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  Volume 4 - Issue 11 NOVEMBER 2006


By Prof. G Venkataraman


Last time, I brought you up to the point when our convoy was heading north from Madurai Airport towards TAFE along the National Highway. As we speed along, we cross many small towns (that were once villages) that I knew very well, like Samayanallur. I was eagerly looking for Sholavandan where I spent one and a half years during the height of the Second World War, having come there as an evacuee from Karachi. But I missed it; maybe the Highway has been aligned to avoid the village. But I see a few others like Vadipatti, for example.

All along, I see advertisements for a restaurant named Fantasy, promising all kinds of attractions. Finally we passed Fantasy, and it seemed far from all that it had promised. Anyway, we are not headed towards Fantasy but a reality of a very unusual kind; more about that soon. We go past a small village named Kalladipalli I had never heard of before, and soon there are telltale signs that we are approaching TAFE.

Music, Chanting, Flowers and Decorations Welcome Baba to TAFE

I see a row of multi-colored flags flying majestically on either side of the road, which means we are pretty close. And close we certainly are because the next thing I see is many seva dals guiding our cars. We are apparently ahead of Swami. The seva dals indicate that we make a right turn and drive past a gate, the entrance to TAFE. A nice floral arch has been specially erected as a sign of respectful welcome, and I also see a Nadaswaram party playing nice music – clearly a very competent party; Nadaswaram is a great instrument and in the hands of a master can produce magical music, but poorly handled, it can torture the listener.

Multi-coloured flags welcome the Lord
The Nadaswaram party celebrating Bhagavan's visit

As we slowly make our way into the TAFE campus, I quickly take in the scene. A well-laid out garden and rows of tractors, waiting to be shipped out perhaps. Our car stops close to the factory entrance, where we get out. Our car then moves away, even as other cars come there one by one, to discharge their passengers. The entrance is decorated with two ceremonial umbrellas. There are loudspeakers in many places, playing the Nadaswaram music. I see a group of Vedic Priests, chanting the Vedas and holding the Poornakumbham in readiness to welcome Bhagavan in the traditional style. Of course, Mrs. Mallika Srinivasan, CEO of TAFE, and her entire family are there, led by Mr. Sivasailam, father of Mrs. Srinivasan and formerly the CEO of TAFE, now playing a patriarchal role.

The TAFE tractors
The factory entrance is splendidly decorated

Swami’s Benz is sighted and excitement mounts, even as the Nadaswaram plays, most appropriately, a beautiful song of Tyagaraja wherein he joyfully welcomes Lord Rama to his home. The Benz comes to a stop in front of the entrance, even as we all try to catch a glimpse of the historic moment. Swami gets out, full of smiles, to a joyful reception from the entire family, and in a split second materializes a necklace for Mrs. Srinivasan, who naturally is overwhelmed; it all occurs very fast, before we even know what is happening.

Swami`s car arrives
The entire family is ready to greet Swami
Swami being welcomed with Kalasam
Swami creates a chain for Mrs. Srinivasan

Led by Mr. Sivasailam, and accompanied by the loving family, Swami walks into the factory, to the sound of beautiful Vedic chants. We follow at a respectful distance, but students do not; without a word of formal instruction, they know when to be around and when not – that is Swami’s training! Swami is led through an area with cubicles and meeting rooms to a large room with glass panels. The room, an office meeting room of sorts, has been temporarily refurbished with carpets and all that, to be Swami’s interview room in TAFE. Swami is escorted in by the family, while all others stay outside, including the security people. Some individuals with cameras are trying to shoot through the glass but we in Swami’s party move away, giving the family the privacy they are entitled to. The priests stand outside, continuing to chant Vedas.

