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)
Hancocks Farm in 1961
“Long easy minutes, surrounded by my creatures
Nestled in the warm oak
Surrounded by the night air
Endless air, fresh lying on endless fields
Nature’s excess, bounded by man’s needs
Ancient pattern of stone on soil
Stream on slope, damp on leaf
Set the scene of the Weald.
The past dripping from the eaves
Chiildhood cuckooing from the window views
White windmill seen from the roof ridge
Landscapes melt to memoryscapes
And merge with an older stream:
Church ghosts; generations of farmhands;
Farmers daughters – unfreed princesses
Loom beneath the rafters
Laughter round fires long since under turf
Gentle frame structure farmhouse watches all.”
(written in 1974)
Hancocks, a four hundred-plus year old timbered farmhouse situated on a hill overlooking a gentle valley coursing through the Weald of Kent, was my home from the age of seven to eighteen. The ancient house and its environs were the setting for a magical childhood. My first memory of it is while my parents were negotiating purchase late in 1960 (they ended up paying 3000 pounds). My younger sister and I found ourselves in the mud at the edges of the garden pond, where we excitedly unearthed a pile of discarded tin helmets. This set the scene for the sense of mystery and of the possibilities for endless discovery that the house would offer me over the next eleven years.
Front view circa 1970
It was the latest in my father’s ‘do-up’ projects and before he left us the following year he contributed some structural brick supports in the cellar, a second bathroom under the long slope of the rear roof and a half-finished bathroom downstairs. Although I don’t remember it myself, my mother told me that there was also a well in the back garden, which they covered over. Otherwise the house must have been basically unchanged for centuries.
My mother sold (for just less than thirty thousand) in 1976 and we moved all our family’s accumulated stuff during the hottest summer on record. I’d already left home three years before but it was still a wrenching loss for me to say the final goodbye. In the half century since I have passed by a few times and changes in farming practice plus the gentrification of this area of Kent (just an hour by train from London) have made it almost unrecognizable,
This makes the aerial photo above a record of a bygone era. It was taken just before we moved in and commissioned by my father, who must have known someone with a plane. In it the house looks shabby and neglected; we owned the house and garden alone, with the barns, sheds and oast of the farmyard beside it being part of a working farm up the road, Behind it an orchard of mature apple trees of numerous varieties sloped up to a view over woods and cornfields towards Benenden School (famous as the school of `Princess Anne) four miles distant. In front, past the magnificent hay barn that must have been almost as old as the house, the view stretched to the roofs of the little town of Cranbrook, with its distinctive white-painted windmill poking above the intervening trees.
My painting of the view of Cranbrook windmill from my bedroom window
Our farmer tried everything over the years. In the photo there are pigs in the field to the right of the house. These soon moved to ramshackle sheds in front of it and were replaced a couple of years later by turkeys, while the field was turned to wheat. Past the barns to the house’s left (at that time still full of dusty tack and faded rosettes from the days of working horses) a new shed housed rabbits, while the disused oast stood beside a hop garden. The farm track turned there and headed off through more orchards before sloping down to cross a stream in a wood of coppiced hornbeam and chestnut, carpeted thickly with bluebells in springtime. The farm’s boundary lay beyond that, over two cornfields that were home to flocks of peewits and studded with hammer ponds. But there was little boundary between farms in those days for a boy like me to contend with and my friends and I could fish for roach in their iron-rich waters as the Weald’s typical mosaic of woods, orchards, berry fields and corn (wheat, barley and oats) stretched off to glimpses of the Greensand ridge and the white of the chalk North Downs towards Canterbury and the East. There wasn’t a road for miles back there and beyond a tractor ploughing or collecting straw bales, or seasonal pickers at harvest time amidst the apples, there wasn’t another person to be encountered for months on end.
Farm track behind the house
Wealden view. My painting mid-70s
But naturally at the beginning it was the house itself that provided my playground and source of fascination. One of the last memories I have of my father before my parents’ divorce is the recovery of a roll of what he called ‘Napoleonic’ wallpaper hidden away under the roof. I have no memory of what it looked like, or what became of it, but it reinforced the sense that the house could offer me mysteries galore.
House from the back, early ’70s
This discovery took place at the back of the house, under a gentle slope of moss-covered tiles that stretched from ridge to ground floor, into part of which at first floor height my father inserted a small bathroom. (In a dream that came to me after he left he also built a secret room there, filled with books and intricate devices). This left other spaces that could be crawled into; by removing a panel in the new bathroom’s wall, I learned I could duck in under the rafters and emerge above the woodshed at ground floor level. There was a sense of pride and of being in sole possession of a vital secret at having pioneered the hidden route. This theme would recur over the years in gripping dreams in which I’d clamber out through my first floor bedroom window and somehow escape to the ground below. As a teenager I was able to use that gentle roof slope too from outside, scrambling over the tiles to sit astride the ridge with it’s elevated views. I also used it to reach the skylight window of the new bathroom, which never closed properly, and thus gain access to the house on the numerous occasions when I’d forgotten my door key.
House from the East
The East side of the house facing the farmyard though, I was far too terrified to approach from the rooftop. It fell straight down four floors to the entrance to the cellar. This subterranean space was filled with water in winter (chill winds would blow through it and lift the carpets of the living rooms through the cracks in the rough oak floorboards) and contained a well and brick steps that must have once provided access to the kitchen above. It was not a place to play, or even enter most of the year, filled with a jumble of rotting lumber, with a gigantic brass cauldron lurking in its murky darkness. Here too the mighty oak beams supporting the house could be best appreciated. Eight or nine inches square and as hard as steel after so many years, they were studded with grooves and dowel holes, indicating that they had once formed part of an even older structure. My father’s new support columns were the only evidence of anything twentieth century in the place.
On its way down that drop from the roof ridge passed an attic window of greenish leaded light glass that I imagined was beginning to look thicker at the bottom than the top. Inscribed in one pane in an elegant flourish was the year 1683. Two floors below that, at ground level of the rest of the house, a narrow door, sealed over from inside, perched unreachable above the steps down to the cellar entrance. Our perplexed speculations about its purpose settled on the idea that farm workers must have gone up by ladder, or now-vanished wooden stairs, to receive their pay from the hands of the farmer.
Roof construction in attic. My drawing from mid-70s
The attic itself was a forbidding place, dark, dusty and festooned with cobwebs. For many years I dared only to climb the rickety stairs to the first partition, gloomily lit by the inscribed window, in which old suitcases and junk left by my father hid a stamp collection that I coveted. Glimpses through to the middle section revealed two huge semicircular loudspeaker boxes that my father had begun to construct out of concrete as a new innovation in hi-fi. As the years progressed I ventured to the far section, ducking the abundant cobwebs. In my teens I learned that the roof trusses here, more closely spaced and lower, indicated an earlier style of construction, with this section of the house pre-dating the rest. I’d stand there a while, feeling the peace of a place so long unvisited, while rays from the sun penetrated the gaps between the tiles, illuminating whirling clouds of dust disturbed from the floorboards.
Later still I turned the first section into my den and bedroom, erecting a platform between the rafters on which I could sleep with my nose close to the whorled grain of the oak. Up there I felt like I was enveloped in the embrace of the spirit of the house, a benevolent bird who had watched over the raising of so many generations of farmers below me over the centuries.
With my sister Nicky and brothers Robert and Simon
My childhood bedroom was on the first floor, together with three others, one spare and one each occupied by my mother and sister. A corridor ran past them, floored with oak planking polished smooth by long treading. It was this that I had to negotiate when, petrified by nightmares, I wanted to reach the security of my mother’s bed. It was lucky that the toilet was next to my room, so that nighttime pees, with the sense of some horror poised over my shoulder, could be completed quickly. For although by day in the main the house showed me only its kindest face, at night I was easily kept awake by the creaking and groaning of its timbers in the wind. For a period inexplicable clucking noises disturbed me at bedtime; these turned out to be from pigeons nesting in the disused chimney behind my bed. On summer evenings it was vital not to leave a light on with the window open. Huge moths would greet me when I went up to bed, slamming themselves against the bulb and falling stunned onto my bed. In winter, ice formed on the inside of the window panes, there being no heating at first floor level, and it felt like an eternity before my feet could gradually extend themselves fully down into the icy sheets.
The corridor was flanked by two staircases: a little twisting one at my bedroom end and at the other a grand flight, an addition made at some point in the early eighteen hundreds by a wealthy farmer. The twisty one led down to the kitchen, past a partition behind which my poor brothers – twins sent off to a special boarding school which catered to the needs of the partially hearing – had their beds in the holidays, far from the rescue of our mother’s room. Naturally having two staircases gave opportunities for a lot of fun in terms of chasing and hiding and I remember the sound of my mother’s exasperated complaints as the house echoed with the stamping of feet. We were a contentious foursome too and she had to step in often to quell our sibling rivalries and noisy disputes.
