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Unshakable Faith: Survivors of the Mumbai Terrorist Attacks
After years of playing bad guys in make-believe shoot'em-ups, was this karma?
THE 12TH FLOOR
Master Charles's suite soon began filling with smoke. The guru, his personal assistant Ben Radtke, 28, and friend Steve Ross went to the window. It was thick plate glass and didn't open. As smoke in the room grew thicker and it became difficult to breathe, the men wet washcloths to cover their noses and mouths. Looking down from their huge picture window, they saw flames licking the side of the hotel a few floors below them. They watched as fire brigades arrived outside the Oberoi and tried dousing the flames from the relative safety of the street. On the well-lit street below, a fireman stood next to a van and kept motioning oddly at its windows. Eventually, Master Charles and his companions got the idea. Break the window! Break the window! he was telling them.
It wasn't easy. Master Charles, Ben and Steve took turns swinging a heavy brass table lamp at the window. The men alternately lay down on the floor, where it was easier to breathe, and took turns swinging the lamp. Finally, they shattered enough glass that all three men could hang their heads outside and gulp fresh air.
After what seemed an eternity, the firefighters managed to get the flames under control and smoke began clearing from the hotel, leaving trapped guests black with oily soot and bewildered.
Master Charles's cellphone rang. Someone from the Mumbai business that helped Synchronicity promote its nightly meditation to the Indian public was calling to tell him to turn on the television. It wasn't just the Oberoi under siege. Mumbai was under terrorist attack. In less than two hours, teams of gunmen had struck at least 10 places around the city's glittering tourist and financial districts. Indian military commandos -- known as the Black Cats -- were being flown from New Delhi to help local authorities combat the terrorists and free hostages.
Master Charles, Ben and Steve dragged furniture to barricade the suite door. The trio tried to make as little noise as possible, lest they attract the terrorists' attention. They moved to a bedroom farthest from the hall door and turned the television sound low. And then they watched news of their ongoing ordeal and waited to see what would happen next.
Down the hall from Master Charles's suite, Phil and Patty Duncan didn't barricade their door. They double-locked it and watched TV news until the television suddenly went dead. Then, Phil and Patty lay down on the bed together to rest and meditate. As the siege wore on through the night, eerie silences followed the deafening sounds of exploding grenades and gunfire inside the Oberoi. Yet the couple stayed relatively calm; Phil even managed to nap a few hours. A trim, white-haired retired doctor, Phil was professionally inculcated to be calm. During the Vietnam War, he was a combat doctor. He'd spent most of his medical career working in intensive care units. Years of practicing meditation, initially through the Transcendental Meditation movement and then with Synchronicity, had enhanced his natural calm. Now, lying next to his wife, Phil felt somehow protected. He knew people the world over must be praying for them. "I had a feeling that I can only describe as a powerful presence," Phil later said. "There was a feeling that there was, I hate to use the term 'angelic presence,' but it was a very sacred presence. We just felt like we were wrapped up in this presence, and it was very comforting."
'KILL ALL HOSTAGES'
One floor below, Bonnie Sullivan, then 55, was also feeling fairly steady, considering her situation. Like Master Charles, Ben and Steve, she had shattered her window -- with an ironing board -- when smoke from the terrorists' fires filled her room. She had done everything she could think of to prevent terrorists from discovering her alone in her room and slaughtering her. She'd double-locked her door. She'd dragged a dresser, inch by inch, until she'd lodged it against the door. She'd even lifted the heavy hotel safe from the closet, struggled with it to the door and dropped it atop the dresser to further deter entry.
She tried to meditate, donning a headset to listen to a meditation recording Master Charles had made especially for her. The incessant ringing of the fire alarm in her room, which clanged on for hours after smoke cleared, was a constant annoyance. Try as she might, she couldn't figure out how to turn the darned alarm off.
