Even for 1982, arriving in Bombay with just Rs.5,000 in my pocket was a pretty daring thing to do. But I was on a high. The shipping company office in Bombay had called me in Chennai: ‘start immediately, to soon join a ship as a Chief Engineer’.
I was to be taken in as Chief Engineer? I was incredulous, considering I had quit sailing ten years earlier. And, was the salary really Rs.40,000 per month?
My hard luck days had ended. Oh, yes.
At the company office in Bombay, I was told to be ready to fly out at 12 hour’s notice. I glided on the streets of Bombay so familiar to me from my cadet days there in the sixties. I revisited the restaurants, walked past houses of old friends where we had partied and hung out in bookshops I used to frequent. After due deliberation, I even treated myself to a beer at the Taj Sea Lounge. It had been such a long time since I had last splurged thus. The prospect of a fat salary, soon to be mine, had made me quietly euphoric.
The Rs.5,000 in my pocket seemed sufficient. I had free lodging at an old friend’s large apartment. Mani was a carefree banker, coping with his girl friends who each hoped to hook him. The apartment had no furniture save for a large rented piano, on which he exhausted his passions every morning. There were a few sheets and a couple of pillows on the floor, on which we slept. Books were on the floor, stacked high against a wall. The kitchen had a kettle and some tea bags. No refrigerator or gas stove in the house either. Mani was that kind of guy.
I had to eat every meal out but still Rs.5,000 seemed sufficient. Every time I was anxious, the number 40,000 -my salary to be- reared into my mind’s eye like a benevolent kindly saint blessing me.
I was returning to the sea since I had gone broke. I had taken on a 6.5 acre patch of dunes by the sea near Chennai thinking I could turn it green and it’d start to pay for my keep forever, before my modest principal ran out. As it happened, in under two years I ran dry and hit a wall. I have rarely been utterly broke in my life; now I was. I was close to forty.
I had always been grateful to the sea for the warm home it had been for a loner like me. I now turned to it in my distress. And sure, it had room for me.
I sauntered into the office after a week. Saigal the manager, offered me a cup of tea. He was respectful. He had been a decade junior to me in the training college. He had no specific direction from Hong Kong yet. It won’t be long, he assured me. As I left his cubicle, I saw a team of seamen busy with paper work in the outer office: they were to leave for Australia that night. There was a Chief Engineer among them.I paused a moment: ‘Why wasn’t I going in his place?’ I walked out in mild anxiety. Oh, maybe he has waited longer than me. But why had they asked me start at once from Chennai?
I suddenly became aware I was running out of money. And quite quickly Bombay began to look different. I started seeking out tiny food stalls in lanes off Colaba Causeway near Sassoon Docks. I began to wonder if I was cramping Mani’s lifestyle. He had not introduced me to any of his lady friends. He did mention though that they preferred their dates to be quiet. It was probably a hint he wanted the apartment to himself during weekends.
But where had I to go? I picked on Lonavla, imagining there’d be cheap hotels given it was well out of greater Bombay. I called Saigal. He had no news for me. Was it okay if I went away for a few days, I asked, hoping he’d protest and insist I stay close and ready.
He didn’t. It had been two weeks already.
Lonavla is the darling getaway of many Bombay weekenders. I was trying to make a cheap refuge of it. Some distance off its heart I found a clean modestly priced hotel that served frugal meals. I called Saigal and gave him the hotel number. He noted it down. “Oh you are in Lonavla? I envy you,’ he said. Was he a little excessively cheerful to put me at ease?
I endured five days of mindless, joyless walks. Was I running away from my responsibility to the land I had undertaken to turn green? Should I have sought a humble job in Chennai and carried on caring for the land? Was my having been a Chief Engineer coming in the way of taking low paid jobs? Everyday was spent longing for a call from Saigal and going to bed lost and disappointed.
Back in Bombay, and swallowing my pride, I called Saigal. No, he still had no news.