The coalyards were at Cranbrook station. My parents took me to see the trains just before the line closed in 1961. (generic photo)
The kitchen contained the coal-fired boiler that was the vital heart of our home. This heated the water and was fed obsessively from the coal shed outside; disaster was declared if on coming down in the morning, it was discovered to have died during the night. Here, as well as the cooking, my mother did the laundry with an old top loader and a hand mangle and the steaming stuff was hung up above our breakfast table on racks manipulated by a pulley. At the kitchen’s far end a door opened out into a disused pantry, which led to my father’s half-finished downstairs bathroom as well as to the house’s main entrance hall at the foot of the grand staircase. Another door led into the living room, once stretching half the length of the house, but now partitioned off to provide my brothers’ bedroom. It was heated by a stove installed into the original brick hearth and chimney space, which was large enough to accommodate also a built-in bench on which my mother kept her sewing materials. Here, except for special occasions, we lived, played and ate. As we grew older – coal being expensive – it became my brothers’ and my job to find, cut and bring in whatever wood we could for this stove; but coal it was during my childhood, and bringing this in was a job I learned from an early age to relieve my mother from.
So we sat beneath the low beams supporting the upper floor, with a piano (rarely played), a lovely old circular oak dining table by the window, a walnut sideboard for the cutlery and a carved oak chest of medieval appearance (but probably of Victorian manufacture) containing our family photos and bric-a-brac. All these, as well as two magnificent carved wardrobes occupying other rooms, had been bought for next to nothing by my parents during their antique shop explorations in the early days of their marriage at the beginning of the fifties.
My mum around the time of my birth
I can see my mother sewing, or darning socks by the fire as we watch black and white TV (just two channels in those days), listen to Gilbert and Sullivan records, or play cards with buttons as stakes. I can hear the clatter of her typewriter as I stare over her shoulder in fascination as she touchtypes from her bewilderingly incomprehensible shorthand notes without a glance at the keys. I can smell the Sunday roast – lamb with mint sauce, ham with parsley sauce, beef with Yorkshire Pudding – which was the only meal we ever actually ate at the dining table. Our white cat joins us as usual, taking the chair next to the leaded light panes through which dull light from the north shines in from the garden. Dessert will be a sticky suet pudding, or steamed sponge dripping with golden syrup or, if it’s summer, a junket or trifle. Afterwards, though replete, I might be asked to pop down the hill on my bike the mile or so to Mr Edwards corner store (the only shop open on a Sunday in the town) and buy my mother a packet of cigarettes; “and while you’re there you may as well get a half crown bar of chocolate for us all to share…..”
The Hill, Cranbrook. Mr Edwards corner store was on the right at the bottom, between a disused smithy and the Workingman’s Club.
From the living room we could use another door (further chasing possibilities) into the entrance hall with its iron-studded front door and great lock, to which we had no key, never used except by poorly-informed guests arriving or delivery men. From there you were back at the foot of the grand staircase and able to access the ‘sitting room’. This too had a fireplace, the bother of lighting yet another fire being the principle cause of its use only on special occasions. We’d decorate it up with holly and bunting for Christmas; my mother might hold one of her occasional get-togethers with a few friends for ‘drinks’ there, but principally it was the through route to the telephone room. This little box of a space held the house’s fourth door to the world outside, a storage cupboard under the staircase, a doorway with no door into the unfinished bathroom still garnished with some of my fathers abandoned tools and our clunky black telephone. “Cranbrook double-three six eight” we’d answer breathlessly when it rang; all calls outside the immediate area had to go through the operator in the town until STD came in later in the sixties.
From this phone one loony afternoon at the age of twelve, a boy from my school who fancied himself as a bit of a lad and `I made our hoax calls: to the fire brigade, reporting a fire at our house and then a few minutes later a second at his. We heard the town siren go off and then retreated excitedly to the straw bales high up in the barn in the farmyard; to watch in increasing dismay as a fire engine and some increasingly angry firemen showed up. A policeman arrived that evening to give me my well-deserved talking-to; the shame I felt in front of my mother stays with me to this day.
Aah, the barn! Perhaps it was my home as much as the house, in summer at least. Through the garden – in which my mother grew some parsley and mint, re-planted her geraniums from their indoor winter pots, and cared for a few roses as well as she could with the limited time available after a full time job as school secretary and raising four children – over the farm track, through a missing panel in the big double doors and into its welcoming embrace. Here the straw from the fields was stacked in bales up to the tiled roof. From high up on top we could look down on the farm machinery and jump down into piles of broken bales. Broken, because we had mauled them in our burrowing, excavating tunnels and hideouts deep into the scratchy, dust-laden stuff. The farm workers could shout and grumble as much as they liked; we knew that they knew we were in there somewhere, but they couldn’t actually see us, could they? In the event of actually being spotted, we’d troop out dutifully, but would be back in again as soon as the sound of a tractor heading off reached our ears.
The farmyard and barns, early ’60s
The barn was pulled down in the late sixties, leaving an eyesore and a heart sore. It was probably simply too expensive to maintain. These days, surviving examples have all been converted into bijou residences and swanky AirBnB accommodation, but our poor barn missed that fate and doubtlessly ended up as spare parts for other peoples’ conversions. Three lesser ones stood in the yard, their roof tiles slipping, the weeds invading their blackened weatherboard walls. But with the farm turned from horses to tractors and in the main from grain to apples over the years and losing its independence as a farm unit, these too had lost their usefulness and were pulled down. With the last hops grubbed out not long after we moved in, the oast was an early conversion to a house. Part of it was inhabited for a while by a little old lady who entertained us with her paranoid delusions, reports of which left my mother shaking her head sorrowfully and insisting we leave her alone. After that that it was sold off separately, ‘done-up’ and that end of the farmyard became closed off to us.
The farmer’s focus on apples provided us with another opportunity for destructive creativity: the big wooden bins into which the pickers tipped their loads at harvest time stood empty in stacks outside the barn for the rest of the year. An irresistible temptation for kids who like tunnels and hiding places, we tore holes out of the bottoms of many over the years.
Apples also brought excitement and dread into our lives with the yearly appearance of varied tribes of ‘gypsies’. These were folk of whom my mother, like most English people of her class and generation, had no actual knowledge or acquaintance. They’d camp with their vans and caravans and scruffy kids in the orchard over our fence for a few weeks into the late autumn and then leave behind a mess of campfires and old tires. She’d warn us to have nothing to do with them, which certainly didn’t seem to concern them in any way, and then listen sympathetically to our farmer complaining about how hard it had been to get rid of them. Despite my intense curiosity I simply didn’t have the guts to disobey her.
My sketch of the old pig barn/turkey house
Behind the apple bins, through a thicket of head-high stinging nettles, was the piggery-turned-turkey run, overlooked by a pollarded willow which became one of my secret get-away-from-everybody places in the romantic crises of my tweens and early teens. I seem to have fallen in love a lot between twelve and fourteen. There was the girl in the hospital ward when I had my hernia operation; a Polish girl from Syracuse, New York, who came to stay with us in summer ’66 (I wish my mother was alive so I could ask her how on earth that came about!); and a girl in the town who the more streetwise of the locals at school called ‘loose’ and who I only glimpsed once on the High Street before morosely scratching her name into the ice at the far end of the farmyard pond.
Hop picking at Three Chimneys near Cranbrook. Generic picture with typical tractor of my childhood.
This pond was the source of water for the chemical spraying of the orchards that it was the job of one unfortunate farm worker to undertake without protective gear (he died relatively young and had a genetically impaired youngest son, while we too in the general ignorance of the times gorged ourselves on DDT from apples straight off the trees). It was – and still is, though much diminished to my adult eyes – presided over by a big oak, a leftover in my childish imagination from the primeval forest of the days of Robin Hood. I was clearly a soft-hearted boy: I remember crying my eyes out at the end of a book about the outlaw, tragically wounded by the passing away of bows and arrows, jousting and chivalry. Such pastoral nostalgia, fed too by the abandoned wooden wagons rotting at the edge of the playing fields at my school, stayed with me as I grew up. The remains of a Roman road worn deep into the hillside lay across the fields from the house, with a badly eroded inscribed parish boundary stone marking the spot where it crossed a stream. I’d imagine the legions and the wooden-wheeled carts passing it over the centuries, the peasants making their way home with faggots for their fires. The recent loss of a millennia-old past tugged at me even as I made my way into a new world of puberty, ‘Top of the Pops’ on TV and beyond.
