Electronic Journal of Sociology


Cholpon sang as she hoed the earth by the honeydew melons, chopping the soil and heaping it up around the vines. The Sufi women working with her sang too; their voices swelled in unison, creating a vibrant hum that filled the space between them. “Apavitrah,” the altos led. “Pavitro-va,” the sopranos answered. Their chant echoed off the rocky cliffs and returned to spill over them like the overlapping rounds of a canon, suffusing the valley with music. As they sang the ancient verses, mantras whose vibrations cleared their minds of thoughts, they merged with the life around them: translucent green leaves, curling tendrils, floppy yellow blossoms, melon globes swelling from the calyxes of withered flowers. They became the singer and the song, the hoe and the earth, the bug and the leaf, all moving to the rhythm of the hymns. The August sun fed them with its radiance. They knew they were this sun too and its million sister stars, all working together.

A man walked down the path leading from the adjoining farm; Cholpon saw he wasn’t their neighbor but a stranger. As he came closer, she could tell from his long face, full beard, and cloth headdress that he was a refugee from nearby Afghanistan. Thousands had fled the fighting and bombing, and some of the more shell shocked had then fled the refugee camps and were now wandering the countryside of Kyrgyzstan. He carried an ax over his shoulder and a bow saw in his hand and wore a pack frame to which were strapped a few dead tree branches. He’s probably trying to make a few soms selling firewood. He walked with a bit of a lurch. Was he injured? No, it looked more like alcohol.

He stopped and regarded the women, puzzled. His eyes traveled back and forth searching for something that wasn’t there. Oh, of course, Cholpon realized, he’s looking for a man—the boss, no doubt. He snickered then threw back his shoulders and stood straighter. Ah, she thought, it just occurred to him that as the only man, HE was the boss. Middle-aged, he was dressed in a torn Pashtun tunic whose once colorful geometric design was now soiled and stained.

“We have no dead wood here,” Cholpon told him in Kyrgyz, “but farther up the canyon you can find some.” She didn’t know if he understood the language, but she spoke no Pashto. She could try Russian or English, but that might trigger hostility.

He turned to Cholpon’s voice, jutted one hand on his hip, and surveyed her as if she were an upstart rival to his new-found authority. He pointed his ax at a nearby walnut tree and narrowed his eyes.

“Our trees here have no dead limbs,” Cholpon said. “We use them ourselves for firewood.”

When he started toward the tree, Cholpon knew there would be trouble. Her Sufi sisters stared at the intruder, clutching their hoes. Cholpon thought her mantra while gazing around his head, to read his aura. The light coming from him was mostly muddy brown, but the green flares showed he wasn’t totally vicious. Overloaded by stress—nothing but chaos to return to in Afghanistan and no future here. His surly stride told her this made him mad, made him want to bully someone, someone weaker than himself.

He whacked the tree with the ax, lopping off a green limb.

“That’s not firewood,” said Cholpon. “That’s a living tree.” Her indignation was mixed with fear: if he was crazy enough to hack a green tree, he might hack them.

The man leaned on his ax, mouthed a kiss at Cholpon, then thrust his hips at her.

She stood about ten meters from him—that felt a safe distance, on the fringe of his dark field. The women stood where they’d been working, watching in fright and repulsion, and she motioned them to draw together. As they moved, the man hefted his ax, not yet brandishing it but gripping it to show his power.

“We will not harm you,” Cholpon told him.

He snorted, then suddenly pivoted back to the tree and brought the blade down on another limb, severing it.

“We know how to handle this,” Cholpon said to her sisters. She named the more experienced Sufis standing in the melon field around her and told them to meditate; the others would chant the peace prayer. Although she’d been at the Circle of Friends from its beginning, she joined with the singers: she needed to keep her eyes open in case he attacked. “Aum Shantih, Shantih, Shantih,” they sang from the heart chakra at the center of their chests. The droning waves of sound surrounded them, held them suspended in soothing reverberations, and penetrated even into their bones.

