All the Babas in My Life

Social Commentary

All the Babas in My Life

Illustration: Namaah

Alarge billboard of Radhe Maa looms over the residential complex in which Preeti Harnal lives. It’s almost like the universe knows she’s a believer. Delhi suburbia, like everything else about the capital city, is a paradox. Leafy, but the zones are some of the most polluted locales in the country; residential, but hubs of crime; crowded, but no one wants to be here. This is prime hunting ground for the God-men and -women of the country. In Anand Vihar, where Harnal lives, the holy visages of everyone from Sathya Sai Baba to Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh to Asaram Bapu are splashed across billboards liberally; benign, forgiving faces looking over the cacophony that mere humans create below.

In Harnal’s building, the insignia of faith hangs over the elevator as a signal to visitors – a red swastika dotted onto the wall and a lemon knotted with chillies over the door. Once you step out, it is easy to spot her home out of the identical doors of the apartment complex. A garlanded photo of a bearded God-man hangs over her door.

Harnal’s daughter is a high-powered marketing executive with an MNC and much to her agony, her mother has always worn her unshakeable belief in the powers of babas on her sleeve. She rolls her eyes at the incense and bhajans that always seem to float in the air of the house, but she can’t change the fact that her mother is and always will be besotted by babas of every variety. Even those, like Sathya Sai Baba, who are trailed by controversy.  

Preeti grew up in the small town of Modinagar and spent her days at her father’s cement shop, where a large picture of his guru, Lehri Mahashay ji, presided over the business. Her father, she explains carefully, was not a religious man. He believed instead that meditation or dhyaan was the only way to lead a good life. Her mother was the one who made the kids recite the Hanuman Chalisa every Tuesday and banned meat from the kitchen. Preeti seems to have taken both ideologies and mashed them up into a supersized version of faith that is entirely her own.

To help me understand the foundation of her faith, Preeti tells me a story.

The year was 1991 and she was travelling to Amritsar from her marital home in Delhi and found herself at the empty train station at midnight, with her three-year-old daughter in tow. She stepped out of the station to find a solitary three-wheeler, its driver, and a few stray dogs were the only signs of life. She approached the man and handed over her address. He nodded in agreement and they were soon on their way.

There are millions of Preetis in India – men and women trapped in the agony of their daily lives, people who faith is all that makes it bearable.

As soon as she sat in the vehicle, Harnal tells me she sensed she was in danger: The driver kept glancing at her furtively in his rear-view mirror. But as they neared an empty chowk, the auto jerked to a halt and the autowallah’s loud rattling of the gears did not convince the vehicle to budge. As she grabbed her daughter and bag and hurried out, she was met by a jatha of Radha Soamis, heading to their dera in Beas. She joined them and was soon standing in front of Baba Gurinder Singh Ji.

At that moment, she tells me with a feverish devotion in her eyes, that she became an ardent member of his flock and a permanent fixture at satsangs.

It is an incident that many of us would put down to a grateful coincidence but in Preeti’s world it is interpreted as fate. Much to her joy, her husband too was soon converted into a believer. A satsangi friend convinced him that his bouts of rage were caused by the copious amounts of chicken and cigarettes he was consuming. I try not to look alarmed at this diagnosis and ask if it worked.

“Beta, the relationship between a Punjabi man and his kukkad is a strong one,” she tells me admitting sadly that her husband often followed up a satsang with a visit to the dhaba where he got his fix of tandoori chicken. But at his confirmation ceremony at the feet of Gurinder Singh, he broke down and has not touched meat since.

After this “moment of truth” there have been others that have changed Harnal’s life. Numerologists who told her that her numbers added up to seven and warned her that she was in for a life of suffering; jyotishis who told her to wear blue and feed ants to protect her children; and a priestess who told her that feeding her husband a cardamom chewed by her would restore peace to their marriage.  

Preeti has even been mesmerised by glib TV apostles from a whole different faith. She took a shine to Joyce Meyer during her days in Hyderabad, where her sarkari babu husband was posted in the early 90s. With no Radha Soami satsangs to spend her days at, she turned to the smooth-talking evangelist. When I ask her about this sudden affinity to Christianity, Preeti brushes it off. To her, Meyer’s message of love was not that different from the one preached by Babaji, “Dono pyaar ki shiksha dete hain,” she assures me.

More recently, Nirmal Baba has fired her imagination. His wise words “If you want to eat a rasgulla, go ahead and eat it,” go deep into her soul. Her children have grown up and started breaking the rules of satsang with KFC binges and raucous girls’ night outs and she does not want to police their masti. So she eats rasgulla to alleviate some of her misery. In return for his rasgulla benediction, she donated thousands of rupees to his charity. I guess when it comes to babas, money can indeed buy you happiness.

There are millions of Preetis in India – men and women trapped in the agony of their daily lives, people whose faith is all that makes it bearable. It is a strong dependence, almost an addiction, and one that is looked upon derisively by the cynics and the rationalists who label religion as just another opiate fed to the masses. It is what drew lakhs of people to Chandigarh for a hearing on Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh’s verdict in a case of sexual exploitation. It is why disciples continue to believe that Sathya Sai Baba will one day return in a reincarnated body. 

Whatever we choose to call it, there is no doubt that Harnal’s baba dependence makes her happy. The idea of relying on an external entity for guidance is actually not all that foreign across the world. If she were in America, Harnal would have had a shrink on speed dial. She would have discussed with him the state of her marriage, her husband’s rage, the lack of attention from her children. And she would have paid good money for it.

The bonus of putting your faith in a baba, though, is that it might pay off in the afterlife too.