Najoo Savak Kotwal grew up in an Indian ashram. By coincidence, she grew up in the same ashram that is described in wry and sometimes cynical detail by Rachel Manija Brown in her recent memoir All the Fishes Come Home to Roost (Rodale, 2006). The difference between “Rachel’s” ashram and “Najoo’s” ashram is that Meher Baba, the ashram’s founder, was alive throughout Najoo’s childhood and much of her adult life, whereas Rachel was brought to live there after Meher Baba had passed away. For Najoo, Baba (as he was called by his close circle) was her “Big Daddy,” a central figure who managed the lives and arguably the destinies of all who came in contact with him.
Najoo’s actual father, Savak Kotwal, was a spiritual seeker in the Eastern tradition, restlessly visiting noted spiritual figures looking for one who would reveal in some inner way an innate divinity and take him on as a disciple. An Iranian by heritage, Zoroastrian by religion, banker by profession (Parsis were, the author notes, the preferred sect for responsible financial positions under the British Raj), Savak’s worldly life and considerable capabilities ceased to have meaning from the day he met Meher Baba in 1927. He began to long for the privilege of being in Baba’s close circle. His agonies were a trial to his young wife, Nergiz, an aristocratic Parsi who decided to confront Meher Baba and inform him of the negative impact he was having on her marriage. Meher Baba assured her, “I have come to unite, not to divide” and not only comforted Nergiz but also won her spiritual loyalty. Then Savak, who was growing increasingly desperate, quit his banking job the same day he was offered a promotion and begged Baba to be allowed to live in his ashram. Baba assented only when he was sure that Nergiz was
one hundred percent committed to the move. Thus Nergiz and her children came to stay with Meher Baba, and the genteel Parsi lady became cook and seamstress in an Indian backwater. Savak became one of Baba’s night watchmen, an unsung post that he carried out for many years with modesty and humility. Savak and Nergiz never doubted they had made not just the right move, but the only real move, for their offspring.
Najoo began writing devotional poems and later composing songs to Meher Baba and to his female companion, Mehera, from an early age. No one in the family undertook any serious action without Baba’s permission. Marriages, career plans, even trips abroad were vetted by the master. Najoo and her siblings were doted on by everyone in the ashram and sent to the best boarding schools with funds from Meher Baba’s own sources, even as their parents existed in voluntary communal poverty as demanded by him.
After passing her secondary school exams, Najoo aspired to a medical career. Meher Baba suggested she become a nurse rather than a doctor. Nursing in India is a low-caste, low-paid profession, whereas Najoo wanted the prestige of becoming a doctor. So she inveigled Mehera to ask Meher Baba to permit her to go to medical college, sure that Baba would not refuse a plea from his premier woman disciple. Najoo got her way. However, she missed admission to medical college by one-tenth of a percent on her finals. In her interpretation of this crashing disappointment: “I knew right away that this had happened because I had disobeyed Baba and persisted in fulfilling my own wishes – and even enlisted the help of our sweet, innocent Mehera…who never suspected I was being crafty.”
As it turned out, Najoo won a scholarship to study overseas and became a prominent nursing administrator and teacher. The events of her life have served only to bolster and confirm her conviction that Meher Baba was God in human form, and after his death she continues to follow his teachings and involve herself in the work of his ashram. Meher Baba’s followers number in the thousands in the West, in the tens of thousands in India.
This book takes a behind-the-scenes look at life in an Indian spiritual ashram, filled with photos and excerpts from letters to and from Meher Baba and his close devotees. It chronicles the physical and emotional experience of parents who made every possible sacrifice for their religious beliefs without regret and their daughter who, accepting those beliefs, became a worldly success and an example to others. Meher Baba once declared: “It will be Baba’s real miracle if I deprive you of everything and still you go on loving Me.” Najoo and her family were, by degrees, deprived, and by degrees, rewarded by this remarkable guru.