It was when I was five years old that my mother, a widowed Bengali immigrant in the US, became obsessed with Sathya Sai Baba, a philanthropist who claimed to be the reincarnation of Sai Baba of Shirdi. The original Sai Baba lived without worldly possessions, a true fakir. He was a saint with followers from both the Hindu and Muslim faiths and combined the teachings of both religions – a sort of peacekeeper in a nation that would become increasingly contemptuous and violent toward its Muslim minority.
My mother believed this was the time he was going to bless us, choose us – take us into his big home, answer her questions, yield a brilliant diamond and grant her wishes. This was what fuelled our trip down the subcontinent of India.
I tugged the edges of my wool shawl to tighten it around me. I was weak, dizzy, and dehydrated from throwing up the night before. My mother did not notice. She had a look that I had seen before: a desperate plea for answers, a belief she was nearing an opportunity. Her hair stretched back into a messy bun, wisps of it defining her round face. Her deep brown eyes were a panorama of hope and wonder, her cheekbones high and alert.
When we finally reached Sai Baba’s home, hundreds of people entered the arched columns of his compound. We sat on the floor. A chorus of men played instruments and brought Sai Baba in on a velvet throne. He was placed directly before us and assumed the posture of an idol, his hands in front of his chest, clasped in prayer. Eventually, he climbed off his regal chair and walked around and pointed at those he wanted to bring into his home.
Every hour or so, I would carefully raise my face to the windows and look at all the lorries that drove past us. I wondered if they were filled with men who might mutilate us with their long knives. I somehow knew the definition of rape, how it was a violation of skin. I imagined men taking my mother somewhere into the jungle and irrevocably harming her. I shook with terror at the thought.
I wondered how Sai Baba could believe that these were the kinds of people that deserved his attention. And though I felt dirty and sullied from knowing the couple did not want me near the creamy leather of their shiny vehicle, I also felt rage. My legs suddenly felt strong and propelled me forward towards Sai Baba’s compound. I felt the desperation that my mother felt; I wanted to prove to the couple that we were worthy of Sai Baba’s love and attention. We were not unwanted.
It was winter of 1984. We were visiting India from the United States and had been in Mumbai for two weeks. I was eight years old.
He randomly chose people to bring into his mammoth home where he performed small miracles. He made fancy goods like diamonds, emeralds, rubies, and vibuthi – a holy ash – magically spring from his palms. I never understood how he produced these riches. I suppose it might have been a sleight of hand.
We had been going to see Sai Baba every year but this particular trip was frenetic. While we were in Mumbai, an astrologer told my mother it was an auspicious time and we needed to get to Kodaikanal to see Sai Baba.
As my mother’s belief in Sathya Sai Baba grew stronger, she used her inheritance from my father to travel to various places in India and abroad. Our trips involved seeing my dida, my mother’s mother, in Kolkata and visits to Sai Baba’s compounds at least twice a year.
He walked around and waved like a beauty queen, his long orange kurta gracing the dust and dirt on the floor. My mother always held a note in her hand, hoping he would take it from her.
In our hotel room, my mother fiddled through our belongings, searching for some paper and a pen to write down all the questions she had for Sai Baba. I was exhausted, cold, and very hungry. A big bed called out to me to lie down. I begged for room service. My mother ordered me my favourite meal, masala dosa, which arrived on a stainless-steel thali with steam twisting through the air. The smell of potatoes and onions mixed with curry leaves, black mustard seeds, and green chilies, all wrapped in a long crepe, overwhelmed me.