“Lots of people want to ride with you in the limo, but what you want is someone who'll take the bus with you when the limo breaks down.”
Yantra Suraj Srinavasan was born a mediator. She was also born asleep.
The midwife who delivered Yantra into the chaos of the birthing suite at Hoboken University Medical Centre, on a Monday afternoon in January of 1971, couldn’t quite believe how undisturbed little Yantra looked after a difficult nine-hour labour. In fact, the very same midwife had called for a resus team as she was quite sure that Yantra had been stillborn. But no, she’d merely been taking a nap. As the team of nurses and doctors fussed around her little body, Yantra had opened one eye, gazed groggily from face to face, yawned, closed her eye again, and settling back into sleep once more.
From the earliest age, Yantra felt the need deep inside her to help people around her get along. The urge was so strong, that at times it seemed to Yantra that is was her life’s purpose. Truthfully, however, it was simply the fact that to have conflict in her surroundings always felt so incredibly uncomfortable to Yantra. It didn’t matter if it was co-workers in the boardroom, lovers in the bedroom, or strangers on the street, Yantra had always felt impelled to resolve tension, and smooth over troubled waters whenever it was possible.
Yantra’s father, Rajiv Srinavasan, was the youngest of seven children born into a dirt-poor family in Bangalore, India, on the very day that India’s independence from Britain was formalised. The extended Srinivasan family’s combined income didn’t come close to covering what was required to adequately feed their tribe of hungry mouths, so the children often went hungry. One day, when Rajiv was nine years old, he saw a Coca Cola billboard depicting American children who were smiling and laughing, and who were clearly well-nourished. Then and there Rajiv resolved that he would move to America, and raise his future family in the land of plenty.
Being resourceful by nature, by the time Rajiv’s twentieth birthday came around he had saved enough money to buy a one-way ticket to New Eden, and he was on his way. The budget airline ticket he’d purchased stopped first in Calcutta, then Bangkok, Hong Kong, San Francisco, and finally Newark, New Jersey. After three days and nights of travelling, and having had no sleep to speak of, Rajiv arrived in the land of plenty exhausted and penniless.
The first person he met in his new country was a taxi-driver, also of Southern Indian origin, who suggested that Rajiv could get a job with his family’s furniture moving business. Rajiv jumped at the opportunity, and in the blink of an eye he was living with his new adopted family in nearby Hoboken.
By day, Rajiv moved furniture for a living. By night he slept on a thin mattress in the corner of the living room of the small crowded flat. Rajiv was a hard worker, and he was easy to get along with, so everyone loved having him around. It wasn’t much by western standards, but compared to his squalid beginnings in Bangalore, Rajiv felt he was now relatively wealthy, and he was happy. Rajiv was even able to send a little bit of money home to his family in Bangalore on a regular basis . . .
A matter of months after his arrival in the United States, Rajiv met his wife-to-be. Their first meeting had occurred in a local Hoboken bar, where the lady in question, Shania Bonbeau, appeared to be well known to most of the bar’s patrons. The apple of Rajiv’s eye was loud and jovial, and, based on first impressions, she seemed to Rajiv to have a fun-loving spirit. Shania embraced Rajiv forcefully to her ample African-American bosom on their first meeting, despite his being a total stranger. This was Rajiv Srinivasan's first intimate experience of the female mammary organs since a brief period of breast-feeding as a newborn, and he instantly fell head-over-heels in love.
Rajiv wooed Shania with roses, and a case of beer daily, for two full weeks before she agreed to wed him. They were married in a simple ceremony at the Jersey City Registry Office on a Tuesday afternoon. Rajiv was puzzled when an empty beer bottle was thrown through the car window as the newlyweds reversed out of their spot in the registry office car park, but Shania explained that it was her ex-husband, Walter, who was still bitter about their recent divorce. Walter had taken to stalking Shania, hoping to extract money out her to help support the blooming crack-cocaine habit that Walter blames on being abandoned by his wife.
Yantra was born nine months to the day later, and her brother Sanjay the following year. Shania’s drinking, already prodigious by most standards, increased further following Sanjay’s birth, aggravated by the stress of having not one but two dependent infants to take care of. As Yantra grew up, she quickly found herself taking responsibility for the everyday running of the Srinivasan household, as well as protecting herself and her baby brother from verbal, and occasional physical, abuse.
As the years passed, Rajiv spent more and more time at work, and less and less time at home. When he was at home there was usually an argument, followed by throwing of things and/or punches, and Rajiv would generally retreat out of the house again, not to return for days, or even weeks at a time. As Yantra grew older, she would bravely take on the role of mediator in these domestic disputes too. It was dangerous for her to do so at times, but something inside her compelled her to intervene; to sit back and witness the on-going conflict between her parents felt unbearable to Yantra. It both made her sad and angry to see her parents hurting each other unnecessarily . . .
