Interview with Sunanda Poddar

Keeper of Srismriti, the Mother’s museum


by Anie Nunnally

Sunanda Poddar has lived in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram since the age of sixteen, except for eight years when she worked in Africa for the Sri Aurobindo Book Distribution Agency (SABDA). Her name, given by her parents and unchanged by the Mother, means “full of happiness.”

Early on, Mother devoted much time to and showed great interest in this engaging and charismatic woman. Sunanda is the author of books and plays of fairytales for children, and was a teacher in Auroville and the Ashram school. She worked with her husband, the late Balkrishna Poddar, at SABDA in the Ashram and in East Africa. Sunanda is a clairvoyant and pranic energy healer working with crystals. Since 1989, she has been the caretaker of Srismriti, the Mother’s Museum. Here begins her extraordinary story.

Family background

Anie: Where were you born and what was your family life like? Were your parents spiritual people?

Sunanda: I was born in Nairobi, Kenya, on 24 February 1934. I was born into a family immersed in the inner, spiritual life, and my aunt performed routine Hindu religious ceremonies in her little temple. Before moving to Africa, both my parents worked for the freedom movement with Mahatma Gandhi at the grassroots level in the villages of Gujarat. They dispensed medicines where there had been floods and other problems such as epidemics.

They both became devotees of Mother and Sri Aurobindo in the late 1920s, and in 1929 they moved to Nairobi where my father’s brother was living. They visited the Ashram long before I was born. They did not perform religious rites in our home, but meditation was a daily part of our family life. My father, Shivabhai Amin, was a lawyer and had his office and practice in Nairobi.

Anie: What were your special talents? Did they manifest early in your childhood? What were your childhood ambitions and dreams?

Sunanda: I was influenced by my parents’ love of work with the freedom movement in India. I dreamed of becoming a doctor and settling in a village in India where there was no doctor so that I could treat the unfortunate free of charge. I was very idealistic.

Anie: Were you aware of a spiritual presence in your childhood? When did you first begin to aspire deeply for the spiritual life?

Sunanda: I loved the religious ceremonies my aunt performed, and I joined her in fasting and worship of the idols in her small temple. My parents did not want me to go to the temples, but explained to me that God listened to your prayers at home, in school, on the road, or whenever you called sincerely. My family did not have much of a social life, and I did not have many playmates in childhood. I loved the garden in our home, and as a child I entered into fantasy play there and had long conversations with flower fairies and the god Shiva, who became my personal god. This life was so real to me that I thought everyone had a similar life (i.e., the life within).

As I grew up, I realized that my life with the fairies and Shiva was not like everyone else, so there was a remote search for something of which I was not fully aware at that time. The fairies were to remain with me for my lifetime, but Shiva ultimately was replaced by the Mother and Sri Aurobindo.

Coming to the Ashram

Anie: When did you come to the Ashram for the first time and when did you have the darshan of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother?

Sunanda: It was in 1942 and I was eight years old. I came with my parents and was so taken with the Mother’s beauty, her love, the flowers everywhere, and the quiet, nightly meditations under the service tree. I wanted to stay and go to the school that Mother was forming at that time, but there was not as yet a boarding facility and neither of my parents could stay with me there, so we had to return to Africa.

I had darshan of Sri Aurobindo that August 1942, but I don’t remember how he looked. I remember the garlands we carried for the Mother and the tulsi (basil) garlands for Sri Aurobindo. The predominant feeling for me then was that of a very special event at a very special place where I felt that I wanted to be.

Anie: When did you return for your final stay?

Sunanda: I returned in 1951 when I was just sixteen. My father had sent me to the Ashram on a visit specifically to ask the Mother if I should take up medicine or law for my further education. I so much wanted to be a doctor, but my father wanted me to take up law. I had left home on my own for the first time and was staying in Golconde. In fact, I was the youngest person to ever stay in Golconde.

