Abodes of Happiness
... The Abounding Grace of Sai to Orissa
Divine compassion of Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba rushes to the aid of the shattered lives in the deprived East Indian state of Orissa in the aftermath of the devastating flood, which ruined nearly 2.5 million lives, in the third week of September 2008. His love not only immediately provides much-needed food, clothes and medicines, but also recreates their lives and heals their pain of generations by building for them solid and permanent homes, and enveloping their lives with a joy and peace they had never experienced before in their lives.
A Nightmare on a Dark Night
“The menacing waters rushed in at great speed; we just fled leaving everything behind. We had no other choice; we could carry nothing with us. It was such a big horror; there was water everywhere! We swam like mad through the swirling waters and some way or the other reached high land. Somehow we managed to save our lives, but all our cattle were washed away. When we returned to our village after a week, there was no trace of our house; in the same area was now a stagnant pool of mud and flotsam.”
~ Mrs. Tara Jena, village resident, Nadiabarai, Kendrapada district, Orissa
"Somehow we managed to save our lives, but all our cattle were washed away. When we returned to our village after a week, there was no trace of our house; in the same area was now a stagnant pool of mud and flotsam."
“It was 2 a.m. when the embankment of the river right in front of our house just collapsed! Imagine 6 feet high water gushing towards you with maddening velocity in the dead of night… everybody was in absolute panic! We ran for our lives; we could take nothing except the clothes that were on our bodies. After 3-4 days, when the water receded, we returned and what we saw just broke our hearts. The river had dug up a huge hole where our house once stood! We could not find even a single bamboo pole of our thatched dwelling!”
~ Mr. Pramod Kumar Jena, farmer, Samsara, Kendrapada district, Orissa
"Imagine 6 feet high water gushing towards you with maddening velocity in the
dead of night… everybody was in absolute panic!"
Fear of a Watery Grave Kicked in the Survival Instinct
“On September 17, the volume of water was high but well within the height of the embankment. But the next day, it reached dangerous levels. We started bolstering the bank by adding sand bags and more soil. At the same time, we feared the worst, and therefore, relocated our cattle to other high land. We kept inspecting the hedge very frequently on September 18. And to our shock, we found that in one area, the heavy force of the water was slowly eroding the base of the bank. Now, we were left with only 8-10 sand bags, which was really too little. At 5.10 the next morning, all hell broke loose.
“We collected our families and kept running till we found a concrete building. We climbed the top of this structure and stayed put there for four continuous days. I cannot describe the hardship we went through at that time…all we had to eat was a few biscuits that we managed to carry as we fled that morning, and this was over in no time.
“We collected our families and kept running till we found a concrete building. We climbed the top of this structure and stayed put there
for four continuous days.
"What was very difficult for me was the suffering of my children. I was helpless, I was unable to feed my two daughters and a son; they became extremely sick. I cried before God, day and night, to keep them alive till the water recedes. It was truly His mercy that they survived, and that is my only consolation even though we lost literally everything – our house, paddy, clothes, kitchen utensils…”
~ Mrs. Pushpalata Behera, a village resident, Manibad, Cuttack District, Orissa.
Furious Flood Uprooted and Destroyed Everything in its Path
In the coastal districts of Puri, Cuttack, Kendrapada and Jagatsinghpur in the East Indian state of Orissa such first-hand accounts of heartrending stories abound, each one pathetic enough to leave the listener numb with sorrow and speechless at the magnitude of the tragedy left behind in the aftermath of the devastating deluge that swept away men, women, children, cattle, homes, crops, trees, roads and much more in its fury.
As the Heart2Heart team from Radio Sai was keenly listening to one such sorry tale at Billipada village in Puri district, a weak and handicapped lady, probably in her seventies, emerged from inside a decrepit mud hut, struggling to move even with the help of a stick. Somehow, she ambled forward towards us, and added, “You can see my pitiable condition; I cannot even walk properly, let alone run. When the flood waters started entering our village in a rage, someone on a bicycle virtually hauled me by my shoulders and took me to safety.
