My Friend Venu by Sujantra
Venu had been a disciple for a number of years when I joined the Centre in 1979. I was nineteen; he was about ten years older. He was very quiet but when he did speak, it was with tremendous enthusiasm. The only thing he seemed to be interested in was the spiritual life and all the myriad aspects of our path.
Venu and I became very good friends. Our friendship was entirely centered on being disciples of Sri Chinmoy and aspects of the path in which we both shared a great passion: singing and sports. We were both in California, he in the San Francisco and I in the San Diego Centre. We would spend time together during the NY celebrations and at the California Joy Days. Venu’s sole focus in life, as far as I could tell, was being a disciple.
Venu’s Singing Group
I was not born with a natural musical ability. In music appreciation class in high school, I couldn’t hear the difference between the various instruments, such as the oboe and bassoon or the trumpet and saxophone. I also had a hard time telling whether a given note was a step higher or lower than the preceding note; but music and singing are a big part of Guru’s path, so I worked hard at singing and percussion.
In the early 90’s I wrote Guru saying I was working on my singing and that I enjoyed learning his music. A few nights later, after listening to a performance of Venu’s group, Guru said I should join. The actual name of Venu’s singing group was “Lotus Groves.” Guru started this boys a cappella singing group in the 1970’s. At that time, the group was composed primarily of boys from the San Francisco Centre. Venu was the 4th or 5th leader of the group. Because we were one of the main singing groups, we would be one of the first groups to sing at large functions, such as Guru’s birthday. We would sing between ten and fifty songs at celebrations and took on challenges such as learning the ‘Long Song.’
Being a member of Venu’s group was a focal point of my spiritual life. It forced me to set aside time to learn songs for the celebrations. Once we got to the celebrations, we would practice as a group every morning until our performance. Venu was a great leader who led by example. He had a single minded-devotion to the challenge of learning Guru’s songs. He was also a confident and excellent singer. Many times his ability and determination carried our group through its performance.
There were officially some twenty-five boys in our group. Venu always kept a list of the members in his wallet. One time I told him I was having a hard time learning all of the melodies and that I didn’t think I had the musicality to keep up with the demands of the group. This was when we were learning the ‘Long Song.’ Venu just looked at me and said, “Keep practicing,” and left it at that. The surety of his advice caused me to feel that my abilities would blossom as the years went by, just as his had. He didn’t seek to assess my musicality and deal with it in a systematic fashion but his words really touched me and gave me the confidence to keep going.
Venu never criticized people, even if they hadn’t learned the songs. He was very conscious of who knew the songs, because he would carefully watch and listen; but he would never humiliate or reprimand anyone. Still, there were times when people wanted him to be a different kind of leader than he was. He was very patient and knew that things took time and that people’s aspiration waxed and waned.
When I joined the Centre in 1980, Guru was running and playing tennis. I was good at both. Venu was a good runner as well, and he encouraged me to develop my abilities. I was faster at the shorter distances, up to two miles. He was faster at the longer distances. We competed against each other often and that competition fueled our efforts to grow spiritually through the running. We lived and breathed Guru’s philosophy of spiritual progress through sports.
For more than a quarter century, the San Diego Centre has sponsored an annual biathlon, a one mile swim across a beautiful Pacific cove, followed by a 10K run on the hard packed beach. I believe Venu did the race every year from its inception. Beginning in 1999, I began competing in this biathlon as well. The biathlon became a fun competition and a topic of conversation between Venu and I throughout the entire year. Most years he defeated me! Often, his whole year of training centered on the race.
As the years progressed Venu’s running slowed down but his swimming improved. He always focused on where he could improve – his swimming. He accepted that which he couldn’t change. Year after year, Venu was a real inspiration to me and he motivated me to train more than I would have otherwise. One year, I was getting severe cramps in my calves while training in the pool and I did not compete in the biathlon swim. I was concerned I might cramp up in the open ocean and put myself in a dangerous situation. When I told Venu, he immediately sympathized and encouraged me in my decision. I always appreciated that.
When I was a young disciple in the San Diego Centre, my cousin Bob, who is the same age as I, joined the Centre in San Francisco. Bob, who would later be given the name “Nagesh” by a spiritual teacher in India, was a great athlete. Nagesh and Venu became very good friends. When Nagesh was in the San Francisco Centre, Venu always encouraged him in his running. Under Venu’s coaching and inspiration my cousin entered a well-known cross-country race. The course ran straight up and down Mount Davidson in San Francisco. They surveyed the mountain on the day before the race to familiarize themselves with the course. The next day, Nagesh won the race! Whenever either of them recalled this event, they would be emit a wave of pure joy and marvel at how unexpected the victory was. My cousin ended up connecting with another spiritual path, but Venu kept him in his thoughts and always wanted to know what Nagesh was doing in the sports world.
Visiting Venu in the Hospital
My final time with Venu was about one month before he passed away. I was going up to San Francisco to visit my dad and I called Venu a few days ahead to see if I could visit him at his apartment. I didn’t hear back from him until the day I arrived in San Francisco. He had been admitted that same morning to UCSF hospital for a round of chemotherapy treatment. It seems the symptoms from his cancer had unexpectedly flared up. He called me from the hospital and suggested I come to visit him for just a few minutes. As I was walking from the parking lot to the hospital, I stopped and cried for a few minutes. Deep inside, I knew that this would be the last time I would see Venu. He always focused on getting better, but deep within he knew how serious his condition was. It was time for two souls to say goodbye on the earthly plane.
I walked into the hospital room and found Venu sitting in a chair by the window. When I entered, there was a large bed and a jumble of tubes and machinery between us, all the implements of modern medicine. He had, for the past year and a half, put his trust in his doctors. He had tremendous faith in Guru and he felt his doctors were true instruments of the Supreme. I had the feeling we were on a field of battle and that I was in the presence of a great warrior. He had taken the bus by himself that morning, and had checked himself into the hospital alone. For this reason, he had just a single change of clothes, a copy of the Mahabharata and his Transcendental. That was all. He was facing death with incredible courage. He was prepared to undergo whatever procedures were necessary, just for the privilege of staying alive. That was one thing that was definite: Venu wanted to be alive.
In that last conversation, we talked about my training for the upcoming biathlon. He was still holding out hope that he would make it down to San Diego to do the biathlon, although he thought he might only be able to do the run. He told me how he had kept up his training in the hospital. He had the staff bring in a stationary bike to his room and he managed to do a few miles on it each day. He was also able to walk a few miles around the hospital wing late each evening, pushing his intravenous drip alongside him.
While we were chatting, various nurses and doctors came in to check on Venu to prepare him for the upcoming round of chemotherapy. He let each of his doctors know how grateful he was for all they were doing and that they should not feel bad that his cancer was flaring up again. He wanted them to know that he understood they were doing all they could and that it was not their fault if the treatment wasn’t working. During a moment when there was no one else in the room, Venu told me that it had taken this experience of having cancer for him to realize how much Guru loved him. He saw Guru’s hand in all of the people and events that were unfolding in his life and he felt an underlying flow to all that was occurring.