“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.”
— Oprah Winfrey (1954– )
Yantra Suraj Srinavasan was born a mediator. She was also born asleep.
The midwife who delivered Yantra into the chaos of the birthing suite of Hoboken University Medical Center on a busy Monday afternoon in January of 1971 couldn’t quite believe how undisturbed little Yantra looked after a difficult nine-hour labor. In fact, the very same midwife had initially called for a resus team as she’d been quite sure that Yantra was 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 deep need to help people around her get along. The urge was so strong that at times it seemed to Yantra that this 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 always felt compelled to resolve tension and smooth over troubled waters wherever possible.
Yantra’s father, Rajiv Srinavasan, was the youngest of seven children born into an impoverished family in Bangalore, India, on the very day that India’s independence from Britain was formalized. 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 Srinivasan children often went hungry. One day, when Rajiv was seven years old, he saw a Coca Cola billboard depicting American children who were smiling and laughing, and who were clearly well-nourished. Rajiv resolved then and there 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’d saved just enough money to buy a one-way ticket to New Eden, and he was on his way.
The budget airline ticket Rajiv had 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 that Rajiv met and spoke to in his new country was a taxi-driver, also of South Asian 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 newly adoptive 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 apartment. 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 ecstatically happy. He 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 woman in question, Gretchen Hoffschneider, appeared to be well known to all of the bar’s patrons. The apple of Rajiv’s eye was jovial and boisterous, and, based on first impressions, she seemed to Rajiv to have a fun-loving spirit. Gretchen embraced Rajiv forcefully to her ample Germanic bosom on their first meeting, despite his being a total stranger. This was Rajiv's first intimate experience of the female bosom since a brief period of breast-feeding as a newborn, and he instantly fell head-over-heels in love.
Rajiv wooed Gretchen with roses, a case of beer, and bottle of whisky daily for a full week before she finally agreed to be wed. 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 drove out of the registry office car park, but Gretchen explained that it was her ex-husband, Walter, who was still bitter about their recent divorce. Walter had taken to stalking Gretchen, hoping to extract money out of her or her friends to help support his blossoming amphetamine addiction.
Yantra was born nine months to the day later, and her brother Sanjay the following year. Gretchen’s drinking, already prodigious by normal 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, emotional, and occasionally 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 always an argument, usually followed by throwing of objects and/or punches. 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 ongoing conflict between her parents felt unbearable to Yantra; it made her both sad and angry to see her parents hurting each other so unnecessarily.
From the youngest age, Yantra also loved to collect things. In the quiet of the small bedroom that Yantra shared with Sanjay, she would sit on her bed and display her treasures. She never had any money to buy items for her collections, but Yantra had become very adept at scavenging for her special prizes in discarded household rubbish, or anywhere that people abandoned unwanted items. By the time she’d turned eight, Yantra had also discovered that the local rubbish dump was the perfect hunting ground for additions to her collections.
Yantra’s favorite collection was of metal soda bottle caps. In an era when plastic was rapidly replacing metal, she felt great pride in her shiny colorful array of bottle caps. She would lay them out meticulously on a clean white handkerchief so as to highlight the beautiful colors, 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; Gretchen had found it, and dumped it in the garbage out of spite during a drunken rampage. Upon discovering this Yantra had flown into a terrifying rage of her own, screaming and beating 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—the memory-forming capacity of her brain was somehow put on hold.
In honor 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 a few 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 boredom. 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 labelled morbidly obese; a clear external manifestation 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. Gretchen was housebound by this time, and unable to walk more than a few paces before collapsing due to both severe arthritis in her knees and the premature onset of emphysema. As a result, Gretchen 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 from 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 favorite 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 revelers began their evening with a few rounds of celebratory cocktails, moved on to shots and beer, and at around 10pm the first of a number of bottles of bourbon was purchased for the inevitable drinking competition, signaling the start of a spiral into deep inebriation for most of those present. Despite Yantra’s sizable alcohol tolerance at this point in her life, by the time she slipped behind the wheel of her 1972 Datsun 180B 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 voice of reason Yantra briefly heard in her head, that pleaded 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 Datsun while driving home down the freeway to Hoboken. The police photographs of the car wrapped neatly around a light pole at the top of 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 behavior.
A rapidly expanding intracranial blood clot was diagnosed on CT scan of Yantra’s head when she arrived at the hospital, and she was rushed to the operating room where I drill four holes in her skull to drain the blood, saving her life just in the nick of time. Two days later she wakes from an induced coma finding me shining a bright light into her eyes as I test her pupillary reactions; I smile broadly at her from close range.
I visit Yantra daily while she is in hospital, showing her great kindness while she recovers, with no trace of judgment about how she’d come to be under my care. The day she’s to be discharged from hospital, however, I sit on the edge of her bed one last time, and take 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 and happiness 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 senses in the moment that I am her guardian angel, and that I am throwing her a lifeline she simply mustn't ignore. She attends her first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting the same night, and goes 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.
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 Gretchen to wallow alone in her pain and misery—and moved into a small 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 . . . and Better Sex. 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 simply the striking resemblance to her own 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 Center on W23rd St in Chelsea, Yantra felt like she’d come home. Finally, she’d found an environment that supported who she was not only physically and intellectually, but also emotionally and spiritually. Throughout the course of the weekend workshop Yantra was able to access and release a great deal of the pent-up sadness, fear, and rage 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 like she was waking up more and more out of a very long, very bad dream, and she found herself feeling progressively more alert, clear and happy. The tantra workshop experience was so fundamentally life-changing for Yantra that she enrolled to become a tantra trainee at MBSHC.
