A Meeting with Norma Sastry

Magazine Article: Theosophy in Australia, March 2005.

Picture of Norma Y SastryNorma Y Sastry and “Roger”

Norma Y Sastry was a much loved resident-worker at Adyar, the International Headquarters of the Theosophical Society. She came to India from the USA in 1935 and lived there for most of that time until her passing on 19 April 2001. For many years she worked as Accommodation Officer at Adyar and endeared herself to many visitors and members through her ready helpfulness and compassion. She was also for many years both a member of the Executive Committee at Adyar and of the General Council, the TS international governing body. This interview was conducted in 1995 by Pedro Oliveira at Shanti Kunj, Norma’s residence at Adyar. Norma agreed to speak to him about her life, her work in The Theosophical Society, her work for the Maharaja of Gwalior and many other aspects of her multi-faceted life.

Norma Y Sastry and Pedro Oliveira

P. How long have you been living in Shanti Kunj, Norma?

N. Since 1959.

P. Norma, can you tell me something about your childhood in Michigan?

N. I was born on a farm.

P. How big was your family?

N. We were five. But were born over a long period because my eldest sister was twenty years older than me, and she was more like a mother than my own mother was. I was the last of the five.

P. Obviously, winter would have been very rigorous in that area?

N. We had a stove of course, and it was very nice to go out and do what we called making angels in the snow, by lying down with our arms outspread, seeing our impressions in the snow, and also making snowmen. I suppose it was the usual life of a child born on a farm in the country.

P. What was the name of the town where you were born?

N. I was born ten miles from Caro, which was the nearest town.

P. What did you do after high school?

N. The most important thing was to look for a job, because my father had died; my mother had done everything she could to earn enough money (including taking in laundry, house cleaning and midwifery) to help us finish our schooling and so the thing for me to do was to stand on my own legs. So, I went to the next biggest town, Detroit, and stayed with my sister. I answered a classified ad and was called for an interview. That started my working career.

P. Which job was that?

N. Working in an office, although I had not the slightest idea what office work was, except that I knew typing. When I was asked to make an invoice, I said ‘What is that?’

P. How old were you then?

N. Sixteen. Through my brother I contacted somebody who wanted a girl to live in, to look after their child in return for boarding and lodging. So, though I worked in an office in the daytime, I then had the job of baby-sitting for the night and maybe washing dishes or doing ironing. I did that for two years and then lived on my own.

P. Was this the job in which you were taking care of a little girl?

N. Yes, but it was my good fortune that the man I went to work for in the office was a theosophist. That was my first contact with The Theosophical Society.

P. Did he give you a theosophical book to read?

N. Yes, he did, but I would not look at it. I remember him holding up At the Feet of the Master for me to see, but I turned my head the other way, so as not to look at it.

P. That begs the question, ‘What was your religious background?’

N. Protestant. We went to church on Sundays; the whole family dressed up, the horses were hitched to the buggy and we all rode to church.

P. Did you feel yourself particularly religious?

N. No, not in the least bit, although later on when I lived in Caro I was friends with a group of young people who were Baptists. I used to go to the Baptist church and received a full ducking one night, so I was fully baptised.

P. We go back now to our theosophical friend. Was he your boss?

N. Yes. His name was Arthur Gresko and he lived in Detroit. I was told later that they decided I looked so sickly, that probably I would not live very long anyway and so they made my last days happy by giving me the job.

P. How long did you work there?

N. For ten years, until I came to India in 1935.

P. Until then you were reluctant to accept the theosophical teachings?

N. Very reluctant.

P. How did you come to join The Theosophical Society?

N. In order to go to a reception and wear a new dress in Chicago. My boss said that he was going to Chicago to attend the American Convention, and asked whether I would like to go along. Well, that was a temptation. I had never been to Chicago! But when we got to the hotel he told me, ‘Now you go to a movie, or what you like and I will be going to the reception.’ My response was: ‘Why can’t I go to the reception?’ ‘Well, because after all you are not a member.’ ‘What do I do to become a member?’ So, I filled in the forms, he and another Finnish gentleman signed them, I became a member and went to the reception.

P. Which year was that?

N. 1927. I had already heard Dr Besant speak in 1926, when she came to Detroit, but I was not interested. I was far more interested at looking up at the balcony, where Krishnaji [J. Krishnamurti] was sitting. I wanted to know what a Hindu looked like.

