The Guru Has Protected This Home
Dev has found a new roommate for us. He passed up dozens of eager young women in favour of a man. The man is for me: a gift. Dev says none of the women who came to see the apartment were genuinely interested in living there. Every one of them was actually trying to get a date with him. He liked the Croatian the best. And a blond named Noel. But he had to ignore their overtures, because he doesn't have money to take them on dates. Once he’s won the lotto, though, he isn’t going to get a third roommate at all. Instead he’ll "show the room" to women on a weekly basis: take them to dinner, take them to a show. It couldn't be easier.
Dev is called Dev, to me at least, because of Guru Dev Singh who is Dev’s guru. Dev is a Kundalini yoga fanatic. When he does it properly, he does nothing but Kundalini yoga all day, day after day. But he never does it properly so he is in a constant furnace of self-hatred. Some weeks he almost does it properly, and then he can be found for hours on end in the lounge panting with his tongue out. Or he can be heard, from 4am all through the day, humming, hummy humm braam humming, in his room.
Dev’s room is just smaller than a single bed mattress, which is made clear by the way his single bed mattress curves up toward the wall. “I fucking hate this room!” he shouts, often enough. Sometimes he says he’s come to quite like the room after all. Sometimes he moves into the lounge for a few weeks and sleeps on one of the vast eggplant-colored velvet couches. “My room smells of paint fumes,” he’ll say, or some such explanation; anything or nothing will do. It is categorically Dev’s apartment, and although I live there with him I am, in all meaningful respects, his guest.
Dev likes opulence. He wants to paint the lounge gold, and he fantasizes often about blue velvet curtains to compliment the velvet couches. On the wall there is an amateur portrait of a beaming man in front of a turquoise sea. Dev picked it up on the street and found it boundlessly amusing. He named the man José. Above the door there is an olive-lettered promise on a warped piece of board: “The Guru Has Protected This Home.” And resting on a bookcase is a black and white photo of Dev posed as Jesus on the crucifix after the Romans remove the spear from his side. He has perfectly captured the forlorn Renaissance expression: glazed eyes, half rolling back, mouth delicately agape.
Dev is an actor. In a way he is very beautiful, but because he is perpetually irate you seldom notice his beauty. The centre of Dev’s look is ocular: he has those bovine eyelashes that curl up to his eyelids, and hazel eyes that are never at peace. He has perfect skin and thick brown hair which he leaves fairly long. He is short and though he only eats the occasional tortilla, he retains a layer of youthful blubber. When I first met him, looking at the apartment, he asked me if he could pass for a 12-year-old boy. I assured him that he couldn’t, certain that this was the desired response. Instead he was incensed. Dev’s acting niche, as he’s imagined it, is the child genius, or the early-adolescent wunderkind. In some other world, I am certain, it is Dev who plays Oskar in Schlondorff’s The Tin Drum.
The first time you enter the lounge, and quite a few times thereafter, Dev will talk you through everything that’s in there and how much it cost. There have been a few eras, longingly remembered—almost fondled— in which Dev had money. I am not present for any of these eras. Instead I am present for Dev’s lavish poverty. There is also a story about how his family was tricked out of a massive fortune, and one is inclined to believe it because there is a powerful sense about Dev that he is supposed to be a man of means. Dev is deeply generous, but he hasn’t had anything to give anyone in over a decade, so he has not felt like his real self for a long time. The only time Dev had any money to speak of was when he organized a new roommate and he was then able to squander their security deposit. Usually he spent this money on a Guru Dev Singh retreat in California. Then he could be found, for the few days before, in impossibly high spirits, jollily ironing all his white clothes.
If he could only do the Kundalini properly, if he could summon the discipline, he wouldn’t have any of these problems. He could win the lotto and never have to think about money again, which he finds an utter bore. When you’ve done the Kundalini properly you turn into a god and the world reduces to a trifle; a dinky little thing with no difficulties or secrets. When you’ve done the Kundalini properly, you simply know the right lotto numbers, you go to the bodega, you buy a ticket, and then presto: you’re a billionaire. For several years now, this has been Dev’s main financial plan.
