I realised while writing this that this trip took place 21 years ago. I was 15 at the time and 36 now. I remember nearly everything so clearly. It was an amazing voyage, So very special. I have been writing this piece over the past couple of months and initially thought I should post it in two parts as it’s pretty long, but I now think it should be posted altogether. If you get through the entire piece you will find some links to different people/places I refer to in the text.
It’s funny how a simple, silly thing can remind you of something so much bigger and more important, and bring a lot of memories floating back. Recently during one of my long evening nursing sessions I was browsing different social media sites and came across a quiz daring me to guess the artists of One Hit Wonders. One of the questions was who recorded the song Don’t Worry, Be Happy. As soon as I hit the button for Bobby McFerrin a window popped up telling me that the title originally came from a poem by Meher Baba.
Wow. That brought back memories. Of childhood, of India, of people, of times that I will always want to remember, and of times that I would sooner forget. Meher Baba was a big part of my life growing up, amidst a sometimes Catholic, sometimes Church of England, but mainly atheist you can choose what you want to believe in upbringing. Meher Baba was an inherent part of my early teenage years, mainly rejected afterwards as I wanted to rid myself of anything that reminded me of a certain time in my life. I went through my teens searching for some kind of spirituality and hoping to find it somewhere, in Catholicism, Hinduism, Socialism, Witchcraft, Satanism, Judaism… Some things I keep with me, like my love of churches and the feeling of piece I get whenever I walk into one. I still light a candle for my father whenever I enter a church, and sit and reflect on life for a while. Or sometimes I think about how there must be something else out there, something bigger than us, something watching this world evolve and waiting for it to come to an end. But mainly I just think that we just need to make the most of this life and treat others as we would want to be treated ourselves. Spirituality is lovely, using a god to further your own personal agenda not so much.
I asked my brother if the Don’t Worry Be Happy trivia was correct and although he wasn’t sure, he was able to remind me about how Pete Townsend was a Baba follower (yes, Pete Townsend from The Who). Pete Townsend singing Meher Baba’s Universal Prayer. That brought me right back to so many memories and emotions and feelings and images… We went to India on a family holiday, or pilgrimage, in 1993. I was 15 at the time, my sister, Karli, 13 and my brother, Dylan, 6. We went with my mother Alison, my stepfather Mirek and our Auntie Dot, and stayed there for a month. We didn’t go during the summer holidays as we wanted to avoid the monsoon season, and instead went from October to November (we missed a month of school and I really don’t remember it being too difficult to catch up… I know I took some work with me, but didn’t really work too hard on it as there were too many more interesting things to do). I still remember to this day the feeling of utter sadness I felt on coming back home from this trip. Sitting in the bath in our house in Sassenage, France, enjoying the first real bath in over a month, listening to Tim Buckley’s Sefronia playing on the record player in the living room, I cried wishing that I could run back to India to live. That holiday changed many, many things in all of our lives.
India is a very, very spiritual place. It is also a very noisy, colourful and vibrant country where there is so much to see it sends your head spinning. Mirek had been to India several times, back in the late 70’s, and had stayed in contact with some people he had met at the time. Somehow my family had managed to send money to one of his friend’s, Youssef, to purchase a Jeep, and in return he would be our driver while we were there (or something along those lines). We had also managed to rent an apartment for the month, as it would have been easier to stay there than in a hotel. We landed in Mumbai (Bombay at the time), and Youssef was there to meet us once we had navigated our way out of the airport. So were about a dozen kids of different ages who practically ambushed us. As much as Mirek had warned us about this and how to stay strong, he still ended up giving them the t-shirt he was wearing as one of the kids kept asking him for it. Once outside of Mumbai we didn’t see as many children begging on the streets, but it’s still something that I will never forget. You just want to pick them up, one by one, and take them home with you. I will never be able to stop my heart from bleeding when I see children hurting and in despair. Some of them followed us to the Jeep where we spent a while putting all of our luggage and then ourselves in (we were squashed worse than sardines in a can for over 8 hours). Our final destination was Ahmednagar, and we got there in one piece, after making it safely over the “hill” (mountain more like) by Pune (you know those blocks on the side of the road? They are to shove behind the wheels of lorries when their breaks fail) and navigating the “toilet” pit stops.
