“I am God and I know it. You are also God but you do not know”
The enigma called Sri Sathya Sai Baba was in residence in February, 2003, when I arrived from South Africa at his ashram in Whitefield which was then in the rural outskirts of Bangalore city. My friends Roy and Sue Christie of South Africa and Chris Parnell of Australia were also there and we met every day for three happy weeks. After all three had left, I was alone in crowded India for the first time. But I was to meet with friends, find a eyrie for a residence overlooking the maidans of Whitefield and through a freak thunderstorm and a mysterious guide, meet with two ladies who were to become firm friends whom I would visit in London, years later.
The enigma called Sri Sathya Sai Baba was in residence in February, 2003, when I arrived from South Africa at his ashram in Whitefield which was then in the rural outskirts of Bangalore city. My friends Roy and Sue Christie of South Africa and Chris Parnell of Australia were also there and we met every day for three happy weeks. After all three had left, I was alone in crowded India for the first time.
The consolation was that after Sue and Roy left, I happened to meet a fellow South African, Brendon Gass of Johannesburg, in a local Internet café. We were to become close friends over the ensuing years both in India and Johannesburg.
I continued to stay in the guest house opposite the ashram, for all my efforts to find a suitable place of my own had been futile. Before she left, Sue had taken it on to herself to ask everyone she was acquainted with if they knew of a flat to let in the vicinity of the ashram. She had even taken me to see one or two, but they were not suitable. By the time she left, disappointed that she could not locate a suitable flat for me, just about everybody in the vicinity of the guest house and ashram knew that I was flat-hunting. With her endlessly bubbly and outgoing nature, Sue knows everybody and everybody, including street urchins, knows her.
Then, not a week after the last of my friends had left, a flat became available in the most amazing way. It was less than half a kilometre from the guest house, at the end of a country lane through lush market gardens. I moved in to the two-bedroom flat with its tiny lounge and kitchen after furnishing it with cheap cane furniture, a fridge, beds and gas cooker.
It was a most peaceful location and from the front balcony, I could see Swami’s cottage on the grounds of Brindavanam. I was to stay there for three quiet years. During this time I got to know Brendon Gass. A polished and remarkably knowledgeable and spiritual young man, he exuded an aura of peace and calm. I revelled in his company.
After a busy career as a communications specialist dealing with hundreds of journalists from all over the world during a most crucial phase of South Africa’s history, those were tranquil and content years. Yet I could not help feeling lonely in my sudden, unexpected isolation. The fact that the people amongst whom I lived in Whitefield were mainly simple country folk who spoke mostly Kannada and very little English added to the sense of isolation. This meant that I would sometimes remain silent or almost entirely so for days on end. It was some time before I realised that the isolation and silence were crucial to my development along the spiritual path. When the mind is silent, the Voice of Intuition can be heard.
At one end of our lane there was at that time a large vacant plot which the locals used as a maidan – a village common – to graze their sheep, goats and cattle. It was also a busy shortcut to the main road and bus stops for the villagers in the vicinity. Across the maidan was a village with meandering lanes leading to the main road through Whitefield and a hotel then popular with western Sai devotees.
The hotel was ideal as a half-way stop between the old HAL airport in Bangalore and the pilgrimage town of Puttaparthi, which was then three or four hours away on mostly poor roads. As they still do, Sai Baba devotees from all over the world often landed in Bangalore from their various countries. Designed and managed along western lines and with English, Italian and even Russian-speaking staff, the hotel on the main road was a popular overnight stop for devotees from far and wide. In the months when Swami was in residence at the Brindavanam, the Whitefield ashram, it was filled to capacity at most times.
As a respite from my long hours of isolation, I walked across the maidan twice each week to the hotel to have a breakfast of ginger chai and vada, a savoury donut-like local favourite that was made in the hotel’s kitchens only on Friday and Monday mornings.
The twice–weekly walk to the hotel became a ritual, for it gave me the opportunity to read the Bangalore English-language newspapers, particularly the Sunday ones which the hotel reception specially saved for me. It also gave me the opportunity to meet some of the most interesting and informative people from far corners of the world. These meetings, often spontaneous and unexpected, were priceless, for they broadened my horizons and contributed considerably to my greater education.
My favourite table was at a window opposite the swing door to the kitchen. A creature of habit, I sat at the same table on each of my visits, at the end opposite the entrance from the hotel foyer to the longish dining room. Occasionally, I struck up a conversation with a western devotee either coming from or going to Puttaparthi, where Sai Baba’s main ashram, Prasanthi Nilayam, is. In my isolation, those twice-weekly walks to the hotel through the maidan and two hours at the corner table eating vada and reading the newspapers or talking with fellow devotees from far removed parts of the world became one of the great delights in my life of unexpected semi-rural isolation.