“Is anything amiss”, I asked. “I don’t think so”, he dragged. “Let’s wait a little longer”. I was veering to believe something was indeed amiss. After all, shipping business was in a downturn and engineers younger than I, were looking for jobs. I began discreetly cold calling on other companies. They were all polite but had no offers to make.
Mani and I were on the floor one evening, talking. He was into EST one time and narrated his experience of a seminar with Werner Erhard. After truly admiring the way the EST message was packaged, he said “But I found there was an easier way to get that message.” He paused and said “I found that from Swami Mukhtananda at Ganeshpuri”
And that’s when I first heard of Ganeshpuri.
Just before the next weekend began, I decided to head for Ganeshpuri. To be honest, it was not to seek wisdom from the Guru there, as much for leaving the apartment free for Mani and his leisure plans. I wanted an inexpensive place to stay out a few more days. It seemed my ship would be long time coming. Mani had told me the Ganeshpuri Ashram was free to stay.
I took a train to Thane. From there boarded a dusty, rattling, over-crowded bus. It took me to Vajreshwari, a temple town. I had been averse to these holy places. I used to say, ‘pilgrims means pollution’. I searched for a quick bus to get away from the noisy town. It was close to 5pm when I arrived at Ganeshpuri.
I waited at a window of the office along with a few new-arrivals. There was no one to speak to. I saw a number of young Americans -going by their accents- walking in and out of the guarded doorway with a proprietorial air.
An elderly man came over and asked me if I had come for a stay. He seemed a manager of some sort, with much authority. He sent me into the office to sign a register. “Is there a charge?’ I asked boldly, fully knowing there was not, but wanting to delight in the answer.The registrar said ‘no’.
As I came out, the Manager was still there. I thanked him. We talked a while. He was impressed that I was from Chennai and that I was in the merchant navy. I surprised myself telling him this: “My wife died four years ago. I had turned to caring for a piece of land to understand what had happened to me. And I went broke. Did I do the right thing by going back to the sea or was I running away from my undertaking? I don’t quite know,” I smiled.
All that I had said was true but I had not come to Ganeshpuri to discover answers to them. I was a financial refugee! But my words had tumbled out.
He patted my shoulder: “I will arrange for a darshan with the Swamiji tomorrow evening. All will be clear.”
I found my bed in the middle of a large hall where there were 4 rows of metal beds, with about 10 beds in each row. All arranged in a precise grid. The sheets were just about clean. There was a hard pillow. 6 fans whirled overhead. Rustic men sat on their beds in part undress. Some were talking to their neighbours in Marathi. Most were readying for the evening meal. The bell soon rang.
It was a frugal but good meal; some rice, dal and a vegetables. We sat at long benches and tables. We ate our meals without a word.
I wandered around a bit after the meal. I came acrossa an over-lit dining space. It might have been a cafeteria in a US university campus. Brightly coloured chairs and steel tables were arranged for groups of six. Young men and women -and a few, older- walked about with food laden trays in their hands. I could spot soups and salads. It appeared a bit odd: there seemed a rigid separation between Indians and foreigners. There must be some reason, I told myself. I had spotted a few sturdy young white men carrying bamboo staves and strutting about the place with airs of great alertness.
The night that followed was one that I was not to forget in a long time. Despite having wearied from the long bumpy travel, sleep evaded me. Lights were off. Fans were whirring. Various rhythms of snores rose from rows of beds and began to converse, reminiscent of frogs on a rainy night. There were smelly noises too. Snorers choked periodically, startling me. Bodies turned over and beds creaked. And there were regular walkers in the aisles in search of toilets.
I lay awake drowning in self-pity. Just four years ago I was a confident married man. Now I was disoriented, broke and facing a hazy future. Although the folk around me were honest, hard working people, I had never had to share a sleeping space with them. In another part of the Ashram, I imagined was a well outfitted space to which I had no access. What had become of me? I didn’t know better than feeling sorry for myself.
