A few months ago I spent a pleasant hour or so telling a curious visitor,
Michelle Mikkklesen, a few stories about how some of my books came to be written. She liked
some of the anecdotes so much, she came back with a tape recorder and asked me to tell the
stories again. Second time round, she played whatever the female equivalent of a straight
man is, just prompting me with occasional questions, rather than doing a proper interview.
Some days later she was nice enough to supply me with a transcript. This is my edited
version. Thank you Michelle!
Michelle: Can you start by telling me how you became a writer?
David: A series of events led up to it. When I was staying near
Ramanasramam in 1977, I became aware that the ashram had many good spiritual books that
were hard to get access to. They were locked in a room near the ashram's cowshed, and the
key was held by a rather grumpy man in the ashram office who wouldn't let anyone in the room.
I volunteered to sort them out and turn the collection into a library that people could use.
There were thousands of books there on all kinds of spiritual topics. When I was finally
given the job, I realised that most of these books had been sent to the ashram free of charge
because the publishers wanted the books to be reviewed in the ashram's magazine,
The Mountain Path. I then discovered that the reviewing process was in a disorganised and moribund state.
Books were being sent out to reviewers who never reviewed them, or if they did, would take so
long, when the reviews finally came back, the book would be almost out of print. Realising
that the flow of books would stop if I didn't get the reviewing process properly organised,
I began to do reviews myself, just to ensure that the publishers would be satisfied that
their books were receiving proper attention. When the editor realised that I could write
well, or at least better than most of his regular contributors, I was given other writing
and editing jobs. Within a couple of years I ended up editing the whole magazine, primarily,
I suspect, because no one else wanted the job. In retrospect I would say that I became a
writer simply so that I could have a good supply of books to read.
Michelle: When did it occur to you to write a book, rather
than just reviews or articles?
David: I think the idea came from the teachers I have been with.
It didn't seem to originate with me. When I was visiting Nisargadatta Maharaj in the late
1970s, I mentioned that I was writing reviews for The Mountain Path. He gave me a very
strong look, almost a glare, and said, 'Why don't you write a book about the teachings?
It's the teachings that are important.' I remember being very surprised by this suggestion.
The idea had never occurred to me before. I didn't follow it up for a long time, but when
I finally got round to it, I remembered his words and the force with which he had spoken
them. It seemed to be an order rather than just a suggestion.
Maharaj encouraged me to write
about the teachings, but at the same time he discouraged me from publicly speaking about them.
Around 1980 I gave a talk in Delhi on Bhagavan's teachings. On the way back to Tiruvannamalai
I stopped in Bombay and went to see Maharaj for a few days. Someone must have told him about
the talk I had given in Delhi. When he called me up to the front of the room, I went up and
sat opposite him, facing him. That was where people sat when he put them on the spot.
'No, no,' he said, 'sit next to me, facing the people.' My spirits sank. I didn't know what
he had planned, but I knew I wouldn't enjoy it.
He started off making fun of me, saying that
whereas only about forty people came to hear him speak, I had just been talking to hundreds
of people in Delhi. I was obviously much better than he was at this job, he said, so he
invited me to give a speech to all the people there. I tried to back out, but when I
realised he was serious, I gave a five-minute summary of what I had said in Delhi.
I felt like an undergraduate physics student, trying to give a lecture in front of Einstein.
One of his translators gave a simultaneous translation.
When it was over, he said, quietly,
'I can't quarrel with anything you have said. What you said was all correct.'
Then he glared
at me and added, 'But don't waste your time giving spiritual talks until you are enlightened
yourself, until you know from direct experience what you are talking about. Otherwise you
will end up like that Wolter Keers.'
Wolter Keers was a Dutch advaita teacher who toured
around Europe, giving lectures on advaita and yoga in at least three different languages.
He was a very fluent and informative teacher and he used to come to see Maharaj regularly.
Every time he came, Maharaj would shout at him, telling him he wasn't enlightened, and that
he shouldn't set himself up as a teacher until he was. I got the message. I have never given
a public talk since then.
I received more or less the same advice from Papaji. He very much
encouraged me to write about him. In fact, he invited me from Tiruvannamalai to Lucknow to
compile the work that was eventually published as Nothing Ever
Happened. When I interviewed
him for a video documentary in 1993, he said, 'When you go back to the West, if people
ask you about what happened to you in Lucknow, keep quiet. If they ask again, just laugh.'
I was asked by him to write about him, but he didn't want me to appear in front of an audience
and speak about him. Other people were encouraged to speak, but were not asked to write.
Different people received different orders, different advice.
Michelle: Did any other teachers encourage you to write?
