On a chilly Melbourne morning in September 1998 a bunch of us gathered around a long table at the Tin Pot Café for Surya’s wedding breakfast. Of course, he wasn’t there – he was getting married in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu, India. So those of us who couldn’t be in Tiru marked the occasion in Fitzroy North, drinking coffee to the health of our friend and his new wife, Pooja. We scattered rose petals on the table and a cranky waitress made us clean them up before we could leave.
He was Coapy then – Guy Coape-Smith. It was only after his marriage that he became Surya. It’s a South Indian custom that a man will give his bride a new name but, in a characteristic twist, Guy left Pooja’s name as it was, and let her change his instead.
Surya’s first experience of India had been in 1996. A Melbourne friend, Faith, was running spiritual tours of South India and Surya joined one. He was deeply impressed with the teachings of holy man Sri Ramana Maharshi (1879 – 1950) when the tour stopped at the Ramana Ashram in Tiru, at the foot of Mount Arunachala. After the tour he returned to Melbourne, finalised his affairs, and settled in Tiru. He met Pooja one morning while walking up Arunachala.
‘Sometimes he would get so moved by Ramana that tears would flow from his eyes just talking about Him,’ says Pooja. Their whole world was Ramana and the holy mountain. He would be in the ashram meditation hall every morning at 7am and they would often walk up a mountain path to the cave where Ramana lived from 1915 to 1922. Surya would cite Ramana’s talks, some of which he knew by heart. He revered Carl Jung too and often told his wife, ‘We have to do our inner work, Pooja! This is vital! Jung said that if more people did their inner work, the world would be a better place…’
Tiru was his home until 6 January this year.
Surya is no more.
Pooja’s email arrived that night. ‘Sahi, I’ve just heard that Surya is no more … I’m horrified and shocked beyond words … Please could you inform his family.’ Their marriage hadn’t lasted but they’d remained friends.
Unlike many long-distance friendships, mine with Surya had deepened over time. Since his father died in 2011 he could afford to visit Australia every year. Just as the Tiru heat became unbearable, he’d fly to Brisbane, retrieve his motorbike from storage in Mullumbimby, hang out with friends in Byron Bay for a few days then head south. He’d stay a while with his nephew Tim in Mossy Point on the far south coast, then continue down to stay a few days in my region. He grew to love Tathra and the café on the wharf there, and would film migrating whales with his drone-mounted camera. Then he’d continue to Melbourne to catch up with old friends there, before gunning it up the Hume and New England highways to leave his bike in Mullum and fly home.
Otherwise, our friendship was conducted online, since 2015 over Facebook Messenger. When Covid arrived Surya decided to ‘ride it out’ in Tiru – no more travelling.
It was a rare day that we had no contact. Usually I’d wake up to three or four notifications – by then Surya’s sleep-wake cycle was notoriously out of whack. I’d make a point of not responding until at least 4am Tiru time, to avoid engaging him in conversation and keeping him up even longer. Even then, sometimes I’d open our Messenger thread to see the dreaded ‘Active now’ under his name. ‘Go to bed’, I’d say, and sign back out before those rolling dots signaled a response.
Our messages usually took the form of links to curious, or telling, or just plain interesting articles or videos, and our thoughts on those. We shared an interest in American politics (and what a bonanza the Trump years provided!), conspiracy theorists, grammatical foibles, family dysfunction, personality disorders. He would often share West Wing snippets, especially ones featuring CJ, which we both found a strange mix of comfort and nostalgia – in its literal sense.
But in amongst the videos and articles, the funny memes and disparate observations – ‘I’m currently chain-watching kitten videos. I think I need to get a kitten or just go to bed’, or ‘I just realised – my DNA snaps in two every time one of my cells divides. Quelle horreur!’ – our thread was dotted with heartfelt enquiries. ‘How are you?’ ‘How are you, really?’ And honest responses. It went both ways.