Yantra loved to collect things. In the quiet of the small bedroom that Yantra shared with Sanjay, she would sit on her bed and count her treasures. She never had any money to buy items for her collections, but Yantra became very adept at scavenging for her special prizes in discarded household rubbish, or anywhere that people abandoned unwanted items. By the time she turned eight, Yantra had also discovered that the local rubbish dump was the perfect hunting ground for additions to her collections.
Yantra’s favourite collection was of metal soda bottle caps. In an era when plastic was rapidly replacing metal, she felt great pride in her shiny colourful array of bottle caps. She would lay them out meticulously on a clean white handkerchief so as to highlight the beautiful colours, and make an endless array of patterns with them. One day, on returning home from school, Yantra found her prized bottle cap collection was gone; Shania had found it, and dumped it in the garbage out of spite, during a drunken rampage. Upon discovering this, Yantra flew into a terrifying rage of her own, and screamed and beat her mother until Yantra fell down to the floor exhausted. She had no memory of the incident afterwards. In fact, Yantra had no memory of ever being angry in her entire life. It was as if when she did become angry—which was almost never—her memory-making capacity was put on hold somehow.
In honour of her precious bottle cap collection, when she was fifteen Yantra quit school and took a job in a soda-bottling factory in nearby Irvington. She found the monotonous production-line work to be soothing, and a pleasurable escape from the tumultuous home life she was still required to endure. Her fellow employees would invite Yantra drinking after work, but being well under age she wasn’t able to go into a bar with them. Some nights, however, Yantra would spend time with some of her female co-workers at one or other of their apartments drinking wine. Despite her poor parental role modelling around alcohol consumption, Yantra quickly found the numbing effect of the cheap wine to be very appealing; it was such a relief to finally not feel the continuous irritation she felt at being a part of the human race. Mostly it just felt good to be out of her body for a while.
It wasn’t long before Yantra was drinking every night after work, and more heavily on the weekends. She even started a stash of Bourbon—her drink of choice by this time—which she kept extremely well hidden away from prying eyes and fingers in her bedroom, so that she could soothe the insidious cravings that had started to appear between her drinking sessions.
By the time Yantra was actually old enough to go to a bar, she was unquestionably an alcoholic. Her life had turned into one numbing experience after another, separated by periods of drudgery and depression. Concurrent with the proliferation of Yantra’s drinking, she progressively became more sedentary. Her naturally generous physique quickly ballooned to proportions which the medical profession would have quickly labelled morbidly obese; a clear external expression of Yantra’s unhappy inner life.
Sanjay had done well in high school, and he was attending college out of state on an academic scholarship. Yantra was joyously happy that her baby brother had been able to escape from the toxic home environment. Shania was housebound by this time, and unable to walk more than a few paces before collapsing due to both severe arthritis in her knees, as well as the premature onset of emphysema. As a result, Shania was extremely demanding of Yantra’s time and energy when Yantra was at home. Rajiv had disappeared from their lives some years before, never to be heard of again . . .
On the Friday evening of the week of Yantra’s 21st birthday, a celebration was planned for her coming of age. A dozen of Yantra’s closest friends gathered at Harry’s Bar in Irvington, and they settled in for a night of serious drinking. Harry’s was a buzzy, friendly, local bar close to her work, and a favourite drinking hole for Yantra’s work colleagues. Unfortunately, Harry’s Bar was also some twelve miles from Yantra's home in Hoboken.
The group of revellers began their evening with a few rounds of celebratory cocktails, moved on to shots and beer, and at around 10pm the first of many bottles of bourbon was purchased for the inevitable drinking competition, signalling the start of a spiral into deep inebriation for most of those present. Despite Yantra’s sizable alcohol tolerance, by the time she slipped behind the wheel of her 1972 Toyota Corolla at two in the morning, the remnants of her common sense—not to mention most of her gross motor skills—had been left behind in a back booth of Harry's Bar. The little voice of reason Yantra briefly heard in her head, that pleaded feebly for her to get out of the car and take a taxi home, didn't have a chance.
In the ambulance on the way to the hospital, Yantra remembers a kind face leaning over her and telling her she was going to be OK . . . but that she really must never drink and drive ever again. Yantra had no memory of falling asleep behind the wheel of her Corolla whilst driving home down the freeway to Hoboken. The police photographs of the car wrapped neatly around a light pole, some twenty metres up a freeway embankment, however, gave Yantra some idea of how close she’d come to perishing in the crash. She was just so thankful that no one else had been injured by her irresponsible behaviour.