Typical Kent wood, oak standards and coppiced hornbeam. My painting from mid-’70s
At seventeen I began to read up about ley lines, paths of underground energy crossing the country on which pre-historic people had built their sacred sites. It triggered a confusing memory of something I had been told years before while still at Primary school after I’d noticed some older boys from the grammer school in full school uniform digging in a field at the foot of the hill between Hancocks and the town. Here three roads meet at a spot known as Bakers Cross, (a name attributed by historians to Bloody Baker, a Catholic notorious for persecution of Protestants) where a miasmic pond lies surrounded by decaying, ivy-clad trees. I have no idea who on earth it could have been that answered my question to what these boys were doing with the tale that they were searching for an underground tunnel to Sissinghurst Castle. That this was five miles away didn’t strike my young mind as particularly unlikely, nor did I question why they thought such a tunnel existed in the first place, or had decided on that particular point to dig. As a new convert to ley lines though, it struck me that the whole story might be the result of some folk memory of an esoteric connection between the two places.
It all came to nothing of course, despite my plotting lines over maps, but improbable folk memories were abroad in my childhood. There was the infamous Hawkhurst Gang’s treasure supposedly buried at Hartley (three of us took our bikes and a spade up there and were bewildered to find that we hadn’t got a clue where in the whole hamlet we were supposed to dig). There were the bricked up windows of a house overlooking the churchyard at a point where a couple of gravestones were carved with skulls, closed off because some long-forgotten owner had been haunted by their ghosts. There was the rumour that Cranbrook School’s original rule book – never revealed to us but never overwritten – contained a rule that the Head Boy was permitted to ride to school in a coach-and-four and to sport a beard.
In class at DCPS (now Dulwich Prep), early ’60s
School Hall, Cranbrook School
This grammer school, to which, from the age of eleven, I pedaled six days a week, had been founded by Queen Elizabeth the First and was run – part dayboy and part boarder – on classic English Public School (read expensive private school) lines, even though it was now part of the free government school system. My Prep school (read Primary school) had been DCPS, where my mother worked as secretary, once a part of London’s prestigious Dulwich College which had been relocated from London to Kent during the wartime blitz. Thus as well as boys from the local farms and shops, I went to school with a few others from further afield. OK, these were all white and middle class and had passed the contentious ‘Eleven Plus’ exam which separated the hoi polloi who would go to Secondary Modern and on to trades and labour, from those privileged like me, who would be aspiring for University and the professions. Nevertheless, a sixties rebalancing was going on around us, and as well as the local butcher’s son my friends included a rebellious Polish Eastender (before he was expelled and went back to wherever he had mysteriously appeared from), a direct descendant of one of the Norman conquerers (Phillip D’Arcy Leighton Godfrey to give his name its full due), and a pair of South African brothers named Beer (the younger naturally nicknamed ‘half pint’).
Charles (second from left) with his brother and us Dunsters on holiday in Cornwall.
All this contributed to making my family’s social network a lot more varied than it would have been in a remoter farming-dominated location. My best friend was Charles, from a family like ours that had moved into the area and whose antecedents hailed on one side from Spain. Hancocks front lawn was one of the two settings for our epic cricket duels (much of which was spent hunting for lost balls in the hedges and shrubbery). The other was his home, five miles away along quiet lanes by bike, a tumbledown rented house at least as old as Hancocks (and today naturally a millionaire’s pad). My friend the butcher’s son had a German mother, a sensuously erotic figure compared to the usual staid English women. Our family friends included the Rodgers (George was a well known photographer of African tribes), who lived in a quaint cottage by a picture-postcard pond in nearby Smarden, while my mother’s employer at the school was John, brother of the famous Louis Leakey. A connection from her wartime days as a young secretary for MI5 was a gracious German woman who lived in Croydon and served us what seemed to me to be incredibly exotic jasmine tea – without milk! – in delicate china.
Ruined Kentish farmhouse in the ’50s. The sort of place that my parents and some of their friends ‘did up’ and lived in in the ’60s. (generic photo)
Our rustic life at Hancocks was echoed by that of many of our friends inhabiting what today would be outrageously exclusive housing: the Old Cloth Hall in Smarden, a rambling maze of wooden passageways and hidden rooms; the Cloth Hall at Cranbrook with it’s vast double-storied main hall and extensive once-manicured gardens. Yet none of us had any money really and we mostly made our own entertainment from what we found around us while gazing longingly at the model airplanes and train sets in the town’s toyshop. For the upkeep of the house my mother was utterly dependent on co-operative local handymen who would undercharge her and on a cleaning lady with the wonderful name of Manktelow who worked for almost nothing. Our cupboards contained a jumble of worn blankets, rusty Mechano sets and clothes long since past their use by dates, while our car, a clapped out Standard Companion, just squeezed in the five of us, plus a suitcase on the roof rack, for visits to grandparents in Southsea or a rare family holiday in Cornwall.
My brothers and the Standard Companion
A childhood summer afternoon: my mother at tea with her friend Jinx Rodgers in her cottage in Smarden. I lie alone on the patch of lawn in front. Across the road through the elms, Smarden’s medieval church is lit by a golden light. Bees hum in the warm air, the scent of grass fills my nostrils. I enter a kind of trance as the afternoon drifts on, interrupted only by the sound of the church clock ringing the quarters. Time’s passing has no meaning beyond those chimes. Their gentle call punctuates a timeless world.
“You know the way the clouds go
Spaced against the blue
In their towering, overwhelming gladness
And you, a grown child
Wheeling down from some glittering crystal place
Your own heart billowing up
Although this poem was written in South Devon (where there really were crystals to be found high up on Brent Hill) more than a decade after leaving Hancocks, it conflates both times when, high on grass, I would range the woods and fields, feeling that just beyond my reach was the capacity to know every leaf on every tree I passed. Inside me there was an almost painful yearning for that intimacy. The vales spreading out before me lured me ever onwards, for just beyond view, elusive yet compelling and naturally unreached, was the perfect place, the Weald’s own Garden of Eden.
No crystals amidst the Wealden clays and sandstones, but nose close to the iron-tinged water of the stream behind the house, I once came across a thin bed of shelly limestone exposed on a bank. The geologists ‘deep time’ hit me: where I stood had once, perhaps briefly, been a beach beside a coral sea. Above me titanic measures of chalk had been eroded away over thousands of millennia to allow me to witness that moment.
Coming back from some ramble, the sun tilts towards the horizon through a forest of hop poles. Suddenly I sense how I am perched on the great dish of the Earth, tiny and falling, tilting away from it.
Dusk, the crack between the worlds: a last glimmer of orange seen through the bare winter branches of the trees by the garden pond; a crow silhouetted amidst the twigs; Sirius blazing like a UFO low on the horizon. I can almost hear them, the faintest notes of Pan’s pipes or Krishna’s flute, playing in the gloom at the edge of vision.
August 1966. England vs West Indies at the Oval. Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith, the fastest flingers ever seen at the bowling end, tearing into the England batsmen. Edrich and Graveney stolidly digging in in defensive mode, the scorecard stalled. A strongly accented voice from the crowd as a bobby passes by: “Hey, Officer, arrest Graveney for loitering!”
In the autumn of 1970, at the age of fifteen I wrote this:
“Stephen Dunster, being of sound mind, doth hereby his future life, whatever it be worth, to the furthering of beauty, peace and love unto the far corners of the Earth.”
How did such a decision arise to become a hippy?
It was the zeitgeist of course. I was a typical English kid, brought up in rural Kent, reaching my teens in the mid-sixties. Top of the Pops on BBC television plus Radio Caroline at night subliminally introduced me to the fact that there was “Something in the Air”. I treasured the rare singles I could afford to buy – the Kinks and the Small Faces were my favourites. I remember my first amazed sight of the cover of Sargent Peppers at my best friend Charles’s house late in 1967 (the first album either of us had ever owned) and listening to it was – as for so many people – a revelation. I stayed up deep into the night the following year to hear the pre-release of the full White Album on pirate radio. As yet I had no conscious understanding of what I was imbibing; the music and lyrics were fascinating and lovable but I was far too immature to analyze them or their effect on me.
In 1969 I found myself drifting away from the rest of the rough and tumble group of kids from my class that I had been hanging out with – fishing, stealing sweets from shops, mock fights, illegal beers in a dingy but co-operative local pub – and being attracted towards some of the loners in my school. The thoughtful, shy, unpopular and even handicapped ones who weren’t good in groups, or at sport. Perhaps a loneliness in me resonated with theirs.
It seems now that this period was preparing me for what was to come. 1970 brought a cascade of events that would lead me to identify myself as a freak and to write that manifesto in the autumn.
Quite how Charles and I determined that we must try marijuana I don’t know. Nor how we obtained a pinch of uninspiring-looking leaves or found ourselves under a bridge in Maidstone in early spring. We smoked them with a sense of excited anticipation that was not, as far as I remember, crowned by any remarkable new sensations.
