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  Volume 4 - Issue 10 OCTOBER 2006
 
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WITH THE LORD IN THE MOUNTAINS - Part 4

By Prof. G Venkataraman

 

 


I think I have said enough by way of preamble and let me now come to this year’s Kodai trip. I should perhaps mention that this was my second Kodai trip, the first one being in 2003. That time we were in Brindavan and Swami’s party flew out of Bangalore. This time, Swami left from Puttaparthi and flew direct to Madurai, as He did last year also, that is in 2005. In 2004, Swami spent the entire summer in Bangalore and did not go to Kodai.

Up, Up and Away with Sai

In the last issue, I came up to the point where the aircraft carrying us to Madurai had lifted off and was flying over the control building in the Sri Sathya Sai Airport in Puttaparthi. As we rapidly gain height, I look out of the window and see below the Prashanti Nilayam Railway Station with its magnificent building and facilities – very few stations can match that, I must say. Seeing it brings to my mind accounts by old time devotees about how they used to come to Penukonda by train, alight there, take a ramshackle bus to Bukkapatnam [a journey of several hours], transfer to a bullock cart, crawl to Karnatakanagepalli on the east bank of the Chitravati and then cross the river on foot, etc. Now, devotees can come direct to Puttaparthi by bus, air-conditioned taxi, train, and even air. And, as late as 1968, Arthur Schulman of Hollywood described Puttaparthi as being 160 km from Bangalore and ten minutes past the Stone Age!

Barely a few seconds later, I see below the road from Penukonda Railway Station to Kothacheruvu, traversed by devotees for decades. Soon the view becomes hazy and I turn my attention to what’s happening inside the aircraft. The cabin crew has begun serving breakfast – prepared by the famous Taj Hotel in Chennai and flown in from there. Looks good and inviting but since I know my stomach very well, I decide to skip it.

As a part of the routine, the crew try to offer Swami some breakfast. Poor things, how would they know about Swami! He never eats or drinks anything while travelling, no matter how long the journey. Just to please them, Swami accepts a glass of water and barely sips it.

While breakfast service is in progress, the front end of the cabin becomes a sort of Interview room for the crew. One by one they come for Swami’s darshan, while someone else is clicking away photos. One lucky person even gets a ring.

Darshan in the Clouds

After a while, Swami gets up and starts slowly walking down the aisle, all the way to the other end of the aircraft. He always does this. One more darshan, of a rare variety too; how many can say, “I had Swami’s darshan way up in the clouds!”

 
   

While Swami goes to the other end, I notice that Satya Jit is sneaking into the cockpit. I have always wanted to have a cockpit view and at last after so many years of flying, I see a chance; I immediately seize it. Even as I go in and admire the view from there, I think, “Can one dream of such a thing these days what with so much security and all that?” But when Swami is there, He is the ultimate security, and everyone becomes so very friendly. I learn that the Captain of the flight is Vivek Shanbag, and the co-pilot is Srinivas Reddy. The Captain tells me that we should be touching down at Madurai at 10:35 a.m. Having fulfilled a long-standing ambition, I don’t want to stay too long and bother the Captain, so I return to my seat.

10:25: The aircraft has now descended and is flying much closer to the ground – no wonder, since Madurai is approaching. The ride becomes quite bumpy, thanks to turbulence. I look around and find that Swami is still giving darshan though it is so very bumpy.

Prasadam for the Passengers…

I take a quick peep out of the window and see directly below me the Kodai Hills towards which we will be heading later in the day. Darshan still on and meanwhile a surprise – boys are distributing Prasadam in midair. With Swami, wonders never cease.

The plane is now almost over the airport and Swami is still busy with darshan! Wheels out, and Swami just makes it back to His seat.

The stewardess makes the announcement that we have landed in Madurai and tells us we should exit from the front. This is the standard routine; she obviously is not aware that for this flight the passengers exit from the rear while Swami gets out from the front using a special elevator.

