15 May 2007

Magical Moments with Baba: Franey and Shireen at Meher Center

Franey’s Talk

On December 30, 2000, we were treated to a talk by Freni Irani and her daughter, Shireen Bonner, at Meher Center. Each told her story in turn, and it was interesting to notice some parallel experiences shared by mother and daughter.

But first, some family background. Freni’s father was the brother of Sarosh K. Irani, one of Baba’s close ones. The brothers were cousins of Meher Baba’s secretary, Adi K. Irani (referred to as Adi Sr., to distinguish him from Baba’s youngest brother, Adi S. Irani, who is called Adi. Jr.). The three families lived in the compound that is now the Avatar Meher Baba Trust office. Baba frequently visited, to see Adi Sr.’s mother, Gulmai, who He said was His “spiritual mother.” It was Franey’s grandmother who first took Gulmai (her sister-in-law) to meet Upasni Maharaj, which led to Gulmai’s meeting Baba.

Freni married Baba’s brother Adi Jr., and Shireen is their daughter. Adi Jr. also had a son, Dara, whose mother (Adi’s first wife) had died and who was largely raised by Sarosh and his wife, Villoo.

Well, enough of trying to get the kinship systems straight! Let’s just say that when the Avatar comes, He seems to conveniently place many of His close lovers into related families.

Freni told the story of a life lived completely in the loving nazar (glance of protective grace) of Meher Baba. She began by telling us about growing up in the family compound, which at that time was known as Khushru Quarters. She felt that she had been with Baba from the beginning of life, because of the circumstances of her birth: Her mother, who had suffered a previous miscarriage, was worried about the pregnancy, and so Sarosh offered to ask Baba about it. Baba conveyed the reassurance that she would have a girl and the baby would be fine.

As a toddler Franey recalled seeing Baba visit the compound. In awe she watched him float by in his white sadra, his feet never touching the ground, and she thought to herself that he must be a magician.

When, at the age of eleven or twelve, she was going to be formally introduced to Baba for the first time, she was nervous and eager to be at her best. Wanting to be pretty for Him, she spent a tortured night with her hair in metal curlers. Unfortunately, it didn’t work, and her hair frizzed up. She tried wetting it down, but nothing helped. It looked awful and she felt terribly self-conscious. So when she first met Baba, she was shy and preoccupied. She feared Baba would say something about her hair, but thankfully He didn’t—yet one of the Western women touched her hair and commented on it, much to her dismay.

By the time Franey was thirteen, she was quite tall for her age, and her mother complained about it to Baba, saying she couldn’t keep buying Franey new clothes. So Baba put his hand on Franey’s head. Franey said, “Electricity went down me, and I knew I wouldn’t grow after that.”

Now let’s skip some years to the wedding of Freni and Adi, which took place at Khushru Quarters in 1947. The evening before, they got the message that Baba wanted her and Adi to see Him in the morning. He saw Freni first, alone, and helped her relax by playing childlike games with her, such as asking her if she could rub her tummy and pat her head at the same time. He held her hand and told her not to be nervous. Then Adi was called in, and Baba joined their hands. He said never to worry and that He would always be with her. Franey felt that the meeting with Baba that morning was her real wedding; the ceremony that followed was just a ritual.

The couple didn’t have a honeymoon, but when Baba was going to America in 1952 with some of the mandali, He suggested that Adi and Franey go to England and then meet up with them in Europe. This didn’t work out as planned, because of Baba’s accident. They received a cable to return home immediately, and they were able to accomplish this directive despite the fact that the shipping companies were all booked and they were assured they would never get a berth. But they did—first class at that. They had a chance to have a couple of days in Paris beforehand, so they did have a honeymoon after all.

Later on, Franey began to feel tired of living in India and wanted to see the world. The possibility arose of going to America under the sponsorship of Don Stevens, but Baba said no, go to England. Franey was happy at this, as she had liked England on their visit there. But in August 1955, a week before they were to leave, they received a cable from Baba telling them to cancel everything and to stay in India. They forfeited the money spent on tickets, their furniture was in storage, they had to find a place to stay—nonetheless they willingly obeyed Baba. Finally, in December, He told them they could go in February. It turned out that London had undergone its worst winter in years, so apparently Baba had wanted to spare them that. They moved in time to celebrate Baba’s birthday at a meeting in London.