But as they say, if you remember the sixties then you weren’t there. The next thing I recall is camping with Charles and another friend at two pop festivals that spring at Plumpton racecourse in Sussex. Already we felt we were different – we quietly mocked the ‘straight’-looking campers beside us, even though with our school regulation haircuts I doubt if we looked any more like freaks than they did, despite our home tie-dyed T-shirts. Perhaps we’d finally obtained something worth smoking (some older hippies had rented a house on Cranbrook High Street and were supplying ‘quid deals’ of Lebanese hash) because hearing Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower’ repeatedly blasted from the speaker stacks sent me into ecstatic goosebumps. The Edgar Broughton Band provided the grunty R&B to help me release my inhibitions in mad dance, while Hawkwind replaced the cobwebs in my head with farout swirls. At the end of the first festival a guy was handing out headbands saying ‘Woodstock Peace and Love’. I’d never heard of it.
Falling in love (a deep crush would perhaps be a more accurate description from todays perspective) provoked a romantic introspection to accompany my solitary walks after school through the woods and fields behind our house. Naturally there was music to accompany me, with my head full of Forest, Roy Harper and Donovan. It was unexpressed, so shy was I, and unrequited. The girl was more interested in a fascinating new arrival into our little scene.
Mark was from London, that faraway (just an hour by train in reality) beacon of hip. He spent the week at some progressive school there where: “Man, can you believe his luck? They actually allow students to grow their hair long!”, and the weekends in Kent. Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell were his thing (hitherto far too American for my English parochial tastes). In short, he was sophisticated compared to us bumpkins, yet his warmth as a friend balanced his cool as a freak. Before long Charles and I were visiting him in London, where he introduced us to a Jewish crowd in Golders Green, whose parents would disappear off to California or Paris for days on end and leave them alone at home. Where they could naturally hold extravagant parties, at which I became the darling of the girls by spending much of my time helping in the kitchen. I’d never seen anything like it: the freedom, the big houses and big money, the vast record collections……
I’d wake on the floor or a couch early on a Sunday morning and hurry off in a daze to get back to Kent for a 9am start at my Sunday job as a lawnmower cum stable boy. This usually involved a suburban train ride to some outlying station near the main road and then a frantic hitchhike down the A21.
Finally school broke up for the summer holidays and we could turn our attention to being full-time freaks for a while. We scoured the neighbourhood on our bikes, exchanging records with friends, listening to them over and over again before reluctantly having to pass them back. King Crimson, Quatermass, Pretty Things, Soft Machine, Van Der Graaf Generator, Dr John, Fairport Convention, Dr Strangely Strange – we absorbed the whole eclectic bundle. Trips to London to obtain something to smoke (the pedestrian underpass at Notting Hill, the Chelsea Drug Store, Kensington Antique market) and pick up the latest freak magazines (Oz, IT) and Robert Crumb style comix, involved hitchhiking or risky ticketless rides on the train, sixteen shillings under-18 return being beyond our budget.
The Isle of Wight festival crowned the summer. But it wasn’t the headlining Hendrix, Emerson Lake and Palmer or the Who that I was waiting for. Alvin Lee’s Ten Years After was going to be my highlight (and I have to say, watching the film recently my judgment wasn’t far off!). Huddled amidst the vast crowds, far from the stage, I had no idea of the chaotic goings on up there or on the boundary fence. Incomprehensible announcements passed me by; my main pre-occupation was finding my way back to Charles and Mark after a trip to the toilets, the fastfood outlets or a search for hash. Bearings had to be carefully taken and hundreds of bodies crossed. At one point, completely lost, I gave up and plonked myself down at random. Chatting to the fellow beside me I learned he was from Oxford. “I’ve got a friend who moved there”, I told him and gave her name. “Oh I used to go out with her,” he replied. So small seemed the world suddenly, and how central we, the festival-goers, the Woodstock generation, were to it. Mark’s brother picked us up off the ferry in a van. Three sleepless nights had taken their toll on me: I lay in the back half asleep and hallucinating the whole way home.
Music remained the thread on which the next couple of years hung. Incredible String Band in a Leicester Square theatre – I’d never seen such exotic instruments before; Pink Floyd in an Art College student refectory in East London, dancing so close to the band and their psychedelic backdrop projections. My school gave us permission to invite bands to perform in our assembly hall. We had a few one hit wonders who I imagine have now vanished without much trace, one of which was shortly afterwards to surprise us: Genesis had released their first LP but we still got them for our standard budget of fifty quid, (plus buying them all a beer in the pub). It wouldn’t be long before I was bemusedly and greedily gobbling up their second, then their third……
“Love is our religion
Truth is our worship
Conscience is our guide
Peace is our shelter
Nature our companion
Beauty and perfection our law”
(written autumn 1971)
Hash, and the difficulties of obtaining it in a small town like Cranbrook, was a second thread. I simply craved the release it gave me from the routine of a dull boys only school, a sexually repressed culture and home and what in retrospect was probably the trauma of being fatherless since the age of seven in a society where my parents ugly divorce was a scandal. I used it to get high and commune with nature, bowling through the fields, my eyes full of gladness at the green beauty around me; I used it for my poetry of unrequited love, for the doodles and drawings that would overtake my attempts to get my homework done; for drowning myself in music though a pair of old aviators headphones that a technically minded friend managed to hook up to our family’s mono record player. And for freaking out at parties, head to the speakers, wildly shaking my tragically not-long-enough hair, my limbs twitching, anaerobic blood pumping through my frustrated veins. Hitchhiking one day I was picked up by a freak and invited him home to my attic hangout. He produced a twist of exquisite Moroccan and soon we were catalytic with cathartic laughter.
My mother bought me a fifteenth birthday present of a guitar (a nylon string that I managed to hang on to as a momento from those days until it mysteriously – it can have had no cash value at all – disappeared from my sister’s house as part of a burglary a year or two ago). I had no sense of myself as a musician, my sole previous experience being triangle player at primary school, and no confidence that I would be able to reproduce any of the sound that I was hearing on my favourite records. I took a few lessons in classical, the main result of which was learning to read music and a few lovely studies that until not so long ago my fingers still remembered how to play. My sister and her girlfriend joined me and a couple of others to form a band, which lasted just long enough to do one performance as opening act in our school hall. We covered a few folk songs, including a version of Bridgewater Fair that I wrote a simplistic new melody for, and I strummed until my fingers bled. Afterwards we got compliments from our new headmaster (a progressive type who had taken over from the deeply regressive type who had occupied the post for the previous quarter century or so) complaining that he couldn’t make any sense of what the main act (Comus I think it was) had played but that he’d really enjoyed us.
The thread of hippy culture also passed into me through comix. These – mostly American – alternative cartoon strips often contained scenes that would today be seen as verging on pornographic and introduced me to the anti-war, Vietnam-protesting, guru-spoofing wider world. I’d listened to Jefferson Airplane and CSNY expressing this stuff through their lyrics, but now I began to take note of a broader picture, that included Black Panthers, feminism and environmental activism. A card-carrying English flower child, I was soon repelled by the righteousness of it all, and by the time I left school in 1972 I left Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead and the Rolling Stones in their opening albums and found my gaze turning towards the gentler pastures of English psychedelic/traditional folk.
Gradually books began to take their place beside music as central to my education. An exotic gay physics teacher in my last year of school introduced me to quantum theory and to the mystical ramblings of Pawals and Berger. Jorge Louis Borges ‘The Aleph’ and ‘Labyrinths’ became a bible to me; my first glimpse of the cover of Lord of the Rings lying on someone’s bed had me grabbing for it like it was the Messiah. And the East was gently hinting at its’ future presence in my life. [see 1972-1984 Journey to the East] One of my Jewish London friends gave me a tiny illustrated book containing snippets from Tagore and the Bhagavadgita. “Let me not hear facts, figures and logic. Fain would I hear lore, legend and magic” sang Donovan and I brought my dreary course in Philosophy and Theology at Nottingham University to an abrupt end after less than a year.
It was a new experience to find myself rootless: I’d left my family home and, although it provided a refuge when needed, it was replaced by squatting in London and harvest work on farms around Kent. These were places where people gathered who had no particular attachment to the flower-children era but who, like myself, had imbibed their own take on it all. Suddenly there was the struggle for survival as priority (not that I needed ever to feel hungry or truly homeless until I reached Pakistan in 1975). I got a job for the local Council in Hendon, North London helping some good old boys mow the parks and verges. I did the apple and hop harvests around Kent, living in huts and an old disused oast house and mixing with gypsies, hippies and traditional Eastenders. To please my mother I even managed to get a couple of real jobs. One was for Camden Council in a children’s home (unqualified, unvetted, at eighteen not much older than the oldest kids there – how different those times were compared to today!); another at a charity providing food and shelter for homeless ex-prisoners. One of these, an engaging alcoholic, I brought back to live in our squat in Baker Street, where he’d engage in boxing rounds with invisible opponents and grin with bemusement at our vegetarian cooking. He was off before long and probably back in the familiar comforts of prison where three meals a day and all decisions were provided free for him. Neither jobs lasted, I was too restless to stay anywhere long.
