Leonard Cohen, India, & Me By Ratnesh Mathur

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Introduction By DrHGuy

After leaving the Mount Baldy Zen Center, Leonard Cohen came to Bombay late in 1998 to study with Ramesh Balsekar. During that stay, Ratnesh Mathur met the Canadian singer-songwriter and came to know him during his spiritually significant visits to India. This is Ratnesh’s account of that journey. I have edited the text, primarily to put it in colloquial English and reorganized the content for easier reading.

Update: Part 2 of this account is now online at Leonard Cohen’s Spiritual Sojourn In India By Ratnesh Mathur

Update: Unpublished Photos Of Leonard Cohen In India – With Ratnesh & Sangeeta Mathur And Unidentified Companion

Meeting Leonard Cohen – Bombay 1998

My first recollection of listening to Leonard Cohen’s music is somewhere around 1979/80, when I was 12 or 13, and definitely by my early teens. My cousins in Calcutta first introduced me to his music. I recall borrowing several cassette tapes, one of which was “Songs of Leonard Cohen.” That was around the time I started listening to Bob Dylan. Prior to this (i.e. between 1975 and1980), most of what my siblings and I heard at home was disco (Boney M, Abba, Luisa Fernandez, etc.) and  pop (Bee Gees, Carpenters, Cliff Richards, etc) on LPs, cassettes, and radio (“In the Groove” and “Date with You”).

I had a vast collection of music of many genres through my childhood. My appreciation for the singer-songwriter genre with its meaningful lyrics (Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen) came only in my late teens and early college years (between 1989 and 1993). I began writing music reviews on new rock and pop releases for newspapers and magazines (e.g., Hitavada, Connect Magazine, Economic Times). The deeper I went in understanding lyrics, the more I came to appreciate Leonard Cohen’s work. Before I met Leonard, I had heard four  of his albums and read some of his books and a dozen articles about him on the internet.

bookplus1200In 1998, I came across a newspaper article that reported Leonard Cohen was in Bombay. It didn’t give the name of the hotel but did indicate the area. I wrote to the Blackening Pages, the Leonard Cohen Fan club on the internet, hosted by Jarkko Arjatsalo in Finland, to gather details but to no avail. So, I began calling hotels in the area, and an operator actually connected me to Leonard in his room.

While Leonard declined to meet, he did agree to sign my CDs and books if I left them at reception. The next day when I arrived to leave the books, the reception desk informed Leonard, and he came down. After we met, he invited me for tea. The ensuing conversation went on for five hours.

As one might expect, it began with me donning my journalist hat to ask about details of his poems which had triggered my curiosity and the “inside story” of the 1960s rock movement (I had many questions about Woodstock, 60s sex, rock and roll, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, singer songwriters like Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez, new bands like REM, Suzanne Vega etc.). Because Leonard was a kind man, he humored me, answering my queries.

It soon became evident, however, that he wasn’t keen on discussing his own views on other musicians or his own poetry. Instead, he shifted the conversation into the personal and after two hours of taking notes (I still have them), I stopped the documentation and let it flow as he began asking about me. At first, my answers focused on clarifying the cultural context, based on the assumption that he was new to India. I soon realized that he already knew a lot about the country & certainly a lot more than me about Indian religion. He was the first Jew I’d ever met so  I asked him some basic questions about Judaism. He even suggested a book on the history of the Jews by Herman Wouk as a starter for me.

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We talked a lot about religion, including Buddhism as practiced at Mount Baldy, where he had lived before coming to Bombay and his Zen Guru Roshi. We had an interesting exchange about practices of a young Jew growing up in Montreal (Sabbath rituals, circumcision etc) versus the practices of an Indian Hindu who rarely visited temples or recited prayers. And, Leonard was curious about how arranged marriages worked. We had been chatting for nearly three hours (from 3 PM to 6 PM) when I asked my wife, whose office was in the vicinity),  to join us in Leonard’s room.

