If someone fictionalized the story of Jayanti Tamm’s life of growing up in the cult of the Indian-born guru Sri Chinmoy, her confrontation with a statue of Christ in a French church might be the pivotal moment in which she realizes that her ultra-religious upbringing in Connecticut has been a farce. But in her version of the story, what Tamm perceives as an emblem of her disobedience ruins her enjoyment of the relative freedom of her time abroad. The interlude illustrates what she struggles to do in the rest of her memoir, Cartwheels In A Sari: A Memoir Of Growing Up Cult, to show how her years in the cult marked her for life.
Tamm’s birth interrupted the sacred celibate marriage Tamm’s parents entered into as directed by the guru at their first meeting in 1969, but Chinmoy was delighted with her arrival, calling her the “Chosen One” and bringing her into his meditation sessions from an early age. In the sun of his favor, Tamm was exempted from chores in the guru’s Queens-based church and praised for her unquestioning, “soulful” adherence to his beliefs. School and friends outside the cult were just a distraction to Tamm, who was expected to come work for the guru or his “divine enterprises” (whose profits fed into the church) full-time after high school. Tempted by the secular word, Tamm eventually left the cult at the price of losing her entire community, including her brother, for life.
As a child, Tamm naturally accepted the guru’s teaching as gospel, but Cartwheels In A Sari labors to present her naïve view of the world instead of taking a closer look at the legacy of the charismatic, unscrupulous man. Tamm largely glosses over the hold one small religious organization had over these four lives, perhaps the most difficult thing for outsiders to comprehend about the whole ordeal; even her parents’ path to the guru is depicted with an abruptness that belies their history. The church’s stifling atmosphere is much more vivid, a gossipy hive where followers were encouraged to report on others for the most minor transgressions, and competed to fulfill the guru’s most outlandish wishes. The closest Tamm can get to reproducing that persuasive power is in glimpses of the shunning that accompanied Tamm’s fall from grace and the moments of desperation she felt when no longer enveloped in the protective, oppressive world of Chinmoy, whom she refers to respectfully even after her ordeal.