OCTOBER / NOVEMBER 2002: PONDICHERRY
|ICYER Ashram, Pondicherry|
|Michael made the long journey from Varanasi to Pondicherry to commence his course at the International Centre for Yoga Education and Research (ICYER) . . .
Michael (email 3 Oct 02): Arrived safely and all is well. Love to everyone, M.
He settled in to the ashram and found everything to his liking . . .
Michael (email 6 Oct 02): Hi guys, the course is going well and the ashram is almost a paradise on earth, a floral fantasia, right on the beach too, so I'm swimming every day. If you wanna know more about the course, get hold of a book called "From Here to Nirvana" . . . a rather pretentious title but a reasonable guidebook about some of the ashrams and holy people of India.
Today was a day of quite stark contrasts . . . the morning was spent performing pujas at a local temple and the afternoon at the local hospital where Meenakshi's son, Dr Bhavanani (who is also one of the teachers here) was presenting the findings of some yoga research he has conducted.
I won't be emailing you for a while I imagine so don't worry about me, I'm delightfully happy and in the safest possible hands. Love to all, M.
Michael's parents' concern for his safety centred around the violence from Muslim extremists that had taken place in various parts of India, mainly the north. They were also reassured that he was comfortably accommodated and no longer exposed to the risks of travelling. At no stage was there any concern over his health.
Michael sent an identical message to several friends:
Michael (email 6 Oct 02): . . . well, here I am (and there I am too, ultimately speaking) in quaint lil Pondicherry. 4 days I've spent settling in and sniffing around so to speak, prodding and poking everyone and everything . . . especially the old matriarchal guru (gurini?) in residence, one Meenakshi Devi Bhavanani. I'm forced to admit the ol' girl hasn't read my thoughts, levitated, transmitted kundalini shaktipat, nor has she recognised me as the next incarnation of Jesus Christ himself . . . no doubt she is testing my infinite patience. I can say gladly that she is probably the most active and spontaneously happy person I've met in a long time and that her heart is definitely in the right place . . .
In a later email to another friend, Michael gives a glimpse of daily life at the ashram as he settles in to his course . . .
Michael (email 10 Oct 02): . . . I've been here in Pondicherry, South India, for a week now (after a glorious week in Varanasi and 2 days on a train) and settled in to the disciplined yogic lifestyle . . . wake up at 5am . . . 2 hours of stretches and breathing exercises . . . 3 hours of lectures . . . more exercises . . . meditation . . . aaaaaaaahhh!!! Everything is good, though and the place is like a paradise on earth. I'm deliriously happy most of the time . . .maybe that's a cause for concern . . .
Meenakshi Devi Bhavanani, the Director of ICYER, was impressed by Michael's attitude and enthusiasm . . .
Meenakshi (letter 4 Jul 03): . . . I accepted Michael as a student and he arrived to take the Six Month Yoga Teacher Training Course on October 2, 2002. He had been travelling extensively in Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia and Northern India, and was quite tired and with a bad cold. Yet, with a disciplined and sincere frame of mind, he threw himself into the Ashram schedule. He had a very soft, accommodating personality and was eager to please. He had a deep penetrating mind, and was a true seeker of the Meaning of Life. He realised he had made many mistakes in his previous style of living and understood he had to correct them and change himself, to build a good, clear pure foundation for the higher Yogic concepts. He had a good artistic eye and perception and an intelligent grasp of the higher aspects of Yoga. Like many of his generation and culture, he had "lost his inner self" and was striving to find it again. He was respectful and cooperative, and dedicated to evolving himself through Yoga. His intent was to develop himself as a good human being, through Yoga and other spiritual arts, and then to share his knowledge with others on the path. His destiny had other things in store for him, and he left his body, only in order to pursue his spiritual quest in a new form. We know he continues his "path to perfection" wherever he is, and that "having sought, he will surely find!".
Dr Ananda Bhavanani, Meenakshi's son, who also taught at the ashram, was also impressed . . .
Dr Ananda (email 12 Mar 03): . . . I must say that I was especially taken by Michael's ability to adapt to the Indian culture as well as his amazing pick up for the Sanskrit chanting that I taught him in that short time . . .
