At the still centre of the spinning world

'"Brainwashed?" said Nellie "I've hardly washed anything since I've been here"'
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The Independent Online

LAST TIME it was Africa, this time India. Finding lost lambs could become a habit. The first was my sister, a long time ago admittedly, who went off to Tanzania to teach blind children in a Lutheran convent. She wrote home to say she was thinking of staying on and might even become a nun. "Someone's got to go out and save her," said my mother. I was a brand new cub reporter on the Lancashire Evening Telegraph, but there wasn't anyone else. When I eventually found my sister teaching braille in a jungle clearing, she said crossly. "Honestly, mum always gets the wrong end of the stick," and then told me about the young radiographer she'd just met, which didn't sound much like someone intending to take the veil.

Last time it was Africa, this time India. Finding lost lambs could become a habit. The first was my sister, a long time ago admittedly, who went off to Tanzania to teach blind children in a Lutheran convent. She wrote home to say she was thinking of staying on and might even become a nun. "Someone's got to go out and save her," said my mother. I was a brand new cub reporter on the Lancashire Evening Telegraph, but there wasn't anyone else. When I eventually found my sister teaching braille in a jungle clearing, she said crossly. "Honestly, mum always gets the wrong end of the stick," and then told me about the young radiographer she'd just met, which didn't sound much like someone intending to take the veil.

This time it was my daughter backpacking in India since October. She e-mailed one of her sisters to say she'd been twirling for three weeks in the Buddha Hall of the ashram in Poona. Her 70-year-old teacher, she wrote, who looked like a wizard with a long white wispy beard, had lent her his twirling skirt. "Twirling," said Granny with alarm. "What does she mean twirling? I know exactly what's happened. She's been brainwashed, she's joined a cult. Someone's got to go and save her and if they don't I will."

You must know about the ashram in Poona. Everyone does. I caught up with its founder, the late Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, aka Osho, when he decamped from Poona and set up shop in Oregon 15 years ago. Come to think of it, I did a bit of twirling out there, though I think we called it dance meditation. Unlike Nellie, I only lasted a few days ­ the blissful smiles of the Sanyassen got me down after a bit.

She was chilling out under a palm tree on a beach in South Goa when I found her. She didn't look brain-washed, a bit skinny maybe, but healthy and happy. "Granny always gets the wrong end of the stick," she said crossly. "Have you been brainwashed?" I asked severely. "Have you pledged all your worldly belongings including the £14 in your NatWest account to Osho?" In Oregon most of the happy campers had done just that, which is why, when he died, the Bhagwan had 47 Rolls Royces.

"Brainwashed?" said Nellie, nibbling on her idli wada sambar (rice dumplings). We were sitting in the Dropadi Bar on Palolem Beach. "I've hardly washed anything since I've been here unless you count the sixth day colon cleanse I've just done at the Welcome Centre for Health and Wellbeing in Candolim. We didn't eat anything except alfalfa and isabgol husks to get rid of all the crud. You should have seen what came out. The Reiki Master was so pleased with my specimens he took photographs. I'll show you." "It's all right, I believe you," I said quickly. "Tell me about the ashram and the twirling."

Not a lot has changed since my generation discovered the hippy trail to Kathmandu. I remember visiting monasteries in Ladakh and returning to London resolved to be rather than do, give up meat, love everybody and even twirl occasionally. The real dilemma, surely, would be to spend six months in India and remain unchanged, even if, like with me, the change was short-lived. Where did I go wrong?

Nellie was telling me how the wizard had taught her to twirl in such a way that after a while you weren't spinning, the world was spinning and you were its still centre, when suddenly there was a great shout from the beach. I'd been vaguely aware that a construction team was trying to erect Palolem's first official street light, a 60-foot high steel lamppost, next to the bar. As it was being lifted into position the chain attached to the crane snapped and 20 tonnes of steel were heading for the bamboo roof above us.

"Get out!" someone shrieked.

The Dropadi Bar no longer exists. Its proprietor stared moodily at the wreckage and said that police and government officials were on their way to investigate and maybe make arrests. All things considered, as brains go, I'd rather have them washed than squashed.

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