The meditators sat cross-legged on the ground in lotus position, eyes closed, silently thinking their mantras. Cholpon could feel the effect in her mind as theirs settled towards the transcendent. Her thoughts became fewer but clearer. Her fear dissolved, replaced by compassion for this ignorant man with an ax who thought he could get rid of his own suffering by forcing it on others. If they could reach him with their mental coherence, build up a strong enough field of transcendental energy to get through to his sputtering, miss-firing brain, he might wake up to what he was doing. Fortunately the human mind, even his, responded like a tuning fork to thought vibrations around it. If the sisters could generate a higher frequency, it would make him change his tune and hear the song of his own inner silence. Even a moment of that could snap him out of his stupor and let him know that any harm he does to others just bounces back on himself. This little shift in consciousness—a stroke with a feather of peace—had been enough to pacify other belligerents, at least temporarily. It had worked last year with a burglar and the year before with two drunken sheepherders intent on carnal conquest. Ax man didn’t seem any worse than them.

He howled in mockery of their chanting, spat, then swung at the tree again. Thrap, went the ax into the trunk. The tree shuddered; chips flew; walnuts showered to the ground. From the grace and power of his stroke, Cholpon could see that swinging an ax was probably what he did best in life. Unfortunately no one needed ax swingers anymore, especially the tree.

The women continued chanting, the man continued chopping. Cholpon visualized Djamila in her mind and questioned her. Their teacher’s aged face shone calm and beatific as ever. No danger, came the answer. More meditators.

Cholpon told the chanters to stop and meditate, and she continued the song alone. He tried to ignore them. Cholpon could feel her level of inner silence deepen as the new group settled in. Her voice became more resonant.

The man whacked again, then let go of the ax, leaving it quivering in the wood. Head nodding a bit, he looked up at the tree for a long moment. He wiped off his hands and widened his stance for another blow. He blinked and shook his head, then seized the ax and gave two quick chops, cutting deeper into the trunk. Frowning, he pulled the ax out and stared back up at the tree. His face softened a bit and he shrugged. He looked at the ax, then tapped the trunk with the handle, wood on wood. The man put the ax back over his shoulder, started to walk away, then whirled and swung the ax in a savage arc at the women. All but Cholpon had their eyes closed. She met his tormented stare with as much calm as she could muster. He roared to make the others open their eyes and look at him, then laughed as if he’d pulled a practical joke on them. He slapped his thigh, stamped his foot, and strode away with a swagger.

The women sighed with relief. “Meditate a little longer,” Cholpon told them. “This time for us.”

Afterwards they made a paste of chitilani root to heal the walnut tree, then returned to tending the melons.

A woman approached on horseback. Cholpon was glad to see Acel, a carpenter who’d been repairing the main house, mounted on Talas, their pinto stallion. The workers paused to rest, leaning on their hoes and drinking from water jugs. Acel reined the horse in and called in Kyrgyz, “Cholpon, Djamila wants to see you.”

Cholpon wiped her forehead with the sleeve of her cotton shift. Maybe she wanted a report on what happened. Djamila could usually sense an overall situation from a distance but not the details.

“Come.” Acel extended her hand to help Cholpon onto the horse. “You can ride behind.”

Cholpon gave her hoe to a sister who had been working with just a trowel. She reached up for Acel’s hand, felt the woman’s strength as she hoisted her, gave a springing leap, and vaulted up onto Talas’s broad, bare back. The horse whinnied and pranced his hooves on the flinty path. Cholpon’s wide-brimmed straw hat fell off, and another sister handed it up to her. She snuggled in close behind Acel, wrapped her arms around her waist, and gripped Talas’s ribs with her knees. Like most rural Kyrgyz, Acel had been raised on horses, but Cholpon was a city girl. Although she loved the rocking sway of the animal beneath her, its warmth and smell, and the wordless communication of their minds, Cholpon didn’t feel quite steady perched up here, especially without a saddle. She clung tighter. The breeze of their trot dried the sweat on her skin, bare beneath her long dress, and she luxuriated in the coolness.