The Lord spreads His Ananda to all as He walks into the factory
Swami then walks to the 'interview room'

A Tour of TAFE for Swami and His Entourage

All of us so-called elders adjourn to various rooms in the neighborhood, where we are offered juice, etc. Swami spends a lot of time with the family and after about forty minutes or so, we get word that He is coming out; we get up and go out to join Him. Swami is moving on a chair, with Mr. Sivasailam near Him, and all the other members of the host family. The entire party is headed towards the shop floor, and through a door I can see out there lots of workers. They are busy working on the assembly line and at the same time casting glances to see if Swami is coming. I take a quick look at my watch and find it is 1:00pm.

Walking at some distance behind Swami, I too enter the shop floor. I notice there are decorations all round and a walkway clearly marked for Him to be taken around. The factory is very clean and ultra modern; I had not seen such a factory before and am pleasantly surprised. Lots of posters everywhere, with messages on values, quality, sound management practices, etc. Once again, this is quite novel to me, since I have visited many factories before, though not, I must admit, after the mid-eighties. Maybe this is the current norm in this age of globalization. The Vedic priests walk with the party, chanting into wireless mics! A very good Public Address system is filling the entire factory with the sacred sound, even as the Veda Purusha Himself is blessing the factory with His very physical presence.

Decorations along the walkway
Messages on values inside the factory

Here and there, on either side of the aisle along which Swami is being lovingly guided, I see people sitting on carpets; I guess they are friends and relatives of the hosts. Slowly the party comes to a stop and I can see Swami is now near an altar at one corner of the shop floor. Mrs. Srinivasan says something to Swami and then lights a lamp. Immediately, the loudspeakers fill the hall with good Bhajan music; must be pre-recorded, I am sure. I wonder whether it is a Sundaram Bhajan CD, because the quality of singing is very good.

Waiting for Darshan
Rewarded with Darshan
Wonderful bhajan music now fills the air
Swami graciously lights the lamp

Karma Yoga and Pranams on the Assembly Line

Swami is on the move again, and is being taken on a detailed tour of the factory. An amazing thing I notice is that there is no work stoppage. Here is Bhagavan right in their midst, but the workers are busy assembling tractors even as the systems move along the assembly line. Of course, they keep turning towards Swami, offering pranams whenever possible, but it is all Karma Yoga at its best I must say. The scenes are so good, I catch hold of everyone I can to shoot pictures and videos for me – unlike in 2003, this time I am minus the camera.

Swami takes a tour around this exemplary factory
The workers have their Darshan as well

I look at my watch again; it is 1:15 p.m. and the factory guided tour is still on. In fact, right then a tractor being carried on the assembly line comes too close for comfort. Mr. G. K. Raman is also looking at his watch and whispers to me, “I wonder whether we are slipping behind schedule? This tour is taking longer than I expected.” As if Swami heard him, He moves towards the exit, where He boards the small Toyota car into which His mobile chair fits.

After Swami takes His seat, the hostess rushes to a waiting golf cart and zooms away, ahead of Swami. It looks like lunch, and apparently Swami is being taken to the area where special arrangements have been made for serving lunch.

The word reaches us, and we too pile into our vehicles to follow Swami’s car. We drive through the factory garden, which I find is neatly laid out with lots of beautiful flowering trees – sorry, I am poor in botany and cannot give the names. After driving a short distance, we get out of the factory premises and enter a coconut grove that is very picturesque. Through the trees, I can see that beyond the grove and some distance away are some hills. Soon we come near a hut where all vehicles stop. The hut, apparently specially made, is where Swami will have a private lunch – knowing Swami, I imagine He will go through the motions of eating just to please His hosts. Swami eats precious little, even less than normal, when He is traveling.

Swami arriving for lunch

The Ancient and Modern Mingle Over Lunch


Behind the divine hut, the entrance to which is beautifully decorated, there is a huge shamiana, and that is where I believe our party will be served lunch. We slowly walk in and are duly greeted by volunteers representing the hosts. I take in the scene and I find a strange mixture of the very traditional and the modern. There are rows and rows of tables covered with white cloth on which are laid out banana leaves in the age-old South Indian style. There is separate seating for gents and ladies.