Then, suddenly, in the wee hours of Thursday, Nov. 27, the fire alarm in Bonnie's room stopped ringing. The batteries had died. Finally. Bonnie was so thankful. And, after all, this was Thanksgiving Day.
At about 3 a.m., Bonnie, still covered with soot, was sitting up in bed trying to rest.
It was the soft, unmistakable sound of someone sliding a plastic key into the slot of the electronic lock on the door to her room. Someone was trying to get in. Maybe a maid from the hotel who had a passkey was seeking refuge. Maybe her roommate, who had been down in the business center when the shooting began, had made her way back to their room, Bonnie told herself. Surely, terrorists would blast her door, not open it with a key card, she told herself. She held herself perfectly still and tried not to make a sound.
Then silence. Whoever was out there had moved on, foiled by the double lock and heavy barricade. Bonnie had no way of knowing, but at that moment the terrorists in control of the Oberoi were moving around her floor and the one below, looking for hostages.
At 3:53 a.m. the cellphone of one of the terrorists at the Oberoi rang. His handler was calling to find out how the mission was going. "Brother Abdul, the media is comparing your actions to 9/11," the caller said, according to an official transcript of the call. "One senior police officer has been killed."
"We are on the 10th/11th floor," the terrorist responded. "We have five hostages."
The caller handed the phone to a second man, who urged the terrorists to press on with their mission. "Everything is being recorded by the media," that caller said. "Inflict the maximum damage. Keep fighting. Don't be taken alive."
The first caller came back on the line with a brutal command:
"Kill all hostages, except the two Muslims. Keep your phone switched on so that we can hear the gunfire."
"We have three foreigners, including women. From Singapore and China," one of the terrorists said.
"Kill them," the caller instructed.
The terrorists could be heard directing hostages to stand in a line and instructing the two Muslims to stand aside, according to the official transcript. Gunfire sounded, followed by the callers celebrating on the other end of the line. They cheered. Then they issued more instructions.
"Fahad," one caller told a terrorist, "find the way to go downstairs."
DAY TWO: BATTLE STATION OBEROI
Daylight brought context for some trapped inside the Oberoi. Looking out the broken windows of his suite on the 12th floor, Master Charles saw that the normally congested streets around the hotel were largely deserted. Behind every tree on the hotel's exquisitely manicured grounds, a black-clad military commando took cover. Blocks away, journalists with cameras thronged police barricades. It was a surreal landscape to Master Charles, who had trekked to India as a young flower child from New York state and ended up staying for years. He'd studied meditation with a well-known Indian guru and become a Hindu monk schooled in ancient meditative traditions. When his Indian guru died in 1982, Master Charles moved to Virginia to modernize the meditation techniques he'd learned, start the Synchronicity Foundation and find his own following.
Now, conditions inside the guru's suite deteriorated as Indian commandos actively battled the terrorists inside the Oberoi. The air conditioning went out. The electricity went out. Bottled water supplies dwindled. It was an especially absurd situation for a man typically so fastidious about health that followers who live communally at the foundation retreat center are required to follow a prescribed diet and submit to regular weigh-ins, and visitors are instructed in writing not to come near Master Charles if they have symptoms of cold or flu. "We were raw in the throat and the lungs from the inhalation of the fumes and the smell of bombs and gunfire," he recalled.
For the guru's 28-year-old assistant, Ben, the sounds of the siege -- gunfire and exploding grenades -- were hardest to endure. Ben had been terrified of loud sounds since July 1989, when he was an 8-year-old passenger on Chicago-bound United Flight 232. The DC-10's engine blew out mid-air, with a bang that sounded like a bomb exploding. Flying shrapnel damaged crucial hydraulic lines, and the plane's steering and brake systems failed. The plane crashed-landed in Sioux City, Iowa, caught fire on the runway and broke apart, killing 111 of 296 people aboard. Ben recalled hanging upside down in a section of the burning wreckage until a fellow passenger unlatched the boy's seatbelt to free him. Except for a patch of singed hair, Ben didn't have a scratch on him. But Ben was never quite the same afterward, he recalled. He always wondered if that early trauma helped cause the ennui that haunted him until he began practicing yoga and meditation as a young adult.
