East and West Together on Meherabad Hill

A frequent conversation among Western pilgrims is about how to respond to the inevitable questions upon their return home. “What did you do at the ashram?” “How many hours a day did you meditate and do yoga?” “How wonderful that you got to be free from the world for a few weeks!”

Drawing from her life with Meher Baba, Norina Matchabelli provided a wonderful answer to these questions. She said, “He used to joke and say, ‘Other ashrams are a vacation—nice, quiet meditation, yoga, etc. Here we do real work.’ Painful work on the ego of course.” [1]

In 1937 Baba began expanding the Upper Meherabad ashram, which until that time had six full-time residents besides Baba—Mehera, Mani, Khorshed, Naja, Soonamasi, and Valu. The Eastern women lived extremely cloistered lives in strict obedience to and in close companionship with Baba. Kitty, Norina, and Rano were the first Western women to join the ashram on the Hill in November 1937. By March 1938, when Baba shifted the ashram to Panchgani for the hot summer, 24 Eastern and Western women resided in the ashram with Him. Over the next year the Meher Retreat was expanded to contain a second floor capable of housing twenty of Baba’s women disciples in a long dormitory. After their return to Meherabad Hill in August, the number of women increased to thirty or more.

The women in Upper Meherabad with Baba in 1938. Standing;
Rano, Mani, Mehera, Norina, Nadine, Helen, Irene, Hedi, servant;
Seated: Kitty, Gaimai, Shireenmai, Baba, Gulmai, Soonamasi, Valu;
Front: Manu and Meheru Jessawala, (Little) Khorshed, Mansari.
(Photo courtesy of MN Publications)

Baba climbing the stairs of the Meher Retreat building with
the women mandali. (Photo courtesy of MN Publications)

For the Western women, joining the ashram was not at all what they had expected. As Rano said, “I had such grand ideas of being on Meherabad Hill with Baba. That would be where perfection lay: nothing would go amiss, there would be no angry words, no misunderstanding in an atmosphere like that with Baba. … I soon realized that the Hill was a miniature of the world.” [2] Baba had selected many unique and assertive egos of different nationalities and ages, creating a group of personalities that otherwise would not likely have chosen to live together. And then He asked for unity!

Naturally there were clashes, typically over small things. For the Westerners, Indian food was too spicy. For the Easterners, English food was insipid. Many conflicts occurred because one thought another had used more than her allotted portion of scarce commodities. Kitty recalled: “When there was a water shortage for bathing, Baba would order for each of us one-half pail [every other day]; but some criticized others for using more, or what the criticizer thought was more—not easy to measure when a pail is narrow at the bottom and wide at the top!” [3] Baba would listen to both sides, letting each air their grievances, then look at them both with a smile and say, “Now both embrace.” The women recalled that Baba wanted one to release all hard feelings and not ruminate on one’s own failings, but to turn all over to Baba.

When Baba called the women they came immediately, no matter what they were
doing. Rano can be seen with paint brushes and Kitty is wearing a scarf because
she had been cooking. From left to right: Rano, Naja, Mehera, Khorshed, Kitty
and Sitabai (a servant sitting in the center). (Photo courtesy of MN Publications)

During an extended stay in Panchgani in 1941, Baba told the women that He was to leave for one month for His work. He ordered that each Sunday while He was gone, the women were to eat just one meal of tea, bread, and butter, prepared by Kitty at 3 p.m. After the first Sunday, one of the women complained that the bread was soggy and hard to digest. Couldn’t she instead have toast? By the last Sunday before Baba returned, half the women were eating nice hot, buttered toast. Baba made no mention of the incident when He returned.

The following month, back at Meherabad, Baba called the women together in the courtyard of the Meher Retreat Compound at 7:30 am. After giving His orders for the day, He spelled out on His board: “And Kitty thinks more of pleasing others than she does of pleasing Me. She tries to please all and can’t, so why not start to please Me and obey My orders literally?” [4] It took Kitty a moment to understand that He was referring to the incident of the toast. As Mani explained later to pilgrims, Baba was not interested in an outward display of unity or in loving behavior aimed at pleasing each other. Rather, He wanted the women to support each other in the single goal of pleasing Baba. “It was only Baba, one hundred percent focus only for Baba.” [5]

Kitty holding an umbrella for Baba as they enter the south gate (closest
to the present-day parking lot) of the Meher Retreat Compound.
(Photo courtesy of MN Publications)

Kitty, in her wonderfully pithy way, described their training this way: “Loosening up the ego must have been for Baba not unlike extracting a tooth, painful to the patient but most satisfying to the dentist! And as Baba saw the ego slowly disintegrating under His ceaseless drilling, there He would be, ready to fill the void with His Love and Presence.” [6]

Under the Tin Shed on Meherabad Hill, Baba sits on the gaadi
with Mani, Rano, Mehera (partially hidden), Manu (bending)
and Valu around Him. (Photo courtesy of MN Publications)

Avatar Meher Baba at Upper Meherabad, 1938.
(Photo courtesy of MN Publications)