Even though I endeavor to spend as little time with him as possible, everything Dev does intrigues me. I go onto Craigslist to look for the ad he put up for the room. He describes us as “mid-twenties South African woman in publishing industry, mid-twenties yoga/meditation man in show-business.” I seek out this post because it is difficult for me to fathom how Dev manages to rent out our third room at all, let alone for $750 dollars a month. He advertises it as such: “About eight feet by thirteen feet. Not a square room. Not for squares either. It's also not a rectangular room. It's a Mystery Room.”
The Mystery Room reincarnates with each new tenant, so that I eventually felt I had come to know ten or eleven rooms, or probably none. The Mystery Room is also Dev’s livelihood. For reasons which remain incomprehensible—and may, indeed, lend credence to Dev’s Kundalini mind-control hypothesis—our otherwise sensible landlord Anthony “permitted” his yoga/meditation man in show-business to drag two massive sheets of chipboard into the apartment, to inexpertly cordon off the entrance hallway into a dark, windowless box.
Anthony, the landlord, grew up in the neighbourhood back when it was rough, and everyone was Italian-American, et cetera. He works on the docks. He has a wife, Marta, who he met in high school. They have a young son, and an old sausage dog with a cloudy eye. Marta is not amused by Dev, but Anthony seems to have a strange loyalty to him; some weary could-be-worse-ness that befalls good-natured landlords in a city like New York. He even let me take on a foster cat, Tilly, though pets were supposedly forbidden. For his personal entertainment, Dev established an elaborate feud with this cat. “What an effective little politician she is,” he said, when she showed him some affection. “Rubbing up on the opposition more readily than Obama.”
To the right of our building, when you look out from the kitchen into the jigsaw of cement yards, is Anthony’s uncle’s place, who Dev calls “The Don.” He is a constant presence in summer, when he eases his vast tan self into a fold-out chair and sits beside an above-ground pool that takes up the whole yard, and smacks of DIY. From our vantage we can only see his bald and glinting head. For most of the year the pool cowers beneath a thick caul of black plastic, which facilitates a little watering hole favored by neighborhood rodents, but for a few months it comes into its own, and forms a constant ice-blue temptation, yearned for by Dev and me.
One night I walk into the kitchen and Dev hears me coming and starts singing, in his booming actor’s voice, "There she is… Miss South Africaaa." It’s sticky hot: when honey pours like water; when you need to splash your face in the kitchen sink every twenty minutes. Dev is cooking his usual tortillas and beans, standing by the stove in black briefs with the lights off. When money’s good he also makes a dessert tortilla with banana and peanut butter. I stare into The Don’s pool and say I'd give anything to go for a night swim. Dev says it isn’t worth the mandatory interaction we'd be forced to have with the neighbors. We both agree that our best relationships are the ones we don't have. (We are really saying: thanks for not wanting to talk the whole time). He says we should go to the Red Hook pool. I say I heard the Gowanus pool is better. We both say we'll go tomorrow, and we don’t even have to say that we won’t go together.
Dev and I are not friends. We never become friends. Not in my time as his roommate (nearly three years), nor in my time as roommate emeritus (six years and counting). But we become close in a different sort of way. We endure something together. What we endure is Dev being himself, which is even harder on him than it is on me. We also endure the constant rotation of the roommates in the Mystery Room. Dev doesn’t suit having friends in the traditional sense anyway. They involve too much sincerity, which I suspect he finds tacky. Instead of friendship, or even friendliness, we cultivate a mocking sort of enmity. At first tacit and then relievingly explicit. “My old nemesis,” I call him, in our subsequent correspondence. “So you survived Hurricane Sandy? I meant to ask, but then I just assumed your demise, and lit a candle in your honour, and quickly snuffed it.”