"I survived all those dreadful days with whatever food and other relief material my children could collect and bring for me... I tell you, I have been living here since the time of the British (pre-independence India), but had never experienced so much
suffering in my life ever before.”
"I survived all those dreadful days with whatever food and other relief material my children could collect and bring for me. When I returned here, the place was full of mud and slush, snakes and other reptiles. It took us days together to clean the area and erect another thatched hut. I tell you, I have been living here since the time of the British (pre-independence India ), but had never experienced so much suffering in my life ever before.”
Trail of Devastation, Too Huge for Man to Handle
Indeed, the calamity that struck Orissa, one of the least developed states of India, in the third week of September 2008 was a colossal catastrophe. Even though the worst hit areas were in the four coastal districts of Kendrapada, Jagatsinghpur, Cuttack and Puri, 15 out of the 30 districts of this state were affected.
It is estimated that 2 to 2.4 million people were marooned by the fury of the raging waters. The state government calculated the fiscal loss to the state to the tune of 24 billion rupees or about US $ 48 million. Over 400,000 hectares of paddy crop were destroyed in the areas where 70% of the population is dependent on agriculture for a living.
At least 2500 villages were completely submerged under water. The loss of lives, however, fortunately was less than 50 because of the fore warning which made tens and thousands flock to high-rise buildings and the national highways for safety.
The Chief Minister of the state urged the central government to declare the tragedy as a national calamity and requested assistance of rupees 150 billion (US $300 million) to undertake rescue and relief operations.
Even though floods are not new to Orissa, the magnitude of the current nemesis numbed everybody including the government’s Relief and Disaster Management department. And at the root of this cataclysm, were strong winds and a severe depression in the Bay of Bengal, which lead to heavy rains in the east of Orissa. As a result, Mahanadi, the biggest river of the state, swelled unimaginably causing at least 60 breaches in the river’s embankments. It was not Mahanadi alone, many of her tributaries like Chitrotpala, Devi, Luna, Kathajodi and so on, overflowed too, each one mercilessly submerging hundreds of villages along the trajectory.
Poverty Stricken Villagers at Man and Nature’s Mercy
Another frightening consequence of this heavy downpour was the filling up to the brim of the state’s largest reservoir in Hirakud. This dam has a capacity of 630 feet, and when the water reached up to the 629 level, the officials had no option but to open the gates of this gigantic lake. So, 46 out of 64 sluices of the dam were unlocked and over 6.93 lakh cusecs of water was allowed to flow freely into the coastal districts. This unregulated and gushing stream obviously caused great havoc. In this sense, the disaster was man-made even though it had its source in nature’s fury.
The government did undertake immediate steps, and evacuated thousands. There were two copters in service to locate and rehabilitate stranded lives; there were others which air-dropped food, clothes and other life saving materials. Nevertheless, their relief operations were grossly inadequate and often mismanaged.
“The helicopters dropped food and other articles, but many would just fall into the water. And when we did receive a bag, there were fights to grab the material as all were desperate,” said a lady in Jharkota, in the district of Cuttack.
In the village Billipada (Puri district), as we walked through the broken mud houses, uprooted trees, large craters on the ground, unclothed and undernourished village children, stray and skinny cattle, downcast village ladies either collecting firewood or hay, or boiling something in their open kitchens, surprisingly we found an old lady who was smiling. She must have been in her seventies, if not beyond, and we could not contain our curiosity. We went to her and said, “Maa, you delight us with your smile. What makes you so glad?”
When All Else Failed, Sai Conferred Hope
Her smile now broadened to the maximum extent possible and she replied, “From the day Sai Baba has come into our lives, we are so happy. You do not know what pain and terrible misery we had to go through."
