I am grateful to The Indian Express. Twenty-one years ago, my daughter, Priya, died in a road accident near Jammu. She was working in The Indian Express, Delhi. The paper had started a Jammu edition and used to send teams of journalists for two weeks at a stretch to run the edition.
Priya and her team had finished their term and were due to return the next day. She rang up my younger daughter, Preeti, at night and said she and her colleagues had decided to drive up to Patni Point. She was very fond of dogs. According to other members of the team, there was a domesticated dog in the place where they stayed and he grew exceptionally fond of her. On the night they decided to go up to Patni Point, the dog kept trying to drag her back. She went, nevertheless, and, on their way back, the van in which they were travelling rolled into a ravine. Priya lost her life. Since then, every October 7, The Indian Express has been publishing her picture in her memory.
But this article is not about Priya. It is about Sai Baba of Shirdi. I have read the President will inaugurate a new airport close to Shirdi in a few days. Besides, October 15 will mark the death centenary of the saint. Sometime in the 1980s, I had taken my two daughters to Shirdi. It was the peak of summer and we were driving to Shirdi in a non-air conditioned car. It was unbearably hot. We had to stop every few kilometres for a cold drink or a cucumber. I had to keep my children in good humour too. Together, we built up stories of how terribly cold it was, how the entire countryside was swathed in snow and we laughed and laughed. Priya used to laugh easily.
I had started visiting Shirdi in the 1960s with my parents. We would alight at Manmad from a Delhi-Bombay express train, catch another local train to Kopargaon and then hire a tonga to Shirdi. At that time, there were no hotels of note in Shirdi. Visitors stayed in rooms provided by the Shirdi Sansthan. There were no bathrooms anywhere in the building. There were rows of Indian latrines at one corner of the village and rows of bathrooms. Hot water for bathing was available in buckets at a small price. There were several ramshackle eating places, selling mainly Maharashtrian food.
It was much easier to get access into the Samadhi Mandir. In fact, it was possible to sit in the Mandir for long stretches, gazing at the marble statue of Sai Baba. Despite the edifice now built around the samadhi, the focus of attention has shifted to the statue. Even naivedya is offered to it. I have gone to Shirdi several times. I have seen it grow from a nondescript village to what it is today — a place of pilgrimage with every modern comfort.
There are hotels, and restaurants serving all kinds of food. I have stayed in comfortable government guest houses. I have stayed in excellent hotels. On my last visit, I stayed at a hotel directly opposite the temple entrance, where they served some of the best South Indian food I have tasted. The road from Mumbai to Shirdi has changed dramatically. While a road journey in the past used to take nine hours on bumpy roads, it now takes five to six hours.
Another new sight are hundreds of barefoot pilgrims along the road, singing bhajans and expressing their faith. The temple has changed — it is no longer easy to gain access. It is immensely crowded; one cannot even imagine spending a few minutes in quiet contemplation within the premises. What attracts lakhs of pilgrims of all faiths to this place in Maharashtra’s heartland?
Sai Baba was a man of utmost simplicity. He had a kafni to cover himself, a loincloth, a small stick, a cover for his head, a pot or two. Many gave him dakshina and by the end of the day, he would have given it all away. For most of his life, he begged for his meal, mixing all that he got — sweet, sour or bitter — eating some of it, leaving the rest for humans, animals, birds.
He never sought to build an empire, run spiritual courses, set himself up as a teacher. He lived in a dilapidated old masjid, which he called “Dwarkamayee”, left his village only to visit adjoining villages, never saw a railway train. No one ever knew whether he was a Muslim or a Hindu by birth. I have devoured a great deal of literature on Sai Baba. There are strong elements of non-duality in all that he said, in his unique manner. Was he an Advaita Vedantin or a Sufi saint? It does not matter. His life has been a striking example of the convergence of all religions, faiths and creeds — the unity over diversity, which is the essence of our nationhood.