Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A Bonfire of Devotions – plugging into a Cosmic Concert on a weekday morning

A once sleepy hamlet revisited

Long, long before “Whitefield” became a bad word in the lexicon of ITES professionals wanting a piece of the real estate pie in the sky, this once sleepy hamlet on the outskirts of Bangalore was already a seasonal, red letter destination for a small, itinerant community.

For more than three decades members of this unique community have congregated here at irregular intervals – usually at least once every year – their migratory pattern decided by the presence of the unique object of their devotion.

They come from every corner of this nation and every continent on Earth. They represent every profession, every demographic and every segment of humanity. They all come here, unbidden, on their own and unite into one big mass of unquestioning belief. Some stay for days, weeks. Some come for a morning. But they are all united by a common, invisible, cosmic thread that only they seem to sense.

One Thursday last week I dragged myself out of bed at 5 in the morning and took a “call taxi” to this hallowed turf to see for myself how this tribe was faring.

It was a pleasant morning. Construction was apace for an “over-bridge” to replace the decades old “railway crossing”. A constant stream of cars, autos and buses ebbed and flowed on either side of the tracks, disgorging a stunning variety of people. Children, geriatrics, housewives, teens, self conscious damsels, poor, rich, in-between, healthy, weak, ailing, a fair sprinkling of Caucasians - they all hurried to join two gender specific queues by the side of the narrow road, along an imposing, kilometer long compound wall. There was very little chatter. A collective aura of shared purpose and subsumed individuality seemed to emanate from the congregation.

There was a small police presence but it was redundant. The crowd was too pre-occupied and too well behaved to pose a law and order problem.

As I joined the queue I saw small signboards directing everyone to deposit their mobile phones and handbags etc., at designated counters. At the mobile phone counter I was given a token in lieu of my phone.

The “volunteers”

As my queue entered the gates, an animated group of men dressed in white shirts and trousers thoroughly frisked everyone. Everything except wallets and keys was politely confiscated and thrown pell-mell into cardboard cartons.

There was a sizeable army of these white clad individuals about. Most of them wore blue, patterned, boy-scout style scarves around their necks. Average age: 55 or 60. They were everywhere, watching over the crowd. These were the “volunteers”, members of the “service brigade”. There were dozens of them and they were the only aberration in an otherwise other-worldly morning.

A few meters from the entrance there was a huge covered hall bigger than a football field. It was divided into two roughly equal parts and the crowd filed into the near half in two ever disciplined, gender specific streams. There was another round of metal detector walk through and frisking before entering the hall.

Once inside, the crowd sat down cross-legged on the cemented floor in long, disciplined rows. There was still very little chatter. The atmosphere was charged with expectation.

The whole scene, I thought, was what it might be like before a mega prison concert.

And the “volunteers” played the role of jailors to perfection. Some of them were downright ridiculous in the manner that they directed the crowd while others bordered on the perverse. I saw one of the “volunteers” station himself at a spot and point at his feet directing some people who had just entered the hall to come and start a fresh line. The moment the first person sat down at the spot, the “volunteer” moved a couple of feet to his right and again pointed to his feet. The man who had sat down at the originally indicated spot uncomplainingly got up and again sat down at the new location, followed by the dozen or so people who had half formed a new line behind him. The “volunteers” indulged in several such antics throughout the couple of hours we were there.

The crowd however was impervious to the constant jabbering of the “volunteers”. They fretted a bit but were strangely self absorbed, like patients in a doctor’s waiting room.

The “lottery”, the rest of the wait and the concert

By 8 AM the ante-hall had filled up nicely. There must have been more than 3000 people, all sitting cross-legged in nice straight lines on the cement floor. One of the volunteers walked down the front of the rows and asked the first person in each row to pick a numbered coupon from a bag or box or something. This was the “lottery”. The different lines would be let into the still empty front half of the hall in the order of the numbers chosen. There must surely be some method and reason to this but it beats me.

Anyway, my line finally got its turn to get up and troop into the front hall where we all again sat down on the floor. The crowd was a whisper more restless than before with a heightened sense of expectation. My legs were beginning to ache from sitting cross-legged and I desperately wanted to stand up and stretch. But I felt sheepish when I saw all the others around me bearing their discomfort with equanimity. I squirmed and wriggled a bit but otherwise held my peace.

Suddenly, a brief split-moment of silence descended on the congregation and the next instant a clear, beautiful, lilting female voice from somewhere in the front row filled the hall with a devotional song – a bhajan. When the first pristine line had been sung, the entire gathering repeated it in one harmonious voice. All my impatience and fretting disappeared. The music filled me from all sides like a cocoon, a womb.

And then He appeared from behind a curtained doorway on the distant stage – a frail figure in a bright orange dress, with his trademark halo of hair, sitting in a wheelchair pushed by two young men. They carefully maneuvered the wheelchair to the center of the stage and sat down on either side at the feet of Satya Sai Baba.

Everybody was craning to get a clear view of the distant figure. Every single person in that hall was totally focused on this, the object of their absolute devotion. They were in rapture.

The music continued with increased fervor and passion - thousands of voices singing as one. I could hear and feel the collective force of a myriad passions meshing and melding and fusing together before being consummated in the infinite grace emanating from that frail presence on the distant stage.

This cosmic concert went on for a good 45 minutes. Song after song washed over me and I did not take my eyes off the stage. “Swamy” sat listening and gazing over the crowd, occasionally moving his hands in time with the music. He once bent to say something to one of the men seated at his feet.

After what seemed to me a moment, an eternity, at an unseen cue, the concert ended and they wheeled him away.

As disciplined as ever, the crowd dispersed but there was a slight bottleneck at the exits. The volunteers weren’t around to regulate the reverse flow. Even if they had been around, I would have forgiven them their trespasses that morning.

That morning, I felt as if I had touched a small fragment of Infinity.

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