David: When I first went to Lakshmana Ashram in 1982, I was actually
running away from writing. I had been working at Ramanasramam, editing their magazine and
looking after their library, for several years. I just wanted to meditate and sit at the feet
of a realised teacher. Within a couple of weeks of my arrival, Lakshmana Swamy asked me to
write a small book about Saradamma. He explained to me that he thought she might give up
her body because of her tendency to go into long, deep samadhis from which it was very
difficult to bring her back to normal consciousness. He thought that if she had devotees
of her own, she would have to externalise her attention more in order to deal with them.
The book project was a way of letting the world know that she existed. At that time both
of them were virtually unknown. I stayed in their ashram for about seven months that year.
During the day there were usually two of us there, apart from Saradamma and Lakshmana Swamy.
A few other people would sometimes come in the evenings. For one period of about two weeks,
when Saradamma was in town with her family, I was the only person there, apart from Lakshmana
Michelle: This was the second book you wrote, the first being
Be As You Are.
David: No, it was the first. I wrote it in 1982, but it wasn't
published until around 1986.
Michelle: What happened? Why was there such a delay?
David: It's a long story. When Lakshmana Swami asked me to write this
book, I, of course, agreed. He said that I should talk to Saradamma and get her story from her.
However, when I approached her, I found that she wasn't interested in talking. She didn't
want the book at all. She didn't want a lot of people coming to see her, something she knew
might happen if this book ever came out. She was quite content with the life she had.
reported back to Lakshmana Swamy, telling him that Saradamma had no interest in cooperating
with this project. He decided that he would have to sit next to her and compel her to tell
her story. He knew that she would find it very hard to refuse his request to talk if he
was there in person. This was a big bonus for me because it meant that I would get to see
them both every day for about an hour while Saradamma narrated various incidents from her
Even with Lakshmana Swamy sitting next to her, encouraging her to speak, it was
sometimes hard to get information from her. Sometimes she would talk willingly, but at
other times she would close down completely and refuse to say anything. After a week or
so of interviewing her, she announced that she wasn't going to cooperate any more unless
half the book was about Lakshmana Swamy. He didn't particularly want a book about himself
to be published, but he had to agree in the end because that was the only way he could
get Saradamma to carry on telling her stories. The interviews resumed. Neither wanted a
book about himself or herself, but both wanted a book about the other.
Lakshmana Swamy had
told Saradamma about many incidents from his own life. She wrote down everything she could
remember and then interviewed him privately to get extra information. All this she wrote down
in a big notebook that she eventually passed on to me. Once I had the basic story straight, I
asked him many supplementary questions that he was always happy to answer.
to have almost perfect recall of just about every minute of every day of the years she was
doing her sadhana. Lakshmana Swamy occasionally had to prompt her to stick to essentials.
Even so, the material I was collecting was rapidly increasing every day. I realised that the
'small booklet on Saradamma' that Lakshmana Swamy had originally envisaged was going to be
quite a substantial book.
One morning, when I went to the interview session on Lakshmana
Swamy's veranda, he announced, 'No more research or interviews. You can go off and write the
book now. I want you to finish it in two weeks.' I was stunned. It seemed to me that there
were still many more good stories to be collected, and as for writing a book from start to
finish in less than two weeks, I couldn't begin to imagine how that might be accomplished.
Two factors had combined to produce this ultimatum. Lakshmana Swamy only had a very small
amount of money available for the publication of this book. He had received an estimate from
a local printer that made him realise that he couldn't afford to print a bigger book.
The two-week deadline came from a plan he had to put a copy of the book on Ramana Maharshi's
samadhi on his next visit to Tiruvannamalai. He had budgeted two weeks for me to write the
book and about a month to print it.
I sat down to write the book. I wrote out the first few
drafts by hand and then later typed the final version on an old typewriter that had a couple
of letters missing. I had to fill in the gaps by hand later. I took the two-week deadline
very seriously. I seem to remember working round the clock for the last few days. I
definitely stayed up all night the day before I was due to deliver the manuscript, and I
think I only finished it an hour or so before Swamy's regular 9 a.m. darshan. In those days
he was much more available. Visitors could sit with him and ask questions just about every
day. I prostrated before him at 9 a.m. and presented my manuscript. Saradamma wasn't there
that day, but I can't remember why. He laughed and said that he wasn't able to read it
because he had broken his glasses the day before and wouldn't be able to get a new pair for
several days. This was the first sign that the deadline wasn't going to be met. The
last-minute rush hadn't really been necessary. Since he couldn't read any of it himself,
at his request I read out the chapter in which Saradamma had realised the Self in his
presence. He seemed to enjoy it.
About a week later he announced in the morning
that he had read the manuscript and liked it. He looked at me and apparently said that
I had done a good job. I say 'apparently' because I didn't hear him say this. The other
people present all heard him say these words but nothing like this registered in my mind.
