I was born in India in 1941. My father was a Civil Servant, a Personal Assistant to the Commissioner in a provincial town under the British Raj. When I was three or four, we were living in the town of Chinsura, on the banks of the river Hooghly, about twenty miles north of Calcutta, now named Kolkata. I do not remember much about it. Our house was on the riverside road and I could watch from our window boats and ferries sailing on the river. I could easily sit on the window sill with my knees up to my chin, and watch the boats carrying fruits like melons, pumpkins and coconuts to the markets of Kolkata. I was the youngest at the time. My elder brother was already going to school and my twin sisters, several years older than him, were attending a school in Kolkata and staying in my grandfather’s house where two of my uncles and their families were also staying. I was not attending school of any sort. There were no play schools, kindergartens or primary schools in those days. Schooling started at the age of seven in a secondary school.
On a typical day, after my father had gone to work and my brother had left for school, I would be alone as my mother would be busy with housework. I had long hours to spend on my own, especially after lunch when mother would rest until about 4 o’clock and my brother would return from school. Those long afternoons felt endless and I would make toys such as cars with tooth-paste boxes and cork bottle-stoppers as wheels. We had wooden mats on which we sat for our meals. I would line them up on the staircase and make a slide out of them! Thus I spent most weekday afternoons.
My cousin came to stay with us so that she could attend college as there were no colleges where her family home was. She was more like a sister to me. She taught me to read and write and was a companion to me when she did not have lectures to attend. I was just seven when I was admitted to the local Duff School – yes, that was the name. The first day was a disaster. I ran out of my classroom and sat under a tree crying my eyes out because I felt homesick. The headmaster then sent me and my brother home. Soon after, my father got transferred to Kolkata as a Deputy Secretary of the Education Department of West Bengal in the newly independent India. I was enrolled into a Government school that was quite small. There were about thirty pupils in each class and eight classes, from class three to class ten. My life changed quite a bit now that I was living in a house full of people. I recall about twenty of us altogether including many cousins of my age group as playmates.
I did not enjoy my school years, which seemed too formal and not much fun, although in the arts we had Manual Training, consisting of basic carpentry and cutting out cardboard to make patterns and the like. We had a good drawing teacher who taught us how to sketch using carbons and pencils.
I left school after what was known as School Final Examination and then went to an Intermediate College for two years before going to University. This was a college run by the monks of the Ramakrishna Mission. It was a fully residential college outside Calcutta adjacent to the Mission’s headquarters in Belur. This is where I first had religious teaching.
A bit of a background to the Mission would be relevant here, as it was a major influence in my life, and although I have lived in the UK for over fifty years now, it is important that the reader understands where I was raised. Ramakrishna Mission was set up by Swami Vivekananda, who was a disciple of Shri Ramakrishna. Shri Ramakrishna was a saintly man and he taught the tenets of Hinduism in very simple terms. They have become known as ‘The Gospels of Shri Ramakrishna’. It was around 1850 that he was also teaching the oneness of God and the oneness of the religions – Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. He said we all pray to the same God. Vivekananda was a Physics graduate and he was intrigued by Ramakrishna’s views and went to challenge him on the basis of his teachings but in the end became one of his disciples.
Our fully residential college life was quite regimented. We had to get up at dawn and make our beds before going to the large prayer hall. Some of us would be selected to either recite some prayers or sing devotional songs. After that we had our breakfast followed by college lectures starting at ten. We would then gather again around 6pm in the prayer hall to be seen by the hostel superintendents who were trainee monks, so that they could ensure we were all safely indoors and that no one was left outside of the campus after dark. After prayers and devotional songs we would settle down for our studies until dinner time. Cooks prepared the meals but we took turns in serving the food – usually eight boys would have this duty each night. A Grace – prayer offering thanks to God for our food – used to be recited before we could start eating. The monks had to do it as part of their training and we did the same. Lights would go out by 11pm. So all in all it was a regimented living but it disciplined us into obedient students!
