I remember meeting Puru sometime in the early 70’s in New York City. To understand Puru, you have to understand a little something about New York. I hope you will indulge me a paragraph or two on the subject of New York. It will give you context for understanding Puru. Anyone who has lived or served there will understand what I mean.
Back then the Big Apple as it is known, was a rough and tumble place. It was a big city in every sense of the word. Fast – steamy – stinky – violent, loud with sirens, raw and full of gruff and grumble. Kindness in the gentle sense of the word was largely unknown. Not that New Yorkers were incapable of kindness, but they didn’t like being seen as soft. The jungle is hard place. And kindness is easily mistaken as weakness.
The layout of the place is rigid and defines the psyche of a New Yorker. Unlike the convoluted web of ancient sprawling London, in New York you have only a couple of directions you can take. You can go left or right, backwards or forwards, up or down - its north Uptown, south Downtown, take a left to the West side or go right to the East side. You can ride the elevator up. And then eventually come down. To compensate for the lack of open space people there find their freedom by increasing their speed. This demands focus. Everyone is focused in New York.
Before leaving the house in the morning they wrap themselves in a psychic coat of armour. From behind the visor of this invisible shield they peer out into the rush of urban chaos, watch for danger signals, ways to make a buck or search in hope for that rare find – a happy face. Maybe it’s changed since 9/11, but that’s the way it was back then. I remember too, that like any place, New York had its unique style of communication – a kind of linguistic sign language in the form of throw away comments that had multiple meanings depending on the situation, mood or time of day. “Fa’get about it”, “Waz up?”, Ha ya doooin’?” I used to call it “verbal chaff” because it was often used as a way of distracting someone long enough to size them up. It also worked well as a defence mechanism or as way of marking boundaries, especially when delivered in short, punctuated grunted phrases. Verbal chaff was often vulgar and like much about New York, takes some getting used to. Exchanges in New York that are run of the mill, even respectful in their terms would be considered rude elsewhere. It takes a while to get acquainted with New York and it’s an easy place to misunderstand. Puru was quintessentially a New Yorker. He was also very easy to misunderstand.
Externally Puru was a classic curmudgeon. Gruff, grumpy, weather worn, outspoken, he would easily dispense with discretion if an honest word served a more lofty or immediate purpose. Like many New Yorkers, Puru’s first line of attack was to attack. Call a spade a spade. And he was at times off putting. As such, I believe Puru was almost universally misjudged. It’s easy to judge a book by its cover and I think it’s fair to say that the hide on his book was thick and prickly – and therefore misleading. It seems a divine grace that Puru was married to to Jambavati didi who is a court stenographer. Court stenographers hear it all. They witness the spectrum of human tribulations. They record both sides of the argument. I think Puru needed someone who was thus inured to his trademark polemic. I know how much he loved and appreciated her service and support.
I also speak New York. Speaking his language, I understood him. In the 34 years I knew him, he never put me off. Somehow, I saw through his crusty shell and saw a heart of gold. I think it was because he once showed me a special kindness at a time when everyone else seemed disinterested. It made all the difference to me. The memory of his care stayed with me and thus whenever the flurry of his verbal chaff started, I stood still and listened, and waited. I didn’t react. After a while his bang and thunder subsided and his good intentions shinned through the dark cloud of his serious mood and like the sunshine, shed light on the importance of his diatribe du jour. At the time when the clouds passed and rainbows are made, Puru’s mood would soften. That’s when you would see his regal, charitable and soft-hearted soul. That’s when you would see a faint smile and his hallmark, a raised eyebrow, his way of saying “thanks for understanding”. I wonder how many had the patience to weather the storm to see Puru’s rainbow. I suspect most were too busy dashing away to find shelter from the next gale getting ready to blow.
When Puru took up a cause, there was no letting go or backing down. He was a scrapper, but always for the right cause. He fought injustice. He couldn’t tolerate an untruth or hypocrisy especially when it was dressed up in the sparkly garb of self serving institutionalism. He expelled a lot of verbal chaff in that direction – in another lifetime he was probably the guy in the crowd who shouted out that the “king has no clothes”. (As I finished that line, a small English Blue Tit bird, the size of a sparrow, flew into and around the room and then made his way out. I’ll take it as an omen that Puru is listening to this and having a grand old belly laugh.)
