Remembering Kanakammal By Marye Tonnaire

Remembering Kanakammal
By Marye Tonnaire

Marye Tonnaire, Kanakammal,
and Mrs. Arparna Krishnamuthy
Marye Tonnaire is an ardent devotee who lives at Sri Ramanasramam, India. For two years she worked with the translators of Smt. Kanakammal’s Commentary on Arunachala Stuti Panchakam and Upadesa Nun Malai, a 700 page book. She moved closely with Smt. Kannakammal for a number of years.

Isn’t it the sign of a good mother when each child feels that he or she is the special, preferred child?  Those of us who moved closely with Kanakammal all have stories that confirm this feeling. We all felt that she had signaled us out, giving us special attention and extra loving care. I had been seeing Kanakammal since the early 1980s and was drawn to her, but at the time our paths did not cross. In those days I was rather shy to approach old devotees, even to ask to be introduced to them. I would always wait until Sri Bhagavan provided me with an opportunity to spontaneously interact with one of them. 

When I read about Kanakammal in Moments Remembered and then read her own Cherished Memories, I was thrilled to discover the beauty of her relationship with Sri Bhagavan and the depth of her understanding of Sri Bhagavan’s way. But still no direct contact occurred until several years later when I was asked to bring Kanakammal in the taxi with me to Chennai where I was taking a flight back to Europe. After leaving me at the airport, the taxi would then take her to her relatives’ house in the city. That evening we didn’t speak at all, but she gave me such a warm smile when the taxi arrived at her cottage and she got into the front seat and then again when I was dropped off at the airport. Sri Bhagavan brought us together a few years ago when my friend Joelle, from France, who had a very special rapport with Kanakammal, invited me to attend classes that Amma was going to give on Sri Bhagavan’s original works and scriptural translations that make up the Tamil Parayana we sing at 6:30 in the evening. In the classes Kanakammal would go through the commentary that she had written in Tamil based on Muruganar’s explanations to her. Kanakammal had apparently held classes for Indian people in previous years and now her class would be translated into English. 

The first year, somehow, I didn’t feel the motivation to attend regular classes in the morning. It was enough for me to just sit in the Samadhi Hall next to Kanakammal in silence when she would come for puja and parayana in the evening. Once when I returned from France with a message from Joelle that I delivered to her in the ashram, she grasped both of my hands, looked me in the eyes and said in English, “What about Marye? I want to know about Marye.” I was thrilled. At that moment she fully captured my heart. When Joelle came back to Tiruvannamalai the following year, I decided that this time I would join the class. I soon regretted that I hadn’t started earlier. We were a small, core group of ladies — Aparna, Dolly, Punita and Minakshi. Joelle and I were the only foreigners, though sometimes Rumi would join us and also some other visitors. Kanakammal would speak in Tamil, but we had the blessing of Aparna’s outstanding English translation. During that time I went almost daily into Kanakammal’s compound, placed my chappels out on the veranda  under her window and had my first glimpse of her sitting in her chair perfectly groomed, draped in a starched, light colored sari with an aura of deep contemplation surrounding her. She reminded me of my grandmother in some ways. When I would peep in through the window she would see me, smile and say, “Vango, Vango” (Come, Come). Then we would greet and I would sit on the floor and lean against the wall. As she knew that 

I had undergone back surgery, she always insisted that I take and sit on the stool that she used to keep next to her chair. As I took my place I would look up at the photo of her as a young lady in her early 20s and think about how fortunate she was to have come to Sri Bhagavan at that time. Sometimes I would arrive late to class and once she started laughing and said, “She is Totakacharya.” When I expressed my ignorance of who Totakacharya was, I immediately got the story. Totaka was a devoted disciple of Adi Shankara, but the other disciples all looked down on him as being quite dull. Once when Adi Shankara waited for Totaka to arrive before he would begin his daily discourse, the other disciples became impatient and complained about having to wait for someone who didn’t have the intellectual capacity to grasp the subtle points of the scriptures. When Totaka finally arrived, he was brimming over with bliss and dazzled the disciples by uttering a few concise stanzas in Totaka metre that confirmed his complete grasp of the subject matter.

