OLD DIARY LEAVES, First Series(1874-78)
by Henry Steel Olcott
MADAM BLAVATSKY BECOMES AN
AMERICAN CITIZEN. FORMATION OF
THE BRITISH THEOSOPHICAL SOCIETY.
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IT was but natural that the Queen of our little Bohemia should have been asked for sittings by the Bohemian artists who clustered around her; and so it happens that she sat to Thos. Le Clear for her portrait in oils, and to O’Donovan for a bronze portrait-medallion. The Diary entry for 24th February (1878) shows that we two spent the evening at Walter Paris’s studio, and had a jolly time of it with some of the best artists of New York. Most of them belonged to the famous Tile Club, whose members meet monthly at each other’s studios, and paint designs on tiles supplied by the host of the evening, whose property they become, and who has them baked and glazed at his own expense. A charming arrangement, by which each member of the Club becomes in his turn, at trifling cost, the owner of a set of signed paintings by good artists.
H. P. B. was inexpressibly amused by an incident connected with my farcical improvisations, alluded to
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above. One of the things she frequently called for was a burlesque of “speaking mediumship,” in which the mannerisms and platitudes of a certain class of platform speakers were travestied. On the evening in question we had as a visitor a London litterateur, a former editor of the Spectator and a University man. He had gone in for a good deal of investigation of Spiritualism and was a believer. I pretended to be controlled by the spirit of a deceased High Church clergyman and, with closed eyes and solemn tone, launched out into a tirade against the demoralising influences of the day, among which I accorded first place to the Theosophical Society. The promoters of this nefarious body, I made the pseudo spirit denounce in an especial degree, while upon H. P. B., its high priestess and head devil, I launched the thunderbolts of the major and minor excommunication. The old lady laughed until she cried, but our guest sat staring at me (as I noticed from time to time when I took a hasty glance at him between my almost closed lids), and at last broke out with the exclamation: “It’s terrible, it’s awfully real; you really should not let him do it, Madame!” “Do what?” she asked. “Give way to this mediumship when his whole self is obsessed by so strong and so vindictive a personality of the spirit-world!” This was too much for my mirth-loving colleague, and she exploded with laughter. Finally, catching her breath, she cried out: “Stop! For goodness’ sake, stop, Olcott, or you will kill me!” Just then I was at the middle of a fine burst of scorn
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over the pretended erudition and altruism of this “Russian schemer,” but I stopped short and, turning to Mr. L., asked him in the quietest, most commonplace tone, for a match for my pipe. I almost lost my gravity on seeing his sudden start of amazement, and the sharp look of enquiry he shot into my face, telling as though he had spoken the words, his belief that I was either mad, or the most extraordinary of mediums since I could so instantaneously “pass out of control.” The sequel almost finished off H. P. B. The next morning, at eight o’clock, Mr. L. called, to walk down town with me and try his persuasive powers to make me throw up this mediumship which, he assured me, would destroy my hope of useful public work in the future! The medium, he explained—as though I had not then known it for at least twenty years—was a veritable slave in the degree of his real mediumship; the passive agent of disincarnate forces whose nature he had no means of testing, and as to whose domination he had no selective power. Say what I might, he would not be persuaded that the whole affair of last evening was nothing but a joke, one of the various divertisements employed by H. P. B. and myself to relieve the strain of our serious work; he would have it that I was a medium, and so we had to let it rest. But to us it was a standing joke, and H. P. B. told it numberless times to visitors.