Cholpon’s ebony hair was twisted and pinned in a spiral to fill the crown of her hat. Her eyes—pools of gleaming darkness, slightly slanted, almond-shaped—shone from an oval face with high, broad cheekbones, a short, straight nose, and full lips around a small mouth. Her pale-gold skin glowed from her labors.

From horseback Cholpon could see how much they’d accomplished in planting this hectare of melons. Since the spring thaw she’d helped to dig out rocks, cut down bushes, and plow the earth behind the bay mare to turn this hardpan canyon into a field. She’d hauled sand from the lake shore to build proper soil for a melon patch, scooping it up from the beach in two earthenware jugs and carrying them on both ends of a wooden pole that pinched her shoulders all the steep way up, shuffling with a straight back and bent knees. Then she’d shoveled dung—cow flops, sheep splats, horse apples—from the corrals and mixed it with compost—webbed with mold, steaming with the reek and heat of fertile decay—and pitchforked load after fragrant load of it onto the donkey cart. She’d led little patient Noumi clip-clopping with the full cart up the stony path. Cholpon had spaded the humus into the field, turning it over and over, making a loamy soil. She’d dug a channel to divert water from the stream and built gates to control the flow. She’d planted seeds from last season’s melons, thrusting them deep into hillocks of dirt, watering and tending them, rejoicing at the first sprouts. She’d weeded and thinned and hoed, plucked bugs and shooed rabbits, and she’d done it all side by side with the other women, her Sufi sisters, singing together, joined with each other and all of nature.

Cholpon knew, though, that work was secondary to sadhana—their spiritual practice of meditation, yoga, chanting, and dervish dancing. That expanded their awareness. It showed them they were living in and around their bodies, each a teeming microcosmic universe in itself, on this farm at the shore of Lake Issyk-Kul in Kyrgyzstan, north of Afghanistan, west of China, on the round blue earth in this solar system of the Milky Way galaxy of the teeming macrocosmic universe. It let them know they were little cells of the great body of God, each with a job to do.

The rewards of their physical labor would soon arrive. Some of the honeydews had grown to their full round glory and rang under Cholpon’s knuckles with the right hollow thunk. She looked forward to her favorite breakfast of melon and tea, and to the new beds the Circle could buy with the sale of the crop.

Cholpon and Acel rode out of the canyon, its granite walls rising steeply on both sides and the stream coursing down the middle. In August the flow was a trickle that seemed incapable of having cut this sheer notch into the mountain, but each spring the snow melt swelled it to a roily torrent that flooded the narrow canyon, leaving no doubt of its force. Last summer Cholpon had hiked up the stream for two days to its source beneath a glacier high in the Tien Shan range, using its burbling plash as a mantra to wash her mind of grief from her father’s death. She had done puja at the foot of the glacier, offering wild raspberries, lupin, and thirty-five years of memories up to Parvati, the mountain Goddess. She had stared at the blue-white wall of the glacier until it glowed amethyst in star light, then fell asleep wrapped in felt blankets and awoke covered with snow and finished with mourning.

“How did Djamila seem?” she asked Acel.

Acel didn’t turn her head. “Not so good.”

Cholpon brooded. Djamila was almost always fine. Maybe there was some other problem. The teacher rarely summoned someone from work. The day’s events, even an event like ax man, would usually be reported after evening meditation. What else could it be? Cholpon mulled over things she could have done wrong. Perhaps a food wholesaler in Bishkek had complained about the quality of their produce. When she wasn’t working on the farm, she handled the sale of their crops in the capital. Haggling with the businessmen was her least favorite activity; they were always griping about something, nothing was ever good enough. In contrast to her sisters here, they seemed empty pits of unmeetable needs, always grabbing for advantage and stuffing their ravenous senses. Maybe they’d convinced Djamila that Cholpon had made a mistake.

