We were late because we drove around the block three times before we found the school. Once in the school, we took time to find the classroom where the meeting was being held. We would have missed it if the soft peel of laughter of a woman hadn’t come floating through the silent air.
I will have to tell this true episode by not taking many real names nor mentioning the place. Those involved did not want me to write about them, about the Séance meeting, or about the place where it was being held.
“We want to avoid unnecessary controversies and allegations,” the lady, whom I shall call Sadhna, had forewarned me. Those were the days when newspapers used to publish my write-ups. So they had to be careful.
“Those who need us, come by themselves. Nearly everyone who attend the meeting had lost someone he or she loved dearly. We share their love for the departed. We help them realize that death is not the end. We show them how to love without attachment, to let go of those who are gone, not to keep them held back with one’s grief. We are not in it for money or name”, she had explained.
That was a decade-and-a half ago. I doubt whether Old Mr. and Mrs. Dresswala (not, again, their real names) who figure most in this blog are still around. I do hope they are, and in good health. With the passage of these fifteen years, I hope my writing this down in a blog wouldn’t amount to betrayal.
At the door, a smiling Sadhna greeted us. “I wasn’t sure you’d be coming,” she said.
There were benches positioned in a wide circle along the walls. About twenty men and women – I guessed there were more women than men – were seated, all informally but well dressed, engaged in some sort of philosophical discussion. You could tell from their peach-and cream skin and towering noses that most of them were Parsis. When Sadhna found us place to sit, the pretty young woman seated next to me was describing how an old friend of hers – not father, she said, no, not boyfriend, but a person she cared so much for – had died by drowning. When she finished, there was that stoic silence that always follows the mention of death and the grief.
Sadhna introduced my daughter as a friend of Nan Umrigar (real name, hoping that the famous lady wouldn’t take offence), who was evidently very popular among the crowd. Someone whispered that Nan had come to the meeting a few weeks before.
A few days ago, each of us – my wife, daughter and myself – had read Umrigar’s poignant and yet amazing book titled Sounds of Silence, describing the riding accident of her son, Karl, his death, and how she made contact with him through automatic writing. Even a cynic would admit that Umrigar had written the truth as she experienced it. My daughter’s personal contact with her had brought much solace to the family despite a cynical tinge in my readiness to believe that one could communicate with the dead, however close to one’s heart.
People sitting near the door shuffled to make way for an old couple who just walked in. Quite obviously, this Parsi couple was held in high esteem by those present. The old man, probably in late eighties with a hunch and pale, heavily wrinkled, almost transparent frame was led to the centre of the circle, where a chair was already in place. His head and hands shook with Parkinson’s. He didn’t seem to notice the crowd around him, did not acknowledge the silent and respectful greetings.
Sadhna took my hand and goaded me to rise. “It is a practice that the newcomers greet Mr. Dresswala and pay him respects. This Séance meeting was started by him nearly fifty years ago,” she whispered.
She guided me closer to the old man, who didn’t even look up, but continued whispering to himself. The words, which were audible this close, made no sense.
“This is Mr. Menon,” Sadhna whispered in his ears. “He……”
Before she finished the sentence, the old man stood up, turned around to face me and took my hand. “I know you, you are Anil Menon’s father”, he said softly, looking over my shoulder. As if seeing someone behind me.
“He is fine, don’t worry, he is quite OK”, he said, gesturing assurance.
Then, just as abruptly, he turned away, plunked into the chair and resumed his senile gibberish.
Somewhat stunned, I walked uncertainly back to my seat. Did any of us tell Sadhna my son’s name? Did she brief the senile old man about us earlier? Were they playing some sort of drama? And why? Sadhna had said they took no money from anyone for the meeting. Every three months they paid the school two hundred rupees as rent for their weekly meetings in this class room. When the payment time came they passed a bag around, collected whatever you gave, and re-distributed the money that exceeded those two hundred rupees. The Dresswalas, old as they were and certainly not rich, came by bus to the meeting. If someone gave them a lift for the return journey, they accepted it gratefully.
Soon it was time for a regulation ten-minute break. “Don’t take longer than ten minutes,” Sadhna admonished, pointing in the direction of the washroom. “When the next meeting starts, windows and door would be closed and lights switched off.”
It was only four O’ clock, it couldn’t be that dark even if the lights were off, I thought.
When we returned to the room, an inner circle of five or six people were seated around old Dresswala who was still gazing at the floor and whispering to himself. Some of the old timers moved around to switch off the lights and to close the door and windows tight. My eyes accustomed to the sunny veranda outside found the room pitch dark.
An inexplicably sweet music, just a faint hum, drifted in like a breeze. My daughter and wife later agreed with me that the ethereal music gave us all goose pimples. It wasn’t eerie, yet sweetly different than anything I had heard before. My daughter later insisted that the voice that gave out the hum wasn’t human, but heavenly. Perhaps she was right, I grudgingly admitted. Even today, fifteen years later, I wonder about the source of that low musical hum.
Long chants of Oms followed; I noticed that the slim foreigner sitting a few seats to my left chanted Om with her breath held the longest; the woman to my right intoned the single-syllable word with passion. I wondered how the Parsis, Zoroastrians by faith, adapted themselves to the Hindu chant of OM.
There was this light breeze blowing below my bench, and I imagined that something like a skirt’s hem, or perhaps the light touch of a foot, was brushing against my right ankle. For a moment, I thought that this lovely lady to my right was trying to play footsie with old me. I suppose men never cease to fantasize.