A rapidly expanding extradural haematoma was diagnosed on CT scan of Yantra’s head when she arrived at the hospital, and she was rushed to the operating room where holes were drilled into her skull to drain the blood, saving her life just in the nick of time. Two days later she awoke from an induced coma to find another kind face smiling down at her from close range. This face was attached to a body wearing a white coat, and shining a bright light into her eyes, checking her pupillary responses.
It was Yantra’s neurosurgeon, Dr Angelo Williams—yes, by this time I was junior staff neurosurgeon at Jersey City Medical Center. I visited Yantra daily, and showed her great kindness and compassion, with no trace of judgment about how she had come to be under my care. The day she was to be discharged from hospital, however, I sat on the edge of her bed one last time, and took her hand gently in mine:
“Now, you know how close you came to dying in the crash, don’t you Yantra?” She nods. “And you know that you most likely won’t be so lucky if this were ever to happen again, right?” She looks sheepishly at the floor and nods. “Well, I suggest that the answer to your future well-being is going to be found here.” I hand Yantra a card with the letters AA on one side, and a list of Manhattan and New Jersey locations on the other.
Yantra knows at this moment that I am her guardian angel, and that I’ms throwing her a lifeline she mustn't ignore. She attends her first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting the following night, and went on to attend daily meetings for the next three years. She remains sober to this day, and owes her life and happiness to her brush with death . . . and to her guardian angel, Dr Angelo Williams . . .
In the wake of her life changing 21st birthday, Yantra quit her job at the soda-bottling factory, moved out of her family home—leaving Shania to wallow alone in her pain and misery—and she moved into a room in a shabby boarding house in lower Manhattan.
At one AA meeting, Yantra noticed a sign on the notice board advertising a workshop entitled Tantra: The Secret to True Happiness. Yantra had never heard of Tantra before, but something about the word caught her interest. Whether it was her father’s South Asian heritage that triggered some sort of cellular recognition in her, or whether it was merely the striking similarity to her name, in that moment there was a deep knowing that Tantra was somehow important for her future, and Yantra immediately signed up for the workshop.
From the moment she arrived at the Mind-Body-Spirit Healing Centre, on W23rd St in Chelsea, Yantra felt like she had come home. Finally, she’d found an environment that supported who she was not only physically and intellectually, but emotionally and spiritually also. Throughout the course of the weekend workshop, Yantra was able to access and release a great deal of the pent-up sadness, fear, and anger that had been so tightly bottled up inside of her for so much of her life. With each passing session of the workshop, Yantra felt more and more like she was waking up out of a bad dream, and she found herself feeling ever more real and authentic; she felt like she was coming alive after begin asleep. The Tantra workshop experience was so fundamentally life-changing for Yantra that she enrolled to become a Tantra trainee at the MBS Healing Centre.
For money during this period, Yantra took advantage of the fact that by nature she was very patient, and very good with children; she secured a position as a part-time assistant at a childcare facility in Central Park. Luckily for Yantra, her pre-21stbirthday drinking habits had never landed her in trouble with the authorities, and the officer in charge of filing the report about Yantra’s accident had misspelled her name, so her police background check came back clear.
Yantra loved the leafy-natured environment of Central Park, and she would wander for hours with her band of charges in search of the most remote corner of the sprawling park in which to play. Her natural facility as a nurturer and mediator came to the fore in this work, and she was quickly promoted to be a permanent staff member of the facility.
A few years later, Yantra’s manager anonymously nominated her for a position as private nanny to Ken and Faye Abercrombie—a high-profile power couple of New York business and politics—that was being sourced through the Central Park Childcare Centre. Initially Yantra was sceptical when she heard about this turn of events, but she was also secretly excited. Like everone in America, Yantra knew of the Abercrombie’s reputation through the media, and she felt they were honest people, despite being famous and extremely wealthy. At the interview, Yantra warmed to Faye Abercrombie immediately. She did observe that Faye seemed very eager to be liked and approved of also, but she showed genuine interest in who Yantra was as a person, and she was obviously excitement at the impending birth of her children . . . it was to be twins.
Yantra was given the position ahead of a list of more highly qualified applicants based on an intuitive feeling that Faye had about her. The appointment turned Yantra’s life in a new direction, and she smiled to herself as she moved her few belongings into the glamorous Central Park West penthouse apartment. Even though she didn’t own any of it herself—and she knew she never would—it felt so nice for once in her life to have a little taste of luxury . . .
