The Mahatma – Part Two

(Continued from The Mahatma – Part One)

In the days that followed Datta’s reputation continued to grow. Ever increasing number of villagers thronged the aartis that he conducted daily in the mornings and evenings. And his role did not remain confined to a temple priest and a faith healer, as the poor villagers began seeking his counsel in all sorts of matters. Before long the scavenger from Bombay found himself arranging marriages, advising on family matters, blessing the fields at the time of sowing so that the yields may be bountiful, conducting yajnas for a good rainy season and things like that.

By simple word of mouth publicity, his fame spread to neighboring villages and towns. People started coming to Khopoli for the sole reason of having a darshan of the great Mahatma. No one ever inquired- who he was or where he had come from. Just the fact that he was there, in front of their eyes, was good enough for his devotees. They narrated their woes to him and implored him to intercede with God on their behalf. He gave them assurance along with whatever practical advice he could think of.

Often his devotees gave him cash offerings, always in trifling amounts, as all of them were equally destitute. But cash of smallest denomination is still cash- something to covet- and it pleased Datta to receive monetary offerings. He hoarded the cash in a copper urn, which he kept carefully hidden behind a loose brick in the temple wall. In the same urn he kept the necklace that he had brought with him from Bombay. Someday he still hoped to sell the necklace at a high price. But till that happened it was his property, and it was a glorious feeling for him to be the owner of a costly gold necklace.

As the villagers took care of all his needs- food, clothes and other sundry requirements- he hardly ever incurred any personal expenses, and all his earning ended up in the copper urn. He relished the idea that someday when he was back in Bombay, he would spend all the money on booze and women and have a very good time. Every few days- always in the night, when he was alone- he used to take the urn out from its hiding place and gaze lovingly at his costly gold necklace and count the money he had hoarded. It thrilled him to see his fortune spread before his eyes.

He had come at Khapoli for few weeks only but three years passed and he was still there. His life had got so interlaced with that of his devotees that he found it difficult to extricate himself from the village and his trip back to Bombay kept getting postponed. He was always busy curing someone or finding a groom for some poor chap’s daughter or settling disputes between different parties or praying for crops or in some other social activity. But despite his hectic life, Bombay always remained in the back of his mind.

At nights, when he lay alone on the cot outside the temple, he would burn with desire to rush back to Bombay where he could spend his days cleaning gutters and the nights getting soaked up in the local tavern. He had not had a single sip of alcohol since he dropped into the village. Oh how he craved for the feeling of fiery alcohol pouring down his gullet! How desperate his senses were for the smells and sounds of the tavern! But the thought of some pressing problem that anyone of his devotees was facing always stopped him from making a move to the city. He would tell himself that once that devotee’s problem was taken care of he would depart. And there was no dearth of woebegone villagers to keep holding him back at Khapoli.

Meanwhile the money he was hoarding in the copper urn kept growing. One day when he finished counting he was pleasantly surprised to find his fortune in excess of 50,000 rupees. The large sum gave rise to a new desire in his mind. He was forty-eight years old. Wasn’t it high time for him to settle down with a woman in a house of his own? He asked himself. But 50,000 was not sufficient to purchase a house in Bombay, one needed at least one-lakh rupees for that. He decided to continue milking the foolish villagers till he had collected one lakh rupees and then make a bolt for Bombay.

There he would find a woman who was a wonderful cook, marry her and settle down with her in a house of his own. It would take him at least another three years to reach the magic figure of one lakh if he continued receiving monetary contributions at present rate. He felt furious at the villagers for their stinginess. If they donated liberally he would have already left this detestable backwater village with one lakh in his pocket. Oh how he hated being a Mahatma!

*

It was morning. He had just finished conducting the morning aarti and was now sprinkling holy water on the devotees, when his eyes landed on a middle-aged man, tall, fat, head crowned with fussily combed hair, eyes shielded by fashionable dark goggles, dressed in a silk safari suit that did nothing to hide his ample potbelly. Thick gold chain dangled from his neck and many of his fingers were adorned with gold rings.