Franey found it hard to find work in London. She was trained as a beautician but told that without experience they could not hire her. When she notified Baba of her difficulties, He said that if she found nothing by a certain time, they could leave London. He also asked her if she wanted a child, and she replied, “If You want me to have one, Baba.” He said, “We’ll see.”

At that time Franey and Adi were staying with Minta (Delia DeLeon’s sister), who suggested that Franey should cut her long hair and wear Western clothes instead of a sari when job hunting. This she did, and at her next interview, the long queue of applicants made her feel discouraged, yet miraculously she was given the job.

But not long after starting work, Franey started feeling ill. Adi took her to the doctor, and they discovered she was pregnant. When informed, Baba told Mani she would have a girl. “And I had this wonderful daughter,” Franey said, gesturing toward Shireen.

Shireen’s Talk

Shireen’s first contact with Baba was when she was brought to India as an infant. She grew up in London seeing photos of her uncle all over the house. When she reached the age of seven, her grandfather--Franey’s father, who was a devout Zoroastrian—wanted her to have the traditional navjote, the Zoroastrian counterpart to the confirmation ceremony. Baba gave permission, since it would make the grandfather happy. And so they were to go to India for the ceremony—and to see Baba, of course. To prepare Shireen, her father sat her down and explained to her that her uncle was God. This seemed quite natural, and she accepted it. He said that just as Christians believe in Christ, we believe in Baba, and He is Christ come again.

In India, Shireen was terribly excited about meeting Baba. She was all dressed up in a pretty frock, and Baba’s big American car was sent to pick them up. She brought presents for Baba that she had made herself, and her favorite toys to show him. When they arrived at Meherazad, Shireen recalls the warm greetings, the hugs, and the women mandali dressed up in saris. They proceeded to Mandali Hall, where Baba was waiting for them. Adi Jr. had carefully instructed Shireen on how to behave: she was not to jump on Baba or ask questions. She should garland him, salute him with her joined palms, and step away to let the next person approach. As a well-brought-up English child, Shireen tried hard to be obedient. But the moment she saw Baba with His beaming face and outstretched arms, she forgot everything (“I think I threw the garland aside!”) and ran into His embrace.

Shireen had prepared a number of questions for her visit to Baba, some of them remarkably “metaphysical.” She was convinced that Baba was a magician who knew everything and could answer anything. Mani describes some of Shireen’s questions in her Family Letter of 29 January 1965. For example, “Baba, I know we are born again and again, but You are God, so how is it that You get born?” And Baba replied, “Once in a while God takes birth because of His love for His creation. I am born in human form so that you may see Me as you are, and if you are fortunate to know Me and love Me, then someday you will see Me as I really am.” And then there was the famous question about why God created bad things like snakes and scorpions. But since these questions are documented, let me recount some that Shireen told which aren’t in Mani’s letter.

One question was planned in collaboration with one of Shireen’s friends back home in London, to whom she had confided about the trip to see her uncle who was God. Their question was: “Which is higher in the sky—the sun, moon, stars, or clouds?” Baba answered, “I am the Highest of the High.”

Shireen was quite worried about witches and asked Baba whether they were real. He took a moment to think and then said, yes, they were real. This unexpected answer was disturbing to Shireen until Baba explained that witches were just bad people, not supernatural beings, and that satisfied her.

She also asked Baba why she could see a halo on Him in His photos but not in person. He replied that when she loved Him as He should be loved, she would see the halo. Later, Shireen told Mehera and Mani that she wanted a magic wand, and when they asked what she would do with it, she said, “I would see Baba with His halo.”

The family spent three months in India in all, and it was an intimate time with Baba, with all the attention and affection a child could want. Baba wanted Shireen to make friends with His beloved pet Mastan, and even though she was frightened of the large dog, she eventually petted, hugged, and fed him at Baba’s urging. She enjoyed sitting with Baba in his pretty pink bedroom, showing him her toys and playing games. She would ride Goher’s bicycle in the garden, and one day she found what she thought was a “secret” path that went to the side door to Baba’s bedroom. Baba was resting, but she peeked in the window and saw Him lying on His bed. He saw her too and beckoned her in with a loving twinkle.