Dev came to New York, from New Orleans, with a performance of Genet’s The Maids. It was one of those versions where the maids were played by men, and Dev was one of those men. This was precisely how Dev intended to arrive in the city: with a celebrated, aggressive rendition of an indisputably highbrow play. The New York Times reviewed it, mentioned Dev by name, and the next day the play was closed down; some screw-up with the regional permissions.
This was Dev’s New York origin story. It was the tale of everything he deserved—the life that was duly his, unfolding magnificently in some parallel universe, where the run continued unmolested, and his celebrated turn in The Maids glided into a celebrated career on the New York stage, segueing naturally into cult celebrity as a character actor in film— and everything that was taken away from him in so cruelly a banal, administrative fashion. It was also proof that his current life (as the impoverished sometimes-waiter, and star of poorly-produced student films the city over) was some sort of mistake, a glitch. That you should not mistake it in any part with his person nor with his destiny.
Dev once organized a screening of one of these student films in our lounge. It featured a single character (Dev) shooting himself in one foot, and then shooting himself in the other. He tries ineptly to get around on crutches after that, with these frayed limbs dangling beneath him, and his face smeared with a euphoric grin. It referred, I suppose, to the submerged desire to thwart oneself, to the satisfaction of having succeeded at it so spectacularly.
If he could only do the Kundalini properly, Dev could have any role in any film he wanted. He could even manifest perfect roles for himself. Later on, years later, when I am back in Cape Town, and Dev is lost in his mind, he will send me long lists of imagined projects he’s involved in. He will be playing Elliott Smith in a Wes Anderson film. He will be Sylvia Plath’s boyfriend in an upcoming biopic by Paul Thomas Anderson. Plath will be played by Carey Mulligan (“she’s a monstrous headache”). Scorsese is adapting Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach and Dev “may be in it but who can believe anything these days.” Robert Wilson is going to make a film of The Seagull and he wants Dev to play Kostya, desperately in love with Nina, and by the way Chesil Beach is off because Scorsese was only trying to gay-bait him. Guru Dev Singh is going to give Mel Gibson his comeback and Dev will do Dostoevsky's The Idiot, which Gibson will direct, only he will call it Prince Myshkin and Dev will be Jewish. “Mel is not an anti-Semite at all. It's a long story.”
Dev has an older brother who lives, with the rest of his family, in New Mexico. I am reminded of this now because Dev gave his brother a copy of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, and his brother took it the wrong way (but also the way it was intended). In retaliation his brother, an artist, drew a grotesque portrait of Dev which was for a long time his profile picture. After that his picture was of Bobby Peru from Wild at Heart, grinning maniacally with his sparse and tiny teeth; his whole presence washed with blood. “I am sorry but I've just looked at the picture on your Gmail profile and find it absolutely scary. Could you just confirm that it is a joke,” one prospective Mystery Room tenant emailed, just before viewing the place. She was a French woman studying writing at NYU, usually just Dev’s type. But this was a deal-breaker for him. “Now who would not want to live with good old Bobby Peru?” he asked me.
On the fridge, held in place by a small magnet in the shape of a lifebuoy, was a photo of Dev’s family. None of them visited him in the years we lived together, and in that time he never went home. But occasionally a vast FedEx box would arrive, filled with food his mother had made for him: frozen bricks of New Mexico chilli. When he was institutionalized his father flew out from Albuquerque to have him released from involuntary commitment. “I really lost my mind the past few weeks,” Dev wrote to me. “I had the time of my life doing it.”