On the 5th April, T. A. Edison sent me his signed application for membership. I had had to see him about exhibiting his electrical inventions at the Paris
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Exposition of that year; I being the honorary secretary to a Citizens’ National Committee, which was formed at the request of the French Government, to induce the United States Congress to pass a bill providing for our country taking part in the first international exposition of the world’s industries since the fall of the Empire and the foundation of the French Republic. Edison and I got to talking about occult forces, and he interested me greatly by the remark that he had done some experimenting in that direction. His aim was to try whether a pendulum, suspended on the wall of his private laboratory, could be made to move by will-force. To test this he had used as conductors, wire of various metals, simple and compound, and tubes containing different fluids, one end of the conductor being applied to his forehead, the other connected with the pendulum. As no results have since been published, I presume that the experiments did not succeed. It may interest him, if he should chance to see this record, to know that in 1852 I met in Ohio a young man named Macallister, an ex-Shaker, who told me that he had discovered a certain fluid, by bathing his forehead with which he could transmit thought to another person employing the same fluid at an agreed time, however distant the two might be apart. I remember writing an article on the subject under the title of “Mental Telegraphing” to the old Spiritual Telegraph newspaper, of the late Mr. S. B. Britten. Having been acquainted with several noted American inventors, and learnt from them the psychological
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processes by which they severally got the first ideas of their inventions, I described these to Edison and asked him how his discoveries came to him. He said that often, perhaps while walking on Broadway with an acquaintance, and talking about quite other matters, amid the din and roar of the street, the thought would suddenly flash into his mind that such a desired thing might be accomplished in a certain way. He would hasten home, set to work on the idea, and not give it up until he had either succeeded or found the thing impracticable.
On the 17th April we began to talk with Sotheran, General T., and one or two other high Masons about constituting our Society into a Masonic body with a Ritual and Degrees; the idea being that it would form a natural complement to the higher degrees of the craft, restoring to it the vital element of Oriental mysticism which it lacked or had lost. At the same time, such an arrangement would give strength and permanency to the Society, by allying it to the ancient Brotherhood whose lodges are established throughout the whole world. Now that I come to look back at it, we were in reality but planning to repeat the work of Cagliostro, whose Egyptian Lodge was in his days so powerful a centre for the propagation of Eastern occult thought. We did not abandon the idea until long after removing to Bombay, and the last mention of it in my Diary is an entry to the effect that Swami Dayânand Sarasvati had promised me to compile a Ritual for the use of our New York and London members. Some old colleagues have denied
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the above facts, but, although they knew it not, the plan was seriously entertained by H. P. B. and myself, and we relinquished it only when we found the Society growing rapidly by its own inherent impetus and making it impolitic for us to merge it into the Masonic body.
One evening H. P. B. made a pretty phenomenon of duplication. A French physician, Dr. B., was one of a party of nine visitors at our rooms, and sat near H. P. B. ’s. writing-table, so that the standing gas-light shone upon a large gold sleeve-button, bearing his initials, that he wore. H. P. B.’s eye being caught by its glitter, she reached across the table, touched the button, and then opening her hand, showed him and the rest of us a duplicate of the same. We all saw it, but she would not give it to either of us, and presently re-opening her hand, the Mâyâ had disappeared. One much more interesting thing she did for me, one evening when we two were alone. From time to time she had told me tales of adventure and doings about a number of persons; some in India, others in Western countries. This evening she was shuffling a pack of cards in her hands in an aimless sort of way, when suddenly she held the pack open towards me and showed me the visiting card of a certain British officer’s wife, who had chanced to see a Mahâtma in Northern India and fallen offensively in love with his splendid face. The card bore her name, and, in a lower corner, that of her husband’s regiment partly scratched out as with a knife, so that I might not be able to identify the lady if I should ever meet her in
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India. The shuffling went on, and every minute or two she would open the pack and show me the visiting cards of other persons known to us by name; some were glazed, some plain; some with names engraved in script, others in square lettering; some type-printed, some black-bordered, some large, and others small. It was a marvellous and quite unique phenomenon. Yet how queer it was that precious psychic force—so hard to generate, so easy to lose—should have been wasted to objectify, for a brief moment in each case, these astral phantoms of common visiting cards, when the same volume of force might have been employed to compel some great scientist to believe in the existence of the records of the Âkaúa and devote his energies to spiritual research. My respected sister, Mrs. Mitchell, who, with her husband and children, occupied a flat in the same apartment-house with us, was one day shown by H. P. B. a collection of gems and jewelry which, she says, must have represented a value of at least £10,000, and which she thought were part of her family inheritance. So little did she suspect that they were merely illusionary, that she was even incredulous when I told her that H. P. B. owned no such property. If she had, I am sure, she would never have allowed herself to be put to such straits as she was.
