Contemplating the Mystery that is Amma: An Interview with Janani, Author of Newly-released Book, Eleven Ambiguous Windows
Eleven Ambiguous Windows is a book containing stories, photos, and videos (on the included CD) about events Janani (Bev Noia) recorded in her twenty years as one of Amma’s official photo/videographers. The stories, each of which is followed by a ‘meditation page’ with a quote and an image of Amma, are seen as ‘windows’ on Amma, through which the reader might try to come closer to a deeper understanding of this world-renowned saint and humanitarian who is nonetheless, for many people, a mystery.
The stories are very short, each presenting a sort of vignette of Amma in a particular situation: she might be at a roadside chai stop with India tour members, or at a rural temple, or on a train in North India, or near the sea in Sri Lanka (where she caresses a snake), or beside a river (where she cradles an emaciated child); she might be on a Western tour (where small birds explore her shoulders and hair and face as their home), or at the beach at home in Amritapuri, surrounded by children, or perhaps in the Ashram temple, offering a child a plate of rice. Each event has the charm of Amma being who she is and doing what she does; but each has a deeper meaning, too.
The interview below helps us understand a little more about Janani herself, and about what moved her to write Eleven Ambiguous Windows.
Interviewer: Thank you for agreeing to this interview request. With the release of your book, I expect that many people are curious to know a bit more about both the book and the author. So, to begin with, I can imagine that photographing Amma and archiving her and her organization’s activities were not what you thought you would be doing when you left your highly successful life in the West to join Amma in 1993.
Janani: You’re right: I had no idea I would ever be one of Amma’s photographers! I had no training in photography or videography, and, to be honest, no interest in them. But I had more than a small amount of interest in Amma! The only seva (selfless activity) I knew about before moving to the ashram was veggie chopping, which I had done at her program in Santa Fe, the year I met her (1992). So I thought I would move to the ashram and chop veggies, and I was happy with that prospect since it would put me in the presence of this enchanting and mystifying person.
Interviewer: Amma’s decisions and directives are always for more than the obvious ‘task at hand,’ and are in fact aimed at her children’s spiritual growth. How do you feel that Amma’s telling you to take her photos and videos changed you?
Janani: As I mentioned, I knew nothing about photography or videography. This meant Amma had placed me in a position perfect for failure. Before moving to the ashram, I had been a successful, well-loved and respected teacher in both secondary school and university. I took success, admiration, popularity, and self-confidence for granted. Suddenly I was asked to do what I didn’t know how to do, and I fell on my face! Mostly I took poor photos at the beginning—not only because I had an unprofessional little point-and-shoot camera, but also because I knew nothing of the techniques of good photography. So I had to live with the constant realization that not only was I not good at what I did, I was offering poor results to the very person I most wanted to please and impress. From this, my arrogance began to diminish and my humility to grow. Something else very important resulted: because I had always been successful and well loved, I think I had connected being successful and productive with being loved. Amma made it clear that much of my work was subpar, and yet she loved me unwaveringly. This experience of truly unconditional love was a world-changer for me! It became a goal (still is one, for I’ve not mastered it yet): I wanted to become capable of loving unconditionally, as Amma does.
Of course, there are many other things I learned and ways I changed, thanks to the work Amma offered me, alongside her discipline and her love all those years. I’ve tried to share some of those in the stories in Eleven Ambiguous Windows.
Interviewer: I gather that you compiled Eleven Ambiguous Windows not to present yourself, but to share some precious moments with Amma—teaching moments. Could you talk a bit about how you came to put together the book and the video accompanying the text?
Janani: Many were the times I would be sitting quietly in the corner in Mother’s room, documenting some meeting, or perhaps struggling to keep up with her, videoing as she strode through a slum, stopping to wipe a woman’s tear or hug a child, and I’d think, “Who is this woman? Is she the no-nonsense CEO, Director of her relief programs? Is she the playful big sister she seems when she splashes us in the river? Is she the Mother of Compassion, or the goofball falling off her chair at some silly joke? Who is the real Amma?” You might think I was so concentrated on my photography because it was a duty—well, of course, that’s part of it. But really I was constantly studying Amma through my lens, collecting ‘data,’ analyzing it, feeling and responding and puzzling: Who is she? Whenever I began to think I had her ‘figured out’, Ha!, something else would come along to challenge my conclusions. And because I was so often so near Amma, my fellow Ashramites and devotees would ask me for my impressions of her. “How was she with President Kalam?” they’d ask, or, “When they brought that dying woman to her room, what did she do?” So I began thinking, “If only others could see Amma close up as I do, they could experience the fascinating puzzle that she is, too!” I loved the ‘fascinating puzzle’ and didn’t mind that after all I couldn’t solve it; I just wanted others to get some of the clues I had been vouchsafed, and so have these as part of their own experience of Amma.
