In Search of the Maharishi (Part 1)

 

As soon as I arrived in Hong Kong, in June 1968, I called an old boyfriend of mine, a Scotsman, Ian Black, who had been working as chief news correspondent on the South China Morning Post for the past three years.

“Och, Caroline, it’s good to hear you! You’ve arrived then!”

Ian sounded genuinely pleased to hear from me.

Hong Kong
Hong Kong

“Wait right where you are and I’ll send a car to pick you up. You’ll be staying with me, of course!”

So far, so good. Nothing sinister, nothing threatening. Just a warm Gallic welcome. In fact I hadn’t seen Ian for a while and it felt good to hear his lilting voice again. And it was fun that evening to wander around Hong Kong with him, chatting about the direction our lives had taken since we last met briefly in London and how our dreams for the future were evolving. It was breathtaking riding the cable car up to the highest point of the island, gazing out at the picturesque junks in the harbour at sunset, watching the seething mass of humanity below us, rushing this way and that in their eagerness to get home for their evening meal.

That night I went to bed exhausted but exhilarated and made plans to visit the consulates of Vietnam and Laos the next day. How could I know that the innocent perceptions of Hong Kong I had acquired that night looking out over what seemed on the surface to be an enchanting city would end up changing so swiftly and so dramatically?

After filling in my visa forms in the morning at the respective consulates, I followed Ian down to his office. It had been some time since I had sat at the news desk of the World Telegram & Sun in New York and I realised now how much I missed the buzz, the clatter of typewriters, the camaraderie and the thrill of the scoop.

south china morning post
South China Morning Post building

All talk that morning was of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the guru who had inspired not only the Beatles but many other lost young souls of my generation seeking spiritual answers to their lives.  He was due to arrive on a Cathay Pacific flight from Los Angeles and was scheduled to hold a Press conference that afternoon at the Overseas Press Club on top floor of the Hong Kong Hilton.

Ian was cursing.  It had just dawned on him he couldn’t attend. His whole afternoon, he told me, would be taken up discussing the recent spate of serial rapes with the local police chief, Lyall Macgregor.

“Ach, it’s too bad” Ian said, shaking his head despondently, “I really wanted to go. Tell you what though, Caroline, why don’t you go instead of me? You could write the story. Will you do that for me?”

Would I do it for him? Was he mad?

“You know you don’t even have to ask that question, Ian,” I laughed, “of course I will.”

Here I was with an opportunity, out of the blue, to meet the strange, enigmatic Maharishi, the man responsible for influencing the lives of so many young people around the world. How could I possibly refuse?

So at 3pm that afternoon I found myself on top of the Hilton Hotel, notebook and pencil in hand. And, as I arrived, in my long flowing robes, with beads dangling around my neck and my hair tumbling half way down my back, flashbulbs began to pop incessantly.

Hong Kong Hilton
Hong Kong Hilton

“Excuse me, Maharishi, how does it feel to be in Hong Kong?” one reporter beside me asked.

I looked behind me. I saw nobody.

“Is this your first trip to Hong Kong, Maharishi?” another reporter piped up.

Where is he? I wondered, I can’t see him. Who one earth are they talking to?

“Will you be staying here long? “ a third reporter chipped in.
I was nonplussed.

“Will the Beatles be following you here?”

“How do you spell your name, Maharishi?”

The questions were coming thick and fast. I looked around. The Maharishi must surely be somewhere nearby?

But no, I was alone. To my amusement, it suddenly dawned on me that these Chinese photographers and journalists had not been very well briefed by their editors and had actually mistaken me for the ubiquitous Maharishi!  Feebly I tried to explain to them their error, that the real Maharishi had not yet arrived but they were so determined I was the guru that it proved futile trying to explain otherwise.

Caroline starting out on her world trip 1968
Caroline starting out on her world trip 1968

An English voice at my shoulder whispered:

“Play up to it. I just heard the guy’s not coming. He’s missed his flight. You’re the story now!”

