They ran down the slope holding hands, laughing like happy children. The scene was the garden of The Residence, Gangtok, where they were staying as guests of Apa Pant, the political officer with whom I also sometimes stayed. It was my first sight of Maurice and Hilla. We soon became acquainted, and they invited me to visit them at their Bombay home the next time I was in the city. The time must have been the mid-1950s.
Maurice Frydman was Polish, had spent some time in a Jesuit seminary, had come to India before the war, and for some years had worked as a civil engineer in Aundh, the smallest of the princely states. The ruler of the state was known as the Chief of Aundh and in Maurice’s time the chief minister happened to be Apa Pant, the ruler’s son. The two men had become friends and they had kept up their friendship after Independence, which was how Maurice and Hilla came to be staying with Apa Pant in Gangtok. Maurice was a very small man, with a big head of the long, dolichocephalic type, and he had one shoulder higher than the other. He always wore a white Indian shirt, over white pyjama pants, both garments being of khadi or hand-loomed cloth, for in matters economic Maurice was a staunch Gandhian. The costume was completed by a shoulder bag, in which he carried his spectacles and various papers, and by a pair of large black army boots. His white hair was close-cropped, his light blue eyes had the innocence of a child, while his thin face generally wore a mildly beatific smile. At the time of our first meeting he must have been in his mid-sixties. Hilla Petit was a Parsi by birth. She was rather taller than Maurice, and wore her grey hair bobbed in European style. She was probably older than Maurice and I never knew how they had originally met.
Maurice and Hilla lived in Bombay, in the exclusive Malabar Hill district. Whenever I was in Bombay I used to visit them at their ground floor flat on the Nepean Sea Road. In the living room there was much old-fashioned black teak furniture, which evidently had once graced a much bigger room. I particularly remember an elaborately carved settee some ten or twelve feet in length which could have comfortably accommodated seven or eight persons. From the centre of the ceiling there was suspended a huge crystal chandelier, which hung so low that a moderately tall person had to take care not to pass beneath it. The dining room was dark. If I happened to visit them in the morning, Hilla would press me, very warmly, to stay for lunch, which I often did. Lunch was a strange meal for Hilla liked everything to be passed through a blender, so that it all had the same consistency. With us at table there would be Hilla’s adopted daughter, then twelve or thirteen years old. Hilla doted on her, but Maurice had doubts about the wisdom of a middle-class, childless woman taking over the daughter of her servants, and in effect alienating her socially and culturally from her parents, who in this case were Goanese Catholics, as were many servants in Bombay. Despite his doubts, Maurice accepted the situation and liked to joke that theirs was what he called a synthetic family, rather than one made in the natural way
Once I stayed on so long after lunch that both Maurice and Hilla pressed me to stay the night, which in the end I did. Maurice insisted on giving up his room to me, saying he would sleep on the floor in Hilla’s room. His room was quite small and on three of its walls there hung huge framed portraits of Gandhi, Ramana Maharshi, and Krishnamurti. So large were they that they dominated the room, which contained little more than a mattress and a few books. These three were Maurice’s heroes. Gandhi had been assassinated in 1948, Ramana Maharshi had died peacefully in 1950, but Krishnamurti was still alive, as I was soon to be reminded. On going to see my two friends one morning I found them in a state of suppressed excitement. Krishna-ji was in Bombay, they hastened to tell me, and he would be giving a few talks. On no account should I miss hearing him. They had some influence with the organizers of the talks, they added, and they would make sure I had a good seat. I was touched by their eagerness that I should hear Krishnamurti, and gladly accepted their offer. The name of Krishnamurti was well known to me. I had read some of his talks, and knew something of his history. As a boy he had been ‘discovered’ by the Theosophist Charles Leadbeater, had been educated in England, and had been promoted by Leadbeater and Annie Besant as the new World Teacher, the Maitreya of the Buddhists, and the Messiah of the Christians, and a cult had developed around him. Krishnamurti had eventually broken free of the Theosophists, dramatically rejecting the claims they had made on his behalf, claims which it seems he had once accepted. Since then he had travelled the world denouncing every form of religious faith and had, paradoxically, again become the centre of a cult! It was therefore not surprising that I should have wanted to see Krishnamurti in the flesh, and hear him speak.
