Indian drivers are the worst in the world and discipline in traffic is an unknown quality. A South African friend now living in London wrote to me saying how safe she feels driving around her part of that city. I drove for years in London and other parts of Britain, as I did on the Continent and in other parts of the world as far removed as Africa to the north of the Limpopo and the Zambezi and just about every corner south of that, and Australia and New Zealand. I consider myself a reasonably good, considerate and safe driver but I shall never drive in India. The constant pandemonium here would drive me to utter despair and desperation, or to road rage – and perhaps action not becoming of an avowed pacifist.
You must understand that both Puttaparthy and Whitefield are rural places. Except for Sai devotees, one must not expect to find the elite of India here. The locals are by and large simple rural folk with all the coarseness of rural people everywhere. They might look like us and speak Telegu, Kannada, Malayali, Hindi or sometimes Tamil, but there the similarity stops. Even to me as an ethnic Indian, they may as well be a different race.
A fourth generation South African, I have very little in common with them. In well more than a century and a half in South Africa, we have evolved a different ethos. Indian culture means different things to different people. Strange as it might sound, many Indian South Africans, especially the older generation, have had a far greater exposure to the finer aspects of Indian culture than many of these rural people have had.
In Puttaparthy and to a large extent in Whitefield, you will meet with simple rustics, many hardly educated and quite a few rather uncouth and unrefined. With our South African middle class sensibilities, we discover that we are on a different wavelength and so can have only a master-servant relationship with them. Do not expect to make lasting friendships from among the locals.
Everybody who knows me in Whitefield and Puttaparthy calls me “sir” – including, believe it or not, my former, millionaire landlord – and I prefer it that way. I would never dream of suggesting, as I often do in my travels in the west or in South Africa, that they should call me by my first name. This formality puts a barrier between myself and people who can become, with familiarity, rather a pain in more ways than one.
So why have I come to India? Simple: beneath the dust and the dross, the corruption and bribery, the greed and the mad pursuit of a materialistic lifestyle, there is another, mostly unknown India. Few of the people who live here are aware of that aspect of their motherland. They are aware of the mystery, yes, but even fewer are aware, however vaguely, of a Divine Wind that wafts through this land.
If they are Hindu, they are aware of the pantheon of gods and goddesses of Hindu mythology and folklore; they are aware of the ritualistic need to propitiate those gods and goddesses at various times. They would fast and abstain and chant through the night. They would, in all seriousness garland a stone statue. Don’t ask them to explain their actions though. They do these things because their god must be placated and pacified for a thousand reasons. Moreover, their parents and their grandparents did it before them, so it must be valid.
They do not have the vaguest idea of the nature of the divinity within all life. They have no idea of the cosmic rhythm that pulsates through all things and all beings, the antiquity of the Dancing Nadaraja notwithstanding. They understand only magic and their own fears and frailties and the need to placate the All Powerful.
Sri Sathya Sai Baba says, “I am God and I know it; you are also God but you do not know.”
To try to understand this would be too much of an intellectual strain to most of India’s rural people. In any case, immersed as they are in the struggle for survival, pitted against Nature and her elements, they are aware only of their powerlessness and their vulnerability to the whims of a capricious fate. They have their spiritual limitations besides intellectual ones. Over everything else, they have their often grinding poverty and the struggle to survive.
So they light camphor and incense and anoint with milk and ghee – while others, over loudspeakers, recite from the Q’uran – and pray fearfully that misfortune would pass them by.
If one can afford to live in India without having to earn a living here, then the opportunity must not be lost to come and attempt to discover the real pulse of this ancient land. In the shadow of Elephanta and Ellora, Mahaballipuram and Hampi, the Great Shivan temple at Tiruvannamalai and a thousand other works by kings and commoners long forgotten, a youthful giant is rising to its feet. With more than sixty per cent of its population under the age of 35 and imbued with a new spirit of adventure and discovery, ancient India is rapidly metamorphosing into what is being hailed in certain quarters as the potential colossus of the new millennium.
The parochialism and indeed backwardness of the people around Puttaparthy and Whitefield need not be a concern to the itinerant visitor. Most foreigners coming here are not doing so to socialise and get to know the neighbours. They come because of their devotion to Sathya Sai Baba – whom they call Swami – and to further evolve spiritually. In doing so they often experience an India most tourists never see and sometimes discover that which only the really spiritually evolved in India are aware.
