In Search of Sinh-Baba
Nov 8, 2005
Three of us are seated at a table of a "hip, new joint" in the backstreets of Baroda. Unlike most other tables, our table doesn't have a 'hukka' to smoke from. Average age of our table, like the others, is about college: one third year college girl named Dhvani, her first-year-in-college brother named Chintan and their family friend's son named Nipun. :)
"Hukka? Everyone here smokes?" I ask, in a rather surprised tone. "Oh yeah, but it's not like real smoking. It's not that bad. There's not much tobacco in it, so it's not all that harmful," Chintan explains.
As I ignore a phone call on my mobile, I inquire, "It seems like everyone has mobiles these days?" "Yeah, yeah. Everyone. We all SMS (text-message) each other all the time," Dhvani says. Not only do 90% of urban students have cell phones, but even vegetable vendors, rickshaw drivers and house maids are often equipped with the latest gadget. On a table of four, it's not an uncommon sight to spot two people on their mobile phones. Hip collegians like Chintan, of course, sport phones that look like video game consoles with colorful screenshots, fancy joystick, loud MP3 player and more!
After some conversation about the latest Bollywood movies and predictions about exactly why the just-released Garam Masala will be a flop, we organically meander around topics pertaining to college life.
"What are most college students thinking about now-a-days?" I pose an open-ended question. "Money," came the flat, immediate, and assertive answer.
A week or two back, in a roundtable with a bunch of college students, the overwhelming sentiment was that you can't do anything without money. No money, no power. Some of the young men expressed worries that no decent girl would marry them unless they had jobs with respectable income. Status-quo college philosophy reads -- whatever ends up in more money is a good thing, and rest is all insignificant till you have enough money.
"Ok, tell me about yourself. Do you want money?" "Yes." "What for?" "So I can buy things." "Like what?" "I want a Ferrari." Smiles all around the table. "Wow, yeah, Ferrari's are kind of nice. But why do you want a Ferrari?" "I don't know. I like those kind of nice things and I have no doubt that I'll get them."
Ultimately, nobody really knows why they like things. And very few are interested in finding the answer. "I don't know how it is in India, but in the US, the say that an average person is exposed to 2500 commercials every single day. 24 hundred. Now, what is a commercial for? To make you buy things. To make you want things you don't have, to make you feel incomplete with what you have. Masterminds are paid millions of bucks to use mass-media to create these so-called 'trends'. It's a funny game we play, isn't it? :)"
Our dialogues were getting interesting: what has it meant to have high Internet usage in urban colleges? If English is being pushed in all curriculums, what is happening to the vernacular languages of the Indian culture? Is all this "progress" leaving rurals farther and farther behind? What does ethic mean these days? If alcohol is so prominent on college campuses of India, is it a good idea to legalize it?
"Gujarat is a dry state, but alcohol is everywhere," Dhvani matter-of-factly admits. "Years ago, you would stand out if you had a drink; couple years back, you would stand out if you were a non-vegetarian. But now, none of it is a big deal."
These are all real questions that most impressionable youngsters don't get a chance to think about. They live in a conflicted India, where using toilet paper and eating at McDonalds is a sign of the upwardly mobile and taking bucket-water bath and listening to classical music is considered archaic. The college hip-factor is now a function of how many CD's you own, how closely your clothes resemble Bollywood models, how unique your cell phone ring tone is, and how many times you eat out every week. By itself, a change here and there can be justified but its cumulative effect shifts the morale of a culture where blind lead the deaf based bon a foundation of commercially-derived values.
"Haven't we just become a pile of images? One story of ourselves, on top of another story, on top of a third? We have forgotten who we really are." I declare in a challenging tone. Chintan didn't say anything, but Dhvani quietly says, "Yeah, it's true. I don't think anyone knows who I really am."
At one point, though, Dhvani turns the tables: "Ok, now it's our turn to ask you questions."
Interspersed with curiosity questions, they start firing pin-pointed queries: "What's the point of the walking pilgrimage? I just don't understand why anyone would want to do that." "How does an appearance on CNN support selflessness?" "What do you do about money? How do you survive?" "Do you think you'll be able to continue this kind of a life when you have a family?" "Is it a good thing to have such strong values?" And then we started getting into personal questions from their own lives. "Good and ethical people can't survive in this world. It's all about competition. Whoever doesn't show-off, doesn't get the job and can't get ahead. Can they?" "How can we deal with immoral people?"
