Her parents named her Sheela Ambalal Patel. After she married for the second time, her name in official records appeared as Sheela Birnstiel. Most of us, however, know her by the name Osho had once given her, Ma Anand Sheela. In the early 1980s, Sheela was indomitable, feisty. She had spunk. Back then, Osho was known to the world as Bhagwan Rajneesh. Sheela, his secretary, had his ear. She brought him what he wanted, cars, diamonds, fame, his own city in the US. She made real his utopia.
The Netflix documentary, Wild Wild Country (2018), told the story of how Osho’s American dream of sex and samadhi soured. It made Sheela the protagonist of a tragedy, one that ended in scandal and a jail term. Osho accused Sheela of arson, wiretapping, attempted murder and of trying to poison the citizens of Oregon. Sentenced to 20 years in federal prison, Sheela was then paroled after 39 months.
Searching for Sheela, a new documentary on Netflix, is more a spin-off than it is a sequel. It records Sheela’s 2019 interview tour in India, her first trip to the country in 35 years. “People think I was in exile, but that is not true,” she tells us from Switzerland. “I didn’t want to trouble my family more. I had troubled them enough by being in prison.” Many of Sheela’s interviewers, we see, want to know more about her criminal past, her life in jail. For Sheela, these questions are moot. Having served her sentence, she believes she has earned the right to put the past behind her. She wants to move on. At one point in Searching…, Sheela seems to draw a distinction between public truth and personal history. The former, she finds, frustrates the latter. Though she has a ready answer for questions she gets asked, she says she is still wait- ing to reveal her depths. When Karan Johar asks if her relationship with Osho was platonic, she clarifies that she and her master had never had sex, but goes on to add provocatively,
“His eyes were probably more beauti ful than his penis.” Journalist Barkha Dutt wants her to be belatedly outraged by Osho’s disavowal of her, but Sheela can only say, “I can’t satisfy you.”
“Personally, I felt she wanted me to be hate- ful, but that’s not my feeling,” Sheela tells india today. “My feeling for Bhagwan is of love, of devotion.” After Sheela’s sudden departure from Oregon, Osho had publicly ridiculed her as power-hungry, uneducated and unintelligent. He even called her a “prostitute”. But Sheela, for her part, says she is still in love with him. She regrets nothing. “What should I regret? Should I regret meeting Bhagwan, the king of my heart? Why? Because he said a few nasty things about me? No. Should I regret boldly protecting our community? I do not regret it at all.”
Sheela often came off as brash and foul-mouthed in interviews she gave the American press in the early 1980s. Some of the phrases she employed “tough titties”, for instance, became slogans for a new, millennial generation after Wild Wild Country released. Looking back, Sheela doesn’t think of her outspokenness as theatrics or even subversion: “It was conviction. I wanted to do Bhagwan’s job cor- rectly. He had chosen me as his spokesperson. He had told me not to worry about being nice anymore.”
In one of Searching’s… more moving segments, we see Sheela return to the Vadodara house where she was born. She sits on her father’s swing and thinks of how he would wait for the letters she would write him from prison. Sheela is unable to fight back her tears. In the mid-1920s, Sheela’s father, Ambalal Patel, had joined the freedom struggle and begun working with Mahatma Gandhi. Sheela says her rebelliousness is inherited. “My father was a rebellious man and also very, very courageous. He taught me and my siblings to speak openly, directly, to not be afraid. And then I met another rebellious flower called Bhagwan, so between the two of them, they created a monster.” Sheela’s laugh is hearty. Seeing the 71-year-old Sheela walk around one of her two care homes in Switzerland, speaking of death to patients with special needs, one is reminded of Osho. “Do not encounter death with despair,” he had once told Sheela. She remembers that lesson to this day. “The way I protected people in the commune, I protect my people here. They are part of my institution, my household.” Searching…, it becomes clear, only scratches the surface of Sheela’s story. To make better sense of her, one might need to read her memoir, By My Own Rules. Penguin has promised her the book will release in May.