Dev was not so much looking for roommates as lovers or muses or wives. When he was on the hunt he was perpetually bursting into my room, telling me of a new lead: a lovely Polish linguist was interested; a Spanish actress was coming tomorrow; he was having a Skype call with a Philadelphian pianist. He forwarded me their emails, so that someone could bear witness to how coveted he was. “My name is Yael, I am a 27 year old female graphic designer and artist from Israel. I’m into yoga too!” “Hello future-—roomies? Wow, i would love to sit on your breakfast-table ;) I am Amelie, 22 years old, from Germany. I just moved here after falling in love with this cultural rich place.” “I’m Frankie! A 23-year-old from California. About me: I am very open and sociable. I love to meet other people and absorb their characters. I ask a lot of questions and i am very curious about life.”
When they came to view the place Dev would pour them pomegranate juice. If they said they didn’t want any, he would insist. Then he would talk to them for hours on end in the lounge, explaining how much everything cost. When they left he would give me his acerbic appraisal. Often they were too fat for him, but mostly he was repulsed by their paltry minds and humourlessness. Dev had the undeserved power of all deeply critical people, and I both feared and relished these little tirades of cruelty. After I left New York, and Dev with it, he continued to share his roommate bounty with me. Perhaps as an indication of how exceedingly replaceable I’d turned out to be.
One morning one of our roommates left the apartment, and didn’t come back for a week. It was during this unexplained absence, and Dev’s extraordinary nonchalance concerning it, that it dawned on me, with a slow terror, that Dev was all I had in this world. I wrote some contact details onto a piece of paper, and made him join me in storing them in one of his books in the lounge; setting the book apart from the others, and talking him through South Africa’s dialling code. It was a strange ritual, out of keeping with our usual demeanour toward one another. And I suppose I still thought, back then, that I was the one who needed to be watched out for: having arrived in this new place, where no connection to the old place remained. I felt for a long time, in this newness, like someone I was making up. I felt a sense of almost devious surprise at the way the world gradually corroborated me (see: I do have a sister, a father, a mother, a hometown, a place I went to school, a place I grew up).
When he was feeling powerful, Dev would heal people. He told me about a woman he healed on the G train. She was walking in agony, and he went over to her and cured her painful ankles, then he moved onto her painful knees, and finally to her painful hips. He watched her whole bearing transform at each joint. And seeing the peace and relief he was able to bring to this woman, Dev began to think that he could probably make a lot of money healing people. The first session would only be $22 dollars. The second session would be $56 dollars, and then the price would be set at $108 dollars. He would have five sessions a week, and the lottery money.
I once ran into Dev on the corner of Summit and Van Brunt after he returned from one of his retreats. He’d cut his hair into a schoolboy side part. He was wearing all white: white shorts, white t-shirt. Sometimes he would finish off this uniform with an ice-blue turban. He was holding a paper coffee cup. “I go to this great free coffee place around the corner,” he said. It turned out he was talking about the Chase Bank, with their pot of drip for clients. He was irate again, which was a gift of his. This time he’d been set off by a yard sale. People with all their shit lined up on their steps, asking a half dollar for this, a quarter for that. “Why put all your shit out there? Why stand there with all your shit? I don’t want to see your shit!” Anything could set him off. The mere mention of the Chelsea High Line provoked an hour-long rant, nearly as impassioned as the diatribe he reserved for Inglorious Basterds. That people were tolerating—nay, even celebrating—the amoral festering of that film was too much for him to cope with. He kept ambushing me with new and ever more sophisticated arguments for its depravity, none of which I can now remember because I was always trying to get away, or get to the fridge, or get out the front door. I was fascinated by Dev, but I was also bored by him: sick of putting up with him; sick of his plans and his passions and his manipulations; sick of hearing about everything he hated and why.
Dev was being really hard on himself because he still hadn’t won the lotto. It wasn’t that he didn’t know how to win (you just use the Sat Nam Rasayan®), but he was psychologically preventing himself from doing it. Dev liked to tell me about everything he’d do once he’d won the lotto. They were modest ambitions, by billionaire standards: mostly he would move out of his room and into mine. He told me about a psycho he’d encountered in a park in Sacramento right after his retreat. He was so frightened even as he recounted it. And it was strange to see his fear, because mostly he was my psycho. But suddenly I realized that he wasn’t: that he was scared and alone and poor. That someone needed to take better care of him, and that it wasn’t going to be me.