Maurice and Hilla having been as good as their word, I had a seat near the side of the platform. There were about three hundred people in the hall, representing the cultural elite of Bombay. They sat on chairs rather than on the floor in the traditional manner and there was an expectant hush in the air. When Krishnamurti entered I observed him closely. He was tall and thin, with long grey hair, and he was dressed in a kind of white robe. His face was deeply lined, and his expression, I thought, was one of intense suffering. He reminded me of a fallen archangel. He spoke in English, with a public-school accent. The gist of his talk was that the Unconditioned was to be found in the conditioned, though how it was to be found he did not say. As I knew from the talks I had read, he did not believe there was such a way. The path to reality was a pathless path, nor did it lead anyone anywhere. The talk was not all on this high level. At one point Krishnamurti exclaimed in tones of withering scorn, ‘There you all are, rotting beneath your Bhagavad Gītās!’ A sigh of satisfaction passed through the audience. This was what they wanted. This was what they had come to hear. They were like a Christian congregation responding with deep satisfaction to the denunciations of the hellfire preacher who told them they were all damned. After the talk there were questions from the audience. ‘Sir, we have been following you and listening to you for forty years,’ said a woman of western appearance, her voice quivering with emotion, ‘but we have not got anywhere.’
I do not remember what Krishnamurti said in reply. What I do remember is that a number of people turned towards the woman with expressions of irritation and annoyance. How could she be so obtuse, they seemed to be saying. After the meeting Maurice and Hilla were eager to know what I thought of Krishnamurti’s talk. I had enjoyed it very much, I said, as indeed I had. Whereupon they offered to make arrangements for me to hear the rest of his talks, evidently assuming that having once had a taste of him I could not but want more. I declined the offer. Krishnamurti believed that one should not try to repeat an experience, I reminded them, and I had no intention of trying to repeat the experience I had been vouchsafed that evening. I also asked Maurice about his hero’s condemnation of the study of the Bhagavad Gītā and other scriptures. If it was wrong to study them, why did he allow his talks to be published in book form? Krishna-ji’s books, Maurice retorted, were not books but slices of experience. This by no means satisfied me. If his books were slices of experience, I wanted to know, were not the Bhagavad Gītā and other scriptures also slices of experience?
Maurice had three heroes, but Hilla seemingly had only one, as I discovered when she showed me her room one day. Inside the door, to the right, there was a kind of sideboard on which stood, all in silver frames, twenty or more photographs of Krishnamurti at different stages of his life. A stick of incense was burning. There were other differences between the two friends. Hilla sometimes liked to talk, but she could not be described as talkative, whereas Maurice could be extremely talkative. He was very fond of giving advice, regardless of whether or not it was wanted. He gave it good-naturedly and seemed not to mind if it was not taken. I was a particular object of his solicitude. He appeared to think that I was young and inexperienced, and needed the guidance of those who were older and wiser. He was especially concerned to advise me on my work among the ex-Untouchables, as they were then called, who in 1956 had converted to Buddhism under the leadership of Dr Ambedkar. He gave me advice on this subject whenever we met, as well as sometimes advising me in writing. Not that Maurice ever wrote letters. He wrote only postcards. His handwriting was so big that on a postcard there was room only for a couple of short sentences and his signature. His advice was often too general to be useful, but once he said something that made a deep impression on me. ‘Sangharakshita,’ he once said, taking me by the arm, ‘you are wasting your time teaching these people about Buddhism. They do not need a Buddha. What they need is a Manu.’ As I knew, Manu was the legendary Indian Lawgiver, whose code governed every aspect of Hindu social life from the cradle to the grave, and I could not but acknowledge that there was truth in Maurice’s words. More than once had I found, on meeting a group of newly converted Buddhists, that they did not ask about Buddhist philosophy, or about meditation, or even about ethics. Their first question was invariably, ‘Now that we are Buddhists, how are we to perform the marriage ceremony?’