Me, sometime in the early ’70s
I finally lost my virginity early in 1974, embarrassingly late compared to my friends, but delightfully. One of my searches for something to satisfy my mothers desperate concern about my future career led me to Colonsay, an island off the west coast of Scotland. Here the ex-military and eccentric head of an organization sending volunteers to work in the Third World had his lair, where he’d put prospective candidates through tests of endurance. I recall nothing of these, spending as much of my free time as I could smoking pot in the heather overlooking the sea. Of the rest of the options on offer I had nothing but contempt but ‘Assistant to the Archbishop of Ovamboland’ took my fancy. I was told that it was unlikely that I would get the post as the currant occupant was thinking about staying on but I insisted on my choice. On the train back to Glasgow a wee slip of a girl who had been on the course sat opposite me. She’d noticed me off in the heather she remarked, suspecting what I’d been up to but too shy to approach me. Her parents were away, she told me and I could come and spend the night at her home if I wanted. Innocent as a dove, I jumped at the chance to get a free night’s lodging before taking the train back south the next day.
So it was that I found myself in a suburban house in Stirling, having a hot bath run for me. How we managed to both tumble into it fully clothed can be left to theorists of evolution and the central role of reproduction in evolutionary fitness. Before long we were both naked in front of an electric bar heater, exploring each other’s bodies with our hands and eyes in wonder. It was the first time I’d ever been with a naked woman (such were the constraints of a 1960s English upbringing) and the image of the golden light on her skin remains with me today. I was completely incapable of getting it in once we were in bed; it was hard but why wasn’t it fitting? So, tired out, we slept and when I woke in the morning we’d done it. I’d lost my virginity in my sleep.
Joy and I met up a few times over the next months for energetic sex and I tried to convince myself I was in love with her. But she was having none of it and left as planned with a girlfriend for the south of France that summer. Joy, thank you and bless you! I remember you with joy in my heart.
I took my disappointed self off in autumn for hop picking at Tibbs Court Farm, Brenchley, there to meet Paddy, an Irishman who introduced me to Van Morrison, James Brown and the delights of Soul, so refreshing after a long diet of rock and folk. And Liz, another Scot, who succumbed to my blandishments and – just seventeen – allowed me to become her partner. Harvest done, we searched for a place to live, trying a caravan in Scotland (she caught crabs and I a dose of love for the country that would last into the eighties), even briefly renting a bedsit in Nottingham, where I worked as a delivery lorryman’s assistant.
Quite how and why we cooked up a plan to go overland to India as soon as possible I have simply no idea. Whatever it’s source, it required saving for, so we took ourselves to our respective parental homes to eliminate rent and met up regularly over the winter at friends in Bradford. There was fabulous Pakistani curry there, and sleepless weekends lit by lavalamps but the hitching was tedious and I leaned to curse the long queues at the start of the M1. I did odd gardening jobs at my old Primary school, where my mother was secretary and worked as a plasterers help at a building site in my Secondary.
By early spring 1975 we decided we had enough (around $500 between us if I remember rightly, adequate for six months at around a dollar a day each). Despite her being still legally a minor, there were no objections from Liz’s doting parents to her disappearing off with a twenty year old for an indefinite length of time on an unknown route through Asia. Nor do I recall any tearful farewells either there or from my mother. We promised to pick up letters whenever possible at Post Restaunte in major cities and to write whenever we could. In late March we met up in London and set off. [see 1975 Hippy Trail]
Self portrait 1977
My identification as a hippy survived the arrival of punk and the New Wave the following year. I remember how shocked I was at friends cutting their hair and adopting a more urban dress code. My reaction was to retreat further into the countryside (but not so far further as to join the wave of people heading off to rainy Wales to attempt living off the land). Liz and I moved to Canterbury, where I took a room in a ramshackle old farmhouse with a group of run down freaks. Hash was no longer getting me high, late 70’s music was heading over my head, but a return to painting, which had been my sole success at school, became a temporary savior. I enrolled at Teacher Training College to please my mother, chose Art as my main subject and spent close to three years out in the fields and amongst dilapidated barns with canvas and drawing pads, attending College only when required to keep myself on the course.
By late 1978 even this was not enough. Liz and I had separated and, the excitement of exploring the countryside around the old farm was paling. Hippydom had meant a rejection of societal norms, now I was barely connected to any society to reject! We had been going to create a better world, now I was just another longhair surrounded by other drifters. My 1970 manifesto was still alive in me but I certainly wasn’t embodying it.
Life provided me with the perfect answer in the shape of Diana, a Canadian passing through UK on her way to Rajneesh’s ashram in India. She was utterly unlike anyone I’d come across before. Her suitcase was full of macrobiotic food and exotic natural supplements; she looked with disdain on my ragged wardrobe and had long given up on pot smoking. She had come from Nelson, BC where her friends were Vietnam draft-dodgers building their own houses on mountains and locals running successful wholefood businesses and organic farms. She was five years older than me, which felt to me an eternity at the time, confident and clear of her direction.
We fell in love immediately and passionately and when two weeks later she left for India I knew I had to follow her somehow. I couldn’t just abandon my studies again, so this meant attempting to vicariously experience her path by taking myself at weekends up the orange-painted staircase to Rajneesh’s Kalpataru Center in London’s Chalk Farm and trying out the meditations and groups that she would be doing in India. I felt like a total outsider amidst the orange-clad sannyasins who seemed vastly more mature than me but could nevertheless feel the resonance between these people and my original vision of beauty, peace and love.
Over the next couple of months Diana wrote to tell me that she had taken sannyas and become Ma Prem Dagdha, while via frustratingly interrupted international STD calls we re-affirmed our commitment to each other. She needed a break from the intensity of the Poona ashram, she told me and I wasn’t yet ready to face everything I was hearing about the place, so we made a hasty plan to meet in Delhi during my short Easter break from College. [see 1979 India]
Thus began my seamless morph from hippy to sannyasin. While waiting for a bus in a dingy chai shop in Pathankot, Punjab I made this drawing. Something beautiful had died; out of it something powerful was emerging.
A bunch of people swear that they owe their lives to my performance. When that bomb exploded at 7.15pm on the 13th Feb 2010, I was just about to go on stage, while they were sitting in the audience, a comfortable half-kilometer from where they might well otherwise have been.
The German Bakery was a Koregaon Park institution. Just down the road from the Osho Commune, conveniently placed either for a quick cup of coffee before or after a meditation or therapy session, or alternatively for a leisurely and cheap meal plus gossip session in the company of the most eclectic collection of locals, travellers and spiritual seekers in India.
7.15pm was a popular time in the Bakery. The Commune’s gates had closed at 6.40 for the evening meditation, so if you weren’t attending that and you didn’t feel like staying home, you could join the crowd and take a chance on bumping into someone interesting.
Seventeen people died and a further 60 were injured that particular 7.15pm.
The German Bakery, Koregaon Park, in happier days
I’d passed by to buy a loaf of bread that afternoon, maneuvering past the usual crowd of touts, beggars and rickshaw drivers clustered outside the Bakery’s cheap bamboo walls. A quick ‘hi’ to a couple of friends who were passing the time of day with some young Indian students (tables were tiny and few, so you ended up sharing closely with strangers) and I was winging my way back to the concert venue for the set up.
The event was a benefit concert I’d arranged to raise funds for establishing solar lighting in the Himalayan village of Jhuni. The project was being implemented by friends who run a local NGO ‘Avani’, which brings electricity and livelihood opportunities to other remote villages in India’s Kumaon Hills. I’d formed a band and set up a video showings of the documentary about Avani that I’d recently completed and my ‘Smiles From Off the Road in India’ film starring the villagers of Jhuni. Plus Rashmi Bharti, Avani’s co-founder, was to give a talk and there was a big display of their textile products for sale. It was hosted in the lovely Koregaon Park garden of Sanskriti Lifestyle boutique run by wealthy locals who knew Rashmi well.
Dusk after a hectic day of arrangements; the band ready on stage; the mixed audience of Osho sannyasins and middle-class local Indians settled back in their chairs after a break following the film and Rashmi’s presentation. Suddenly we heard from afar an ominously deep and rumbling boom. Probably another gas cylinder exploding somewhere, we re-assured each other (a not uncommon accident in India). But just as we were about to play I noticed our hostess clutching her mobile and frantically signally to me. “There’s been a bomb at the German Bakery”, she whispered to me when I went down to her. “We don’t know more”.