 
Swami sitting on Sofa in the waiting area
 
Swami disembarking from the plane

As the aircraft comes to a stop, I look out of the window, and see that the airport has undergone many improvements since I was there in 2003. I then try to see who have come to receive Swami.

…and the Flight Attendants

Even as I am taking in the scene outside, I notice that Swami is busy giving sarees to the stewardesses. They express gratitude with padnamaskar.

We all quickly get out of the rear exit and make our way towards the front of the aircraft to catch a glimpse of Swami coming out. There is a big crowd milling around. Swami’s Benz comes close to the aircraft, while Swami comes down from the aircraft using the special elevator. There are many people on the tarmac, all barefoot of course, and since it is very hot, practically everyone is dancing. Not us though – we have our footwear on. Lots of camera clicking going on.

Swami walks to the car

...and sits inside

The New Improved Madurai Airport

Swami gets into the car with Balram at the wheel (as usual), and He drives away. All the rest of us in the party slowly walk towards the arrival building. I take in the scene and see many changes since my last view of this place in 2003 – lots of luggage trolleys for arriving passengers to use and display boards giving info about planes arriving and departing, like they have in all good airports. From a quick glance, I find that there are many services flying into and from Madurai , not only to Chennai/Madras but to other places as well, like Tuticorin, for example. Signs of the economy improving?

 

We come out of the building without the worry of picking up our baggage, and this is one of the “freedoms” we get when travelling as a part of Swami’s party – all these details are taken care of. Outside the arrival building, I see two big air-conditioned buses waiting, obviously to carry our party to Kodai. But there are also cars for VIPs, and wonder of wonders, I am a VIP – helps to have held the post of Vice Chancellor, even if it was many, many years ago. By the way, in 2003, all of us had to ride by bus – looks like a promotion in status.

While I am waiting to be informed about which car to get into, I notice Mrs. Ratan Lal getting in a car that quickly speeds away. She is going direct to Kodai without stopping over in Madurai, like all of us will do, including Swami. Mrs. Ratan Lal has been taking care of Swami’s meal arrangements during most of His travels; certainly she does this every time Swami goes to Kodai. And she is ever anxious to reach there well ahead of Swami to get the kitchen up and running.

Mrs. Ratan Lal
   

Even as my eyes are taking in the scene, I am busy scribbling notes in a pocket notebook; in fact, I have been doing this literally from the moment I left Parthi Ashram – Radio Sai and H2H obligations. Vice Chancellor Gokak sees me busy and remarks, “Ah, you are busy taking notes like a student.” The place is full of Seva Dals, all from the State of Tamil Nadu, of course, as that is the state in which Kodai is located, and soon one of them comes to me and guides me to the car I am supposed to ride in. As I get in, I notice that the Vice Chancellor and his wife are also travelling in the same car.

As we get in, I take my seat next to the driver, a young IT professional named Sai Ram from Chennai. The Seva Dal who shows me to the car says, “Sir, you will travel by this car till you reach Kodai.” I nod. Then, he slips some packets of eatables to all of us in the car; typical Swami arrangement: snacks for the road. With boys this is a regular ritual, going back to the eighties. In those days, Swami would travel by car from Bangalore to Kodai and His boys would accompany Him in a big bus. The bus would be packed with stuff to eat and juice packets as well. On the road, there would be many stops where Swami would give darshan, but boys, as per instructions, would be stuffed by the local hosts. And when the party reached Kodai, Swami would check to see if the boys had eaten all that was put in the bus. I have heard many boys recall this with great pleasure, giving graphic accounts of how hard it was to eat all that stuff. Those bus trip days are gone, but the food packets are still there, without, however, the “Divine Customs” examination. At least not for us. Usually, when they get an opportunity, elders give it away to Seva Dals.

