This evening, I took a walk around the ashram during evening bhajans, for it was a festival time, many visitors had come (yes, the red and white APRTC buses ply Canteen Avenue) and there were quite a few temporary structures – mostly tent affairs called shamina – that had been erected to provide seva to all the additional visitors. It is quite the crowded ashram at this time, yet, there is a hum of contentment, peace and satisfaction from the visitors that they are home: at home with Swami. It is so peaceful amid the hustle and bustle of the service being rendered, here.
Tonight, I went for a walk during bhajans. People were praying at the Ganesha Temple; some were breaking coconuts. Take chappals off and walk around the temple. A little further on, women are pressed up against the grill outside the mandir, looking through the grill at Swami sitting in his chair, his foot moving in time with the music; looking further afar (at this time and place, men cannot walk this path; I am on the path immediately above, skirting the front of South Prashanthi) droves of women sit on the footpath in front of the old shopping centre waiting for a glimpse of Swami as he walks out after darshan. Walking further on, I spy more women sit in the stairwells waiting to see Swami. Lush green grass around the Stupa; I saunter toward the Supermarket.
I pass the small works garage with the gold-coloured bus and the SSS truck, outside the tool room and the maintenance stores. There is a loudspeaker here; I hear the Devi bhajan clearly. A lot of older men work in here and do service, taking care of management of the different maintenance needs of the ashram. I have been in there in earlier days. Past the buildings, I pass the South Garden where a man is hosing dust off the Golden Ganesha. A woman has lit a lamp and placed it on the lotus in front of Lord Buddha. A white clad young man is sitting beside the little bridge below and writing in a book. I reach the Supermarket. There is a queue in front of the tea stall. Here, another loudspeaker delivers Lela karo, kripa karo, raksha karo, and I walk around the supermarket. Queue at the bakery. Ten rupees for Pizza. Queue at the ice cream store. Mountains of popcorn. People waiting on the seats in front of the ashram branch of the State Bank of India. Queue of men waiting to go upstairs. I hear the tabbla and another bhajan. Queues in front of the popcorn machine. I look inside the vibuthi shop. Go over to another vibhuti shop and buy several gift packs (vibuthi, sweets, picture of Swami). I had inadvertently walked to the women’s side first, and quickly realised my blunder. I crossed over to the men’s side.
I cross the road. The old EHV building is now the SSS Audio Visual Store. I climb the steps to look inside the building where I had sat for many a lecture and see it full of audio visual material. An elderly seva dal offers me a brochure to examine and I flip through it. I ask how much. ‘600’ comes the reply (it is a 3 CD set with a full catalogue). ‘Oh! So much!’ I look on. Then she says ‘US Dollars’. I looked up and said, “Amma, you are a dacoit’ (robber) and everyone laughs.
Moving west, I move on past the shopping centre to investigate the back of the ashram. There used to be some nice places up here. I look down the row of sheds, now there is only shed 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31. Memories of sheets hanging up in the sheds and sleeping on bedrolls. I remember coming and looking through the hole they put in the front wall of Shed 25 to wheel in the Golden Chariot and finish assembling it. It was a fantastic sight, ethereal in my memory; I remember thinking this was almost out of another realm (loka).
Moving up and west, I see the new sanitation facility, with blue tents over all the cesspools. ‘24 hour service’ says the signs. ‘Entry Prohibited’ announces another sign. I turn left and espy a tall, commanding new building, the new shopping centre. A huge block three storeys high, with multiple stairways, it has a largesse the other supermarket definitely lacked. I walk further on. I see a green shamina with a canteen. Within one section undercover, men are sitting on the grass whilst one man gives a talk. Further on, temporary sheds with canvas and corrugated iron roofs. To my left is a towering, new, conference hall and the new Books and Publications Trust Building which just goes up and up and up the hill, it has these great big long stairways all along each side. Pictures will not do these places justice, I think to myself. These buildings literally tower out of the rocky hillside.
I move back down the path between South 8 and South 6. I am back at the Supermarket. Bhajans are still coming over the loudspeakers. Turning left, I trek the path toward the North Indian Canteen. The queue to go upstairs in the Supermarket is so long, it reaches down to Roundhouse 1 and then around the corner. Just opposite this queue is the Thought for the Day notice board. I read about children learning for life. I ask a seva dal for the time. I am heading toward the North Indian Canteen for dinner. ‘5.46’, I am told. Move further down the path, a sign tells me Overseas Devotees may register at North 8, Room A-01 … The Lecture hall is closed until further notice. Another sign proclaims the reading room and library in North 8 closed.