The first day I went to the Mother’s darshan, she gave me a flower and smiled sweetly. In the evening in the Playground, I stood with the visitors. As the Mother distributed prasad, she asked me, “Don’t you want to join the other children in exercises?” I said “Yes, Mother, I’d like to.” She said, “Tomorrow you give your measurements for shorts and shirts.” That next evening one pair of shorts and a shirt were given to me and my new life began, without my even knowing about it or deciding about it on my own. This truly shows the greatness of the Mother. I joined a group but was not yet in school.

Everyday I would go to the library, which was in the main Ashram compound then. Vasanti-di was working there at that time. She would see me everyday reading poetry and books. Then in the afternoons I would go wherever I could see or be near the Mother.

The Mother’s presence

Anie: Could you describe what it was like to be in the Mother’s presence in those days?

Sunanda: The Mother used to dress in a long gown with matching scarf on her head. When she came out on the terrace outside her room, the time was between 10 and 11 a.m. Her close companion, Chinmayee, carried a parasol to protect the Mother’s head from the scorching sun. A crow would invariably come and hop onto the ledge of the terrace. Chinmayee would hand over some biscuits to the Mother, who in turn would feed them to the crow! I mostly looked at her lovely pastel colored clothes and matching parasols and her lovely smile.

In the evenings when she would give darshan at the head of the staircase, she was like a goddess from the scriptures. She wore saris and embroidered bands over her forehead. She looked taller than when I saw her during the mornings. She radiated light, light, and more light. She received our flowers and we bowed down to her feet. She looked into our eyes and smiled down on us as we looked up at her. Often her smile was like a silent laugh. She gave us some flowers and then we came down the staircase. I did not want to look at anyone because her image was in my eyes and I wanted to hold on to it for as long as I possibly could.

By 1951, things were quite different. The school and many other workshops were functioning at that time. The Playground was a must for everyone. There were many more people then than when I first came in 1942. Mother would come down to play tennis at 4 p.m. She would come down the staircase and look at us and smile. Her smile was very important to us.

She would get into her Bentley car, Pavitra would drive. I would run as fast as I could to the tennis grounds with Pavitra driving slowly alongside so that I could see Mother arriving and getting out of the car. Then we would all sit and watch her play tennis.

A life decision

Anie: When did you become officially connected to the Ashram and begin your classes in the school?

Sunanda: After I had been in the Ashram for two months, an interview was arranged for me by my father’s friend Dhyuman. It was to be my initial personal interview. I sat on the ground and Mother sat on a low chair. The Mother said, “What would you like to ask?” Instead of asking her if I should study law or medicine, I found myself asking her if I should stay in the Ashram or go out of the Ashram to study. She said, “What do you want to do in life?” I told her that my father wanted me to study law but that I wanted to study medicine. Mother said, “We’ll forget about law because you are not interested in it.”

She asked me in great detail why I wanted to study medicine. I told her that it was not for money, but that I wanted to help the poor, unfortunate people of India for no charge. I told her that I had a great love for India and that Shiva was my personal god.

The Mother said, “I can see that you would make a good doctor—but what I see today you may not be aware of, and you may lose that if you go out of the Ashram.” I asked, “Mother, if I stay, will you accept me?” She said, “But I have already accepted you.”

In those days, gold was given for its inner qualities of warmth and purity; the money-oriented reasons came later. I had two bangles, a chain and earrings. I said to Mother, “Please take my jewelry.” I had no money and no other valuables to give her. That was the moment when becoming an Ashramite was final.

Mother said, “I will arrange for you to study medicine here.” This was amazing to me because there was only one hospital in Pondicherry at that time: the General (Government) Hospital. So Mother went to Nirodbaran and asked him to teach me medicine! The Mother told him to do this and he did it. Then she said that I was to go to the main Ashram school as well.

Nirodbaran gave me a huge, monstrous book to read on anatomy (this was all such a humorous thing). He said, “Here, you read this,” and I did because Mother said to do it! I sat on the parapet near the samadhi with this ages-old edition, probably the one he used from the early 1900s, and religiously read page after page of the book.