Swami Vivekananda, the most well known of Sri Ramakrishna’s disciples, went to the First Parliament of Religions of 1893 in Chicago. There he delivered many talks on the Vedic principles of Hinduism. He explained the four Yogas – that of Devotion, acquisition of knowledge, selfless work and meditation as the four ways of attaining God. The word Yoga, pronounced as Joga, means to connect or ‘jucta’. The origin of the word ‘to join’ is the same ‘junct’, in other words Yoga or Joga means to join with God. Vivekananda also explained that revelation was progressive. In search for the Universal Religion, he said:
“I accept all the religions that were in the past, and worship them all; I worship God with every one of them, in whatever form they worship Him. I shall go to the mosque of the Mohammedan; I shall enter the Christian church and kneel before the Crucifix; I shall enter the Buddhist temple, where I shall take refuge in Buddha and his Law. I shall go into the forest and sit down in meditation with the Hindu, who is trying to see the Light which enlightens the hearts of everyone. Not only shall I do these things, but I shall keep my heart open for all that may come in the future. Is God’s Book finished? Or is revelation still going on?
They are marvellous Books – these spiritual revelations of the world. The Bible, the Vedas, the Koran, and all other sacred books are but so many pages, and an infinite number of pages remain yet to be unfolded. I shall leave my heart open for all of them. We stand in the present, but open ourselves to the infinite future. We take in all that has been in the past, enjoy the light of the present, and open every window of the heart for all that will come in the future.”
Salutations to all the prophets of the past, to all the great ones of the present, and to all that are to come in the future!” (Swami Vivekananda)
Swami Vivekananda toured all over India urging the youth to rediscover their self esteem when under the Raj, Indians appeared to have forgotten their illustrious spiritual heritage. He was born in 1863 but unfortunately died quite young, at the age of 40. His ideas of a universal religion impressed me and I found the similarity of these with the tenets of the Bahá’í Faith, but more of that later.
After finishing my Science course, I went to Bengal Engineering College to study Civil Engineering. I am still in touch with many friends from those days and they are well informed about the Faith. I worked for a couple of years after graduation with a firm of bridge builders before coming to the UK in September 1964 to attend a post-graduate course in structural engineering at what was then Battersea College of Advanced Technology (University of Surrey since 1965). I was then invited to do a PhD. and moved to Guildford in 1968.
In Guildford I met Carolyn Branson who was the secretary running All Nations Club set up by a retired headmistress mainly for foreigners in Guildford after the war years. I went to Bahá’í firesides at Edgar and Pearl Boyett’s home with Carolyn and came to know about the Bahá’í Faith. Strangely, I had not come across the Faith in India. I finished my research and started working in Guildford for what was then the Department of Transport. In those days we designed the motorways and the strategic routes in-house, let contracts, and supervised the construction work. I was lucky to have a good job and I enjoyed living and working in Guildford. Carolyn became a Bahá’í in December 1970 and afterwards pioneered to Chad. We lost contact for several years and I very briefly saw her outside Harrods in March 1975 when she was working at the National Bahá’í Centre in Knightsbridge. We met up again at our mutual friend Asad’s wedding in 1977. We got married at the Maltings, Farnham, on the 9th Day of Ridván in 1978 after she returned from serving in Haifa. Eruch (Iraj) and Meherangiz Munsiff conducted our Bahá’í wedding.
In December 1978 we went to Malta for a Winter School in the old Bahá’í Centre in Attard. We had a wonderful time with Counsellor Annalise Bopp, Alma Gregory, Philip Hainsworth and Edgar Boyett, among others, visiting the catacombs and taking a harbour cruise. We have returned to Malta several times over the years and value our friendships with the community there.
Our son, Chandra, was born in 1979 during Ridván. In December 1979, we visited India with Chandra, who was then just eight months old. It was my first trip after our wedding, and Carolyn’s first opportunity to meet my Indian family. We went to Bombay and then to Pune where one of my sisters lived, before going to the family home in Calcutta, finishing up in New Delhi.
