As I considered Sai Baba to be my Lord and God, I would spend the bulk of each day working hard in the Indian Canteen. It was a task that I enjoyed immensely as I always enjoy the joy of seva as I do even now. My duties entailed clearing up the spilled food leftovers from the tables, washing and then wiping the tables down, helping to cook chapatis (rounds of unleavened bread) and then serve the food at lunchtime. I would start all of this work from breakfast time onwards. If I had it my way, I would have done seva all day long right up to the end of dinner, but the Indian canteen was located outside of Sai Baba's Whitefield ashram and was a good 10-15 minute walk away. There were frightening reports of robberies and assaults upon devotees that took place under cover of darkness and, because I was just a young lad of 14, my mother thus forbade me to perform seva at dinnertime so I did seva in the Western Canteen instead (located inside the ashram).
I was reflecting on my memories of the friendships ethat I forged and enjoyed while working in the Indian canteen. There was a real sense of teamwork, discipline, love and co-operation. Of all the workers there, I fondly remember three people who were my closest associates: Prasadam, Ramesh and Guruprasad. Prasadam ('Prasad' for short) was a very nice guy with a cheerful smile who was always happy to help. He dutifully kept aside a couple of idlis every day for my mother who suffers from diabetes and was not always able to make it in time to eat a set meal. He was the one who gave m my jobs and guided me through every step of the process until I was able to do the job with myself. As he was in charge of the canteen administration I didn't always get the time to sit and have a friendly chat with him, but when we did sit down to eat he was always fun to talk with. Of course, the main topic of conversation was Sai Baba and his leelas.
I only knew Guruprasad for a short time in 1993. As far as I remember, he was a computer graduate from Bombay who had come to spend his summer with Sai Baba and work in the canteen as a way of doing seva. My association with him usually started doing the cooking process as he was favoured with the 'premier' job of cooking rice, which was the main dish. Later when he came to join us in serving it we would talk to each other (of course about Swami and his leelas) and have a good time. He was always very nice to me, making sure that I had eaten my food and so on. We were all generally of a young age so we all got along as boys do, sometimes even childishly. There was a real concept of brotherhood.
And last, but certainly not the least, how could I not speak about my dear Ramesh? We used to talk and sing bhajans for hours, in between our spiritual discussions. We were agreat trio; myself, Prasad and Ramesh, but I was much closer to Ramesh as we spent most of our time together. First we would serve breakfast and then, after I had cleaned up, we would make a start on the lunch preparations by cooking the chapatis. The womenfolk used to make the dough and roll it into the circular shapes and then had them over to Ramesh and I, who would cook them on the grill while yakking endlessly about Sai Baba and singing bhajans. Ramesh and I were extraordinarily close, we would also talk about anything and everything. At that time I was inclined to worship Shiva and he was a Shaivite too; we would talk about the Shiva-centric aspects of religion and how Sai Baba was really Shiva. Ramesh was the guy who first told me about Pandit Gopi Krishna's book about Kundalini. In fact he was reluctant to lend it to me as he knew that I would beg him to let me borrow it. Under duress, he allowed me to read the first page and, sure enough, I was so engrossed by the narration that I wanted to read further and he pulled the book away from me to my laughing taunts of being unfair.
I was so enthusiastic about my friendship with Ramesh that I would speak about him in glowing terms. One day my mother made a sarcastic remark about my high praises about Ramesh, asking me if I had made him my God. I took that very hard since we were in the presence of Sai Baba ("God"!) and the next day I hardly spoke to him, even to his surprise, while we did our work.
Sai Baba used to have evening sessions with the male students of his Whitefield college every night straight after the evening bhajans until around 8 or 8.30pm every night. Some permanent sevadals and permanent residents were also allowed access to these evening sessions although they couldn't be in the same room as Sai Baba and the boys, and used to sit around on the staircase and on the downstairs floor. I found out that Ramesh was one of those permanent sevadals who attended those sessions at least twice. He used to happily tell me of what he used to hear: Sai Baba cutting jokes with the students and just general camaraderie. On one occasion he was carryong a rose which he offered to Sai Baba for blessing, which the Baba did. Ramesh was so excited about this that he kept it secret, occasionally pulling it out to have a look at it and smelling it and eating some of the petals. Of course he gave me a petal too, which I gladly ate.
There is much that I can speak about Ramesh and Prasad, my two very good friends. The last time I saw them, Prasad had "graduated". Prasad was also an official sevadal worker (blue scarf and all) and was placed at vantage points in the darshan hall in order to supervise the waiting devotees during darshan, along with the rest of the sevadal workers. Apparently one day, Sai Baba had called Prasad to talk to him right there in the middle of a darshan for a very long time. To everyone's surprise ("Why is Swami talking for so long to a lowly seva dal?") Sai Baba even materialised a ring for him right there and then. It was plainly obvious that his years of dedicated seva in the canteen were bearing fruit and he was getting his "reward". As if that wasn't enough, Sai Baba had "promoted" Prasad to being his personal attendant and he was granted the opportunity to clean the Baba's apartments and other duties. On the rare occasions when he visited the Indian Canteen (to eat lunch!), everyone, including myself, used to stare at him with a sense of awe. I jokingly asked him what he did to deserve such a high position and what was his secret. He simply replied, with his usual cheerful smile, "whatever you do, do it with love."
The last time I saw Ramesh was sometime in 1997 I think, when we ran into each other in Prashanti Nilayam, Sai Baba's Puttaparthi ashram. Our closeness was still very much there although obviously some things had changed with the passing of time, we couldn't goof around as we used to do in Whitefield. He joyously told me that he had got married for some months and gave me his home address, telling me that I must visit him. I did promise to do so but unfortunately I never got the chance. I still have that piece of paper somewhere and I should consider writing him a letter one of these days if only to make sure he is OK.
You know, although I spend a lot of time on this blog criticising Sai Baba and his fraudulence, there's no denying that there are some positive things to the experience too. Sai devotees, for all their fanaticism, spiritual ignorance and intellectual laziness, are overall not a bad bunch of people when it comes to spending time with them. Personal growth consists of acknowledging both the good and bad experiences and the processing thereof. I have very fond memories of my friendships with Ramesh and Prasad, as well as the countless other devotees who I met and regularly associated with.
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