STORY: SAI BABA
most enduring god-man enters his 75th year, his spirituality rests uneasily
K. Menon and Ashok Malik in Puttaparthi
all the qualities his disciples attribute to Sathya Sai Baba, there is
one that almost every Indian will recognise as truly divine: punctuality.
On Thursday, November 23, to mark his 74th birthday-or, to use official
grandiloquence, "the 75th year of the advent of the Sri Sai Avatar"
- Sai Baba was to drive in to Puttaparthi's Sri Sathya Sai (SSS) Hill
View Stadium at the dot of 7.00 a.m. As usual, he was bang on time.
Baba with his VIP guests at the convocation ceremony
of the stadium-which accommodate 30,000 spectators when Sai Baba devotees
such as Sunil Gavaskar, Alvin Kalicharan, Sanath Jayasuriya and Sachin
Tendulkar help organise cricket matches-were almost packed. The turf,
a remarkably verdant patch in Andhra Pradesh's otherwise arid Rayalaseema
region, seated an estimated 1,00,000 devotees. On the stage - a pink,
blue and yellow film set-like construction, with winged angels playing
bugles and flanking the symbols of the world's major religions - sat a
twitching chief guest, Union Human Resources Development Minister Murli
Manohar Joshi. Next to him was the silver throne, waiting, like the throng,
for the Master.
arrived only at 6.30 a.m., the others had begun gathering as early as
4.00 a.m. At 5.15 a.m., a policeman said, the customary white that Sai
Baba's disciples wear had more or less effaced the green of the grass.
If there were 1,00,000 and more inside, there were an equal number outside.
Puttaparthi, a town that usually houses 20,000 people, was today playing
host to 2,50,000, its precarious infrastructure fraying at the edges.
All of Puttaparthi
as it were seemed to wait in this private colosseum for the Afro-haired
Caesar to ride in triumphant. At about a minute before 7.00 a.m. came
the caparisoned elephant, then the brass band, troupes of dancing children
and, finally, Sai Baba himself, waving gently from his motorised gold
and silver chariot.
with Sai Baba's likeness were released and crackers were burst in a rough
and ready rendition of a 21-gun salute, the march past began. China, Saudi
Arabia, Liechtenstein, the Cayman Islands, Nauru, Australia, Western Samoa:
flagbearers from 165 countries (see box) presented themselves before Sai
Baba. Later came the birthday hymn. A multi-ethnic choir sang a trilingual
Redeemer of mankind ... yug avatar Sai to the tune of Happy birthday to
sermon was, of course, Sai Baba's 90-minute Telugu discourse on love and
truth and the oneness of God, on "Bad name is debt, reputation is
wealth", on "constant integrated awareness"-translated
instantly and with evangelical zeal by the long-serving Anil Kumar Kamaraju.
The Platinum Preacher finally left in his white Mercedes-a maroon BMW
is his other car. The scene shifted to the kitchens of neighbouring Prasanthi
Nilayam (Abode of Peace), Sai Baba's sprawling 100-acre ashram. It was
time for the feeding of the multitude.