Among the Not So Great

— Prabhakar (Batti)

cover

Price: Rs 270

Pages: 287
Dimensions (in cms): 12x18
Soft Cover
   
Publisher: New House, Kolkata

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About Among the Not So Great

An enlarged edition of the original 2003 publication that contained twenty intimate portrayals of old sadhakas with whom the author was in close personal touch, this version includes eleven additional pen portraits, marked by the same witty and affectionate style. Each reminiscence is accompanied by a photograph of the subject and an often humorous literary quote. The title, inspired by Dilip Kumar Roy's book Among the Great, suggests how the achievements of these figures may not have been great in the conventional sense, but their utter devotion to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother and the moments of joy their memories evoke reveal that true and lasting greatness lies in the profoundest simplicity and humility.


REVIEW

REVIEW FOR THE FIRST EDITION (2003)

"Don't speak. Act.
Don't announce. Realise."

          —The Mother

"Every one has in him something divine, something his own, a chance of perfection and strength in however small a sphere which God offers him to take or refuse. The task is to find it, develop it and use it."
          —Sri Aurobindo

  Let the title not put you off, – you are in for a most pleasant surprise; for here are innumerable stories about a few of the many fortunate souls who heard the Call and responded immediately (or instantly) to leave all and give themselves joyfully to serve the Mother and the Master and do their work.

  The unquestionable Summon and unquestioning response is illustrated by Dara's story:

     Dara: Sir, I am leaving for England for my studies. If in mid-ocean the "Call" comes, I will jump over and swim back.
     Sri Aurobindo: Now you are ready. You can come over to pursue your Sadhana.

  There are so many such amusing yet deeply instructive pointers and lessons to be learnt by reading the colourful lives of these simple persons, all of them sincere in their own way, and shining with an inner beauty – not always physically so – but truly doing the work given to them whether it suited them or not, without questioning. This is what may be called an unconditional surrender to the Mother's Will.

  And what comes through, when we look at the way each one of these disciples lived, is the way the Mother and Sri Aurobindo worked on their natures, lifting them up, leading them forward from where they were in their own stage of spiritual evolution.

  In observing the obvious disparity between the actual and outward activities visible on the surface and the inner beauty of which the Mother and the Master were fully aware, the author constantly asks what was the truth of the being, the raison d'être of the individual's life here on earth, the inner growth not visible to our eyes but perhaps felt with an inner vision: "What was the real person? Can we ever know it?"

  This book appeals to us by the very naturalness with which it is written (we will dwell on style later). Batti does his work as a chronicler with great diligence, respect and above all with good humour. Does not Sri Aurobindo tell us: "Sense of humour? It is the salt of existence. Without it the world would have got utterly out of balance – it is unbalanced enough already – and rushed to blazes long ago."

  So our writer focuses his full attention on the living out, the embodiment of the attitudes basic to life, work and action – he carefully avoids any intellectual `achievements'.

  Take for instance the way Bhola-da reprimands our Nolini-da, Secretary of the Ashram: "`Eto poda, lekha lekhi kore, ki tikit lagate janen na?' (`After all the reading and writing you have done, you don't know what stamp to stick?')"

  Well, he (the author) dwells persistently on the simple, the spontaneous, the true and misses no occasion to point out the opposite trends that have caught up with us and smothered us almost entirely: the complicated, the pretentious, the false. I make haste to explain that this finger of reproach is pointed at the general atmosphere of the Ashram, reflecting the forces – giant and dark and ugly enough – with which our poor world is struggling.

  We do not deny the intrinsic values of happy trust, childlike abandon, selfless giving through work and service, the deep inner communion for which our Ashram stands.

  So Batti is as if constantly telling us too through these pages packed with suggestive sharing: "You had better do your best (like these shining examples of past glory) at all moments, in achieving and realising, to be just yourself! The result is not in your hands nor do you need to care about it – if your sincerity is perfect!"

  For in a deep sense there shines through in all these stories the golden seal of the Mother's and Sri Aurobindo's direct action, as we vividly feel it, for instance, when the Mother presses her foot on Nishikanto's (Kobi-da's) chest at his behest as he lay, almost helpless, in the Meditation Hall. And there are countless other subtle actions that show the Mother's and Sri Aurobindo's direct intervention. The pages are replete and literally overflow with, on one side, this utter unquestioning physical and even vital surrender and, on the other, the absolute faith of the sadhaka or the sadhika.

  To quote Sri Aurobindo, "Faith is the soul's witness to something not yet manifested, achieved or realised, but which the Knower within us, even in the absence of all indications, feels to be true or supremely worth following or achieving. This thing within us can last even when there is no fixed belief in the mind, even when the vital struggles and revolts and refuses."

  Nearly all these special souls, in apparently ordinary activities and simple work, show their real mettle living out in body and mind and heart that mantra: "Let us work as we pray for indeed work is the body's best prayer to the Divine."

  Work is the key-note through nearly all these stories, for the author is himself a self-effacing worker. Yes, the joy of work and the unswerving love for the Mother are amply shown in the following extracts. Let us look at the aspect of love:

  "Bula-da took his work as his sadhana, his lifetime offering to his Gurus. His devotion to it, through it to his Gurus, knew no bounds of time, weather or mood. He could not tolerate anything, be it a person, an event or a personal feeling, to come between him and its accomplishment. ...

