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Puttaparthi cancelled? Sai Baba's death tests a town's faith

The cycle rickshaw-wallah accosts me as soon as I step off the bus at Puttaparthi. He'll take me to my hotel he assures me with a smile. "How much?" I ask him. "You like," he says expansively. The hotel, it turns out, is just down the block, minutes away. "You didn't tell me it was so close," I tell him. "Swami gone. Business slow," he says apologetically. "Maybe better when Guru purnima (happens)."

Guru purnima in mid-July traditionally marks the end of the summer off-season in Puttaparthi. But over two months after the death of Sathya Sai Baba, the town he built is still in search of catharsis, suspended in limbo, unable even to really mourn its VVIP for that would be doubting his divinity.

"He is still everywhere," says one devotee. "His vibrations were very strong today."

"But I miss the darshan," says her mother. "It was like a 1,000 Watt bulb."

Puttaparthi cancelled

 Puttaparthi cancelled? Sai Babas death tests a towns faith

That is the million dollar question in Puttaparthi. Will the foreign devotees return?Sandip Roy/Firstpost

The fact is Sathya Sai Baba is no more and his Prashanthi Nilayam, the nerve centere of his spiritual empire, is in disarray. His trustees are being hauled in for police questioning. Even the maha samadhi being planned for him is not ready. The whole town seems to be holding its breath wondering if all of this is some kind of divine test of their faith.

Once the Sai Baba pronounced people cured from diseases like cancer with the words "Cancer cancelled." Now his hometown is looking for a miracle. "If Guru purnima crowds don't come, Puttaparthi cancelled," says Anand.

In any other tourist town, Anand, a skinny 24-year-old with a straggly beard, would be a hustler, the kind that greets you with "Hello friend, where are you from?" and offers you whatever he thinks you need - rupees for dollars or hash. But in Puttaparthi, where even a non-vegetarian meal is hard to come by, Anand's business is selling Sai Baba postcards.

He grew up in the Sai Baba's shadow, studied in the school the Baba had set up. His mother received treatment for her heart condition in the free Sai hospital before she died. When the Baba was in Puttaparthi, Anand would work the lines queuing up for a darshan. He says he could make enough for one day in 20 minutes. When the Baba went to Kodaikanal or Whitefield, Anand followed him there.

Now he spends his days hanging outside the Ganesh gate, wondering how he'll scrape together 100 rupees for his daily room rent. He asks if I have three rupees for a cigarette. He doesn't carry a wallet these days. He has no money to put in it.

"I have many friends," he says. "But they live in South Africa, America, Sri Lanka. They are not coming."

That is the million dollar question in Puttaparthi. Will the foreign devotees return? And even if they do, will they stay for months on end, anxious for an audience with the Sai Baba? Or will they pay their respects at his samadhi and leave in two days?

Gerald, a Dutch devotee, has been coming since 1995. He sits in the grand Kulwant Hall, under its ornate blue and gold ceiling, listening to bhajans as pigeons flutter overhead. Afterwards he stops for a coffee at the ashram coffee shop.

"The coffee is good but it all feels different," he says. " There is no excitement. Swami is not here. He is everywhere but his form is not here. That's the problem."

"But at least it's peaceful," he says with a smile.

Gerald doesn't know when he will come back next.

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Sai Ram as usual

The Sri Sathya Sai Central Trust is putting on a brave face. It's taking pains to reassure a jittery town that everything is Sai Ram as usual. "All salaries are being paid. All donations received by the trust are being credited and receipts issued. All educational institutions opened on the due date," says trustee V Srinivasan.

The Sai Baba still beams beatifically everywhere. Everything, even the bases of the palm trees, are painted in baby pink and blue and gold, apparently the colours of his aura. Devotees shop for cereal, shampoo and clothes at the ashram supermarket, women in the morning, men in the evening. At 4:30 p.m. the ice cream shop opens like clockwork. The billboard above it cheerily proclaims another of Baba's sayings:

Love is sweet like ice cream.

Love is joy like ice cream.

Love is cool like ice cream.

Love is pure like (white) ice cream.

Signs everywhere rejoice in the Sai Baba's 85th birthday. You can get the 100-page photo album for Rs 240. There is no mention anywhere of his passing. Vedic chants and bhajans happen twice a day as usual. The Seva Dal workers guide the devotees inside, patting them down after an apologetic Sai Ram, checking them for cameras, mobile phones and pens. But instead of the Sai Baba, there is only an empty chair with two white handkerchiefs laid on either side. The Baba was known to frequently wipe his face.

Eighty-eight-ear-old Bansi Lal, a former Seva Dal volunteer, now wheel-chair bound and milky-eyed, says Baba is still everywhere, a silent worker. "The other day, a man in the canteen gave me 500 rupees just like that," he says. "Baba can take any form. He can wear a shirt like you."

"Actually I feel him more now," says John Adams who comes here twice a year from California. He's helping set up a cervical cancer prevention programme near Mysore. "Before the duality was distracting. Now he is just here in my heart."

But his wife Rhoda Nussbaum, a medical doctor, admits that the rest of the town is not so spiritually evolved.

"Everyone is hungry," she says. "From the porters to the shopkeepers, everyone is anxious."

99% minus

In a country full of godmen, Sathya Sai Baba was his own phenomenon. While his portrait hangs in millions of Indian homes, his allure was just as strong, perhaps even stronger outside India. Everyone in Puttaparthi has stories about miracles he supposedly performed with an American or an Australian or a European devotee. Sai Baba himself never travelled outside India, except for one trip to Africa in 1968. But the world came calling. There are over 1,200 Satya Sai Baba centres in 126 countries.

"I would see those foreigners with those little children running barefeet," says Uma Sen who now lives a stone's throw from the ashram. "How simply they lived, away from all the luxury. How much leela Baba did with them."

The fear in Puttaparthi is that as the stories about financial malfeasance and unaccounted gold and cash gather steam, that leela is over. The biggest impact of rumours of financial impropriety will be on the foreign devotees. That fear pushed a group of Puttaparthi residents, including several realtors to lead a protest march against the trust last week demanding that the state government take control and clean it up. Bank executives estimate prices that had gone up to Rs 800-1,000 per square foot for apartments inside the town plummeted 30% when the Sai Baba was hospitalised.

But a government takeover is cold comfort to people like Javed Ahmed. Ahmed runs one of the Kashmiri curio shops on a side street outside the ashram. He has lived here for 23 years. He opens his shop at 7:30 in the morning and closes it at 9 at night when the ashram shuts down. He has had no business in 10 days.

"The government - what can it do for us?" he says. "Our business is all foreigners. Now it is 99% minus." If Guru purnima doesn't change things around, he says he'll have to go to his landlord asking for a reduction in rent. His landlord happens to be the Sai Baba's nephew, R J Ratnakar, himself under a cloud for transferring Rs 37.5 lakhs from Prashanthi Nilayam.

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Everything is in Bhagwan's hands

"Please have faith in Bhagwan whether or not you believe in the trustees," trustee V Srinivasan pleaded with the people of Puttaparthi at a press conference. "Your well-being all these years was because of Bhagwan. Everything is in his hands."

The next busy season is in November when the Sai Baba had his grand birthday celebrations. But Ahmed says he is not sure he can wait that long.

"We are Muslims. We did not believe in all this. But seeing all these educated people come I am thinking maybe I am wrong. But then the Swami died."

Then he looks around at his shop and sighs.

"We can't believe in Puttaparthi," he says. "We could only believe in Swami."

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Updated Date: Dec 20, 2014 05:10:34 IST