I see a small bookstall selling books, collected discourses of Easwaramma Day, Talks given at 75th birthday, Human Values and Parenting. I discuss printing and covers with the bookseller. I move on and join the very small queue at the North Indian canteen. Later on, at 6.15, the canteen opens and I enjoy a hot meal at the best prices in all Puttaparthi. So many men with their scoops and food, at the ready, ‘Sai Ram!’, with a smile, and happy to serve you. Tasty food, not so spicy. As I eat, I look over the shrine set up for Swami (rather nice swivel chair for Swami here).
My friend and I leave the North Indian canteen. There is a queue outside the Western Canteen; it goes right across the sand, the pathway, almost down into Canteen Avenue. We are surprised. Here we are, just finished eating and there is this large queue waiting to go into another canteen. We approach the lines and chat with a few fellows who are patiently waiting.
Afterwards, we walk through the surging throng in Canteen Avenue. Remember the trees between West 2, West 3, West 4, West 5? Remember the birds? Do you recall the concrete paths white from the droppings? Well, there are more birds, the racket is louder and not much concrete is visible. Golly, they can drown out conversation, those birds. Where do they all come from, I wonder. In the next avenue, I see shaminas (tents) and various bookshops. Some selling Mrs Indulal Shah’s magazine, Saradevi (EHV or SSE, I am not sure which). I purchase some Guides to Puttaparthi to post home to friends. Then I think of some more people, so I go back and buy two more. Seva dal says ‘Thank you’. I count out four books in my bag before walking away. Later, back in my room I find I have five books. Flabbergasted, I wonder how that 5th one got there. ‘Who is this one for’? I wondered.
One of the temporary shaminas is selling foreign books only. (How did I get in here, I wondered.) I listen to a student explain the contents of a CD. The hostel boys have made a compilation of photographs taken by students over the years and the proceeds will go to help blind people. He explains there are 2400 student photos of Swami on the CD. He shared with me that Swami lets them get up real close and take photos. I ask some technical questions and buy what undoubtedly is the best bargain of the day in Puttaparthi. In fact, it is an excellent production.
I walk further down Canteen Ave. That unique sweet smell of chapatti emerges from the Indian Canteen. I detect the odours of brinjal and chutney. My, my, I like that stuff. I enter the old bookshop; the first thing I notice is a new entrance and supermarket style self-selection shelves. I spy shelves of Spanish books and Italian books; then Latvian, Croatian, French books. Around the corner, Hindi, Tamil. ‘Where are the English books’, I wonder. I find them, a long shelf of what must be the largest collection of books on Sathya Sai Baba that I have ever seen. Slowly strolling, looking over heads and shoulders, I spied about 40 new books I have never clapped my eyes on before. I STOUTLY RESIST TEMPTATION and for the first time in my life, walk out of the bookshop without buying.
Leaving the bookshop, I walk toward the mandir and observe the underground offices. I point out the absolutely cute little Hanuman in the Sita-Ram shrine and my friend smiles. Taking the East Prashanthi walkway, I glance inside the darshan hall. Seva dals are busy with scaffolds, changing decorations. The darshan hall and mandir are dark; wheeled scaffolding is being pushed around. I arrive at the Ganesha Gate and see the old blue and white Telugu arch just behind the ashram wall: Welcome to Prashanthi Nilayam of Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba, a boy translates for me. The diesel generators emit hot air and a repetitive diesel engine humming. I turn back and approach the Ganesha Temple. Standing amid the crowds in the darkness, under the trees, between family groups, cases, bags, crowd walking in and out, I slip of my chappals and chant a Ganesh stotram:
WE bow down to Lord Ganesh,
Son of Lord Shiva,
Master of All Knowledge,
Master of All Energy,
Supporter of the Universe,
Remover of Fear,
Remover of Obstacles,
And Bestower of Salvation.
We bow down to the Supreme, Sanctifying, Lord Ganesh,
The elephant headed-one.
Om Maha Ganpathaye Namaha.
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