July 14, 2024

She ran through the Mumbai airport and checked each airline.

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.  

“Do you have any flights to Madurai?”

Madurai was the nearest airport to Kodaikanal, only 120km (75 miles) from where Sathya Sai Baba resided. But there were no flights to Madurai. 

Possessed with a mad sense of urgency, my mother’s next plan was to find a taxi. A private car must have been too expensive. She dragged me along as she approached taxi after taxi outside the airport and peered into each car to assess the driver. She wanted to make sure he was someone she could trust, someone who would not rape or rob us.

She found a taxi wallah, a kind old man dressed in a tattered lungi who warned us of bandits who kidnapped women during the night and stole from tourists. A long, clean machete sat next to him as he drove.

I curled my body onto the back seat, but I did not sleep at any point during the 24-hour car ride.

Instead, I watched the scenery of India pass us by as we drove from north to south. My skin melted into the tattered vinyl of the seat; my sweat mixed with the heavy air.

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 watched people on autorickshaws, men on scooters, the way all the cars and trucks kicked up dirt and formed a never-ending cloud of dust.

It was so different to where we lived in Pasadena, California, where the roads were wide and evenly paved and the white and yellow lines clearly demarcated where cars belonged, the sleek sedans and beat-up Camaros.

In California, there were no lorries painted primary colours of blue, red and yellow, no automobiles that recklessly weaved around each other, no trails of smoke and dust that illustrated in which direction each car was headed, as if writing the story of their vehicular lives.

Later, I would realise that being in a taxi, rather than a rental car, made us safe; we blended into the local language of vehicles.

Rani and her mother pictured in Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu during a trip to meet the Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba [Photo courtesy of Rani Neutill] 

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.

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.

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.

Sathya Sai Baba did not live like this. A chauffeur drove him around in a Mercedes. His houses and cars were gifts from wealthy admirers in India, Western Europe, and the US. He always wore a full-sleeved, long orange kurta that shimmered with cleanliness. His massive coif of hair pointed into the air like lines of electricity drawn by a cartoonist. His presence was loud and boastful. So was his lifestyle, with lavish homes in both Puttaparthi and the hillside tourist destination of Kodaikanal.

Sathya Sai Baba
Sathya Sai Baba died on April 24, 2011. Devotees of the Indian guru, including Sonia Gandhi, the former president of the Indian National Congress, paid their respects at an ashram in Andhra Pradesh [Adnan Abidi/Reuters]

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.

Each visit to see Sai Baba was the same. He separated his followers by gender. Women and their children were always huddled together. We walked into the enclosure that surrounded his mansion and sat down; the hard earth beneath us – a feeling of groundedness that dissipated when Sai Baba arrived. Our bodies tensed and roused with anticipation. I desperately wanted to see his bare feet approach us, to feel the stroke of his hand on my hair and receive his good tidings. My mother raised her hands in prayer. I copied her movements and lifted my hands in worship. We waited for his acknowledgment.

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.

Please keep us financially stable.

Please let Rani get a good education and find a husband.

When will I die?

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.

Sai Baba was well known for his philanthropy. He accepted money from his wealthy devotees, built hospitals and schools for the poor. An educated elite of doctors and teachers donated their services in exchange for his blessings.

Sathya Sai Baba memorial
Devotees hold flowers to place on a sand sculpture of Indian spiritual guru Sri Sathya Sai Baba, created by sand artist Sudarshan Pattnaik, on a beach in Puri on April 24, 2011 [Stringer/Reuters]

There were also rumours of sexual misconduct, of his interest in teenage boys; allegations that were denied by Sai Baba and many of his followers.

I later learned that we did not have the money to give to his charities; whatever we had was rationed for travel.

On that frenzied trip, when we eventually arrived at our hotel, we met a white American couple. They were there to see Sai Baba as well. They had a baby, a little girl. She could not have been more than five months old. The wife wore a large emerald ring encrusted with tiny diamonds wrapped around her index finger. My mother looked at the ring, and the woman looked at her. The woman’s blonde tresses stood out in contrast to my mother’s night-black hair, the woman’s blue eyes piercing, my mother’s dark brown eyes overflowing with desire. The woman knew that the look on my mother’s face was a question.

“Oh, this? Yes, Sai Baba made this for me.”

The woman explained how Sai Baba had brought them into his home and performed his small miracles, the emerald ring and a tiny figurine of some god. She pulled the statue from her purse, and we marvelled at it. I held the idol in my palm and imagined it was a medallion worn by a superhero, that by holding it I would be granted good luck. The woman told us how her family was chosen, how they had bought Sai Baba a car in return for his blessings. There was a hint of superiority when she narrated this story, glancing at my mother with what I can only describe now as pity.

Rani Neutill - mother

Rani’s mother [Photo courtesy of Rani Neutill]

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.

I stuffed my face, dropping pieces of the dosa into the coconut chutney and sambar it was served with. Soon after, I began to throw up, heaving the food I had just devoured into the hotel toilet. I lay on the floor, peered up at the ceiling, and wondered if my mother would find the answers she came for.

The next morning, my mother pulled my shivering body up a hill. We were 5km (three miles) from Sai Baba’s home.

“We must see him today,” she said. “Today is the day. I know it.”

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.

I gazed at the path before me. A canopy of lush emerald-green trees marked the horizon. Clusters of fog surrounded us. I reached out to capture a handful of the tiny droplets that waltzed through the air. They disintegrated into nothingness.

As I gathered the breath to continue to move, my mother grabbed my wrist.

“I’m trying, mama. I’m trying,” I said, in my eight-year-old voice. I knew I had to follow her. There could be no childhood resistance. She was the only thing I had. I was attached to her mind and body, and I only wanted to please her.

I shuffled my feet forward.

“Mama, can we take a taxi? I don’t feel good.”

“Na, sona, the fresh air will be good for you,” my mother declared, perhaps to convince herself that my illness might be cured by the journey to see Sai Baba and the consecration he might grant us.

“We must walk, we must live minimally, the way Sai Baba has advised us.”

I did not understand but trusted that my mother knew best. As we walked, I felt dizzier and dizzier from the elevation. I paused to regain my balance and tensed my legs to make them strong enough to carry me. A shiny white Hindustan Ambassador approached us and slowed its pace. The couple and their baby were in the car. The wife turned to look at us. My gaze met hers and lingered on her face and that of her child. She looked healthy and happy with her perfect nuclear family. Suddenly, I began to vomit. They drove away.

I would never feel the desperation that plagued my mother during those trips to find salvation. At that time, I did not know it was because demons lived inside her, demons that grew in her mind and ultimately led her to a tragic death. But when the car drove away, vomit splattered at my feet, my mother, distracted, filled with longing for someone to tell us our future, it defined my relationship with religion and revealed dynamics of wealth and race.

I now understand that my mother’s fierce desires were tumultuous and dangerous. But at eight, I just noted the difference in race between my mother and I and the couple in the immaculate car. Mostly I felt confused: how could they leave a small girl and her mother behind? A sick child who should not have been walking kilometres to see a man who represented an almighty force? I understood the meaning of hypocrisy – even if I did not possess that word.

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.

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.

Sai Baba asked the white woman with her baby to rise up and join the chosen few. My mother looked at her with desire and anticipation that the astrologer’s predictions would finally materialise and Sai Baba would gesture for us to join this woman and we could rejoice. But he did not pick us.

He never would.

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