In 1981, when our second son Robindra was a just a few months old, we all went to a Welsh Summer School in Llandrindod Wells, my first visit to such an event, held at the Rock Park Hotel. We stayed above a stable block adjacent to the main building that only had bunk beds! It was a lovely setting. We went there twice. We attended several Summer Schools in Wales and England with our sons. We also used to take them to Thomas Breakwell Sunday schools – initially near Waterloo, London and then to Sussex before Thomas Breakwell schools ended.
Guildford Spiritual Assembly had set up a Training institute named after William Sears, of which I was a member, and which had a few seminars on subjects of general interest and the Bahá’í stance on them. One session I remember very well was presented by Margaret Appa on how to prepare an exhibition. She was brilliant in explaining the systematic process of analysing the need, content, and targeting viewers compatible with the location, timing etc. We soon realised that preparing an exhibition was a lot more than sticking up A4 sheets on a panel! I enjoy preparing exhibition panels on the Faith. My first attempt was condensing the document “Prosperity of Humankind” into sixteen A4 pages in colourful fonts. We used this exhibition at many village Fetes at the time the UN Conference in Rio on Agenda for Peace was taking place.
Locally we had a Bahá’í stand at many local fetes and events. We acquired a set of large exhibition panels for displaying posters and artwork with quotations from the Bahá’í writings. This was the proclamation stage of the Faith. Personally I feel there is still a great deal of work to be done to proclaim the Faith in our communities along with core activities in parallel.
As I have mentioned, we visited India in 1979. After visiting family and friends in Pune and Kolkata, we of course went to Delhi. There we met the secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly, Mr Ramnik Shah, who was very kind and offered to call a taxi driver who knew the way to the site of the House of Worship. We jumped at the opportunity to go and visit the site. There was an open field with a hoarding bearing the message ‘The site for the Bahá’í House of Worship, Bahapur!’ I have a photo of myself standing in front of it with Chandra, then eight months old, asleep on my shoulder. We also met Charles Macdonald, who was Manager of the Indian Bahá’í Publishing Trust at that time.
Our next visit to India was in 1983 when we again visited New Delhi. We went to the site where one of the Assistant Resident Engineers was Mr Mashhyat Ashraf whom we had met when he and his wife Taraneh were staying in Guildford. Luckily for us there was no work going on that day and Mashhyat kindly gave us a tour of the construction site. I have many photos of the Lotus Temple under construction and it was a privilege to be able to take some photographs of the massive temporary works in steel of some of the leaves of the lotus shape. We also stayed at Panchgani School as guests of Irene and Falriva Tafaaki and their daughters. We then attended the Dedication of the House of Worship in 1986 with Chandra and Robindra joining the children’s groups while Carolyn and I joined the second session inside the Temple. The children’s arrangements were somewhat lacking, and I remember Stuart and Margaret Sweet sacrificially volunteering to remain with them. At the Conference in a nearby stadium, we heard Amatul Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum, Bill Sears and Mr Collis Featherstone. I have visited the House of Worship on several occasions since then. I also visited Panchgani one more time to visit Mr. Lee Fawbush, whose son Shahbaz was living in our community at the time.
During the Centenary of the World Parliament of Religions in January 1993, I encountered an Indian monk who was one of the hostel Superintendents I remembered from Ramakrishna Mission, at a meeting hosted by the Brahma Kumaris in London. I told him that my wife was a Bahá’í and he was very happy and said that ‘Bahá’í is Vedanta’. This prompted me to re-visit the teachings of Vivekananda and to take a fresh look at the Bahá’í teachings which are so similar that I had somehow not seen the importance of standing up to be counted – or ‘getting off the fence’ as several formidable Indian Bahá’í ladies had told me over the years! At the time, I had still not declared as a Bahá’í!
During the Holy Year, we went to Liverpool where a celebratory event took place in St. George’s Hall. Hugh Adamson, secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly, gave a very emotional speech on how he became a Bahá’í and then invited the audience to stand up if they believed in Bahá’u’lláh. Carolyn was not with me in the hall as she was looking after Robindra who had a fever. I stood up as did the Bahá’ís at my table, and then we all sat down afterwards but nothing happened! I suppose the patient Bahá’í friends were just used to me being around.