This was our class: the commentary on Sri Bhagavan’s works was interwoven with many colorful stories from
various scriptures and puranas, stories that brought the saints and sages to life, right into that small room. This
was interwoven with her own experience of Sri Bhagavan, Muruganar and other senior devotees. At those times Bhagavan came alive and filled the room with his Divine Presence. Through her eyes, which were always fixed on the Master, she gave us a precious glimpse of those golden days. I was thrilled when she told us once, with a twinkle in her eye, that sometimes it was stressful for her in those days, particularly when the road was filled with water during the rainy season and snakes would wind around her legs while she was walking to the ashram, or when bandicoots and monkeys would come into her house through the openings and sometimes even make off with some clothing that had been left to dry. But then all of the difficulties she was experiencing would immediately vanish as soon as she set foot into the Old Hall and plunged into Sri Bhagavan’s graceful presence. Even though most of these experiences are recorded in Cherished Memories or have appeared in the Mountain Path, her speech would flood the room with the divine consciousness and bliss of Sri Bhagavan, as if he were with us then and there, showering his grace. Aparna’s talent as a translator was such a boon for those of us who are not proficient Tamil speakers. She would give an instantaneous English rendition of what was sometimes a long stretch of Tamil discourse, without even a blink of hesitation. This “seamless” English rendition made the experience even more intense, allowing all present to equally share these sublime moments.

Kanakammal used to delight at my attempts at communicating with her in Tamil. She would speak very slowly as if I were a child, and then laugh. Every time she would see me in the ashram she would take both my hands
and say “Eppadi Irukinga? (How are you?) And I would reply, “Nallarukku (fine) Eppadi Irukinga?” Then I would sit down next to her in the back of Sri Bhagavan’s Samadhi Hall. When she could no longer sit on the floor because of leg pain, I would sit with her along with some other devotees in the New Hall where a chair was placed for her use. At first she felt that she should not sit on a chair in the Samadhi Hall. Only later on she accepted to sit on a chair in the Samadhi Hall. 

No matter how many people were around her, or how noisy it got, she was always even-keeled. If I came and sat with her she was happy, and if not, she was also happy. She didn’t expect anything from us. Sitting next to her I felt a deep silence, which inspired me in my own meditation. Whenever we would say to her how lucky she was to have been in Sri Bhagavan’s presence while he was in the body, she would also reply, “But his presence is just as strong now, if not stronger.” She always pushed us inward to grasp the essence of our being, the Atman or Self, or Summa irruku (Be still and know that ‘I am’). She didn’t want us to complain about life’s difficulties and problems. She said that like the dobi (washer man) who beats out the stains on dirty cloth, the Presence of the Guru drives away the individual self (ego) so that the Atman can be released and shine forth in all its glory. She firmly adhered to the fact that prayer to Sri Bhagavan was the ultimate solution to any of our problems and difficulties. She always insisted that the illusory individual cannot do anything on his own and only through complete surrender (saranagati) to Sri Bhagavan, our Sadguru, and with his grace can we do our sadhana. Kanakammal was very strict that we should follow Bhagavan’s direct path, and once she took me to task about my tendency to be overly attracted to rituals. She was rather strong about insisting that I had come here to do Atma Vichara and that I should not deviate from the path. But at the same time she never missed evening puja at the ashram unless she was ill, out of Tiruvanamalai, or there was a heavy downpour. She liked to visit temples also. 

Once she and I were part of a group that went to Tirukoilur, and she was so enthusiastic, like a young girl, as we visited the different temples there. Another time she took me aside during one Navarathri celebration in the ashram and said, “Come to my house tomorrow morning, I want to make you a Suvasini in Sri Bhagavan’s presence.” She had Revati, her niece, decorate me in the traditional way and then gave me a sari, blouse and bangles. I’ll never forget that blessed morning sitting in front of Sri Bhagavan’s photograph in her house. I was moved to tears. I feel privileged to have witnessed her passing and can just say that I had touched her body at that time and felt waves of bliss going through me that pushed out any trace of sadness that I could have felt. What a beautiful end she had! It was a testimony to her utter and supreme devotion to Sri Bhagavan. She just walked into Sri Bhagavan’s Samadhi on Jayanthi day before the puja started with her eyes fixed on the lingam and then dropped to the floor. Some devotees immediately carried her outside near the meditation hall where we sang “Arunachala Siva”. Where she actually left the body is not important. I think she was already absorbed in her beloved Master when she arrived at the ashram and then just took those few steps towards his shrine for our sake. She was surrounded by Sri Bhagavan’s devotees, and on that never-to-be-forgotten day she gave us a final class in total devotion and surrender. Her last words to me the night before in the Samadhi Hall were “Eppadi irrukinga?” I replied, “Nalarukku.” Then I asked, “Eppadi irrukinga?” and she said, “Nalarukku. I believe so. Everything is good.”

OM Shanti Shanti Shanti OM