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When They Begin the Beguine, by Bill Cliff

collage by Rosalee O'Dunphy

collage by Rosalee O’Dunphy

When They Begin the Beguine

by Bill Cliff

Source: Bal Natu, Showers of Grace, pp. 105-7

Although “Begin the Beguine” was not played for Meher Baba very often, nonetheless it had a unique significance for Him. As early as the ’50s, Baba began instructing His mandali that when He dropped His body, “Begin the Beguine” should be played. And, if it was not possible to play the record, it should be sung, and if no one was there to sing it, the words should be read out.

So it was on January 31, 1969, when Meher Baba laid His body aside in His room at Meherazad, the record “Begin the Beguine” was played on a little record player which His women disciples brought into His room. The song was also played in Mandali Hall when Baba’s body was taken there, in Baba’s cabin on Meherabad Hill, as the crypt in the Samadhi was being prepared and, later, in the Samadhi itself. Altogether it was played seven times. Since then, it has always had special meaning for those who follow Baba.

It’s simply amazing the number of times it pops up on the radio these days, but what gets me is the perfect timing of its occurrences. For example, in February 1983, I started working inside the post office and found myself in an area where “rock and roll” was being played over the radio eight hours a day.

After I’d gone through about three days of this ear-battering experience, I groaned and said, “I’ll never hear any decent songs in this awful place.” Not long after that, I was sitting in the lunchroom when someone switched on a soft music station. Sure enough, “Begin the Beguine” came on right in the middle of my cheese sandwich and had anyone been watching, they would have thought I had a sudden attack of lockjaw.

Then there’s the story of a Baba-lover returning from his pilgrimage to Meherabad/Meherazad. Although he was happy to be carrying in a large black leather case the new sitar he had purchased in India, he was a little depressed to be at the New York airport, 10,000 miles from where his heart lay.

As he was making his way to a taxi, he was accosted by a typical New Yorker and the following conversation ensued:

“Hey buddy, what’s in dat case?”

“A sitar.”

“What is that?”

“It’s a musical instrument from India.”

“Can it play ‘Begin the Beguine’?”

This unexpected question bridged the distance between New York and Meherabad. In a humorous way Baba had thus reassured His lover that He was with him in America, just as much as in India.

My favorite story concerning “Begin the Beguine,” however, took place in early 1983. It was Sunday, the 30th of January and a group of ten of us had gathered at a local restaurant in Schenectady, New York to have lunch with Jeanne and Darwin Shaw. As is occasionally wont to happen during these get-togethers, the conversation started drifting far afield. One group at one end of the table was talking about jobs and careers, another at the other end was having a lively discussion about the movie industry, and in the middle were Jeanne and Darwin, sitting quietly.

Suddenly we heard a soft, “Shhh, shhh, listen!” and turned to see Darwin with his right hand cupped to his ear. Sure enough, “Begin the Beguine” was being played over the restaurant radio. The group quickly fell into a silent reverie.

As it turned out, we were the only people seated in the small dining room, and at one point I looked up and noticed two of the staff staring at us and shaking their heads in disbelief. Just two minutes previously we had been so animated and lively and now we were sitting like statues. What could they possibly have thought?

As the song ended, I glanced at my watch. It was 1:30 in the afternoon in New York but exactly twelve midnight on January 31st in India. At that moment, on Meherabad Hill, Amartithi had begun. This is an event we like to keep track of in our minds and hearts. And so, despite the fact that the sheep of our mind had wandered off, Baba brought us all back “home” and ushered in that most holy of days in a beautiful, poignant way. Such is His compassion for us!

For me, Baba’s Avataric greatness lies not only in His work for the creation but also in these little things, the little personal touches that each of us who tries to love and hold on to Him, experiences. Any song or incident associated with Baba reminds us of Him and brings with that remembrance some of His sweet love and enlivening presence. And each time I hear of one of these incidents or experience one myself, it is another answer in an endless chain of His loving answers to a question once posed in a song: “Are you listening?”

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