Against the din of battle inside the Oberoi, Master Charles and Ben kept busy quietly calling cellphones and guest rooms, trying to track every member of their tour group. At Synchronicity's headquarters in Virginia, people also worked the phones. And in Mumbai, members of the Indian family that had been helping promote Master Charles's nightly meditation sessions searched the hospitals. By that afternoon, they could account for everyone in their group but 13-year-old Naomi Scherr and her father, Alan. When word reached Master Charles that wounded pilgrims who had been dining with Alan and Naomi at the Tiffin thought that the father and daughter had died there, the guru wept.
More than 8,000 miles away, someone from the Synchronicity Foundation called Kia Scherr to tell her that her husband and daughter were missing. They had last been seen lying under a table in a restaurant in the lobby of the Oberoi, and no one had heard from them since.
Kia, in Florida visiting her grown sons from a previous marriage and other relatives, imagined scenarios and tried to be hopeful. Maybe her husband and daughter were still in the hotel, hiding somewhere safe.
DAY THREE: LIGHT AND DARK
After a long night huddled with Steve and Ben on a bed at the back of his suite, Master Charles began his third day of captivity almost blinded by the brilliance of the light that flooded the room. The guru was filthy, still coated with oily black soot from the smoke that filled the room the first night. He had barely eaten in a day and a half. He hadn't really slept. He didn't know how long he would be trapped here. He didn't know if he would leave alive. He didn't know if terrorists had wired the hotel in some terrible endgame, and if the next explosion would bring the entire building crashing down on them. Yet here he was, watching as a beautiful light danced on the ripples of the sea beyond the hotel windows, flooded the hotel room and lifted his heart with feelings of awe and joy. Within all that light, the guru sensed a sacred presence, he later recalled. He took that as a sign that he was going to survive.
About 12 hours later, Indian military commandos -- searching floor by floor, room by room, for survivors -- arrived to free them from the suite. The two terrorists who had held the Oberoi were both dead by then. It would be another day before Indian commandos retook all the occupied buildings in Mumbai. The terrorists' handlers had, in cellphone calls, urged the young jihadists to fight on and on, killing as many people as possible. "This is a matter of prestige of Islam," one caller said, according to cellphone transcripts. "Fight so that your fight becomes a shining example." Nine terrorists heeded the call to fight unto death. A 10th, Ajmal Amir Kasab, 21, was captured alive and later confessed in open court. Kasab told the judge that he'd only agreed to let Lashkar-i-Taiba train him as a terrorist because he hated his low-paying job in a Pakistani decorating shop and hoped to learn skills that would help him become an armed robber. In all, the 10 young terrorists killed at least 170 people across Mumbai and wounded more than 300.
Master Charles went looking for just two: Naomi and Alan. Indian commandos led Master Charles, Ben and Steve through the wreckage of the once- exquisite Oberoi: along hallways soaked with water, down stairwells smeared with blood, across the lobby still strewn with bodies. The guru walked into the Tiffin restaurant. It, too, was a bloody shambles. He stepped around more dead bodies as he searched table by ruined table for Alan and Naomi. When he found them, the father and daughter were lying together with their heads touching and arms outstretched to each other.
A world away, in a home in Florida, the phone rang. It was a representative of the U.S. State Department calling Kia with the terrible news that Alan and her sweet Naomi were dead.
"Both of them!" Kia shrieked as she collapsed to the floor. "Both of them!
"Both of them!"
Later, Kia stood at the rail of her parents' back deck staring at a night sky with just two bright stars shining. "That's Alan and Naomi," Kia's sister said. It was a comforting reminder of what Kia needed to believe now more than ever: Alan and Naomi were one with the universe.
