It was on a Friday evening in March 1955 in Rose Hill, Mauritius, at the “ Mauritius Dramatic Club”, of which I was a member, that it all started. Rose Hill is a town close to Quatre Bornes where I was born. A speaker, Dr Leland Jensen, had been invited to give a talk on the “World Brotherhood”. He was an American Bahá’í pioneer. He spoke inspiringly and he showed me that civilisation had progressed in stages due to the impetus given by a number of special people like Krishna, Buddha, Christ and Muhammad. Their messages from God had inspired their followers to make creative efforts towards building a cohesive community with common ideals for the benefit of mankind. It was the first time in Mauritius that the name of Christ was named on an equal footing as that of Krishna and Buddha. Christ had always been put on a pedestal above all the rest of the Messengers of God. Dr Jensen said that the time had come for a world civilisation and we needed a special person to lead us to that world civilization. He never once said during his talk who could perform such a task, but he invited us to come to his home in Belle Rose where he said he would elaborate on this theme. I was thrilled with this new concept.
A week later, I went to his house with friends from the club and we listened with profound interest at his explanations about Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of a new Faith. This came as a great surprise as we had never heard this name before. There were some Christians in the audience including a clergyman. When Dr Jensen quoted from the Bible regarding the prophecies of the return of Christ, the clergyman tried to argue with him but he could not explain or refute the Bible prophecies relating to the second coming of Christ which the Bahá’í Faith advanced.
I was brought up in a Hindu family but not an orthodox one and I myself had no real belief. I was wary of religion. Mauritius was multiracial, multicultural and multi religious. Although communities usually lived peacefully together, they lived in separate compartments with their own traditional beliefs. The Bahá’í message I had just heard from Leland Jensen, the American pioneer, seemed to answer my own personal needs. I was enthused more than I can describe and a few weeks later I declared my faith in Bahá’u’lláh. In fact, the very moment I heard of the message of universal brotherhood I had made up my mind that this was for me. It was around February 1955 when I joined the Bahá’í Faith and I instantly stopped taking alcoholic drinks which had been a common social drink with friends up to then. For my good fortune my immediate friends had also become Bahá’ís.
At Dr Jensen’s place I met Miss Otillie Rhein, another pioneer from the United States.
I attended firesides and deepening classes at the pioneer’s home. Soon I was serving on the Local Spiritual Assembly and on the Area Teaching Committee. My life had changed dramatically. We went regularly teaching to nearby towns and villages in an old car whose registration number 1130 I remember clearly. I remember that number clearly because the car was used for innumerable teaching trips. It is a pity that Leland and Opal, his wife, who was a Knight of Bahá’u’lláh, became Covenant Breakers in 1959 for their support of Mason Remey’s claim to be the next Guardian.
We had visits from William Sears and Robert Quigley who were serving on the NSA of South and West Africa at the time. They worked on radio in Johannesburg and were extremely fluent. We listened avidly as they shared their vision of the Faith. They told us stories of the successes in Africa and also told stories of the efforts that the friends were making.
April 1959 was a fateful month. On my overseas leave I was also given a scholarship from the British Council for a producer’s course at the British Drama League in Fitzroy Square, London. Before leaving for London, I had written to the beloved Guardian, earlier in June 1956, which is nearly a year before he died, about how much we missed the pioneers as they had left Mauritius. His reply, through his secretary, was that this was bound to happen and that the local Bahá’ís had to learn to take their own responsibility and start teaching the Faith from what they had learnt. He wrote a postscript with his own hand in which he said he would pray for me and that he was very pleased with my work as a Bahá’í. It was unfortunate that the letter was lost during the cyclone which hit Mauritius when I was away from the island.
During the course in London, I received a phone call from Bob Quigley who was visiting London on his way to the States. We talked, and he mentioned that the island of St Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean needed a pioneer and it was one of the important goals of the First World Crusade. I did not think much about it at the time until John and Val Allen, and Bill Sears also, invited me for a meal at a Chinese restaurant in London and asked me whether I could do a round trip to Mauritius via Cape Town by boat and visit the island. It was one of the remaining goals of the first World Crusade.
I remembered that Shoghi Effendi had said that pioneering during the First World Crusade was an opportunity not to be missed. I decided to pioneer to St Helena! John Ferraby, who was then the Chairman of the NSA of the British Isles, accompanied me to the Colonial Office to see whether I needed a visa. We were told I did not need one as a British subject. The official of the office reminded me that I would not find any employment and, being of Asian descent, it was unlikely that I would be welcome there. John told me that they always said that and not to take any notice. Ian Semple was then secretary of the NSA of the British Isles. I had applied for leave without pay to allow me to visit St Helena but my application was turned down by the Government of Mauritius.