P. Was Krishnaji there when Dr Besant spoke?

N. He accompanied her. But I was tremendously impressed by what I thought was a gigantic woman and yet later, when I met her, I could not believe that this little tiny grandmother was the same woman who had stood there so eminently powerful. She gave the impression of being very big and strong. Also in 1927 GSA [Dr George S. Arundale, later the third International President of the TS] and Rukmini [Rukmini Devi Arundale, his wife] came to America, where Dr Arundale spoke at the TS Convention.

P. You worked for him later on. But what was the result of having participated in the theosophical Convention? Did it change your mind?

N. Well I went back and of course said, ‘Now that I am a theosophist, I must go to the Lodge meetings.’ But I well remember the first Lodge meeting. They all sat in their seats, and a little music was played. Then Norman Pearson [author of Space, Time and Self] said ‘Now we will meditate’ and everybody sat erect in their chairs, hands clapped on their knees, and I looked this way and that way and wondered what they were doing. I don’t even think I had heard the word ‘meditation’ before. Then he started, ‘Think of your physical body. Say to yourself, “This is not I; I am the One imperishable Self”.’ I remember that very well. Then, the next was your astral body and I thought, ‘What on earth is that?’ Then the mental body! That was my first meeting. But I religiously went to all the meetings and was very impressed by the fact that Theosophy stood for brotherhood. I used to stand in the doorway every evening and shake hands with everybody when they came in and went out. I was very brotherly to them and I suppose they were all very amused with this young person. They were all very nice to me.

P. So the idea of brotherhood appeal-ed to you very much.

N. Ah, very much so.

P. When did you become a vegetarian?

N. I think I completely stopped eating meat about two years after I joined the TS. I was eighteen when I joined, and by the age of about twenty I had stopped completely. I never made a decision to stop. But, of course, my friend would see that I read a book or something, and all that would make a little impression—also, the idea that your body was made out of what you ate and Dr Keller’s book, mentioning that the best oysters come from where the sewer vents into the sea, that kind of thing. I think it is best to be a vegetarian when you are converted to it and the body follows suit. It is no problem then.

P. Now after joining, would you go to Wheaton regularly?

N. Yes, I never missed a summer school.

P. You met many well-known theosophists.

N. Yes. They included, of course, Geoffrey Hodson and Clara Codd. But to me it was important because Dr Besant gave a wonderful lecture with the title ‘Just Men Made Perfect’. It was a whole lecture about the Inner Government of the World, the Masters and so forth. I was terrifically impressed by it. Only after that did I begin reading theosophical books in earnest.

P. Do you remember her delivery? Was she very impressive as a speaker?

N. Very impressive. Also, at that Convention, she came down so anybody who wanted to could line up and shake hands with her. Poor thing, it must have been awful shaking hands with everybody. But I joined the line and shook hands with her also. Then I saw how tiny and fragile she was, with lovely white hair.

P. This was in 1929. Now we come closer to 1935, which was a turning point in your life, because that was the year you came to India. How did the decision to go to India come to you?

N. Well, Dr Arundale was a wonderful propagandist. He started to encourage members to come to the Diamond Jubilee Convention at Adyar, which I read about. It was at the end of the Great Depression and I did not have much money left, but had enough for a ticket to India. I wanted to be there for the Diamond Jubilee Convention. Also, I had known Felix before that and he had come the previous year to Adyar.

P. Felix Layton?

N. Yes. I received a little note through him from Dr Arundale, saying that if you want to come—I remember the last part of it—‘Hop it, if with beating heart and asthmatic breath you decide to take the jump, hop it and come at once.’ I came with a palpitating stomach, I think. I did not come with the idea of a long stay; at least I did not know how long I would stay.

P. You then sailed for India in 1935 but did not come with the intention to work?

N. I think I came with the intention of working, because I remember I practised shorthand on the boat all the way over. I did not expect to work here for the rest of my life.

P. Dr Arundale was the President at that time. Did you work for him immediately after your arrival?

N. Yes. I was immediately given something to type—I think it was for J.L. Davidge [who was the International Secretary at that time and later General Secretary of the Australian Section from 1947-1957]—before Dr Arundale returned from elsewhere.

P. So you started working as his Secretary.

N. Yes.

P. How would you describe him for people who did not know him?

N. He was an extremely warm person, very outgoing, and always used to come up with some new idea. Of course, the roof talks [on the roof of the Headquarters building] in those days were humorous. The children on the compound came because they enjoyed all the fun. Maybe I am giving the impression that he was just playing all the time. He was not. He did his serious work. He would go into his room, work very hard and then come out and have his little chat, with fifteen minutes of laughing and joking. In those days, of course, the mail came only once a week, because the P&O boats landed in Bombay weekly. Then, a whole bag full of mail came. So one had a whole week in which to answer it and get it posted off for the next boat to England.