Now, her face turned grim. She picked up a little one from the ground, probably her grand child, and fondling the baby, continued, “I do not know how we all survived. We stayed on the roof top of a house on a piece of polythene for as long as 8 days. We had not only lost literally everything, but now had practically nothing to eat.
"...this trial continued until the ‘Sai Baba people’ found us. When they noticed our condition, they immediately offered us cooked rice, dal, biscuits, flattened rice, drinking water, milk powder, medicines and clothes."
"We fell sick horribly. I am actually an asthma patient for the last 18 years, and during those days, I went completely hungry for three days at a stretch. And this trial continued until the ‘Sai Baba people’ found us. When they noticed our condition, they immediately offered us cooked rice, dal, biscuits, flattened rice, drinking water, milk powder, medicines and clothes.
"Not only this, after that first time, they returned many times and gave us mats, blankets, warm clothing and tarpaulin sheets. We have now made our shelter with the help of those thick polythene sheets, and my sons now go out everyday to do daily labour and earn some money.”
Sai Youth Swing into Action
This is the first step the Sai Youth of Orissa took when they heard of the terrible tragedy. Mr. Narayan Sar, the Joint Youth Coordinator of the Sri Sathya Sai Seva Organisations, Orissa, recalled, “Actually, when we heard of this depressing news, we were busy in a state level meeting in Bhubaneswar. Without a moment of delay, we packed all the food that had been cooked for the participants of the meeting and rushed on our motorbikes to the troubled areas. The challenge was to reach the affected sites, as they were totally inaccessible. The level of water, in general, was 7 feet deep and our youth had no option but to swim through the tide carefully carrying the food packets.”
Sai Youth Set-up Crisis Management Centre for Efficient Relief Work
The immensely motivated Sai Youth immediately formed a task force and toiled virtually 24 hours non-stop for ten days to save the lives of thousands. “We left early in the morning every day carrying the ‘ready to eat’ food packets made over night by our Sai Youth sisters, and went into interior and isolated areas where no government or any other external aid had reached,” recalled Mr. Akshay, a young and enthusiastic Sai worker.
He continued, “On many occasions, apart from distributing food and clothes, we also rescued a few lives from the strong water currents. When we left every morning, we were not sure if we would return as the journey was perilous. We survived on biscuits and apples; there was no way we could think of ourselves when we saw thousands suffering so gravely. It was always beyond nine in the night when we finally got back. But we had no time to rest as we had to discuss the plan of action for the next day including arranging for sufficient supplies and tying up the logistics of our operation.”
True Service – Selfless Love with All Heart
Though the Youth contingent of about 300 was busy with a million things, they never lost sight of Swami’s main guidelines on how the recipients should be treated. That is why they bought brand new clothes for men, women and children, and offered the food packets, which would last each beneficiary for 15 days. Guided by Bhagavan’s personal example, they delivered all these services in the spirit of utmost reverence and love.
Apart from reaching out to the abandoned villagers, what was also difficult was procuring raw materials from the market to make the food packets. “Once the disaster was officially declared, it became very difficult to find rice, sugar, etc.,” shared Akshay, and continued, “We had to directly approach the factory owners/manufacturers for groceries. And here we did see the unseen hand of God helping us. When we went to a few large bakeries seeking bread for the flood victims, these proprietors stopped their routine production and redirected all their efforts to meet our request. Like this, somehow or the other we were able to gather the required groceries. Little did we know then that, by His Grace, we would soon be receiving truckloads of materials.”
Outpouring of Relief Supplies from All India Sai Organisation Overwhelms Sai Youth of Orissa
Yes, that’s exactly what happened. One and half crore rupees (US $300,000.00) worth of medicines, clothes, blankets, polythene sheets and other essential supplies arrived at Bhubaneswar from many Indian states like West Bengal, Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and so on.
