Not the easiest place to reach in those days, with your choice of transport limited to eight or nine hours in a bus with wooden seats and unpaned windows, regularly stopping for chai or roadside passengers, often accompanied by livestock – usually goats and disgruntled chickens – until the vehicle was packed to standing-room only, and your two-seater bench accommodated four or five. You arrived covered in dust, exhausted and aching. But for a journey equal to travelling from Toronto to Quebec City, the price of about 50 cents was not unreasonable. Your other choice was a taxi in which its driver also lived, though plainly could not wash. This ride took four or five hours, but cost about $ 40. Thus the trick for more well-heeled pilgrims was to share a taxi between four or even five people. Bill Byrom had told me that westerners stayed in Bangalore at a small hotel called, incongruously, the Bombay Ananda Bhavan, on Grant Road. Since Bangalore was a few hours’ flight south from Bombay (now Mumbai), one wondered why the place was named thus. But at three dollars a night it could have been called the Cairo Hilton for all I cared. Now an excessively overcrowded and ostentatiously wealthy Indian version of Silicon Valley, Bangalore, 40-odd years ago, was just a sleepy ex-Raj cantonment, famous for the British era bungalows and mansions, with their broad monsoon porches and Moghul-Rococo style. Confusion still reigned over street names, changed after Independence to more Indian titles – except no taxi driver knew the revised names, and to find Grant Road you had to ask for St. Mark’s road, and make a right half way along it. The signs still bore only their English names, apart from Mahatma Ghandi Road, Main Street, which was now known as ‘MG Road’ by cab drivers, who could never locate a Mahatma Ghandi Road if asked for it.
The city was then also a tropical garden of Bougainvillea, flame trees, and parks full of countless exotic blooms. City transport was by auto-rickshaw, a kind of motor scooter pulling a two-wheeled covered carriage, and at a hazardous speed. I took one from an airport, like the one in Casablanca, where you walked from the airplane steps to the terminal building, on whose walls were framed pictures of Swami garlanded with wilted flowers. He was clearly the only reason westerners came to Bangalore, since he had already built a college at Whitefield, an Anglo-Indian village ghetto some 20 minutes’ drive beyond the city, and where he often spent long periods of time away from the Puttaparthi ashram. Bill had advised me to check where he currently was before deciding on my destination. The hotel was where one did this easily: if it was full, Swami was clearly at Whitefield. If almost empty, he must be at Puttaparthi. The place was an old mansion converted, to some extent, into a guest-house. My room, for instance, had four beds draped with mosquito netting, and three doors, two of which led into other rooms. The bathroom had a squatter toilet yet no bath or shower. Two taps at knee height perched over a red plastic bucket with a jug hanging by its handle from the rim. Instead of toilet paper there was, near the squatter’s porcelain footprints, a long-spouted plastic watering can, such as one might use for house-plants. I got the concepts quickly, and within weeks was accustomed to washing from a bucket, and also knew why food should only be taken in company by the right hand.
Heading out in search of a meal, I ran into a blonde American from Montana now named Vijaya. She had three friends looking for a fifth passenger to share taxi-fare to Puttaparthi. They planned to leave at 3. a.m. the next morning – a time I usually went to bed. But the deal was agreed upon, and I ate some kind of curry with chapatis prepared by the hotel’s owner and sole employee, imagining I would sleep in the taxi.
Wrong. Vijaya and her three friends, one named India, were part of Hilda Charlton’s satsang (spiritual gathering), and knew Bill Byrom well. This discussion over, they all sang bhajans for the entire trip, excitement building as we turned left by a sign reading Puttaparthi, stopping briefly to give a blind beggar about 2 cents, possibly because he carried a picture of Swami on the tray from which he also vended beedies. Had the road sign indicated distance, I might have relaxed for a bit longer, since it was around 40 miles further. While the temperature in Bangalore was hot but pleasant enough, this proved to be because it stood on a 7,000 foot plateau. But now we were down in the burning plains of Andhra Pradesh, a desert wasteland of rocks and scrub, lined by ochre, black-capped mountains, these peaks, as India told me cheerfully, burned by the tail of Hanuman, the monkey god, servant of Rama, as he flew to do battle with the demon Ravana in Lanka (then Ceylon, now once more Sri Lanka). This charming yarn did not make me appreciate the landscape more than I had before hearing it. Barren, deserted, hostile, the area seemed to have never attracted inhabitants of any species. It made the moon look like fertile savannah; and the heat, by 8 am, was staggering, one vast kiln – and this was where a divinity chose as his birth-place? The image now always comes to mind when I think of a world whose climate proved impervious to control.