The nearer we approached the time for our change of base, the more vehement became H. P. B.’s praise of India, the Hindus, the entire Orient and Orientals as a whole, and her disparagement of Western people as a
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whole, their social customs, religious tyranny, and ideals. There were stormy evenings at the Lamasery, among which stands out one episode very distinctly. Walter Paris, the artist, and one of the best of fellows, had lived at Bombay some years as Government Architect, and was glad to talk with us about India. But not having our excessive reverence for the country and sympathy for the people, he would often offend H. P. B.’s sensitiveness by remarks on what I now know to be Anglo-Indian lines. One evening he was talking about an old servant of his who had committed some stupidity in harnessing or saddling a horse, and quietly remarked that he had slashed the man with his whip. Instantly, as if she had received the blow across her own face, H. P. B. sprang up, stood before him, and in a speech of about five minutes gave him such a scathing rebuke as to make him sit speechless. She stigmatised the act as one of cowardice, and made it serve as a text for a neat discourse on the treatment of the Oriental races by the Anglo-Indian ruling class. This was not a mere casual outburst adapted to the Western market; she preserved the same tone from first to last, and I have often heard her at Allahabad, Simla, Bombay, Madras, and elsewhere, use the same boldness of speech to the highest Anglo-Indian officials.
One way H. P. B. had of beguiling tedious hours after Isis Unveiled was off our hands, was to draw caricatures on playing-cards, bringing the pips in to the pictures. Several of these clever productions were very
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laughable. One, made out of the Ten of Clubs, was a minstrel performance; the grotesque contortions of the “end men,” the solemn caddishness of the “Interrogator,” and the amiable vacuity of the intermediates being admirably delineated. Another was a Spiritualistic séance, with banjo, accordeons, and tambourines flying through the air, a bucket inverted over one “investigator’s” head, and an impish little elemental grinning from a lady’s lap as she holds his forked tail in her hand under the impression that it is part of the body of some departed friend. A third card—made out of a Seven of Hearts, I think—shows two fat monks at a table laden with turkey, ham, and other delicacies, while bottles of wine stand ready at hand, and others are cooling in an ice vase on the floor. One of the reverend fathers, who has a most animal cast of features, is putting his hand behind him to receive a billet-doux from a prim servant-maid in cap and apron. Still another represents a policeman catching a runaway thief by the foot; another, a couple of swell Tommies walking with their sweethearts; a third, a patriarchal negro, running with his black grandchild in his arms, etc., etc. Quite recently I have learnt that her late father had a special talent in this same direction, so it was quite easy to account for her cleverness. I told her I thought it a pity that she should not make up an entire pack in this fashion, as it would surely yield her goodly sum as copyright. She said she should, but the mood did not last long enough to bring the desired result.
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On the 8th July she took out her naturalisation papers, went with me to the Superior Court, and was duly sworn in as a citizen of the United States of America. She describes it thus in my Diary: “H. P. B. was made to swear eternal affection, devotion and defence to and of the U. S. Constitution, forswear every particle of allegiance to the Russian Emperor, and was made a ‘Citizen of the U. S. of America.’ Received her naturalisation papers and went home happy.” Of course, the next day’s American papers were full of accounts of the event, and reporters were sent to interview the new citizen, who made them all laugh with her naive opinions upon politics and politicians.
The formation of the British Theosophical Society, in London (now called the London Lodge, T. S.), occupied a good deal of my attention during the early summer months of 1878. This, our first Branch, was finally organised on June 27, by Dr. J. Storer Cobb, LL.D., Treasurer of the T. S., whose visit to London at the time was availed of to make him my official agent for this purpose. Mr. Sinnett has kindly favoured me with the following copy of the record of the proceedings, from the Minute Book of the Lodge in his official custody; which I publish, because of its historical interest:
MEETING OF FELLOWS.