I was glad for the morning and gladder for my turn at the wash-room. A warm breakfast over, we gravitated for group singing, the satsang. All residents squatted on thick cotton spreads. On either side of a platform sat beatific looking young Americans in Indian clothes, their foreheads marked variously. A few had a tambourine or a double ended drum or finger cymbals. They were obviously long-timers who had earned their place as leaders in the singalong to follow.
Swamy Mukhtananda Ji arrived shortly followed by his nephew and niece, his anointed successors. The nephew was rotund and his sister, unspeakably beautiful- a dusky skin, hair clipped short. Her large eyes added to her allure. I think she knew she was devastating everyone. A teasing smile curled on her full lips.
SwamyJi was a master communicator. He was a witty man too. When his niece went on and on with a piece of translation, he interrupted with amusement saying, “You seem to be have more to say than I did”, to everyone’s laughter. The niece feigned a coy hurt. But she was a strong-willed woman as later events were to testify.
Then the singing began. It was a chant that I have never forgotten. It’s a line familiar to all Hindus: Om Nama Shivaya. But I had never heard it sung like this.
Let me try conveying how it went:
‘Om’ went rising for a count of about 15: Ohh Ohhhh Oh Ohhhh mmmmmmm
‘Nama’ went down 15 counts: Na maaa… aaaa… aahhh
’Shivaya’ rose and fell 20 counts: Sheeee… vaaaaa…aaah ya
And start again and on and on. The cymbals, the drums and the full throated flock made me feel I was on a giddy roller-coaster. I didn’t want it to end. Ever.
But it did. And was followed by other hymns but I had lost interest. I longed for that Om Nama Shivaya.
In the afternoon I ate at the smart cafeteria. I was wrong: it was not exclusive- you had to buy your food. That’s all. I chatted with a couple of young college kids. They were surprised I had not heard of Swamy Mukhtananda. They were in love with their Guru.
Soon, it was evening and darshan time. Swamy-ji sat on a podium in the courtyard. He radiated peace and happiness. Two lines formed- one for residents and another for visitors. The Manager was walking slowly around the place. He spotted me and nodded an understanding assurance. I was rehearsing my questions in my mind: Was I running away from my commitment? Will the land be all right when I was away? Am I on the right path?
The line inched forward. I could see him more and more clearly as I approached him. The Manager stood next to him gently waving people on after a time with the SwamyJi.
I was next.
I was losing my nerve. I was now in front of him and bowed. The Manager whispered: “He has some questions”.
SwamyJi nodded and looked into me. But where were the questions? His large liquid eyes shone kindly at me as he leaned a little forward for my questions. I was lost, tongue-tied and found my eyes welling up with tears. A huge wave of kindness was smothering me. I bowed deeper to hide my tears. He was now smiling. He held me in his eyes for what seemed a long, long time and nodded a few times. I staggered away.
And that’s when it began! First a small hum and then it became deafening. I lost control. Over and over again, I heard this in my head:
Ohh Ohhhh Oh Ohhhh mmmmmmm
Na maaa… aaaa… aahhh
’Sheeee… vaaaaa…aaah ya
I couldn’t stop it. Was I going crazy? It was buzzing my head without pause. When I walked, when I sat, when I ate and most of all when I lay in my bed among a hundred, my arm folded across my chest. I heard no sound but…
Ohh Ohhhh Oh Ohhhh mmmmmmm
Na maaa… aaaa… aahhh
Sheeee… vaaaaa…aaah ya
I don’t know if I slept well, but I woke up fresh. I left the Ashram with the chant still in my ears. I was resigned to peace, went silent and disconnected from everyone in the bus and the train.
When I finally reached Mani’s apartment it was past noon. I shaved, scrubbed myself clean and got into fresh clothes. It was a bright day. Light streamed in through curtainless windows. I lay on a thin sheet on the hard floor and let the chant play on in my head.
