My first encounter with the Bahá’í Faith occurred on 19th October 1981, at the Birth of the Báb celebration hosted by the Westminster Bahá’í Community at Methodist Central Hall in London. I was a twenty-year-old second year physics undergraduate at Imperial College and I had been invited to this event by a classmate, Sunita Gandhi. Other than hearing that this would be a gathering of very friendly people and that there would be plenty of good food and entertainment, including an Indian folk dance to be performed by Sunita’s sisters Geeta and Nita, I had absolutely no idea what I was letting myself in for. Sunita had mentioned something about the Bahá’í Faith but I didn’t pay much attention, being more interested in the speaker than the words, I suppose. And of course the prospect of meeting her sisters was enticing.
Sunita had arranged that we would go to the event with the Djalili family, who lived a short walk from Imperial College. At the appointed hour I arrived at the Djalili residence, where the door was opened by a very friendly young man, Javid, who immediately made me feel most welcome, plying me with pistachios (which I had never seen before) and tea without milk (which I had never drunk before). I have an abiding memory of chandeliers and other ornate decorations and furnishings (which I had never experienced before in anything other than a stately home). Javid was fascinated to hear that I was a physicist and asked me all sorts of questions, which I don’t think I handled at all well (not having ever experienced this level of attention before), but that only seemed to heighten his interest in me. Eventually, and well after the appointed hour (which made me rather nervous), Sunita turned up and the household journeyed to Central Hall (in a Mercedes, which I had never experienced before). Clearly, even before I had arrived at the expected event, I had been transported to an entirely alien world.
The event itself was the most extraordinary, diverse, colourful, vibrant, disorganised affair that I had ever experienced. Bahá’ís tend to take their cosmopolitan celebrations for granted, but for me then, and on every occasion since, such gatherings are the perfect expression of ‘unity in diversity’, which I still take to be the central tenet of the Faith. Such riotous diversity was the polar opposite of my first nineteen years, growing up in rural Somerset, and I was ill-prepared for it. Having been in London for little over a year, I was still inclined to stare at the bus drivers, marvelling that they were all West Indians, exactly as depicted by Giles the newspaper cartoonist. I still had not been introduced to aubergines, or kebabs, or unfermented apple juice, or aircraft, or foreign languages. I had not been abroad, not even to Scotland. Two years earlier I had preferred my fifth choice university because when I visited my first choice, Durham, it seemed as if it was located at the ends of the earth. Under such circumstances, it would have been understandable if I had made my excuses and departed the Bahá’í celebration in a great hurry. That I did not was due in large part to the inclusive nature of the gathering. If I had detected that I was being ‘love-bombed’ or otherwise picked out for special treatment then I would have felt that I had been brought there under false pretences, and most likely I would have done a runner. But the general bonhomie and goodwill radiating from everyone to everyone, and the complete absence of any authority that could orchestrate the proceedings, put me at ease. I stayed and allowed myself to become immersed, absorbed, overwhelmed, intoxicated, hooked. The intensity of the experience was such that it became the central event in a fictional account of a person taking a journey through the Seven Valleys of life that I composed some thirteen years later. In that story I have my protagonist reflect to himself precisely the thoughts that I felt on emerging from the Birth of the Báb celebration: “For sure, there is something precious here, something unique, something which I must not forsake… we should always follow the light, wherever it shines.” Yes, in my experience, it is indeed possible for one to “cross these seven stages in seven steps, nay rather in seven breaths, nay rather in a single breath, if God will and desire it.” I did not know it then, but my emotional journey to the Faith was fulfilled in a single evening.
Being an agnostic scientist, my intellectual journey to the Faith took considerably longer than a single evening: Thirteen months, in fact. On many occasions I have been asked (and have asked myself) about this intellectual journey, which I suppose would be a story in itself. There were key moments: When Geoff Nash gave me my first Bahá’í book, ‘Paris Talks’, a perfect choice which remains my favourite to this day; When I realised that Bahá’í explanations for behaviours and events were more reliable than my own; When I acknowledged that, if it is rational to reject all of the Manifestations of God, then it is no less rational to accept them all, on equal terms; When I concluded that the only ‘scientific’ way to test the efficacy of faith was for the scientist to suspend disbelief and wholeheartedly commit himself to the Cause, for a period at least, with the promise to review the results in due course; And, above all, when I became assured that my ideas and interpretations of religious writings were my own affair, not to be overruled by someone claiming higher spiritual authority, just as long as I did not try to impose them on others. It was a tortuous journey, and I do not think I would have completed it without the great sense of hope that filled me on my first encounter with the Faith. And that is why, when people ask about my intellectual journey, I always prefer to steer the conversation around to my experience of 19th October 1981.