A bomb? I cast a glance back at the band, ready and eager to play and then over the audience, looking calm and unruffled (it’s perhaps difficult in today’s wired world of Twitter etc, to imagine that just seven years ago, people didn’t expect to be checking their mobiles every few seconds!). I realized that my hostess and I were the only two people present who knew. ‘The Show Must Go On’ reverberated in my head and without further hesitation I got back on stage, picked up my sarod and gave the cue for the opening number.
To be honest I don’t remember much about the music we played, but I must pay tribute here to the other musicians, all good friends, who performed for free: Karunesh, Ramadhan, Bikram Singh, Avinash Jagtap and Amano Maneesh. The rest has all been erased from my memory by the vividness of the chaos that ensued an hour later once our set was over. We came off stage to find everyone now anxiously glued to their mobiles; and to hear the sirens ringing in the surrounding streets. We learned that there had been fatalities and heard rumours that Koregaon Park had been sealed off. Nobody knew if they could safely leave the venue; everyone milled around exchanging worried speculations.
Selfish considerations took priority in my mind. I was sure that my partner Naveena and our just-born daughter Koyal would be safely asleep at home in Goa and wouldn’t hear anything to make them worry until next morning. But my sister in England is an avid news-watcher and knew I was in Pune. I took myself into the darkness on the edge of the crowd and struggled to get a connection for what seemed like ages before hearing a voice from what felt like another planet.
Re-assurances complete I had another urgent responsibility to attend to: I had personally invited Jivan, an 86-year old lady friend, to the gig and arranged for Kristanand, a reliable rickshaw driver, to get her there and return to pick her up at the end. Where was she in the melee? Had Kris managed to get back to the venue to pick her up? As I searched the crowd, I noticed a few well-off Indians with their own cars beginning to drive off into the night, presumably trusting on luck to get them home; while most of the Osho sannyasins were taking advantage of the unexpected opportunity to do some more catching up. After all what more could any of us do? There was no sign of Jivan, and I couldn’t get a connection again on my phone to call Kris. In fact it wasn’t until when I finally got through to him the next day that I learned he had played a hero’s role. Somehow he had not only got his rickshaw through all the police road blocks to the venue, but by a long and fiendishly clever detour he’d got Jivan safely back to her home not far from the German Bakery itself!
As the night wore on more and more people drifted off to see where their legs might get them, needless to say there was none of the usual patrolling rickshaws to drive them. Rashmi, the band and I were the last to leave after clearing up. My car piled full of equipment, I crossed my fingers and set off into the midnight streets, eerily deserted and (as ever badly lit). The main roads were a mess of barriers and huddled groups of policemen; there was no other traffic so they paid me not the least attention when I skirted their roadblocks and drove the wrong way down the dual carriageway. I was also staying just off German bakery Lane, but knew better than to try to approach it via the Bakery end. In any case I was afraid of what I might see there.
The scene very early the next morning was the same, empty streets, grey fog and a sense of the day after doomsday hanging in the air. I had only one thing on my mind: to get back home to Naveena and Koyal as soon as possible. Giving the crime scene a wide berth again, I headed out of Pune on the expressway for the start of my nine-hour drive, Goa bound. My mind was churning: our safe little spiritual nook in India had been thrust into the world of terrorist atrocities. I knew it could never be the same again.
Over the next few weeks the calls and emails started coming in telling me variations on the same story: ‘You saved my life, man! I had been planning to go the Bakery as usual, but went to your gig instead…..’
The role of casualties ended up containing just three Osho sannyasin names. The rest were young Indian students, out for an evening in bohemian Koregaon Park; plus several of the unfailingly cheerful (and also mostly young) Nepali staff of the Bakery. Arrests took many years of investigations to achieve. Murky prosecutions of members of a group calling itself the Indian Mujahadeen followed. It was possible that the Osho Commune had been the intended target (David Headley, arrested in Canada a couple of years later, and charged with scouting targets for Al Qaeda, was found to have visited the Commune twice). There were also indications that the bomb was supposed to have been deposited at the Israeli Chabad House (a rescue center for flipped out Israeli travelers) just across the road from the Bakery.
They were details that would only really have significance as resolution for the innocent victims and their families. For the rest of us, used to innocently indulging in our spiritual getaways at the Commune, It was the end of an era. Checkposts were erected on the road outside the gates, manned by armed police, while the Commune’s ramshackle outer walls were replaced with four-meter high steel panels. The outside world had invaded our little haven and would not be going away. It was a rude awakening to a brash and dark new India that had in fact been mushrooming outside those walls for years.
For me it was that decision to get back on stage as if nothing had happened that has stayed with me. The show must go on. Spreading joy through music is a mission that may only incidentally counter extremism, prejudice and superstition, but it is the only tool I have.
With Sadhu in Gujarat, 1995
DELHI November 1994,
My Dutch partner Sadhu and I are travelling from Pune to see the Taj Mahal and the Himalayas. I am bearing with me a precious new sarod belonging to my teacher, Shekhar Borkar, which needs some adjustments from the instrument’s maker in Delhi. To ensure this happens as smoothly as possible, I have arranged to get help from the family of my previous teacher, Gurdev Singh, who live in Delhi. But with Gurdev himself in London, we will be relying on his teenage son Ladi to make sure the job gets done. It’s Sadhu’s (in her mid-twenties) first experience of India outside Osho’s Pune ashram.
Nizamuddin Station, Delhi outskirts. Our New Delhi-bound Punjab Mail has made an unscheduled stop here for what has by now turned into 45 minutes. The fact is we shouldn’t be on this train in the first place. Ladi must by now be waiting as planned at New Delhi Station, to greet us off the Kerala Express. This train we had impulsively abandoned a couple of hours ago when, stuck at some station and unable to stand any more information-less waiting for it to proceed, we had jumped aboard this more promising-looking Punjab Mail just as it was about to pull out. Now, leaving Sadhu on board, and fearful that she and our gear might at any moment depart without me, I dash around fruitlessly trying to find a phone to ring Ladi’s home to warn him of the change of plan. I’m also trying to buy a cigarette to calm my nerves, but it seems they are not sold in railway stations. I rejoin Sadhu back in our compartment just in time for us to watch the Kerala Express cruise slowly by outside the window without stopping……
So we make our own way by taxi to Gurdev’s flat in Rajouri Gardens, a quiet(ish) residential district. His wife, Gurmeet is delighted to see us, keeps taking my hand and pinching Sadhu’s cheek (“NICE girlfriend, Chinmaya, SWEET”). Ladi, who had given up waiting for us at New Delhi station, is in the living room practicing sarod like a MANIAC, as if on speed. His grandmother lies around on the sofa grinning toothlessly and shooting questions in Punjabi at us. Addressing Sadhu via Gurmeet’s translation and my limited Hindi: “Do you make nice chapatti for him in London?” I fail to explain to her that at home, one day I make chapatti and one day she does, because it is simply impossible to get such an unlikely concept across. Here I am always served my food first, with Sadhu expected to eat after I’ve finished, the family looking baffled as I insist she eat with me. Breakfast is a big pile of very spicy gobi parathas, which we are pushed to eat in quantity. To have breakfast scorching your mouth is a totally new experience for Sadhu.
Gurmeet takes us shopping in the local bazaar. Guru Nanak’s birthday celebrations are approaching, so lights, decorations, loud bangs and everywhere people dressed in their colourful best, bustling with excited energy. As the three of us plus our purchases pile into a cycle rickshaw for the ride home I realize we haven’t seen another white face all morning. That afternoon Sadhu appears in the living room wearing her newly-bought kameez (knee-length top) but without the salwar (trousers) innocently viewing it as a kind of dress. At the sight of her and her legs bare below the knee Ladi has a laughing fit. A while later while we are in the bathroom the door accidentally swings open just as he is passing by. What he makes of his brief glimpse of Sadhu naked I don’t know, but his sarod practice afterwards is even more deafening than usual.
The next day we head downtown by auto rickshaw through the pollution. I am trying to make the driver and the various pedestrians we stop to ask understand that we want to go to Buddha Jayanti Park, which I remember from my first visit to Delhi fifteen years ago. My pronunciation must be terrible because all I get are blank looks: “Underground car park?” I make a Buddha meditation pose: “Aah! Puja, you’re wanting temple!” No no NO! Once there, it’s all a big disappointment compared to my golden memories and we are bugged by desolate-looking men. Finally a worried-looking guard shouting in Hindi about “Goonwallahs” (ruffians) runs after us as we head off into a quieter-looking area. We take our cue and leave.
