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Reality - spiritual and virtual

ON a recent holiday in Bangalore, I made two trips out of the city that captured, within a span of 48 hours, a simple truth about the Indian reality.

Late one night I set out on a four-hour drive with my mother to Puttaparthi in Andhra Pradesh. We arrived after 2 a.m. in a remarkably well-lit and orderly town. Buildings gleamed white against the streetlights; the sidewalks, patrolled by volunteers even at that hour, seemed freshly scrubbed. Puttaparthi, once a humble Andhra village like so many others, had become a boomtown as the birthplace and headquarters of the spiritual leader Sathya Sai Baba.

My mother had been a devotee for 18 years, attending prayer meetings of Sai Baba followers around the world and singing devotional bhajans. I was a sceptic myself, but joined her amongst the early-morning gathering of thousands, all waiting patiently for a glimpse of the great man. Sai Baba emerged in his long ochre robe and made a stately progress through the throng. He paused here and there to accept a petition from a believer, or to materialise vibhuti (sacred ash) from his palm into the cupped hands of a worshipper. We were privileged to be invited through an ornate door into a small room for a private audience. There we were joined by two other groups that had been similarly favoured: an Indian family of three, and half-a-dozen Iranian pilgrims, wearing green scarves that proclaimed their Islamic faith. They looked up at him with folded hands, their adoration glistening in their eyes.

"Would you like something from me," Sai Baba asked me.

"Peace of mind for my mother," I replied.

"Yes, yes," he said somewhat impatiently, "but would you like a gift from me?"

"Whatever you give me is for my mother," I replied. He waved his hand in the air and opened his palm. In it nestled a gold ring with nine embedded stones, a navratan. He slipped it on my finger, remarking, "See how well it fits. Even a goldsmith would have needed to measure your finger." He shook some vibhuti into my mother's grateful hands before taking the Indian family into an inner chamber for what devotees called an "interview".

While they were gone, my mother expressed disappointment about the meagre quantity of the ash she had received. But soon it was our turn for a private interview, and no sooner were we alone with Baba than he materialised a little silver urn for her, overflowing with vibhuti. "It was as if he had heard what I wanted," my mother breathed.

I was not blinded by faith, but the encounter was indeed astonishing at several levels. In our private talk, Sai Baba uttered insights about my family and myself that he could not possibly have known. He has a habit, disconcerting at first, of turning his palm quizzically outward and staring off into the distance, as if silently interrogating an unseen, all-knowing source. Sometimes he scribbles in the air with a finger as if dashing off a note to a celestial messenger. And then he says things which are sometimes banal, sometimes profound, and sometimes both (if only because so much of what he says has become worn out by repetition and frequent quotation, including in signs on the streets outside). His manifesting gifts from thin air is startling; he "transformed" a metal ring worn by one of the Iranians to a gold one, then returned his original to him as well.

But a skilled magician can do that, and it would be wrong to see Sai Baba as a conjurer. He has channelled the hopes and energies of his followers into constructive directions, both spiritual and philanthropic.

Everything at his complex is staffed by volunteers who rotate through Puttaparthi at well-organised two-week intervals; while we were there, the volunteers were all from Madhya Pradesh, and it was to be Orissa's turn next. Many left distinguished positions behind to serve. ("I once asked a man washing a window where he was from," mused a visitor, "and he said he was the Chief Justice of Sikkim.") The free hospital in Puttaparthi, which I visited, is one of the best in India; many reputed doctors volunteer their services to him. Sai Baba has built schools and colleges, and is currently undertaking a project to bring irrigation to a number of parched southern districts.

The next day I drove from Bangalore in a different direction, to the campus of Infosys, India's leading computer technology firm. It, too, wore the clean and scrubbed look I had seen at Puttaparthi. But there were no temples here, no pavilions thronged with devotees. Instead, escorted by the company's affable CEO, Nandan Nilekani, I saw the world's leading software museum, a state-of-the-art teleconference centre, classrooms with sophisticated video equipment, and a work environment that could not be bettered in any developed country. Infosys is a world leader in information technology services, providing consulting, systems integration and applications development services to some of the biggest firms in the world. Infosys's 13,000 staff (known in the company's argot as "Infoscions"), work in over 30 offices around the world. In Bangalore they sit amidst lush landscaped greenery dotted with pools, recharge themselves at an ultramodern gym ("the best in Asia," Nandan said lightly), display their creativity at a company art gallery and enjoy a choice of nine food courts for their lunchtime snacks. I marvelled at the sophistication and affluence visible in every square inch of the campus. "We wanted to prove," Nandan explained, "that this could be done in India."

Sai Baba and Infosys are both faces of 21st Century India. One produces rings out of the ether and urges people to be better human beings; the other deals in a different form of virtual reality, and helps human beings to better themselves. One runs free hospitals and schools; the other seeks to bring the benefits of technology to a country still mired in millennial poverty. In the 1950s, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru declared dams and factories to be "the new temples of modern India." What he failed to recognise was that the old temples continued to maintain their hold on the Indian imagination. The software programmes of the new information technology companies dotting Bangalore's "Silicon Plateau" may be the new mantras of India, but they supplement, rather than supplant, the old mantras. Programming and prayers are both part of the contemporary Indian reality.

Sai Baba and Infosys are, in fact, emblematic of an India that somehow manages to live in several centuries at once. On our way out of Puttaparthi, my mother and I had a brief word with a devotee who was lining up to buy a packet of vibhuti to take home with him. "What do you do," I asked.

"I am," he replied proudly, a cellphone glinting in his shirt pocket, ``a project manager at Infosys."

Shashi Tharoor, Under Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, is the author, most recently, of the novel Riot (Viking Penguin). His new book with M.F. Husain, Kerala: God's Own Country, has just been published by Books Today, an imprint of India Today. Visit him at www.shashi tharoor.com

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