We talk for several hours. They were late, so was I. (I haven't had a watch for a long time so perhaps I am excused. :)) None of us were picking up phone calls either, and it naturally felt like we were brothers and sisters on some joint journey that we weren't intelligent enough to label.
At one point, Dhvani declares that her ultimate purpose is "to serve"; she doesn't know if she will ever get to do that but she likes to help people and that's what makes her happy. Chintan, on the other hand, confidently says he doesn't just want to live and die; he wants to build a legacy, he wants people to remember him as a person who made a difference in the world. After some discussion about people who had impacted the world in various ways, Chintan clarifies, "Ultimately, I want to make a positive change in the world."
The bill is placed on our table. Rupees 411.
As I insist on paying, Chintan conscientiously remarks, "I feel so bad to take a treat from a pilgrim like you. We should be paying." "Oh, no sweat, man. You can't be stuck to simplicity or not spending either." As I'm taking out the money, I laugh at myself while saying, "I somehow have a screw loose in my head about money; for the most part, money is just like a piece of paper for me." I tell them the rickshaw story from last week, when I had emptied my wallet. As we talk a bit more about the Seva Cafe, Chintan is really intrigued and challenged by the guts of a man to start something based entirely on the pay-it-forward model.
Both Dhvani and Chintan start sharing personal stories of service, and the bold possibilities that open when love replaces fear. I share some of my waiter stories at the Cafe, as all three of us get more and more pumped-up! Rather spontanesouly, Dhvani reflects, "You know there's this one guy that I've always wanted to talk to. He is scary looking and just roams around on the streets and yells at people. They call him the 'Sinh Baba'. I wonder what would happen if someone talked to him nicely?"
Never the one to hesitate in these matters, I propose, "Let's go right now! Let's go find him!" Dhvani tells us the risks of such a proposition but Chintan is gung-ho about heading out in the late-night hours to befriend a scary homeless guy. :) We decide to go for it. "We don't know what will happen; he might spit at us or even hit us, but we have to be unflinching in our commitment to treat him with utmost compassion. Ready?" Yup.
We bolt out the restaurant door, without thinking twice about how unfulfilling the food was, and pile into the car.
"I know a security guard who will know where Sinh Baba is," Chintan says. A popular guy (who was recently featured on 'Page 3'), he knows the streets inside out.
We walk up to the security guard and ask him. "Nope, no way to find him. He's a free bird. One day he's here, another day he's there." Dhvani curiously asks questions about him and Thakurbhai affectionately responds to her: "Sinh Baba was a normal guy, with a car and everything but at some point, he just lost it and has been on the streets. But his mom still works in this building."
The security guard turns out to be an interesting guy himself. As we were talking, he ironically talks about some of the same themes that we had discussed at dinner. Very quickly, Thakurbhai-the-security-guard feels like our long-lost-buddy, as Chintan and Dhvani stand in quiet (and slightly awed) observation. He is oozing with wisdom, this random guy.
"The ills of society," Thakurbhai remarks, "are all because we have lost our humanity." When I ask him what the difference is between city and village life, he launches into a sermon. "Bhai, city people all have a level," Thakurbhai says while raising his flat palm over his head. "If you are not on the same level, no one will talk to you. People will throw away their food but they will not feed a hungry one with love. On the other hand, go a village and see, no one will let you go hungry. They care. They know what real love is. They still respect each other."
Dhvani and Chintan are still completely silent, staring at this guy. Lot of their unanswered questions about our walking pilgrimage were being answered live by Thakurbhai.
Within no time, Thakurbhai invites us to his village. He even asks us to speak to the drunkards in his town, who are "wasting their lives". I tell him that Dhvani and Chintan are my brother and sister and that we're thankful for having run into him. As a sign of respect, I bowed down to touch his feet and implicitly compelled Dhvani and Chintan to do the same. "Thakurbhai, take care. We'll see you around."
As we got back in the car, Chintan immediately says, "Did you see that guy? He was practically in tears while talking to us. All we did was just be ourselves for a few minutes." I crack a deep smile. Dhvani stayed silent for the remainder of the car ride back. (Later that night, Dhvani SMS'd me about how this night was unforgettable for her.)
Chintan still wants a Ferrari, Dhvani is still looking for 'Sinh Baba', and I am still wondering how college kids can afford a 411 rupee meal. Yet something shifted somewhere.
As I got home that night, the street light outside my uncle's place was flickering. It is dim, but not quite dark.