Held at 38 Great Russell Street, London, June 27, 1878.
Present: Fellows, J. Storer Cobb, Treasurer (New
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York Society), C. C. Massey, Dr. C. Carter Blake, Dr. George Wyld, Dr. H. J. Billing, and E. Kislingbury.
Fellow J. Storer Cobb in the chair, read letters from Mr. Yarker, Dr. K. Mackenzie, Captain Irwin, and Mr. R. P. Thomas, expressing regret at their unavoidable absence, and sympathy with the objects of the meeting; also a letter from Rev. W. Stainton Moses, stating that he was unable to take part in the meeting, having resigned his Fellowship in the New York Society.
Mr. Treasurer Cobb having stated President Olcott’s instructions as to the basis of an English branch society, as communicated since a former meeting of Fellows in this place, proposed to retire, as it was not his intention to become a member of the new branch. On his being invited to remain as a listener, an informal discussion ensued, and it was finally Resolved, on the motion of Fellow Massey, seconded by Dr. H. J. Billing, “that, in the opinion of the English Fellows of the Theosophical Society of New York, present at this meeting, it is desirable to form a Society in England, in connection and in sympathy with that body.”
In accordance with the paper of instructions received from the President, the meeting proceeded to discuss the question of a President of the Branch Society, and on the ballet being taken, C. C. Massey was found to be chosen President.
Mr. Massey, in accepting the office, made a few remarks and took the chair. It was proposed by him, and seconded by Dr. Carter Blake, that Miss Kislingbury
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be Secretary to the Branch Society. This was carried and accepted by Miss K., pro term.
The meeting was adjourned until further advices from New York, and the Secretary was requested to furnish a copy of these minutes to Col. Olcott (President) and a copy of the Resolution, above recorded, to the absent English members.
The following memorandum was then drawn up and signed, and given to the Secretary to forward to Col. Olcott, viz.:
“LONDON, June 27, 1878.
“COL. HENRY S. OLCOTT,
President of the T. S., New York.
“I hereby certify that this day has been held a meeting at which has been formed an English branch of the above Society, of which Branch, Fellow Charles Carleton Massey has been, by ballot of the Fellows present, elected President.
(Signed) “JOHN STORER COBB.
Treasurer N. Y. Society.
(Signed) C. C. MASSEY.”
My official letters recognising the British Theosophical Society and ratifying the proceedings at the above reported meeting, were written July 12, 1878, and sent to Mr. C. C. Massey and Miss E. Kislingbury, the President and the Secretary.
There is an entry in my Diary for October 25th which is interesting as showing the faculty of clairvoyance that H. P. B. sometimes exercised. It says:
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“O’Donovan, Wimbridge, H. P. B. and I were at dinner when the servant brought in a letter from Massey left at the moment by the postman. Before it came, H. P. B. announced its coming and nature, and when I received it and before the seal was broken, she said it contained a letter from Dr. Wyld, and read that also without looking at it.”
I recollect taking the cover from the hand of the servant and laying it beside my plate, intending to defer reading it until we rose from the table. Between it and H. P. B. stood a large earthenware water-pitcher, yet while it lay there she first read the contents of Massey’s letter and then those of the enclosure from Dr. Wyld. I find, moreover, that the covering letter had Mahâtmic writing on one of the pages, and that I returned it to the sender with a statement of the facts, signed by myself and Mr. Wimbridge.
It is a rather notable coincidence that several astrologers, clairvoyants, and Indian ascetics should have prophesied that H. P. B. would die at sea. I find one of the sort noted on the page for November 2, 1878. A gentleman psychic, a friend of Wimbridge’s, foretold H. P. B.’s death at sea—a sudden death. Doubted that she would even reach Bombay.” Majji, the Benares Yoginî, made the same prognostic as to the place of H. P. B.’s death and even the time, but neither proved correct. No more did a card-reader at New York who predicted H. P. B.’s death by murder before 1886. In entering the affair H. P. B. very naturally put two points.