Four days later, most of the Synchronicity Foundation pilgrims flew home from Mumbai.
On Master Charles's first morning back at his group's headquarters in the Blue Ridge Mountains, about 30 minutes from Charlottesville, he and Kia faced a phalanx of reporters and cameras at a packed news conference. Sitting against a mauve backdrop in the sanctuary, Kia, ethereal and slight, looked especially tiny next to her guru, who wore flowing orange monk's robes. Both the guru and the grieving wife and mother seemed pained but remarkably composed.
"What are your thoughts on the terrorists?" a reporter asked.
"We must send them our love, forgiveness and compassion," Kia responded softly. "As Jesus Christ said long ago, 'They know not what they do.' They are in ignorance. And they are completely shrouded and clouded by fear. And we must show that love is possible and love overpowers fear. So that's my choice."
Another reporter wanted to know if Master Charles -- who had suggested that Naomi join the pilgrimage to Mumbai and arranged for one of his followers to pay her way -- felt guilty for leading the ill-fated trip that cost the girl her life.
"No, not guilt," he said evenly. "That's not our understanding of life." In his worldview, it would be as absurd to feel guilty about leading the pilgrimage as it would be to judge the terrorists, Master Charles suggested. The roomful of journalists was stunned into rare silence, allowing the guru to explain without interruption the philosophy he began learning in India and had been teaching his own followers for decades.
"Our understanding of life is that reality is relative," Master Charles said. "There will be consistently the oscillation of relative polarities, whether you call them positive or negative, love/fear, subjective/objective. . . . And it is through the oscillation of relative reality that we evolve our balance and our wholeness. So, all experience thus is valid. And, therefore, we can't really sit in judgment upon it and say this is right and that is wrong. That's why I think Kia expressed it very beautifully when she said that she forgives the terrorists. I wholeheartedly agree with that. To me, everybody's experience places you at choice. I often say everyone is a gift. They have an experience that is valid for them. You may not understand it. You may not agree with it. But you must honor the validity of their experience as you honor the validity of your own.
"So," the guru continued, "the terrorists' experience is appropriate for them. It's their choice. I can't comprehend why they create that experience. But it can place me at a choice. Do I choose the same hatred? Do I choose the same violence? Do I choose the same conflict in my life? Or do I say, 'No, I don't choose that. Rather, I choose the opposite. I choose love; I choose compassion; I choose kindness. I choose peace.' "
Several days later, on a Sunday in mid-December, chants echoed through tall trees as a small group of mourners journeyed a winding path toward Synchronicity's most sacred place: the grotto. The mourners stopped short of entering the grotto, which is forbidden to almost everyone except Master Charles, who says an apparition he calls the Blessed Mother often appears to him there. His vision is not the Virgin Mary of his Catholic childhood in New York, but a rather more expansive image of the "divine feminine" who comes to him without creed.
Next to the grotto, Master Charles has installed a tall white statue, a likeness of his Blessed Mother, so that all may see what he sees. It is here, near the foot of the garland-strewn statue, where Kia and a small number of private mourners gathered to place some of Alan's and Naomi's ashes into an eternal flame. Later that day, at a public memorial attended by the media and podcast to Synchronicity followers worldwide, Master Charles said: "Alan and Naomi are not gone. They live on in subtle forms. Their journeys of light and love and truth continue. And if we are aware -- right here, right now in this very moment -- they are closer to us than our very breath."
In the weeks following, the TV trucks pulled away, interview requests waned and the tsunami of well-wishers the world over ebbed to a more manageable flood tide. The men and women of Synchronicity Foundation shifted job assignments to try to fill the enormous void left by Alan's death. Life at Synchronicity headquarters appeared to return to something like routine. Master Charles's more than one dozen followers, who live in small brown trailers on Synchronicity grounds, still rose by 6:30 each morning to walk the path that winds through the woods, past the statute of the Blessed Mother and the eternal flame that danced in chill winds. At 7 a.m., the resident community still gathered in a darkened room within the building they call the sanctuary to meditate for 90 minutes before each made his or her way to a communal dining room to eat prescribed meals in mandated silence before beginning long days of assigned tasks.