There are too many examples of Puru’s good works to mention here and you probably know more of them than I do. At the top of the list is his undying loyalty and love of our holy master nityalila pravista om vishnupada paramahamsa parivrajakacharya astottara sata sri srimad Srila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. I remember hearing how Puru would set up book tables in China Town and distribute sumptuous feasts in the spirit of Srila Prabhupada. He was Srila Prabhupada’s advocate in more ways than one. He was his man on the street. He loved his books and railed against anything that hindered their free and unfettered distribution. In many ways Puru was also a man of foresight. One example is his quick thinking in collecting all of Srila Prabhupada’s effects from the 55th Street New York Temple at its dissolution and his establishment of the Srila Prabhupada Memorial Library and Museum. Smart move Puru. And he was a generous soul. Some years back he gifted me (in custodianship) a ring that belonged to Srila Prabhupada. After some time, I in turn passed the blessing on by giving it in the same spirit to another godbrother, Sriman Harenamananda das Prabhu. Puru also gave me Srila Prabhupada’s drinking cup, a silver chalice – my holy grail. Another example of his foresight and forthright principled spirit based on his understanding of Srila Prabhupada’s teaching was his support of our beloved holy master om vishnupada paramahamsa parivrajakacharya astottara sata sri srimad Srila Bhaktivedanta Narayana Maharaja. It didn’t take long for Puru to recognise that Srila Gurudeva was “a friend sent by Srila Prabhupada”. In Puru’s eyes Srila Gurudeva “is non-different from Srila Prabhupada as a manifestation of siksha Guru”. Puru quickly endeared himself to Srila Gurudeva through his deep and sincere love of Srila Prabhupada, his straight-talking manner and his care for the devotees. In no time Puru was his man as much as Srila Prabhupada’s.
For some reason, I was not too surprised to hear of Puru’s passing. We recently talked in India about service and his deep desire to do more, of his lamentation – like so many of us – that he was hindered by so many material constraints, age, health, bad samskaras and so on. Still, being a Prabhupada man in the same breath he admonished himself and taking his beadbag in hand proclaimed that there are “no real impediments to Bhakti”. Behind his tough hide and beyond the easy sight of others he was in fact a humble man with a self-deprecating sense of humour. During this last Kartika I noticed at the time that something profound had changed in him. He seemed more at peace. He was noticeably softer and more accepting – even while in India, which he had in the past found testing. He didn’t even complain about the sewers or lack of waste management in Vrindavan! He was happy to be in Braja and talked of somehow settling down there, setting up his family in the holy dhama and doing more seva for Srila Gurudeva. We even made plans to rendezvous in England to travel and serve together. I think he was content. He had a vision. And although simple, it was spiritual to the core.
I am happy to hear that he passed away quickly, by heart attack. I’ve heard that just minutes prior he was glorifying his Thakurji, to whom he was so deeply attached. I suspect that deep down he had come to a realisation that he needed to shed one form to take another – one more conducive to the service he yearned to render.
I remember consoling Mula Prakriti didi a few months before her departure. In tears, she admitted to me that she felt “unready”, that she had so much more to cultivate in her pursuit of Bhakti. I presumed to reassure her that her humility and service to the Vaishnavas had made her very attractive to Srila Prabhupada. Also, that paradoxically her unreadiness would certainly make Srila Prabhupada intensely eager to gather her up in his protective embrace. I told her that I had no doubt that Srila Prabhupada would ferry her further to a deeper relationship with him in intimate service to Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. “Prabhupada will be there waiting for you”, I said. In a strange way Puru’s departure seems natural to me, maybe the right timing for him. I think his soft heart couldn’t bear the weight of the world any longer. He missed Srila Prabhupada too much. So, like Mula, Srila Prabhupada gathered him up too. I’m sure.
I will miss Puru for his humanity and for his being all too human. I genuinely looked up to him because beyond the verbal chaff, he was a cent per cent Prabhupada man. He was real. What you saw is what you got. I like that. We need more of that in our devotional dealings. I talk with a lot of devotees who feel misunderstood. I guess we all do in some way. Who knows maybe Puru prabhu will go on to be canonised as the “patron saint of the misunderstood”. He has my vote. His abrupt departure is a rude wake up call. I can hear him now, “Are you ready for your turn Baba?” How very Puru, indeed.
I would like to offer my sincere condolences to his wife Jambavati didi and his three daughters, Janaki didi, Anuradha didi and Malika didi and beg their pardon if I’ve said anything inappropriate. I hope they will excuse the grief of an old friend.
Sripad Puru das Prabhu ki jaya!