This study went on for a few months, and after some time, Nirodbaran gave it up. Dr. Sen joined the Ashram and opened a clinic to treat students injured on the Playground. After group, I would work with him helping people who had gotten hurt on the Playground. Finally, Dr. Sanyal was given the job of training all the students interested in medicine. He took seven of us to the General Hospital to see a dead body and view the internal organs. I think this is what ended my interest in medicine. I was around eighteen or so during this period.

Visiting Mother

Anie: You visited Mother on a regular basis for quite some time. How did you receive this special blessing?

Sunanda: There were three photographs in the Ashram reception hall—one on the east side, one on the west side, and one in the center of the room. In the photo on the left-hand side, I could not see Sri Aurobindo, I could only see Shiva. I would rub my eyes and open and close them in disbelief. I was feeling quite guilty about this, as I had accepted Mother and Sri Aurobindo as my gurus and felt that I should only worship them and not Shiva.

I was also continuing to fast on Mondays. A girl from my group had asked me to have lunch with her. I told her I was not taking food. She gave me quite a lecture about not being faithful and that I was worshiping old dieties. I was so ashamed. At pranam, I told Mother that I wanted to see her. I mentioned my situation and she listened carefully. She asked me details about my worship of Shiva. I told her of my childhood in the garden and how I had grown up with Shiva. I asked her to help me see Sri Aurobindo.

She had a small book by her table. She opened the book at random and said, “Here, read this.” The sentence was Sri Aurobindo telling someone in a letter, “Shiva and I are one.” The Mother said, “Don’t worry about things, slowly a time will come when you will call us. She said, “It will be Ma, Shiva, Ma, Shiva at first.”

Then I made a concerted effort to switch. I sat for meditation, then it happened and it was no longer disturbing to me. She also asked me other details of what I experienced when I was quiet and on my own. At that time, I told her of the visions that I saw at times. She asked me if I still had these visions and I told her that I saw many things. She asked me to write down things as I experienced them and to send them to her.

She said that if sometimes I had something special to tell her, I should come to her room in the mornings before school. She wanted to help me give meaning and explanations to my experiences. I went to her room everyday after that from 1952 to 1954. I would tell her of my visions.

Sometimes I would go and spend time by the sea in the evenings. Once I saw an impression of the Mother’s feet in the sand. I started praying that the tide would not roll in and wipe out the impression. Suddenly the impression rose above the ground and into the air. When I related this to the Mother, she smiled and was silent.

A few months later on my birthday, along with flowers, there was a bundle wrapped in cloth given to me by the Mother. It was a pair of her gold brocade chappals that had been made in the Ashram. I knew that this was connected with my vision on the beach and that she had given them to me as a result of that experience. So much was communicated through the Mother without the use of words. There would be an understanding of what was to be said through a flower you gave or that she gave to you.

I then began to speak to Mother about the fairies that I had been seeing since childhood. She would sometimes just listen and at other times explain things. [At that age, Sunandaben did not even know what the word clairvoyant meant—but she is one. She also has the gift of seeing auras and working with pranic energy. She can scan the body for diseases, blockages, and imbalances.]

The world of fairies

Anie: Could you share something of your voyage into the world of fairies and how your fairy stories and plays were published?

Sunanda: I was staying in Golconde. Each day I would write about what had happened in my dreams and experiences. I would write in the mornings, and at night would tear the pieces of paper up and throw them in the wastebasket in my room at Golconde.

One day Mona came and said, “What is it that you are tearing up to such an extent and throwing away?” I was so embarrassed. I went to Mother and told her that something pushes me to write and then I tear everything up and throw it away. She said, “Anything coming to you like this is not your writing and you’ve no business to tear it up and throw it away. Write everything down and bring it to me.”

So that started another step in my connection with the Mother. I took my writings to her everyday. After a few days, she said there were some nice things in the papers. She said, “Why don’t you tell stories to the children?” I asked her what stories I should tell. “If they are fairytales from the West, then I can surely do that, or Indian myths as well.”

