A little jugglery, some miracles

I never could understand what Sathya Sai Baba was all about and I could never bring myself to believe in his jugglery.

He was omniscient during my childhood – wherever I went, I could find a small or large, miniature or life size image of the god man adorning the walls of homes of my parents’ friends and many family members who set a lot of store by this second avatar of the Sai Baba.

Among the believers among my friends, life was lived according to the Sai Baba’s diktats and I soon grew tired of that worship and reverence. Yet there are two incidents for which, even today, I have not found any rational explanation. There is nothing that could explain both off as mere coincidences and not miracles.

The first concerned a friend’s uncle who returned from the US during the ‘seventies to “die at home”, as he put it. He was himself a doctor at one of the premier institutions in the US but had developed cancer (of the pancreas, I think) which the best of American doctors had given up on. After a long battle, they gave him only six months to live and he returned to India to die in peace.

During that excruciating wait for life to ebb out, a friend took him to Puttaparthi to see the Sathya Sai Baba. I am told the Baba asked him, “Do you believe in me? Do you have complete and unquestioning faith in me?’’

The man said, “Yes.”

“Then worry no more,” said Baba and blessed him with a very long life. The man still waited to die in a few weeks, though some of the pain of his cancer had by then receded. It kept receding. At the end of six months, there was no death. When ten months went past and he still lived on, he decided to return to the US for a through checkup.

As our friends told it, doctors who had attended him earlier were stunned to discover there were no signs of cancer at all in his body – which they dismissed as impossible and were driven frantic for an explanation.

To this day, that story seems extremely incredible to me and I, too, have not been able to fathom out the truth of that miraculous recovery.

But the second incident was experienced first hand (or as close as possible) and I still do not know how to describe it as anything but a miracle.

I had a classmate who had four sisters and a younger brother. All of them, along with her parents, lived with and were being looked after by their eldest brother-in-law (sister’s husband). Since he had such a large family of his wife’s to care for, along with his own two children, on a frugal government salary, he was very strict in the upbringing of his wife’s young siblings – as I remember, all of them were terrified of their jeejaji.

Then one day their young brother, returning from school, was prancing around in the drawing room when he accidentally broke a vase. A servant told him, “You are a dead man! Your brother-in-law will kill you for this!”

The boy was so terrified of his sister’s husband and so afraid of facing his wrath that he decided to run away from home. We all thought he was hiding out in the society garden/ nursery or had perhaps returned to school. But when he did not turn up even past midnight his parents got truly worried – and his brother-in-law sobered up, too.

A police complaint was lodged but the boy had vanished into thin air, as it were. His parents were shattered – for he, their only son, was their future. They had been waiting patiently for him to grow up, so that they could finally move out of their son-in-law’s home and into their own son’s – the boy was super-intelligent and held out the hope for a great future. But up until then he had reached only up to Class VII and had a long long way yet to go.

I can still recall his parents’ misery and feel their pain – it was as though they had died before their time. But since it was much before their time, they took to going from temple to temple in search of enlightenment and visited all pilgrimage places round the country. Finally, they arrived in Bombay (from Nagpur) where Sathya Sai Baba was to give a darshan to his disciples at his ashram at the Mahakali Caves (I think) which was somewhere far away in the suburbs.

The parents weren’t sure if their turn would come and if they would indeed get an audience with the Baba. But they did, though they were very disappointed when he seemed rather far-away and gave them no assurances about their lost son. All that he told them was to go to Nariman Point at the far end of Marine Drive and drop a coconut and some kumkum into the sea at that land’s end. “Then start walking home along the same path in a straight line. Do not take a taxi or a bus.”

Since they were put up somewhere in Matunga, they did not know how that would be possible but still they decided to follow Sathya Sai Baba’s instructions. After they dropped the coconut into the sea, they walked slowly along Marine Drive, quite exhausted and hopeless. They may have walked only half way to Chowpatty when they decided to stop for a tender-coconut water and a bhel.

What happened next can be described as nothing short of a miracle. The bhelwaala, a bhaiya as ever, called to his helper by name – which was also the name of their son and they turned around to take a look at his namesake. As Purandar (name changed) stood up from where he was squatting behind the bhelpuri cart, he came face to face with his own father and mother.

His parents almost fainted (or at least the mother did). The father could not believe his eyes. Nor could Purander, who was now mighty frightened again and made to run away once more. This time his employer caught him by his shirt and shook him up to get the complete story out of the boy.

As Purander told it, frightened that his brother-in-law will beat the life out of him for breaking that vase, he had decided to return to school some eight kms away from home where he thought he would spend the night with a friend at the boys’ hostel. Tired with also weeping copious tears before he started on his walk back to school, he decided to ask a passing trucker for a lift. But he fell asleep in the back of the truck – even as the trucker forgot he had to drop the boy off close to his school. Overnight, they were in Bombay before they realised what had happened but now there was no question of going back. So Purander, the wizard at science and maths, got to work washing dishes at wayside restaurants and other odd jobs, until the chaatwala offered him a more respectable living serving chaat and pani puris at his Marine Drive stall.

It was a miracle the boy had not been sodomised, sold into slavery/beggary or otherwise brutalised. He was whole and traumatised only on account of his brother-in-law. But now his parents just could not care less about that broken vase. They snatched him up from the chaatwala and rushed back to Sathya Sai Baba’s ashram to seek his blessings – and to thank the god man for restoring their long lost son to them.

A full four years after Pruander had run away from home, his sisters excitedly distributed sweets in school – he should have been passing out that year but he returned to Class VII, armed only with an assurance from the Baba that despite those lost years, a bright future awaited him.

I lost touch with that family after I passed out of school so I do not know what Purandar might be doing today. But I have never forgotten his story and I have gone crazy all my life explaining that off as sheer coincidence.

But Baba’s jugglery has been less of a mystery. I recall some colleagues who had visited Sai Baba at his Puttaparthi ashram many years ago. One of them was wearing a priceless emerald ring – he was told that emerald was not his stone and that he should go in for a Navratna ring, instead. So Baba blew nine times into his precious emerald ring – and lo and behold! The emerald had turned itself into nine gems!

Only when my entranced colleague began to push it up the same finger on which had been wearing the original emerald, he discovered the ring would just not fit —it was too small for even his little finger! There was tremendous embarrassment all around until one of Baba’s handymen assured him that before he left he would have a ring of the right size that fit the same finger as the emerald.

Sceptics among those colleagues told him, “If he was really God, he should have known your size. That Navratna ring should have fit your finger.”

I told him he had lost a valuable ring to one of the cheapest tricks on earth – and someone round the Sai Baba was now richer by a couple of lakhs: and an emerald ring!

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