Assisting us to our seats are men in black suits and bowties [!] looking like maitred’s from a posh hotel. There are also women in saris who I guess are there to play the role of hostesses. What amuses me most are the servers, who are wearing shirts and dhotis as is common in the South but are also sporting chef caps and plastic gloves. The catering is very high class, and to make our lunch even more enjoyable, there is a good PA system playing nice Carnatic music (to which I am rather partial I must confess).

Beautifully decorated tables

Soon I see Mr. Venu Srinivasan coming to greet us. Ever smiling, he moves around having a word here, a joke there and so on, making us feel perfectly at home. Some are looking at their wristwatches to check how late we are but when they start serving the food, delays, if any, are promptly forgotten. The food is absolutely great.

But none of us touch it till Sri Narasimha Murthy gives the signal and the boys chant Brahmarpanam. After that, everyone becomes busy tucking in with gusto. I am, however, my usual cautious self though allowing myself one or two minor concessions – the food is too darn good to be missed altogether like a Sannyasi.

Even as we are finishing our lunch, we hear Arathi over the PA system. Time is 1:50 p.m. Looks like Swami is about to leave and that departure is on schedule.

Mr. Venu Srinivasan coming to greet us

Lunch over, we wash our hands and pick up big prasadam packets, earlier blessed by Bhagavan. Apart from the prasadam, the hosts also thoughtfully have betel leaves, the kind that Swami once used to eat. I like betel leaves very much after a heavy meal because it is a very good digestive. Happy to see it, I have a generous helping.

Up the Hills and Off to Kodai


Meanwhile, Swami gets into His Benz and leaves, and now it is a rush for us to find our respective vehicles and pile in. As we get into our cars, we are given water bottles – very thoughtful I must say – since we are in for a long drive up the mountains. In earlier times when it was just boys in the bus and very few guests, Swami’s car would often be close to the bus, but this time, especially after some earlier experiences of traffic jams, Swami’s car just speeds away.

It is 2:05 when we leave and after driving through many beautiful groves, we reach the foothills by 2:40 p.m. In just a few minutes, we are not only climbing but also driving through forests – wow, what a change from Puttaparthi! And also, what a change from 2003, when we had to literally crawl. Maybe at this point I should offer extracts from that trip so you get an idea of what I am talking about. I shall start from Ananda Nilayam in Madurai, where we had broken journey for a heavy snack. Last time, I brought you up to that point of the 2003 trip, so let me pick up from there.

The bus passengers from 2003 Kodai trip

Tales from the 2003 Trip to Kodai

Meanwhile, Swami disappears, and we are told He has gone next door to pay a brief visit to the home of Srinivasa Chettiar. There is an active debate about what Swami would do next. Some are saying that Swami would come back for Arathi; He is never known to skip Arathi. Others are saying no, it is getting late and it would delay further if Swami were to wade through the crowd and come back just for Arathi. He will therefore skip Arathi and go straight to Kodai. Meanwhile, I manage to exchange a few words with people whom I know who have come here to Madurai specially to be a part of the welcome party. Among these are Mr. Ramani, President of the Tamil Nadu Seva Organization, and Mr. G. K. Raman, Chairman of Sundaram Finance and President of the State Trust.

Mr. Raman tells me, “I think you will face a severe traffic problem. Today is Sunday and there would be huge crowd of weekenders returning from the hills to the plains. This downhill traffic is bound to slow you.” Mr. Raman also stuns me with the news that he has been constantly shuttling between Madurai and Kodai during the past two days and had in fact made four trips! Amazing, and that is what devotion to Swami does to people.

Meanwhile Swami comes back to Ananda Nilayam, takes Arathi and drives off to Kodai, putting an end to the speculation, “Will He or won’t He?” We slowly head for the buses and take our seats. It is very hot, and the buses are not showing any signs of moving. We find out why. It appears that the van carrying the luggage is overloaded, and someone has thoughtfully advised that some of the luggage be transferred to the buses as otherwise the van would not be able to climb uphill.