It was a memorable first meeting that lasted an five hours. My wife and I made a connection with a man who was clearly spiritually advanced, had a great sense of humour, and was deeply knowledgeable. Gracious host too. Leonard told us about his reasons for coming to India & suggested that we join him for the Vedanta satsang sessions at Ramesh Balsekar’s residence on sundays, when we were not at work. We did just that. It was a way to spend time with Leonard for us. We would have short chats over tea, after the satsangs. A couple of times, Leonard invited us for tea to the exclusive Breach Candy club, where he would go for a swim in the afternoon.

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Writing & Book Of Longing

This was a very creative phase for his writing, and he was happy about it. He wrote for several hours every day in his room, in addition to meditating  and listening to music. Leonard had been working on a book of poetry for many years, and it was largely in Bombay that he put the finishing touched on his “Book of Longing.” . Several poems and sketches refer to these days in Bombay.

Love & Marriage

We laughed about love. He joked about Sangeeta and me searching for a Yehudi/Jewish Indian wife for an arranged marriage to Leonard. We discussed the concept of beauty and skin colour. Leonard thought that Indian women didn’t much care for his looks, a premise he wrote about in one poem.

Advaita Philosophy & The Vedanta Sessions

My father and my late grandfather were well read in Vedanta. I even recall going with them to attend a talk by J Krishnamurti when I was in school. However, I had no serious interest in the subject and only started reading books on Vedanta, after attending the satsang sessions of Ramesh Balsekar, thanks to Leonard.

From Leonard Cohen to Ramesh Balsekar to Nisargadda Maharaj to Ramana Maharshi is one sutra; from Leonard Cohen to Roshi to the Buddha is another sutra. There are many threads of continuity in this spiritual journey.

When we relocated to central Europe from Bombay in 2003, the introduction to Judaism by Leonard proved useful in the heartland of Protestant Christianity medieval Judaism.

Bombay In The Time Of Leonard

Bombay: Dirty. Busting at the seams. Pollution. Rich and Poor divided. Expensive real estate. Poor quality construction.

All this was obvious to Leonard, but he was focused on his pwn purpose and didn’t comment on these things. He was a socialist at heart. He always spoke to and made friends with the tea-seller, the hotel cleaners and the taxi drivers. He wasn’t much of a tourist when he was in Bombay. Apart from the few sites (Jehangir Art Gallery, Kenneth Eliyahoo Synagogue, Kalaghoda area, Marine Drive etc.) where we took him, the only places I know that he visited were the Sony Music Office (near the airport),  a taxi driver’s home, and (once) the Jogeshwari furniture market, accompanying his daughter who ran an antique furniture store in Los Angeles.

directions1200Mostly, he stayed at his Kemps Corner hotel room and walked to Ramesh Balsekar’s apartment off Warden road, with a stopover for a swim at Breach Candy club.

He was only rarely recognized. He mentioned a singer, Jasmin Barucha and a few others of the Bombay elite recognizing him at the club. Otherwise, he was happy with the anonymity which Bombay provided. He walked the two kilometers of the Warden road every day without anyone bothering him.

He had meant to come to Bombay for a week or two. The discussions and interaction with Ramesh Balsekar kept him here much longer. After three years of interaction, Ramesh Balsekar and Leonard had become quite close, and I am sure Leonard kept in touch with Ramesh by phone and email.

Leonard’s trips to Indian ended because of the financial emergency created by Leonard’s manager siphoning off all the money in his retirement account.. During the years that Leonard was on tour, Ramesh Balsekar passed on.

Leonard gave me  his personal email address (which he had made me promise that I do not share further) so we used that medium to keep in touch, Mostly, I emailed him on birthdays ad New Years and about some of his concerts and CD releases. He was always gracious in acknowledging and responding. I received my last email from him just five  weeks before he passed away.

Insights

Many. He was very particular about his choice of words. Every morning, Ramesh Balsekar’s satsangs ended with a beautiful rendition of the 13th CE Marathi Poet, Philosopher & Saint, Sant Dnyaneshwar’s Marathi/Sanskrit prayer –

tuz sagun mahno ki nirgun re, sagun nirgun aiku  govindu re
anumane na  anumane na, shruti neti neti mahnt govindu re

Leonard Cohen recited this poetry of Sant Dnyaneshwar every day from the autumn of 1998, when he first arrived in Mumbai to attend the daily satsang sessions of Advaita Guru, Ramesh Balsekar at Warden Road. Not just a recitation by rote, he knew the English translation of the Marathi/Sanskrit words and even went deeper to understand the concepts of Sagun ( worship of God with form) & Nirgun (worship of God without form), and the reasons why both Sagun and Nirgun were essentially the same.