One day, Master Charles was sitting alone in his private parsonage at the top of a steep hill. He was upstairs in his office, where everything looked much as it always had: same desk, same plants, same expansive views from his windows of trees -- all trees, as far as he could see. Suddenly, as he recalled it later, "It dawns on you that everything is the same -- but you. Then you say, 'What's different?' What's different is you are not the same person anymore. Your values, your priorities have shifted because you are still here and you almost weren't. So, based on that, who are you now?"
Master Charles answered his own question: He was more.
"In the intensity of a terrorist experience, can you experience the oneness of life?" he said. "That's an amazing journey. Without that experience, would you have that depth of evolution in your consciousness?
"And isn't that why we are here? Yes. To evolve. To grow. . . . So I can't look at that experience and say, 'Oh, that should never have happened. Change it, forget it.' No.
"I have to embrace it and say, 'Wow, amazing experience.' And who was I in that experience, and who am I now as a result of that experience? Obviously, I am more."
BORN AGAIN -- AND AGAIN
For some pilgrims who survived the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, their post-Mumbai rebirths were corporeal as well as spiritual. Nashville meditation instructor Rudrani Devi labored to recover from gunshot wounds to her arm and leg. After being dragged to safety from the carnage inside the Tiffin, Rudrani languished in a Mumbai hospital for days before she could sit for the flight home. Back in Nashville, her orthopedist discovered that the bullet that had pierced her femur had triggered a shock wave of tiny fractures. Even simple activities now left her at risk of shattering bone. A onetime competitive bodybuilder, a woman accustomed to doing more than 200 sit-ups at a time and running a half-marathon every Friday, Rudrani could no longer stand safely, much less work. She closed the alternative healing business where she and a partner had sold balance-restoring oils. Her insurance benefits ran out, and medical bills mounted. Yet, on the one-month anniversary of the terrorist attack, Rudrani's husband wheeled her into a store to buy a little black dress to celebrate the date they now call her second birthday. "I feel like I got a gift from it," she said. "If I ever had any doubt that we were connected before, I know it now."
Actor Michael Rudder endured multiple surgeries to try to repair damage from a terrorist's bullets. A bullet from an AK-56 remains forever lodged in Michael's lower abdomen, too dangerous for doctors to remove. In the days following the terrorist attack, he had recurring nightmares. In his dreams, the terrorist attacked Oberoi over and again. Over and again, Michael dreamed of finding some way to save Alan and Naomi. Over and again, they died in his dreams until, finally, Michael realized that there was no way to go back, only forward. In March, he underwent another surgery, this time to reverse the colostomy performed in India. Afterward, he couldn't stand, walk or sit without agonizing pain. Michael recently started acting again. He no longer wants to play the part of a bad guy wielding any weapon against a fellow human being. "I don't think I'll ever be the same," he said. "My love has risen through the ashes of this. I ask myself now, how can I be more loving? Can I be more loving with the surgeon even though he's running late for my appointment? Can I be more loving to the nurse? Can I be more present always to being more loving? My priority has become clear."
Linda Ragsdale, the Nashville illustrator and children's book author, was left ebullient by her near-death experience in Mumbai. In memory of Naomi -- whom Linda never got to teach how to draw a dragon -- Linda has founded a Peace Dragon program. She is teaching children lessons about peace through art. She's thinking of having a dragon tattooed over the lengthy scar from her gunshot wounds, although she has warned her husband that he better not joke that "your ass is dragon." If Linda could rewind the tape of her life -- not eat dinner at the Tiffin that night, not even go to Mumbai as a last-minute addition on the pilgrimage -- she wouldn't. "Obviously, this is going to sound ridiculous, but I cannot deny that I would not have changed anything," she said. "I am growing and understanding more than I would have had I not been put on this path."