For money during this period, Yantra—taking advantage of the fact that by nature she was patient and very good with children—secured a position as a part-time assistant at the Central Park Childcare Center. Luckily for Yantra, her pre-21st birthday drinking habits had never landed her in trouble with the authorities, and the officer in charge of filing the report on the night of Yantra’s accident suffered from dyslexia, and had misspelled her name, so her police background check came back completely clear.
Yantra loved the leafy 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 too, 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 CPCC. Initially Yantra was skeptical when she heard about this job offer, but she was also secretly excited. Like everyone in America by this time, Yantra knew of the Abercrombie’s reputation through the media, and she felt they were honest people, despite being extremely famous and uber-wealthy. At the interview Yantra warmed to Faye immediately. She did observe that Faye seemed very eager to be approved of herself, but she also showed genuine interest in who Yantra was as a person, and she was clearly excited 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 yet another new direction, and she smiled to herself as she moved her few belongings into the smallest of the five bedrooms of the luxurious Central Park West apartment that the Abercrombie's had purchased in anticipation of the arrival of their future family. Even though she didn’t own any of it herself—and she knew she never would—it felt pretty nice to have a little taste of luxury for once in her life.
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 just perfect, and no trouble at all to care for. Faye was overly protective and quite involved in their care the first year—she was still suffering from significant anxiety after having lost her first child, Adrian, 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 relatively impoverished and emotionally traumatizing upbringing, Yantra found adjusting to living in the luxurious surroundings of the Abercrombie’s penthouse disorienting initially, but as time went by she admitted to herself that life simply had its ups and downs, and she was currently experiencing an up, so why not take full advantage of it and enjoy it? Yantra also found that she was able to let go of some of the resentment she was continuing to harbor towards her biological family. She even found time to visit Gretchen at the aged-care facility she lived in until her death in the spring of 1999.
It didn't take long for Yantra to discover 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 dynamic. 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. As a result of these conflicts, which always involved shouting by at least one party, Yantra inadvertently became privy to many of the secrets that existed behind the public facade of the glossy Abercrombie brand.
The biggest argument between Ken and Faye occurred after the revelation of Ken’s secret sex life burst onto the scene in dramatic fashion in 1999. This shock caused such disharmony and animosity between the Abercrombies that Yantra was sure the couple would split. But no, Faye took hold of the reins, and 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—an infamous New Eden dominatrix named 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—to be called The Dark Side—for her to perform at. From what Yantra could glean from the snippets of conversation she overheard, or which Faye told her about, it seemed that encounters of a morally questionable nature were to be on offer at The Dark Side. Yantra became excited at the prospect of meeting Lobida at some point as 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. Yantra secretly longed to have children of her own, but life was yet to provide her with the opportunity.
Alex was smart and well behaved, even when very young, and he required little personalized attention from Yantra as he grew up; Alex always seemed to be happy, and he was always able to keep himself amused all on his own. Eve, on the other hand, suffered from fluctuating moods and debilitatingly low self-esteem, even in early childhood. Yantra often worried about how Eve was going to get 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 venom—Yantra was fascinated to finally meet Lobida in person. On the day in question, in 2009, Lobida was busy giving instructions to builders and decorators who were swarming around the interior of the gutted theatre on E 72nd St. Yantra stood quietly in the wings for a while watching in awe the powerhouse she was seeing and experiencing for the first time. What energy, what strength, what power, 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, but also decidedly pleasurable, feeling: love at first sight.
“So, who are you, darlin’? 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, then finally found her voice and squeaked, “Ken Abercrombie sent me. I’m Yantra Srinivasan. He said you might have a job for me?”
“For you, sweetie pie, anything. Why don’t you meet me this evening at Le Baobab on W 116th? It’s just off Malcolm X. You do Harlem, honey? How about Senegalese? You happy to eat that?”
“Of course, I love Harlem, and I love Senegalese food . . . I think. What time?”
“Make it ten o’clock. I want you to be my last appointment for the day; I have a feeling we have a lot to talk about . . . and I don’t want to be rushed.” At this Lobida winked, ran her eyes lustfully up and down Yantra’s body, swiveled on her stiletto heel, and launched into chastising the plaid-wearing workman who was in charge of constructing the elaborate stage; the future centerpiece of Lobida’s BDSM cabaret spectacular.
Wow. She’s incredible, thought Yantra. I can hardly breathe right now. 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. Lobida’s loud, straight-forward manner could put people offside in a millisecond, 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 she started to add her own personal touches to the evolving cabaret club. Even the potential stress associated with opening night didn’t amount to anything, and the evening flowed smoothly. Lobida the radiant and charismatic figurehead; Yantra the quiet strength and easy control behind the scenes.
There was no mention of the blossoming love affair between Yantra and Lobida when they were at the club, and there was certainly 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, however, 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 dinner at La Baobab they signed a joint lease on a fourth-floor, south-facing apartment on Dr Martin Luther King Jr Blvd in the center of Harlem, and Yantra and Lobida started sharing their lives together full-time.
The Harlem apartment was small and cozy, 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 objets d’art. Once the apartment was decorated to their satisfaction, two Tonkinese cats—Jinx and Jade—were added, and their new home was complete.
From their very first day of living together, neither Yantra nor Lobida felt the need to venture out 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’d 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 out in the world, 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 for a change; the couple fell head-over-heels in love.
And so, we arrive again at that fateful date: July 4th, 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 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 der Keerk, and from the head of security, Ivana Brevshenko, who’s on the sidewalk outside the club.
There is an extra special buzz in the atmosphere tonight. Having been closed to the public for more than three months for the COVID-19 lockdown, there is a lot of addictive shadow energy eager to burst out of its enforced period of sobriety tonight.
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 safety and sanity 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 over the PA, the audience quietens, and the curtain rises revealing Lobida, center stage, in the spotlight . . .