A brisk hike through the lanes and passages from my flat in the old coconut grove to the news-stand opposite the Ganesha Gate of Prashanti Nilayam for the English language newspapers, then an hour scanning them over a cup of chai in a nearby restaurant popular with westerners has become my morning constitutional. However, this morning, it took a long time for me to complete my scanning of the daily papers. All turned around my new camera, the proprietor of a curio shop, a lost camera, and the Saint of Shirdi.
Most locals and regular westerners greet me politely and otherwise leave me alone to what they realise is my routine, but not so Ram, who owns a curio shop within the restaurant complex. He almost always intrudes if he does not have a customer, which is often enough.
“I hope you don’t mind my joining you”, he said somewhat belatedly one morning, after making himself comfortable at my table. There was little else I could do but return his salutation and politely lower my paper.
I secretly hoped Ram’s intrusion would not last long. Then he raised his hand and called to someone further within the restaurant, dashing my hopes of returning to my papers with his early departure.
A young Indian woman with a working-class London accent joined us. Ram introduced her to me as Geeta, from South London. She seemed preoccupied and merely flashed a cursory smile, barely noticing me.
Ram entered into a private conversation with her, completely oblivious to the fact that he had intruded at my table. It was humid after the night’s showers, so I stood to turn up the overhead fan. Ram noticed the black leather case on my belt and asked whether I had a new cellular telephone. Indians, like most third world people, are cell-phone mad.
“No, it’s a digital camera”, I said.
“May I see how it works?” he asked, instantly terminating his conversation with the girl. I removed the camera from its case and took a picture of him. Turning the back of the camera towards him I let him see the photograph I had taken. It was rather flattering; he was impressed.
The young woman seemed to come out of her distant mood and stared at the camera.
“I also have a digital camera, but do not know how to use it”, she said. “I lost the manual. Will you show me how to make it work?”
“If you have it here, I’d be glad to show you”, I said.
“It’s in my mother’s flat inside the ashram”, she said. “Can I go fetch it?”
I said I’d wait and she hurried away to the ashram.
Ram seized the opportunity to ask whether I would take more pictures of him and of his recently re-decorated shop. He was proud of the décor he had designed. I spent the next half hour photographing the shop. My camera was a recent acquisition and I needed to get used to using it anyway, so the practice was useful.
The girl returned more than an hour later, looking most distraught.
“The camera’s gone, yet the cellular telephone I left it with is still exactly where I left both. It must have been stolen”, she said disconsolately, her eyes glistening with tears.
“Is there anyone else in the flat besides you?” I asked.
“I live alone, but a maid comes when I call her once or twice a week to clean up. My mother has had her for years but never trusted her. She tends to pinch things.”
“When last did you see her?” I asked
“Yesterday. I went to the balcony while she was cleaning. I was there for about half and hour. She must have taken the camera then.”
I advised her to telephone the maid to come the next day to help with cleaning. Then she should ask her to help search for the camera which could very well be lying somewhere in the flat other than in the usual place.
“It was very expensive camera”, she said. “I really cannot afford to lose it. I am in enough trouble as it is. It looks as though even God has abandoned me.” She began to cry, so I took her to a table at the far end of the restaurant.
I said: “The camera might not really be lost or stolen. You could have left it somewhere other than in the usual place. In your haste to find it, you might then have looked right at it in the new location without quite seeing it. Many of us look without really seeing. So please do not accuse the maid.”
I gave her my handkerchief and she wiped her eyes. That’s when I noticed the ring on her finger. It had a small picture of Shirdi Sai Baba.
“Where did you get that?” I asked.
“I bought it in Shirdi. I went there last week for three days”, she replied.
A thought flashed through my mind.
“Let’s try something”, I said. “Everybody pesters Sai Baba for every little thing. Let’s give Him a rest this time. Today, let’s ask Shirdi Sai for help.”
“Funny you should suggest that”, Geeta said, giving me back my handkerchief. “When I was in Shirdi last week, a lady told me that whenever she mislays or loses something, she asks Shirdi Sai to help find it. She said she only troubles Sai Baba for really big things in her life.”
“I have known that for some time too, so why don’t we try it? Let’s pray together for a minute to Shirdi Sai to help you find the camera, It’s quite private in this corner and we’re not likely to be disturbed”, I said.
We sat across from each other at a corner table, held hands and bowed our heads in prayer. I thanked Shirdi Sai for finding the girl’s camera.
I never ask when I pray. God did not create us to become beggars. I always visualise whatever it is I need, then thank God for letting me have it. Then I send a burst of light and love to everyone and everything in the Universe. I cannot remember when a reasonable request was not granted.
I raised my head and said: “Why don’t you go back to the flat and search thoroughly just one more time. On the way there, keep thanking Shirdi Sai for letting you find the camera.”
“You really do have a lot of faith, don’t you?”, she said. “Do you really think God sees and hears everything?”
“Yes, and there’s nothing faith in God cannot fix”, I said. She gave me a long and abstracted look. I wondered what she was thinking. She gathered her things.
“I’ll take your advice and go back to the flat. Would you be here when I get back?”
“Yes, if you want me to be”, I said, for I sensed I would be seeing more of the girl before she returned to London in a few days’ time.
Ram and I were sitting at a table, scrolling back on my camera to view the pictures I had taken of him and his shop when Geeta returned rather quickly. She was smiling broadly for the first time since I had met her that morning. As I gazed quizzically at her face, she dug into her satchel, brought out a black camera case much like mine and placed it on the table in front of me.
I was overjoyed for more than one reason. I hated to see the girl distressed, for I sensed, quite rightly as it turned out later, that she was a deeply troubled soul. Increasingly more people like her have been showing up in Prasanthi Nilayam in recent years. Recognising the signs, I knew that she had been mysteriously sent to me for reasons other than the missing camera.
