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Unshakable Faith: Survivors of the Mumbai Terrorist Attacks

Even after the loss of their own in the Mumbai terrorist attacks, a Virginia spiritual community continues to believe in one consciousness.

Naomi kept an eye out for her dad and waved him over when he showed up in the lobby looking for her. Lanky, bespectacled Alan Scherr had been in Master Charles's suite reviewing their schedule for the next day. Years before, when Naomi, their only child together, was a toddler, Alan and his wife, Kia, had traded their suburban existence in Silver Spring for a monastically Spartan life studying and teaching with Master Charles at Synchronicity's wooded headquarters in Faber, Va. In suburbia, Alan had made a living teaching college-level photography and Transcendental Meditation while managing the medical office of an osteopath. At Synchronicity, he thrived. Smart, funny and devoid of pretension, Alan became his guru's indispensable top administrator and a respected teacher in his own right. Synchronicity hosted regular retreats at foundation headquarters, attracting a few hundred people annually. It also had a mail-order business selling Master Charles's books and compact discs of sounds calibrated to affect listeners' brainwaves, helping them achieve deep meditation more quickly. This two-week India pilgrimage of far-flung supporters was something new for the foundation. Alan had made most of the arrangements and was working long days to ensure that every detail went smoothly.

Naomi, beaming, reached across Helen to squeeze her dad's hand as he sat at the head of the table in the last empty chair, his back toward the lobby.

"I jokingly said, 'What? Do you want me to switch places with you?' " Helen later recalled. "Okay, then," Naomi said. Helen hesitated. Bone-tired, she wasn't eager to drag herself off the banquette and switch places so Naomi could sit next to her dad. "So I made a joke about how messy her place was because she'd eaten all these rolls," Helen later recalled. "Alan said, 'It's okay, Naomi. Stay put.' "

Back home in Virginia, Naomi was the only child within the small monastic community living on Synchronicity's sprawling grounds. She and her parents had reached the painful conclusion that she needed to go away to school and be with kids her age. She was applying to a boarding school in New York for the following fall. Her mom had telephoned Mumbai a few nights earlier with news that Naomi had aced an admission test. Now, Alan told Helen that he didn't know how he was going to manage being separated from Naomi. "They were an inspiration of how father and daughter should be," Helen recalled. "They were so loving."

It was nearly 10 p.m. when a loud, incongruous sound came from the adjoining Trident hotel, connected to the Oberoi by a glass-walled corridor running behind the banquette where Helen and Naomi sat. It sounded to Helen as if a crystal chandelier had smashed to the floor. Michael, the Canadian actor, thought the loud noise sounded like a gunshot, and he should know. Michael had played plenty of TV and movie bad guys in his career. He'd also done voice work for shoot-'em-up video games such as Splinter Cell and Assassin's Creed. He excused himself from the table to ask the nearest Oberoi employees what was going on. "They told me it was nothing," Michael later recalled. "They assured me it was just a gangster in the street who had been chased away. They were very reassuring." So he sat back down.

Nearby, at a smaller table of Synchronicity pilgrims, Patty Duncan, 68, felt less sanguine. Unnerved by the commotion, she slapped down her credit card and pressed a Tiffin waiter to settle her tab. One of her dining companions, an older man relying on a walker, inched his way deeper into the Tiffin to bid goodnight to Alan, Naomi and the others at the larger table. Bonnie Sullivan, a massage therapist and teacher from Newport News, Va., helped Patty coax the older man to cut short his farewells, turn his walker around and hustle across the lobby into an elevator.

When the elevator reached the 11th floor, Bonnie stepped off and said goodnight. Seconds later, when the doors opened again on the 12th floor, Patty heard a cacophony of gunfire and screams echoing from the lobby they'd just left. The stories-high open atrium acted like a megaphone, amplifying the sounds of terror.

Master Charles's suite also was on the 12th floor, down a short, somewhat secluded hallway facing the Arabian Sea. The guru had just finished his room-service dinner. He was chatting with his personal assistant and one of his oldest friends, a Santa Monica yoga teacher. It sounded to them as if someone had lit firecrackers in the lobby, perhaps to celebrate an Indian wedding. Master Charles was dressed for bed in a T-shirt and pajama bottoms. So his yoga teacher friend, Steve Ross, investigated. Steve walked the short hallway to the atrium railing and peered down into the lobby in disbelief: Two gunmen were down in the lobby shooting people.

THE TIFFIN RESTAURANT

"Everybody get under the table!" Helen recalled Alan shouting authoritatively.

Suddenly, the two gunmen were inside the Tiffin, shooting. They moved from table to table, front to back, unloosing barrage after barrage of bullets.

The pilgrims scrambled to take cover under their table. Michael was still sitting in his chair, trying to pull the table out to give Helen and Naomi room to maneuver, when he felt a bullet shatter his right arm. The actor froze and watched his shirt turn from white to red. "Wow, that is so 'Die Hard'; that is so Bruce Willis," he recalled thinking. "It looked just like a movie. Then I got shot in the leg, and I told myself, 'Get down, you fool!' "


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