We have fond memories of Hugh and his wife Dona when they were in Waverley and hosted many Bahá’í events in their lovely home as well as participating in many community activities. Dona arranged the first United Nations Association Interfaith Service in the Guildford Cathedral Refectory and the format carries on 35 years later. We were sad to learn of Dona’s passing a few years ago. She was a lovely, kind and energetic soul.
I did not declare until the Holy Year, 1992, had passed. Not until I realised the importance of the vision of Bahá’u’lláh in creating a New World Order did I become convinced that the way to achieve world prosperity and lasting peace would only be possible through the expansion of the Bahá’í Faith. In 1993 I drove Carolyn to Kitt and Vafa Ram’s home for the election of the Spiritual Assembly of Waverley. I dropped Carolyn off and came away, but something inspired me to go back. Everyone there was a bit surprised to see me and they were probably wondering how to deal with telling me only Bahá’ís could attend. When I then declared, they were delighted of course, and a bit surprised, and I was warmly congratulated by all. Meherangiz on many occasions had asked me why I was sitting on the fence. She used to say “Sign the declaration card!” with her usual wave of the hand. Ballot papers were quickly prepared and I served on the Local Spiritual Assembly until the boundary changes. I was also a delegate to National Convention on several occasions.
With the change in boundaries, Waverley Spiritual Assembly no longer existed and we became the Bahá’ís of Godalming, one of the 17 areas constituting the Parish Councils of Waverley. Since then we have continued with the monthly devotional meetings the Waverley assembly had set up in the old Town Hall, which is named ‘Godalming Pepperpot’, planning our travels around them. We also regularly join with Guildford and occasionally with Woking for our Bahá’í activities as well as supporting the far-flung Waverley friends’ personal initiatives, and others in our Surrey Cluster.
Carolyn and I continue to work in the community with interfaith groups, United Nations Association (UNA), Surrey Minority Ethnic Forum etc. to keep the networking going. Our dear Philip Hainsworth, with whom I had worked at UNA, One World Trust and other activities and whom I greatly admired in my pre-Bahá’í years, asked me to join BASED-UK (Bahá’í Agency for Social & Economic Development). It was set up from the Bahá’í World Centre by Hassan Sabri to raise funds for the orphanage in Honduras, a Bahá’í Social and Economic Development (SED) project, and also to raise awareness of SED issues within the UK Bahá’í community. I was asked to produce the Newsletter of BASED-UK, a task I enjoyed with my then new desktop publishing software.
I also enjoyed working alongside Philip, Hassan, Geeta Kingdon and Susie Howard. BASED-UK’S role changed with altered circumstances with the Honduran project and later became part of the National Spiritual Assembly’s agency BOSED-UK, (Bahá’í Office of Social & Economic Development). BASED-UK has since been reinstated as an Agency of the National Spiritual Assembly.
Since 2001 we have had a home in Cyprus where we go two or three times a year. Cyprus has a wonderful Bahá’í community and we love to be with them as much as possible. I was there during the Five Year Plan as a short-term pioneer to assist the local friends in their teaching efforts. Not knowing Turkish or Greek is a disadvantage but with the help of friends, I am able to prepare exhibitions on different aspects of the Faith in the two languages, and those made for the events that took place last year are on display at the Bahá’í Centres. We also tried to engage the youth in activities and helped to start a study circle in the northern part of Cyprus. We attend many activities in both the North and the South including prayers and discussion in different homes, sometimes with many contacts present. We always enjoy attending the Saturday prayer breakfasts in Lefkosa Bahá’í Merkezi when we are there and help to keep the Centre tidy for the friends and visiting guests. We were present at each National Convention in Cyprus during the Five Year Plan and helped with the catering for the delegates and attendees.
