Exploring The Lives Of Hare Krishna

Washington Post writer Chico Harlan wanted to meet his uncle — a man he barely knew. So he boarded a plane and headed to northern India, where his uncle was living as a Hare Krishna monk and spiritual leader. Guest host Allison Keyes talks to Harlan, who recounted his journey in this week's Washington Post Magazine.

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ALLISON KEYES, host

I'm Allison Keyes, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, you know her best for her 1970s role as the blaxploitation star Foxy Brown. Pam Grier is in to talk about her memoir, "Foxy: My Life in Three Acts."

But first, we open up the pages of the Washington Post Magazine, which we do just about every week, to find stories about the way we live now. This week, Washington Post writer Chico Harlan takes us on his trip across the world to meet his uncle, a Hare Krishna monk. They'd only met twice before, and his father's younger brother was virtually estranged from the family and was kind of a mystery. So he booked a flight to Northern India to meet the man who had become a spiritual leader with thousands of followers. Chico Harlan is with me now in our Washington studio to tell us about meeting his uncle, Swami Bhakti Aloka Paramadvaiti.

You'd seen him in the states a couple of years ago, so what made you want to see him again?

Mr. CHICO HARLAN (Writer, The Washington Post): I think it was the sense that I'd kind of been born to do one good story that was just hanging there in my family tree. And I was intrigued. The more I kind of saw how my own interests were developing into adulthood, the more I realized that there was something, a curiosity and a desire to travel, and a desire to see things that maybe nobody else in my nuclear family had.

And my dad would tell stories about this uncle that I had, and I thought that there could be some similarities. There certainly would be a heck of a story to come back with that I could even just tell my friends about. And I wanted to see India. I wanted to meet this guy. And everyone has a weird uncle, I guess, but this one tended to be a little bit stranger. And you know, he wasn't coming to our Thanksgiving dinner table anytime soon. So, yeah. I went to India.

KEYES: You say that the last time you saw him on a visit to Pittsburgh a few years back - and you wrote: During the second visit, he refused my mom's cooking because it wasn't pure. He accepted only an apple and consumed it entirely, seeds, core and everything. Whatever else happened, I remember only how a bearish, ponytailed man, wearing saffron robes and sandals, walked into my house and ate an apple whole.

What did you think when you met this man, or talked to him again? I'm assuming you knew him as a child.

Mr. HARLAN: So marginally that I'd say I didn't know him. Even that apple encounter, I'm embarrassed, kind of, to not have been more interested when he was in my house. And it was probably just for one night, maybe even for hours. But I would've been 19 or 20 at the time. And I just remember this weird kind of episode.

And I would say that for all intents and purposes, when I was going to meet him this latest time, it was the first genuine encounter. I'm sure it was the first time that I'd ever asked him questions and really was interested to hear what he was saying. He was probably as fascinating, you know, six years earlier as he is now. But it was more a matter of me kind of meeting his - at his interest level.

KEYES: What did you know about the Hare Krishnas before you made this journey? And what was it like when you got there and saw your uncle in the middle of all this adulation? That must've been kind of trippy.

Mr. HARLAN: It was trippy. That's the perfect word for it. I had done a little bit of reading about the faith just to go - almost to prepare myself and to get a sense of what I was stepping into. But to me, it was a very peaceful existence and enjoyable 10 days. And aside from the early wake-up times, there was nothing that was asked of me to do that didn't feel pleasant. The prayer, the community togetherness that they had - it was a small group of people, but there wasn't one time that I felt uncomfortable being there.

KEYES: You wrote that there was a gap between your desire to see something and his to know it. What did you mean by that?

Mr. HARLAN: I guess that I didn't want to continue to live in an ashram for the next year or 10 years or 100 years. I had a kind of curiosity, and the itch was scratched.

KEYES: What did you learn that you had in common with your uncle once you met him?

Mr. HARLAN: Well, I can go big or small here. I think big is that we kind of feed off of interacting with other people - and not just dictating, but hearing stories. He gets to hear that a lot, as strange as the setup is. And as a journalist, that's kind of the thing that I get off on, interviewing people, hearing things about human beings I would've otherwise never encountered. Also, we have the same handwriting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: So when you met him, were you thinking more as a journalist, or were thinking more as his nephew?

Mr. HARLAN: It was as strange a balancing act as I've ever had. It was the first time I'd ever reported a story about my family, and probably the last time, because it's not a comfortable thing to be doing. So I guess at all times, I made him aware that I was interviewing him and being a journalist, and there was the absolute certainty that these things would be written about. There was a bias in writing this, obviously. But also a discomfort. So those were my two experiences of combining family and work.

KEYES: Did your family like the piece?

Mr. HARLAN: Yes. I think my uncle had mixed opinions of it. But I showed it to my dad and uncle and aunt before it was published. So that was the sort of license that I would never give a source. Just another example that - they knew they weren't reading this for the first time when it was in print a couple days ago.

Chico Harlan, from the Washington Post, wrote about going to India to meet his long-lost uncle in this week's Washington Post Magazine. Thanks, Chico, for coming in to talk to us.

Mr. HARLAN: Thanks for having me.

KEYES: If you'd like to read Chico Harlan's story, and we hope you will, visit the TELL ME MORE page on npr.org.

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