  "Once the Mother was slightly indisposed. She had to go frequently to the WC. Sometime in the evening Amrita-da (or Pavitra-da?) informed Bula-da about the Mother's condition and added that the flush was stuck and water was constantly gushing out. It had to be repaired. Bula-da was in a fix. At that time of the evening, none could enter Her room, leave alone repairing a flush. Bula-da thought – and acted. The night passed uneventfully. Next morning the flush was repaired.... But how did it all go so well the night through? No one probably gave it serious thought. The fact (found out much later) was that while others slept, Bula-da was awake on duty. He had gone up, onto the terrace of the Mother's room. He sat near the overhead tank and kept watching the bathroom window. He closed the control valve on the pipe leading to the WC. When the Mother switched on the light he would open the valve. When the Mother put off the light, he would again close the valve. Thus he passed the night, hand on the valve and eye on the window for the tell-tale light. Who knows, some other Light may have shone on Bula-da, for She surely Knew."

  The second is of a different nature but equally intense in bringing out the importance of even seemingly unimportant objects. Poornananda was like the many others who "poured not only their sweat but also their heart-felt love into the job":

  "Yogananda took his friend [and assistant Poornananda] to a godown full of old iron items – rods, hinges, nettings, etc. They were mostly used items salvaged to be re-used. Those days, and for a few years after, nothing was thrown away, even nails were extracted, straightened out and put in barrels according to size for `re-use'. The `throw-away' mode of life was not yet the craze. Yogananda put a wire brush into Poornananda's hands and asked him to clean all the rust off the old steel items. He hoped the work would take a month or a month and a half, and he would have peace. He was hopelessly off the mark – in half the estimated time Poornananda was again after Yogananda for work. Yogananda, a little surprised, a little more suspicious, went to inspect. He was in for another kind of surprise. All the old iron was shining like stainless steel."

  But all are not yet ready for such an attitude at the beginning and even though the youth of today may find some details childish or take this harping on the past as a `cry in the wilderness', still there is no hiding of the hard facts that work, discipline, consecration, simple living, gentle (or sharply expressed) mental sympathy and a friendly untrammelled attitude towards others are some of the values on which the world was forged and by which it is now a more liveable place.

  That is why the Mother insists so much on the example, the atmosphere we create. All this takes time and requires persistent unflagging efforts. To begin she advises, "... impose upon yourself, by constant self-control, a deliberate attitude of all-comprehending kindness."

  Another development that has come to stay in our life and general consciousness is the plethora of technical appliances both at home and at work. These physical labour-saving devices have indeed given us more time for other activities and new realms of progress. But do these enterprises or these fields of development contribute to our total growth – outer and inner? Indeed this too is a knotty issue that is brought up by the author. Since we pass through spiralling curves in evolution, often apparently descending before we may rise again to a newer and wider height, there is no ready answer or easy unravelling of these complex knots.

  The sweetest and yet most poignant notes struck in these sagas of the soul in its climb upwards are to be found in the description of the passing on. One feels the great delicacy in treatment, the sensitivity and the awe of one who, as a mighty helper, has watched the arrival of this Gold God. For an ordinary man's mind Death is a mystery or simply something one cannot come to terms with. But rather than dwell on the evident absence or loss, our author encourages us to face the problem and continue the great work already started and often well on its way: For "...the Legend once lost – found – must live on – in us, through us."

Does not this remind us of Sri Aurobindo's poem? –

     "Life, death, – death, life; the words have led for ages
     Our thought and consciousness and firmly seemed
     Two opposites; but now long-hidden pages
          Are opened, liberating truths undreamed,
     Life only is, or death is life disguised –
     Life a short death until by life we are surprised."

  Apart from the mood created and the rich substance of experience shared, this book makes delightful reading. Our storyteller is truly in his element as he describes "a child at his serious play", or observes, "the man was more than just his physical self". Take too the feelings Batti has for his closest senior relatives: "Pantulu walked through life unafraid. His sword was forthrightness, kept sharp by his temper [he was called the Thunderer!], and sincerity was his shield." (comment within brackets reviewer's)

  "What tributes to pay to such as these? Enough to remember them in our quiet moments, uncovering their footprints on the dust of forgetfulness. It could help to measure our own footsteps with theirs. They are our pathfinders, part of the way. Oblivion cannot be their resting place."

  There is often too a fine play on words like this indication on attitude: "Means were less but meanings were more" or, "Work was for them life and life was to do the Mother's will – their sadhana."

  There is some mystic touch which awakens us to truth or evokes a deeper beauty: "It would almost seem the Gods await some excuse to bless us only if we would keep still and maybe lower our heads and raise our eyes." Images such as these, which gambol or gallop through most of the pages, sweep a reader quite off his or her feet!

  A word must be mentioned about the leader-quotes chosen for each of the old Ashramites. They are varied and from different sources, both known and little known. All these pithy or caustic, witty or just amusing lines make subtly thought-provoking reading. Take the one for Mridu-di presumably made up by Batti:

     "Be to her virtues very kind –
     Be to her faults a little blind."

  To read this book is to enter into the mind and feelings of the writer who is also not just a chronicler but an artist – painting a picture of the Ashram or `Garden' as Batti calls it – `we' being some of its weeds, or countryside flowers as I prefer to call them.

  To sum up, these sadhakas and sadhikas were truly great and, though the music of Sunil expresses the depth and height of his visions, we will end with an extract from Bihari-da's diary of unpublished reflections:

  "Because of the Mother I could grow in my quest for Truth. Her general protection and Her taking of me into Her family of many children was solely responsible for my spiritual progress. Otherwise it would have been impossible.

  "She has passed away but She has given us a world where we can stand freely, spiritually and psychically. Although India is not ready as yet, it is a certainty that spiritual India is emerging and true personalities are coming forward with Divine Truth. None will be able to hinder the work that is destined."

— Richard Pearson

Richard arrived in India from England to join his father in 1946 at the age of eleven. He studied at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education where he teaches Natural History and is a captain of gymnastics. He is the editor of the book Flowers and Their Messages.

May 2004