She glanced around for something to take her mind off the meeting. Her eyes rested on the silver shimmer of birch leaves along the stream and the deep needle green of pines at the edge of the canyon, and she drank in the sight. But wasn’t that similar to what the men in Bishkek were doing: craving sense stimuli as an escape from themselves? What would the teacher say about that? Probably that we should enjoy the senses but not be dependent on them. Djamila taught that our sensory perceptions and thoughts form a screen that separates us from the transcendent, the source of all this manifestation.

Cholpon and Acel dismounted in front of the main house, which stood near the shore of the lake with a craggy horizon of mountains behind it. To Cholpon the house embodied the past century of Kyrgyz history, from outpost of the Russian empire to independent nation. It had once belonged to a family of Russian kulaks, peasants who had grown wealthy under the Czar. After executing the family, the Bolsheviks had collectivized the farm, then added annexes to the graceful frame building, turning it into a rambling hodgepodge. The new additions were boxy and merely functional, some of unpainted plywood with tin roofs. Now the women were gradually renovating the place.

Talas saw two fellow horses at the water trough in the corral. As he headed toward them, it became Acel’s turn to trot to keep up with him.

Cholpon walked between the two carved wooden columns which gave the entrance of the house pretensions of grandeur, which she rather enjoyed as a trace of frivolous luxury. The porch and its roof, though, slanted with age.

Most of the large rooms had been subdivided to make a dormitory for the farm workers. The salon, however, had been kept as their dining hall. Stalinists had purged its chandeliers and cornices as bourgeois ornament, but its high, coffered ceiling remained. Filled with cushions and prayer mats, it was now the Circle of Friends’ meeting room, where Djamila led dhikr—meditation and discussion, and sama—singing and dervish dancing. The walls were painted an ancient proletarian gray, which the Sufi women had covered with colorful textiles: Kyrgyz felt, Indian cotton prints, Uzbek silk.

Djamila’s group had bought the property during the first wave of privatization in the early 1990s. Before that, they’d been an underground circle of Sufi sisters, banned by the communist government and scorned by Muslim fundamentalists. They’d met secretly in small cells around Kyrgyzstan, with Djamila traveling among them teaching. The suppression had welded them into a tight congregation, and now since the collapse of communism they’d been thriving under the new religious freedom.

Djamila’s office contained a table draped with white cloth and a desk that held a scattering of papers, a vase of roses, and a bowl of fruit. A purple-and-gold Bukhara carpet, worn but still vivid, covered most of the creaky wooden floor.

Djamila sat near the open window on a couch decked with multicolored pillows. To Cholpon she seemed like an ancient baby: her plump body was small in proportion to her head, white hair fine and flossy as a new-born’s crowned her round face, her clear, luminous skin was unwrinkled except around her mouth, and her eyes projected outward in a big open dazzle on the world and inward as deep as Lake Issyk-Kul. Most of her teeth were gone, but she said she preferred her food soft and mushy anyway, so it didn’t matter. The skin of her mouth was gathered in puckers, but they disappeared when she smiled, which was most of the time. She wore the same unbleached cotton shift as the others, and her only jewelry was a necklace of coral beads. She held a rose in her hand, waving it about while talking to her secretary in Kyrgyz.

On the wall above her hung pictures of her two teachers, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of India and Shayk Rais Yasavi of Kyrgyzstan. With the same deep eyes and blissful smile, she looked like them without the beards.

In college Djamila had won a scholarship to study physics at the University of Allahabad. While in India she’d met Maharishi, who had a degree in physics and who showed her that what she really wanted to learn was metaphysics, going beyond the physical to reach the source of the universe. She’d become a chela, an aspiring yogi, and studied at his ashram in the Himalayas. He’d taught her transcendental meditation and sidhis, higher mental powers, and then, once she’d mastered them, how to teach them to others. He encouraged her to return to Kyrgyzstan, remain a Muslim, and use these Vedic techniques of consciousness to re-enliven the mystical spirit of Sufism.

