Jal S. Irani
Remembering Jal S. Irani,
Meher Baba’s Brother
by Max Reif
Jal (1902-1982) was for many years the “Poona greeter,” residing at Baba’s and his boyhood home, 750 Dastur Meher Road, Poona (now spelled Pune). Many who made pilgrimage to Baba’s Home in the ‘70s will have stories similar to mine. Yet no doubt each has his or her own unique stories, as some of these hopefully are.
My first meeting with brother Jal was on the wings of a blue Aerogramme which arrived a week or two before the flight I’d finally been able to book, seven years after coming to Baba, for my first India pilgrimage. “Dear Loving Brother Max,” the letter began. I could at best paraphrase the rest, for alas, it hasn’t survived my travels.
I do, however, remember the thrill I felt reading Jal’s note. In fact, a dual thrill. On one hand the letter filled me, purely and simply, with Love I’ve come to know as Meher Baba’s. Additionally, though, as a Jewish Baba-lover who had recently read the New Testament for the first time, I was stunned to recognize Jal’s letter as identical in spirit, even similar in form, to the Epistles of Jesus’ apostles, particularly the ones by John and Peter.
The whirlwind of life leading up to the trip included the blossoming of a longtime friendship into a mutual desire to marry. Just before departure, we had done so, and the pilgrimage became our honeymoon. Arriving in Poona dead-tired after 36 hours of travel, which included a taxi breakdown on a pre-Expressway dirt road, we checked into the National Hotel, where Jal had suggested we stay. He liked to ensconce people at this little place run by Baha’is and close by the train station.
A little while after unpacking, I was sitting atop the tall Indian table-bed in our room, feeling my eyes starting to close from exhaustion. Suddenly, we heard a sharp rap on the door. My wife strode over to open it, and I got my first glimpse of a compact man in white with a weathered face, black “Parsi cap” on his head, and a black umbrella, responsible for that rap, in one hand.
“Ah, Max and Barbara!” Jal exclaimed warmly (this Barbara was my wife from a brief early marriage, not my present wife Barbara). “Welcome to Poona!” My wife had met Jal on a previous pilgrimage. She embraced him, and he engaged her in conversation for a little while. My eyes began closing again there on the Indian bed, where I still sat in spite of myself. Then Jal turned and faced me. Eyes beaming, he began moving toward me.
“Is that Max?” he queried playfully. “Ah, Max! I see Baba’s Love shining in your eyes!” His voice brought that shining right into the room. I wondered, inside my sleep-starved sack of flesh, how what he’d said could be possible.
“Max, dear Max!” Jal continued in rich tones, coming closer until he stood right before me. I slid off the bed and we embraced. As we separated, Jal, bright eyes still beaming into me, went on: “Back in America, you were like a little frog climbing the walls of the well of Illusion. And now you have come to India, and you have JUMPED”—his voice did an intense leap, once more bringing a word totally to life—“out of the well!”
By the time Jal left, promising a breakfast rendezvous in the hotel dining room, Jal seemed my eternal uncle. I fell asleep with a sense of enthused anticipation about the coming days with the Avatar’s brother. Might I really have jumped out of the well? Who knew what was possible in Baba’s Love?
We spent two weeks with Jal, in two periods sandwiched around our time at the Samadhi. Every morning he arrived at the National Hotel at breakfast time, and we—and for part of the time another couple, the Martels—set out from there to visit various Baba places or occasionally to shop. We had dinners with him at restaurants sometimes, as well. Jal would regale us with jokes and stories in a non-stop monologue that we never tired of, from morning until, exhausted, we would part at night.
My impression was that the National Hotel was a kind of garden palace—not luxurious, but perfect in every way. I went back there once on another visit to Poona, though, and found it a dusty, faded place that I scarcely recognized. Jal, apparently, had brought it alive for us.
Of course we went to both of Baba’s childhood houses, Babajan’s Samadhi, the caves where Baba used to go, the zoo where the elephant Sumitra trumpeted upon hearing Baba’s Name, and other places I don’t recall as easily. But even a shopping expedition could be . . . well, words fail.
One afternoon Jal took us to one of the little pull-up-door shops they have in tropical climates, one that sold clothing. I myself had no interest whatever in clothing, although I had bought a few white Indian outfits. But everyone else in our little group seemed thrilled by the bargains available at this place. Soon I was a lone observer, seeing my new wife, my beloved, going through a pile of purses with what seemed “insect speed.” I just didn’t know what to do.
Then I saw Jal. He was walking out the doorway that had steps down to the dirt road. His paused, looked back at me, and motioned for me to come with him.
I followed Jal out the door, down the steps, and across the dusty street, to a sort of tent chai shop on its other side. Jal went to a table and told me, “Sit.” Soon a waiter came. “Two chai,” Jal said to him. We sat there waiting. My imagination started going.
