Ashramites and students, from early morning balcony until evening time.

Anie: Have you faced many difficulties in your sadhana? How do you deal with such difficulties?

Tehmi: Yes, naturally there have been difficulties. The human nature is not so wonderful. Prayer is essential. Always pray to the Mother for help. Also one should look at oneself clearly and honestly in order to set things right in one’s being. Only with her help and power and presence can one come through such times. In the early days when we were younger, often when the difficulties seemed insurmountable, we used to go to the Mother about the problems and she would set everything right again.

Anie: What changes do you see taking place in the future of the Ashram? Will it be very much different from what it is now?

Tehmi: I do not see any fundamental changes taking place. Surface changes will be there, but at the core the people who sincerely practice the yoga will keep things going as the Mother would have it.

Anie: Now that you have reached almost eighty-four years, what has the yoga done for you at this stage in your life?

Tehmi: To live constantly in the consciousness of the Divine, to live consciously with the Mother and in the Mother at all times, no matter what I am doing, what I am thinking, has been the goal. To know that it is all her doing and not ours and that she is molding us and shaping us and will not turn away from us. That has been my constant experience all these years and remains so. That is why I have always been reluctant to go outside the Ashram or Pondicherry. Some friends have taken me to the Lake Estate, but that is as far as I have gone in fifty-three years. I do not wish to go out. I have found complete fulfillment in the Ashram life and am absolutely happy here.

I do not have many visitors now. Mostly people come to me in connection with the work that I am still doing. I do not even have, at this stage in life, very much of a sense of the personal “I” or the individualized self left in me. I am now prepared to accept and become whatever Mother chooses for me.

Poems and a play

Anie: How did you receive the inspiration to write your poems and the mystery play that you wrote entitled Demeter and Persephone?

Tehmi: I wrote poetry in Bombay before coming to the Ashram. It was poetry from this period on which Sri Aurobindo gave his comments and from some of the poetry of my beginning years in the Ashram. The poetry used to come quite easily. The lines came to me during work and while doing ordinary things and I would then sit down and put the lines on paper. It was never forced. Some poems came in two- or three-line stanzas or quatrains.

Anie: When I read your book of poetry, I found the poems to be filled with great passion, feelings, and emotions, as if the poet was describing a love affair with the Divine.

Tehmi: This is quite so, that is how it was.

Anie: Sri Aurobindo has made comments on your poetry and so has Amal Kiran. In closing I am going to quote here what they have said and include one of your beautiful poems.

After Nirodbaran read Tehmi’s poems to Sri Aurobindo, Sri Aurobindo dictated the following message for Tehmi: “The poems are remarkable, especially the later ones. They have power of revelatory image and phrase and of expressing spiritual experience. Also, her later poems are very remarkably built, the thought is worked out in a perfect beginning, middle and end in a way which is not very common. Many poems contain a beautiful lyrical quality.

“The early poems too are very powerful expressions of the kind of experience she had and as poetry hardly inferior to the later ones. There are many remarkable lines and stanzas though they are not as well-built as the later ones.”

Amal Kiran wrote, “You are a very fine poet. You have a genuine gift spontaneously sustained over years and some of your pieces are absolutely first-rate quality. And this quality is not only exquisiteness: there is a distinct vein of what must be called greatness—that is to say, the thought, the vision, the emotion have both weight and depth and are carried to us on a rhythmic tone bringing a touch of some infinite which suggests a beyond to all that can be uttered.

“Often, your expression is, as you have put it in your letter to me, ‘quiet’—but nobody can mistake your quietness for absence of the stately, the wide-ranged, the deep-plunging.

“No doubt, your style is mainly lyrical and not ostensibly epical, nor are you markedly dynamic as a rule but there can be not only lyrical largeness coupled with intensity but also a lyricism quietly commanding as well as intense and such lyricism can, in addition, keep mostly its exquisiteness in front without ceasing to offer its own greatness.”

The Mother told Tehmi to use the name Thémis (the Greek goddess of justice and law) for the publication of her poems and her play Demeter and Persephone. Tehmi’s book of poetry and her play are available through SABDA c/o Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, India 605002.

Contents || Top ||