Ananda Nilayam, Swami’s Mandir in Madurai

Our car is very nice, a red Chevy. I ask Mr. Sai Ram whether he knows where to go and he replies, “Sir, we are to go Ananda Nilayam for a brief stopover.” Ananda Nilayam is Swami’s Mandir in Madurai. It was blessed by Swami in 1999 during a Kodai trip like the present one. In 2003, there was a long stop by our party in Ananda Nilayam but more about that soon. I then ask Mr. Sai Ram, “Do you know the roads here?” He says no. I ask him how he will drive us to our destination and he gives a very simple answer, “My job is to simply follow the vehicle ahead.”

Madurai Airport is located in a place called Avaniaypuram, near the town of Tirupparankunram, famous for its temple for Lord Subrahmanya. This temple is located at the foot of a huge rock. Years ago, I went up the rock and saw the airport from there. Tirupparankuram is on the outskirts of Madurai city and if one follows the old road, the distance to the city is not very great. However, the roads are poor and go through crowded districts. These days, however, there is a nice big road leading out of the airport but it takes a circuitous route. We took that route, as we did in 2003.

 
   
Tirupparankunram Temple

Trading Stories with Vice Chancellor Gokak

Since the distance is longer, it takes more time but one has to negotiate less traffic. During this long ride, I get to talking with Vice Chancellor Gokak, something both of us rarely have time for in Parthi. I realise he is a person with a flair for witty and humorous anecdotes and has a nice way with words. Back when we were both in Parthi airport waiting for the flight to be called, we shared stories and he told me a nice one – almost all his stories were from his experience as a Government Officer. It went like this:

There was in Delhi an officer named Shanti Prasad, who was given to literary flourishes. As a bureaucrat, Shanti Prasad had to write all kinds of notes for his boss but they would not be the usual dry ones; instead, they would be peppered with all kinds of digressions done in a literary style. This is really not expected but Shanti Prasad’s boss was obviously a tolerant person. One day, Mr. Prasad exceeded himself and began to worry. So at the end of the note he wrote an apology, saying that he was sorry if he got carried away, that his boss must forgive him, and that he would not do that sort of thing again, etc. The boss read Shanti Prasad’s note and sent the file back. He had only one comment: 'Om Shanti Shanti Shantih!'

 

I look out of the car and find that Madurai has changed hugely – so many small industries. Soon we go past Tirunagar not far from Tirupparankuram. This is where my father used to live and I know this place quite well. In 2003, when we went by the same route, I could still pick up a few landmarks known to me, but this time I simply could not recognise Tirunagar. It went past without my being able to spot it.

We are at Ananda Nilayam. Swami has already arrived there and met briefly with Srinivasa Chettiar, son of late Subramania Chettiar, famous for his golden chariot, Paduka festivals, etc. Ananda Nilayam is right next to Srinivasa Chettiar’s residence, and in 1999 Swami came there to inaugurate Ananda Nilayam, the construction of which the Chettiar family played an important role.

In 2003, we made a long stop over at Ananda Nilayam. Here is what my diary from that trip recounts:

Swami in Ananda Nilyam after inaugrating it in 1993
   

A Peep into The Past

We arrive at Ananda Nilayam. We are told to leave our slippers and handbags in the bus as we will be going to Kodai in the same vehicle. So we troop out, taking just our cameras with us. Big crowd, and no surprise in that. Somehow, we manage to get in and once we are in, the welcome is truly royal. Swami is already there and He waves us all upstairs. Apparently, the refreshments have been arranged there. So we go up, and what happens? Swami follows, climbing the entire staircase. Devotees beg Him not to since He has lately been experiencing some difficulty in climbing and even walking on level ground. But Swami refuses to listen to these prayers because He wants to be with His flock. As He comes up, I manage to snap some precious pictures, and even as I am feeling pleased with my contribution to posterity, I get a rap on the knuckles, “Why are you wasting time? Don’t you know we have to leave for Kodai?” Giving me a stern look, Swami directs me to the food table. And boy, what a table it is!