One sunny February morning when I walked into the dining room, it was empty except for a middle-aged lady and a younger woman sitting at a table near the entrance. They smiled at me, so I greeted them with a smile and the usual, “Sai Ram”, and walked on to my table at the opposite end. I thought they might be Sai devotees returning from Puttaparthi. I recalled seeing them at the same table on the previous Monday, when the dining room had been crowded with western devotees going home after visiting Prasanthi Nilayam.
Glancing at the pair as I waited for my chai and vada, I thought they might be Indian South Africans, for though the older woman was dressed in a sari, the younger was in a fashionable western frock. The mixed western and eastern styles of dress is the norm among Indian South African women. The pair seemed in no hurry to go anywhere for they were chatting and reading the English-language newspapers.
The morning winter sunlight coming through the window and the silence when I finished my tea and the newspapers made me drowsy, so I thought I should start to make my way down the main road to the Internet cafe to check my e-mails before I got too indolent. I paid my bill and started to go out to the foyer.
As I passed them, the lady and the younger woman smiled, so I thought they might know me. I paused to introduce myself and ask whether they were South Africans. They were mother and daughter but not South Africans as I had thought. Like I had sensed that they were not locals, they too had sensed that I was not a native Indian. They were from London. Still standing, I chatted with them for a while then excusing myself, left the dining room.
On entering the foyer, there was a startlingly loud clap of thunder and it suddenly became very dark. I thought it odd, for it was the middle of winter and the monsoons had long passed. Moreover, moments before it had been sunny with a cloudless sky. By the time I had crossed the foyer, a torrential downpour had started. Puzzled, I wondered how an unseasonal thunderstorm could suddenly burst from a cloudless, winter sky.
I returned the polite greeting of the young man at the reception counter near the front entrance and pushed against one of the glass doors that opened into a portico leading to the entrance driveway. The door would not budge. I had noticed a very small, old woman in a faded orange sari sweeping the portico as I walked through the foyer. Now she had one arm extended to the glass door and she was leaning against it. I tried pushing it but the door remained rock solid. I was so mystified by the old woman’s strength that I checked to see whether the door was bolted from the inside. It wasn’t.
As I checked the bolts, the woman screeched at me, pointing with her twig broom at the downpour which by then was sweeping across the front of the hotel and over the main road in front. Then she pointed at me and gestured towards the rain while shrieking toothlessly. She was obviously saying that I would get drenched in the downpour. She was urging me back into the foyer.
Embarrassed that the receptionist would see a toothless old crone preventing me from opening the door, I turned back to the foyer and walked through to the dining room. I was deeply puzzled by the incredible strength of what looked like a frail, diminutive old woman. Somewhat shaken, I thought I would have another cup of tea while I waited out the storm and pondered the unnatural strength of the old woman.
As I re-entered the dining room, the lady and the girl from London turned to look at me:
“Where did this storm come from so suddenly”, I said to the lady.
“That is exactly what my daughter and I were wondering”, the lady said. “It was rather sudden, wasn’t it?”
“And to think the rainy season is long past. It’s the middle of winter now”, I replied.
“Wouldn’t you like to join us for a cup of tea?” the lady asked. I thanked her and sat down in a vacant chair. I thought she must be a mind reader, for a cup of tea after my weird experience with the old woman would be most welcome.
That was how I came to know Chandra Misir and her daughter Shudi. After chatting with them for an hour, it was as though we had known each other all our lives. I had told them that I knew London well, having lived and worked there as a journalist and later diplomat for several years. By the time more tea arrived the storm had passed and the sun was shining again. We were all struck by how suddenly the unseasonal storm had come and gone. We agreed that it was most strange if not downright weird.
Chandra and Shudi were staying at a guest house next to the hotel and they came each day to have their meals in the hotel’s dining room. They had been there a week and had seen me a few times. They would be leaving for London the following week, so we arranged to meet for breakfast on Monday. I thanked them for their hospitality and walked out to the foyer.
I was still thinking about the incredibly strong old woman, so on the way out, I asked the young receptionist who she was.
“Which old woman, sir? the young man asked.
“The one who was sweeping the portico at the front entrance when the rain came”, I said.
“Excuse me, sir, but there was no old woman there when you started to go out. I saw you walk towards the door, but you saw the storm outside and turned back to go to the dining room. I was watching you all the time. There is no old woman working here. All our cleaners and sweepers are young people.”
I was even more puzzled. When I left the hotel, I made a point of looking out for the old woman. She was nowhere in sight. Going back to the hotel on Monday, I spotted the owner and his wife at reception. I asked about the old woman. Neither of them knew her.
“We employ only young staff”, they said.
I met Chandra and Shudi twice before they flew back to London. On the morning that they left, I went to their guest house in the lane behind the hotel and saw them to the waiting taxi. I waved them off as it pulled away, then walked behind the taxi as it made its way through the narrow lane past the hotel to the main road. It turned towards the city and the airport and I waved after it as it disappeared into the traffic. I continued down the main road to my usual Internet café to check my e-mails.