The luggage transfer over, we finally leave. The time is 4:30. We get out of town and hit the highway. I see the beautiful country landscape and am happy to see there is still a lot of greenery left. But there are changes too. All these places are familiar to me, and I recall many pleasant events from the past. A couple of times the bus stops. Once it is for allowing some elderly people to get out, so they could ride in some of the cars going uphill – the bus was rather uncomfortable for them. Another time, it is for collecting some snacks and drinks. My God, everyone stuffed himself in Madurai and something to bite again? But then, that is how trips with Swami always are. In His Discourses He tells us all about moderation in eating but when He is taking His children, He is Mother rather than God, and like every mother, He believes in stuffing his brood!

6:20 and we finally start going uphill. There is still daylight and I am able to catch a glimpse of the forests as they slowly come into view. We rapidly start gaining height, and looking below, I can see the Vaigai Dam storage area. Not much water there, thanks to the drought during the past year.

Traffic Snarls and Snafus

It is now dark, and I see that Mr. Raman’s forecast is coming true – a steady stream of vehicles coming downhill, bringing weekenders back to the plains. We are now near a sharp bend and right ahead of us is a lorry trying to negotiate the curve. A bus is coming from the other side and both drivers are thoughtless. This is a standard problem in India. People think driving means knowing how to hold the steering wheel. That is not real driving. Real driving is following road rules; but most people in India have never heard of road rules. One wag says, why worry, when we don’t have real roads!

Well anyway, what is happening right now is there is a jam. There is the lorry ahead that is trying to go uphill and there is the bus trying to go downhill. Both are nastily locked in the sharp curve and traffic has come to a standstill. Meanwhile, vehicles coming downhill are piling up behind the bus and I can see a long line of vehicles behind us waiting for us to move. This is the time to resign oneself. But in the midst of all this, I see many motor bikes with back seat riders snaking their way down. They are just not bothered by the roadblock. I am informed that there are now mobike taxis that take a customer on the back seat on a day trip to Kodai. When it comes to earning a living, people exhibit amazing ingenuity.

“Negotiating” a Sharp Turn

Some wise people get down from their vehicles and din some road sense into the driver of the lorry and the bus. There are grunts and moans from the two vehicles as they maneuver inch by inch, the bus driver trying to avoid hitting the hillside and the lorry driver trying to avoid hitting the curb. After what seems like an eternity, we are through. I tell Dr. Reddy, who is seated next to me, “This is what is meant by Liberation!” and he has a big laugh.

I now start counting the vehicles coming down. One, two, three…I go past one hundred, two hundred. I give up and now just make estimates. Looks like we crossed about one thousand vehicles coming down. Mr. Raman sure knew what he was forecasting. I also see many vehicles from Bangalore overtaking us and speeding uphill towards Kodai. Apparently, many of the foreigners are shifting their base to Kodai to be close to Baba.

8:10 p.m. We are now halfway to Kodai in the small town of Pannai Kadu famed for its fruit shops. One more traffic jam, this time caused by vehicles coming downhill stopping for picking up fruit baskets at bargain prices. Fortunately, a couple of alert and agile policemen intervene and the jam is cleared without too much delay. I wonder whether Swami went through all this. Possibly not. He went way ahead of us, and He had a Police escort too. So He must have moved fast. In fact, I tell myself, He must be in Kodai by now.

I do a rough calculation. We took two hours to reach Pannai Kadu which is halfway up the hills. Would we take two more hours to reach Kodai? Fortunately, it is not that bad. The downhill traffic has eased and we are able to move faster than before. At last, Kodai comes into view. Since it is dark, I cannot see the landmarks.

9:45 p.m. We finally reach Sai Sruthi.