P. Do you remember the names of the westerners who worked at Adyar during the early time you were there?

N. The Hamersters [A. J. Hamerster]; Mrs Ransom [Josephine Ransom] used to be here when she was working on the history of the TS; Miss Amery; Madam Cazin. There were Marie and Alex Elmore and Marie’s son who is now Dick van Buren; Conrad Woldring; Rie van Vreeswijk [later Maria ‘Rie’ von Krusenstierna, a member of the Australian Section who now lives in Adelaide]; and Eunice Petri [later Eunice Layton, a well-known speaker for the American Section].

P. Felix Layton was here also?

N. Yes. He worked at the Olcott Memorial High School.

P. You went back to America in 1938. Why?

N. Because Dr Arundale said it was good for me to go back. I spent weeks weeping over it, thinking I would never see this place again. A group of us went back to America together: Jack [John Coats] and Betsan [Betsan Coats] with the two children and the two maids; Emma Hunt, myself and a woman called Nietta Gray.

P. Having lived from 1935 to 1938 at Adyar, how would you describe leaving Adyar?

N. Well, I arrived in New York and the first thing I said to a friend was, ‘I want to go back to Adyar’, and then burst into tears.

P. You felt a complete rapport with Adyar.

N. Adyar was the only place where I wanted to stay.

P. Did you go back to Detroit?

N. Yes. No sooner had I decided that I would stay when I got a telegram from Dr Arundale saying: ‘Come back to Adyar again’. I dropped everything, joined a boat at Marseille and came back.

P. So you came back in 1938. Then the war broke out and that affected the work.

N. I was in India in Madurai when the announcement came, during a tour with GSA and Rukmini.

P. You must have rushed back to Adyar.

N. No, we finished the tour. Rukmini was giving dance performances.

P. I believe after the war began the compound was occupied by the army.

N. Yes.

P. Can you describe the war years here at Adyar? What kind of changes did the war bring?

N. We had very restricted activities and had to find our own entertainment. I started to play the gramophone.

P. So your love for music goes back to that time.

N. It started at that time. Actually, there was no music in my early years at all. Of course, many buildings were occupied by the military and were out of bounds. Once in a while we had a tea party to which they were invited and I remember being invited to an Officers’ tea party in Olcott Bungalow.

P. Then the end of the war came. What were your plans? What did you do?

N. I once told him [Dr Arundale]: ‘You can send me out of Adyar, but you cannot send me out of India.’ And I remained in India because I went to North India before the war ended, at the end of 1944.

P. Which places did you visit?

N. I went to Gwalior because Radha’s [later Radha Burnier, President of the TS] father’s sister, Mrs Jyoti Homi, was then in charge of the Girls’ School in Gwalior. She said that they were looking for someone to run the Montessori school, as well as a nurse to look after a little three year old child. I thought I would go and visit her. Radha was then living with Mrs Homi, doing her BA at the college there. I also met the Maharani of Gwalior there and decided I would not stay and work there, so I left the little child.

P. There was a very strong rapp- ort with that child.

N. Yes. I know it sounds very theosophical to talk about other lives and all that, but I have often wondered if this little child was the one I had looked after earlier, to earn my boarding and lodging, because she died when she was about six. They were so similar in the colours that they liked, their attachment to me and so forth.

P. Can you tell us something about your subsequent work for the Maharani of Gwalior?

N. It was quite a new experience for me, though I am fond of children–well, I knew that I was going to look after another child—but I did not realise how much trouble she was going to give me! When I went there I thought, ‘Well, this is a new experience. I will just find out what it is to be in a Royal family, and then I will leave.’ But I found that I could not leave quite like that, and ended up staying there for more than eleven years. The girl became very attached to me. She wrote once: ‘You are the only mother I have ever known.’

•   •   •

Unfortunately, the tape containing the second half of the interview was lost. In it Norma reminisced about her many travels with the Maharaja of Gwalior’s family, including on one occasion a dinner with Walt Disney and his wife, whom Norma taught how to put on a sari! She also told about her marriage to N. Yagneswara Sastry, N. Sri Ram’s younger brother, her return to Adyar after her stint in Gwalior and her deep love for Adyar and its animals. In 1984, thanks to her very generous donation, the major part of the underground cabling at Adyar was done. She was known as the mother of the compound. Meenu, a wild green parakeet with a pink and black collar, started visiting her sometime in 1987 and continued to do so for almost ten years! She was also known throughout the theosophical world and to the many visitors to the International Headquarters for opening her house every Sunday afternoon.