She was 16 when she accompanied her father to meet godman Rajneesh in Baroda, the beginning of a complex relationship that endured until she fled his ashram in the US in 1985. From setting up a commune in a wild outpost of Oregon and unsettling a conservative local community along the way, the flamboyant Ma Anand Sheela (born Sheela Ambalal Patel) was personal secretary to Osho, as Rajneesh later came to be called, and the face of the movement till her falling out with him, which ended in a 39-month prison spell for a series of charges, including immigration fraud, wiretapping and poisoning. In this interview, Manbeena Sandhu speaks on what led her to document the story of an unconventional life and the inner world of a controversial cult. Excerpts:
Your biography of Ma Anand Sheela comes after having followed the Osho movement for two decades. When did you know that you wanted to write on her?
As soon as I was introduced to Osho’s work, I got introduced to Sheela as well. Not through the Guru’s books or talks, but through his sannyasins. In my opinion, Ma Sheela and Rajneesh are inseparable. I haven’t heard one story of Rajneesh without the mention of Sheela. As I got seeped into the movement, information about Sheela started pouring from all directions. A few of Guru’s disciples loved her, a few despised her but none could ignore her. She seemed intriguing. Right off the bat, I knew that I wanted to meet her, know her and write about her. Even though the information of her whereabouts was not easy to access, the desire to capture her life story kept getting stronger over the years.
It was Chapman and Maclain Way’s Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country (2018) that drew everyone’s attention to Ma Sheela. She was, in many ways, the anti-hero of the series. When you met her last year, how much of that tough-talking, controversy-courting woman did you see?
Other than catching a glimpse or two of that old time ‘Sheela’ in her sharp eyes, brisk gait and quick wit, I couldn’t see much of that controversy-courting woman that the world knows her as. Time doesn’t stand still, it moves on and with time we evolve and change; so has Ma Sheela.
What was your first meeting like?
I first met Ma Sheela in May 2019 in Switzerland. Prior to meeting her, I had, over the phone, expressed my desire to write her story. But she was not convinced just by a voice at the other end of the line and wanted to see me in person. I first saw her at the airport. I stayed in Switzerland for about 10 days, and, during those days, I spent six to eight hours each day in her company. Before meeting Ma Sheela, I was a little intimidated by the personality that I had seen and heard of. She was very different from what I, and the world, perceives her to be — she was soft and full of emotion.
How open was she with sharing the unsavoury episodes of her life with you?
The unsavoury episodes were rather interesting to talk about. She could sense my hesitation and would rather come to my rescue by answering most openly and candidly. She is very bold that way.
Did she ever express remorse about some of the things that she was accused of?
Ma Sheela maintains that she has dedicated her life to Bhagwan (Osho) and she served him the best way she possibly could. Yes, there was insurmountable pressure that she was reeling under and she made her judgements according to the demands of place and time. Ma was (or, rather, still is) head over heels in love with Bhagwan. So much so, that at times her emotion in the past may have coloured the reality to appear different than what it actually was. It happens to all of us. But in her case, she may have gone a step further, or maybe 100 steps further, than an ordinary human being in pursuing her love and her goal of upholding the entity of the ashram.
Besides Wild Wild Country, there is also Ma Sheela’s memoir, Don’t Kill Him! The Story of My Life With Bhagwan Rajneesh (2012). What made you feel the need for a biography on her?
Even after reading her memoir and watching the series, I was not satisfied. Just like me, I felt there would be many who had questions. In Nothing to Lose, I have answered those questions, filled in the vibrant colours, the intricate details, followed the timelines and have covered the gaps, as much as possible. Through this book, the reader will walk through the Orange world, along with Ma Sheela. He will be able to peep into her heart and her mind; and hear the conversations and witness the actions that took place behind closed doors.
How do you assess her feelings for Osho now?
She still has photographs of him at her home. She explains her 39-month prison term as simply her guru dakshina. She is still dearly in love with her Bhagwan. His pictures hang in the living room of her care home and her bedroom is full of images of Bhagwan and Sheela in love. One gets thrown back in time as one steps in her bedroom. Suddenly, Bhagwan, Sheela and the Orange world come alive. From running a sprawling commune to running care homes in Switzerland at age 70, it’s been a long journey. Her life is very different now, it is purely a life of service dedicated to those in need. But she still is the queen of her kingdom. She has a staff of over 30 people who are constantly at her beck and call and a number of chauffeurs to drive her and her patients around.
In interviews from those heady Oregon days, she is supremely dismissive and deliberately provocative. What was the most provocative thing she said to you?
Honestly, nothing! I had once jokingly asked her to say ‘tough titties’ for me and she laughed and said, ‘Oh Manbeena, those kinds of words are only for those shrewd journalists who deserve every bit of it and who need to be set straight, not for a person like you.’
Nothing to Lose: The Authorised Biography of Ma Anand Sheela By Manbeena Sandhu
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