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May 26, 1997


Farzana Versey

Holy dirt

Dominic Xavier's illustration It was a sultry day, not unlike any other in a summer month. Taking off from the Western Express highway in Bombay, it was a straight drive with the usual sights -- slums, naked children and sudden splashes of green. And, then, that massive traffic jam. Everyone seemed to be heading for their dose of fun, while we were going to Ganeshpuri.

This little town never seems to be out of the news, thanks to the Muktanand Ashram... and talk about its financial clout, the notoriety of the former guru Muktananda or the hold of the new goddess, Gurumayi.

The townspeople have a love-hate relationship with the ashram.

They know that tourism, which thrives because of this place, is a boon to their little businesses. Yet there is a natural resentment against the outsiders who are better-off and probably bring their different values with them. Therefore rumours abound about the present guru Chidvilasananda's parentage, her liaisons and the complete farce that goes on in the name of meditation.

Yet, the moment the doors open after the lunch break at 3 pm, the villagers troop in and prostrate before the idol of Nityananda and Muktananda. There is complete surrender in their eyes. Do they truly believe in him? Or is it merely the herd instinct that brings them there?

There almost seems to be some kind of competition between this plush ashram and another one in the main town where the nearby villagers make their way followed by a dip in the hot springs.

Small towns have a charm of their own. The hawkers selling bright hawai chappals, keychains with the image of the guru, sticky sweets and greasy snacks. And, in that slow monotonous life, you might suddenly find a man who believes that he is a film star. The red scarf round his neck is a signal to stop and watch him. That his dancing eyes will show you the works. That he is too large for a small place like this.

The last time I was there, he had stopped us. He called himself Satish but he could have been Sadanand, though he would have preferred to be Sam. And although we did not need a guide, he insisted on following us, being with us, eating a meal with us and, in the end, refusing when we decided to pay him.

"Instead, why don't you arrange for a job for me? I'll do anything. I can do everything. I only want to get out of here. Everyone here is so happy doing nothing."

And that was how Satish found meaning in life. By accosting strangers to taste that little bit of his dream, to feel as large as he believed he was, and yet he'd stay awake on the days of jagran (staying awake all night) to sing the prayers so lustily that one would have thought that the Lord was his only reason for living.

It was he who gave the true perspective to the ashram. He did not care what happened inside the gates; he treated the lot with disdain, but he would not deny their importance to his life. They were his link with the outside world and he liked to see them depend on him. "I teach them to speak Hindi," he said with pride. How he does it is a matter of amazement since he can speak barely understandable English, but his spirited attempts get them through their stay.

He is free of the suspicions the elders nurse towards the ashramites because he has nothing to lose. And one cannot deny that he has imbibed many of the good things from outside his little patch. He says he will not take any dowry and he will not beat his wife. To us city-dwellers, there is reason enough to smirk. But that has been his world-view and his life, punctuated by a mother being beaten up by a drunkard father. That he chooses not to do this is cause for celebration.

For me, a place like Ganeshpuri is vignettes like these. Or of the shopkeeper who lent me a mosquito repellent, since he had none to sell, and refused to take any money in return. "I gave you a peaceful night, that is enough for me".

Or the man in white topi (cap) who prayed at the temple atop a hillock and came to offer us prasad (holy offerings) and touched our feet. We thought he wanted money but, before our hands could reach our pockets, he was off to live his simple life, soaked in a belief that may get him nothing beyond that simplicity and the dried chappatis (roasted Indian bread).

In all this the swanky ashram appears almost vulgar, but it is clean and well-laid out, and there is no need to be judgemental even if we do not believe. Yes, they are taking over. The government guest house, which was the only decent place to stay in, has been taken over by them. Everything changes.

Change, in fact, means having to say tomorrow is another day. It is, isn't it?

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

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Farzana Versey