Monday, August 21, 2017

MEETING DOCTOR STRANGE IN INDIA

This month marks thirty years since my first trip to India, so I thought I'd share this story—first posted here back in 2010—about that amazing journey.  Enjoy!

***


When I was seventeen, it was a very good year.  Well, actually, it was an awful year—filled with angst, agony and a desperate search for Cosmic Answers—but it did lead me to an experience of the Divine—detailed, in slightly-fictionalized form, in Brooklyn Dreams—that profoundly altered my consciousness and forever changed my perception of myself, the universe and...well, everything.  That small taste of the the infinite plunged me into an even deeper exploration of All Things Spiritual, and, two years later,  that exploration led me to an Indian spiritual master named Avatar Meher Baba.  The story of my discovery of Meher Baba, and the soul-exploding impact he had on my life, will have to wait for another time.  What you need to know right now is that, for me, Meher Baba’s path isn't about rites and rituals, meditations and mantras, wearing special clothes, paying dues or attending regular meetings:  it’s about embracing the divinity at the core of all paths.  Most of all, it’s about a deeply personal inner connection to God.  (Which is a good thing, since I’m not very fond of groups.  Even today, when I have cherished Baba-companions all over the world, I generally steer clear of anything vaguely resembling formal meetings.  As Groucho Marx observed:  “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.”)  From the night in 1973 when he first made his presence known to me, MB became the embodiment of the answers I’d been seeking:  spiritual guide, best friend, Self of all selves.  It didn’t matter that he’d passed away—or “dropped his body” as the Indians like to say—in 1969.  He was very much a living presence in my life and, more important, in my heart, nudging me along the path and, when nudging didn’t work, aiming an occasional boot at my ass.  

Now let’s jump ahead from 1973 to l985.  That was the year my twelve-issue graphic novel, Moonshadow, was published under Marvel’s Epic imprint.  Done in collaboration with a brilliant artist named Jon J Muth, Moon was, up to that point, the finest piece of creative work I’d ever been involved with.  It was my attempt to tell, with humor and, I hope, a bit of wisdom, the tale of a teenage boy’s spiritual awakening, the first giant step in his soul’s journey.  (You could say it was Brooklyn Dreams recast as intergalactic fantasy—although BD wouldn’t be published for another ten years.)  When a project turns out the way Moonshadow did, when it transcends my own self-imposed belief in what I can (or can’t) accomplish, it becomes clear that “I” have precious little to do with the work.  And that’s one of the reasons I dedicated the first issue of Moonshadow to Meher Baba (and to my father, who’d died six months before its publication):  the first time I’d ever done that. 

A year later Marvel published my graphic novel, Doctor Strange:  Into Shamballa (co-plotted and beautifully illustrated by my old friend Dan Green).  As many of you know, Doctor Strange is a long-standing Marvel character, created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko:  a spell-weaving mystic whose departed master was called the Ancient One.  (Strangely, Meher Baba sometimes referred to himself as the Ancient One.  I’ve often wondered if either Lee or Ditko knew something about MB and if my master somehow provided the name for Doc’s.)  Into Shamballa begins with Stephen Strange returning to the Ancient One’s Himalayan ashram on the anniversary of the master's death, where he discovers...well, here’s how the story's narrator put it:  “A gift from the Master, left by him—for you!—years before his passing, with instructions for its presentation on this day alone.”  The opening of that gift, the unlocking of its mysteries, transforms Stephen Strange’s life and, by the end of the story, the entire world.  It seemed fitting that I dedicate a story of cosmic adventure and spiritual transformation to Meher Baba...and so I did. 



Now jump ahead to 1987.  It was another very wretched year.  I was in the process of a divorce that pretty much shredded my soul to pieces and, in the process, opened the gates of my unconscious, unleashing some fairly ferocious childhood demons that I’d spent most of my life avoiding.  (If my projects from this period—Kraven’s Last Hunt springs immediately to mind—seem especially dark, now you know why.)  But through it all, a part of me—the deepest part—held tight to Meher Baba:  to light and hope and the knowledge that there was much more to this dream than what it appeared to be.  In fact, after fourteen years with Baba, I was on my way—for the first time—to visit his Tomb-Shrine, on a hilltop in India.  Amazingly, I’d never been out of the country (aside from an afternoon in Tijuana in 1976) and so the upcoming solo journey—from my home in upstate New York to New York City,  NYC to Paris, Frankfurt to Mumbai (it was still called Bombay then), Mumbai to Pune (which was then called Poona), Pune to Meherabad, 
Meher Baba’s ashram, just outside a small city called Ahmednagar—was both an exciting and unnerving one.