Obviously a man of means, perhaps a rich businessman, Datta thought and instinctively his eyes wandered to the man’s pockets, which bulged. ‘There is more than 5000 rupees inside that pocket,’ he told himself licking his lips. Suddenly the man stepped forward and touched Datta’s feet.

‘Mahatmaji, bless me’, he said.

Datta was pleasantly surprised to see that his magic worked not only on the ignorant peasants, but on the higher strata of society as well. This was the first time that a prosperous man had touched his feet. ‘Get up bhakta’, he said solemnly. ‘My blessings are always with all devotees of Ganpati.’

The man rose and said, ‘I heard about your divine powers from certain acquaintances, so I came here to seek your blessings. When you were conducting the aarti, I don’t know what came over me, I felt as if I could see Ganpati inside you.’

‘Ganpati is everywhere and in everything. All it needs to visualize him is a pure and devoted mind. You could see him inside me because you came here with an unsullied mind.’

‘Mahatmaji, please condescend to accept a humble offering from me,’ the man said fervently.

‘Whatever you give, Ganpati will return to you thousand fold’.

The man fished out two, crisp green five hundred rupee notes from his pocket and offered them to Datta. Never before had Datta received this big a contribution. He was thrilled and in his excitement snatched the money from his devotee’s hands. ‘What is your name bhakta?’ he panted.

‘People call me Chandulal Shah, Mahatmaji.’

‘Chandulal, my most fervent blessings are with you,’ Datta said lavishly, while pocketing the cash.

With a bow Chandulal Shah walked out of the temple.

When the temple was empty of the devotees Datta took out of his pocket the two, five hundred rupee notes and gazed at them longingly. He was handling notes of such high denomination for the first time in his life.

*

Two days later Chandulal again materialized at the time of morning aarti. On this occasion as well he donated thousand rupees. Datta’s joy knew no bounds, if he continued to receive 1000 rupees every two days, then he would be able to amass one lakh rupees much earlier than expected.

He visualized himself leaving for Bombay with one lakh rupees, much sooner than he earlier anticipated and laughed with glee. His euphoria subsided a bit when he realized that there was no guarantee that Chandulal would continue giving a thousand rupees on a regular basis. After all, no one could afford to be so profligate. Still he hoped for the best.

When another two days passed Datta was breathless with anticipation at the thought of Chandulal coming to make another donation of one thousand rupees. Throughout the aarti his eyes kept looking for Chandulal, but this time his generous donor failed to arrive. Soon the aarti was over. Gloom descended on Datta. He tried to perk himself up by thinking that Chandulal could not come today because of some urgent work, but tomorrow he would surely show up. Next day as well Chandulal failed to materialize; the day after, again no sign of him; day after that, still no Chandulal.

Two weeks passed by and just when Datta was on verge of losing all hope of ever meeting his lavish devotee again, Chandulal showed up, resplendent in spotless safari suit, dark goggles, gold chain, and gold rings. When the puja was over and Chandulal stepped forward to make his customary donation of 1000 rupees, Datta whispered secretly, ‘I want to have a private word with you. Can you wait for the crowd to leave?’

‘I will do that, Mahatmaji,’ Chandulal responded.

Few minutes later when the villagers had left, Datta sat with Chandulal Shah on the temple steps and asked, ‘Where have you been for all these days?’

‘The affairs of my business kept me busy.’

‘I guessed as much’, Datta chuckled. ‘It is a good thing that your business is doing well.’

‘By your blessings, since the day I first visited this temple, I have received many new lucrative contracts.’

‘I am glad to hear that. What business are you in?’

‘I am in the import-export business.’

Datta had heard it spoken in Bombay that those in import-export business were always wallowing in money. An idea germinated in his mind and he said, ‘If I give you 50,000 to invest in your business today, how long will it take for it to become 100,000?’

If Chandulal was surprised at the question, he did not show it. He said simply, ‘my business yields high dividends. I can turn 50,000 into 100,000 in at the most one month.’