And so it was. The next day in most of the Hong Kong papers, under a headline about the elusive Maharishi who failed to show up, was a story about the hippie girl from London who took his place.

And thus a very real nightmare began. It started innocently enough with a phone call.

I was sitting in Ian’s flat, munching my breakfast and silently giggling at my photograph and unexpected write-up in the morning papers. Ian had left early, hot on the trail again of Hong Kong’s latest scourge, the serial rapist.

I picked up the receiver.

“Yes?”

An Indian voice asked, “Is this Miss Caroline Kennedy?”

Foolishly I answered, “Yes” but then instantly regretted it. Who was this man? How did he know where I was staying? Who gave him this telephone number? Why was he looking for me? What did he want?

He went on: “My name is Professor Khan, Nadir Khan. I read the story in the paper today. I too was at the Hilton Hotel yesterday. I wanted to introduce myself to you then but you were busy.  Have you been following the Maharishi’s teachings for a long time?”

“No, no I…..I was just…..” I stammered. I was about to tell him how I happened to be there, that it was all an innocent misunderstanding but Professor Khan butted in.

“I think you have. I think you are interested in meditating. I, too, have been studying these things for a long time. It’s part of my research in comparative religions for the University of Bombay, you see. Would you mind if I interviewed you?”

By this time I had slightly recovered my composure.  Thinking quickly I surmised that in order to have obtained my phone number this Professor Khan, whoever he was, must have already spoken to Ian at the newspaper, which meant that either Ian knew him or, at least, had approved his credentials.

“Well, I really don’t practise TM,” I said, “I’m probably not the right person to speak to. “

There was a mutter of disappointment down the line.

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi with the Beatles
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi with the Beatles

“But,” I added, “I am still fascinated by the whole Maharishi phenomenon.”

“I thought so.” The Professor sounded somewhat relieved. “Perhaps we can meet to discuss this. These interviews I am doing will form part of my thesis, so I would be grateful if you would consider it. “

“Well, I’m not sure I have anything relevant to say…” I stuttered truthfully.

Undaunted Khan continued, “Where would you like to meet?”

“I don’t know Hong Kong too well. In fact I only just arrived the day before yesterday.” I paused, and then added imprudently, “But I do know how to get to the Hilton Hotel.”

“So how about the coffee shop downstairs?”

I remembered the coffee shop. Its windows looked right out onto a busy main street. Surely, I reassured myself, it couldn’t be too risky to meet there?

“OK, “ I said. After all I had finished my business at the consulates for the time being and I didn’t have any other immediate plans. “What time?”

“2pm. Will that be alright?” he asked.

“2 o’clock. Fine. I’ll see you there. But how will I know you?”

“Don’t worry, Miss Kennedy, I’ll know you! I saw you yesterday, remember?”

The phone went dead. Professor Khan had replaced the receiver before I had a chance to consider how foolish and impetuous I was being and change my mind.

I toyed with the idea of phoning Ian to check out my mysterious caller. But I restrained myself, arguing that he would certainly not have given out his home number to just anyone, particularly when he was currently investigating a pretty grisly story. In fact, even before he had left me alone that morning he had impressed on me to doublelock the apartment door after him and warned me not to open it to any

Hilton Hotel Hong Kong
Hilton Hotel Hong Kong

one.

“You can never be too careful in this business,” he had told me gravely and was off. Dutifully I had bolted the door behind him and gone back to my coffee and newspaper.

And so it happened, that afternoon I found myself at the Hilton Hotel Coffee Shop, an hour later than our scheduled appointment. I was hoping that, by the time I arrived, Nadir Khan would have given up on me and decided to leave.  I looked around. The place was packed. People, tourists and locals, in couples and in groups, mostly chatting gaily, paid scant attention to me, other than checking out my hippie garb or wondering, perhaps, to themselves whether it was my face that had stared back at them from the pages of their morning paper. But no one came over to claim me. No one appeared to show the slightest interest so I sat down, ordered a cold drink, took out my book and waited. But not for long.