There was for a time a sense of continuity between madness and the man: something essentially paranoid, over-charged, erratic, unstable and deluded. Initially, the man seemed significantly represented in his madness. The same tastes and enthusiasms remained, the same sense of humour. It was possible, in these early stages, to almost enjoy it all unfolding. “The ghost of Kurt Cobain apparently is going to help keep me sane. And not only that. The beautiful ghost of Sylvia Plath is with me. She is lovely. And not only that. Watch the Addams Family again! Morticia has been with me too, remember how incredible she is (only she's still alive). I love her. Oh, and GOMEZ ADDAMS is with me. From the movie. Remember how fantastic it is? His ghost!!!”
Later though, the enthusiasms began to recede. In their wake was left a sober fear, which Dev would lapse into in between bouts of manic emailing: hundreds of one-line missives accumulating into frantic, teetering narratives.
The first thing you learn about Kundalini is the snake. The image of it coiled up at the base of your spine, and how it must be awoken to make its arduous journey up through all your chakras, until it reaches the crown. It is an ominous image. And all of Kundalini began to have something ominous affixed to it for me. Those days of Dev’s mad panting; that frantic tongue work. Three hours upon five hours upon eight hours of chanting. I began to cherish the idea of the serpent deeply asleep: the subtle body wisely unready; universal acceptance again deferred.
I’ve since discovered on an infinity of online forums, that madness and Kundalini have a long association. Some say Kundalini awakening can be mistaken for psychosis. Others say that the awakening can go wrong; your consciousness can be unprepared for it, and instead of transforming, it can shatter. This is a fragmentation of self from which, I read, “it is difficult to return back to normal everyday life.”
One day a voice came to Dev and suggested he take off all his clothes and walk naked around the block. On Hicks Street, the chef came out of the local seafood restaurant, wearing an apron and a look of bewilderment. More looks of bewilderment followed on Henry and Clinton Street. A few blocks later the cops picked Dev up and sometime after that he was taken to a psychiatric hospital and sedated. When he woke up, it was somehow the landlord’s distrustful wife, Marta, who was to be found at his bedside, gently stroking his arm. She had bought him a pair of bright red sneakers.
Dev said that all of his relationships had been much improved in the aftermath of his breakdown, especially with the landlord’s family. Though it wasn’t long after that Anthony finally told Dev he had to leave. Apparently their son was frightened of him, not to mention the dog with the cloudy eye. In the wake of this eviction, Dev had to move back to Albuquerque with his family. In Albuquerque all the plays were awful, and what was worse, they all received standing ovations. “To see people stand up and clap thirsty for any sign of culture here in the desert is so pathetic.”
Dev is an observer of seasons, cycles and solstices, of the moon, the constellations, and the rhythms of the solar system. He remained attentive to the different skies of my hemisphere. He would write to me when the full moon was in Capricorn. “Ah, who knows what crazy burdens on my time await as the moon fills up with gas. What a gassy moon it was.” He would write when the seasons were changing, or a solstice was approaching. “Just dropping you the quickest note, talking about the weather, etc, even though I don't have time today to do this sort of thing. I pity you for the autumn that you're falling upon. We're coming on spring, and she's coming upon us, and we're both going towards summer. Too bad for you going away from summer. Oh. You poor, little darling. Poor, sweet thing.”
Dev hasn’t written in years and neither have I. I haven’t wanted to disrupt the silence. Mostly I have been afraid of confirming what the silence might imply. For much of this time, I haven’t thought about Dev, but now that I have come to write all this out, I flood with memories of him, and with an unanticipated love. Of his passion for strawberry beer. Of the way he’d say: “To wonderment.” Of his fascination with borough politics. Of the fabulous suit he’d wear when he was looking for restaurant work, with its faded ruby jacket, all velvet. I remember his elation at getting called for Jury Duty, and how dejected he felt when he wasn’t allowed to serve. He’d put on the ruby jacket for that too.