We attended the Regional Conferences in London, Frankfurt and Istanbul in 2010 and learned of the efforts being made in expanding the Faith in many parts of Europe. We attended a service at the Frankfurt Temple, and visited the House of Bahá’u’lláh in Edirne with the Cyprus friends. We also attended the 50th Anniversary celebrations in Madrid in 1997 and Paris in 1998, each a combination of inspiring talks and artistic and cultural presentations. The Madrid Conference was one of the last events attended by Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum. She was expected at the Paris Conference but was not well enough to attend.
In 2015 we attended the 20th Summerfest at Langenhain House of Worship in Germany with Ron and Thelma Batchelor, driving 1,000 miles there and back, criss-crossing unmanned borders, experiencing the Last Post at the Menin Gate in Ypres and visiting the grave of Carolyn’s grandfather in nearby Halluin, France.
We now have a holiday home in Brittany and meet up with isolated believers whenever we visit, as well as attending Feasts and Holy days if they coincide with our trip. It’s wonderful to find immediate friends with shared values wherever we travel…
In 2005 we had the bounty of participating in our first nine-day Pilgrimage, with the Habibi family, Dermod and Roushan Knox and Viv and Rita Bartlett and their son Kalim, among others. We’ve also made three-day visits on the occasions of Carolyn’s fiftieth birthday and Robindra’s 25th – and one special one day visit in December 1997 when we took a cargo boat over during a short break in Cyprus, meeting Janet Fleming for lunch at the old Pilgrim House and spending the day in the Haifa Shrines and gardens before returning to the boat – and may have a place on the Cyprus Group Pilgrimage in 2017.
We have always attended summer schools, in the West of England, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and North and South Cyprus. When the boys were young we also attended lovely gatherings in East Anglia during the Easter holidays arranged by Hugh and Deborah McKinley. Residential Schools are a great time not only for learning but to make friends, renew friendship and join in activities – and in more recent years to hear about successful stories of core activities. The Schools devoted over several summers to ‘Abdul-Bahá’s visits to the West were particularly enjoyable – and the wonderful winter School in Lapta with Mr. and Mrs. Nakhjavani, so special to the Cyprus community.
We observed the Centenary of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s travels with several activities and visits in London, Byfleet and Woking. Friends from our Cluster met up at the Inn where ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s entourage stayed when He was a guest at one of the cottages in Vanner’s Farm in Byfleet. We also went to Woking’s Shah Jahan Mosque where ‘Abdu’l-Bahá spoke on the occasion of its reopening in January 1913 after refurbishment by the Ahmadiyya Mission who owned the Mosque at the time.
We presented a framed copy of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s speech, and a copy of the book ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in London’ to the Head Imam. I also joined a group of Bahá’ís who visited the Mosque on the 75th Anniversary of His visit and the original newspaper article in the local Surrey Advertiser was reproduced. In fact these days we quite often visit this lovely little mosque as the current Imam, Hafiz Saeed Hashmi, is very keen on outreach and interfaith activities and his wife is the Faith Links Advisor to the Bishop of Guildford.
We participate in many Interfaith activities in our area. I attend Waverley Faith Forum, the Borough’s initiative to establish closer links with the faith communities so that they can provide a more integrated service to fulfil the needs of the various communities. Other interfaith activities are with Guildford & Godalming Interfaith Forum (GGIFF) and South East England Faith Forum (SEEFF) Elmbridge Multifaith Forum (EMF) and Woking People of Faith, each operating differently. As well as learning more about other faiths and supporting one another, our attending events organised by these forums gives us the opportunity to talk about the Faith and thus demonstrate the values of its tenets and aims – to create a lasting peace and a new world order based on selfless service to humanity, with a world-wide organisation following the directives of the Universal House of Justice.
I am very happy to have found the Faith that combines spirituality with practical solutions to the problems of this troubled world. Have I changed my religion on becoming a Bahá’í? I say I have progressed from being a Hindu as I have found no conflict with the core values. The Bahá’í Faith has both personal salvation and the salvation of the whole world as one human family, the two combined aspects that older religions did not have. Now that the countries of the world have become much closer with the interdependence of nations, the Bahá’í Faith will enable us to carry forward an ever-advancing Civilisation.
Dr. Bibhas Chandra Neogi
Surrey, April 2016