I had decided to make Jal my “stand-in” for Baba while in Poona, and to try to stay as close to him as I could. In addition, there were rumors in those days that all or some of the Mandali might actually be Realized. I had had a powerful experience with Adi K. Irani a year before, which had left me wondering whether the Mandali had some secret status. And Jal—he had looked, as we’d romanticized, so mystical in the Mandali photos in Purdom’s book The God-Man. . . .
At any rate, I began thinking of all the Zen and other stories I had read from Eastern traditions, in which a person became enlightened through a cup of tea! And here I was with the Avatar’s brother, at a tea stall, while all those other gross Americans I was with were busy trying on clothes and hadn’t even seen Jal slipping out!
No, no, I shook the fantasy out of my head. We were just two people sitting there. Jal had merely been considerate to notice me standing alone, and to invite me to come with him.
At that moment, the chai arrived. “Drink slow,” Jal said, in what seemed a conspiratorial voice, and looking directly into my eyes. Boing! Off again on my fantasy! But I drank the tea, slowly as suggested, and nothing happened, so far as I could discern.
“Now let us go back to the shop,” Jal confided when I had finished. Once more I abandoned my whole fantasy framework as the ravings of “a drunken monkey stung by a scorpion” (i.e., the mind).
We ascended the steps, went back through the doorway, and re-emerged into the shop. The others were still going through piles of clothing, as if no time had passed since we’d left. I walked across the store and again stood alone, unsure what to do.
It was then that Jal turned to me, and once more gazing straight into my eyes, said simply: “Who are you?”
I thought: Oh, this is how it works! The Enlightenment was given through the tea, but now I have to SAY it . . . sort of like, the magic words, for the actual experience. Well, OK.
So I said it: “I am God.” And waited to see what would happen.
At that moment, Jal made the sour, lemon-eating face he could be so good at.
“No!” he kvetched. “Don’t say you are God! Don’t say you are a Saint! Don’t say you are this or that, don’t say you are anything! Just say Baba, Baba is God! That’s it!”
It was a circuitous route for a lesson that might have been said just with the words. But then I wouldn’t have the story. And the impression wouldn’t have gotten etched as deeply into me as it has.
On another occasion, Jal took us for dinner to a palatial restaurant called, unbelievably, Dreamland, complete with perfectly trained Indian waiters in tuxedos, covered dishes, plush white tablecloths . . . and, for some reason, very few other diners.
The food was plentiful, diverse, and delicious! The waiters seemed almost like droids. The instant I finished a helping of anything, a waiter was standing beside me re-filling that item on my plate! It was uncanny. It also seemed impossible to ever stop eating!
As I contemplated this, the thought rose in my mind that I’d come to India for God, not food! I realized concomitantly that it was I who had to put a stop to the plate-filling. What’s more, it was completely in my power to do it! Baba’s brother, after all, surely had not taken us to “Dreamland” for more dreams, but rather to see who was ready to awaken!
I tested out my hypothesis. Finishing the helping of chicken tikka masala on my plate, I found the waiter instantly beside me as usual, already dipping his big spoon into the master-pot he carried and starting to raise the re-fill.
“No!” I said. “Stop!”
No big deal, he immediately withdrew. As simple as that. My fate was in my hands.
There were Jal’s favorite jokes, which many Baba-lovers have heard. They were and remain quite funny. He told them making lots of faces and speaking in the characters’ voices, which made them even better!
Here are the three I remember:
1) There was a railway engineer who brought his train in late every day. Finally one day, to everyone’s amazement, he arrived quite early! A railroad official was there to greet him and to present him with an award. “This is for being not only on time today, but better than on time!” he said.
“No, no,” said the engineer. “This is yesterday’s train.”
2) A man was living in an apartment across from some newlyweds. (Was Jal telling this for the benefit of my new wife and me?) The night after they arrived home from their honeymoon, he could hear them screaming and throwing things across the hall all night. The next morning he opened his door to get his newspaper and saw the husband getting his at the same time.
“So,” he said to the husband. “Who won the fight last night, the first night of your new married life?”
“I did!” said the husband. “She had to come crawling to me on her hands and knees. Right under the bed where I was hiding!”
3) Another newlywed joke (uh-oh!): Every day after they were married, the husband found his wife frowning at him. He was feeling worse and worse, when one day he woke up and it seemed she was smiling! “Ah,” he said. “So now you are happy with me?”
“No,” she replied. “I am just resting my face.”
Two stories of Jal’s gaining full conviction that his brother was the Avatar are well-known, and are published in the Baba literature. Jal had told both hundreds of times since the early days when they occurred. I did not know about them, though, and to hear them from Jal was extremely moving.