It did, for the next three days and then it slowly left me.
Lulled by Om Nama Shivaya, I became somewhat less anxious about events unfolding around me. Or, so at least, I so prided myself. Should I go back to Chennai and allow myself to be borne by what came my way? Had I become a realised enough soul to do that? Sure the darshan of SwamiJi had led me up a hill and it felt good while being there. But wouldn’t the test be when I coped with the milling streets?
I called Saigal with a dread. No, he still had no news for me.
Then he crushed me: “Why don’t you go back to Chennai and wait, Sir? I’ll make sure I give you at least two days’ notice, soon as I have a direction from Hong Kong.” He was nice. But I was stumped for a response that wouldn’t amount to a loss of face. So I said, “I have a few things to attend in Bombay. I’ll call and let you know my decision in a few days.”
It was one thing to have toyed with returning to Chennai but quite another to be suggested that I do so by Saigal. It was humiliation. When I cranked up Om Nama Shivaya, it sounded very different! Something seemed to have reared between me and the chant.
I told Mani I may have to go back to Chennai for a few days to attend something that had come up. Why was I making this up? He looked sharply at me: “Are you sure you can’t sort it out over phone? You are welcome here for as long you want,y’know.” Without a word he extended some money,all smiling and kindly: “Here’s a loan, Sridhar”
I took it.
My undoing was complete.
I needed to be recharged at Ganeshpuri again. Besides Mani may want some time alone.
I reached Ganeshpuri late in the evening. I walked in with an air of entitlement. The Manager stood in the small lobby: “Oh, you are back? A longer stay?”
“No, just a couple of days.”
“Oh! But sorry, we can’t allow that. A short stay is only for first timers. You need to stay for a week or more and participate in work and all activities.”
“ I didn’t know that. I am afraid I can’t stay that long. You see, I may be leaving town in a day or two. Maybe I’ll come again, when I return from the sea. Thank you, Sir.”
I staggered out into the darkness, stopped and felt a huge chill: I had lied. I had been kicked out into the cold as much by the lie as the Ashram rules.
Few people were on the street, all of them walking in the direction of Vajreshwari. The darkness was rich. Weak bulbs on lamp posts were dots to connect to indicate the run a of the road; they shed no light beyond small circles at their feet. Crickets and insects ruled the silence.
Two kilometres later I was at the town, readying to wind down. I discovered the last bus had left, not that I had anywhere to return to. I was directed to a small hotel, which they said had rooms. It had a narrow front. A few humble people stood outside with dignity; the owner was known to invite needy people in after the place closed for business. I climbed the few steps to meet the genial owner at the cash desk. Yes, he had a room available. Rs.40 per night. Had I eaten, he asked. I ate a couple of cold rotis and dal. I was the lone diner.
I walked up a steep, narrow stairs, a young boy leading the way with a key. There were two rooms. He opened one.
I gazed with an overwhelming sense of futility. There was no point complaining. I walked in like a condemned man. It was small and squalid. The bed dared and mocked me to lie on it. A limp loose shutter hung at the small window overlooking the street, which was now silent. I wondered how I was going to pass the night. Sleeping on the bed was out of question. As also, use of the toilet. Luckily I had a book and a notebook. I draped my towel over the greasy plastic chair and settled in it. I was disoriented.
In a short while I heard a harmonium readying itself. Soon a drum joined it. Then a lead voice began to sing and several responded in a chorus. It was a Satsang. So late? I put the book down on my lap and listened. It was all in Marathi but devotional enthusiasm was really the language.
I got up. A sleepy doorman let me out. I followed the sound. It was not far; just around the temple and the hot springs the town was famous for.
I stopped at a small low entrance picked out by a soft amber glow from within. The singing was more energetic than loud, hands clapped and yet the music barely disturbed the night. It seemed to blend and lull the town.