Lakshmana Swamy is extremely sparing with his praise of devotees, other than Saradamma of
course, and I think that this was the only complimentary thing he has ever said about me
directly to my face. And I missed it. Maybe he thought it would be bad for my ego to hear
it and somehow managed to make sure that everyone there heard it except me.
went to a local devotee who had a printing press in Gudur, the local town. Unfortunately,
he wasn't equipped to print books. I think his staple product was wedding invitations and
other items of a similar size. He didn't have enough letters to make a book, and his main
compositor seemed to be drunk a lot of the time. For those people who have been brought up
on word-processors I need to say that once upon a time books were composed letter by letter.
Small metal letters would be hammered into grooves on wooden blocks, the metal surfaces would
be inked and a page would be printed as a proof sheet. When mistakes were spotted, the metal
letters had to be pulled out and rearranged. It may sound medieval, but this, with many
elaborations, was how most of the world's books were printed up until the 1980s. It can be
done fairly quickly by experts, but if you haven't done a job like this before, it can take
months and months. That's what happened. By the time the visit to Ramanasramam came round,
only a few pages had been assembled, and they were full of mistakes. It eventually became
clear that this particular press couldn't do the job, but by then the money for the printing
had been spent on other projects. The manuscript was shelved for a few years and was only
printed in 1986 when an American devotee came forward and offered to pay for it to be done
in a major printing press. Before it was printed in 1986 I took the opportunity to include
a few extra stories that had come to light in the intervening years, and I also went through
it again to improve the style. The first draft had been done in an extreme hurry, and in
several places it showed.
Michelle: Did both Lakshmana Swamy and Saradamma go through the
book prior to its publication?
David: Oh yes, they both took their editing work very seriously.
Lakshmana Swamy could read and speak English quite well because he had learned the language
at school and college. I think he went through the manuscript four or five times, and each
time he returned it to me there would be portions deleted or comments added in the margin.
When he was finally satisfied with it, a devotee who knew good Telugu and English read it out
in Telugu to Saradamma, and she too made a number of changes. It was very much their book,
their story. I was just the scribe who put it into shape for them.
Michelle: Let's move on to Be As You
Are. That's the book that
most people associate with you. How did that come to be written?
David: In 1983 I went back to England, hoping to get a job. I had
been in India seven years, and for most of the previous five years I had been supported by
Ramanasramam because I had been doing various jobs for them - running their library, editing
their magazine, and so on. I wanted to come back to India with enough money to be financially
independent. I wanted to live outside the ashram, supporting myself, and I wanted to spend
more time meditating, without being dependent on an institution for food and accommodation.
Well, it didn't work out. No one wanted to hire me to do anything. I sent off lots of
applications for jobs that I was eminently qualified to do and either received no reply at
all, or I received rejection letters that were downright offensive. I had started and run a
library in India for five years, but when I applied for a job to run a private library that
was smaller than the one in Tiruvannamalai, I received a reply that said: 'Dear Mr Godman,
Thank you very much for your very entertaining application. However, we would prefer to
engage someone who is qualified to do the job.' This went on for months. I even blew an
interview to pick up litter because I laughed at the wrong moment. Bhagavan says in
Maharshi's Gospel that if you are destined to work, you cannot avoid it, and if you are
destined not to work, no matter how hard you look for a job, no one will hire you. That was
my situation in the summer of 1983. What I didn't realise at the time was that Bhagavan had
other plans for me. The landlord of the house where I was staying was a philosophy lecturer
in Leicester University, and so was his wife. He had just delivered a manuscript his wife
had written to the editor of a London publisher.
When she discovered that he too was a
philosophy lecturer, she had said, 'Why don't you write a book for us as well. We are
always looking for new books on philosophy.'
I perked up when I heard this. This was
something I could do. I called up the editor and asked if she wanted a book on Ramana
Maharshi. Her reply astounded me:
'Come to my office at once. Don't go anywhere else. We want
you. Come right now.' After months and months of rejections, this was an astounding turn of
events. I thought up a quick plan for a book and discussed it with her a few hours later.
She checked on the sales figures of the few other books on Ramana that had been published
in the West and said, 'We'll do it'. It was as simple as that. I was given a contract and
sent off to India to put together Be As You
Are. I was astonished because I had been brought
up believing one of the standard myths of authorship. The would-be writer spends months
or years writing a book. He or she then spends just as long sending the manuscript off to
various publishers, who all reject it. Then, if he or she is lucky, the 101st publisher
finally says 'Yes'.
It was my destiny to come back to India and write books on Bhagavan,
his teachings, and his disciples. When I tried to do something else, I couldn't make it
When I went to Lakshmana Ashram in 1982, it was to get away from the writing and
editing work I was doing for Ramanasramam. Within a couple of weeks I was writing a book
there. When I went to England the following year, hoping to generate enough cash so that
I wouldn't have to do writing work in India, I ended up coming back with a contract for a
book on Bhagavan. That has been my work, my destiny, more or less ever since.
Nowadays, I don't try to fight it. I enjoy it.