Back home a pundit comes to visit and read palms. Sadhu has a powerful mind and love of culture, I am exploring my creativity. Ladi keeps interfering with questions about marriage and children. The pundit scrutinizes our hands a bit closer. Sadhu will not have children, while I will have two sons and two daughters. We will both do marriage next year….. Who knows how much trust to put in Ladi’s translation? Perhaps he’s hoping to marry her himself?
We are taken to a Namdhari gathering (a vegetarian Sikh sub-sect with a lineage of living gurus into which Gurdev and his family were born) presided over by his Holiness Sat-guruji Maharaj, a sweet-smiling old fellow. It’s a medieval-looking scene, muted pastel-coloured clothing, peppery beards and bright while turbans, with men and women sitting separately on the floor. Since I’m a man, and lacking a turban, I’ve been given a handkerchief to balance on top of my head. It’s also a chaos of noisy kids, scratchy loudspeakers, microphone cables, money offerings, and men strolling with affected nonchalance up to the bigwigs up on their podium and bowing obsequiously. All this occurs during what Ladi describes to me as the ‘meditation’. Afterwards there’s a fine kirtan band, which includes avuncular Harbhajan Singh, who I know well from my London days with Gurdev. It all ends with a 5.30pm ‘lunch’, served on leaf thalis.
Afterwards Harbhajan and I brave the pollution (at night you can’t see more than a few meters in front of your eyes on most roads) to go to a hidden-away backstreet instrument maker he knows. I pick up two dilrubas ordered by friends in Pune, plus a new swarmandel (autoharp) for myself and manage to juggle all three while perched precariously on the back of his scooter.
Back home Ladi, who had taken charge of Shekhar’s precious sarod, is assuring me all will be taken care of. But I still see it hanging around the flat. Gurmeet, who is leaving for London in two days, is stressed. I calm her down by playing to her gently on Ladi’s sarod and then Sadhu and I lounge around with her on her bed. She tells me she has the same birthday and year as me (I think more to re-affirm our connection than to reflect any truth –I know Gurdev, who is like her a village kid, hasn’t a clue what his real birthday is and just has a guess for a date written on his passport). We are interrupted by a visit from an idiotic neighbor demanding answers to his loud questions about children, marriage and the details of the price of endless items in London. Ladi, wanting attention like a child himself, butts in all the time, so we gratefully let him answer for us as much as we can. The family’s Hindu servant and her son (who are basically treated as part of the family and only go back to their own home to sleep at night) seat themselves with their backs to a wall and watch the scene with obvious incomprehension and enjoyment. Old granny (who although she looks ninety turns out to be just mid-sixties) smiles toothlessly upon us all. That evening we are taken for dinner to Gurmeet’s sister’s house where a complicated family photo session with us exotic gauras (‘whities’) occupies most of the evening as well as what seems to be most of the neighbourhood.
The next morning cocky Ladi muscles in to his connections at the front of the formidable queue at New Delhi station and gets us AC class tickets for Dehradun in under five minutes. That evening we take a taxi back to the station and sit on a suspiciously empty platform waiting for the Dehradun Express, listening to distorted announcements of trains running five and a half hours late and so on. At 10.10 (it’s now forty-five minutes after our train was due to depart) I show our tickets to a guard. “Aree! But this train goes from Old Delhi station….” We make a panicked rickshaw ride through appalling pollution, weaving in and out of jammed traffic and run onto the platform to find it empty, our train long gone. I study our tickets more closely. It seems we wanted the ‘Mussouri Express going to Dehradun’, not the ‘Dehradun Express’.
“Let’s find a train to anywhere out of this hell-hole,” I cry and miraculously there is the Kathgodam Express sitting ready to depart in fifteen minutes. Without tickets or reservation the best we can be given is 2nd Class Sleeper but we grab two berths (dirty, with hard seats and lots of coming and going from hawkers, beggars and late arrivals) and thus we trundle out of Delhi, heading for the mountains.
Sign at Corbett National Park
(Our trip outside Delhi is covered in ‘1982 India North’)
Back to Delhi on a seven-hour bus ride from Ramnagar; basically an ear-shattering ordeal of loud, distorted Hindi film music. And so a day that begins in the pristine wilderness of Corbett National Park and Tiger Reserve ends (after two hours in a taxi and seven in the bus) with us stuck for one more on a bicycle rickshaw, swamped by Guru Nanak birthday crowds half a kilometer from home. We give up, shoulder our voluminous baggage and set off past firecrackers, sword-dancers, bhangra-revellers, through a press of people so tight that we have to use main force to pass.
On arrival I find Ladi being utterly vague about what is going on, Gurdev has to be called in London to get anything moving on Shekhar’s sarod front. And it’s only two days until we leave!
We head off next morning to try to get tickets for the ‘Ramayana on Wheels’ performance. Not a seat to be had either for baksheesh or Ladi’s wheedling. We figure we might as well try once more and struggle through the early evening traffic back to the venue just fifteen minutes before the opening. A woman is selling three tickets she can’t useI And what a tamasha it turns out to be! A half kilometer-long stage has been constructed in a huge open space, with us audience proceeding past it in railway carriages. Brilliant music by Amjad Ali Khan, but kitschy sets, amateur acting and laughable Hindi movie script. And the portrayal of women!! Either boring like Sita or wicked/spiteful/lustful ballbreakers……
But oh how we laughed! First of all at the aged taxi driver (and his broken down 1956 Ambassador) who drove us there at a bone crunching crawl, frustrating all our anxious pleadings to hurry. Then, at the ticket collector’s helplessness, as we brazenly hustle in a ticketless Sikh boy who has somehow attached himself to us. It all got a bit hysterical. Ladi to me in a whisper as Ravanna is promising Sita he will move the stars in their courses for her: “Just get me a taxi that runs for once…”
Ladi turns up with the precious sarod as we are preparing to leave the house to catch our train back to Pune. I’ve never seen such a sight before: its wood has been varnished so thickly it looks like it has been painted brown! I start to get a worried rumble in my belly just looking at it, Shekhar is not going to be happy……But Ladi is delighted with himself and promising to visit us in Pune, Holland, wherever we are to be found. I’m meanwhile wondering if he switched it.
Being a fable that came to me in 1991 during Mystic Rose silent sitting in Lao Tsu Walkway, Osho International Meditation Resort, Pune, India
Illustrations by Chinmaya Dunster
Frontispiece: ‘Old-Saw-Herself’, together with a tiny portrait of the Fire Man.
Endpiece: In the Land of the Monkeys.
1 Long ago and far away
2 The dragons’ second great talent
3 The monkey tells his horrifying tale
4 First confrontation with the Man
5 Some forgotten barbs and a suggestion
6 The most desperate struggle in the history of Dragony
7 An understanding and its consequences
Long ago and far away, in a forgotten land called Dragony, there lived the dragons. They were a peaceful folk and serene, not much given to travel, passing the time of their long lives in the practice of their two great passions.
The first of these, and the dragons’ highest delight, was in the making of mirrors, a secret unknown in other lands in those days. Here is how they made their mirrors:
On the inside of their great dragon eggshells, a mirrored surface naturally formed. The art of fashioning these into the most perfect and reflective mirrors required the dragon parents to sit brooding, as a hen does with her egg. The longer and more tranquilly they sat, the more shiny the mirror became. Once a baby dragon had hatched, the mirrored shards of shell were admired and treasured or exchanged as gifts. However dragon folk could often be heard praising the peaceful joy they felt while brooding even higher than the mirrors themselves. As many a dragon mother, at the end of her patience with a badly-behaved youngster, would exclaim:
”You rascal. there was more pleasure in the getting than what I got!”
And this was the second of the dragons’ great talents, and one for which their fame spread far beyond Dragony: their fiery tongues. For dragons were known to have the sharpest wits of any creature and knew how to defend themselves with words of fire when threatened.
Even in their far-off land there were sometimes problems. A rogue elephant might cross the border into Dragony, filled with anger and bent on destruction.
“Get out of here, Ugly One!”, a dragon would call out to him before he got very far. “You have a tail on both ends, your skin is full of wrinkles and your legs look like muddy logs!”
“Yes, and you walk as gracefully as a dead tree too!” another would jeer. “Go home and don’t come back until your temper is better than your looks!”
It was easy – why, even a child could do it! The elephant, the heat of his anger turned to embarrassment, would turn one of his tails and Dragony would be safe again.
Or perhaps a pair of hungry and desperate lions might appear, outcaste from their own land because of their troublemaking.
“Hey Arrogant Ones! Where are you off to with your noses stuck up in the air like you made the ground you stand on?” a mother dragon would shout. “Why, you look so full of your own importance you probably expect the fleas in those filthy coats of yours to bow down and worship you! Bet you they don’t!”
“No, they just hide in that mess of hair and bite your necks!” her little son might add, from the shelter of her wing. “Stuck up Bigheads, go home!”