I bent and looked in. There were about ten or so people at the soiree. I parked my slipper and tentatively stepped in. The space was entirely of stone; even the low roof was of stone slabs. There were several pillars. It was not a small space. The floor was cool and possibly smoothened by by centuries of use. I guessed it to be a pilgrim centre. Facing the door was a shrine. It had been adorned and worshipped. Fragrance of incense and flowers reigned, also with it, a leathery smell of the earth that hard working farming folk have. A couple of them may have even availed the free food at my hotel. A one eyed old man spotted me and nodded a welcome. Others joined him without stopping their singing.
They sat in a circle, a little away from the altar. The instrumentalists were too absorbed to notice me; they seemed to be some place else. Voices rose and fell. I stood a while looking. A friendly face nodded an invitation to sit. Folks shuffled to make a space for me in the circle. I bent to touch the floor with the tips of my fingers and sat down. I felt at once included in a centuries old fellowship. Singing strode on.
It then tapered off, the harmonium signing off with a flourish but it kept going softly in tentative hums for the next piece. Now everyone turned to me with great friendliness. They were in their sixties or more. All seemed of very modest means. There were a few walking staffs, cloth bundles of their possessions and eating bowls. Women were dressed in long form sarees, their heads draped by the ends. They were lovely rural folk, the very salt of the earth.
They kept radiating their welcomes towards me. A few put their palms together in worship mode and waved them towards the altar while nodding their heads and uttering “Vithoba, Vithobha”. I joined them in offering my respects to the idol. Oh Vithobha! A name I had heard, but it was only later that I was to discover he was the darling God of the humbler folk of Maharashtra; a God who was closer to the soil, rather than the one in heaven.
The harmonium resumed. This time more briskly. The drum revved up. Several got up and began to go round in a small circle, clapping and singing their responses on cue. Men and women, eyes closing and opening, voices robust. The joy was palpable. A couple of them smiled at me signalling that I join in the dancing too. I took a while and then waded in.
They were delighted that I did. The music quickened and everyone was smiling and jolly as rowdy kids. We clapped our hands in front, above our heads and clapped them while twirling around, laughing and singing. On and on we went. Paused when music stopped and took off again. In between we shouted the praise of Vithobha like –
“Bholo Pandari Nath ki….. Jai”
“Jai Jai Raghobha. Jai Jai Vithala.”
It may have gone on a few hours; I lost count. One by one they moved to various corners, away from the altar and curled up to sleep. The oil lamps and a kerosene lantern filled the space with soft light. I chose a dark corner to sit with my back against the wall and legs outstretched away from Vithobha. Oddly, I was happier to share the space with these strangers than I had been with those at the Ashram’s ordered dorm. I felt a huge kinship with them in this space. It seemed its warm ambience had gained from its millions of pilgrims over the centuries.
I awoke hearing someone’s staff clack on the floor. The day was breaking. I walked towards the hot springs. Wrapping myself in my towel, I entered the pool. It was first a little too hot but slowly it came over me like a soothing narcotic. Rising sulfurous fumes made it so very blissful.
I got out of the pool and walked to the hotel carrying my clothes and slippers.
I left for Bombay that afternoon in an altered state of mind. Each visit to Ganeshpuri had dragged me to a new unaccustomed experience. I rode the bus, suspending attempts to understand and intellectualize what they meant. I was happy, wrapped snug and secure.
When I entered the apartment, a note from Mani awaited me: “Hi Sridhar, I am away for a couple of days. Back Monday evening. Make yourself comfortable — Mani”
I understood and smiled to myself. He was a cheerfully free man.
I rested through the Sunday. I shall call Saigal in the morning and then book my tickets to Chennai. I couldn’t stand returning to it though, as I had bragged of my new lucrative contract before I left. But reflecting on the joyful, dancing folk of Vajreshwari, who had such little, I cared less what my friends n Chennai would think of me.
