Queens College Visiting Professor and Alum Jayanti Tamm, declared “the chosen one” by spiritual leader Sri Chimnoy (pictured with his right hand on Tamm’s head), grew up as a disciple of Chimnoy’s. After leaving the group, Tamm chronicled her experiences in her book Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult.
As Jayanti Tamm’s mother labored to give birth to her in a Connecticut hospital in 1970, Sri Chinmoy, the spiritual leader who had arrived in America from India several years earlier, sped from Queens through the warm September morning to greet the newborn. Tamm’s parents were among Chinmoy’s first American followers, and the guru gave the baby her name and declared her to be the “chosen one.”
In Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult (2009), Tamm describes life among the followers of Sri Chinmoy. Many of them, including her parents, handed over their money, all their waking time, and the smallest decisions of their lives to the Queens-based spiritual master who proclaimed himself the incarnation of god on earth. Her critically praised book is all the more powerful for its lack of rancor as Tamm describes what she came to see as the guru’s manipulative and increasingly quirky hold over his followers.
After several years during which Tamm’s doubts grew, the guru threw her out of the community. Lost and at one point suicidal, she enrolled at Queens College. She notes that as an English major, “the faculty was very supportive. They really took me under their wing and gave me the confidence I needed.” While a student, Tamm tutored at the writing center of Queensborough Community College and wrote an award-winning play.
Writing her memoir was “a wonderful and liberating experience,” Tamm says. She found the yearlong work remarkably “easy,” especially since she had kept diaries all her life, and her mother, who eventually left the Sri Chinmoy group, had kept all sorts of photos and mementos from her family’s life there.
In October 2007 Tamm gave birth to a daughter. That same morning Sri Chinmoy died of a heart attack at his Queens home. A bizarre coincidence, Tamm concedes. Chinmoy had gone to her mother’s bedside to welcome Tamm into the world; now he exited the world as Tamm gave birth to her own child.
Tamm is currently working on a novel.
Book everyone should read: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. “It is wonderfully sad, honest, and painfully funny.”
Favorite music: The Smiths. “Morrissey’s voice and lyrics have never become rusty or dated; the music excites me as much as it did back when I first discovered it decades ago.”
Surprising fact: “I have enrolled my three-year-old daughter in ballet class so I can have the chance to experience all of the ‘normal’ elements of growing-up that I missed.”