I did not know it then, but Chandra, her family and I were destined to become firm friends. I would visit her on several of my trips to the UK and also get to know many of her fellow expatriates from British Guyana. Chandra would play a significant role in my further education and spiritual development. She would also become a good friend of Sue and Roy Christie and their sons Casey and Robin. All of us would meet repeatedly over the ensuing years, both in India and Britain.
I never saw the old woman again, but that sudden, strange thunderstorm in the middle of the dry season and her incredible strength remained in my memory. It occurred to me eventually that if it were not for that weird thunderstorm and the old woman, I might never have come to know Chandra and Shudi. When we met in London just over a year later, I reminded Chandra of the incident.
I told her that although I go to that hotel twice and sometimes more often each week, I never saw that old woman again. That is an unforgettable incident because there was something unnatural about that storm as well as the old woman, but I could never quite put my finger on it.
“Thank you for reminding me, bhaiya. I meant to tell you but forgot when we spoke on the telephone”, Chandra replied. “We did see the old lady again, Shudi and I. That morning after you came to see us off in our taxi, we drove out along the lane on the side of the hotel. As we passed the driveway in front, there the old lady was.
“She was very small, almost as small as a twelve-year-old child and dressed in a faded orange sari, exactly as you had described her to us. She had a twig broom in one hand which she waved as she shouted a farewell when we drove by. The driver was already turning into traffic on the main road and it was not possible to give her some money. I felt bad about that. Maybe I will see her again someday and can make up for it.”
I thought what Chandra was telling me was odd, for I had followed closely behind the taxi as it moved slowly down the narrow lane past the hotel. I too had seen the driveway of the hotel as I passed. Except for two or three khaki-clad auto rickshaw drivers waiting for fares, there was nobody else nearby. If the old woman had been there, I would have noticed her even before I saw the rickshaw drivers.
Only then, as Chandra told me the story while she cooked lunch in the cosy kitchen of her terrace house in Hackney in the East End of London, that the realisation came that neither Chandra nor I was ever likely to see the old woman again. Not in that guise, anyway, for by then it was beginning to dawn on me, incredible though it seemed, who the “old woman” really was.
That was the fourth in the series of my inexplicable experiences with strange beings in the years after I was called so mysteriously to Puttaparthi for the first time in 1993. At that early stage, I had not experienced enough to realise that the tableau on each of those occasions was deeply mystical and numinous. Only much later did I realise that each such manifestation over the years was exquisitely planned and choreographed to take me further into my growing spiritual development.
It was only some two or three years later, when reviewing those events recorded in my working journal, that the realisation came that there was always some incongruity in either the dress or behaviour of the unusual beings that I encountered. They revealed a delectable sense of humour and a piquant eccentricity bordering on playfulness. Over the years of my Indian sojourn, these unique qualities came to represent the signature of the Guru of gurus. Was I not promised constant help and protection in my travels even before I left my country?
I had by then heard of and read accounts by Sri Sathya Sai Baba’s biographer, Professor Kasturi, the Australian Howard Murphet, American Phyllis Krystal and other writers of various times when Swami had appeared in a variety of disguises. I had also heard and read of His ability to cause sudden thunderstorms, or to make the rain stop falling in a particular area during festivals or celebrations. Some of those accounts had seemed incredulous when I first read them. Now they do not.
Only after several strange incidents did it dawn on me that all those encounters were the most grandly mystical experiences that anyone on the spiritual path could hope to have, that the costumed and made- up actor in each of those tableaux was none other than the entity that I came to know as Sri Sathya Sai Baba, and that the extraordinary thunderstorm in Whitefield had been arranged by a Grand Networker so that Chandra, Shudi and I, as well as the Christie family, could meet.
Only then did I fully understand the personal message that the priest in Johannesburg had read to me from the Panchangam many years previously. The message had exhorted me to go without undue delay to India. I should not even think about anything untoward happening to me for there would always be help on hand if ever the need should arise.
I was awed beyond words when the realisation came of the extent to which that promise would be kept. If the Being millions of others and I knew as Sai Baba could order a freak thunderstorm at will, what else could He do? That I would find out in the most incredible ways during my long Indian sojourn.
In the end I would come to the realisation that the greatest enigma of my life and of millions of others all over this planet was none other than Lord Krishna of the Bhagavad Gita returned six thousand years later as the Avatar of Kali Yuga.
He would lay the foundations of a new, golden chapter in the annals of this enchanted blue planet floating in the backwoods of space while drawing the curtains on the dying phase of a painfully dark age.
And so will the Supreme Cosmic Energy men call God prepare both Mankind and Mother Earth for a new, golden chapter in the age- old saga of man’s search for Self Realisation.
Revised and edited by VivekAnanda Naicker in Walkerville, Gauteng,RSA. 21.09.14