Leonard respected all religions and knew a great deal about them although he never flaunted his knowledge. He had a remarkable world view and genuinely wanted to bring unity and peace to the world. His emails to me often came with an attachment – an image/icon which he had made of the ” Order of the Unified Heart – an order to end all dis-unity.”

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A man of peace. He admired Gandhiji. He agreed when I once asked him about Gandhiji fitting into the definition of the “saint” that  he had articulated in his book “Beautiful Losers.”

Leonard Cohen has influenced and changed the course of my life. Until I met him, I admired his music. After I met him, I admired and respected him. I wanted to be like him. I still want to be like him.  I had planned to travel to USA to meet my sister and to meet Leonard. In fact I had recently written to him to set up dates. Now, its too late for that, a fact  I must accept. ( His song – If it be your will – comes to mind). But we have his music. We find new meaning each time we listen to his poems. There are so many facets to what he wrote. A higher understanding. As Lou Reed once remarked about Leonard , his music will indeed last many lifetimes after ours.

I feel blessed to have known Leonard. He will always be with us through his words and music.

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21 Replies to “Leonard Cohen, India, & Me By Ratnesh Mathur”

  1. Robinder (Enu) Bhakhri

    Dear Ratnesh, thanks for sharing that not only did come to our country but also your first hand narration of your several inter actions with him & the insight of the depth of his interests & horizons.
    Thank you.
    Robinder, Gurgaon, India 🇮🇳

  2. April Lee Washburn

    Thank you for making my heart open as I read your touching account of Leonard. It so brought a smile…

  3. Susan

    Leonard’s soul was so profound yet so accessible. That was just one of his gifts and the foundation of his legacy. He was himself a lesson.

  4. Irene Eden

    This synagogue was the one my family and me visited often. We are Iraqian jews though i was born in Bombay and live in Israel now.i discovered Leonard and his music in 1972 in Israel and nearly listen only to it. Saw him in Lo ndon but his show in Israel was full of holiness and power. I miss him though i heae his music all the time

    1. Ratnesh

      Its a beautiful synagogue, Irene. The rabbi ( in 1999) had a good conversation with Leonard. Many Baghdadi jews once lived in Bombay & Pune. The legacy is well known in India. Leonard loved the blue colour of the synagogue. There was an exhibition happening in the art gallery next door about the works of Rudolf von Leyden, a jewish artist & art collector who lived in Bombay during the war years. We visited the exhibition too. Like Leonard, another great music composer ( and friend of Rudolf von Leyden) , Walter Kaufmann, had lived in Bombay for a few years, before relocating to the US. Kaufmann created the signature tune of AIR ( All India Radio) , which still plays across India every morning, and announces the start of the day. Kaufmann & his wife ( Franz Kafka’s niece) lived in India, and went deep into Indian classical music, after a formal training in western classical music. We will always have the music. Leonard lives on with his music ..

  5. Krish Raghuram

    Dear Mr. Ratnesh – You are a lucky man to have spent so many meaningful hours with this generous human being who has touched so many with his poetry and music yet possess sagacity of the learned for every religion and human equally. He is a Gandhian truly in spirit. I wonder if you ever talked to him about the album recent songs. It is truly one for the ages and so voluptuous in its meaning and melody.

    Thank you so very much for sharing the article, memories, and photographs.

    1. Ratnesh

      Thanks, Krish. “Recent Songs” is a great album & I did carry it with me ( to get it autographed) when I first met Leonard. No, we didn’t specifically discuss the album – I don’t recollect it now. I do recall a discussion on Rumi & Persia , since I speak a little Persian language & had traveled to Iran for the first time, during the same years when I was meeting Leonard regularly. Can’t recall a discussion on Rumi inspired ” The Guests” , but that is one which I like very much, from the album.