Mother said, “Neither. You will go to a classroom, sit there, and any children who want to listen to your stories can go to that room. The stories will come to you and you will tell them to the children.”

There was such trepidation in my heart. I said, “Suppose they don’t come to me?” But I said yes anyway and started telling the stories. I would have the experiences, write them down, and the next day tell the stories. My writings were passed on to the Mother, who gave them to No-lini. Nolini read them and found complete stories in them. Mother told him to separate the ones that could be published. There were no books for children in the Ashram at that time.

One day at the Playground (23-4-56; an auspicious date, due to the numerical sequence), Mother was giving prasad. She caught my hand and said, “Wait here.” Why she had stopped me I did not know. Someone went inside and brought out a newly published book titled Stories and Plays for Children, and on the cover was my name at the bottom! My mother was so elated. I was just twenty-two years old. Balkrishna was there and had heard about the book.

When I came away with the book, I wondered how this could have happened. Balkrishna told me he saw it while it was being printed. All the while everyone knew about this but me! [Sunanda continued to write and publish stories for children.]

Anie: Are the fairies complete material formations? How do they look? Are they like extensions of the plant world?

Sunanda: The fairies that I saw in the garden as a child never seemed to be a big deal to me. In fact, I thought everyone saw them. They actually had physical forms. They weren’t there all the time. Sometimes I would see them and sometimes not.

Yes, they generally looked like extensions of the plant world. They appeared as one would imagine flower fairies would look. They had wings on them and were always cloaked in pastel colors. I have never seen a fairy with very dark colors. Even the red ones were transparent with a lot of light play around them. They were always full of light and very luminous as if edged in light. They were often gold and silver. They were not even as large as a small baby. They were no bigger than about 9 to 12 inches. This is not a permanent world, but always a changing, newly forming world.

Anie: Do the fairies wear actual clothing? Do they have human-like faces? Do they speak? Do you still see them? Do you think that this world increased for you after you told the Mother about the fairies? Are the fairies the same as the beings called devas who preside over gardens?

Sunanda: Some fairies have human faces. Others have birdlike faces or flower faces. Some had crowns made with subtle light formations or flowers. The clothing was like gossamer, very transparent like dragonfly wings. They mostly communicated with feelings, but sometimes talked among themselves. I still see this world of fairies. They are the same entities as devas. They still come to me, although I am practicing yoga. Now there is more meaning in them for me. I see them as spirits of the vegetable kingdom—not just as playmates any more.

Not only did this world of fairies increase through the Mother, but a whole world of beauty, refinement, and the realization of her perfection in works was shown. Now I call them “beings”—overseers of the plant kingdom. Sometime the larger beings take the smaller beings into the tops of the trees.

Christophe (the son of Svetlana) took a photo at Lake Estate. He had it blown up and gave it to a friend as a birthday gift because he took it in a beautiful spot at a lovely time of day when the light was creating special effects on the ground. A mutual friend saw the photo and found something “mystical” in it. She brought it to me for confirmation. I confirmed the presence of fairies in the photo.

[I asked Sunanda to bring me the photo the next day. I clearly saw the phenomenon. Sunanda had to point out some things, but I saw many of these subtle images myself and in some instances they were quite visible.]

Anie: What do you see as being the purpose for this extrasensory sight you have been given?

Sunanda: It has made me more aware of the consciousness of the subtle worlds. It has helped me to become more aware of the world around me as it relates to the worlds within. It has expanded my consciousness and even helps me when I heal people. It has given me an inner contact with plants and flowers and the entities behind them. It has put me in closer contact with the Mother. It is a gift from the Mother that has helped me to give meaning to my visions and contact with the inner worlds.

Anie: Have you ever seen Mother and Sri Aurobindo in the subtle worlds?

Sunanda: Yes, I have seen them on the subtle planes. They appear as human forms, but when they “walk” they advance without taking steps. They move as though in a gliding motion over the subtle surfaces. Generally Sri Aurobindo is seen in white, blue, and gold. The Mother has all the subtle pastel colors.