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of exclamation after the word murder, and cynically added the remark: “Nothing like clairvoyance!”
One of our visitors was more successful as a prophet, but he did not try his faculty on H. P. B. Here is the description I wrote of him in the Diary:
“A mystical Hebrew physician. A strange, very strange man. Has prescience as to visitors, deaths, and a spiritual insight as to their maladies. Old, thin, stooping; his hair thin, fine, grizzled and stands out in all directions from his noble head. Rouges his cheeks to correct their unnatural pallor. Has a habit of throwing his head far back and looking up into space as he listens or converses. His complexion is waxen, his skin transparent and extremely thin. He wears summer clothing in the depth of winter. He has the peculiar habit of saying when about to answer: ‘Vell, see he-ere, tee-ar!’”
For thirty years he had studied the Kabbalah, and his conversations with H. P. B. were largely confined to its mysteries. He said one evening in my hearing that despite his thirty years’ researches he had not discovered the true meanings that she read into certain texts, and that illumined them with a holy light.
Our departure having been finally decided upon, I began in the autumn of 1878 to get my worldy affairs into order. An active correspondence was kept up with our Bombay and Ceylon friends (a number of Buddhists and Hindus joined the T. S. by letter), our small, library was shipped, and little by little our household goods were sold or given away, We made no parade of
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intentions, but our rooms were thronged more than ever by the friends and acquaintances to whom they became known. H. P. B.’s entries in my Diary during my frequent absences from New York in the last weeks, testify to the nervous eagerness she felt to get away, and her fears that my plans might miscarry. In the entry of October 22d she writes—speaking of the urgency of our Mahâtmas: “N—went off watch and in came S—with orders from—to complete all by the early part of December. Well, H. S. O. is playing his great final stake.” There is reference here to the change of personalities in the Intelligences controlling the H. P. B. body, and the entries in different handwritings support this idea. A similar entry occurs on November 14th, where it is said that we must use every exertion to get away by the 20th December at latest. There is a final paragraph on that page to this effect: “O gods, O India of the golden face, is this really the beginning of the end?” On November 21st other urgent orders came through the same channel, and we were bidden to begin packing our trunks. Various persons wished to accompany us to India, and some made efforts to do so, but the party finally comprised but four—H. P. B., Miss Bates, an English governess, Mr. Wimbridge, an artist and architect, and myself. On the 24th we were at it, and the following day the first of our intended party of four, Miss Bates, sailed for Liverpool, taking two of H. P. B.’s trunks with her. Again and again came the orders to hasten our departure. Writing about the unexpected
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resignation of a member, H. P. B. exclaims: “Oh! this, wretched brood; when shall we be rid of it!” The next day’s entry (in red pencil and large letters) says, â propos of my being ready soon: “His fate depends on that:” our remaining furniture must be disposed of at auction before December 12th; and the sale actually came off on the 9th. That day she writes: “Went to bed at four and was roused again at six, thanks to M—who locked the door and Jenny (the servant) could not get in. Got up, breakfasted and went off to the Battery to meet—(an occultist connected with the Lodge of the White Brotherhood). Came back at two and found an infernal row and hullabaloo at the auction. All our things went for a song, as they say in America . . . 5 P.M.—Everything gone: Baron de Palm adieu! Supped on a board three inches wide!”
Then there was a skurry and a rush of visitors, articles appearing in the papers, replies written by H. P. B. On the 13th I received from the President of the United States an autograph letter of recommendation to all U.S. Ministers and Consuls; and from the Department of State a special passport such as is issued to American diplomats, and a commission to report to Government upon the practicability of extending the commercial interests of our country in Asia. Those documents proved useful later on in India, when H. P. B. and I were under suspicion of being Russian spies! The particulars of which farcical episode will be told in their proper place.
