Charan Singh had graceful hands and a smooth, relaxed way of walking. He wore immaculate traditional Sikh clothing, often white, and smiled a lot. Wherever he went, he was surrounded by eager, awed and loving faces, who called him Master or Maharaj Ji, beloved king. Lesley first met him when he came to White River in 1966 to visit the fledgling community of satsangis who had gathered there, at first around Sir Colin Garbett, and later under the guidance of Bobby Papas, an engineer from Ermelo of Greek extraction and brother of the famous cartoonist. Lesley, who had been invited to the gathering by her friend and yoga teacher, Sue Hart, was intrigued but not bowled over by the Perfect Living Master. But the society of those who had assembled around the Radhasoami teachings, as it grew in the late 1960s, came increasingly to overlap with the circles in which she moved. Unorthodox beliefs were not new to White River, which already had séances, Freemasonry and spirit healing, to name a few, and several locals embraced the new faith with enthusiasm. Some were Lesley’s friends – among them, Esias Bosch, the potter whose home and studio lay across the valley, and his wife Val.
Meetings were called satsangs and the followers were called satsangis or seekers, according to whether they had been initiated or not. Collectively, they made up the sangat. The meetings took place in the long sitting-room at Bobby Papas’ house, and followed an invariant formula. At the set time, the local representative, as the leader of the congregation was called, welcomed everybody with the words ‘Radha Soami’, palms pressed to-gether in the namaste greeting favoured in large areas of India. The sangat replied in the same manner. He then introduced the speakers. There were invariably two talks: the first and shorter one was always on the Four Principles of the faith: vegetarianism, abstinence from intoxicants, moral propriety and compassion, and daily meditation. These talks were embellished with stories and allegories, and were exhortations for satsangis to maintain their commitment to those activities that set them apart from other residents of the White River area, who in general ate meat, drank, indulged in all the petty nastiness entailed in being human, and had never heard of meditation. The second or main talk was longer, and in general the slot was given to more ar-ticulate, inspirational or senior satsangis. They were free to discourse on any aspect of the Radhasoami faith, but the talks. There were books on sale at what must have been cost price, known as The Books, all printed in India on movable typeface machines dating from the Raj, giving them a curiously foreign and old-fashioned feel. There was a discreet box marked ‘’ (service) where donations could be placed. A tithe was mentioned, but there was never any coercion. After tea, the satsangis got into their cars and drove up the rutted always included reference to the Perfect Living Master and the Shabd, Nam or Logos, the inner sound-and-light which are simultaneously God, the Master, the energetic force that creates whatever is, and the path beyond birth and death. The talks were concluded with a minute of silence. Then there was tea, and satsangis socialised and inspired each other while eating cookies and cakes made following recipes in the Radhasoami vegetarian cookbook, Baking Without Eggs. There were books on sale at what must have been cost price, known as The Books, all printed in India on movable typeface machines dating from the Raj, giving them a curiously foreign and old-fashioned feel. There was a discreet box marked ‘’ (service) where donations could be placed. A tithe was mentioned, but there was never any coercion. After tea, the satsangis got into their cars and drove up the rutted sevafarm-road, their headlights cutting into the African night.
Anton’s beliefs had lurched to the right. Gone were the days when he admired Castro or Guevara, enjoyed the Spanish Civil War paintings of Sim that hung on the walls of the room I shared with Raymond, and championed something vaguely to the left of whatever – although never letting this affect labour relations on the farm. Under the wing of the von E’s, he began to toy with theories of racial superiority, ideas of evolution and eugenics. Certain people were rather obviously superior to certain others: others who might not, after all, really be people at all. Notions of the Superman, derived from B’s readings of Nietzsche, and of how rules didn’t really apply to the Superman – whom Anton so closely resembled – seemed to creep into his thinking. In his view, as I reconstruct it, there was no room for the religious: the way out of suffering, obviously, was through the cultivation of its antithesis, pleasure.
Over time Lesley became more and more interested in the Radhasoami faith, and the more interested she became, the more Anton opposed, mocked, belittled, and railed against the people involved. Sir Colin Garbett became Sir Colin Cabbage. The satsangis were self-deluded wimps, weak-kneed vegetarians deceiving themselves and each other in following a fake coolie guru.