Ashamed and glad to get our of range of such treatment, the two lions would slink out of Dragony, perhaps even reflecting that there might just be some truth in the words, and that maybe they could be a little less overbearing when they got back to their own country.
This is the story of the greatest challenge that the dragons of Dragony, with their mirrors, their wits and their tongues of fire, ever faced.
It all began with the arrival of an exhausted and terrified monkey bearing a disturbing tale. A Man had come into Monkeyland. A Man wielding a sword and invisible spears that came out of a long bone he carried, a Man who marched in a straight line ahead, with the bone pointed out in front of him.
Now Men were creatures of legend in Dragony. Nobody had ever actually seen one. All they knew about them was based on stories told by other monkeys: how men cut down perfectly good forests and planted in their place forests of a single kind of tree underneath which nothing grew; and burned wonderful meadows of grass and covered them with a hard shell on which nothing at all could live; that men sometimes even stripped off the whole surface of the earth so that they could eat the rocks below. Of course everyone knew that monkeys told tall tales. Who could believe such nonsense?
Nevertheless, as the poor monkey described how this Man had passed through Elephantland butchering elephants and piling up their tusks in great piles; how he had passed into Monkeyland burning everything around him, and stealing the coloured stones that baby monkeys found in the streambeds and hung up in the trees so they could catch the light; how this Man burned and then ate any creature who tried to stand in his way – as he described all this, a few of the youngest dragons stopped laughing and began to ask each other in whispers: “What would you say to such an animal?”
The assembled dragons looked at each other in alarm as the monkey warned them that this Man was even now approaching the borders of Dragony. Who knew what he might want? In Elephantland it had been part of the Elephants’ own bodies he collected; in Monkeyland, stones that were worthless as food but fun for the children. He seemed to be completely unpredictable. The dragons should run for their lives, the monkey advised, and take everything they valued with them.
As soon as the monkey had been led away to be fed and to recover, the dragons decided to send out a party of the most sharp-tongued adults to keep this Man out of Dragony. Following the smell of burning, the group came upon the Man among the tall grasslands on the border. It was just as the monkey had described. He marched stiffly, the long bone held up in front of him, his eyes restlessly roaming from side to side. Behind him the grass had been burned black by his fires. They watched him for a while from hiding. “Good beef pasture, minus the weeds.” they heard him mumble to himself. He was so small this bumbling clown of a Man…..Surely this wasn’t going to be difficult?
“Hey Tiddles!” one of them called out, stepping into the Man’s path. “Why don’t you stand up instead of walking on your knees, so we can see you?”
“He IS standing up!” jeered a second. “Hey, Shorty, don’t you get cockroaches crawling in with your mouth so close to the ground?”
The rest of the dragons laughed maliciously but the Man seemed quite unaffected. He just made a sound like “PAH!” and before the dragons knew what was happening, whipped out his sword and made a viscous slash at the dragon in his path.
The astonished dragon hobbled back into the long grass, his wing bleeding.
“Just as nasty as you are ugly, I see!” one of the senior dragons shouted. “A silly little skin and bone toadstool, with your face all scrunched up like a mouldy tomato. Get back home and leave us in peace or we’ll tell you….”
His voice was stifled mid-sentence. The bone in the Man’s hand had spoken a word that none of the dragons could make any sense of and the old dragon lay on the ground clutching at his bloody chest.
“PAH!” snorted the Man. His pace had not slackened a bit.
The remaining dragons exchanged looks of alarm. Who was this creature who had only gibberish to say in reply when taunted? Did he even hear what was being said to him? From the safety of the tall grass two of them half-heartedly started a mock discussion in loud tones over which was more stupid: a hippopotamus who fell in love with a bat and left his mouth wide open so she could hang from his teeth, or a man who marched in a straight line all day without noticing that he was stepping in buffalo turds.
But it soon petered out. One of the younger dragons unwisely let himself be seen and got a burning brand of wood thrown at him. The grass beside him caught fire and in the smoke and confusion the dispirited dragons beat a hasty retreat, mourning their fallen comrade.
In the heart of Dragony a gathering of dragons took place to hear the report of this first contact with the Man. News began to come in: of dragon families slain, of baby dragons roasted and eaten and –most strange- of dragon eggs broken and smashed into thousands of shards as if in a fury.
Everyone remarked that the Man seemed to take no interest in their beautiful mirrors except to break them. That he seemed to have found nothing he wanted to steal appeared had apparently only increased his destructive rage.
Teams of dragons went out to confront him, calling him every name they could think of: “Acne” (such a good one with leopards); “Stinky” (a sure bet with camels); “Fartface” (great against large herbivores like cattle and rhino).
Old-timers brought out their long-forgotten barbs: “Shoe Licker” and “Kaka Roller” (useful against dogs); “Garbage Breath” and “Bees Up Your Bum” (so effective for bears). But nothing they could say stopped the Man’s deadly march through Dragony.
Finally the dragons agreed to one last desperate offer made by an old grandmother. She suggested she go out and find as many ways as possible to humour the Man. Perhaps, she reasoned, he might at least listen to such words where all other words had failed. Distracted by flattery, he might allow himself to be led safely out of Dragony.
Shaking their heads sorrowfully, the dragons watched her disappear into the smoke.
She came upon the Man in the forest, on one of the rare occasions when his relentless hunt for treasure seemed to have paused. He was seated by a fire, munching on roasted dragon meat and from time to time mumbling “Eucalyptus…..Jatropha….Plantations…” as he spat out the bones.
“Most Great Lord….” She began from a safe distance. “We dragons of Dragony have heard from afar of your wonderfulness….”
“PAH!” spat the man, chewing on a wing, but he didn’t reach for his sword.
“Of how none can stand against your superior strength. Of you noble daring and great ingenuity in the use of fire…..”
“PAH!” exclaimed the Man again and tossed a burning log in the old dragon’s direction.
She leapt out of danger and continued bravely: “We dragons would be honoured to pay you homage and pass our days singing your praises. If you would just care to step this way I will lead you to where we are assembled nearby ready to do Your Majesty worship…..”
As she spoke the cunning old dragon began to move off, away from the heart of Dragony, in the direction of the endless bogs on its northern edge.
The Man reached for his sword and strange bone and got to his feet with a “PAH!”, scattering his fire so that several blazes started among the trees. And so began the most desperate struggle in the history of Dragony.
Constantly calling out her words of flattery, the grandmother dragon tried to lure the Man northwards. But he too was cunning. Although he stayed in range of her voice, she kept finding her way blocked by a burning branch thrown in such a way as to keep her moving steadily closer to the dragons assembled at the heart of Dragony.
As the smoke and flames from burning trees began to confuse her and wear down her strength, she realised to her horror that she had failed. Far from leading the Man away, she had herself been driven towards the place where the helpless dragons were gathered!
Soon she heard the screams of baby dragons and their parents through the smoke. Desperately she called on the last of her strength and crawled to where the Man, watched by a crowd of terrified dragons, was hacking with his sword at the eggs that lay among the trees.
“Killer….Murderer….Madman!” she groaned, the last futile gasps of the worst insults she could bring to her dazed mind.
Instantly he was in front of her and she found herself face to face with this creature of nightmare. His bloodshot eyes, empty of anything she could comprehend, met her own as he raised his sword to strike what she knew would be her deathblow.
Its blade was falling on her where she lay in the mud, when in a flash the old grandmother understood what she had seen in those eyes.
“Coward”, she whispered. “Frightened Baby”.
For a moment the sword’s movement stopped and the red eyes blinked. Then the Man spat out a “PAH” and the killing sword stabbed.
But the delay has given her a second in which to roll aside and the sword plunged harmlessly into the ground by her head.
“I can show you what you are most frightened of!” she cried, leaping to her feet. “The most frightening thing in the world. Scaredy-Cat! Yellow-Belly! Cowardy-Custard!” And from where a broken dragon egg lay, she caught up a fragment of its silvered shell. “Here…” she thrust its mirrored face triumphantly into his, “….is what you fear!”
There was a scream as the Man saw into the mirror for the first time in his life. Then, throwing down his sword and bone, he ran.
He ran without stopping, the dragons tell to this day, until he got back to the Land of Men. And to this day neither he, nor any other Man, has ever been seen again in Dragony.
Rumours come sometimes from Monkeyland, that Men still make trouble there. Other rumours tell that the Land of Men is now itself a place of mirrors; some even say that it was the Man who came to Dragony himself who began the making of mirrors there, which Men make after their own fashion. Others report that as the art of mirror making grows in the Land of Men, so the disturbances in the Animal Lands get less.
In Dragony they live anyway in the hope that such is true. And continue delighting in their mirrors, their wits and fiery tongues. The day they were saved from the Man they celebrate every year as ‘Fire Day’. And the wise old dragon who saved them they simply call ‘Old-Saw-Herself’.