Travolta, Passing Through

Manu Joseph became a journalist because he did not have to crack any objective-type entrance exam to be one. He is the author of two novels -- The Illicit Happiness of Other People, and Serious Men, his first, which won The Hindu Literary Prize and was one of Huffington Post 10 Best Books of 2010.
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15 minutes with a Scientologist

It has been a while since John Travolta asked for an espresso. That is what he says. “It’s been a while, fellows.” In the universe according to him, time is the imagination of matter, the length of all illusions, the folly of the unclear mind. But then, a way of the world is that coffee takes time. “It has been a while, fellows,” he says. 

Several men in suits rush out of the room to find his coffee. A wicked smile crosses his face. It rebukes. He is standing in the conference room of the Trident in suburban Bombay, though the banquet’s fish fingers are so bad you would think you are in Delhi. The ceiling is high here but it does not dwarf Travolta. He looks imposing, grand, a lit object no matter where he stands. He is just over six feet tall, his hair a strange unmoving monolith, a man inflated by age but diminished only when set against the memory of Grease. But which 56-year-old man will stand a chance against that boy from Grease? He must be a bit tired too. He landed in Bombay just a few hours ago. He had flown his own plane, a Boeing 707, one of the five planes he owns, from Florida to Bombay with an overnight stopover in Finland. He is here to promote a new series of Breitling watches. Though, according to his religion, Scientology, time is merely a “consideration” of souls trapped in human bodies. And a watch, even a Breitling, is only a measure of “the persistence of space and particles”. A persistence in the face of the reality that they do not actually exist. 

He sits in a black chair, crouches forward in an amicable way, his feline eyes staring in some private mirth. He speaks very softly, almost inaudible, you have to lean forward to hear. If Travolta and Don Corleone had a conversation, they would be in a relationship. But his feeble voice, set against the absolute stillness of the room, lends him a deep enchanting character. “Flying is a spiritual experience,” he says. He takes a sachet of Splenda artificial sweetener from the saucer (his espresso had arrived on the tray of a waiter who had knelt on the floor holding it, like a believer). Travolta puts the Splenda on the table. “Here is the soul,” he says. He takes another Splenda and puts it on top of the first Splenda. “Here is the body.” One more Splenda. “Here is the plane. You are like the soul of the plane’s body, just like you are the soul of your own body. You are metaphorically the spirit of the plane. I don’t know if I make sense to you. People don’t understand.”

But he is in a country where every single person would get it. In a Hindi film, Mr Travolta, if a man dies in a car accident and the next scene is a maternity ward where a child is born, everybody will understand that the man who died has been reborn. Travolta howls happily. He clenches his fist and wants a knuckle bump. “I know, I know,” he lies, “This is probably the easiest conversation I have ever had about soul.” 

He was twenty-one when he “first realised that I was a soul”. He was shooting in Mexico and an actress asked him to close his eyes and think of a black cat. “I said I can see it. She said, ‘Who is the I’. I said ‘I is me, my arms, my brain’. She said, ‘Who is the I, who is the I behind the brain, who is the I.’” He claps. “That’s when I got it. I realised that was my soul inside me. I became cognizant. I’ve never been the same since. How can you be?”

In time he would become a devout of the Church of Scientology. The faith promoted by late L Ron Hubbard, which rests on the assumption that the universe is the imagination of free spirits called Thetans who eventually got trapped in their own creation. To liberate Thetans from the illusion of their physical prisons is the ultimate goal of Scientology. Since its birth a few decades ago, Scientology has had a nefarious reputation because of its secrecy, the scientific community’s contempt for its spurious tenets, its opposition to the use of medicine including life-saving drugs, its counselling practices that are alleged to psychologically ravage its members, its subterfuge, and the suspicion that it is a commercial enterprise that beguiles vulnerable rich people around the world. 

Sounds like any other religion, probably less dangerous than some, but Scien-tology lends itself to particular ridicule because of its scientific pretensions. In place of rosaries and telepathic communication with holy spirits that other religions have set in place, Scientology has gadgets like the e-meter, which measures a body’s resistance to electric current. Through this resistance, Scientologists claim to measure the turmoil of the soul. Only exalted Scientologists are allowed to use it, like Travolta. 

“It is so small,” he says, slowly expanding the space between his hands. “As big as a toaster, probably. It is a plastic case with a screen. There are wires connected to your hands. The e-meter measures your energy, it measures your soul. You can read what’s happening to you.”

How often are you connected to the e-meter?

“Since my son died, every day,” he says. 

Travolta’s son, Jett, whose name is painted on one of his father’s planes, died in 2009 following a head injury he suffered during a seizure. The boy was 17. He had a history of suffering from seizures and his death raised doubts over whether he was allowed to be under medication by his Scientologist father. 

“When there is pain or when I am disturbed, I connect myself to the e-meter,” Travolta says. He leans back comfortably in his chair and smiles. His handlers come to say that the meeting is over. Travolta gets up and is about to leave when the photographer asks him to stand in the sliver of light coming through the curtains. 

“I want you to turn, I want your profile,” the photographer says. 

“No,” Travolta says, “I don’t trust my profile unless it is perfectly lit.”

The Thetan knows its prison so well. And that, John Travolta would say, is the problem.