Friday, April 29, 2011

Sai Baba as a Professional Hazard

Every profession has its challenges if not stress tests. For journalism in India, we suggest this: trying to keep your copy straight while covering a godman. From jet-setting brahmacharis to sex gurus, from babas kick-blessing disciples to Naga sadhus in the buff, you can have your pick of divinely inspired performers doing their own version of the Great Indian Rope Trick. But if you really want to earn your spurs, you’d have to cover a godman with millions of devotees in a militant if momentary frenzy.

The dare of the moment is Sathya Sai Baba, who, according to doctors at his trust’s hospital in Puttaparthi, left his body at 7.40 am on 24 April. He’s one godman with a following so disciplined that a military general would envy it, so full of famous figures that a VIP list for a World Cup final would be put to shame, so zealous that the blasphemy police of the Subcontinent’s far frontiers could take tips from them.

Earlier this month in Puttaparthi, I phoned a district reporter for a local perspective on the godman. “Are you writing negative or positive things?” he demanded. “Just writing facts,” I responded. “What kind of facts are you looking for?” he asked. His tone suggested that the facts would have to be approved by the faithful.

Thankfully, violence is a no-no for Sai Baba’s disciples. But that does not necessarily make it unlikely. Outside the hospital where the godman lay ailing in an ICU ward, I suggested to a TV reporter that he run a sting operation for an insider story. “If I get in there,” he replied, “I will not get out alive.” He was only half joking.

Anil Budur Lulla shares the perils of tracking the deceased godman’s life, influence and miracles as a journalist in Open. Here

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