Back home, she had apprenticed to Shayk Yasavi at the Sufi center in Osh and immersed herself in Islam. When she finally felt ready, she founded the Circle of Friends and devoted herself to teaching.

Ranging from the Koran to the poems of Rumi to quantum physics, her lessons integrated spirituality and science. She taught ancient meditation methods but used an electroencephalograph to study their effects on the mind. The scientific aspects of her teachings appealed to the many educated, nontraditional women who had come of age in Soviet times and were now seeking something deeper than the materialism of either communism or capitalism.

Cholpon waited hesitantly at the door until the secretary, a severe, efficient woman in her mid fifties, a former school administrator, noticed her and motioned her in.

“Ah, Cholpon! Yes, come,” said Djamila in her birdlike chirp, her face suddenly tinged with worry.

Cholpon brought her right palm up to her forehead and made a sweeping bow onto the carpet, saying, “Assalam alaikum”—Peace to you.

“And to you, my dear. And to that sad creature who caused such a disturbance. Were there any more problems with him?”

“No. We re-synchronized his brain waves,” Cholpon said with an ironic smile. “He didn’t exactly thank us, but he left.”

“Good. That’s the only way to handle people like that. Opposing them on their level is useless. Now sit here”—Djamila plumped the cushion of the easy chair beside her—”for we must have a proper chat.”

Relieved by her friendly tone, Cholpon began to relax. If the purpose of the meeting was a reprimand, it wouldn’t have started this way.

But as Djamila looked at her, the sparkle in her eyes faded and her mouth tightened like a drawstring purse. Cholpon’s stomach did the same. “But peace for you may have to be postponed for a while.” The teacher’s voice dropped. She gestured with the rose to her secretary, who left the room and closed the door. “I must tell you what I saw in trance this morning.” Djamila frowned and gummed her lips. “It is not good. The astral channels are now very dark…so the vision was dim. But these troubles in Afghanistan and Iraq seem to be flowing over to us. We may all end up wandering around like that man out there. There is danger approaching. I could see it like a black fire…with flames that did not burn but crumbled all they touched into gray ash.” She leaned closer, her forehead knitted. “And you were in the middle of the fire, dancing the dervish rings, around and round, and a wind came up from you, fanning the flames so they covered you. But you did not turn to ash. Then your wind blew the flames smaller…into flickers. And they disappeared under your feet as you danced them away. Then you disappeared. And the evil was gone.”

The vision scorched Cholpon, made her cringe inside; she wasn’t ready yet to disappear. “I am evil?” was all she could ask.

Djamila shook her head with loving patience. “No, my dear. You are quite good. Of all our Friends here, you are closest to enlightenment. With you, the knowledge is not just in your mind…it is in your breath. But this fact is just for you and me, nothing to tell the others. We must have no favorites here…since Allah has none. But you have special abilities…and that is why you have been given extra duties.”

Cholpon thought of all her trips to Bishkek: driving the produce van the five hours, paying the militia their bribes at the highway checkpoints, hassling with the merchants at the market, enduring the men leering at her breasts, spending a lonely night in her apartment there, then shopping for supplies for the Circle and driving back, all the while feeling she was wading through mud out in the world, yearning never again to leave the sacred atmosphere their sadhana had created in this valley. She had grown up in Bishkek, in that same apartment, but now after being with Djamila for eighteen years she felt alien in the capital, her weekly trips a burden.

“I know it has been difficult,” Djamila responded to her thoughts, “but it has been necessary…for us and for your own growth. We all need activity…we can’t always be turned inward. Remember when we dye cloth, first we soak it in the color. That’s our meditation, merging our mind with Allah.”

Cholpon settled into the cushions and prepared herself to be talked to.

