This is Part 6. Follows on from ‘Sai Baba and the Power of Silence’ on September 6th.
And so the 50th birthday celebrations wound slowly down. Over two or three days, the crowds diminished and the atmosphere calmed. Our job was almost over. On the morning of the day before we were due to fly back to Mumbai prior to returning to the UK, I sat with my Producer Naseem on the steps outside what had been my room – or concrete cell – for the previous two weeks. The day was a day of reflection, an opportunity to rest and wind down. We had hardly stopped, even for meals, in all the time we had been there. I personally had lost almost two stone in weight. We were all exhausted.
Naseem and I were discussing Sai Baba. One of the most dramatic and attention-grabbing aspects of him is – obviously – his apparent control over certain aspects of physical reality, of which I’ve written earlier in this blog. And as I said then, however bizarre and unbelievable that seems, if you sit within a foot or two of him and you see grey ash pour from the ends of his fingers into your open palm, then the least you have to say is that that is exactly what your senses told you was happening. You see what you see. The fact that you can make no sense of it just has to remain that way.
Anyway, Naseem and I were discussing this sort of thing and she was saying that in all the time she had been a devotee of Baba’s he’d never done anything like that for her. For some people he appears to have materialized not only ash, but rings, St. Christophers, necklaces etc., which he’s then given to them. She said however that she preferred it that way – a gift like that for her would give her a serious problem. She had been educated in the West with its mechanistic view of the world – ‘matter can be neither created nor destroyed’ as was drummed into us in school physics lessons. She had worked in the rat-race of Hollywood as a script writer. Now, in her early forties, she was very much a child of the West. Were Baba to materialize something – anything – and then give it to her, it would challenge her world-view in a way she really did not want to have to confront or contemplate.
She went on then to say how he sometimes will test an individual. And he will test in a very personal way, clearly aware of the inner fears that haunt that person. It’s as though he knows just what’s going on in your head. And again as I’ve written here before, on at least two occasions in our time in Puttaparthi I experienced that very thing. It was almost an extra physical presence in my brain sharing my thoughts. It was spooky. But OK because utterly benign. Had it been other than benign it would, I’m sure, have been profoundly disturbing.
We did a little filming later that day but the spark had gone from it and from us; we’d done this one and it was time to go home. In the late afternoon I was generally mooching around the ashram among the few crowds that were still hanging around there when a call came through on my walkie-talkie from Naseem. Baba, aware that we were leaving the following day, was offering an audience to any from the film unit who would like to take up the offer. I accepted. As did Toby my cameraman and young Kit, the camera assistant. I was surprised Kit took it up. He had shown no interest at all in Baba or what he was about. But he had been dumbstruck on a couple of occasions when he too had witnessed an apparent materialization.
The three of us waited for an hour on a cold marble slab outside Baba’s room in Prasanthi Nilayam. My mind was once again in turmoil – what on earth was I going to say to him? Ask him for something? People did. People asked for the most extraordinary things – like success in their business for example. But I couldn’t ask him to give me ever-increasing success in my career – that surely wasn’t what this was about. What the hell was I to ask him for? What did I want? Eventually I hit on some sort of answer – what I wanted was to be me. Me. Whatever and whoever that was – for I had little idea who that person really was. So could Sai Baba give me ‘me’? Could he give me myself? The more I thought about that the more confused I became. But wanting to be who I had the potential to be seemed a reasonable enough thing to want in such circumstances. Or in any circumstance for that matter.
We were invited in. Naseem appeared from somewhere in the crowd and joined us as we went into a room about the size of a very large sitting room in the average western house. Then the four of us – along with an American man who had quietly infiltrated the group somehow – stood around in a semi-circle. There also was another middle-aged Western man in there looking lost who stood a little apart. But no Baba. We all looked at each other. Then suddenly, with no forewarning, in he came, dressed as always in a saffron robe. His very appearance brought tears to my eyes. The middle-aged Westerner fell to the ground and prostrated himself at Baba’s feet. Baba’s reaction was to reach down and help him back up. “No, no,” he said. “Get up, get up.”
He then came round to each of us in turn, the first being the American who had stood himself next to me on the left. He told him to hold out his hand. He did. He did that now familiar swirling action with his fingers and from them ash poured into the man’s hand. He gazed open-mouthed at it.
Baba moved on to me. He placed a hand gently on the lower part of my chest. “Much better now,” he said. “Much calmer.” I wasn’t as sure as he was about that. Then when he went on to say to me, “Soon, I give you complete peace,” I was quite lost. He capped it all by saying, “You need something sweet to eat.” You don’t question it. It makes no sense in the way we normally use the word and most normal sense has, by this time, gone out the window anyway. “Hold out your hand,” he said. I did. Now, in Southern India there is a pudding whose name I do not know. But it’s sort of reddish-purple in colour, and in texture is rather like tapioca. He did the usual swirling motion of the hand – and as I write this I’m fully aware of how bizarre it all sounds – and from his fingers fell enough of this pudding to form in my palm a small heap about two centimetres high. “Now,” he said, “you eat it.” I did.
He moved on, ending with Naseem. He stood right in front of her. “I believe,” he said, “that you are leaving tomorrow.””Yes,” she replied. “We fly to Mumbai. Then we leave there for London on the tenth.” “Ah no,” he said, “you leave for London on the eleventh.” She corrected him. “I have the tickets,” she said. “It is definitely the tenth.” “Even so,” he said, “I think you will find you leave on the eleventh.” (The end of that story is that we were met off the plane the following day in Mumbai by Naseem’s attorney. “There’s been a slight problem,” he said. “I’ve had to delay your flight to London by a day. You now leave on the eleventh.”)
After this short exchange with Naseem, Baba said to her, “Now lean forward a little.” She did so. Whereupon he raised a hand right over her head, opened his palm and from it dropped a long silver necklace with what looked like charms on it. Kit, standing on my right, emitted a loud gasp of astonishment. Baba then placed the necklace around Naseem’s neck and said, “Now please don’t take that off.”
My mind went immediately back to my conversation first thing that day with Naseem in which she said – a) he had never given her anything which he had materialized and for that she was thankful because she would find that very difficult to handle; and b) that he tests you, and tests you in ways that touch you where you are most vulnerable.
As ever in this blog on Baba I make no assertions one way or the other. I saw what I saw. We all did. But if, in the circumstances I’ve described above he was no more than a conjuror, then even the most sceptical would have to admit it takes some conjuror to have up the thin sleeve of a saffron robe enough loose ash to form a small pile, enough loose sticky-ish South Indian pudding to form another pile, and a heavy silver charm necklace without any of it showing under the material or his having to do the least apparent manoevre in order to eject all this stuff seamlessly at the right moment and in the right way. I am not however, in a position, to say it’s impossible.
As I’ve pointed out before, his ‘materializations’ were not, to me, the most impressive thing about Sai Baba. Nor were they to him. ‘They are,’ he said, ‘just the mosquito on the back of the elephant’. The most impressive thing to me was the fact that in his presence reality around me went through a fundamental change and took me back to something I had lost – hence my tears. At least, that’s how it seems to me. Others like the middle-aged man with us that afternoon, prostrated themselves before something which they did not in any way ‘understand’, but which, at the most profound level of their own being, they sensed as epitomizing something from which they themselves, like all of us, had sprung and with whose essentially divine nature they had, perhaps albeit temporarily, lost touch.
The following day we took the plane from Bangalore to Mumbai. Then two days later – on the eleventh (!) – British Airways back to London. That was that. The end of it. Or was it? It turned out there was more to come. But that’s for the next time.