Journey to the East 1972-84
1972. At home in Kent. Childhood feels like it’s just ended. I’m off to University (for a bit, I lasted just two semesters).
From Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’ Riding on the back of a jungle elephant. Wow!
How did it all begin, this abiding connection of mine with India that by now has lasted for almost half a century? My earliest hint of it was an old yellow hardcover book ‘A Guide to Fourteen Asiatic Languages’ inexplicably discovered on my parents dusty bookshelves. Out of this, at the age of seven or so, I equally inexplicably chose (perhaps inspired by Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’ ) to pick Hindustani. ‘Tum ho magr, tum ho hathi ‘ (you are a crocodile, you are an elephant) I ungrammatically cooked up from its word lists.
Contributing perhaps was a little postcard of M. Louise Haskins poem ‘God Knows’, given to me at the age of ten by my Christian aunt. I treasured it for for years because of two lines which always gave me the chills:
“And he led me towards the hills
And the breaking of day in the lone east”
Springs of Indian Wisdom
As I entered my teens there were the Beatles of course, but George Harrison sitar playing meant little to me, and I was too young to follow the events with the Maharishi. It was the early seventies, when I was given a tiny book (‘Springs of Indian Wisdom’) by a sophisticated London Jewish girlfriend, before a second glimpse of India’s future impact touched me consciously. In amongst quotes from the Gita and Upanishads to which I couldn’t really relate was a poem by Rabindranath Tagore:
“…..Tired I slept on my empty bed
In the illusion that the work had an end
In the morning I awoke to find
That my garden was full of flowers’
It resonated with a wisdom that was much more approachable to me than gods and goddesss or high-flown philosophy.
Be Here Now
Beyond these fragments I can recall no trace of India in the upbringing of an English country boy in the sheltered and exclusively white little town of Cranbrook, Kent. I identified myself as a hippy (or freak as we preferred to call ourselves) from my mid-teens but not as any kind of spiritual ‘seeker’, it was much more about drugs and rock ‘n roll . Until 1974, two years after leaving home and moving to London, when I caught up with two friends who were squatting a little rectory next to a church in Camden Town. There I first came across Ram Dass’s book ‘Be Here Now’ and flicked through his life and lessons with Neem Karoli Baba. They were going overland to India, they suddenly announced. I couldn’t really comprehend why but they certainly planted a seed. It feels to me now as if I joined the hippy trail myself the following year not because of any particular desire to experience India but simply because it was the done thing in my freak circles. [see 1975 Hippy Trail Parts 1 & 2]
On the Hippy Trail in 1975 (generic photo)
Nor did India yet exert any irresistible pull on me once I had returned from that overland trip that saw me get as far as Pakistan and turn back, sick with hepatitis, before the Indian border. In the mid-seventies curiosity took me to listen to Ravi Shankar at the Royal Albert Hall but his music bypassed me completely. Nevertheless some sense of spiritual search must have germinated because my girlfriend Liz and I began doing the rounds of various gurus in London. Sri Chinmoy played the flute (badly it seemed to me) at a free event; we went a few times to the Premies in their ‘Palace of Peace’, an abandoned cinema in South London, where incomprehensibly poor audio quality discourses from their boy guru Maharaji played to a sweet, family-orientated group lounging on the carpet. And we did Rajneesh Dynamic Meditation in a basement at Bell Street, where I was shocked at the hellish screams that surrounded me during the catharsis stage, and impressed by the utter totality of the way the leader demonstrated the stages beforehand. But I left telling myself: ‘Well, that’s not what I call meditation’.
Shabana Azmi in ‘Ankur’
Back in 1972 during my short sojourn at Nottingham University, I had somehow found myself being escorted to the women’s Halls of Residence (a remote planet to us in the male Halls) and to the dressing table of an Indian student (one of the only non-whites in the whole campus at that time, I guess). The femininity and gracefulness of the scene and her heartfelt welcome to me had left an impression. She was the precursor of the women who kicked my longing for India into gear later in the decade. The first of these was a youthful Shabhana Azmi in Shyam Benegal’s ‘Ankur’, which I saw in the University theatre while at Canterbury College of Art in 1978, who dazzled me with her beauty and the pathos of her story. The second was Waheeda Rehman in ‘The Guide’, broadcast on British TV in March 1983, after which in a flood of tears, I lost myself in imaginings of past lives in which I’d lost my daughter, my sister, my tribe in tragic and noble circumstances.