Yet, as we approached Puttaparthi, this blasted wilderness gave way to lush green rice paddies, and verdant palm groves. Sweet-faced, rubbery-black water buffaloes plodded slowly home along a dusty umber road, driven by small boys or smiling women, all escaping the building inferno of a summer day. A few cube-shaped concrete huts appeared, and thatched stalls selling Campa-Cola, rose-milk, Limca, baddam-milk, and other unfamiliar drinks. Then there was a high-walled compound, surrounded by flimsy shacks vending solely Swami memorabilia – posters, lockets, stickers, key rings, books, etc.
Nodding at the high wall, Vijaya said, “That’s Swami’s ashram. First we go to the office, though, and then see if we have missed morning darshan.”
We skirted the wall, passing an arched gateway bearing the symbols of most major religions fashioned from painted steel. Through it I briefly saw a gigantic statue in black stone of the elephant-headed god, Ganesh, son of Siva (and doubtless a big surprise), ‘Remover of Obstacles’, always prayed or chanted to first in any ritual ceremony. The wall curved somewhat, bringing us to a large pair of open metal gates. The ‘office’ was another concrete cube, whitewashed by a slovenly hand, and containing one table, with one chair behind it, upon which sat a small round man, his shiny orbed face emanating an expression of immense self-satisfaction. Very deferentially, India asked him if any rooms were available.
“No,” he said, pretending to examine some papers, then elaborating, “All full.”
I wondered how these Americans in saris would take such news. They seemed very docile, whispering among themselves about alternatives. I disliked this official a lot, finding it hard to imagine that anyone liked him, and even that he did not wish to be liked. I was also scorching hot, caked in dust, and extremely underslept.
Therefore I said, “Listen, you, whoever you are, I came half way round the world to be here, and I want a room, any room. I will have your room if nothing else is available – which I don’t believe. I think you just enjoy what miniscule power you have, and that is mostly refusing rooms to foreigners, because you hate foreigners. You’re a pocket Mussolini, and I shall tell Swami of your rudeness the moment I see him. So give me a room and act politely or I will throw you and your crappy table out and live here. Am I making myself clear?”
By now I was leaning over a few inches from his glossy face, which had begun to express fear. I doubted if anyone had spoken to him in such a manner ever – although I came to learn that most Indians were frightened by overt expressions of anger or indignation.
“Some rooms are being painted,” he said, quite humbly, “so room is available, but painter must work.”
“These ladies will take one of them,” I told him, “and I will take one. Give us the keys. Now! And bear in mind that not all western devotees will tolerate your ill-mannered crap…”
“Jeez,” said India, as we carried our bags over fine sandy ground, “I’ve always wanted to put that asshole in his place, but I figured it would have me thrown out of the ashram. Swami’s officials are often obnoxious, and no one knows why he gives them such jobs.”
“Let’s ask him,” I suggested.
“Yeah, right!” was all she said.
The rooms were in a new three-storey concrete block opposite the ‘temple’, which was enclosed by a low wall, and had clearly been yet another, if larger, concrete rectangle. Now parts had rickety bamboo scaffolding tied together on the exterior. The roof already possessed a new white dome, and a narrow semi-circular balcony had been added, with a pair of solid silver doors behind it. The current work seemed to consist of numerous mythical creatures sculpted from concrete and then painted. None were particularly identifiable, except for one resembling a flying armadillo. The colour scheme was ill-advisedly garish: pastel blues, greens, and pink. Most of the building was white, blindingly white in the torrid sunlight, so the colours were unusually brilliant. All over the grounds were hand-painted signs bearing, presumably, Swami’s wise sayings, which then struck me as banal, simplistic, and often more like advertising slogans than wisdom: Be good do good see good; Love all serve all; Love is God, etc. His public talks proved to be equally simplistic, essentially urging his audience to lead good lives and treat others well. The Oxford-educated brain does not take simplistic philosophy with much enthusiasm. It likes paradox, conundrums, syllogisms, dialectic, teleology, epistemology, ontological arguments, and indeed anything but simple truths.