At meals Shireen would eat with Baba and the women, and Mani let her take her own seat at Baba’s left (Mehera was seated to His right). Shireen loved eating with Baba, though she did not care for the Indian dishes, as she’d been brought up on Western food. She was struggling with how to deal with her serving of rice and dal, torn between her good manners and hating the food. Baba asked her whether she liked the food, and to be polite she said yes. He then caught her off guard and popped a large amount of rice and dal into her mouth. Though Shireen was very startled by this, it turned out to taste good, and after that she had no trouble eating rice and dal.

On another occasion she was served a special treat, some tinned fruit salad that someone had sent. The best part of the fruit salad was the cherries, and Baba had Katy give Shireen several of them. Baba asked whether she’d enjoyed the cherries, and Shireen said yes, so Baba gestured for Katy to give her more. Katy said she wasn’t sure there were any more, since each tin only had a few. But sure enough, she found a few more. Again Baba asked Shireen if she wanted some more, and this was repeated several times, and each time Katy miraculously discovered a few more in the bowl. Shireen told us that she’d been hoping Baba would do something magical, and apparently this was His playful way of granting that wish. In later years Shireen asked Mani about it, and Mani humorously agreed that it was “a never-ending production of cherries.”

To prepare for her navjote, Shireen was made to memorize prayers, which was difficult for her. By “coincidence,” Baba at that same time asked that Shireen learn the Master’s Prayer, and the date by which he wanted her to learn it was the morning of her navjote. She succeeded in learning Baba’s prayer, and after she recited it for Him, He gave her a sadra and kusti, so that this was what she regarded as her real confirmation, not the formal navjote ceremony—a grand affair at which she got all the Zoroastrian prayers wrong in front of the many distinguished guests.

After the family returned to England, they continued to be in close contact with Baba through letters and telegrams, and He was involved in every detail of their lives.

When Shireen was about eight or nine, she wished to cut her hair, which was down to about her knees. Since Baba had liked Shireen’s long hair, Franey said they would have to ask His permission. Shireen wanted short hair, to look more like an English girl. But Baba said no at that time, so she could not cut it. (Mani in later years remarked that maybe people would be better off sometimes if they didn’t ask Baba for permission, because often they were not prepared to have Him deny their request.)

Shireen saw Baba one more time when the family went to India in 1968 for Dara and Amrit’s wedding. This trip was of course very different. Baba was frail and ill, and it was a brief stay. At age eleven, Shireen was much more self-conscious. She was asked to perform for Mehera, who loved ballet. Shireen had been studying only since age eight and was not very accomplished. Although she wanted to please Baba and Mehera, she felt awkward and ungainly. Since Baba was not well, she was asked to dance in His bedroom, where there wasn’t much room. To top it off, the cassette she had brought to accompany her tarantella didn’t work. But no matter--Baba said that Mehera would clap to keep time! So Shireen thudded about in her gypsy costume and somehow got through it, and Baba applauded warmly at the end. She was happy when she later got a chance to treat Baba to some entertainment of her own choosing—by telling jokes taken from a popular Irish comedian on television, Dave Allen, whose humor was aimed at the Church as well as the drinking habits of the Irish. Baba laughed at the jokes and wanted to hear them several times.

After this marvelous talk, it struck me that there had been several parallels in the stories told by mother and daughter. Both Franey and Shireen had a strong sense of Baba as an all-knowing magician. Franey felt that her real marriage was performed by Baba, while Shireen felt that He conducted her real navjote. Both Franey and Shireen had experiences of feeling awkward and clumsy in Baba’s presence. And finally, we might say that each woman at a young age had a “bad hair day” with the Beloved!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wonderful. Each story is fresh and delightful, and the people who love Baba become themselves so beautiful.

All quotes of Meher Baba © Avatar Meher Baba Perpetual Public Charitable Trust unless otherwise indicated. Writings by Kendra are © Kendra Crossen Burroughs unless otherwise noted.