Philip and Patty Duncan's belief in the search for balance in a world of ever-oscillating darkness and light, has, over the months, helped the retired doctor and his wife make sense of the pilgrims' ordeal. Perhaps, Phil said, the positive orientation of the joyous pilgrims provided a crucial, cosmic counterbalance to the extreme negativity of the killers. Had the pilgrims not been there to provide that balance, the carnage might have been even worse, he has come to believe. "So you could look at our experience as being exactly where we were meant to be," he said.
These Synchronicity survivors talk with clear pride about how their meditative practice and worldview helped them remain remarkably calm during the terrorist attack and overwhelmingly positive afterward. But none says their beliefs shield them from sorrow for the fallen.
Helen Connolly, the Toronto yoga teacher who was Naomi's roommate at the Oberoi, was sitting in traffic recently, calm as usual, happy to be on the way to a nursery to buy flowers. Unexpectedly, she noticed the custom license plate of the vehicle stopped in front of her. It said: "MISTRY".
Suddenly, Helen was back under the table at the Tiffin restaurant chanting a mantra as a young Indian couple she had never met and a father and daughter she loved like family died beside her. "I burst into tears," she said.
As for Kia, she moved out of the simple Synchronicity quarters that she had shared with her husband and daughter for 11 years. It was such an intimate space: two bedrooms, one sitting room, a little den and a lifetime of memories. Kia stopped attending communal meals in the dining room of Synchronicity's retreat center. She couldn't face seeing the table where she, Alan and Naomi had eaten together in silence three times daily for all those years.
Kia moved temporarily into the nearby vacation home of one of Master Charles's wealthy foreign followers. Her move had a practical advantage: The foundation gutted her family's former quarters to build additional guest rooms. Many people had heard about Synchronicity and its beliefs through news reports and now were signing up in record numbers to attend retreats with Master Charles.
For years, Kia had an intellectual understanding of the play of light and dark in the universe. Now, she lives this duality daily. One day in April, she went to her office to pick up her mail and found an official-looking document in a Federal Express package. She was walking back through the woods to the home where she stays when she opened the packet. It was Naomi's death certificate. Under cause of death it listed: multiple gunshot wounds. Kia, alone in the woods, doubled over and wept. She didn't think she would ever stop weeping.
But she did. Kia finds strength daily in helping plan a new Synchronicity-related foundation called "One Life Alliance." Every day, she's reading books about all kinds of people working to promote peace all over the world. She's even seeking out authors and peace activists, which astounds her because Alan was always the outgoing one. Kia was the shy, retiring homebody. Now, she sometimes feels as if the trauma of her extreme loss and grief has somehow ripped her wide open -- open to a new way, a new life, a new identity.
"A few weeks ago," Kia recalled, "I dreamed that I was being hired by the Obama administration. They said, 'There's one more job left. And your job is to open the ice cream.' "
Kia laughed and laughed at the memory of her dream. She recalled recounting it to Master Charles a few days earlier.
"What do you make of that?" Master Charles asked her.
"The sweetness of life? Reminding people about the sweetness of life?"
"When do you open ice cream?" he asked.
"You open ice cream when you celebrate," Kia said. "You open ice cream when you celebrate birthdays. It's something positive. It's bringing something nice to the table."
Even as Kia struggles to discover what her new life will be, she is forever tied to the lives she lost. Sometimes she asks Alan for guidance and feels his answers to her questions deep within her heart. She believes with an absolute certainty that Alan and Naomi are somehow, even now, near. She feels their love, and love is all there is. Everything else is an illusion.
Journalist April Witt can be reached at AprilWitt09@gmail.com. Join her, along with Synchronicity Foundations's Master Charles Cannon and Kia Scherr, for a live discussion about this story and their experiences on Monday, August 24 at 12 noon ET.