I usually like simple rooms, though, but the one whose padlock I opened was far too simple. It was not even minimalist, as I understand the term. It contained nothing at all, except four concrete walls, whitewashed by a familiarly inept hand, with white splotches decorating the bare floor like remnants of a decomposed carpet. The windows had shutters, but no glass or screening. There was no washroom. Since Vijaya and friends were a few rooms down, I went to make inquiries, finding their door open and mattresses being inflated. Bill had not mentioned a dearth of bedding. To my query, Vijaya said that toilets and washing facilities were some distance away and clearly marked Ladies and Gents. Gender separation was, I soon found, of obsessive importance in the ashram – but one adapts to anything in life (I can assure you, as can Julian Schnabel’s masterly film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly).
Before I could improve my living quarters, people were gathering to sit on the sand surrounding Swami’s temple, ladies in an arc on one side, gents on the other – a sign that darshan would be soon. Thus, I hurried down, leaving my sandals by the low wall, as others were doing, and sitting behind the first row of gents. There were only 70-odd people there in total, three or four of them westerners, hippies wearing an assortment of Indian clothes, dreadlocks, beads, and one fellow in Bermuda shorts. I wore khaki shorts and a T-shirt. Within a few years, however, a strict dress-code would be enforced, with all men in long white trousers and white shirts with the tails untucked, which meant many wore traditional Indian outfits, although the Indians tended to favour western shirts with collars. Women were all in saris, their heads covered. I learned that this dress-code was in fact the brain-child of some official in one of the many Sai organizations that were to spring up, forming bureaucracies, as any collection of people will do – for want of anything useful to engage them. Politicians are the same, forming committees when any problem arises (these committees, at preposterous expense, eventually produce reports no one reads, because other problems have eclipsed the former one, which the public has long forgotten). After some fifteen minutes, the sun had heated my head so ferociously that I moved to the shade of a palm tree, where I stretched out and nearly fell asleep when a buzz of excitement fizzed through everyone, and people edged into the front lines, all eyes trained on…what? Even the men sculpting winged concrete tigers, or whatever they were, had stopped in their work to stare, as the bamboo scaffolding lurched dangerously beneath them.
Then I saw him, a tiny man with a prodigious Afro, wearing a long orange robe covering his bare feet, and, about to think something banal, I felt my heart suddenly explode with a love so intense that I simply burst into tears. Ignoring the crowd of devotees, Swami chatted cheerfully with the workmen, pointing to things, and obviously asking questions about their work. I quickly returned to my old spot, aglow with pure love, as he suddenly turned towards the ladies, now standing almost immobile, a forefinger seeming to write on the air, as his other hand revolved slowly, cupped, as if to test for rain, then turning his middle finger in a manner suggesting it spun a small disc. His gaze looked above the expectant, adoring faces; and then he began to walk with a slow uncanny grace along the arc of women, occasionally stepping back if someone tried to touch his feet, taking notes from some, which he handed to a humble attendant – who proved to be Dr. Bhagavantam, one of India’s preeminent nuclear physicists – and then stopping by an elderly woman, moving his right palm in a polishing motion, releasing from it a small stream of grey powder, which the woman caught, and he marked her forehead with the remainder, flicking his fingers. He next approached the gents’ section, and my overwhelming love grew, teardrops almost blinding me. Again he stood still, his hands writing and revolving; his eyes seemingly looking into other worlds, deep, yet blank, with no sense of a person behind them. Though tiny – five feet tall at the most – he had the aura of a mighty king, his bearing majestic, noble. His body was slender, delicate, a young boy’s, yet his neck was unusually thick, almost muscular. His skin was a very pale brown – unlike the dark Dravidians typical in the south, where no one had Afro hair, or even knew it existed. Yet, as photographs of him as a youth show, he wore the Afro long before Jimi Hendrix or Angela Davis were even born. His features too were strange, sharp in profile, yet broad when seen full-faced. As he approached along the line where I sat, love erased all thought, and I had no idea what to say or ask him. For a man next to me he produced vibhuti with the same polishing motion, but now I was so close that I saw the ash actually pour from the centre of his palm, as if through a hole in space; as it fell he turned his hand to catch it, handing some to the man and the rest to another man, whose forehead he also marked. Now he stood right in front of me, and I felt certain he would say something; yet his eyes looked all round at faces behind and before me, but I seemed to be invisible to him. Not a glance; nothing. Then suddenly he was gone, ambling now with a rolling, bear-like gait back to the temple, where a side door led into his rooms. I thought I was about to feel let down, perhaps angry, yet something assured me I had got Swami’s message, which was love, divine love, the love that is the self, the love that created and sustains this universe. As dear John Lennon puts it: Love is the answer, and you know that for sure.