Back to the Present and the New Facilities

So much for the past. This time, the ride is much faster until we come to a small town near Kodai. We get held up by a fleet of trucks with banners and carrying a large number of people. I wonder what is going on and am informed that these are all people engaged in election campaigning. State elections are due shortly, and Tamil Nadu, where Kodai is situated, is very politically active. The election traffic slows us down a bit but nothing like what happened in 2003.

By 4:15 p.m., we (the people in the cars), are in Sai Sruthi. Swami, of course, has arrived ahead of us. We enter the main hall, where Swami is seated. He smiles and makes kind enquiries about our trip up the hill. He then tells that He Himself arrived just a little bit earlier. The buses with the students have not yet arrived and He makes enquiries. He is told about the hold up in the town where election rallies are in progress and that the buses will be here soon.

Sai Sruthi

Meanwhile, Mr. V. Srinivasan, who has been very active along with Mr. G. K. Raman in upgrading various facilities in Sai Sruthi, respectfully prays to Bhagavan to bless the new guesthouse and the cafeteria. Swami graciously agrees and so we all slowly move there. The guesthouse complex has many rooms, each with double occupancy; it was built in forty days, quite an achievement, especially considering that Kodai is up in the mountains. But even more impressive is the cafeteria, which was put up in seven days flat. This amazing feat was possible because it was made of prefab parts. Such accelerated work is always necessary where Swami is concerned; targets would be set with impossible deadlines and somehow they have to be executed. And they invariably are, because of Swami’s grace.

The new guesthouse
Blessing the cafeteria

Tea and Snacks and Korean Rugs

Swami sees everything, blesses and shows His appreciation. We adjourn back to the main building, and once again Swami begins asking, “Where are the boys? Why have they not come yet?” The reply is, “Swami they are almost here; only five minutes more.” This “only five minutes more” goes on a few times, until finally, to the relief of all, the boys arrive. Swami at once invites everyone to the dining hall, His dining hall, I might add, for tea and snacks.

Tea over, Swami is anxious to distribute something. Normally, distribution starts the morning after, but this time it is on arrival. I am curious to know what it is that Swami is so eager to give away so soon. I do not have to wait for long; it is rugs, very good rugs from Korea. All of us get rugs, not just the boys. Swami then tells the boys that very good sleeping bags have been provided for their comfort and that they can sleep right next to His room. Also, words of caution/warning: No talking! After rug distribution, it is room allotment for us, the elders in Swami’s party.

Swami’s Instructions: Enjoy Dinner and Go for a Walk

All of us are assigned rooms in the new guesthouse blessed earlier by Swami, and we are sent off there. Meanwhile, the van with the luggage has arrived and there are seva dal volunteers to help us carry the luggage to the allotted rooms. The last instruction to all of us before Swami retires upstairs is: “All of you enjoy your dinner in the new cafeteria, and after that, go for a walk.” Boys too are asked to have their meals there – this is a clear departure from earlier years. When Sai Sruthi was first inaugurated, there was no dining hall and boys used to eat where the Divine sessions are now held. Limited space? Well, the party was small too. Then came the dining hall, and now a whole new guesthouse with cafeteria attached.

The dinner is great, the catering being by the same party, Arusuvai Natarajan (Arusuvai roughly means one who has mastered many tastes), that was responsible for lunch at TAFE. Apparently, they have a fine reputation in Tamil Nadu. I find the walk most enjoyable; what a different setting compared to Puttaparthi, in just a few short hours. The walk also gives me a chance to see how fast things change. Three years ago, not many mobile phones visible, but now there are so many people talking and walking. Also, dress style has changed quite a bit with fewer dhotis visible.

Where dress and style are concerned, things seem to change with amazing rapidity but where transition from impurity to purity is concerned, change, if it happens at all, seems to be excruciatingly slow! That’s life and that’s all for this installment. More next time!

Jai Sai Ram.


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Vol 4 Issue 11 - NOVEMBER 2006
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