Working for SABDA

Anie: Can you share the story of your meeting with, marriage to, and work with Balkrishna Poddar?

Sunanda: I was around twenty-three years old and teaching English in the Ashram school in the mornings. I asked the Mother for some additional work for the afternoons after school. Simultaneously, Balkrishna had asked the Mother for a helper at the Sri Aurobindo Book Distribution Agency (SABDA). The Mother gave this work to me. I started keeping the accounts and was introduced to book sales work.

Balkrishna and I developed a friendship. He had such a pure nature and was a most sympathetic man. Eventually marriage was discussed and we put this to the Mother who gave us the permission to marry. She asked us to open a SABDA branch in East Africa and to continue the book sales there. She said, “I will keep you as my children and will call you back to the Ashram. This arrangement will not be permanent.”

We remained there for eight years. Every two years we returned to the Ashram to report on the work to the Mother. For our upkeep, we both took jobs in local schools as teachers. We moved around in our small Volkswagen through all the large towns and small villages with books on top of the carrier. We arranged exhibitions on the Ashram and gave talks at schools and temples and conference halls, just the two of us with no one else. We trudged through the jungles of Africa, and with Mother’s grace and protection we managed to escape a herd of charging elephants, swarms of locusts, and serious floods along the way. It was quite an adventure.

Anie: When you returned to the Ashram after being in Africa, what did you do?

Sunanda: I taught in Auroville in the Last School. There were several of us graduates from the Ashram school who went out to Auroville three times a week, then came back by 12:30 p.m. to the Ashram. The children were mixed ages, post-kindergarten. I did this for one-and-a-half years. Balkrishna had come back to continue his work for SABDA. I worked for SABDA in the background only.

However, in 1974 I gave up teaching and went to work full-time for SABDA. I helped to establish the SABDA branch on Rue de la Marine.

In August 1989, the old Nishta flat became available, and the Ashram decided to use it to display the articles of Mother and Sri Aurobindo. Balkrishna had a heart attack in 1994. I had also begun to have some heart problems. I asked the Ashram to give me work where I would not have to deal with business. They put me in charge of the museum under the able advice of Jayantilal, Krishnalal, and Vasudev.

Srismriti Museum

The Srismriti Museum is located in the large building across from the Ashram Playground. It is quartered in the flat that was once occupied by Nishta (Margaret Woodrow Wilson), the daughter of the twenty-eighth president of the United States. She had lived there in the late 1930s. Krishnalal, Sunanda, and Jayantilal named the museum Srismriti, which means “highest remembrance” in Sanskrit.

Sunanda’s keenly developed sense of taste and aesthetics is most obvious in the way in which she has arranged and set up the museum. She also takes the greatest care to keep all objects polished, clean, and dust-free. It is a joy to see the case of small stuffed animals and tiny little animal figures in wood and porcelain, given as gifts by disciples to the Mother. They carry such a life force and all appear as though they are on the verge of moving. Their eyes even shine with a lifelike sparkle. There is an indescribable charm in this unique little curio cabinet, and the entire museum itself is a special darshan experience.

Sunanda would not allow me to take photographs inside, but I would like to take everyone along on a virtual verbal-description tour of all the precious objects that are housed there.

The first room is long and rectangular with nine curio cabinets. There is an immense ornate chandelier hanging overhead that was given to the Mother by the royal family of Hyderabad. It once burned wick oil lamps, but was converted to electricity.

In the first cabinet are photos of the Mother, including photos of her balcony darshans bearing her signature, a baroque glass platter with Mother’s photo in the center, some of Mother’s original sketches, and a magnificent late nineteenth century French clock.

The second cabinet has a collection of blessings packets, and articles used by the Mother such as combs, hairpieces, and European perfume bottles.

The third cabinet holds postage stamps of Mother and Sri Aurobindo issued by the Indian Government.

The fourth includes saris and shawls used by the Mother when she was writing Prayers and Meditations in the Ashram, Mother’s gold watch, and Huta’s painting of Mother at the organ.