I also knew for sure then that I had better find a mattress to buy, along with other essentials.
The Puttaparthi ashram was not actually in Puttaparthi, as I soon discovered. The village where Swami had been born was about a hundred yards down a dusty track past a memorial built for the avatar’s parents. The few inhabitants awake, in what resembled an impoverished settlement from the Iron Age, assumed I was here to see the house where Swami was born. Not wanting to seem ungrateful, I allowed myself to be led to what looked like a collapsed cow-shed, boasting a sign which, translated from the Telegu, read: Birthplace of Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba. ‘Humble’ hardly described it. ‘A step away from homeless’ was more accurate. I was even introduced to Swami’s brother, who looked like everyone else, and worked a rice paddy. Sometime later, I met him on a bus ride, learning that he was his brother’s devotee, yet had no more access to him than anyone else did. He was proud of the ashram, though, terming it ‘very big’. In the village I asked where I might purchase a mattress, but no one knew what a mattress was, so I called it a bed instead, learning that the village had no shops as such, but there was a carpenter who made beds. All the shops were back up outside the ashram walls, but they only sold Swami trinkets and posters. I asked how long this carpenter would take to make a bed, and was taken to the craftsman himself, who, after a 20-minute chat in Telegu with my guide, replied that a bed took an hour to make and cost a dollar. I paid, asking if the bed could be delivered to my room. It could, arriving four hours later, and comprising a wooden frame with stumpy legs, and a web of rough string criss-crossing the frame. It may be better than sleeping on concrete, I thought, but not much better. Outside the ashram I found a tailor who wanted to make me shirts, but very reluctantly sold me his whole bale of white cotton heavily laced with rayon, or some such plastic thread. Unrolled on the bed’s string, back and forth until, after five layers, it ran out, there was a serviceable enough covering for the bristly rope. I lay down, feeling the bed wobble in a disturbing manner, and then soon fell asleep. I had a strange dream in which I saw only Swami’s feet, touching my forehead to them, and then gripping his ankles, as if trying to save myself from drowning. In Hinduism a holy man’s feet are sacred, the only part of him in contact with the earth, thus the only part to which humanity can connect. Devotees often tried to touch Swami’s feet during darshan, yet he usually skipped back beyond their reach. The trinket stalls outside sold pictures of his feet; and elsewhere I would see depictions of other gods’ or gurus’ feet. Yet, normally, I had no interest in feet, no desire at all to touch those of Swami, no grasp of the concept behind this foot worship. In the dream, however, I felt my very salvation lay in holding onto those ankles so my forehead remained pressed against the toes, sustaining me from harm, providing access to a heavenly realm. It reminded me of Jacob’s ladder, where the angelic consciousness is in constant flow up and down from higher spheres in a metaphor showing earth’s ineffable contact with the divine light. When I awoke it was time for the afternoon darshan.
[To be continued.]
Love, Paul William Roberts