“It’s most important, but there’s another part too. We must take the cloth out and spread it in the sun…to fade the color. That’s like our work…in the fields, the city, wherever. Then dip it again into the dye…in and out…some of both every day…until finally the color is fast. After that you can wash it, wear it in the sun, doesn’t matter. It won’t fade. So we go back and forth between the inner and outer worlds…until we can be anywhere and it’s all the same to us. Then we’re free. Nothing can overshadow us.”

Cholpon nodded and tried to conceal a flash of irritation. She’d heard the analogy a hundred times, and each time Djamila spoke as if she’d just invented it. There was probably some lesson in this, one Cholpon wasn’t yet ready for. Maybe something about every moment being new…or the enlightening effects of boredom.

Djamila ignored the irritation. “But with you there is still some dipping in and out to be done. And so…we must lay you out now in the hot fiery sun. And we hope it doesn’t burn you up.” She gave one of her mirthless cackles to remind Cholpon of the stark impersonality that went hand-in-hand with her tenderness. “But if it does, so be it. Just remember, you are eternal.”

Cholpon’s fears rose again, but she asked, “What must I do?”

“Go back to Bishkek.”

“I was just there.”

“You must go again.”

Heart sinking, Cholpon bowed her head. “How long?”

“A while. You will know…it will become clear.”

“If danger is approaching, I want to stay here…to defend you.”

“The danger is not here. It’s in Bishkek.” Djamila swung the rose with perplexity. “I’m sending you into the danger.”

Cholpon’s black eyebrows arched up into her creased forehead, and a knot formed in her chest. Djamila seemed to be foretelling her doom, and cavalierly at that. “Why?”

Her teacher’s eyes rested on her in a way that left no doubt as to how much she cared about her. “It is your dharma. That which cannot be avoided is better met head on.”

Cholpon bowed again.

“You are a fine ancient soul…we have been together in many lifetimes…and I love you very much.” Djamila let the flower drop to her lap. “See, the rose falls, but it lands somewhere else. There is no loss. Our bond is so strong it goes beyond physical space. It goes beyond even this life. You don’t have to be close to me…to be close to me.”

Thinking of the dozens of times the teacher had been right in the past, Cholpon mustered her courage. “Yes. I will go.”

Djamila bowed to her. “Allah-aum.” She took Cholpon’s hand. Although the Shayka’s face was mostly unlined, her hands were wizened and wrinkled. Their touch, though, gave Cholpon a surge of energy that flooded her brain with light and her heart with calm. Just being in Djamila’s presence, or even looking at her picture, had a powerful effect, but her touch was concentrated Shakti force. “Something else was in the vision,” Djamila continued, “something about a man.”

Cholpon winced. More trouble.

“It is not clear…but there is some tie between you, some karma to be met.”

“What sort of a man?”

Djamila gave one of her cosmic shrugs. “Just the man you will meet. I wish I knew more. The times are very bad right now. I could not see clearly.” She dropped Cholpon’s hand and stretched her short, plump arms. “Or maybe I am just getting old.”

Leaving this sacred valley to plunge into some unknown danger with a strange man—that was as appealing as eating ashes. What had Cholpon done in a past life to bring this on her? No way to tell. As Djamila often said, “The ways of karma are unfathomable to the unenlightened…and irrelevant to the enlightened.” All she could do was meet it—head on. Or maybe head off.

Cholpon pushed her fear aside: Djamila had steered her through enough problems to have earned her trust. Last year she had foreseen Cholpon’s father’s unexpected death, and once his symptoms manifested the Shayka visited him on the astral plane to help him prepare for the great transition. Her father, a lifelong atheist, had told Cholpon his wonderful dreams of an aged angel floating above him, caressing him and relieving his dread. He died peacefully.

“When should I go?”

Djamila smiled in approval of her student’s obedience. “Today…after lunch. Now we will pack the van with what crops we have ready.” She paused, ruminating. “Cholpon, I love you. But the Circle of Friends comes first. There is danger where you are going. I don’t know what, I don’t know why, but it is coming.” She searched for a tactful way to say it. “The money from the merchants…make sure you put it in the bank as soon as you get it. We don’t know what might happen.”