In the fifth cabinet one finds French boxes, hand-painted cards, and purses in brocaded fabric given as gifts to the Mother.

The sixth holds paperweights, clocks, hand-painted writing paper, a pen used by Sri Aurobindo and later given to the Mother, and desk calendars. One of the calendars used by the Mother was opened to the pages of March and April 1962 showing times set aside for Dimitri (4 February 1962) and Sam Spanier (12 March 1962)! There are some Egyptian scarab beetles and the head of a pigeon, both occult objects.

The seventh cabinet holds dishes and utensils used by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. It also stores a fourteen-inch knife made by Harpagon especially for the Mother to cut her enormous eightieth birthday cake!

The eighth is filled with beautiful saris.

The ninth holds stationery, bookmarks, and notebooks used in Mother’s French classes. It also has a typewriter given to the Mother by Rabindranath Tagore.

Also in this room is a stunning brass oil lamp with sixty-five wick lamps and an ornate brass peacock sitting on top that was given by the poet and film star, Harindranath Chattopadhyay. The room also holds chairs used by the Mother and Sri Aurobindo before 1926.

The second room has eleven cabinets filled with offerings to Mother and Sri Aurobindo by disciples, and the Mother’s toy collection (wooden, paper mache, clay, and stuffed). It has mother-of-pearl shells, glass animals, and Czechoslovakian and Russian dolls in ethnic dress. There are miniature elephants in varying sizes carved from ivory, some so miniscule that a magnifying glass is needed to identify the shapes. There are also jeweled puja and ceremonial objects of worship such as Vishnu on Garuda; chariots in ivory; Ganesh, Radha, and Krishna in soapstone; and other deities in wood and brass. Mother’s baskets, Japanese chappals, silver articles, geodes, stones, and shells are also displayed.

There is a handsome teakwood sideboard, a Buddhist cabinet, articles made by Ashramites for Mother’s use, and a silk brocaded floral jacket given by the Hyderabad royal family. There are also articles given by the Mother for the theater department such as makeup, crowns, old upholstery for cloaks, and silver and ivory spoons.

The next room has a decorated setting using some of Sri Aurobindo’s old furniture and belongings. There is a bed, a wicker chair with imprints on it from Sri Aurobindo’s head, clothing, a carpet, pens, paperweights made from elephant tusks, and the typewriter Sri Aurobindo used when preparing The Arya. There is also a footstool with indentations on it from Sri Aurobindo’s feet, and a photo of Sri Aurobindo etched in glass. There are trays holding the earliest teacups that Mother used when she brought tea to Sri Aurobindo in the afternoons. There are dhotis, kurtas, shawls, bedcovers painted by sadhaks, and screens from Burma and India. There is a steel trunk with brass fittings that Sri Aurobindo used when he sailed to Pondicherry after his acquittal in Calcutta.

The final room houses the Mother’s exquisite Japanese Collection. These artifacts were collected by the Mother or given as gifts during her stay in Japan from 1916 to 1920. They include such items as kimonos and obis, brush paintings, paintings on silk, teapots and pottery, fans, and dolls in traditional Japanese costume. Viewing the museum was an experience that remains profoundly etched in my memory.

In closing

In closing, I asked Sunanda to give me an assessment of her fifty years in the Ashram and what the Integral Yoga had done for her at her present age of sixty-six years. This is her reply.

Sunanda: I am here because I could not exist anywhere else. Mother has filled a void created in me in 1973 when she left her body by allowing me to see her presence in the subtle physical world, which she shows to me now and then. On the days when I sincerely want to see her, she appears to me vividly. She allows my travel in the subtle physical regions on various levels.

I also see and feel Sri Aurobindo more vividly since 1973 than ever before. The other world, the side beyond the curve feels very near. The psychic, the soul, the Atman, Paramaatman exist in the shimmering, throbbing, scintillating light. There is no sense of separateness, no individuality. I could never tear myself from such an existence as I have here in the Ashram. How and why should I give it up?

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