I got a call a few days later from John Robarts to come and see him at the hotel where he was staying in Russell Square, London. He told me how anxious he was to see me. At that time he was a Hand of the Cause for Africa. He told me that it was an ambitious project but very rewarding as there had not been any other offers to pioneer to that remote island in the South Atlantic after Mrs Stamp, a Knight of Bahá’u’lláh, had left the island. It was one of the few remaining goals of the Ten Year Crusade. I thanked him for his kind words.
While waiting for a passage to St Helena, I sat for an “A” level in French. John Ferraby, who was also a Hand of the Cause for the UK, advised me to take a correspondence course with me to fill the time in St Helena as there would not be much to do there. It was a useful thing to do and I also took an “A” level in English whilst on the island.
I took the ship “Union Castle” from London. My first glimpse of the island from the liner was a tremendous shock. It looked like a rock coming out of the ocean. I could not believe that I was going to live on it for some time. I picked up courage and landed on the island. It was January 1960. The island had some 5,000 inhabitants and was in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. My adventures on the island is another story.
At first it was a gruelling experience. For six months I was unemployed but fortunately I found a job in the Treasury Office of the government. There were no Bahá’ís on the island except me to teach the Faith. After much hard work a young lady, Gay Corker, who sang in the church choir, became a Bahá’í and later a policeman Basil George joined the Faith. In spite of the comments of the Colonial office, not only did I find a job but also the population was very cordial and I made friends on the island. To help me with the teaching work to get over the steep hills, the NTC of South and West Africa sent me a scooter which, unfortunately, did not have enough horse power to negotiate the steep hills of St Helena. I had to send it back.
After two and a half years on the island, my permission to stay expired but I am gratified that both Basil and Gay have remained staunch Bahá’ís. Basil started learning French from me and then went on to do GCE in English. He was given a scholarship to study for a BA in Education. Later he was made Director of Education on the island. He married Barbara, a VSO volunteer from Scotland. Basil later received an OBE for his work on the island. He and his family remain the bulwarks of the Faith there on St Helena. Their eldest daughter, Tara, served at the Bahá’í World Centre and later pioneered to Mozambique where she became an Auxiliary Board member. Gay Corker also served at the Bahá’í World Centre.
Some years later, when in London, I was invited to be the guest of honour when the island inaugurated their Bahá’í Centre. I went by plane to Cape Town as St Helena had no airport. I took a ship to the island and stayed there for eight days from 18-26 June 1978. Whilst I was there I was interviewed on radio about my visit and the aims of the Bahá’í Faith.
After leaving St Helena in April 1962, I came back to the UK. The “A” level I had acquired in St Helena helped to get me into college in Birmingham. I studied for a degree. I served with Gloria Faizi on the LSA of Birmingham and derived much moral support from her. In addition, we received from time to time visits from our Hand of the Cause Abu’l-Qásim Faizí and he sometimes spoke at firesides. He was always very encouraging and it cheered us a lot to have such a learned Bahá’í in our midst.
I could not complete the degree due to a serious car accident in which the driver, a fellow Bahá’í Philip Turton, was killed and I suffered severe head injuries. After the accident I was cared for by Ken and Betty Goode in their own home in Birmingham. I stayed there for a few weeks until I felt better and pioneered briefly at Ridván 1965 to Sutton Coldfield, a dormitory town north of Birmingham. There I met Thelma Batchelor who was also a short-term pioneer. She has remained a life long friend.
I came to London, got a job, married Bella Murday, a fellow Mauritian living in London, in December 1965, and completed my degree at Birkbeck College, London University.
My wife, Bella, and I were among the nine members who formed the first LSA of Haringey when London was divided into boroughs, each of them with their own LSA, in April 1966.
I worked for HM Customs and later had a promotion to work in the Home Office. Our daughter Natasha was born in April 1969. She was, and still is, a joy to us. She married Andrew Wilkinson. She made a wonderful choice and they have served together in the faith. Andrew was a trustee of the Huqúqu’lláh, and Natasha served on the organising committee for the London Regional Conference in 2009. She has also served on the organising committee of the Arts Academy. Their children Yasmin and Arranare a joy to us too.
My wife Bella has been a loyal and devoted Bahá’í. She has also been a faithful and loyal support over the years. Just before the World Congress in 1963 she went to Haifa on pilgrimage and was the first Mauritian Bahá’í to go there on pilgrimage. She was given a special interview with Rúhíyyih Khánum who gave her a gold chain with a medallion which had a picture of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá on one side and the Greatest Name on the other.