I was aware of someone, rather large, hovering over me. How did he suddenly appear? I wondered. Where had he come from? I had purposely had one eye on my book and the other anxiously surveying the entrance. I hadn’t seen him enter. Confused, I looked up and saw a wide smile displaying flashing immaculate white teeth.

“Miss Kennedy?” He extended his hand towards me. His eyes were hidden behind a magnificent pair of mirrored sunglasses. All I could see were two disconcertingly distorted images of myself.

“Yes, that’s me.” I put my book away and stretched out my hand to reach his.

“Nadir Khan. Would you join me at my table? “

So, I surmised, he had been there all along. He must have been watching me. It was all a little disturbing. I picked up my book and dutifully followed him to his table in the corner.

“Please,” he said, gesturing to me to sit down.

He helped me with my chair and then slumped down opposite me, took out a handkerchief and mopped his damp brow.

“Hot, even for me!” he smiled. Then, reaching into his top pocket he withdrew a rumpled business card and handed it to me. I looked at it. It read, “Nadir Khan – Professor in Religious Studies, University of Bombay”.

From the letters following his name, Professor Khan appeared to have several academic qualifications, none of which I recognized. But, instead of finding this fact alarming, I reassured myself that Indian doctorates would probably have very different abbreviations from English ones. I watched myself through his sunglasses forcing a smile at him. Although uncomfortable with not being able to see directly into his eyes, I was feeling a little more secure.

“Can I order you something?” he asked.

“Thank you. Tea would be fine.”

The Professor beckoned the waiter and ordered us both some black tea. He then proceeded to ask a lot of questions. Attempting to put me at ease, he started with questions about my family, my schooling and my aspirations in life.

“Do you have any family here in Hong Kong?” he asked, smiling broadly.

“No, none,” I replied, “they’re all in England. I’m on my way to Laos and Vietnam. I’m just stopping here to pick up my visas.”

“So you don’t know anyone here?” He slurped his tea noisily, his mirrored eyes waiting for my response.

“I have an old friend, he works for the South China Morning Post, Ian Black, you probably know him?”

The Professor nodded then, taking out his notepaper and pen, abruptly changed the subject.

“Do you get comfort from meditating?”

“Look, Mr. Khan,” I said, “I’m sorry but I told you on the phone, I’ve never meditated in my life. My personal opinion is that the Maharishi is a big fake – but still fascinating for that. And I don’t rate any of the other so-called gurus very highly either.”

Professor Khan appeared somewhat upset by these remarks but made a point of jotting them down nevertheless.

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

“But I thought you must be a disciple of his?” He stammered, perhaps mad at himself for having selected this most unwilling of converts.

“I’m sorry,” I repeated, “but I did try to warn you over the phone. I was only at that press conference because I was asked to cover it by Ian who was out chasing some story.”

“But why your photo in the newspaper then?”

I laughed. “Never heard the newspaper expression “slow news day”? They had to fill the allotted space with something, I just happened to be there.”

Eventually he put his pen and paper down, apologising. “I’m sorry, you’ve been very patient. But, perhaps, if you can be patient a little longer I can tell you now about an extraordinary woman I interviewed recently? I think you’d be very interested to meet her.”

I looked at my watch.

“Oh, do you have time?” he asked, suddenly concerned.

I nodded reluctantly. I wasn’t quite sure where all this was heading. I had plans to visit Ian at his office towards the end of the day and then we were planning to go out for dinner. So I still had plenty of time.

The Professor went on to describe the woman in almost euphoric terms.

“She’s only a native Chinese but, it is my belief, she is far superior to the Maharishi. This lady has a way of helping people relax, breathe properly and reduce the stress in their lives. She’s well respected here in Hong Kong. But she really should be more famous than she is. If only the world could know about her. You’re a journalist, if you met her, perhaps you could write about her work, help to get her recognised?”

“Perhaps. But I shan’t be here for long. “ I was skeptical. “As soon as I get my visa I’m off to Vietnam to write about the war. So there’s not much point as I won’t be back in England for at least a couple of years.”

