Groundhog Day—a great movie on the magic of transforming one’s personal karma—was released in America in 1993. The plot is simple: for the fourth year in a row, Phil Connors (Bill Murray)—a narcissistic meteorologist who works for a make-believe Pittsburgh TV station—travels with his lovely news producer Rita Hanson (Andie MacDowell) to cover the annual Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.
Phil is pissed off to be wasting his talents on this weather forecasting “rat”; unpleasant job done, he’s impatient to get back to the big city.
But a blizzard forces Phil and his crew to return for the night to dreadful Punxsutawney—and when he awakens next morning, the clock radio on his nightstand is playing the same classic it played the morning before—”I Got You Babe” by Sonny & Cher. Other events repeat just as the day before…and when the phenomenon persists the following day, Phil realizes he is trapped in a time loop: Is he doomed to spend eternity in this awful town covering the goddamned “rat”? If so, his life has turned into a living hell!
But soon, with no fear of long-term consequences, Phil begins to take advantage of the situation: he charms secrets out of Punxsutawney’s innocent denizens, seduces unwary women, turns to petty crime, drives recklessly, and gets thrown in jail. Oddly enough, his attempts to get closer to lovely Rita bear no fruit.
Frustrated, Phil attempts to end the time loop: he kidnaps the poor “rat”, is chased by the police, and drives off a high overlook into a quarry, killing both himself and the groundhog—only to awaken next morning to find himself still trapped in Feb 2! Desperate now, he confides in sympathetic Rita, who spends the night with him in order to change the sequence of events. But when they awaken, damn it all, it is still Feb 2.
And yet Rita is so positive an influence that Phil begins to transform: Using his vast knowledge of the events of the day he is doomed to repeat ad nauseam , he aids the town’s residents; he also learns piano, sculpts in ice, and speaks French; he even crafts an eloquent report on the Groundhog Day celebration that wins him all-round kudos!
When Rita “buys” Phil at the event’s bachelor auction, he uses his new talent to sculpt Rita’s face in snow. Voila, their first kiss—whereupon snow begins to fall as it has not before, signaling that true love has broken through the time loop. This time, when they awaken together next morning, it is February 3! The movie ends with Phil expressing his desire to live in Punxsutawney with Rita.
So what has Groundhog Day got to do with my life here in Tiruvannamalai? Only that here I seem to be having a similar experience to Phil. You see, I landed here five years ago intending to stay for a maximum of two months. I’d quit the western corporate world in 1999 to wander through the Himalayas. I’d made several trips back to the west, then landed in spectacular Rishikesh—only to find it was not the spiritual home I sought. It was a Swamini I met while teaching meditation at a center on the banks of the River Ganga who suggested I visit her ashram in Tiruvannamalai in order to clear the fog in my head—and fortunately I took her advice.
I came to Tiru, stayed on, but did not conquer: in fact, all through my first year here I cursed and wept bitter tears. Why? I had ample reason, or so I believed: most of my close friends lived far away in the west, roads and other amenities sucked (now we have great highways, though side roads are still heavily potholed), mosquitoes were vampiric helicopters, beggars heckled despite free food and other benefits of living in a holy town, shopkeepers were surly and often crooked, and, not feeling confident enough to drive through the crazy traffic, I had to rely on the ubiquitous autorickshaw. And yet, every time I decided to flee Tiru, my best friend would persuade me to stay on and await a miracle.
And yet that insistent inner voice told me I could not keep running from unpleasantness, and that sustained joy and peace are an inside job. Then the blazing heat of summer arrived and things got even worse. Panicking, I fled to a serene zen center in Kodaikanal. When I returned to Tiru—and although I still had mountains of karma to burn—life finally began to turn around as I began to taste the mighty power of the sacred hill Arunachala. It was then that I decided to sell my apartment in Rishikesh—no matter the financial loss—and to commit myself to the process of moksha or enlightenment.