The massive relief supplies were a spontaneous outpouring of love from the state chapters of the Sri Sathya Sai Seva Organisation in response to a call from their All India President, Mr. V. Srinivasan, to rise to the occasion in the spirit of Sai’s selfless love. With access to all this overwhelmingly well thought-out stock of aid supplies, the youth of Orissa were now able to concentrate all their energies only on packing and properly distributing the comprehensive relief kits to the neediest and those stranded in the remotest of areas.
“It was a very fulfilling experience as we could provide them food in time and also gift them woolen clothing just before the onset of the winter season. But at the same time, it was a very touching and eye-opening endeavour for other reasons.” Elaborating further Mr. Narayana Sar said, “Let me quote just one instance. In one village, before distributing the relief material, we selected the most devastated families and gave them tokens for identification. We had only 1000 tokens; so there were a few people who were left out. Now, these villagers started crying, literally, not because they were being deprived of the packets, but because they felt they were so unfortunate that even Sai Baba did not want to bless them! This very thought was more painful to them than the trauma of the flood. Seeing their heartrending love for Bhagavan, our eyes too overflowed. It was a revelation to us.
“We promised them that we would be back with more supplies, and we did visit that village many times after that day to not only deliver food and clothes, but also to conduct health checkups, veterinary camps, clean their surroundings, and listen to their problems with brotherly love. And we did this not only in this village but in many other areas too.”
Sai Relief Operations Delivered Much-Needed Supplies, Restored Hope and Faith
Thus, the relief efforts of the Sai Youth went on in great vigour immediately after the flood, but continued later too, expanding into many other village development activities. In early October 2008, twenty members of the core team of these relief operations visited Prasanthi Nilayam, and the Lord of Supreme Mercy and Compassion, Bhagavan Baba, intently reviewed the pictures they had brought and blessed them profusely for their selfless work.
“From the day we started thinking of Sai Baba and praying to Him, we found all our problems being solved, one by one. Actually, it is purely Baba’s grace that my husband is still alive, and is now able to go to work. He suffered with fatal diarrhea after the flood."
While the relief activities continued, there were so many invisible ways too through which the Lord was touching the lives of these poor villagers. Mrs. Pushpalata Behera, who lost everything to the waters, was very despondent immediately after the flood, but when we spoke to her in the first week of February 2009, she said, “From the day we started thinking of Sai Baba and praying to Him, we found all our problems being solved, one by one. Actually, it is purely Baba’s grace that my husband is still alive, and is now able to go to work. He suffered with fatal diarrhea after the flood.
"We somehow took him to a hospital where he was closely monitored for 8 days. Even there, his condition did not improve; it almost seemed as if he was in the last stage of his life. This, second tragedy, was impossible for me to endure. But what could I do, except pray. So I went to the Sai Baba Mandir and cried my heart out to Him. I told Him, ‘If you are really God, please save the life of my husband’. The next day, his health improved considerably, and the day after he was back home, hale and hearty!”
Mr. Rishi Malik, another poor, old, bedraggled, and lean farmer, said, “It is only the ‘Sai Baba people’ who treated us like human beings. Apart from giving us what we really need, they were really concerned about us. Even though life is still very difficult for us as I earn 50 rupees (US $1) a day, and have five children to look after with only two broken walls as my house, it is only because of Baba’s blessings that we are carrying along.”
Undoubtedly, the distraught rural folk were going through the most testing times of their lives; nevertheless, their love for Bhagavan was only getting stronger and steadier. They still had no houses, or continuous income or stock of agricultural produce, but one thing they did have now with certainty, and that is, faith in their prayers. Despite their pathetic circumstances, they trusted Him and believed He would come to their aid. And so He did! He entered their lives gloriously!
In the second part of this cover story we have the fascinating story of how Sai’s love seeped into the hearts and souls of these downtrodden but devoted rural folk, and rebuilt their lives in a manner they had never imagined before. Life, for them, is now a heaven of hope and a journey of love.
- Bishu Prusty