Yantra moved into the smallest of the five bedrooms of the luxurious apartment that the Abercrombie's had purchased in anticipation of the arrival of their future family. Alex and Eve were born in the summer of 1997—Yantra was 26 years old at the time—and for the first time in her life she was entirely happy. The twins were delightful, and no trouble at all to care for. Faye was overly protective and quite involved in their care that first year—she was still suffering from significant anxiety after having lost her first child to SIDS a few years earlier—leaving Yantra plenty of free time to continue her Tantra studies, and to watch her beloved daytime soap operas.
After her impoverished and emotionally abusive upbringing, Yantra found adjusting to living in the luxurious surroundings challenging initially, but over time she came to realise that life had its ups and downs, and she was currently experiencing an up, so why not take full advantage of it? Yantra also found that she was able to let go of some of the resentment she realized she was carrying around her biological family, and their dysfunctional relationships. She even found time to regularly visit Shania at the aged-care facility she lived in until her death in the fall of 1999.
It didn't take long for Yantra to discover that being a part of the Abercrombie household had its share of difficulties and drama as well as its happiness and privilege. Yantra quickly realized that the surface image of paradise—that was frequently portrayed in the media—at the Abercrombie household was not a true reflection of the deeper family dynamics. Yantra found that she had to put a check on her innate tendency to want to mediate in the disputes that occurred between Ken and Faye on a regular basis, and Yantra inadvertently became privy to many of the secrets that existed beneath the public facade of the glossy Abercrombie brand.
The biggest argument between Ken and Faye occurred after the revelation that burst onto the family scene in dramatic fashion in 1999 of Ken’s secret sex life. This shock causing such disharmony and animosity between the Abercrombies, that Yantra was sure the couple would split. But no, Faye took hold of the reins, and she laid down some firm ground rules so as to consolidate her place as the head decision-maker for the family unit.
When Ken fell hopelessly in love with one of his mistresses, Lobida, in 2006, the possibility of a fracture of the family was raised again, but once more Faye soldiered through with her signature strength and determination. Whenever Lobida’s name was mentioned, however, there was only intense bitterness and contempt from Faye. It seemed that Ken was not only housing Lobida in a spacious Fifth Avenue penthouse. and paying her a generous salary, he was also in the process of creating an exclusive private club--The Dark Side—for her to perform at. From what Yantra could glean from the snippets of conversation she overheard, it seemed that discrete encounters of a morally questionable nature were to be on offer at The Dark Side. Yantra was excited at the prospect of meeting Lobida at some point, as she thought she sounded like a most interesting person . . .
Yantra cared for Alex and Eve joyfully throughout their childhood, and loved them more than she thought possible for children who weren’t her own flesh and blood. She secretly longed to have children of her own, but life was yet to grant her the opportunity. Alex was smart and well behaved, even when very young, and he required little personalised attention from Yantra as he grew up; he always seemed to be happy, and able to amuse himself. Eve, on the other hand, suffered from fluctuating moods, and debilitatingly low self-esteem, even in early childhood, and Yantra often worried about how Eve was going to handle getting by in the world when she was older. To see such sadness in little Eve was heart-breaking for Yantra, but it was also the impetus for her to love Eve even more.
As the twins grew into their teens, and they became more independent, Yantra’s services as a nanny were needed less often. The Abercrombie family, and Faye in particular, were so fond of Yantra by this time that they re-employed her in other roles to ensure her continued service for the family. To Faye’s dismay, Ken proposed—behind her back—that Yantra take on the role of manager of The Dark Side, and Yantra happily accepted.
After so many years of hearing about the infamous Lobida—mostly from Faye, and mostly tinged with negativity and bile—Yantra was fascinated to finally meet Lobida in person. On the day in question, in April of 2009, Lobida was busy giving instructions to builders and decorators who were swarming around the inside of the gutted theatre on E 72nd St. Yantra stood quietly in the background for a while, watching in awe at the powerhouse she was seeing and experiencing for the first time. What energy, what strength, what grace, what sensuality. Yantra was wonderstruck, and couldn’t quite believe how irresistible she found Lobida’s presence to be. In fact, Yantra was somewhat disturbed to discover that she was feeling a most unfamiliar feeling . . . love-at-first-sight.
“So, who are you my darling? Ain't you one sexy, luscious thing, though,” Lobida purred as she approached Yantra in the wings of the theatre. Yantra was unable to speak for a few seconds, but finally found her voice and squeaked, “Ken Abercrombie sent me. I’m Yantra. He said you might have a job for me?”
