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Maroon in the Red? (From the Indian Express, March 24th, 04)

Now you have belly and pole vault dancers in Pune's pubs, and of course even FTV at home. Therefore, digesting western culture is a lot more easier even for the most conservative Puneite. But then, in the mid-1970s, when the maroon tribe walked into Pune, with Acharya Rajneesh in the lead, it was a rude culture shock to Puneites. Of course, the Rajneesh Ashram later called the Osho Commune International was tucked up in the cosmopolitan and stiff upperlip locality of Koregaon Park - quite a distance from downtown Pune, and amidst bungalows belonging to aristocratic families. But that wasn't enough for Puneites to swallow the arrival of the controversial 'Sex guru' in Pune. For he had already begun hogging international headlines and public outrage in India with his theory of 'Sex to Superconsciousness' around which his public lectures revolved in Mumbai.

The Koregaon Park neighbourhood too generally looked down upon this new neighbour whose baggage of white skin disciples they thought, was repulsive. Neighbours complained that the disciples were outrageously dressed, and couples had no inhibitions about kissing in public. Similar scenes used to be witnessed on M G Road and restaurants like Latifs on East Street.

The bright side for Koregaon Park though was that, soon it was a business boom in this neighbourhood with Rajneesh's foreign disciples ready to shell out a luxurious amount for rents for rooms and flats; shops sprouting with maroon robes and chappals (in fact nearly all the shops in Centre Street near M G Road had transformed into maroon cloth merchants) and soon restaurant owners in Koregaon Park were only short of putting up boards: Indians and dogs not allowed! The darker side of business was hotels like Mobo's that were infested with western disciples, allegedly hooked on to drugs. Pune screamed that its youth would get spoilt by this influx.

Though, curiosity got the better of many Pune intellectuals who waxed eloquent about Rajneesh's ahead-of-his-times philosophy much to the consternation and embarrassment of their families. Some of them also became disciples and began sporting maroon robes in public. Many surreptitiously attended his public discourses in the ashram. But generally, the attitude towards Rajneesh and his tribe was condescending. So when he decided to move to Oregon in US (strangely rhyming with Koregaon) in 1981, Puneites heaved a sigh relief, though the ones who cried were the businessmen. Koregaon Park wore a deserted look, but 'Rajneesh' audio cassettes and books steadily became popular. By the time, he came back to Pune in 1987, after he was expelled from the US and rejected by 21 countries thereafter, the acceptance of Rajneesh as a philosopher amongst Puneites had grown. But no, they would not tolerate the behaviour of his disciples. Playing to the gallery for a change (earlier the ashram literally looked down upon the locals), the dressing and behaviour pattern was formalised by the commune management as it declared in its official brochure that, its disciples must dress decently and modestly, when in Pune, and no, they cannot kiss in public!

Puneites by then got accustomed to the fact that Osho Commune had become an integral part of Pune and blunted their animosity towards it. Rajneesh rechristened himself into Osho and soon he faded away in 1991. Despite critics predicting the doom of the Osho Commune, it emerged into a more enhanced throbbing outfit, with some compassion for the locals. First, its creation of the Osho Teerth Park from a stinking nallah brought it respect from the public. Then, the transformation of the Lane no.1 from a neglected road to one with lovely trees, street lights and tarred stretch had people appreciating the endeavour.

More importantly, the beautiful Gautama, the Buddha Hall was thrown open for Osho Festivals (coinciding with his birth and death anniversary) and the public was invited with glossy cards (the only condition being the AIDS test that was mandatory). The who's who of music and performing arts of India came to perform and the status of the Osho Commune was elevated.

— Until 1994, when it found itself caught in an unenvious situation: post-Osho's death the commune had begun attracting fly-by-night disciples, who used the Osho Commune as a facade for conducting drug orgies in the backyards of Koregaon Park in private farms, in the garb of Osho sannyasins. Two massive drug orgies were busted by the Pune Police, and the commune had no choice but to tighten its process for giving the commune pass to the visitors. It endeavoured to only allow 'genuine' disciples. This subsequently dipped the number of fly-by-night visitors who found that Pune had lost all its 'fun' and these were in large numbers.

The slide in sannyasin population continued but the Osho Commune had not given up. Amidst controversies of Osho's intellectual property rights being exported and Osho loyalists walking out in a huff from the commune due to what they termed 'commercialisation of the commune', the inner circle dominated by Swami Jayesh, a Canadian, built a swanky and massive 1 lakh odd sq ft of 'Osho Meditation Resort', just opposite the main gate of the Osho Commune. Despite its metamorphosis from a commune to a resort, wherein 'Osho' pictures are conspicuous by their absence, and fun and entertainment are in focus, it continues to survive. Only, the spirit of survival has changed.

But by now, Puneites have moved their attention away. It's the IT and BPO boom on the brighter side, and traffic chaos and senior citizen attacks on the darker side, that's keeping them busy. The commune, they know is there, but it's just insignificantly stored at the back of their mind.

Vinita Deshmuk