Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Demon in the Freezer

Richard Preston has quickly shot up the ranks in my esteem, so much so that I feel once again compelled to post an excerpt, this time from his book "The Demon in the Freezer." It is not often that I am impressed by a religious experience of any sort, but I was quite taken by the following tale.

Baba Ram Dass spoke glowingly of a holy man named Neem Karoli Baba, who was the head of an ashram at the foot of the Himalayas in a remote district in northern India where the borders of China, India, and Nepal come together. Girija Brilliant was captivated by Baba Ram Dass's talk of the holy man, and she wanted to meet him, though Larry was not interested. Girija insisted, and so they went. They ended up living in the ashram and becoming devotees of Neem Karoli Baba, who was a small, elderly man of indeterminate age. His only personal possession was a plaid blanket. He was a famous guru in India, and the people sometimes called him Blanket Baba. The Brilliants learned Hindi, meditated, and read the Bhagavad Gita. Meanwhile, Larry ran an informal clinic in the ashram, giving out medicines that he'd taken off the bus when they'd left it in Kathmandu. One day, he was outdoors at the ashram, singing Sanskrit songs with a group of students. Blanket Baba was sitting in front of the students, watching them sing...

Blanket Baba got a sly grin and started chanting, in Hindi, "You have no money...You are no doctor...You have no money," and he reached forward and tugged on Brilliant's beard.

Brilliant didn't know how to answer.

Neem KAroli Baba switched to English and kept on chanting. "You are no doctor...UNO doctor...UNO doctor."

UNO can stand for United Nations Organization.

The guru was saying to his student (or so the student now thinks) that his duty and destiny --his dharma-- was to become a doctor with the United Nations. "He made this funny gesture, looking up at the sky," Brilliant recalled, "and he said in Hindi, 'You are going to go into villages. You are going to eradicate smallpox. Because this is a terrible disease. But with God's grace, smallpox will be unmulun.'" The guru used a formal old Sanskrit word that means "to be torn up by the roots." Eradicated...

Brilliant packed a few things and left the ashram that night --the guru seemed to be in a rush to "unmulate" smallpox... When Brilliant walked into the office of the WHO, it was nearly empty. It had just been set up, and almost no one was working there...

"I was wearing a white dress and sandals," Brilliant says. "I'm five feet nine, and my beard was something like five feet eleven, and my hair was a ponytail down my back." Grasset had no job to offer him, so Brilliant returned to the monastery and, having not slept in at least thirty-six hours, reported back to the guru.

"Did you get the job?"
"Go back and get it."

..."I went back and forth between New Delhi and the ashram at least a dozen times. All my teacher kept saying was, 'Don't worry, you'll get your job. Small pox will be unmulun, uprooted." When at the ashram, Brilliant meditated. He would assume the lotus position...

Neem Karoli Baba would notice he was meditating, and he would walk up to Brilliant, yank an apple out from under his blanket, and throw it at Brilliant's crotch... The guru seemed to be hinting, Brilliant says now, that he needed to stand up on his feet and get back to the WHO in New Delhi, where his job awaited. [Pages 63-65]

Okay, this excerpt is getting unwieldy. To cut a long and interesting story short, Larry Brilliant eventually meets the head of the smallpox eradication program, is hired as a typist, then becomes a leading force in the successful eradication of the smallpox disease.

So, in part thanks to the borderline insane ramblings of a real-life, Yoda-like Indian guru, the most dangerous, deadliest human disease was all but eradicated from the face of the earth. Wow.


Laura said...

I love Richard Preston's books. Completely captivating. I am pretty sure I've read all of his nonfiction, though I could be missing one or two.

Jay said...

The prose is so lucid and concise. He's really great.

sabkush said...
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