It was unnerving. The likeness couldn’t be missed or ignored. A huge brown frame with the overwhelming face hung opposite the entrance to a small sitting room. As we got out of the car and walked towards the gate of the small, cottage-like bungalow, I had been apprehensive about what I would find there. A smaller gate led up to a side entrance of the house. Around ten devotees perspired patiently in a queue. We were led to the cool comfort of the living room. The place belonged to a gentleman known as Hanuman baba, because of the astounding resemblance. Though not instantly converted, I was dauntingly zapped out of my cynicism when I saw the face smiling at me from the picture.
A couple of caring, persuasive friends had cajoled me into this visit for my mother’s sake. She was bed-ridden with chronic and severe rheumatoid arthritis. Medication fortified by strong will power saw her pull through each agonizing day. The swollen, deformed joints with very little mobility often drew pity from a few friends and relatives, concern from most.
“Come with us just this once,” they told me. “Tell him about your mother’s condition and at least see what he has to offer.” I consulted my mother. She just smiled and said, “Go for your friends’ sake. I have tried everything under the sun; there will be no harm in trying this too. Respect their sentiments and go without a fuss.”
That translated into, “I don’t expect this to work either, but I will not be rude to anyone who sincerely cares.” So willy-nilly I had accompanied them with a packet of incense sticks, some flowers and a coconut, as instructed. After about fifteen awestruck minutes, most of which I spent gaping at the photograph, we were ushered into an inner room.
Through the assailing fragrance and haze of glowing incense sticks, a metal idol of Hanumanji burnished to a beaming gold, stared imposingly down at us from its six-foot height. Flickering oil lamps genuflected around his feet and garlands of variously hued flowers adorned his neck. Offerings from grateful devotees. I bowed my head before it and then in namashkar to the spitting image in human form, seated cross-legged at its feet. The baba was clad in a white kurta-lungi, with ash smeared on his broad forehead and a peacock feather broom by his side, with other paraphernalia of puja scattered around him. He beamed his welcome and bid us sit down on the mats provided.
An awkward silence as he turned his gaze on each of us and cleansed our auras with the peacock feather broom.
“Baba, this is our friend. We had spoken to you about her mother.”
He nodded knowingly at me while I silently sent up an earnest plea: “Please, please, let me believe for my mother’s benefit.” Faith works miracles and I genuinely needed them – faith and miracle.
He regaled us with his life history, stressing he was a celibate like his deity and how people flocked to him because they believed him to be an avatar, from where, how and why they had come to settle in this city… He also narrated an incident or two of his emergence as a ‘baba’. A few questions about my mom followed and clearing my throat I answered them as well as I could in Hindi.
Throughout, his hands were busy laying our offerings before the idol on our behalf…another cluster of incense sticks was lit, flowers arrayed after being touched to the feet of Hanumanji, new oil lamps readied…but his eyes kept darting to our faces, plumbing the depth of my trust I felt, so I bolstered my plea for faith with greater urgency. If you have a song of faith in your heart, it will be heard by the look on your face.
Either from tension or from being unaccustomed to sitting cross-legged on the floor, my left leg was going dead under me. As I changed position he shut his eyes in contemplation. Waiting for guidance? Sparrows twittered outside, lifting his cerebrations heavenward and my petition too I hoped fervently closing my eyes as he had done. A little later muttering some prayer, he flicked the broom on my head and swept it downwards. My hands flew up from my lap at the suddenness of his actions. He did this about three or four times. That was apparently to cleanse my mother’s diseased aura. He then put a single white flower and a small packet of ash in my hand.
“Put these under her pillow and tomorrow morning let her drink this ash in a little water.”
“This will cure her?”
“Yeh, tau inke haath mein hai” (that is in his hands) he said pointing to the idol. “I am only his servant.”
I stood up, with the ‘prasad’ in my hands and some hope in my heart. The living likeness of a widely worshipped deity had its effect on me too. Perhaps even the sparrows had done a good job. My friends also received ‘prasad’ and blessings from baba.
As we readied to leave, he said to them, “This evening send me those pills for headache. Pehlewala stock khatam ho gaya(the earlier stock is exhausted).”
My eyes grew wide. My lips parted as the little hope I cherished flitted out the window to confab with the sparrows. And my head stuck a mile out on my neck as I blurted,
“Kya?! Everyone else comes to you for cures and you rely on medicines to cure your headaches?”
He smiled sheepishly. “It is not I. He cures everyone, I am just his humble bhakt”, he reiterated pointing once more to the statue.
“Then won’t he cure you too? Don’t you believe that?”
“It is probably his wish that I should suffer even as he heals others through me.”
I wanted to tell him that if you believe it is He who wants you to suffer these migraines, you shouldn’t take any medicines. Just bear them resignedly. I bit my tongue. It wasn’t my place to advise him or embarrass them any further. My friends, by the way, were wholesale distributors of drugs.
“Dekho, aap.” He continued pointing to his ‘medicines’, “If these work even ten percent on her, you can come back to me next week.”
So he too had doubts! Did I pass them on to him or did he snuff out my trust pulsing like a firefly’s faint light?
On the way home, my friends tacitly decided to leave me to my musings.
Yes, I did put the flower and ash under my mother’s pillow after narrating the whole episode to her. And next morning I had them put under a tree, asking Lord Hanuman to forgive me for my lack of faith in his devotee who seemed to lack faith in Him.