Cholpon shuddered inside and nodded. Djamila, the ever practical. For the Shayka, individual desires, even individual existence, always came second to preserving the knowledge she had to give, to building the community that would continue her teaching after she was gone. This attitude—detached, hard, yet loving—was the only way she had been able to sustain her group here over the opposition of the communists and the Muslim mullahs. The communists had recognized her as a threat to their materialist creed and tried to get rid of her as a religious agitator, a fomenter of counter-revolutionary superstitions. Djamila had used subterfuge, bureaucratic delays, and diplomatic influence to fend them off and eventually outlast them.

During that time Cholpon had been able to persuade her father, a Party official, to block several efforts to jail the Shayka. He had thought the old woman ridiculous, but he’d been one of those fathers who couldn’t resist giving his daughter what she wanted. Cholpon had pleaded and wheedled with him, and he had intervened.

Lately the mullahs had become a problem. To them, Djamila was a heretic. Her first teacher had been an Indian yogi. She blended the Koran and the Veda into her own version of Sufism, and this eclectic approach was anathema to orthodox Muslims. Sufis were the wild, mystical, rebel fringe of Islam, open to techniques and beliefs from other religions, so they had often been persecuted for their nonconformity. Djamila was on the liberal side even among them. She revered Krishna, Christ, Mary, and Buddha as well as Muhammad, so the Muslim establishment, under pressure from fundamentalists, was trying to purge her. Her being a woman, and a successful one, was a particular thorn in their patriarchal hides.

Cholpon agreed that the needs of the Circle had to be first priority. She’d seen too much of the aggressive, greedy, ego world for it to have any value to her. Basically the same under communism or capitalism, that world ran in mad circles of insatiable, ever-multiplying desires, getting nowhere. Through Djamila she’d experienced the other realm, the transcendental source of all this diversity, the unmanifest unity from which the relative differences emerge. Thanks to meditation, her mind had been saturated with the energy and bliss of this underlying consciousness. The feeble charade of what people smugly called the real world—just matter and its abstraction, money—couldn’t compare to the unified field, the wellspring of creation, the infinite mind of God. Djamila lived there all the time and was showing her followers how to reach it too. Their Circle and the sadhana they practiced were a structure necessary for the journey, like sandals needed to walk the rocky path out of ignorance, and a lamp to light the way. These had to be maintained, or the darkness of materialism would reign everywhere.

“Yes,” Cholpon said, “I’ll deposit the receipts first thing. Then we’ll see…what else will happen.” She swallowed.

“I want to give you some inner reinforcement…for what lies ahead,” Djamila said. “We’ve been working on your upper chakras, but now we must strengthen your lower centers. It’s a lower energy that is coming towards you…and you need to be able to repel it.” She unfolded her legs from the lotus position, massaged her arthritic knee, and stood up stiffly, steadying herself on Cholpon’s chair. “First we will do puja.” The sparkle returned to her eyes.

Djamila shuffled to a shelf of pictures in gilded frames and picked one out. “For this sort of business you need Durga’s help…the slayer of demons.” She held up a picture of a naked brown-skinned Goddess with red eyes, long matted black hair, curving white fangs, brandishing a bloody crescent sword, dancing on the chest of a huge, bearded, very male, very dead demon. Rather than triumph or malice, her face showed only peaceful joy. “Durga knows how to handle the dark forces. With her, your soul will be protected. Your body, though…well, we’ll have to see.” Her expression held a savage drollery that said death and other shifts in physical reality weren’t worth worrying about.

Cholpon’s heart beat faster.

Djamila set the picture on the white-draped puja table near a cluster of brass ceremonial implements: a candlestick, camphor lamp, incense holder, offering tray, bowls for rice and water. She pulled six red roses from the vase on the desk and a sprig of cherries from the bowl. “Stand beside me,” she told Cholpon and gave her a flower.