Over these five years of major and minor crises, as well as little and great miracles that have shattered my ordinary mind, I have seen my relative nature transform. Let me explain: today I searched in vain for the cobbler who sits opposite Ramana Ashram. Lakshmi, a sage-like coconut seller who sits right outside Ramana Ashram, tells me he’s returned to his village. I have two pairs of sandals to repair—worn out by walking on the Girivalam road with my doggies and the friend with whom I usually circumambulate the mountain. Where can I find a cobbler? I ask Lakshmi in my terrible Tamil. Go to town, she says, past the petrol stations and near the big hospital.
Usually I avoid this area; unlike where I live—the “nice” part of Tiruvannamalai, with its ashrams and spacious homes interspersed with rice fields and coconut groves—venturing here is painful for those hypersensitive to noise, garbage and pollution. And yet I am determined to fix my footwear.
Instead of the male cobbler I expect to see, I spot two women seated close to an open drain with an untidy mound of shoes, sandals and slippers before them. I ask rather doubtfully if they can repair my sandals. Yes, yes, yes, they say eagerly. We settle on a price and the skeletal man with burning eyes seated cross-legged beside one of them gives me the most radiant smile. I talk to them for a while, trying to ignore the sight of the open drain by turning my attention to the pretty pair of sisters frying spicy vadais on the opposite side. Funny, but everyone seems oblivious of the smelly open drains except me! I focus on one of the cobblers—gold rings embedded in both nostrils and a gorgeous face a supermodel would die for. The other is old and wizened with red eyes. Does she drink? I wonder. I wouldn’t blame her if she did.
Giving them time to repair my sandals, I ride off to buy chew-bones and anti-tick shampoo for my dogs, a kilo of ruby-red pomegranates and a bag of limes for my daily morning elixir. When I return the sandals are all fixed. I over-pay the women and receive luminous smiles in return. The couple weaving straw baskets on the opposite side of the road, the fruit vendors, the shopkeepers in the vicinity, I suddenly realize, are all watching our transaction with bright friendly smiles. Now these, I realize in wonder, are The Beautiful People of Tiruvannamalai.
I take off for the Ashram and the Old Hall where Ramana Maharshi lived for the final stretch of his blessed life. I feel a strange sense of happiness as I surrender my burdens of mind and body and know that it emanates from my spiritual heart.
How do I know I’ve changed? Well, five years ago I’d never have ventured to seek help from these economically deprived people who are so rich in spirit despite their hard scramble for the basics. And yet the bad feelings have not completely gone—which tells me I have much inner burning to do. For instance, I was scammed for quite a bit of money by a man in a wheelchair whom I’d befriended; I was also cheated by a shopkeeper who refused to return a rather big loan he’d begged from me. These and other incidents make me both mad and sad—but I can see myself through the eyes of the poorer locals and understand they mean me no harm—they just think that taking something from me won’t hurt me—and essentially they are right. I get over these irritations quickly because I don’t hesitate to use the tools I’ve acquired—and I resolve to be more careful; et voila, this is a strategy that seems to work.
Every day I practice gratitude: In a world screaming with violence, misery and want, where terrible things happen with frightening regularity—including the slaughter of children and the torture, imprisonment and starvation of millions of the innocent—I have been granted the great gift of pursuing a spiritual path of my own choosing in a region that is, against all odds, very beautiful. If I keep going no matter what, I know this incomplete love I feel today can only increase until it burns up all negative seeds.
Every single day here for me is Groundhog’s Day. I’ve come to believe that as long as we earthlings don’t regard our lives as a training ground for evolution, we cannot begin to experience the beauty of our true Self. I consider it a matter of pure grace that I live in the shadow of Arunachala—Shiva in the form of a mountain; Arunachala’s promise is to destroy the ego so we can experience who we are beyond petty likes, dislikes, desires, ambitions and fears—so we can know ourselves to be the Self, blazing existence-consciousness and light. And as we enter a new year, my wish for each of us is that we continue to find the inner strength, courage and love to keep going, no matter what— for the reward is nothing less than bliss.