As I mentioned before we had rented an apartment. We had been there for about 10 minutes when my mother ventured to the toilet, opened the door and slammed it shut with a bloodcurdling scream. A rat had popped its head out of the toilet to say hello! It was too late to do anything, so we all just went to sleep (yes we used buckets and not the toilet). We could hear scurrying noises in the toilet all night… There was no way we could stay there – it was obvious the toilet hadn’t been used for a while and the rats were able to climb up from the sewers, but still! It was decided that we would all go to the Meher Baba Pilgrim Center and Mirek and Dylan would stay at a hotel nearby as Dylan was too young to stay at the pilgrim center (if I am not mistaken it was called the Chanakya Hotel). The center is (still) located in Meherabad, at the bottom of the hill where Meher Baba’s is buried.
The pilgrim centre was just wonderful. I would go back there in a heartbeat. It’s so peaceful, not just quiet, but peaceful in a practically holy way. That same peace you feel when you walk into a church, that peace that helps you listen to your own voice and work things out away from the craziness of everyday life (that’s how I feel when I walk into a church, but then again I don’t go to churches for specific religious reasons, so this feeling is probably only personal). We were in India in 1993, and it appears that a brand new and much bigger centre (or retreat as it is now named) was open in 2006. When we were there the centre was divided into 2 sides, the left with women’s dorms, the right with the men’s dorms and the middle with the communal areas. The dorms were of different sizes and there were shared bathrooms, and special water containers with sterilized water on tap. Tap water in India is a big no-no drinking-wise, unless you want to risk being extremely ill. Laundry day was once a week, bath day every three days, and there were 3 full meals served a day in the canteen. All meals were vegetarian and were absolutely delicious. There were always communal activities going on (Baba movies and stories, games being played, outings etc). I have the most wonderful memories of staying there amongst so many beautiful people. The people working there were so kind, and the people staying there at the same time as us were from all over the world and all different parts of life. People were there for all different reasons (nowadays I find that there is a real parallel with the reasons people were on the kibbutz with me quite a few years afterwards), but the communal reason was that people were there for Meher Baba.
Meher Baba was laid to rest in 1969 in a tomb up on the hill, a 15 minute walk up from the pilgrim center in Meherabad. The tomb or shrine, known as the Samadhi, was beautiful, always decorated with fresh flowers and sweets, peaceful, a place for meditation, prayer, reflection and even art (I went up there a few times with some of the other pilgrims who were a few years older than me to sketch). Mansari Desai, one of Meher Baba’s mandali (disciples) lived up there as main tomb caretaker, and she would always invite us to her little house for chapattis and jam. She would cook them crouched down in the corner of the room over a small gas burner. She was tiny, a delicate bird, with a personality that was twice her corporal size. All I remember of her home was the simple room where we would sit and talk to her (if I remember correctly she didn’t really speak English, but I could be wrong).
I loved walking up the hill to the tomb and just sitting there, absorbing everything. I was 15 at the time and really questioning everything, especially spirituality and God. Before the arrival of my stepfather in my life, my only religious education was mainly Church of England Sunday school classes (and these were more fun than anything else, and probably a way to give my mum a break once in a while), and then once my mother married again, a more formal Catholic education and the introduction of Meher Baba. I was also independently interested in Judaism and Islam, and then just interested in the idea of reincarnation. Meher Baba’s teachings are very heavy on reincarnation, that we begin as a stone and live through many, many different lives, moving up the different planes until we become one with God. On a personal level it was amazing to be able to be part of such a spiritual movement, and to be there, right there, where an avatar had lived and spoken and existed. Nevermind what you may believe, it really was quite incredible. I’m still not a believer in any real religion, and one day I will give my daughter the tools to explore different religions and beliefs and make up her own mind, but at that time it was a blessing and a curse to be plunged into so much spirituality and then taken back out again too suddenly.