On Monday morning, when I returned from a quick breakfast at a stall nearby, the phone was ringing. It stopped before I picked it up. In a few minutes it rang again. It was Saigal.
“Where are you Mr Sridharan?” He was shrill. “We have been trying to trace you since Saturday. You are flying out tomorrow night for Panama to join your ship. You have paperwork waiting here for the US visa. Come over to the office immediately please.”
I calmly said I would. I said I had been away to spend time with some dear friends.
I put the phone down and stood still and benumbed, taking the development in. It had been 6 weeks since I left Chennai in search of my ship. I cautioned myself against any elation. I found myself geared down to a calm slow motion.
I settled down in my large suite of cabins in the ship. The cadences of Om Shiva Shivaya as they came to me from Swami Mukhtananda had returned. I chanted it often. He was a well known person around the world. My Vajreshwari friends had however remained faceless. I recalled my night with them with great fondness.
There was mail from Mani when we docked in Rio a few months later. He said Swami Mukhtananda had died a month earlier and that a war had broken out between his fractious niece and nephew. I was pained. Was his influence so thin that his anointed successors couldn’t overcome their ambitions? What was to become of his teachings?
A young Second Officer, Purandare had joined the ship at Rio. He was from Maharashtra. I grew to like him. One day I shared with him my trips to Ganeshpuri and Vajreshwari. Did I know Swamiji had passed on, he asked. He shook his head as much to regret the passing, as the turf war that had broken out.
I asked him about the folks who worshipped Vithobha. He warmed up at once. “Have you not heard of the Pandharpur Wari?,” he asked, and was amazed that I hadn’t. He went on to explain.
“Like many parts of India, Maharashtra too has had bards and minstrels who traveled across the land preaching humility, discipline, frugality, surrender, and worship. With their compositions and music, they had been great reformers and comforters. Sant Tukaram and Sant Gnaneshwar in Maharashtra walked across farms, fields and woods mesmerizing rural folk with their devotion and music. Since their passing, for 700 years now, simple people have walked long distances over three weeks to congregate in Pandharpur. You’ll rarely see them in Ashrams that teem with westerners and educated Indians. They go to pay respect to a realized soul; not to seek knowledge. They are secure in their knowledge of how life works.
“On their annual trek to Pandharpur, they sing and dance — men, women and children. They carry palanquins and pennants. Music pervades the countryside. Villagers vie with one another to host and care for pilgrims. Streams of groups from every direction in the countryside arrive at the temple of Vithobha in Pandharpur; they arrive singing their compositions. The date of arrival is predetermined: the 11th day of the moon (ekadashi) in the month of Ashada (June-July). A grand ecstatic festival breaks out with huge emotional overloads forever building and draining.”
Purandare was evidently excited as he narrated the story. Then he suddenly stopped: “When did you say you were at the Vithobha temple? June? Chief, do you know what? You may have danced with some warkaris of Vajreshwari. Nearly every Vithobha shrine in Maharashtra sends a detail to Pandharpur. They may have gathered to discuss and rehearse and you were with them! They embraced you.” He was now delighted on my behalf!
Over the next few days I reflected on it all.
At an Ashram the emphasis was on metaphysics and learning. You sought knowledge, understanding and techniques. There was of course singing and worship too, but that was not the primary activity.
Among simpler folk however, work in their fields and their workshops, life in their homes and meeting places life conformed to an agreed set of practices. Through shared festivals, music, dishes and observances prompted by seasons they experienced a kinship. Of course all this may lead to insularity but compared with alienation that intellectualism may precipitate, isn’t that preferable?
From inclusion comes security; from an excessive intellectualism, a separation.
Mani had said he ‘got it’ more simply and directly from Swami Mukhtananda than he did from Werner Erhard and his EST. To me, the Warkaris and their kindered spirits across the vast, seemingly unchanging rural India appeared to preserve the secret of an even easier way to ‘get it.
Don’t miss this engrossing video on the Pandarpur Wari.
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