My eyes were by now accustomed to the darkness of the room. Mrs. Dresswala’s head began to swing as if possessed; her hands clenched together, her head swinging from left to right. She wasn’t fanning the air with loosened tresses the way supposedly possessed women do in fake exorcist rituals, yet her movements were that of one in a trance. Sadhna had told us that an 18th-Centrury Spanish nun, Mother Catherine, would possess her in trance; that Mrs. Dresswala, never too comfortable with English nor with high philosophy would speak in Spanish-accented English of things that she would normally wouldn’t even know.
“If you are lucky, Mother Catherine would speak to you. There would be people in the meeting who have been hoping to hear from the Mother for six months or more. It depends on your luck,” she had told me.
Mrs. Dresswala, who never seemed to notice me till then among the twenty-odd people who were seated, nor threw a glance at me through the meeting when the room was awash in bright sunlight, now walked in the darkness with sure gait straight towards me. I couldn’t see the lady to my right nor my daughter to my left – they were mere shadows, but the fair, almost white face and hands of the old Mrs. Dresswala shone through the veil of darkness. Her face was the same as when I first saw her, but the personality had changed. I got a feeling that many invisible persons were behind her, silently following her. Power of suggestion, I assured myself.
“I know you,” Mrs. Dresswala – now Mother Catherine – said, her finger pointing at me. “I know that you were gifted with the knowledge of the future. You knew that your son had to go. You knew everything. You expected it to happen. Now he is standing behind you. So tall, so handsome. Why are you worried? He is fine and happy”. Then, as quickly as she came towards me, she turned left and moved ahead to speak to a woman sitting a few seats away.
Indeed, I had told Sadhna that though my son was young, nearly one hundred ninety centimeters tall, healthy and vibrant like a fiddle, I always feared for his life even more than for the safety of his older tom-boyish sister. I was always accused of being more inclined towards my daughter, but when it came to personal safety, I somehow feared for my son.
Fifteen days before he actually went, while driving him home from the airport , I had told him just out of the blue: “For the first four years of your life, I carried you on my shoulders. On my last day, I want you to be around to carry me on your shoulders.”
He had answered: “Who knows, dad?”
Fifteen days later, at 5.30 in the morning, I sat up on my bed. My left eye twitched furiously. I remembered my grandmother quoting from Adhyatma Ramayanam : A woman’s right eye and a man’s left eye twitches when calamity is about to strike. I brushed aside the thought and took a walk to calm myself. The previous evening, I found a young girl who worked in my office crying. A boy from her neighbourhood, whom she knew well, and was studying in the United States, had met with a road accident six months earlier. She had just got news that he died after being in coma for all those six months.
“Death is not the end,” I had consoled her. “And the one who dies has no reason to grieve. It’s tragic only for those who stay back. Would it have been better if he continued to live as a vegetable in a foreign hospital? You could pray for him, for your own solace, not grieve over him.” It was strange, but those words of mine kept repeating itself in my mind as I walked through the breaking dawn.
When I returned home, my wife was awake. “Kumkum called,”she said.
“I’ll call her back later,” I said. Then a thought gripped me: Kumkum is not the kind who would wake up early in the morning to make a telephone call. I picked up the phone, nervous for no reason.
Anil had met with an accident early in the morning on his way to Madras. His driver had probably gone to sleep, and they hit a stationary truck. They are in hospital.
That was around 6:30.
At 11:30, they pulled the plug.
That senile old man certainly wasn’t putting on an act. Why would he want to impress a stranger with a fake act of senility? Why would Mrs. Dresswala go to great lengths to investigate my inexplicable anticipation of my son’s departure, of his height and good looks and how, indeed, did she know that I was the person in the crowd that Sadhna might have – indeed if she had – mentioned to her?
Next Saturday, Mrs. Dresswala, as Mother Catherine, walked up to me again and tapped my shoulder.
“It is your poor wife who is grieving more than you. Console her. That’s your duty.”
That surprised me. I had believed that my wife had gained her composure sooner than I. But, then, she was capable of remaining stoic under grave stress.
We attended the meetings for a few more weeks, when Mother Catherine and her crowd of benign spirits consoled new-comers or, after many weeks of long wait, spoke to others who were not so lucky as ourselves. The novelty and the magic had begun to wear off for me.
One day a couple of teenage girls in jeans came, apparently trying to find solace. A friend of theirs had died in an accident.
Even before she went into trance, Mrs. Dresswala confronted them with an air of sarcasm that I couldn’t believe she was capable of : “Why have you come? You should be going on date or to some dancing club. This is no place for you.”
The girls looked hurt, but stayed on. They had lost a friend and wanted to know if she was OK in the other world.
Though taken aback, I was prepared to think that was the natural reaction of an old conservative woman. When she became Mother Catherine in trance, and still asked the poor embarrassed girls the same question, in the same sarcastic tone, I was deeply disappointed.
When Mrs. Dresswala eventually gave up going into trance due to ill health, a seemingly snooty gentleman took over from her. His ‘trance’ appeared to be put-on. His words, though not addressed to us, carried no conviction. We discontinued our visits.
A few weeks later, I met Sadhna at a business meeting. Her enthusiasm had worn off, she said, after the Dresswalas ceased to attend; that she was no longer attending the meeting herself.
Mother Catherine continues to be an enigma in my mind. The refined, helpful and consoling nature of those who attended the meetings; the high level of their thought processes expressed so well in cultured English or Hindi, the amazing experiences that they recounted during the pre-séance half hour period , their power of reasoning and yet willingness to accept the presence of spirits in their midst during the séance session – the wonderment lingers.
“How many coincidences would it take to make you realize that nothing that happens is a coincidence?”, a middle-aged American lady, who voluntarily worked as a sort of sergeant major ensuring silence and proper protocol at the Samadhi of Meher Baba once asked me.
She had a point. The Séance episode was not the only inexplicable experience I have had.