Datta was delighted; he had found a way of discarding the mahatma’s garb and becoming a normal person in as short a time as one month. He got up silently and from the copper vessel he retrieved almost all its cash, which amounted to little over 50,000. ‘Take this money,’ he said to Chandulal, ‘invest it in your business and bring me one lakh rupees as quickly as you can. If you do so, the blessing of Ganpati will always be on you and your family.’

‘Your word is my command Mahatmaji. I will bring you one lakh within thirty days.’

*

From that moment onwards, Datta’s mind dwelled completely on Chandulal and the one lakh that he would soon be bringing. At every aarti he searched for Chandulal’s corpulent figure in the crowd. Days continued to pass but Chandulal failed to present himself. Perhaps he is caught up in his work, perhaps he will come tomorrow, perhaps he has fallen sick- Datta consoled himself with all kinds of thoughts. Though rankled by Chandulal’s absence, he was not overtly concerned, having convinced himself that Chandulal would bring one lakh rupees at the end of one month.

A month passed; there was still no sign of Chandulal and now Datta started becoming worried. Had he been defrauded of his 50,000 rupees? The question descended on him like an incubus. He tried to convince himself that Chandulal was an honest man and would soon return with one lakh rupees, but he could hardly stop myriad questions from racking his mind.

Why had Chandulal disappeared from this area since the day he received the money? Was the sum of 50,000 enough to turn him into a thief? He cursed himself for not taking Chandulal’s address before entrusting him with his life’s savings. He inquired about him from some of the villagers but no one knew about his whereabouts. There was little he could do except wait.

When another month passed and Chandulal didn’t appear, Datta could no longer deny to himself, the fact, that he had been duped. The wealth that he had amassed by masquerading as a mahatma for so many years had slipped out of his hands. His dream of a happily married life in Bombay was shattered. Struck by a pall of gloom, he stopped taking food and was soon bedridden with weakness. The flabbergasted villagers had no idea what malaise had struck their Mahatma. They prayed for his long life at the temple and beseeched him to begin eating again. But Datta remained inconsolable. His loss of fortune had broken his spirit, now he had no desire to live.

*

A week passed. He lay on the bed desolate and dazed. Out of nowhere the thought struck him that just as he was feeling traumatized at losing his money, so must be the person who lost his necklace, the same necklace that he had found at the gutter outside Mr. Mehta’s house. Maybe the necklace belonged to Mr. Mehta, and if not to him then to anyone of his neighbors. His own loss made him realize how grave a mistake he had committed by running away with the necklace, instead of trying to return it to its real owner. Tears of remorse welled up in his eyes.

Though he was very weak, he managed to rise on his feet and shuffle inside the temple. Villagers who were sitting near his bed were surprised to see him get up. Wordlessly they followed him. In front of all the villagers Datta extricated the urn from its hiding place. Much of its contents already depleted when 50000 were handed over to Chandulal, the urn now only contained a few loose coins and the necklace.

Datta placed the coins and the necklace in front of the Ganpati’s idol and prostrating himself he whispered, ‘Ganpati, today I have realized what a sin stealing is. I thank you for sending Chandulal in my life. He has made me see the truth. Datta the scavenger has now ceased to exist; the man who lies at your feet is your humble devotee.’

Then he got up and looking at the villagers around him he said, ‘this is a very valuable necklace. It has the power to turn a scavenger into a mahatma.’ The villagers hardly understood what he meant by those words, but they were satisfied that their mahatma was back to normal. Datta allowed the villagers to feed him and with a filled stomach he lay down on the bed.
Next day he conducted aarti after a gap of one week. When the aarti was over and few villagers wanted to present him with small coins, as they usually did, he stopped them, saying, ‘Ganpati came into my dreams last night. He told me that I should never touch money again in my life. If I touch money I will die instantly. I implore all of you to stop making monetary contributions in future.’

He had now become a Mahatma in the real sense and now he no longer had any need for money.

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