I myself have been on pilgrimage twice. Once, on my own, on 3rd July 1978 and again in November 2010 with Bella. In 1970 I met Ian Semple who was then serving as a member of the Universal House of Justice and he invited me to his house for dinner along with Vivian Isenthal (Roe), also a London Bahá’í, along with other British Bahá’ís. Ian remembered my pioneering to St Helena and was very sympathetic to what I had gone through when pioneering to that remote island. He said it was remarkable what I had achieved in the two and half years I was there. The second time, we met all the members of the Universal House of Justice including Shariar Razavi. I had served as his assistant when he was a Board Member in London.
We pioneered from Haringey, London, to go to Shepway, Folkestone in April 1988 where we spent eight years and helped to form the LSA. It was a very successful pioneering project. There were quite a few English people who joined the faith, of which two, Wesley and Stephanie Clash, pioneered to Corfu where they are still serving. Wesley plied with me innumerable questions during firesides which I patiently answered. It was a lovely moment when, before signing the marriage certificate on his wedding day, he asked to say a few words and, to everybody’s surprise, he said he wanted to become a Bahá’í. One of the Bahá’ís who attended the wedding told me that it brought tears to his eyes.
Joel Defrémont became a Bahá’í after we had two firesides in French with him. When I rang to tell Janet, his wife, that he had declared, she was astonished. She said she had been carrying a card in her bag for more than ten years waiting for him to declare! In recent times Joel has been serving at the World Centre as a French translator. There a few others but I can’t remember their names.
I went on teaching trips to Calais and Boulogne in France in the summers of 1990 and 1991 along with Joel Defrémont who had by then become a Bahá’í. We were both French-speaking and it was very challenging; we found at the time that the French had little interest in anything spiritual. I also studied for a Master’s degree whilst in Folkestone. This was at Birkbeck College, London, where I had taken my first degree and was awarded an MA in 1970.
I was privileged to go travel teaching to French islands – Madagascar and Réunion – in 1978 and next to Corsica. To Guadeloupe, Martinique and Marie Galante in February 1983. They are neighbouring islands, being part of the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean. Guadeloupe was particularly exciting. I had a lot of radio interviews totalling almost twelve hours. I had a lot of practice of radio work as I had, in 1967, had an overseas programme at Bush House on the Strandas an interviewer on the Overseas Service of the BBC. The interviewer in Guadeloupe was a friend of the faith and enjoyed being heard all over the island. I also addressed the Indian Traders Association and mentioned the Bahá’í Faith. They were trying to find their roots in India and I mentioned the magnificent Bahá’í Lotus Temple in New Delhi. One of them said he would go and see it when next visiting India.
On 5th November 1994 and 20th March 1995 I made two teaching trips to the Seychelles. My daughter Natasha and her husband Andrew were pioneers there and Bella and I stayed with them.
Once I was invited by the Continental Pioneer Committee to give a series of talks at the Summer School in the Azores. I did not speak Portuguese at the time but fortunately I had an interpreter who was very helpful. Later on, the NSA of Portugal asked me to go and visit the friends as they had very few visitors. I had never had the time to do this.
In Haringey we were very fortunate to have had a few declarations, some of them English such as Anthony Harmer, Ted Ayrton and Paul Rhys who have remained faithful as Bahá’ís. Anthony is well known for his CD Gwyname which has the prayer “Allah–u–Abba” which is played at major Bahá’í events. Paul teaches music in Cambridge. The story of how he joined the Faith is interesting. One day we heard the door bell ring. We were not expecting anybody. However, I went to the door. It was Paul and he said “I want to become a Bahá’í”. He related that he was going for a walk and as he passed a church he went in and heard the pastor quote the famous passage from Isaiah about the “Prince of Peace “and he remembered he had heard it at a fireside at our place. As he walked in the park along Alexandra Place he reflected on it and he felt it must be Bahá’u’lláh who was the Prince of Peace and he felt a burning desire to become a Bahá’í. We were overjoyed and celebrated immediately this gift from the Abhá Beauty. Paul has a lovely Bahá’í family and is very active in Cambridge.
When the Ruhi books were introduced in the London area, both Bella and I started doing these books, which formed an invaluable tool to refine our teaching methods. During one of our expansion phases we were able to enrol a Bahá’í from the Broadwater Farm in the Tottenham area of North London. We have prayer meetings at his home. This place has been, and still is, a centre for racial tension in the Borough of Haringey and it was a welcome surprise to have a Bahá’í living there and saying Bahá’í prayers in his flat.
I have served as delegate of the community to National Convention for many years. I have also served on the Festival Committee and the London Teaching Committee. Bella and I are still serving on the LSA of Haringey. The Bahá’í Faith remains central to the lives of our whole family.