63: A Close Encounter

63: A Close Encounter

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Dreams and the Unexplainable

A Close Encounter

There is no greater romance in life than this adventure in realization.

~Meher Baba

The sights and odors that filled the streets of Ahmednagar, India on a Friday afternoon were dizzying; the streets seemed labyrinthine, the signage rarely in English. I had been in India for several weeks, visiting the tomb of Meher Baba, but this was my first venture into town, accompanying friends who wanted to do some shopping. With a real fear of getting lost should I wander off, I started humming the theme song from the Indiana Jones movies. It was one way of reassuring myself that all would turn out well in the last reel of my current adventure.

I only had three more days left in India before I would begin my journey back to California. Perhaps it was humming that tune that gave rise to my growing obsession but, for whatever reason, I could not stop thinking about sharing my Indian experience with Steven Spielberg. Having worked on a Lucasfilm production, I assumed I could figure out a way to get a letter to him. On the other hand, I worried I would come off as some sort of weirdo. No matter. The obsession gripped me firmly for the following three days.

Over the weekend, I would travel by bus from the Meher Pilgrim Center, where I was staying near the tomb, to Baba’s former residence, around fifteen miles away. It was there that I had recently hiked up a large hill known as Seclusion Hill, so named because Meher Baba had spent time in seclusion atop it many years before. It reminded me of the Devil’s Tower formation in the film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. While not geologically similar, they both proved to be odd formations to which people from all over the world were inwardly drawn. During my bus rides, I would attempt to snap photos of the hill. People who became aware of my bizarre obsession would offer me their seats in order to get a better angle. My obsession was becoming increasingly public.

On my last day on the high desert, I awoke early in the dark in order to participate in the ritual cleaning of Meher Baba’s tomb. This involved using a small sponge to wipe down the marble slab into which are inscribed the words, “I have come not to teach, but to awaken.” These morning cleanings were supervised by a petite Indian woman named Mansari. When I’d finished wiping down the marble, she instructed me to surrender the sponge and to put my cupped hands together to receive the water she poured into them. I then scrubbed the wooden threshold to the tomb with my bare hand, a threshold that Easterners routinely knelt to kiss on their way in and out of the tomb.

Before heading out on my return journey later in the day, I went to Mansari’s humble abode near the tomb to say goodbye. Holding out my right hand, I explained, “After the blessing that my hand received this morning, if it someday reaches out to grab an Oscar, it will mean nothing by comparison.” She silently nodded her head in agreement.

My return home was to start with a night in Poona on my way to Bombay, but that plan was scuttled when my traveling companions, Marshall and Rozie, suggested I look into joining them on their evening flight to Bombay. I decided that made sense, and I figured I could take the shuttle bus from the airport to the Centaur Hotel when I arrived. It never occurred to me that there might not be an available room on a Monday night in such a huge hotel, but sure enough they were full. They wouldn’t let me sleep in the lobby, so I would have to go out into the dark night and find another hotel.

I walked through the lobby with my head down, preparing to leave. And then, as I approached the door, and looked up, I could not believe my eyes. In walked Steven Spielberg. With him were all the producers of the Indiana Jones movies. One of them, Frank Marshall, and I locked eyes like gunslingers on a dusty western street and in unison proclaimed, “What the [email protected]*k are you doing here?” After some mutual explanation, Frank introduced me to Steven, and I shook his hand . . . with the same unwashed hand that had just cleaned the tomb.

I learned that they were just passing through on their way to the airport after having scouted locations for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Their “people” leaned on the hotel and procured me a room. Then they invited me to join them for dinner. I ran upstairs and changed my dusty desert drought attire, splashed some water on myself, and ran back down to the lobby.

By the time I got there, the entire entourage had moved on except for one person: Steven Spielberg. As Steven and I walked to the French restaurant, I started out by asking him what he knew about India.

“The only thing I know is that it’s nine hours from London,” he replied.

I proceeded to fill him in about my obsession and the film I had shot for his benefit that was still in my camera. I would eventually send him the pictures along with a copy of Meher Baba’s speech to the Hollywood establishment gathered at a reception in his honor thrown by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in 1932 at their Pickfair estate. In it, Baba addressed the profound spiritual responsibility of the motion picture industry in influencing people’s lives, not through grandiose religious tales, but rather through simple stories of selfless service and sacrifice played out in everyday circumstances.

Three days after my nervous humming of the Indiana Jones theme on the dusty streets of Ahmednagar, I found myself in the middle of pre-production discussions regarding the next Indiana Jones movie.

About eight hours after making that dismissive remark to Mansari about grabbing an Oscar, I was seated amongst the most successful producers in the history of Hollywood at that time, dining on Chicken Grimaldi and drinking fine French Chardonnay while sharing Meher Baba’s message of cinematic healing.

It kind of makes me wonder what I should hum next.

~Brian Narelle

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