“For you, sweetie, anything. Why don’t you meet me this evening at Le Baobab on W116th St. It’s just off Malcolm X Blvd. You do Harlem, honey? How about Senegalese food? You happy to eat that?”
“Of course, I love Harlem, and I love Senegalese food . . . I think. What time?”
“Make it 10 o’clock. I think I would like you to be my last appointment for the day. I sense we have a lot to talk about, and I don’t want to be rushed.” Lobida winked, swivelled on her tall stiletto heel, and launched into chastising the barrel-chested workman who was in charge of constructing the stage; the future centre-piece of Lobida’s BDSM cabaret spectacular.
Wow. She’s incredible. Please let her like me, I really want this job . . .
As it turned out, Lobida liked Yantra, a lot. Perhaps it was her ample Rubenesque figure that attracted Lobida (who hated skinny women more than she hated boring people); perhaps it was her easy-going yet engaging personality; perhaps it was something completely unknown and intangible. Whatever it was, the couple clicked at Le Baobab that night, and they became joined at the hip. It was unsettling for Lobida to feel so comfortable as to want someone else to be around her all the time. It was exciting for Yantra to be scooped up by someone as dynamic and blatantly sexual as Lobida.
Yantra was given the role of manager of The Dark Side, obviously, and she worked easily and efficiently with Lobida in a way that no one else possibly could have done. Lobida’s loud, straight-forward manner could put people off-side in a minute, yet Yantra found it to be her most endearing quality. The life-force that pulsed through Lobida was infectious for Yantra, and made her feel more alive when she was with her. She became more motivated than she ever remembered being in her life, and started to add her own personal touches to the evolving cabaret club. Even the potential stress associated with opening night didn’t eventuate, and the evening flowed smoothly; Lobida the radiant and charismatic figurehead, Yantra the strength and quiet control behind the scenes.
There was no mention of the blossoming affair between Yantra and Lobida at the club, and especially no mention of it to Ken Abercrombie. It wasn’t part of her contract with Ken that Lobida couldn’t have female lovers of her own, but neither of them wanted to risk upsetting Ken. In the bedroom, the new couple discovered they had a common interest in Tantra, and a whole world to explore as they became more and more comfortable in each other’s presence. Despite her confidence and control in her preferred role as dominatrix when she was with men, Lobida discovered that with Yantra she could relinquish control and allow herself to be pleasured—and to be vulnerable and out of control—like never before.
Lobida was pleasantly surprised to find Yantra’s calming influence made her feel more at peace, and more fulfilled than she’d ever felt in her life. Just three months after their first dinner together they signed a joint lease on a fourth-floor, south-facing apartment on Dr Martin Luther King Jr Blvd in the centre of Harlem, and Yantra and Lobida started sharing their lives together full-time.
The Harlem apartment was small and cosy, but decorated sumptuously in eccentric vintage style. There were red velvet drapes adorning the windows, a chaise longue covered in black antique silk brocade, a plethora of ornate lamps, hand-painted Chinese screens, and innumerable interesting paintings and art objects. Once the apartment was decorated to their satisfaction, two Tonkinese cats—Jinx and Jade—were added, and the new home was complete.
Neither Yantra nor Lobida felt the need to venture out very often once they were at home; their work lives were busy and exciting enough, so they became comfortable home-bodies together. Yantra discovered that what she had craved her whole life was a small, quiet, safe, comfortable home to share with just one other person: her lover, her beloved. Lobida discovered that, despite her tendency to be big, brusque, and full of bravado, what she craved and appreciated more than anything in her life to date was the capacity to be small and quiet with her one trusted, intimate companion. She discovered she could finally stop, and not be anything for anyone else anymore. The couple fell madly in love . . .
And so, we arrive at that fateful point in time: July 2020. Yantra is perusing the clientele of The Dark Side on this busy Saturday night from her hidden position in the elevated control booth at the rear of the club. From here she can oversee all the action on stage, the audience, the entrance of the club to her right, and the bar area to her left. She occasionally stops to listen intently to reports in her headset from the backstage manager, Heny van Keerk, and from the head of security, Ivana Brevshenko, who is on the sidewalk outside the club.
Yantra is excited, and nervous, because Eve will be performing her first solo number on stage at TDS tonight. She’s very aware that if the performance doesn't go well it could put Eve into an emotional tailspin, and it will be Yantra's responsibility to ensure Eve's sanity and safety if this were to happen.
Lobida is backstage, pacing distractedly and humming to herself, as she prepares for the night’s performance. Yantra makes an announcement, the audience quietens, and the curtain rises revealing Lobdia, centre-stage, in the spotlight . . .