So I knew he was lonely. In the early days, even after his separation from Pooja, there were friends in Tiru. Always Indian friends, but also Westerners, attracted to Tiru for the same reasons – Ramana, the ashram, the mountain. But as time went on, those friends dropped away. The heat didn’t help. And there was something else: more and more, Tiru was attracting Western gurus, and wanna-be gurus, and their followers. A great source of entertainment for Surya was something he called ‘The Guru Wars’. He told me of acolytes of one American wanna-be tearing down posters advertising the meetings of another.
But amusement aside, the social climate of Tiru was changing. Now the cafés, or at least the ones with decent roast beans and baristas who knew their craft, were frequented by foreigners he had little in common with. Lately he would visit his regular hang-out, the Dreaming Tree, sit in the corner with his trademark ristretto (a shot glass of espresso extracted with half the amount of water), then another one, and listen to the conspiracy theories being enthusiastically espoused at nearby tables. He would surreptitiously dictate notes into his phone and send me transcripts afterwards.
He’d become an observer, not a participant. One day I told him about a long lunch I’d had with a writer friend at a local café, a long, satisfying, writerly chat. He said that he couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a long, intelligent, face-to-face conversation with anyone. I asked him if he still felt that Tiru was where he belonged.
‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘This place is not for me. Not just Tiru, but probably planet Earth. I’ll be so happy when the mothership returns.’ That was last May. But he often spoke like that.
He’d stopped visiting the ashram years ago. His spiritual practice of late was to sit on the roof with his dogs and a beer, watching the mountain at sunset. He’d send me videos.
Surya is no more.
When I got Pooja’s email on the night of 6 January, I immediately emailed her back. ‘Pooja, please tell me it’s just a rumour.’ Rumours and Tiru went hand in hand, I told myself. I tried the last phone number I had for him but it was years old and went nowhere. Then I opened Messenger: ‘Surya, please get back to me immediately you get this. Any time, day or night’, and took my phone off sleep settings. That message remains the last in our seven-year-long online conversation.
The next day I managed to track down Tim in Mossy Point. Tim was the only member of his family with whom he still had contact. I’d never had to make a phone call like that, but over the next few days I became accustomed to it. I spoke with friends I’d lost touch with years ago. There were connections to be established, arrangements to be made, official requirements to satisfy.
Finally, on 15 January the Tiru police released Surya’s body and a funeral could take place. It was 10.30pm Australian EST. Word spread quickly around Australia, New Zealand and perhaps further afield, and we each sat quietly, in our own way, in communion. It was a traditional Hindu cremation. At midnight I received an email from Pooja: ‘Surya’s earthly body has been delivered to the flames of Arunachala.’
And the next day: ‘… we went back to the cremation grounds along with two friends and the Swami … what was left was just a pile of humble ashes! It was a stark moment of reality and it brought me to my knees … but I felt an inexplicable sense of peace within. “Dust thou art and dust thou shall become.”‘ She continued, ‘Then the Swami did a puja and collected ashes … The next day a group of friends of Surya went up the mountain and dispersed one urn of ashes on the higher slopes from which there is a fine view of the grand temple.’
Pooja also shared with me some words that are helping her – words from another Tiru friend, Lisa, who told me later that she had been away for years, had returned to Tiru recently but had not seen Surya around. ‘I believe that all the right and best things were done for Surya … and he is at peace … But please do not think of it in terms of a terrible tragedy, this is maya, these are the games the good lord has us play with each other … We don’t know what secrets are whispered to others through the divine grace in our hearts. Give him the benefit of making his own choice, on his terms, and that in some way there is grace in that.’
Surya is no more.
Soon, Tim and I will meet to share some memories. ‘When the dust settles’, he says. In the meantime, when I feel able, I will sit, perhaps with a ristretto, and revisit the long, meandering conversation that constitutes the last years of my relationship with my fine friend. And I’ll trust in the grace, that he is at peace, and that those of us who loved him can come to trust his choice too.