Michael was well into his course, with many lessons recorded in his notebook, when he took stock of where he was at and set out the following impressions in this same notebook . . .
Michael ("Progress Diary", undated): The initial, unaccustomed solitude (due to me being the only student!) at first allowed my mind to wander slightly more than it usually does. At the same time, I often found peaceful moments, simply enjoying the sensation of, e.g. food itself without the distraction of mindless banter. The morning asanas I found to be excellent introductions for my out-of-practice and slightly stiff body and I have yet to feel any discomfort or sore muscles. I have been able to relax quite successfully without the usual twinges of nervous anxiety that I often used to get with previous attempts at other ashrams or yoga classes. Simply observing the wave-like action of the breath has sometimes produced a wonderful lightness of being with love-like vibrations that flood my body! I tend to leave the morning classes with a greater awareness of bodily sensations (and my general surroundings) than when I enter the class. All the activity has, however, stirred up much at the physical and mental levels. 3 or 4 days into the practices and I got a mild cold that thankfully healed fairly quickly, although there is still some mucus occasionally coming up.
I find it difficult to attribute each of the benefits of all practices to each technique I have been taught. All techniques complement each other and work together (from different angles) to achieve the same goal, so it is difficult for me to separate the benefits of each technique. I can say that I believe I am becoming more aware of my surroundings (colours, especially, seem more vivid!) and that I am learning to relax in a very natural way.
Meanwhile, another two weeks went by before Michael's next email to his parents . . .
Michael (email 17 Oct 02): Hello dears . . . hope you are both just dandy. Well, 2 weeks here and I've settled into a routine of sorts . . . very impressed with all I've been taught so far (enlightenment is a certainty upon my release or I get a refund) but the 5 o'clock wake up, 2 hours of physical techniques and 1 and a half hours of breathing exercises (amongst other things) have kind of taken their toll on my spoiled and lazy bones, so I'm relishing my one day off today . . . it's a beautiful day today so I might just sit in the park and have a good old fashioned day of sloth . . .
Quite impressed with how much a part of the local community this ashram is . . . I'm always being whisked away to watch dance performances or research findings and other functions.
By the way, could you perchance make a call to Amnesty for me and tell them I no longer want them to take money out of my account as a monthly donation? Could you also close my cheque account for me. I never use it and the fees are a bit steep. Thanks. Love to all, M.
This was to be Michael's last email to his parents. Whether his admitted tiredness at this stage was the first clear symptom of a greater malaise will never be known. He rarely sought medical advice.
On 21 October, as part of the course, Michael commenced what he described as a five day fast. However, this was not a true fast in that fruits were consumed on the first and fifth days, and broths and supplementary fluids were taken on the days in between. It seems unlikely that this regime affected the course of later events. He still appeared to be functioning normally, so the ashram can hardly be blamed for not seeing any danger to his health.
On 24 October, the fourth day of his "fast", Michael made an ATM withdrawal and sent at least two emails, including one to his brother. He mentioned feeling very weak but thought the regime he was undergoing was beneficial in purifying his system. It was sometime after this that he fell ill, and the two doctors in the ashram sent him to bed and monitored his health. They quickly determined that his kidneys were failing and made immediate arrangements for him to be placed in medical care.
On 26 October, Michael was admitted to the Sedhu Nursing Home, an adjunct to the main JIPMER hospital in Pondicherry. There his condition was monitored and tests carried out. He lapsed into semi-consciousness and incoherence so that the ashram staff could not get him to provide his parents' phone number. In desperation they contacted a former student, Murali, who runs a yoga school in Sydney, not far from Michael's parents' home.
On Wednesday 30 October, Murali called in at Michael's parents' home. From this moment on they were to be plucked from idyllic early retirement into a living nightmare. Murali advised what he knew and provided a phone number to contact Dr Ananda at the ashram. Michael's mother, Annette, called him, and also the senior doctor at the nursing home. She was asked to consent to dialysis treatment for Michael, which she did immediately, and also advised to come over as quickly as possible. It was decided that she, rather than Chris, Michael's father, should be the one to make the trip as Chris is hearing impaired and has great difficulty with foreign accents. Meenakshi phoned that evening to confirm transport and hotel arrangements in Pondicherry. Michael, in the meantime, was that night transferred from the nursing home to the main JIPMER hospital.