There is a time, in your early twenties, when everyone is just raw talent. You assume everything will follow from there. And when I met Dev, at this age, all of his viciousness and ability was crouched within him like a fearsome thing. Then by your mid-twenties you start seeing this other transformation; people who use their talent to make something of themselves. Quite a few people even start to make something of themselves unhindered by their lack of talent. It starts feeling like an inevitability: everyone must rise. But by your late twenties—and forever after— you begin to understand the much more significant phenomenon: the brilliant people to whom nothing happens; for whom the world does not oblige. Often, as it transpires, the most brilliant people: the wisest and strangest and wittiest; the most uniquely wired. None more so than Dev, I sometimes feel, seated somewhere among the Ovaters of Albuquerque. There is a petty sort of tragedy to this; to not making it. But more significantly, there is a reflection on a certain kind of success. It means so much less than it alleges to. It means almost nothing at all.
I still have the albums Dev downloaded for himself on my computer, which occasionally come shuffling onto my iTunes. One of these songs is over 30 minutes long; it is called "Humee Hum" from an album entitled "Musical Affirmations Volume 2." The lyrics begin "humee hum," and end "braam hum." Humee hum, braam hum, humee hum, braam hum. “What'll it be then?” I hear Dev saying, as it plays. “Take some carrot juice for your liver, relax your cranium just a little to let more free thinking in, and be kind to the animals. Absorb just a light wind on your epidermis to cure any writer's block. Make fun of my disingenuous, mean nature all you want, but do yourself a favour and don't deride my magical thinking.” Come with me, Go with God… Come with me, Go with God… Come with me, Go with God… Humee hum, Braam hum… Humee hum, Braam hum.
When I left New York for good, I also left my foster cat in Dev’s eerie velvet lair. For months afterwards I had dreams of her opening her eyelids and being filled with dense white froth. I remember her following me down the passageway, past the Mystery Room, I remember closing the door on her enquiring face; trying to banish the thought of her. These are the uncomplicated emotional relationships you can have with animals, the ones that are impossible with other people. The simple dynamic of responsibility, dependence and affection. The simple sense of betrayal.
Before this final departure, I had thoughts of gently suffocating the cat with a pillow, to spare her the torment of my abandonment (such is the extent to which we can overestimate our importance in the lives of those who love us). But lo: the cat landed up moving to a lavish loft with a lingerie designer (a subsequent tenant), and to this day, like a tragic ex, I look her up on Instagram, splayed out contentedly on swatches of trendy fabric in between shots of intelligent-looking women in bodices.
I’ve been back in Cape Town for years now. From my bed I stare out at Devil’s Peak, and in the evenings I watch the last of the city’s light, setting the devil aglow and fading to twilight. I am well, I think, though one night in ten I wake with a terror before the dawn. On these nights I am sometimes consoled by the drifting sounds of choral singing from a prayer group down the road. I hear, and try to hear, their collective humee-hums and braam-hums and Oms, and somewhere in that consoling vibration, which drifts into my room like a slow front, I fall back into oblivion.
The night before I moved out, Dev stood in the doorway of my room. I kept wanting him to go away, wanting to be alone, even though I knew he was a king among all the people I would ever meet. If he would only leave, I would not have to rouse my mind and my soul; I would not have to expend the energy it would take to understand him. He kept standing there, toying with the door with his foot. His mood was low but he wanted to speak. He said that it’s sad I'm leaving. He said that we're such introverts, we spent all this time living together and we don't know each other at all. He said he'll come to Cape Town once he's won the lotto. And he’ll keep my cat, too. He'll hold her against his belly until he ingests her.
A version of this essay was published in the final issue (15) of Prufrock Magazine.