Travellers in this category do not come here to go on shopping expeditions or to see the latest Bollywood garbage or to keep up with the Ambanis. They come to further their spiritual growth, to perhaps experience a secret India that is hidden from general view. One can live quietly and privately in both Puttaparthy and Whitefield, without the fears and phobias that plague people in South Africa.
If any particular person can help such a visitor in their journey of spiritual growth, then the Universe will ensure that they meet that person. In my three years here, I have met many men and women who have consciously and unconsciously helped me long the path of spirituality. They have done so with love and kindness, and without thought of recompense. If you come here in search of Swami’s grace, He will always ensure that you meet the right people among the foreigners and occasionally among Indians of an intellectual and social level more on par with yours.
All one has to do is to live quietly and simply and observe and meditate. The Universe will open one’s eyes to things one never suspected and perhaps point the seeker in the direction which his life must take for the remainder of his days. As for the locals, one should pay them to do small things, to run errands and perhaps do one’s housekeeping, but maintain a strictly servant-master relationship. It will not do to become over familiar with one’s local helpers.
As for the Indian middle classes and the nouveau riche, they might not want to mix with me any more than I would with them, so we’re even on that score. I don’t know how the rich and famous live at first hand and I do not particularly care to find out at this stage of my life. If the snatches I sometimes see in newspapers and on the rare occasion on television are any indication, I would rather maintain my blissful isolation. I have neither the time, ambition nor desire for social climbing and useless socialising.
Of course there is an urbane, educated and well-travelled Indian middle class that birds of passage like us would never get to meet. When my family and I lived in London’s Knightsbridge many years ago, we often looked across the road at a narrow, three- storey eighteenth century townhouse across the road. It was one of a group of three similar townhouses. The grand house remained locked up for the greater part of the year, with a dark green Rolls Royce Corniche gathering dust in the permanent parking bay in front. In those days one could lease the street parking in front of one’s house.
Then one day in the early summer a team of servants would arrive, to open up the house to dust and clean and polish and air and a man servant would bone the Rolls until it reflected the grand opulence of its marque. The owners would arrive days later to spend four weeks of the Indian school holidays in their London townhouse. They came every summer. My wife and I found out later that they were a New Delhi businessman, his wife and two teenage children, a boy and a girl. We often saw the businessman drive past with his family.
Some months before we finally left London, the local newspapers carried articles on the record price paid for one of the other townhouses in the group across from our apartment. It sold for the then unheard price of nine million pounds. When I went back to London on an official mission one summer some six years ago, I went to Knightsbridge for old times’ sake. The Delhi couple, by then much older, were in residence for the summer but there was no sign of their offspring. Instead, I saw a liveried English chauffeur driving them in their Rolls.
There is wealth and privilege in India on a scale unimaginable anywhere else. After all, at something more than 300 millions, this country has a bigger middle class than the entire population of the United States and an inordinate number of millionaires and billionaires. Throughout history until the British came, do not forget, India was the most fabulously wealthy land on earth.
There are untold numbers of Indians with the culture and breeding that only the privilege of old money can engender. Like the Rockerfellers, the Rothschilds and European nobility, a casual visitor rarely, if ever, gets to meet them. They live in exclusive, rarefied domains of their own, sipping pink gins and single malt whiskies on private, lush cricket grounds and polo fields well out of reach of anyone but others born to similar wealth and privilege – and old money power.
In any case, it is unlikely that people of this class would be interested in the mysterious, little-known India that I am seeking. This India I glimpse fleetingly on rare occasion amongst the storied edifices of Hampi or the colossal granite piles of Kaiwara, in the shadow of which Rama and Seetha rested on their return journey from Sri Lanka, or in still caves where Ramana Maharishi pondered, intensely silent, on the slopes of a brooding Arunachala rising out of the coconut groves and paddy fields of Tiruvannamalai, or among the ocean-washed sunken shore temples of Mahabalipuram, scanty remains of a once-great Pallava empire, yet still alive with echoes of past glory.
There is a subtle, elusive India, jealously guarding her profound secrets, imparting them after much testing and with great reluctance, only to a privileged few.
It might seem a futile quest, but who knows the mind of the Universe? So I live in hope: there is the faint possibility that I might be among those fortunate few.
Revised and edited by VivekAnanda Naicker in Puttaparthy, AP, India. 09.09.15 (a rather significant day for Vivek)