26. Work in the United States
“Remember you are only the servant of the Mother. Demand help, don’t buy it.”
Nivedita repeated this order from her guru over to herself. She did not realize, then, how difficult it would be to beg for money in the United States.
Olea Bull remained in Chicago for a few days, and Nivedita stayed with her in her hotel and became genuinely attached to her. She was a “temperamental” and generally undisciplined sort of girl, who, at twenty, was apt to give way to unpredictable moods and impulses when her mother’s gentle influence was absent; but she found an outlet for her energy in piloting Nivedita about Chicago and introducing her to her mother’s friends. It was thus that Nivedita visited Hull House, met Jane Addams, and was invited to deliver a series of talks at the Settlement.
It was a moving debut. To an audience made up of immigrants of different races and religions, many of whom had suffered persecution and misery, and many of whom were Irish who cheered her up, Nivedita spoke of the peace which the pilgrim of life finds when he moves forward toward his own liberation, with the mysterious assurance that everything is in himself: the effort, the mastery, the joy over the gift of oneself, and the great final light. In response to a bombardment of questions, she translated the mystical experience of the Hindus into a language her hearers could understand. On the last evening, some men brought her a box containing $15.00 collected among them dime by dime as their offering to their brothers in India.
But Chicago’s wealthier society gave Nivedita a colder welcome. Her firm refusal to accept a fee for her lectures, and her identification with Swami Vivekananda – who had both his followers and his opponents – alienated a large section of the public in the first place. Then, too, she spoke of a philosophical and mystical India, instead of playing the role of an English journalist, as she had been expected to do, and revealing the secrets of her sensational initiation into Hinduism. Her oversimple appearance in her nun’s robe seemed out of place. All told, the tide seemed set against her. But she refused to give way, and counted rebuffs merely as part of the game she meant to win.
Gradually a few private houses and missionary organizations opened their doors, and she gave talks on the women of India, and on the arts and crafts of the different provinces. She told stories to schoolchildren, too, about the gods and heroes of India, and then she would suggest the organization of a mutual-assistance guild. When Olea left Chicago she moved into a furnished room, and there several friends of Swami Vivekananda, under the leadership of one of his disciples, Mary Hall, came to delve with her into the depths of Indian thought. Yet all this amounted to very little. Opportunities of speaking in public were few, and became fewer. Nivedita’s name aroused no curiosity. The newspapers had no space for her – and very little for any news from India. So far as Chicago in general was concerned, she seemed to be up against a blank wall.
Yet when Swami Vivekananda stopped oft for a day, en route to California, she did not speak to him of her difficulties. He was confident, given over to the will of the Divine Mother, a song of inner triumph on his lips. And Nivedita, in regard to herself, remembered a warning he had once given her: “When people come into the world to serve an idea, Margot, they have to make their own material, too. They must not expect to find people ready to listen.”
That was what she wanted to experience, fully and alone.
Then suddenly, one evening, everything changed. She had gone with Mary Hall to hear a debate in a women’s club, on “The Responsibility of America in Spreading Anglo-Saxon Culture throughout the World.” The speeches dragged on and on. When the meeting was thrown open Nivedita rose and went to the platform. It was the vivid Irish personality, the alert and practiced public speaker, who was addressing the audience, and she held them with every word. Reporters came demanding interviews. Her name was in the papers. It seemed that everybody was now curious about her. She was constantly in demand as a lecturer, constantly on the move, for the next seven months.
Wherever she went she created her own atmosphere, whether she was in a church, in a private house, or in a public auditorium. And people crowded around her less to ask questions about India than to receive something of the force of her serenity. Disciples of Swami Vivekananda asked her to speak about her guru, and she did so simply and lovingly.
“I have no personal message or mission,” she said of herself “but only the past experience of suffering in order to shake off egoism. … It is a great lesson.”
Orientals, who had come to the United States years before, would pass on the news of her arrival in their cities and come to offer her their services. Most of them were very poor, but they piously gave their obole for India. One day a Buddhist laid a tiny packet of tea before her, and joining his hands in greeting, withdrew without a word.
When she was surrounded and congratulated after a lecture, she would call out in her dear voice, “And now what are you going to do for me?”
And she would beg humbly of her surprised listeners, “Give me a dollar a year for ten years!”
“What can one do with so little money?” people asked, laughing.
“Build for the future,” Nivedita answered. “I want your co-operation, the co-operation of all of you, to establish a permanent fund for the women and children of India. That is what counts, and that will be your achievement”
In this way she received the subscriptions of large numbers of people for the “Nivedita Mutual Assistance Guild/’ newly founded and of which the Leggetts were die patrons.
In a pamphlet, which was widely circulated, Nivedita defined the aim of her future school: not to be a missionary activity, but a Hindu institution for Hindu women. Traveling about in the Middle West, she not only collected money but received offers of service from many women, some of whom even spoke of going with her to India. Yet when she returned to Chicago she found that the interest she had aroused there had already died down. If she decided to stay, she would have to begin all over.
“Everything depends on organization and method,” she said later. “I can take my responsibilities on my own shoulders, now, as much as Swamiji does his. I have got my diploma in public acclaim and indifference. I grow more and more convinced that no one is wholly responsible for his own success or failure. So much depends on the ability of others to co-operate.”
This experience gave her an opportunity for taking stock: “How far has the desire to succeed entered into my work? Has my appeal for the women of India remained entirely disinterested- Let me, O my Divine Mother, serve for love of serving, and for centuries and centuries”
The obstacles which Nivedita could not wholly surmount were the nervous exhaustion and overwhelming physical fatigue that followed her months on the road. She did not complain, but the effort had been too long. Swami Vivekananda felt this, and wrote to her:
All blessings on you, my dear Nivedita! Don’t despair in the least. Sri Wah Guru! Sri Wah Guru! You come of the blood of a kshatriya. Our yellow garb is the robe of death on the field of battle. Death for the cause is our goal, not success. Sri Wah Guru! Shiva says: “But I am the Master. I raise my hand, and lo, all vanish. I am the Fear of fear, the Terror of terror.” Steady, child, don’t be bought by gold or anything else.
It was not until June that Nivedita went Backto New York, where it had been arranged that she was to meet Miss MacLeod and Mrs. Bull again at the Leggetts’. She had expected to return at once to India, but her friends, in agreement with Swami Vivekananda, had decided otherwise. The entire little group was going to Paris, and the suggestion was that she should accompany them and join forces in Paris with Patrick Geddes, whom she had met with his wife at Ridgely Manor and who had expressed the desire for sociological work with her. Nive-dita had become greatly interested in the activities and theses of the famous biologist and social scientist, and while discussing his work with him she, in turn, had talked to him at length of her Indian experiences.* Now the prospect of some professional association with him opened up limitless possibilities for her, and she was overjoyed. Working with him would give her the chance to acquire his method of investigation and his means of transmitting knowledge, and she could delve into European history under his guidance.
The stay in Paris would also, to her great delight, offer her the opportunity of meeting Jagadis Bose again. Thanks to the enterprise of Mrs. Bull, both in England and America, Bose had been granted a scholarship which would maintain him through several years of study, and he was now on his way to the West
She was to sail almost at once – immediately after the lecture she was scheduled to give at Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn, on “The Ideal of the Hindu Woman.” Swami Vivekananda arrived in New York on die day of the lecture, and for the first and only time heard her address a Western audience on the subject of India. He found her moving, simple, and fervent, more Hindu than a Hindu, speaking of the land of her soul, as luminous as light itself. And he wept with gratitude.
.It was nineteen years later that Patrick Geddes became professor of sociology and dvics at Bombay University, and began his surveys in Indian dues.