Cat Steven's Saved My Life-Two Years Living In India
Los Angeles, in the 70s, I was a ten-year-old girl, a wild child from divorced parents, running the streets of Hollywood unhindered. During those hippie days, my mother got involved in a cult. It started out innocently enough with yoga classes, but those grew into a very organized religious cult. By the mid seventies, the yogi, a charismatic Sikh and master of Kundalini was able to amass a huge following and had ashrams all over the United States and parts of Europe. He came up with many crazy things to exert control over his devotees, and one of them was to separate children from their parents; he felt it was better for their development in becoming more evolved humans. He decided to conduct an experiment by sending a few kids to India to attend boarding school. I was one of five chosen.
After much protest on my part, threatening to run away and almost succeeding in burning my house down, I found myself alone at LAX international airport in line to board an 18-hour flight to India. The flight itself was an adventure, stopping off in Paris in a snowstorm, refueling in Tehran where soldiers with machine guns boarded the plane and harassed the passengers. I finally arrived in New Delhi and was picked up by strangers and eventually put on a train where 12 hours later I arrived in Mussoorie, a British Hill Station in the foothills of the Himalayas.
The School was an old British institution nestled in the hills of the jungle overlooking the vast Uttarakhand valley. There were baboons flying through the trees and Bengal tigers and vampire bats would get into our dorms at night and terrorize us. Everyday was a struggle to survive. The culture was completely different and I clearly did not have the secret codes needed to fit in. I was an official outcast. There was poor nutrition, at least for the girls, and the course study for a ten-year-old American kid was insane, college level math, Hindu and Punjabi language studies and much more.
A tyrannical teenage girl ran the girl’s dorm. She would walk the halls in men’s underwear and knock down anyone who got in her way. I would eventually get on her bad side for passing my bunkmate’s tragic love notes to her boyfriend and would get beaten up severely for it. There are many stories to relay which I cannot fit in this pitch about beatings, the caste system, girl on girl sexual culture that I tried to participate in but was systematically rejected, spirits, encounters with the teachers, marching military style weekly and my hilarious status as an athlete at the school. I survived mainly because of my will but also because of music that I brought from home, most importantly Cat Stevens. I also found solace in art history books and Christian morality stories from the US that I found in the library and devoured to keep my sanity in a world where I clearly did not fit in.
On School break I went on to travel all over India with a religious delegation from the cult. I lived on a houseboat in Kashmir, met Indira Gandhi and had tea with her, spent time living in Punjabi and going to the Golden Temple everyday participating in religious rituals. I was almost killed in a cab on the streets of New Delhi because I yelled at a cow blocking the road. Within seconds a knife was at my throat by a man on the street and the cabbie had to beg him to spare my life. I witnessed the attempted assassination by sword of the cult leader who came to speak at a Sikh temple. We had to be rescued by the military.
I finally made it back to the US, completely traumatized, only to suffer years more in an ashram in New Mexico away from my parents. The two years I spent living in India were completely forgotten. I developed psychological amnesia.
I could not remember one single detail about being in India, but I knew I never wanted to go back. It was not until 15 years later that memories started flooding back, and with the help of photos and letters I had sent home, I began piecing the experience back together with amazing clarity and accuracy and I am now writing about it. I hope my adventure sparks an interest for your show. Although the material is a little heavy, I approach it with a great sense of humor, a trait thankfully, I have always had. I have lots of photos of my time in India and in the cult to accompany my story.