In his white robes and bejewelled turban, Charam Varma was an impressive figure in the houses of the famous and fashionable in London's West End in the 1920s and 30s.
His dusky and enigmatic features graced the pages of the glossy society magazines, he was seen in the most exclusive private boxes on Epsom and Ascot race-days and at fashionable opera and theatre first-nights.
Yet exactly who he was remained something of a mystery. Some claimed he was an Indian prince, others that he was head of a religious sect which had been banished from India in the mid-20s.
But what most people agreed on was that, whoever he was, Charam Varma appeared to possess an astonishing gift of healing.
Dozens of clients who paid his expensive fees — he preferred to call them donations — claimed to have recovered from a variety of grave, and even terminal, illnesses after being put in a trance-like state by the imposing turbaned mystic.
It was in the spring of 1928 that Charam Varma's activities first hit the headlines when the Hon Julia Spencer, a distant relative of Britain's Royal Family, suffered a mysterious virus infection which paralysed her from the waist down.
She was just 25, an active sportswoman and fearless point-to-point rider. Her distraught family sought the best and most expensive medical advice in America, Britain and France but nothing could apparently be done. It seemed that Julia Spencer was destined to spend the rest of her days in a wheelchair.
Then someone recommended Charam Varma. According to contemporary reports, he visited the Spencer house in Chelsea after first telling the patient's mother that Julia should fast for a full 24 hours. Then, according to eye-witnesses, Varma announced that he would put Julia into a deep healing trance. This he did, much to the alarm of the family —Julia lay so still that they feared she had died.
The trance lasted nearly 15 minutes. Then, after rousing Julia, Varma instructed that she should be put to bed and kept in a warm darkened room for 24 hours. The next day it was discovered that Julia could move her legs. Within two days she was walking slowly around the room and in less than a month she could walk normally.
Specialists who examined her could offer no rational explanation. Then the story hit the newspapers and Charam Varma soon found that he was one of the most famous men in London. In 1930 he established an exclusive private clinic in Welbeck Street, Mayfair, to which the rich and famous flocked with ailments both real and imaginary.
No one, it seemed, was beyond his help. There were rumours that a cabinet minister suffering from cancer was smuggled into the clinic at night for a series of secret treatments from which he emerged with an apparent clean bill of health. The cancer remained in remission for the rest of his life. As Varma's success grew, so did the interest in his background and qualifications. All he would admit was that he was in his mid-30s and came from Delhi where his father was a government official. He had first discovered his healing gifts at the age of ten and from then on was in constant demand and had eventually come to Europe in order to have his gifts accepted by orthodox medicine.
If so, this was to be the only failure of his glittering career — doctors remained deeply suspicious of him and one Harley Street surgeon dismissed the long list of apparent successes as " merely fortunate coincidences."
And when Varma arranged for four doctors to attend a session during which he cured a 50-year-old man of crippling rheumatism, the general verdict was that the man would have got better anyway. In fact the hostile attitude of the medical profession did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm with which fashionable London greeted Charam Varma. During one month he had to turn away nearly 400 prospective patients on the grounds that there was just not enough time to treat them. Yet he was shrewd enough not to refuse anyone who might add to his charismatic reputation — politicians, showbusiness celebrities and socialites usually had little difficulty in getting an appointment. In the summer of 1931, the plight of Mary McFarlane, daughter of a former British ambassador to Paris and Washington, was brought to the attention of Charam Varma in what was to be one of his most celebrated — and controversial — cases.
The girl was only 20 and suffering from a fatal liver complaint which was expected to claim her life within a year. Orthodox medicine of the time could do nothing for her and so this was Varma's big chance to prove himself to his critics. His first visit to Mary McFarlane, in a private nursing-home in Hampshire, was disconcerting to say the least. Later Mary was to recall: "He just prowled around the room, silently looking at me.
"The next time he came I was lying on a sofa feeling particularly wretched and he said: 'This time tomorrow you will be getting better.' Strangely, I believed him."
The next thing she remembered was lying on the sofa as the turbaned figure stood silently behind her. When she awoke she experienced a "feeling of well-being, as though life was flowing back in to me."
From then on, against all the odds, Mary McFarlane began to get better. Doctors found to their astonishment that her body functions were slowly returning to normal and that her seriously-swollen liver began to subside. Within a month she was well enough to return home.
The following year, a guest at the 21st birthday party no one thought Mary McFarlane would have was Charam Varma. In 1933, Varma closed his clinic and returned to India. He was, he said, going to donate his gifts to his fellow-countrymen free of charge, for the rest of his life.
But that, it turned out, was to be tragically short. He died in the slums of Calcutta in 1935 of some mysterious illness. His astonishing gift of healing, it seemed, could benefit everyone but himself.