I had been aware for years that I seem to attract lame ducks. Only some years after I came to India did it dawn on me that this was the seva chosen for me by my Unseen Guru, perhaps because of my years of experience as a writer and teacher.
“Have you checked to see if the camera is in the case?” I asked.
“The camera is in the case all right, but there was no point in my opening it. I was so excited, I ran straight back to you”, she replied.
“Where did you find it?” I asked.
“Here’s the strange part”, Geeta said. “I have three bags: this satchel that I carry around, my cosmetics bag and my large suitcase. The cosmetic bag is always in my suitcase. I usually place the camera and telephone on the top tray of the cosmetics bag.
“If I searched the cosmetics bag once, I searched it a hundred times. When I went back the first time to fetch the camera, I emptied out everything from the cosmetic bag. The telephone was on the top tray but the camera was missing. I check and re-checked the contents. Only the cell phone was there.
“When I left the flat after searching the first time, I put the tray back into the top of the cosmetics bag and clearly recall placing only the cell phone on it. Then I emptied my suitcase onto a bed sheet and put things back item by item into the case. Still no camera.
“When I ran back to the flat the second time, I kept thanking Shirdi Sai for finding my camera, exactly as you told me to do. I visualised it in my cosmetics bag.
“In the flat, I took out the cosmetics bag from my suitcase. I opened it, and there the camera case was, exactly as I had left it days ago next to the cell phone. I’ll swear it was not there before.”
I opened the camera case lying on the table before me. Inside was an expensive digital camera, obviously brand new and unused. It was almost exactly like mine, but made by a rival company. Camera manufacturers, like those who manufacture laptops and motor cars, usually match one another’s products within a given price range.
It was a beautiful instrument and worked almost exactly like mine. I examined its features and compared them mentally with my camera. It was then that I noticed the sticker directly below the zoom lens. I had almost missed it, for it had a silver metallic finish, exactly like the highly-polished stainless steel camera body.
Embossed on the sticker, with the highlights in colour, was a portrait of Shirdi Sai Baba. I thought Geeta might have put it there when she went to Shirdi. It occurred to me that it might be nice to have one on my camera too.
“Do you have another sticker like this one?” I asked, and showed her the one on her camera.
“Oh my God!” she gasped, awestruck. “I don’t know where that came from! I’ve never seen it before and nobody else has touched that camera since I bought it in London. I never looked at it in Shirdi because I could not operate it. This is the first time I have seen it out of its case in Puttaparthy.”
Then the full import of what was happening struck us both at the same time.
“You are right!” she cried incredulously. “God is aware of everything. He heard us when we prayed together for the camera to be returned.
“Shirdi Sai heard me chanting His name as I ran back to the flat for the second time. He retrieved the camera from wherever it was and returned it to my cosmetics case. I know it was not there when I looked the first time. Don’t you agree that this is what must have happened? It’s the only explanation I can think of…”
“Yes”, I said. “And he placed the sticker there as a calling card. There is a message there, I think, for both of us.” This incident was one more of many spiritual lessons during my lengthy and eventful Indian sojourn.
Sitting with me at the far end of the restaurant, Geeta stared out the window, through the trees beyond to the samadhi of Shri Sathya Sai Baba’s parents. Then she began to sob quietly. I sensed that a startling new realisation had come to her. I let her cry.
I continued to sit quietly. She cried for a long time. Her life began to unfold before my inner eye. I saw her troubled soul and realized that I had much work to do with her in the days before she returned to London.
In the days that followed, Geeta told me a tragic story of alcohol, hard drugs, and of the vile denizens of a shadier London. I could see why she was terrified to return to the city. The incident with her camera, however, and the Shirdi Sai sticker had had its impact. She was imbued with a new optimism and her fear had abated. I think she believed me when I assured her that she would always have God at her side.
On the morning she left for London, she met me for the last time at the quiet roof-top restaurant overlooking the Ganesha Gate that we had chosen for our therapy sessions. Her eyes were puffed; I could see that she had been crying before coming to meet me. She had a confession to make, she said.
She told me that before we were introduced on the morning her camera had gone missing, she had planned to take an overdose of sleeping pills on returning to her flat that evening. Then I had suggested praying to Shirdi Sai for help and the camera had been miraculously returned. Her thoughts of suicide had evaporated.
She rose to leave and stood on her toes to kiss me on my cheek. “I owe you one”, she said wistfully, “and Shirdi Sai too.” It seemed that her faith in God – and in herself – had been reaffirmed.
“Please don’t bother to walk me down”, she said. “Drink your tea and finish your newspaper. That’s what you were doing when I first saw you and that’s how I’d like to remember you now that I’m leaving.” She walked to the door and turned briefly to gaze at me sitting under the awning. Then she disappeared down the narrow stairs.
I knew I would never see her again. Her demeanour in that last hour we spent together showed me that she sensed it too. With a great heaviness in my heart, I knew without doubt that my brief seva with her was done.
I did not finish my paper. I folded it, put it under my arm, went down the stairs and crossed the road to the ashram. Walking through the gate, I skirted the Ganesha shrine and walked up the hill to the Meditation Tree, hoping the spot would be deserted.
I needed solitude and silence to thank the Saint of Shirdi.
68th birthday portrait
The Virgo Birthday Boys – South African writer VivekAnanda, French Canadian painter Remi Genest and US novelist/playwright Leni Matlin at the joint birthday party for Virgos given by Sue Kelly Christie in Puttaparthy on 03.09.07
In the party pic above are, from left, Kodis and her husband Lenny of Durban, Remi, Leni, James Woods of Texas and Kodis and Lenny’s daughter Shmolia with Sue Kelly, right. Vivek took the photograph, hence the vacant chair.