1) (This story is in Lord Meher.) Jal, as any of us might, at first had difficulty accepting that his own brother was God in human form. Once, he arrogantly challenged Baba to prove His divine powers. Baba said, “I will place a hot coal from the fireplace on your palm, and you will feel no pain.” Baba then did so, and indeed Jal did not feel pain, although he could see his palm’s flesh being seared away. Later, after mother Shireen came in and demanded her sons stop what they were doing, he fainted and Baba rushed him to the hospital. Jal experienced excruciating pain for some time, but whenever Baba visited him, he would be completely free of it.
2) The other story (published in Beautiful Birds in Ugly Cages, compiled by Lyn and Phyllis Ott) involved Baba’s ordering Jal to bring Him several lepers to bathe. Jal, believing as many people did then, that leprosy was highly contagious, demurred. However, Baba persisted, saying, “Obey me or leave me!”
Given that ultimatum, Jal agreed to obey. Baba promised that he would see Him in the lepers, and indeed, before Jal’s eyes as he observed his brother washing them, the lepers did become Baba.
Then there was Jal’s seemingly improvised “patter” that arose to lighten the between-things periods during our days together. Sometimes I would lose track of the stories he seemed to be making up. It seems to me that a lot of them had to do with “misers.” When I could follow, they were quite amusing! Again, though, I wondered whether in some polite way he might somehow be referring obliquely to us!
One time I became over-familiar with Jal. He was so benign and good-natured, it may have been inevitable. I had no firm sense of an appropriate boundary, since many of my questions had behind them a real thirst for understanding. Once, however, after asking Jal something very personal, I felt I had indeed gone too far.
Jal did not reprimand me or retort in a cross manner. He seemed to have no direct response at all. Instead, he launched into another of his stories, about a character who was very silly and unwise.
Finally coming to the punch line, Jal assumed the mannerisms of another character speaking to this fellow, finally giving him his due. “YOU FOOL!” Jal said sharply in the context of the story, and then continued with the rest of the now-forgotten punch line. But as he spoke those two words, “You fool,” he paused for just a moment. Looking at him as his eyes pierced mine, I felt him delivering a message to me from outside the story! The reprimand had indeed been delivered, but in an amazingly thoughtful and elegant way.
Though I, who had never had much in the way of boundaries, went too far with Jal on that occasion, my general eagerness to query someone who had spent life in such proximity to the God-Man is something I don’t fault. I asked questions at every opportunity, about everything!
We were walking one day down a Poona boulevard crowded with pedestrians, motorcyclists, bicycles, rickshaws, and a few cows. Baffled as always by the “tamasha” of the world, I spontaneously asked Jal, “Who are all these people?”
His reply was a simple and serious dismissal. “They are illusions.”
Yet we were not? What had I done, and when, to merit the good fortune I was experiencing in this life?
On one occasion we were in a little shop and there was another customer there, an African lady, it turned out, who for some reason Jal, out of all the people we passed and rubbed elbows with, engaged in friendly conversation for quite awhile. Why her? I have no idea.
My wife and I had our first argument before even arriving in Poona. Before long, our match came to seem “iffy.” But while we were with Jal, we continued trying to make things right. Once we came to him with a disagreement we were having and asked him for advice.
He didn’t have “advice” in the conventional sense. “Here is what to do,” said Baba’s brother: “Talk in song.” He intoned those word as a gentle, lilting melody. We took his charming advice, and for the rest of that day, at least, were completely harmonious.
Another time, Jal pulled out a rope, cut it in half, held it in his fists and waved them, and presto! The rope was whole again. And this too seemed to have a healing effect.
Jal’s ministrations weren’t in the end enough to save our marriage. But I still share his advice from time to time with people. “Talk in song” has charmed all who have heard the words, the little formula expressing, it seems, some irreducible, poetic truth.
Inevitably, our pilgrimage ended. We flew back, toting sitars, clothing, Baba buttons, and such things on the Air India flight that made dawn after a night crossing the ocean aloft seem like a morning in an Indian village, ladies in saris patiently lined up to use the washroom. We collected our luggage at the carousel and were walking to the car we’d stored in long-term parking, preparing for the long drive back to Florida. As we opened the trunk and began loading the bags into it, I happened to turn around. Directly behind us was the big Japan Air Lines terminal, with its enormous red neon sign that said: JAL.
A year or two later I had a dream of Jal in which he appeared “as tall as the Empire State Building.” Such an image, I believe, could represent the true stature of any of Baba’s Mandali. How else could one of the “conditioned,” as Eruch has put it, keep up with the movements of the Unconditioned? Of all the Mandali, however, it was given to me this life to blessedly spend the most “real time” with Baba’s brother Jal.