The Ashram teemed with an enthusiastic, albeit motley crowd of old and young, waiting expectantly for the show to begin. A pulse of rippling excitement undulated through the room. Much before she could comprehend the spirit of collective joy weaving itself into her being, Ora Ray Baker knew that something miraculous was going to transform her whole existential self into the light of love, for the twain of two distinct cultures was destined to meet — and how! The union would create a tempestuous storm at the personal level and go on to blissfully weave a story of spiritual linkage, spanning continents, cultures and faiths.

She was golden-haired, fair-skinned and blue-eyed, beautiful yet physically frail, born and bred in an elitist American household. He was dark, tall, radiating oriental magnetism, sporting a red ruby in his turban, the descendant scion of the Indian hero Tipu Sultan. She was, by nature and self-nurture, a poetic spirit. He was a Sufi, a spiritual teacher and an accomplished musician. She had, under her stepbrother Pierre’s tutelage, mastered the art of deep contemplation through rigid disciplining. He talked about Love and God Realisation, spreading the message of the universality of Divinity at the behest of his Indian mentor, who had instructed him to move to the West.

Indeed, the chasms of breeding and birth were deeply cleft and yet, she became his “Sharda” and he became her “Daya” in one fleeting moment, as his mastered emotions struck a chord in her anguished heart.

For author Farzana Moon, who is also a poet, historian and playwright, the penning of American Queen — the story of Sharda and Daya’s partnership as husband and wife on their spiritual trajectory — has been a labour of love, awe and deep spiritual devotion to her murshid [spiritual teacher] Sufi Inayat Khan and his American wife, Ora Ray, later Amina Begum. While the devotion of the spiritual seeker is a palpable force to be felt between the lines, the author has, in true professional spirit, delved deep into archives of family correspondences and mystical outpourings of the protagonists, both of which had not to date, been recorded in the sequenced order that Moon has ‘calligraphed’— calligraphed because the author has fine-tuned scattered information into a composite pictorial art piece that makes for a riveting read.

The fact is that, although Sufi Inayat Khan left behind a sizeable following, his “American queen”, despite her total devotion, has remained little known. For Ora Ray, life would have been a challenge, as she followed her beloved Daya across continents and cultures so vastly foreign. Yet she persevered through waters tormented and calm. There were times when concert halls overflowed with crowds swaying to the tune of the murshid’s devotional music, when devotees jostled for attention and swooned over the great master. But there were also times of trials, especially when the advent of the pre- and post-World War I social and political distress threatened to bulldoze her husband’s message of universal love. Then, as nothing seemed to blend, the murshid’s frail Sharda came into her own, handling life in both scenarios.

An absorbing fairytale of the power of love over cultural dissonance and a woman’s strength of character

Gently but firmly, she supported him through the turbulent waters of international strife, the distraction of his followers and political nee spiritualistic victimisation. While he wooed Western spiritual seekers, pandered to their queries and wrote poetic tomes of wisdom, she kept the home fires burning, cooking, rearing children and smoothening the ruffles whenever the Order demanded. When Sufi Inayat Khan died a sudden death while on a visit to his Indian birthplace of Baroda [Vadodara], Amina Begum’s resilience was once again put to the test. Left alone to fend for herself and her four children, she lived a life of honour and dignity, all the time striving hard to nurture her husband’s legacy.

A significant amount of interest and authenticity of discourse in American Queen is because of the quoted poetry of Inayat Khan, his wife Amina Begum and of their firstborn — a daughter they named Noor Inayat Khan. The poetry makes for the bulk of the publication and, where the prose often falls into the trap of repetition, the verses and their placing in the text does much to enhance a unique spiritual ideology.

Woven into the text with a masterful dexterity that makes the text rise above mere ‘mentee’ devotion, the profoundly spiritual verses are important in both a public context as well as reflective of the deeply personal, emotional and romantic bonding of a family: the father a pivotal figure ‘living his truth’, the mother his right hand ‘man’ and a woman for whom the pulse of the East was in rhythm with her joyous heart and their children, lovingly named the “Rubies Four” by their parents.

So while the book would be a treasured memoir and ideological compendium for devotees of Sufism and the Inayati Order, for lay readers it would be an absorbing fairytale of the power of love, of consecration and of a woman’s strength of character and single minded devotion. That, contrary to metaphor, the meeting of twains is possible, is very obviously the strength of this amazing discourse of spiritual romance.

The reviewer is a freelance journalist, translator and report writer with a special interest in stories of creative development. Currently she teaches Content Writing and Editing for Journalism at the Lums Lifetime Learning Programme

American Queen
By Farzana Moon
All Things That Matter Press, US
ISBN: 978-1732723795

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 20th, 2020