(This is Part 3. Follows on from ‘So What Do You Say to Sai Baba’ on June 12th)
It was in the early part of October when the four of us left Puttaparthi. There was much more research to be done before I could even start on the script. We climbed into a taxi and travelled south through desperately poor and arid country to Bangalore. From there we flew to Delhi. Then on north to Dehra Dun – where we stayed in the Kwality motel, a sojourn I won’t forget, due as much as anything, to the largest cricket I’d ever seen suddenly climbing out of the back of the ancient wireless set by my bed one night – and from there, to Rishikesh in the foothills of the Himalayas where Ganga – the Ganges – first emerges from the mountains and where the Beatles had famously made friends with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Then on back south to the sacred shrine of Benares, then Delhi and finally Mumbai where I locked myself in a room in a high rise hotel in order to write the script – and in my many breaks, to watch the fabulously beautiful red kites as they tumbled and pirouetted between the high-rise buildings.
The main part of the crew joined us three weeks later. The script was complete and we set off to do the actual filming. Sai Baba and Puttaparthi were to be the last of our locations. So once again we did the round trip of those more northerly areas, filming as we went, and arrived back at the ashram somewhere around the end of November. The four of us who had been here on the first visit, were intensely curious as to what we might encounter this time. A couple of us – myself not included – had, in the meantime, made up their minds about Baba. One thought he was just an enormously clever, but basically harmless trickster. The other who was a devout, long-time member of a non-conformist church in the UK, had him down as an agent of the Devil! (So it was that he commonly polarized people and was ever so to do throughout the rest of his life).
We were scheduled to shoot for two weeks. Half that time was going to be taken up with the celebrations for Sai Baba’s fiftieth birthday – which was the reason this part of the filming had been left to the end. The preparations for that were already under way. It was to be quite a party. But I’ll come to that.
I’m not going to attempt any sort of joined-up narrative of those two weeks. They were unique, bizarre, disturbing and at the time extraordinarily and permanently rewarding. I shall just pick out images and events – not necessarily in chronological order – which seem particularly to have imprinted themselves on my mind. One of them happened within the first couple of days of our being there.
Sai Baba himself lived in a room in a fairly small, rather ornate and ‘oriental-looking’ building in the centre of the ashram. To one side of this building, surrounded on three sides by the accommodation blocks, was a very large area of level ground – probably the size of a football pitch – which had been covered with sand so that those who came to wait there in the hope of catching a glimpse of Baba, could do so in relative comfort, sitting cross-legged on the ground – a familiar position for many Indians. And so they did, every morning. This particular morning, at about eight-thirty, there was already quite a large group of them – two or three hundred perhaps – who were all sitting on the ground, patiently, silently waiting in the hope they might get lucky.
They did. Suddenly, Baba emerged from the building on his own. An electric current ran through those waiting. They sat bolt upright, still as stones, and watched with great intensity the movement of this single, smallish, saffron-robed figure with the great shock of black hair. He walked towards them and as he did so, he did something with which I was to become very familiar while I was there. He closed his eyes and held one hand up before him, palm upwards with the fingers quite relaxed so they formed a sort of cup shape. And with this hand, as he slowly walked, he did small, circular movements, almost as though the hand was some sort of antenna. Then he stopped in his tracks. Opened his eyes and looked at the rows of cross-legged people with whom he had now drawn level and whose every eye was rivetted to him. “What,” he asked suddenly, in that rather strangely high-pitched voice of his, “do you come here for?”
After a moment’s silence, a woman near the front called back to him, “We come here to see God!”
I more than half-expected him to reply, “Then you’re looking at him,” – that being what millions around the world, including the woman who answered his question, think – or thought – of him anyway. But instead of that, what he said in reply to all of them and which surprised them I think as much as it did me, was, “If you want to see God, look at yourselves.”
What they all made of that, I’ve no idea. I think they were a bit dumbstruck – maybe even disappointed – at receiving such an enigmatic response. Nobody said anything. And me, I was surprised and rather pleased. He had made no personal capital whatever out of it. Had he, I wondered, in some almost casual, deceptively homespun fashion, told them what the Bible would also have told them – ‘Be still and know that I am God’? I am no conventionally religious person, but for this film I had done a certain amount of study of world religions, and his remark to them that rather chilly November morning sounded very much like that. I was intrigued. I was already very aware from our earlier experience of him, of the quite indescribable power that hung around this being. But now I started – albeit rather reluctantly – to respect him.
“So what religion is this guy supposed to be then?” one of the crew asked me, assuming that as writer and director of this production, I would know all about Sai Baba. The only answer I could give at that time was that I really wasn’t sure – for around the base of a large concrete monument in the centre of the ashram were carved the symbols of all of the world’s major religions. It seemed he was all of them. Or none of them.
A day or two later, people started to turn up for the party. I stood that evening outside the ashram, watching them with the local Chief of Police – who, though proud of having this global superstar in his manor, was finding the whole jamboree something of a mixed blessing. It was late, dark. Puttaparthi is in the middle of nowhere and was, in those days a tiny village still and the unlit roads leading into it, simply dirt roads. Coach-load after coach-load, in a seemingly never-ending convoy, was arriving out of the surrounding darkness, their headlights swinging like searchlights through the vast clouds of dust all this frantic activity was stirring up. Each coach was packed to the gunwales. People hung out of the windows on either side. They clung on the roofs amid the piles of luggage.
And walking alongside and being overtaken by the coaches, making their own rather precarious way through this melee, were hundreds upon hundreds who had made the journey on foot.”How many,” I asked the Chief of Police, “are you expecting, altogether?”
“We are expecting,” he said, “a quarter of a million.”
I swallowed hard. “Where on earth,” I said, “do they all come from?” He stopped a group of five walkers who were loaded up with bedrolls, satchels, bags – anything in which to keep whatever they’d need for their journey. He had a brief conversation with the older of the two women in the group.Then turned to me. “These,” he said, “are from a village in Rajastan.”
“That surely,” I said, “is a hell of a long way.”
“Yes,” he replied, “about twelve hundred miles.”
“And they’ve walked?”
“They’ve walked. And they’ll walk home again.”
That is some declaration of faith, belief, whatever you want to call it, in their guru, their God, their saviour. It was my turn to be dumbstruck. I walked slowly back into the ashram on my own, wondering – and having no idea – what we were likely to be confronted with the following day, the fiftieth birthday of Sri Sathya Sai Baba.