On Thursday 31 October, Annette flew out of Sydney and arrived at Chennai late in the evening. She was met at the airport by Dr Nalini, a Spanish woman doctor who taught at the ashram. She had more reassuring news during the three hour taxi ride to Pondicherry: Michael had undergone dialysis and had been administered with broad spectrum antibiotics and was improving. She also said that blood tests indicated that his kidneys had been failing for some time. Annette was installed in a hotel for the night as it was too late to go to the hospital.
On Friday 1 November, Meenakshi and Nalini called for Annette in the morning and took her to the hospital. Annette's vivid memory of her first sight of Michael was the pure joy and love that lit up his face when he saw her. He was cheerful and talkative. The improvement in his condition seemed to be continuing as some kidney function was now restored. However, he was extremely weak and his mind wandered occasionally. They talked for several hours. Michael chatted about the ashram, his adventures since he had left Australia, and his plans to go on to England after the course. He was confident of being up and about within a few days and looked forward to showing his mother around the ashram and the town. He worried about missing too much of his course, but Meenakshi reassured him that he could resume at any time. Annette's relief was enormous, her only concern being the appalling standards of hygiene and infection control that prevailed in the hospital. She wanted to get him out as soon as possible to have him recuperate in Australia, though Michael felt that this was unnecessary; he could do that at the ashram. Eventually, the hours of talking took its toll on Michael, and he began to tire. He turned to Annette and said: "I think I'll have a little sleep now, Mum."
Nobody thought that these would be his last words.
Annette stayed with him while he slept, and watched as he was transferred, still sleeping, to the intensive care ward for more dialysis treatment. Feeling tired herself after her long flight she returned to the hotel and phoned Chris, who was by then frantic with anxiety. "He's all right," were her first words to him. The relief for both, after their earlier fears, was enormous.
Tragically, cruel fate now intervened to crush all hope. On her return to the hospital the next morning, Annette's mood of optimism turned abruptly to horror as she found that Michael had suffered a major relapse. He was unconscious. His body had become infected with septicaemia and this was spreading with terrible swiftness through his major organs. In mounting dread, Annette immediately called for Chris and Peter to come over as quickly as possible. Powerful new antibiotics were administered to Michael with no apparent effect. Annette talked to him continuously and called out his name repeatedly, but he did not respond. He continued to deteriorate rapidly, and this time there was to be no recovery. With Annette beside him in the depths of utter despair, the end came quickly but peacefully at 7 am on Sunday 3 November. There was no pain or suffering. Since he never regained consciousness it seems certain that at no stage did he ever become aware of his impending fate.
Michael's Story had come to its tragic end.
|Meenakshi and Nalini arrived some time later to find their worst fears realised. Incredibly, the ward staff then expected Annette to take Michael's body away with her. Her nightmare continued as she had to write out a pleading letter to arrogant hospital staff to have the body stored in the mortuary. Meenakshi was a tower of strength in helping Annette get through this impossible situation. After this, there was nothing more that she could do except return to the hotel, accompanied by Nalini, to await the arrival of Chris and Peter. They had received the dreaded news whilst still on their way to India. They finally reached the hotel together late that night to a tearful reunion with Annette The family were now faced with the impossibly difficult task of coming to terms with the unbelievable loss that had come upon them so suddenly, barely four days after first hearing of his illness. But at least they were now together, and Peter's then partner Kristina joined them the next day.
Three days passed in an unreal blur of pain and grief before the family were able to fly back to Sydney. In that time, they viewed Michael's body at the mortuary, visited his ashram, had more frustrating dealings with the hospital staff, and had to arrange for the embalming and repatriation of the body. The fact that the next two days were major public holidays (celebrating the Diwali festival) and that the telephones were largely inoperative due to a strike made things even more difficult. Eventually, with continued support from the ashram, the Australian High Commission and Michael's travel insurers, everything was done and the family were able to leave.
