When the light got in for Leonard Cohen

Soutik Biswas
India correspondent

image captionCohen forged a long friendship with Ratnesh Mathur, a fan, in Mumbai

On 7 February 1999, a journalist writing for India's The Times of India newspaper reported that he had briefly met Leonard Cohen in a "low-profile downtown hotel" in the city of Mumbai.

The Canadian singer, songwriter and poet had "magically materialised" in the lobby of the hotel, wrote the journalist. The "close-cropped, snow-haired" Cohen was wearing "a coal-black Armani evening suit, a cloud-grey silk shirt, an unlit cigarette dangling between forefingers".

He had been living in the hotel for more than a fortnight, and the staff, clearly, didn't know that one of the world's greatest singers was their guest.


Called the "high priest of pathos" and the "godfather of gloom" for his hauntingly bleak songs, Cohen died last week, aged 82, at his home in Los Angeles.

Six years after spending time in a rigorous Zen Buddhist monastery in California, and three years after becoming a monk, Cohen, 64, was battling acute depression, a nagging, life-long affliction. He had quietly slipped into Mumbai to become a student of an Indian spiritual guide after reading one of his books.

A Cohen fan living in Mumbai read the newspaper article and began a frenetic hunt for the singer. Ratnesh Mathur, a banker and music writer, called up a dozen hotels, and found out that Cohen was living in a 35-room budget hotel in a crowded neighbourhood close to a noisy overpass.

Taking a chance, he picked up his stash of Cohen's music, and landed up in the dimly-lit hotel lobby one morning.

"The reception connected me to his room, and Cohen picked up the phone. I told him I was a fan and wanted to meet him. He said he had come to India to meditate, and I should respect his privacy. I asked him whether he could autograph the CDs. He told me to leave them at the reception, and collect them later," Mr Mathur, 49, told me.

Minutes later, as Mr Mathur was leaving, Cohen came down the stairs and called him.

image captionCohen kept a low profile in Mumbai

"Let's talk," the spry singer said.

The two went up to the singer's room which was to be Cohen's home for much of the year. It was a small, carpeted room with a desk and a narrow bed pushed against the wall. A wood-framed air-conditioner and mirror took up much of the opposite wall. On the desk lay a cassette recorder and tapes of Indian music.

As Mr Mathur tells the story, they spoke for more than two hours - "I was furiously taking notes."

Cohen told him to listen to Ray Charles and Edith Piaf, his favourite singers. Mr Mathur said he loved the alternative rock band REM. "I like [REM singer] Michael Stipe very much, but I have spent more time with you now than him," he said, as they broke into laughter.

'Battling depression'

In his temporary home, writes the singer's biographer Sylvie Simmons, Cohen kept to a fairly strict schedule. Every morning, he left the hotel, "dressed in Western clothes - loose black shirt tucked into light-coloured linen trousers", and walked a mile through the "congestion of people and traffic, beggars and eternal car horn" to his guru.

Ramesh Balsekar was an 81-year-old pensioner and a teacher of Advaita Vedanta, a Hindu philosophy. A London School of Economics alumnus and former head of a state-run Indian bank, he lived in a sea-facing apartment where he would give talks and hold question-and-answer sessions. Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid were among the celebrities who had attended his sessions.

In the guru's apartment, Cohen, battling "acute depression and deep distress", would leave his shoes outside the door, sit on the floor and join a throng of students.

"Most of the attendees were foreigners. There was some singing of devotional songs, which sometimes Cohen would sing along to," Shirish Kumar Srinivas Murthy, a follower of the guru, told me.

image captionCohen with his guru Ramesh Balsekar (left)

After tea, Cohen would take a midday swim at an upmarket seafront club with an outdoor pool. There, he was occasionally accosted by fans. The rest of the day was "usually spent alone in his hotel room, meditating, sketching, writing and reading books," according to Sylvie Simmons.

He wrote furiously about India and Mumbai:

Mumbai, like the Athens

of forty years ago

is a city to smoke in

He remembered his mother, Masha, who died in 1978, and wrote:

I want to bring her to India

And buy her

Gold and jewels

I want to hear her sigh

For the poor in the street

And marvel

At the unforgiving greyness

Of the Arabian Sea

The legendary ladies man also wrote a self-deprecating ode to Indian women:

India is filled

with many

exceptionally beautiful women

who don't desire me

I verify this every single day

as I walk around

the city of Bombay

I look into face after face

and never once

have I been wrong

As the days went on, Cohen and Mr Mathur forged an unlikely friendship. Mr Mathur took the singer to Mumbai's most famous music store where Cohen was amused to find his music sitting in the "easy listening" section.

Together, they visited the city's oldest art festival, the oldest synagogue, and an art exhibition of a well known Jewish artist who had migrated to India. They spent afternoons eating at a well-known restaurant, and visited an old furniture market.

image captionCohen lived in a low profile hotel in Mumbai

On the way back home one day, Cohen sang along when Mr Mathur played his sultry love song I'm Your Man on the car stereo. On the singer's birthday, they dined at a popular restaurant, where Cohen smoked, drank wine, and had a simple vegetarian meal of rice, lentil soup and cottage cheese.

Other times, the singer went out to look at the city's "other side" - visiting his taxi driver's home in a slum, and striking up conversations with roadside tea-sellers and shoeshine boys. He would tell friends that the inequality depressed him - Mumbai is home to India's richest and some of the poorest.

'Humble abode'

"But he seemed to have fallen in love with the city," Malathi Narayanan, who worked with Cohen's music label, Sony Music, told me.

She had managed to persuade the reclusive singer, now on his second visit to Mumbai in 2000, to attend a dinner hosted by company executives. "He arrived in his single-breasted Armani linen suit, the corners frayed," remembered Ms Narayanan.

"He told me he wanted to buy a 'humble abode' in Mumbai. But he was put off by the red tape here," she said. Another time, Cohen joked to Mr Mathur: "I am settling down here. Why don't you find me a good Jewish bride?"

But something more transformative happened to Cohen's visits to India for conversations with his guru and friends.

image captionThe singer later said his depression had 'lifted' after living in India

"Something, as he told [singer and writing collaborator] Sharon Robinson, 'just lifted' - the veil of depression through which he had always seen the world," wrote Simmons.

Cohen told his biographer that over the space of several visits to Mumbai in the next few years, the clouds in his mind had lifted - by "imperceptible degrees this background of anguish that had been with me my whole life began to dissolve".

"I said to myself this must be what it's like to be relatively sane," he told Simmons.

His guru, Ramesh Balsekar, died after a short illness in 2009, aged 92. Cohen kept in touch with the few friends he had made in Mumbai until a few years ago. He even sent one of them tickets to a concert.

I emailed Cohen last week through a common friend to ask about his memories of Mumbai. I received an auto-answer.

"Unable to read/reply. Apologies."

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