If you have ever been to India you know that it is a country unlike anything you may expect. The colours, the noises, the smells, the incredible amount of people, the poverty, the riches, the beauty… And we were only in one small part of the country. One day I will go back to explore different areas, meet different people, fall in love with the country all over again. At the time a month didn’t seem like anywhere near enough, but in the end it was more than enough to plant the seeds for many a change that was to happen over the next months. Changes that were completely life-evolving. In hindsight I don’t think India was the fault, more the catalyst. It is a place where you can move away from yourself for a while, pinpoint what may be going wrong, and start the process of trying to make things better.
Some days we would spend in Meherabad. Some days in Ahmednagar. Other days we would get on the old bus as the Pilgrim Center and travel through Ahmednagar to Meherazad on the other side. Meherazad was where Meher Baba lived during the last period of his life, and where his disciples, the mandali, lived (when I was there those who were still alive lived there, but it appears that since 2012 no one does anymore – probably because they have all passed on, but I’m not sure about that). The road was more pot hole than road and the bus had no real suspension, so if you were prone to motion sickness like I was it was hell. We ended up often going there in the jeep, following the bus. The calm that was prevalent over Meherabad was also present in Meherazad. A gathering of people who were just interested in spending time in a place where Baba spent a lot of his life. I have wonderful memories of chats with Eruch and Mani, two of Baba’s closest disciples (Mani was also Meher Baba’s sister). Mani was such a gentle, beautiful soul; I will forever feel touched by her absolute peace and kindness. I feel blessed to have been able to meet such wonderful people, as whatever you believe in. As I am writing this, and researching names and places, I have been reading things that I had completely forgotten. Meher Baba had been silent for years and years, and died without uttering a word. He would often communicate through Eruch with and alphabet board, or via sign language. I don’t actually know why he took a vow of silence. I wonder what I would think of a lot of the documents I read at the time if I read them now…
There were so many unforgettable moments, stamped in my mind. Those huge mosquitoes that could penetrate your skin through denim, the disgusting malaria tablets that we religiously choked down every day. Drinking Limca or chai while sitting outside a little shop by the main road (chai may be hot and sweet but it just goes down perfectly in the hot weather). Riding in a rickshaw and getting stuck in traffic because a cow had decided to have a nap at a crossroads. The little wild puppies everywhere, just looking for cuddles and love, the threat of bumping into a cobra every time we walked in long grass (but in the end the only one I saw was a squashed-to-a-pancake dead one on the road). Beautiful people offering tea and cake and a seat in their homes, no matter how big or small they were. Some really funny searches for toilets that were more than mere holes in the ground. A “bath” or a cold shower every 3 days (a bath was really just a big bucket full of hot water). Long, long talks with my auntie Dot, sitting on the veranda outside of the bedroom (may she rest in peace). That long, long hot shower for the first time in a month in the hotel room in Mumbai before the flight back home (the third best shower in my life, the first being after touring Egypt, a story for another time, the second being the day I came home from the hospital after having Luna). Wearing Indian clothes and hats and always having fresh garlands of flowers around our necks or in our hair. Celebrating Diwali by throwing ghee into the bonfire and watching the fireworks. That giant grasshopper that landed on my head and scared the living daylights out of me. Hugging people that I would never see again, but who, in just a few moments, would leave a profound imprint on my life journey.
And finally, seeing an India that was very, very special. Not just any India, but a very spiritual and enlightening one. It may have been 21 years ago, but I still remember so much of it, so well. I always worry about going back somewhere and it not being the same as in my preciously kept memories (and it’s impossible somewhere would be exactly the same so many years later), but I would go back to India in a heartbeat if I could. It’s a very, very special place, on earth and in my heart.
Avatar Meher Baba Trust - for all information on Meher Baba, Meherabad, Meherazad, the Pilgrim Retreat, trips to India etc.
The full collection of photos taken by my mother, Alison Toon, while we were in India in 1993 can be found on her Flickr pages HERE
Pete Townsend's interpretation of the Universal Prayer, Parvardigar
A documentary on Meher Baba HERE