While unceasingly delivering the highest spiritual message wherever he went, Swami Vivekananda did frequently come down to the mundane social strata, which made him endearing to people in their everyday life. This way he drew many towards him and changed them with the touch of his godly nature before going back again to his own orbit. Within the covers of this book we find the Swami indulging himself in a strange friendship with an American businessman, which finally endured time, space and generations. Here the renunciant monk comes down to the commonplace life of an American family to love and be loved, and thereby lift those worldly folks to experience the fleeting touch of divine bliss and confer immortality upon them.
This book is about the unique relationship which developed between Swami Vivekananda and an eminent American businessman who could recognize the Swami's spirituality and greatness even when he was early in the West. Besides, though the narrative is primarily focused on the friendship between the Swami and Francis H Leggett and its captivating climax, it has not excluded the other members of the Leggett family and their significant roles in the life of Vivekananda. On the whole, this is an outstanding story of friendship between two men of widely different vocations that finally transcended time and distance.
For long I had a growing interest in Francis Leggett. He played an important role in the history of Swami Vivekananda―both when the Swami was among us and when he was not. When I began my quest for this overmodest man, it took me to incidents and episodes that instantly inspired to put together a narrative which finally got shape in this book. Besides, to build up an inevitable backdrop I have to include brief histories of two immigrant American families, the Leggetts and the MacLeods, this has added attractive dimensions to the story.
And above all, during my pursuit of facts to frame a brief sketch of exactly who Frank Leggett really was and what he did to the Swami, I became captivated by the dramatic elements in his life equaling almost the Shakespearean tragedies
A REAL PAGE-TURNER
It all begun in New York City in early 1895 when after attending a Vedanta lecture of the Monk the Merchant invited him for a dinner someday soon. A little over 100 years later the sprawling 82 acre country house of the Merchant in Stone Ridge, New York, became a Spiritual Retreat to practise the ideals the Monk had preached and personified. Numerous letters, reminiscences and biographies stand witness to how this marvel gradually took shape. But the little story of a quiet and reticent man somehow remained unsaid till recently before The Monk and A Merchant came out. The narrative, replete with irresistible incidents and episodes spanning centuries and hemispheres, has seemingly become too fascinating to resist.
The Protagonists and a few of Those Who Shaped the Story:
He was Swami Vivekananda who first took Vedanta philosophy to the West from India when he appeared at the religious congress in 1893 at Chicago during the World's Columbian Exposition. Today his name requires no introduction to erudite people around the Globe―a simple search with his monastic name in the Internet brings about 1,60,00,000 results in less than a minute.
He was Frank H. Leggett. In 1895 when he first met Vivekananda, his wholesale grocery business occupied a large building on the West Broadway and Franklin Street, a landmark in the then downtown New York City. At a moderate estimate the building was worth $300,000 and his average business stock stored therein stood at $ 600,000. And the real worth of these sums could be assessed if we remember that during those days a plot of 101 acres at Catskills in southeastern New York State had a cost of around $200. These apart, Frank had large warehouses in places to store his merchandise. And to name a few of his other business interests : he was a director of the Home Insurance Company, trustee of the Greenwich Savings Bank, a director of the National Park Bank, a member of the Chamber of Commerce, Produce Exchange, Mercantile Exchange and Cotton Exchange. Besides, he was among the founder members of a few of the leading Clubs of New York, some of which have become more than legends today.
Despite a brilliant family lineage, proven business acumen and extraordinary success, sustaining happiness never came to Frank's life. Misfortune repeatedly crossed his path and its intensity could easily have devastated the life of any average man. But he was Francis Leggett, destiny had much before devised a greater role for him in the life of Swami Vivekananda. Hence he always bounced back from the pit of misfortune with unbelievable endurance and stood erect with a stoic stance to course along a newer paths.
Their individual misfortunes once drew Frank and Betty together. And a restrained courtship eventually ended in marriage. The Washington Times of 17 April 1904, highlighting Betty's various distinct qualities, wrote : 'In American society she holds a unique position. She fosters art and music, letters and science, and at her social functions one sees more people who are distinctly famous for some worthy accomplishment in fields kindred to these than in any other place in America, not excepting the drawing rooms of other social leaders. ... She has been called the brainiest woman in America, probably because she is never found without accurate knowledge upon any subject that comes up for discussion.'
The only child of Frank and Betty. In her midlife she would begin a quest to discover the finer nuances of relationship between her parents without overlooking the unique individual traits of their personalities which influenced their conjugal life.This journey would eventually earn Frances the most essential backdrop to her own life that till then remained eluding.
Younger sister of Betty Leggett, who decidedly never married and remained in the Leggett family as its inseparable and essential part by dint of her majestic personality, loving nature and a commanding presence rarely seen among common people. Her role in the life of Swami Vivekananda and his mission, notwithstanding two long biographies on her, seemingly remained inestimable even today.
THE COMMON THREAD
Throughout their individual lives the last FOUR people loved and admired Swami Vivekananda essentially for what he was. Their unstinted love and allegiance to the young Indian monk withstood time, distance and generations until it became a magnificent saga.