This article relates to the second time I visited the ashram of my beloved Swami, Sri Sathya Sai Baba in Puttarparthi, Southern India during February 2010. On this occasion I went with a companion; my girlfriend Ciara, who is now my ex-girlfriend. Those of you who have read my book Astral Travelling, The Avatar and Me will know that Baba’s ashram, Prashanthi Nilayam (abode of the highest peace) was extremely busy during my first visit. Literally millions and millions of people pass through the ashram each year, and especially during festival times it is just manic. I had not planned my visits to specifically coincide with any of the festivals, it just happened to turn out that way. During my first visit of two weeks duration there were two celebrations, and my second visit coincided with Maha Shivaratri (Great Night of Shiva) which is one of the main festivals of the year and an extremely busy time.
Ciara had an on- going medical condition and was in a lot of pain for much of our ten day visit. Our plan was to stay in a hotel for the first night and then find accommodation on the ashram for the remainder of our stay. However, we didn’t realise that we were visiting Prashanthi at one of the busiest times of the year. So, taking into account Ciara’s painful condition, we ended up finding a room in the village and just stayed there for the duration. The village was absolutely heaving; I had never known crowds like it; it made my first visit seem like solitary confinement!
Puttaparthi is not unlike any other Indian city, town or village in that there are many beggars and others who are unbelievably poor; some of these people are also hideously deformed. Ciara and I had decided that we wanted to give something and we kind of planned it before setting off. We had a particular “feeding project” which I will speak about in part two of this post. But, we also wanted to do stuff spontaneously.
Swami did not encourage giving money as it does not cure the problem. He always used to say “if you want to give something, give food”. So we decided that as well as our main project we would try to alleviate the hunger of these souls on a random basis as well. Rightly or wrongly I got into the habit of buying packets of biscuits (“cookies” for those in the US) and bottled water or soft drinks. If we saw someone who looked in need of sustenance we would hand these out randomly. Sometimes we would buy samosas and on one occasion I remember buying some takeaway rice dishes. We would also take any food with us that we were unable to eat after dining out, and just give it to the beggars. So now I’ve painted a picture for you I’ll get to the point of this article.
At the best of times Westerners, and even rich looking Indians, cannot walk around in places like Puttaparthi without being harassed for money by beggars and other chancers, but once it was noted that we were giving out goodies we were surrounded literally in seconds by street kids jostling to take anything from us that we were willing to give. These experiences were great eye openers for Ciara and I, and I found it quite disturbing how these children, so young, were so cut-throat and ruthless, and so “professional” in the way they went about their business. It’s well publicised that in India kids like these are put out onto the streets by unscrupulous adults, who are often relatives, in order to “earn” money. In many cases the money goes to feed the alcohol addictions of the adults. But it was apparent that amongst the kids there was most definitely a pecking order. There was one little girl who stood out head and shoulders above the rest.
I am not very good at guessing ages, but I would put her at about ten years old. On one occasion we had witnessed her taking a vicious swipe at a young lad; it seemed as though he had strayed onto the wrong patch, as though it was a turf war. But he was alone, he was hurt, and it appeared that there was at least one adult giving him grief as well. We managed to get him out of the scrape and he didn’t forget. Whenever he saw us after that he gave us a wave and flashed a wonderful smile. But I digress….
On this particular day we’d bought some packets of biscuits and some soft drinks, and as usual we were looking for the right people to help. We walked down from the ashram into the village and we saw an elderly lady begging. We stopped and when I gave her a packet of biscuits and a drink her eyes lit up. Within seconds we were surrounded by kids from all sides. The little girl in question was at the fore hassling and jostling, and I am not exaggerating when I say that I have to cast my mind back a long, long way to remember the last time that someone was so full-on in my face. Now I am not someone who only has a modicum of life experience. I have served in the military and I have lived in a foreign country, but I can honestly say that I felt intimidated by this little girl. Ciara and I had a genuine fear that the kids would beat up on the elderly lady and take her biscuits and drink, so we had to stand there with her to make sure she was OK. I actually felt quite bad about this because we wanted her to be able to enjoy her surprise snack in peace, but she had to stand and rush her drink
because of the kids jostling.
In amongst this there was one very amusing moment. At some point of calm I dropped something. What I dropped I can’t remember, but the elderly lady and I both bent down at the same time to pick it up, and there was a “CRACK” as our heads clashed. Because she was so frail I was panic stricken that I had hurt her, and she was equally horrified because she thought the same about me. We ended up just laughing.
So the whole point of this is to remind us that in this kind of community in places like India, there is most certainly a law of the jungle that Westerners don’t readily notice; and if we are not careful we can end up causing big problems for the very people we are trying to help. It’s very easy to become attached to the emotion of it all, seeing those poor street kids in their rags begging for food, seeing the elderly beggars, the beggars who are obviously also mentally ill, and there are those who are inflicted with deformity as well; we really do witness heart wrenching sights in these places. The reason we have to be careful is that we are only there for a few weeks at a time and if we single out individuals for preferential treatment during our stay it can create repercussions when we have gone. We don’t realise that there is a lot of jealousy in these communities and that the people whom we help during our short stays may then be ostracized or even face beatings once we have gone.
Yes it is a very difficult one but nonetheless it reminds us that when we are in someone else’s back yard we need to be aware of the rules. Watch out for part two.
Always enjoy your thought provoking blogs Rich. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks Shaz I appreciate your positive feedback.
A powerful and though provoking post, Rich. Thank you.
Thanks Janice, appreciate you taking the time to read and comment.
Yes – I’ve seen it too, when I used to be an air stewardess when we flew into Bombay (Mumbai). The young boys liked being given biros, yet afterwards there was always a lot of arguing and pushing and shoving. So most of the crews took milk off the aircraft to give them and made them drink it there and then. Really cut-throat competition for begging patches too. I remember being in a taxi, window open, waiting at traffic lights. A small begging hand suddenly popped up from next to the vehicle. It was a legless kid on a skateboard scooting alondside! I was only 21 years old at the time and it really shook me to see extent of the poverty.
I am so grateful for my life in the west, whatever the stresses that come along. I am eternally thankful for all that I have in my life.
Great observations, the desire to help is powerful, you helped me be aware of the finesse necessary to offer it.
Thanks for your positive comments, much appreciated. I will be posting parts 2 and 3 again over the weekend.