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I find entries in the Diary showing that I got scarcely any rest during these latter days, sitting up all night to write letters, rushing away to Philadelphia and other towns, snatching a morsel of food as I could get it: while throughout the whole narrative sounds the boom of the orders to depart before the fixed day of grace—the 17th—should pass away. H. P. B.’s writing grows scratchy, and on the page for December 15th I notice two of the above-mentioned variants of her script, which show that her body was occupied by two of the Mahâtmas on that same evening. I had bought an Edison phonograph of the original pattern, and on that evening quite a number of our members and friends, among them a Mr. Johnston, whom Edison had sent as his personal representative (he being unavoidably absent), talked into the voice-receiver messages to our then known and unknown brothers in India. The several tinfoil sheets, properly marked for identification, were carefully removed from the cylinder, packed up, and they are still kept in the Adyar Library, for the edification of future times.1 Among the voices kept are those of H. P. B.—a very sharp and clear record,—myself, Mr. Judge and his
1Quite recently—viz., in May, 1895—I sent these tinfoil records to Edison’s London office, to see if they might not be received on one of the modern wax cylinders and so saved for posterity. Un-fortunately, nothing could be done with them, the indentations made by the voices having become almost flattened out. It is a great pity, for otherwise we might have had duplicates taken off the original, and thus have had H. P. B.’s strong voice speaking audibly at our local meetings all over the world on “White Lotus Day,” the anniversary of her death.
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brother John, Prof. Alex. Wilder, Miss Sarah Cowell, two Messrs. Laffan, Mr. Clough, Mr. D. A. Curtis, Mr. Griggs, Mrs. S. R. Wells, Mrs. and Miss Amer, Dr. J. A. Weisse, Mr. Shinn, Mr. Terriss, Mr. Maynard, Mr. E. H. Johnston, Mr. O’Donovan, etc., of whom all were clever, and some very well known as authors, journalists, painters, sculptors, musicians, and in other ways.
The 17th December was our last day on American soil. H. P. B.’s entry says: “Great day! Olcott packed up. . . . what next? All dark—but tranquil.” And then comes, written in large letters, the heart-cry of joy, CONSUMMATUM EST! The closing paragraph reads thus: “Olcott returned at 7 P.M. with the tickets for the British Steamboat, the Canada, and wrote letters until 11:30. Curtis and Judge passed the evening. Maynard took H. P. B. [See the writers always speaking of her in the third person] to dine at his house. She returned home at 9. He made her a present of a tobacco-pouch. Charles (our big cat) lost!! At near 12, midnight, H.S.O. and H. P. B. took leave of the chandelier and drove off in a carriage to the steamer.” So closes the first volume of the history of the Tpeosophical Society with the departure of its Founders from America.
Behind them lay three years of struggles; of obstacles surmounted; of crude plans partly worked out; of literary labour; of desertions of friends; of encounters with adversaries; of the laying of broad foundations for the structure that in time was destined to arise for the gathering in of the nations, but the possibility of which
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T.S. HISTORY AT ONCE GLANCE
*The Branch statistics are compiled annually in the month of December for the President’s Annual Address.
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was then unsuspected by them. For they had builded better than they knew—better, at any rate, than I knew. What lay in the future we foresaw not. The words of H. P. B. show that: “All dark, but tranquil.” The marvellous extension of our Society had not entered even into our dreams. An ex-officer of ours has published the statement that the Society had died a natural death before we left for India, the diagram opposite will show that, while it had dwindled to almost nothing, it began to revive from the moment its executive centre was shifted to India.
We passed a wretched night on the ship, what with the bitter cold, damp bedding, no heating apparatus working, and the banging of tackle and rub-a-dub-dub of the winches getting in cargo. Instead of leaving early, the steamer did not get away from her wharf until 2-30 P.M. on the 18th. Then having lost the tide, she had to anchor off Coney Island and crossed the Sandy Hook bar only at noon on the 19th. At last we were crossing the blue water towards our Land of Promise; and, so full was my heart with the prospect, that I did not wait on deck to see the Navesink Highlands melt out of view, but descended to my cabin and searched for Bombay on my Map of India.