Professor Khan persisted. “But let me, at least, introduce you to her. You can make up your own mind then.”

I thought about it. There couldn’t be any harm, I supposed. “OK. I’ll meet her.”

He could probably determine by the tone of my voice that I didn’t sound very enthusiastic. Despite this, the Professor grinned and shook my hand vigorously.

“Good, good, Miss Kennedy. A wise decision. You won’t regret it. She lives in Kowloon. You can take the Star Ferry. It leaves every five minutes, you know. Perhaps we can meet in the lobby of the Peninsula Hotel at 3pm tomorrow? I’ll make the arrangements with her.”

“3 o’clock in the Peninsula lobby. “ I confirmed. “I’ll see you there.”

In the meantime, I thought, I’ll find out more about this curious Nadir Khan.

I actually had no intention of keeping the appointment. I told Ian about it over dinner. He didn’t appear too alarmed. On the contrary, he was rather intrigued by the curious Indian Professor and his new Chinese “guru”.

“What the hell, “ I said,  “I might as well go. Meeting this woman in the Peninsula Hotel can’t hurt, can it?  And besides,” I reflected, “I think I actually quite liked him”.

It was true. On the whole he had struck me as being unaggressive, polite and well mannered. There was no doubt in my mind that he was what he said he was, namely an academic. From our conversation he had appeared well read, quoting liberally from what seemed to me like an impressive list of classic and contemporary religious works.

“No harm in it then, I don’t suppose,” Ian said, “and you might even get a good story out of it, who knows? Tell you what, Caroline, if you feel nervous at all, I’ll come with you.”

Our conversation naturally drifted away from the Professor as we tucked into my first real Hong Kong meal. My tastebuds were caressed by spicy prawn won tons, shredded chili beef, Peking duck and an avalanche of other equally delicious gourmet recipes.

Chinese Meal
Chinese Meal

The following afternoon Ian and I made our way, along with hordes of others, onto the Star Ferry and across the water to Kowloon.

At the other end we decided to split up and approach the Peninsula Hotel by separate doors in order to avoid being seen together. I entered from the near side and Ian walked around the building to enter from the far side. As soon as I walked in, I could see Professor Khan strutting up and down the lobby. There was no sign of any Chinese woman with him. I saw him stop briefly to look at his watch. I checked mine. It was exactly 3pm. He caught sight of me, waved enthusiastically and rushed over to meet me. He then whisked me back out through the same doors I had just entered where a taxi appeared to be waiting for him, engine running. I tried to slow down the pace to give Ian time to catch up but Khan was in a hurry and he managed to bundle me inside the taxi before I was fully aware of what was happening.

Peninsula Hotel Lobby
Peninsula Hotel Lobby

Now I truly began to panic. I instantly regretted being so impetuous. This assignment, embarked on in simple curiosity, could no longer be considered an “adventure”. Unwelcome thoughts flooded my mind. The Chinese woman was probably a hoax. She probably didn’t even exist. It was all just a ploy to kidnap me. The possibility of being sold into white slavery, raped, abducted or, worse still, murdered on some back street in Kowloon, now looked very real.

I tried to think clearly what I could do. As the taxi sped off I saw only two courses of action. Either I could open the door and risk my life by ejecting myself through it onto the teeming sidewalk. Or I could try to cause an accident by somehow diverting the driver’s attention.

I had to think fast. Which was it to be? Would I have the nerve to do either? Was I simply over-reacting? Or was I caught up in something beyond my control?

5 thoughts on “In Search of the Maharishi (Part 1)

  1. Enjoying all this immensely Caroline and I agree that you’ve left us on a real cliffhanger here!
    But…..where are episodes 13 to 15? Wuz we robbed?

    1. No, you wuz not robbed….Simply that I have the other chapters unfinished and on floppy disks…and need a way to download them and then finish them….You are missing my return to the UK, my job with the BBC TV News and my trip from Liverpool Street Station, to Harwich, to Rotterdam, to East Berlin, Warsaw, Moscow and then across Siberia…I,ll fill in the gaps one of these days…

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