The news of Michael's sudden and totally unexpected death hit everyone like a bombshell. Peter contacted those of Michael's travelling friends whose addresses were in his email account. Friends and relatives rallied in wonderful support for the family as preparations were now made for a celebration ceremony. Michael's body arrived back in Australia, and his parents had a final session with him at the funeral directors' chapel.
The celebration ceremony was held on 15 November at Palmdale Crematorium at Ourimbah, NSW, in a beautiful parkland setting.. There is unintended symbolism here in that this is midway between Sydney, where Michael was born and grew up, and Newcastle, where he first explored the worlds of Buddhism and yoga while at university. An epitah for Michael was chosen from a copy of the Bhagavad-Gita which was among his final possessions:
"Who cares to seek
For that perfect freedom?
One man, perhaps,
In many thousands
Then tell me how many
Of those who seek freedom
Shall know the total
Truth of my being?
Perhaps one only".
The ceremony was a beautiful occasion, with many elements of Michael's yoga lifestyle incorporated. It was well attended by relatives and old friends from Sydney. Murali represented the ashram. The emphasis was on celebrating his wonderfully free spirit, his sense of adventure, his love of life, and his compassion towards others. There were many tributes, both spoken in person and read out from emails from those of his travelling friends who had received the news in time. Many more email messages arrived later. These tributes are shown on a separate page of this website. (Click here to view these).
After the ceremony, Michael's ashes were placed in his bedroom in the home in Sydney that he grew up in. Later, Michael's family would return his ashes to India, to release them into the Ganges at Rishikesh. Click here to view an account of this mission, which took place in January 2004
Now came the painful process for the family of coming to terms with this immense loss, for which nothing in life can prepare one for. Peter and Kristina had to return to their jobs in Taiwan, where Chris and Annette later joined them over the Christmas period. The healing process for those that Michael left behind is a painfully slow one, and is one that will never be completed.
What was the cause of Michael's death? There are no clear answers. His kidneys failed, which led to the septicaemia which was presumably the immediate cause of his death, but what caused the kidney failure? There was no autopsy as the hospital did not have the facilities; in any case these are rarely performed in India. The infection could not be identified despite extensive testing at the hospital for all of the usual possibilities. All that is known is that he had a bad cold and a constant headache when he arrived in Pondicherry, that blood tests indicated that his kidneys had been failing for some time, and that the infection was resistant to antibiotics. Perhaps it had its origins in the colitis that he was infected with in Taiwan the previous January. Or perhaps he picked up a secondary infection at the hospital or received incorrect treatment there. Or perhaps he had a fatal internal weakness that remained undetected throughout an active life. But all this is only speculation. His family has to accept that they will almost certainly never know the full story.
The people at Michael's ashram were magnificent in their support of Michael and his family during these traumatic times. They visited him every day in hospital and provided attendants to watch over him each night. When Michael's family visited the ashram they found it to be every bit as beautiful as he had said, set as it was in a magnificent rainforest setting. It was truly, as he described it, a "paradise on earth".
Michael had said, in his last email to his parents, how impressed he was with the ashram's involvement with the local community. It is this that has prompted his family to establish annual memorial scholarships in Michael's name, to sponsor local juniors to study at the ashram. In this way his memory will live on in a place that he truly loved.
Where is Michael now? His family does not know what Michael's final beliefs were regarding the next world. Presumably he held the Buddhist view that karma, both good and bad, were stored up during this life and determined one's place in the next one. Michael's good karma must surely have outweighed the bad, so perhaps his next life will, or now does, reflect this.
Michael's family have not hitherto been strong believers in the afterlife. Agnosticism probably best described their views. Nevertheless, each member of the family has received extremely powerful, most unexpected, and quite different communications from or about Michael since he died. These give rise to the strong feeling that all is well with him in his new adventure in the hereafter, and that he wants to reassure us.
Dr Ananda gave the yoga perspective . . .
Dr Ananda (email 12 Mar 03): . . . Michael was destined to be in India for this short time at least, for there is no way to explain the entire picture. Lord Krishna says: "Those yogis who don't finish their task in this lifetime will be put into the womb of a yogini (accomplished female yogi) the next time to attain their goal of cosmic union through the next birth". I am sure that this is true in Michael's case. . . .
Remembrance One year later
Return to Rishikesh Michael's ashes released to the Ganges