They faced the puja table, and Cholpon followed the Shayka’s lead in bowing before the picture. Djamila dipped a rose into the water bowl and began chanting the 108 names of the Goddess as she waved the flower and sprayed water drops over them in ritual purification. Standing crookedly to take the weight off her painful knee, roses clasped in front of her, she sang the Vedic verses in her little bird voice while staring at the picture.

The words filled Cholpon’s mind in a way that ordinary sound didn’t, permeating it completely, dissolving her thoughts, leaving her empty and immense. Her heartbeat slowed; her breath quieted, then almost stopped; she felt her outer self fading, and she clung to the chant to keep from disappearing. The picture began to vibrate and glow as if alive. Durga’s eyes became beacons, and as Cholpon gazed into them, this fierce deity seemed to devour her, but with kindness instead of cruelty.

Cholpon’s surface personality fell away, revealing her inner being that enlivened her body but was independent of it. Energy poured from the Goddess into her. As the chanting continued and Djamila offered rice, water, fruit, and flowers to Durga, a current of vitality spread through Cholpon, overrode her fears, let her know she was beyond all harm.

The Shayka stopped singing, took Cholpon’s flower, and offered it with hers in front of the animate picture. They both knelt into a vast inner space, freed from thoughts and filled with the Goddess’s reverberant presence.

Djamila spoke softly. “Now we learn how to use this Shakti. First we straighten the back.” Cholpon sat up on her heels. “Then close your eyes and breathe out…all the way.” Cholpon tightened her diaphragm to press the air out. “Into that hollow…pour a sound.” Djamila paused, then whispered: “Meera-ma.” The mantra rang through Cholpon as a tap on a gong fills the huge dome of a mosque, faint but everywhere. The Shakti force became livelier, a glowing field within her. “Now draw this fire in from the different parts of your body…gather it all at the base of your spine, where you sit.” Cholpon’s mind brought the impulses together, collected them, concentrated them into an inner sun. “Good.” Her tailbone grew warm and she squirmed with discomfort. “Now bring it quickly up your spine…but only as far as your ribs.” She could feel it rising, but it stopped after a few inches and spread into her pubis, exciting it. “Don’t let it stay there,” Djamila said. “Gather it back and draw it up. It belongs higher, between your ribs and your stomach.” Embarrassed, Cholpon collected the energy together, moved it up, and released it. It flowed across her torso like molten steel that did not burn but radiated vigor. “That’s its home, your power chakra. From there you can project it out. Now raise your arms.” Cholpon did so. “Higher…and extend your fingers. Let half the energy flow down into your legs and half up into your arms…all the way to your fingers.” A kinetic wave surged through her limbs and sprayed from her fingertips. She felt she could lift the world.

“Am I this strong?” she asked in amazement.

You are…but your muscles aren’t. This is your heart shield. If dark spirits attack, it will repulse them. You can sense when evil is approaching and avoid it. But its effects are more on the astral than the physical. No, you can’t lift the world.”

Cholpon nodded in disappointment.

“Each morning and evening you meditate with this new sound. Afterwards, you sit straight in lotus and collect this energy into your power chakra. Draw it all in there. Then go out and meet the world…unafraid. The Shakti will flow wherever it’s needed. Your inner self is protected.”

Cholpon pressed her tingling palms together and bowed to Djamila, fearless now, resonant with force. “How will I find this evil?”

Djamila blew out the candle on the puja table. “It will find you.” She gave Cholpon one of Durga’s flowers. “You are ready for it. Go…meet the flames of your dharma…then come back to us.”

Cholpon bowed again, this time in farewell. “Allah-aum.”

She packed her suitcase, helped load the old Moskvich van with cabbages and a few ripe honeydews, and set out on the 250-mile drive around Lake Issyk-Kul, over the Bistrovka Pass, and down into the Chu Valley where the city of Bishkek waited in the shadow of the Ala-Too peaks.