Although many of the new Buddhists were illiterate, especially in the rural areas, there had sprung up, even before 1956, a small educated elite. To this elite belonged Professor Shewalay. I do not remember how we first met, but it must have been in or near the Siddharth College of Arts and Science in Bombay, where he taught. He had brought with him in his tiffin box a little wad of chapattis, and it being lunchtime he offered me one. I took the chapatti and we continued our conversation. Afterwards he told me how impressed he had been by the matter of fact way that I had taken the chapatti. He came from an ex-Untouchable community, he explained, and although untouchability had been outlawed in India there were many caste Hindus who would not accept food from his hands or even touch him. The fact that I had accepted a chapatti from him meant that we were friends. He was a small man, even smaller than Maurice, and unlike Maurice he wore a Western-style jacket and trousers, complete with collar and tie, and he had a mop of black hair. His eyes were unusually bright and his thin face at times wore a sweet smile. His voice was rather loud for such a small man, and his laugh was unpleasantly raucous. Even in ordinary conversation he tended to hold forth emphatically, as though he was lecturing a class of rather dull students. As I soon discovered, Shewalay was a very ambitious man. His ambition was to create a Buddhist university. In his own mind, indeed, the University already existed. He would say such things as, ‘The University will be closed next week’, or, ‘Pāli classes will be held at the University at eight o’clock every evening’, and so it stood before him in all the glory of bricks and mortar. Pāli classes were indeed held, but they were held in a room at Siddharth College and they were taken by Shewalay himself. Though his subject was history, Pāli grammar was his passion. Unfortunately, my friend was not a good communicator. All he did was drill the thirty or more new Buddhists who came to his classes in declensions and conjugations. ‘I love teaching Pāli grammar’, he told me enthusiastically, his eyes shining. But the students had come not for declensions and conjugations but for the Dhamma, and gradually they stopped coming.
It was around this time that I got to know Muriel Payne OBE. I was introduced to her by Maurice, who had known her for many years. She was a tall, well-built woman of about fifty, with well groomed white hair, and she wore a simple blue dress. Her manner was dignified but friendly, and her face wore a pleasant smile. She was an educationist and had been awarded her OBE for her work in the field of Indian education. She was also a trained nurse, and during the war she had lived with Krishnamurti for six months and nursed him through a mental breakdown. In the course of her work with schools in different parts of India she had noticed that there was no real communication between teachers and pupils, just as I had noticed that there was none between Shewalay and his Pāli students, and that it was largely owing to this lack of communication that educational standards were so low. She had also noticed that there was little communication between the teachers themselves or even between some husbands and wives. In order to remedy this appalling situation she had devised what she called ‘communication exercises’. Though she was no writer she had written a book with the title Creative Education, in which the exercises were described.
I was fascinated by all this, for the exercises helped one to become more aware of the person with whom one was communicating, and mindfulness or awareness was an important Buddhist virtue. So fascinated was I that one day I told Miss Payne, as she was always called, that if she would agree to teach the exercises to a group of people, I would undertake to find both the people and a venue for the course. The result was that for three or four successive evenings she taught the ‘communication exercises’ to me and about twenty other people, all friends of mine, including Professor Shewalay. I found the exercises not only useful in developing awareness but also exhilarating, and I have since taught them to others. Shewalay, not surprisingly, found the very idea of communication difficult to grasp, and insisted on arguing with Miss Payne instead of doing the exercises. She must have thought of him as being the embodiment of all that was worst in the Indian educational system. Miss Payne had other tricks up her sleeve, so to speak. Happening to notice that there was a slight squint in one of my eyes she asked if I would like her to ‘run a process’ on me, to which I readily agreed. She then told me to think of an eye, which I did. Could I see the eye? Yes. What was the expression of the eye? ‘Oh, it is very angry,’ I exclaimed. Next she asked me if I knew where I was, whereupon everything changed. I was a baby and lying on my mother’s lap, my mother herself being seated on a low nursing chair. My father’s sister, who was also my godmother, was looking down at my mother with an expression of anger that seemed to include me. I think the squint that Miss Payne had noticed disappeared, though it may return at times of stress.
I never met Miss Payne again, and never heard what became of her after I had left India in 1964. Shewalay had told me that one day he would follow in the footsteps of the Buddha quite literally. He would marry, would have a son, and then go forth from home into homelessness, and, as I learned a few years later, this he had actually done. He had married a prostitute (on principle), had had a son, and had been ordained as a bhikkhu, under the name of Sivalibodhi. After his ordination he had continued to live with his mother, his wife, and his son, supporting them out of his salary as a professor at the Siddharth College of Arts and Science. Whether he went to work each morning wearing his yellow robe I never knew. Knowing my old friend as I did, I think that he probably did just that.