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Article about Sai Baba in the

International Herald Tribbute, 3 Dec 2002

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Meanwhile: Old mantras and new software side by side

By Shashi Tharoor (IHT)
Tuesday, December 3, 2002

I made separate trips from Bangalore recently that revealed, within a span of 48 hours, two different but related facets of India. Late one night I set out on a four-hour drive with my mother to the well-lit and orderly town of Puttaparthi in Andhra Pradesh.

Buildings gleamed white against the streetlights; the sidewalks, patrolled by volunteers even at that hour, seemed freshly scrubbed. Puttaparthi, once a humble village like so many others, had become a boomtown as the birthplace and headquarters of the spiritual leader Sathya Sai Baba.

A private audience with the ocher-robed guru was astonishing at several levels. 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.

Then he says things which are by turns banal or 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). Most startling, he materializes gifts from thin air - in my case a gold ring with nine embedded stones. He slipped it on my finger, remarking, "See how well it fits. Even a goldsmith would have needed to measure your finger."

My mother, a longtime devotee, received a little silver urn overflowing with vibhuti, or sacred ash.

"It was as if he had heard what I wanted," she said. But a skilled magician can do that, and it would be wrong to see Sai Baba as a conjurer. He has channeled 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-organized two-week intervals. Many left distinguished positions behind. The free hospital in Puttaparthi is one of the best in India; many leading doctors volunteer their services. Sai Baba has built schools and colleges, and is now involved in 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 company. 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 affable chief executive, Nandan Nilekani, I saw the world's leading software museum, a state-of-the-art teleconference center, 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. It provides services in consulting, systems integration and applications to some of the biggest companies in the world. Its 13,000 staff members, known in the company's argot as "Infoscions," work in more than 30 offices around the world. In Bangalore, they sit amidst lush, landscaped greenery dotted with pools, recharge themselves at an ultramodern gym, display their creativity at a company art gallery and enjoy a choice of nine food courts for their lunchtime snacks.

I marveled 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 facets 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 recognize was that the old temples continued to maintain their hold on the Indian imagination.

The software programs of the information technology companies dotting Bangalore's "Silicon Plateau" may be the new mantras of India, but they supplement, rather than supplant, the old mantras. Sai Baba and Infosys are emblematic of an India that somehow manages to live in several centuries at once.

On our way out of Puttaparthi my mother and I talked to 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 cell phone glinting in his shirt pocket, "a project manager at Infosys."

The writer is the author, most recently, of the novel "Riot." He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.