Waheeda Rehman in ‘The Guide’
By then I’d actually been in India for three short weeks and had been inspired to learn the classical stringed instrument sarod [see 1979 India] At the time I put down the sense of utter familiarity I felt on first arrival (emerging from the Delhi airport terminal into the melee of hustlers, touts and taxi drivers and simply placing my back to a wall, rolling a cigarette and watching the chaotic goings on with an urbane smile) to having spent those three months in Pakistan. Now I’m not so sure. There was an instant bond with the drivers who came over to ask me my destination and with whom I shared a bidi. I could sense their appreciation of my lack of hurry, of respect for my reluctance to admit to any destination at all until the crowd had cleared and the situation relaxed. The sense of a karmic connection with India I have felt ever since has been triggered over and over again by a simple liking for Indian people and an ease of communication, despite language limitations, with them.
Dagdha. 1979. My drawing.
By then too I was married to Dagdha, a Canadian sannyasin and was taking part with her in Rajneesh meditations and therapy groups, while much of our friends circle was sannyasin-based. I loved the lifestyle, the warmth of the people but just wasn’t getting why we needed the old man with the beard.
In Edmonton, Canada in ’81 I started Hindi lessons at an evening class at the University. At the back of my mind must have been Amjad Ali Khans performance on that first visit to India, which had inspired my sudden conviction that sarod was the instrument for me . Learning the devangiri script came to me easily even if the language didn’t; I dropped out quickly but retained a few phrases, somehow sure of their future use. Despite my marriage I felt no urgent pull to visit Rajneesh and his Poona ashram, so when our plans to do so as part of our return from Canada to England fell through (he’d suddenly left India and no-one was sure where he was) we elected to bypass India and go via Sri Lanka instead. (see 1980-81 Canada and 1981-2 Thailand Sri Lanka)
So to London and that emotional outpouring in response to ‘The Guide’. I began to write and then wrote and wrote for a year or more: a sexually charged story of a Western couple’s entanglement with an Indian one in India. There was the beautiful Indian woman who needed rescue; her husband, the enigmatic Indian ‘wise’ man; the impulsive and confused white guy and his equally confused but rather more empathetic partner, set against a backdrop of scenes recalled from my three visits to the subcontinent and coloured with allusions (researched in the local library) to the idealized India of the poets and dreamers like Tagore. Gradually it was the figure of the caring Western woman and her relationship with the tragic Indian one that began to dominate, until by the end my surrogate self had receded (like my own father who had abandoned us when I was seven!) into not much more than a sperm donor. At the conclusion there was a baby girl, who bloomed (Bloom being the name that came to me in one of my many dreams that featured these five figures) like the flowers in Tagore’s poem, into a potential world-savior. (‘A Guide for the Twenty-First Century’ was my working title). Today I can see her as a symbol of the birth of a far less superficial connection with India that has been part of my life ever since.
My sannyas certificate from Rajneeshpuram. I was initially disappointed on receiving it in the mail. My name wasn’t unique! There was already a well-known Swami Prem Chinmaya living at Medina Rajneesh, our English commune.
Sannyas initiation at Medina Rajneesh. Jan ’83. I’m wearing a non-regulation striped tee-shirt, albeit dyed orange. Was I a rebel or just still a bit non-committed?
For by the end of 1982 I was ready to take Rajneesh’s neo-sannyas. A mind-blowing week at our local Commune, participating in the ‘Satori’ group (a process using the technique of asking ‘Who am I?’) culminated in me standing before Rajneesh’s picture and suddenly, as if a flower bloomed in my heart, getting just why we were centered around the old man with the beard.
With Gurdev Singh, his family and Harbhajan Singh in Delhi.
Southall in 1983
Then, early in 1984, I began to spend much of my spare time with real (as opposed to imagined or screened) Indian people as a teacher arrived in London and my long-delayed study of the sarod began. My guru, Gurdev Singh, was by chance the leading disciple of Amjad Ali Khan whose playing had so inspired me on that short India visit four years previously. He and his circle of musicians, fans and hangers-on lived in Southall, London’s ‘Little Punjab’. Despite being surrounded most of the time by incomprehensible Punjabi and being required as part of my discipleship to drive Gurdev and his friends around the city on their varied missions, I took to it all like duck to water. Early on I remember practicing in the back room, when Harbhajan Singh, an avuncular musician friend of Gurdev’s, put his head around the door and remarked that he was surprised to find me a Westerner because from the sound of my playing he had assumed it must be one of the Indian students. Here too I met real Indian women (unmarried ones carefully chaperoned) for the first time and my fantasies began to interact with reality.
All this contributed inevitably to the breakdown of my relationship with Dagdha. In 1985 we separated and I moved west to Southall, where, sharing a flat with an Indian sannyasin in the early spring, I met and fell in love with Mona, a married woman on a visit from Calcutta. Fantasy and reality finally collided. From that moment on India was never really off my mind or travel list. Bhagwan, sarod, romance – three loves that kept me going back again and again.
(‘1985 Calcutta’ follows)