Interviewer: How do you suggest readers and viewers approach the book and video?
Janani: Originally, I wrote in my journal about things I experienced while filming Amma. I would describe the event, and reflect on it, always remembering that Amma had once said, “It is enough to really study the Guru; that is equivalent to reading the scriptures.” Just as one shouldn’t just mouth the words of the scriptures, but should look for their inner meanings, it soon dawned on me that I should not merely catalogue the acts of Amma, but strive to realize their inner meanings. So when I was writing and reflecting, I was actually in a sense meditating: I was looking for the spiritual messages in Amma’s actions. I remembered, too, that she has said that Nothing the Guru does is without meaning—so I would look at the smallest thing—like her sticking a flower petal on a child’s forehead as a bindi—and ask, “What can this mean?” I would look at how pain flickered across her face for a brief moment, and ask, “What is she saying?” By putting out these stories, along with the photos and videos of the events that sparked them, I am hoping to share with other people the remarkable opportunity to watch Amma closely, and ask inside themselves, “What is she teaching me?”
After each short story—they’re only two pages long—I have placed what I call a ‘meditation page.’ I’ve very carefully chosen a photo of Amma and a quote (usually from her) that I feel connect (not always so obviously) with an ‘inner meaning’ of the story. I hope that people who read this book will not just gobble up the stories, but also give themselves over to reflecting deeply on that last meditation page; then the stories are more likely to be not just entertainment, but seeds for insight.
Interviewer: Can you talk a bit about ‘ambiguity,’ in the title of the book, and your musings on ambiguity?
Janani: I wanted these little vignettes, along with their photos and videos, to be ‘windows’ on Amma. But the more I sought not only to understand what Amma was trying to show me, but also to understand who she really is, the more I realized that, while I myself might get glimpses and insights, there were still more to be had! I would think I was coming to understand her better, and then something would show me the inadequacy of my comprehension. I would both see and not see. This is epitomized for me in the last story of the book, “The Ambiguous Train Window”…the window that both joins and separates Amma and her children. I think of the stories in this book as windows that can bring us closer to Amma, and yet leave her mysterious to us.
Interviewer: How has your seva evolved over the years, and where does it seem to be taking you now?
Janani: From the beginning, I worked hard to responsibly record and annotate the events around Amma, as well as Amma’s own actions. As an erstwhile teacher of comparative religions, I was aware of how extremely valuable documentation about a person like this could be. I remember thinking to myself, “If Jesus had had a videographer along, imagine how different history might be!” I thought of all the conflict over the ages about what some spiritual paragon had really done or said, and I thought, “Now in the twentieth century we have another such spiritual leader, and we have the means to preserve her actions, her words, her manner and I must do this with all the shraddha (faithful attentiveness) I can manage!” For this reason, I kept precise records of what images were shot where, and what was going on, and what other things I noticed and perhaps didn’t record. These, I felt, would constitute part of the primary material for historians in the future. But at the same time, I was having my own direct experience of Amma, and reflecting on how it was teaching and forming me. In talking with other devotees and disciples and seekers, I would share some of these insights and realizations, and time and again people would say, “Janani, you should write a book about these things!” It was a short step from writing my journal and the photo and video logs to polishing these into stories I could share. The thing to remember is, while the raw videos and photos, and to some extent the logs and annotations, are more or less ‘objective,’ the stories in this book have passed through the filter of my own understandings or misunderstandings. The former may be ‘primary sources,’ while the stories I’ve put together are secondary. They are not pure, in that sense, but they have, I hope, their own kind of value.
Interviewer: You must have many more stories like these to share. Will we see more?
Janani: About a year ago, my elderly mother’s health declined to the point where she needed my presence, so I moved from Amritapuri to the United States to be more available for her. So following Amma with a camera aimed at her is a thing of the past for me now. Here, thanks to the internet and digital versions of photos and videos, I can still focus—not my lens, but my eyes and mind and heart—on Amma’s actions, and still use them as grist for meditation. So yes, I have and will have lots more such stories. Will you see more? I don’t know. I don’t know whether these make for a good shared experience; that’s why this book is a small one—testing the waters, you might say. If I sense that people find it helpful or meaningful, it will be a pleasure to share more of these ‘ambiguous windows.’ We’ll see.