I hadn’t slept much the night before I left—I was too excited—and by the time our New York flight landed in Frankfurt, I was deep-fried and crispy.  Changing planes for the Frankfurt-Bombay leg, I noticed that most of my fellow passengers were Indian.  (This may not sound surprising to you, or to me looking back, but, for some reason, this fact surprised and astounded me at the time.)  There were just a few Westerners on board—I took special notice of one couple, drawn, for some reason, by the woman’s big, floppy hat—but, lost in my own amazed, bewildered and desperately exhausted brain, I didn’t make any contact with them. 

We got into Bombay around two in the morning and I had a connecting flight to Poona six or seven hours later.  Instead of killing time at a recommended hotel, the Centaur (where, I later learned, some of those same Westerners, including the lady with the floppy hat and her husband, were waiting for their morning flight), I took a shuttle through the nearby slums and passed another sleepless night in the sweltering domestic airport, feeling like an insecure and ugly American.  The next morning, I found myself sitting on a small, propeller-driven plane next to Mrs. Floppy Hat’s husband.  Despite the fact that we were, again, among the few Westerners on an otherwise all-Indian Bombay-Poona flight, we didn’t say a single word to each other.  Not even a nod or a muttered hello.  

I noticed that Mr. Floppy Hat was busy taking pictures of the rain storm outside.  “Hmmm,” I decided, “anyone who takes pictures of the rain must be a professional photographer.”  (That’s a huge leap in logic, I know, but the combination of sleep-deprivation, moving through multiple time-zones and, possibly, divine intervention made it seem hugely plausible to me.)  After hearing him mention a previous trip to India to his wife, I assumed that Mr. Photographer was there on assignment—perhaps taking pictures for some travel magazine—and sank back into my state of neurotic, sleepless lunacy.

After we landed, off I went, into the colorful madness that is Poona—it was my first view of India in the daylight and I might as well have landed on Mars—where I found that another recommended hotel, the Blue Diamond, was filled up for a month.  I took this as an indication that I should plunge on, so I hopped a rickshaw to the nearest cab stand and hired a taxi to take me on to Ahmednagar.   (The photographer and his wife, I later learned, spent the night at—where else?—the Hotel Blue Diamond.  They obviously had the sense to make a reservation.)  When, some hours later, I reached the Meher Baba Trust office in ‘Nagar—my consciousness roughly the consistency of broken glass—I found that, since I’d arrived a day earlier than expected, there was no room for me at the nearby Meher Pilgrim Center (where visitors to Meher Baba’s Tomb-Shrine often stay).  I was packed off to a place called Viloo’s Villa, run by an old disciple of Baba’s, where I was well-fed and sent off to bed:  I slept like death.

The next day I threw my bag in a rickshaw and rattled out to Meherabad, where I checked in at the Pilgrim Center.  After walking up the hill to pay my respects at Meher Baba’s Tomb (in my experience, one of the most spiritually powerful—and profoundly magical—places on the planet), I returned to my room to settle in.  (It was a double, which was a relief; some of the rooms slept six and I don’t do well with crowds, especially at bed time.)  A little while later, my roommate walked in the door.  I couldn’t believe what I was seeing:  it was Mr. Photographer—whose name, I learned, was Bill Gibson.  Talk about bizarre coincidences:  all that traveling time without talking to each other and it turned out we were headed for the same destination.  Not only that, we ended up in the same room.  (I later learned that, on the plane from Bombay, Bill assumed I was going off to an ashram in Poona—one that had a somewhat controversial reputation—and decided it would be best not to talk to me.  He even noticed a small Meher Baba button on my bag, but, for some reason, assumed I was a devotee of the Poona guru...disguised as a follower of Meher Baba.  Sounds absurd—and it is—but Meher Baba, who has a well-developed sense of humor, clearly didn’t want us talking to each other...yet.)

We had a laugh about our situation as Bill began to unpack.  Out came his shirts, socks, pants and underwear—followed by all twelve issues of Moonshadow and a copy of Doctor Strange:  Into Shamballa.  I saw it, but it simply didn’t register—in fact, it felt as if my brain had imploded, then exploded, then imploded again.  I wouldn’t have been more stunned if Bill had pulled out a framed photo of my mother.  I looked one more time, just to make sure this wasn’t an acid flashback or a hallucination created by my time-warped senses, and then, with all the calm at my command, shrieked like a banshee:  “What are you doing with that?!  Where did you get that?!”  Bill—perhaps thinking he was sharing his room with an escaped maniac (which, in a way, he was)—looked at me blankly.  “I wrote those books!” I wailed.



