The 2018 Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country is ostensibly focused on the exploits of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the Indian spiritual guru known as Osho, and his followers, who established a commune in Oregon, US, in 1982. But the most magnetic presence in it is Sheela Ambalal Patel, better known as Ma Anand Sheela, a fervent devotee of Osho since the age of 16, who was elevated to his personal secretary and de facto empress of the community.
With her innate chutzpah and fiery wit, the young Sheela lights up the screen every time she makes an appearance. Her signature remark, at the height of her brash swagger, was “Tough titties”, much to the delight of headline-hungry journalists. But the older Sheela, who was in her late 60s at the time of shooting the show, projected an air of dignity, a hint of world-weariness that was sporadically dispelled by her simmering eyes.
This two-in-one personality is also palpable in Nothing To Lose, Sheela’s new authorized biography, written by journalist Manbeena Sandhu. “She is much wiser now, more toned down,” Sandhu says on the phone from Toronto, where she lives. Although she was briefly fascinated by the Osho movement in the early 1990s, when she lived in India, Sandhu never joined it. “I noticed a fair bit of narcissism, egotism and hedonism among the followers which didn’t align with my beliefs,” she says. But this distance didn’t come in the way of her forging lifelong friendships with many of the sanyasins, living in India or Canada, where Sandhu moved after her marriage in 2000. “I collected my stories about the movement through the last 25 years,” she adds.
From the beginning of her association with the movement, Sandhu heard one name again and again—that of Ma Anand Sheela, even though Sheela and Osho had fallen out by 1985 and become estranged. After Sheela had left Oregon with a loyal band of followers, Osho sent the law after her, accused her of wire-tapping, immigration fraud and poisoning his personal physician. Later, the charge of bioterrorism was added to the list, pertaining to her role in poisoning 10 salad bars with salmonella in the city of The Dalles. Sheela was extradited from Europe, where she had fled, and eventually served time for 39 months before being given parole for good conduct.
In spite of her chequered past and ostracization by the core Osho group, Sheela held sway over the sanyasins for years. “But even those who knew her whereabouts were reluctant to talk,” Sandhu says. Wild Wild Country changed it all. Suddenly Sheela’s address and details were only an internet search away. So Sandhu picked up the phone, spoke to the reclusive matriarch, and offered to be her biographer.
“Sheela was warm but not convinced at first,” Sandhu recalls. “She asked me to fly down to Switzerland to meet her.” So Sandhu, with her husband and children, went to Maisprach, the village where Sheela runs care homes for the elderly and infirm. Sheela went to receive the Sandhus, was hospitable and helpful, generous with her time. Before long, work on the book was on its way, initially with long interviews in person, followed by near-daily trans-Atlantic conversations after Sandhu returned home.
A biography involves intense research and reporting, but in the case of Sheela’s story, the challenge is heightened by the moral ambiguities that underlie every significant move of her life. There is much to unpack, multiple versions of the same event to square. “But that’s life for you, it’s full of grey areas,” Sandhu says. “I have kept parts of her story open to the reader’s interpretation.”
Indeed, at several points of this very readable book, we are confronted with “Did she or didn’t she?” moments. As Sheela’s life with Osho begins to unspool, Sandhu reveals to us a softer version of the indomitable sanyasin. She comes across as vulnerable and shrewd, calculating and crumbling, by turns. But she refuses to admit to feeling any remorse. All her life, Sheela has maintained that whatever she did was for the love of her guru. She even described her prison sentence as a fee she had to pay to her master, her guru dakshina. With her steely reserve of strength in the face of monumental adversity, Sheela found a second wind as an unlikely feminist icon—she embodies what millennials and Gen Z fondly admire as badass qualities.
“At 70, Sheela remains bold, beautiful and brutally honest,” Sandhu says. “She is the small-town girl who did things that even stars don’t manage to do in movies!”