Apparently, the Madurai people were instructed to provide some snacks and not lunch, as we would be arriving at around 3:30 or so. The Madurai hosts were instead now offering us breakfast, lunch and dinner all rolled into one, and of absolutely fabulous quality too. It truly required enormous strength of mind on my part to just look and not touch those great looking goodies, even as our hungry boys were merrily tucking in. I hope in due course I will be rewarded in Heaven for this great display of restraint!

Swami Visits the Chettiar Home

Meanwhile, Swami disappears, and we are told that He has gone next door to pay a brief visit to the house of Srinivasa Chettiar. There is an active debate about what Swami will do next. Some are saying Swami will come back for Arathi; He is never known to skip Arathi. Others are saying, no, it is getting late and it would delay us if Swami were to wade through the crowd and come back just for Arathi. He will therefore skip Arathi and go straight to Kodai. Meanwhile, I manage to exchange a few words with people I know who have come here to Madurai specially to be a part of the welcome party. Among these are Mr. Ramani, the President of the Tamil Nadu Seva Organisation, and Mr. Raman, Chairman of Sundaram Finance and President of the State Trust.

Mr. Raman tells me, “I think you will face a severe traffic problem. Today is Sunday and there will be huge crowds of weekenders returning from the hills to the plains. This downhill traffic is bound to slow you.” Mr Raman also stuns me with the news that he has been constantly shuttling between Madurai and Kodai during the past two days and had in fact made four trips. Amazing, and that is what devotion to Swami does to people.

Meanwhile, Swami comes back to Ananda Nilayam, takes Arathi and drives off to Kodai, putting an end to the speculation, “Will He or won’t He?” We slowly head for the buses and take our seats. It is very hot, and the buses are not showing any signs of moving. We find out why. It appears that the van carrying the luggage is overloaded, and someone has thoughtfully advised that some of the luggage be transferred to the buses as otherwise the van would not be able to climb uphill...

Back to the Present and a Visit to TAFE

Well, that was last time. This time, it is an altogether different story. Our vehicles stop and even as all of us are trying to get out, we are told, “Don’t get out of your vehicles. Drivers, all of you proceed straight to TAFE.” Apparently, Swami already left and was heading towards TAFE, and so our vehicles now get going to catch up.

 
 
 
Welcoming board outside TAFE
 

Road leading up to TAFE
TAFE gate

TAFE, I must explain at this point, is the abbreviation for Tractors and Farm Equipment. It is the name of a company that (obviously) makes farm equipment, and has many factories; one of them is a few miles out of Madurai on the National Highway to Chennai, and we were headed there. Why? Because Swami was going there. Why was Swami going there? He was doing so in response to the ardent prayers of a family of long-time devotees. And who were they? Well, at the head of them all was Mr. Sivasailam, who for years managed TAFE. Some of you who have participated in Gram Seva will have noticed trucks marked TAFE carrying sarees and dhothis. These were placed at the disposal of Swami for use during Gram Seva. The Company has also donated many tractors for use in the Ashram. Presently, the company is being managed by Mr. Sivasailam’s daughter, Mrs. Mallika Srinivasan, who is continuing the noble family tradition.

Her husband, Mr. Venu Srinivasan, has also been helping Swami’s institutions in his own unique way. He is the Chairman and Managing Director of TVS Motors Ltd. which makes famous motorcycles. His bikes have helped our students to stage many a sports thriller, besides riding with Swami as His escort on Sports festival days. In addition, Mr. Venu Srinivasan frequently addresses the students of the Business School in Swami’s University. All in all, the entire family is highly devoted to Swami and has been so for many, many years. Prayer, they say, is God’s only “weakness”. Is it any wonder then that Swami agreed to stop over at TAFE on His way to Kodai?

That’s all for now; more of the story next time!

Jai Sai Ram.

 

Heart2Heart Team

 
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Vol 4 Issue 10 - OCTOBER 2006
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