And that’s when I learned that a friend of Bill and Denise’s (Denise was Bill’s wife, the woman with the arresting hat) back home in Denver had come across Moonshadow and Shamballa and, noting the dedications, wrote to Eruch Jessawalla—one of Meher Baba’s closest disciples—to tell him about it.  Eruch, intrigued, asked the friend if he could collect the comics together and send them off to the Trust office in India.  (No one at Meherazad, where MB’s surviving disciples lived, knew anything about me or my literary career.  I’d been involved with Meher Baba’s path for well over a decade, but I’d kept pretty much to myself.  Despite retreat time spent at the Meher Spiritual Center in South Carolina, I wasn’t plugged-in to the global Meher Baba community.)  So Bill’s friend did as he was asked but, rather than mail the comics, he gave them to Bill, who just “happened” to be traveling to Meherabad at the same time as the author of those comics; just “happened” to be traveling on the same planes with said author; just “happened” to end up in the same room.

Call it cosmic synchronicity or, as I prefer, God’s grace—but it was an astonishing event.  A day or so later, when a group of us staying at the Pilgrim Center took a bus to Meherazad to visit with Eruch and several other of MB’s close companions, the guy who didn’t want to belong to any club that would have him as a member found himself very publicly presenting the comics to Eruch, posing beside him while Bill, of course, stood nearby taking pictures.  Given my somewhat reclusive nature, given the kind of wretched year I was having, I would have spent the next few weeks hanging out on the fringes of Meherabad life.  This “coincidence” brought me right into the middle of things and, for the first time, into the loving embrace of my Baba family.  I was welcomed home in a way that I could never have imagined.  It was as if Meher Baba, with loving attention, had orchestrated every detail.

That would have been enough to sustain me for the rest of my visit, but there was one more comic book miracle to come.  While staying at the Pilgrim Center, I met the lawyer for the Avatar Meher Baba Trust, a guy named Jack Small, and we quickly became buddies.  (It didn’t hurt that Jack was a fellow comic book geek.  He was delighted when, a year or so later, he ended up in the pages of DC’s Doctor Fate as a beleaguered supporting character.)  One day Jack showed up in my room with a treasure:  a small package of prasad (prasad is a gift, often a piece of fruit, given directly by the master to his disciples; said to carry the seed of his love.  Eating prasad is literally eating grace), in the form of crushed orange candies.  But this was very special prasad; put aside, I learned—reading the typewritten sheet that was presented to me—by Meher Baba himself, years before, for his lovers of the future, knowing the precise moment when each heart would need, and receive, it.  Sound familiar?  It was exactly like the mysterious gift that the Ancient One left for Doctor Strange.  “A gift from the master...left by him—for you!—years before his passing, with instructions for its presentation on this day alone.”  (And, before you ask, no—I’d never heard anything about this secret stash of MB’s prasad.  It was news to me.)  

There I was, living out my own version of Strange’s journey, receiving my own predestined gift, walking inside my own story.  I didn’t understand it, but I accepted that gift with incredible gratitude.  

The two weeks that followed—and the seven trips back to India that I’ve taken over the years—were filled with that kind of soul-opening enchantment.  I could write a book about those journeys, and maybe one day I will; but the reason I’m writing about this now isn’t to convince anybody to become a follower of Meher Baba.  In the end, it really doesn’t matter if you call the God-We-All-Are Meher Baba, Jesus, Divine Mother, Krishna, Fred, Ethel or if you believe in God at all.  I’m writing this to remind you, to remind me, that whether you’re on a hill in India or sitting in your own living room, the line between Storyteller and story, between so-called fantasy and so-called reality, is an illusion.  The borders that separate the possible from the impossible are nothing but a dream.  This life we’re all living is magic:  rich with synchronicities, miracles and, most important of all, love beyond imagining.




©copyright 2017  J.M. DeMatteis

5 comments:

  1. Are you sure you don't mean "Meeting Dr. Strange in Indiana?"

    Jack

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, I think you might be mistaken, but I'll let you have your belief.

      I will just say, if you say corn or the Kurt Vonnegut museum you were probably in Indiana.

      Jack

      Delete
  2. I just wanted to tell you how much I loved your Dr. Strange: Into Shamballa graphic novel. It was beautiful.

    I've never said "thank you" for all the writing that you've done which has touched and shaped my life so greatly, so I want to do that now.

    Your later work on the Dr. Strange series proper, in the 1990s, was exceptional as well. You did a lot of interesting work on that character.
    Outside of lee and Ditko and the classic Steven Engelhart run, I can't really say that about many other creative teams on that character.
    It's a shame, because Dr. Strange is one of my favoruite Marvel Universe characters.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the kind words of gratitude. You are VERY welcome.

      INTO SHAMBALLA is near and dear to my heart (as the above post makes clear) and I loved working on the STRANGE monthly, as well—although the run was cut very short. Doctor Strange is such a wonderful character; I'd love another opportunity to write his adventures.

      Delete