On Thursday, November 9, at 7:30 pm, Aditi (name changed) walked down a major thoroughfare in Mylapore, wading through a seeming ocean of people, towards Sai Baba Temple. They were there to pray to Shirdi Sai Baba (1838-1915), a saint who is considered by devotees today to be the representation of the supreme God.
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It is often said that Sai Baba grants anything a devotee asks for. A paduka, or wooden footwear, of the saint had been brought to the temple from Shirdi, the saint’s hometown, and they would soon be paraded along the streets around the temple.
Aditi saw a giant flower-studded float parked on the street named Venkateshwara Agraharam. At 10 feet by 15 feet, it was wide enough to fill the entire street and tall enough to get tangled in the overhead cables providing Internet and television access to residents. Policemen and women in khakhi stood along the edges of the crowd, directly supervising the activities. An inspector spoke into a loudspeaker in Tamil, “You can cut whichever wire you want so long as it’s not an electrical wire.”
Aditi looked around and noticed a man had climbed up a scaffold to the height of the overhead cables. He held a pair of clippers in his hand. He yelled back to the inspector, “Are you sure? These look like Internet, telephone cables…”
“Yes,” the policeman replied. “Just make sure they are not electrical cables.”
Aditi was worried. She lived on that street and those cables provided her home with essential services. She walked up to the policeman and told him, “You can’t cut these wires. Do you have permission from the Corporation?”
The men turned and saw a petite woman questioning them. “What permission? What do you want?’’ they asked.
“You need a permit to cut these wires — where is it?” Aditi asked.
“Who are you? Why are you interfering in a matter that’s not your concern?” The policeman said.
His colleague asked, “Where are you from?”
“I live on this street. Those cables supply my house,” she said. As she spoke, the man on the scaffold snipped the cables, which nearly struck her on the head.
The policemen told his colleague, “Call a policewoman and ask her to move this woman.”
“No need. I’m going,” Aditi replied. “But I’ll meet you legally. I’ll see you guys.”
She walked home, upset. She felt powerless against this temple, against these men, and against the system. Later attempts by residents of Mylapore to get this illegal action addressed by the temple and by people in power has been predictably met with resistance.
I, too, have felt this powerlessness. The Sai Baba Temple has been in Mylapore since 1952 and I remember it fondly from the time that I was growing up. Beggars, flower stalls, and devotees would throng the streets in the ‘80s. There was a woman and her son who lived in a makeshift cycle rickshaw home, a man with leprosy, and old men and women who benefited from the temple’s free lunch service.
I mention these features only to point out they were not considered a nuisance by neighbours; rather, they were recognized as accruements that all places of worship gather in India and are taken in stride.
In the afternoons, the temple was a refuge from the boredom and heat. If I went at the right time, I could get a scoop of chakara-pongal in a bowl fashioned out of dried sal leaves. I would eat it under the peepul tree by the temple.
Around 2008, something changed. Gods and saints enjoy ebbs and swells in popularity and 11 movies had chronicled Shirdi Sai Baba’s exemplary life and miraculous powers by that year. Perhaps that was the reason that our neighbourhood temple started seeing a large influx of devotees.
On Thursdays, a day of celebration for the guru, people thronged the streets, parked their vehicles without order and blocked entrances. For long, the temple and city did nothing to address the crowds, and it could take up to 20 minutes to drive a yard down that road. In 2015, the corporation stepped in and closed a part of the street to vehicular traffic on Thursdays.
Mylapore has many historic temples, replete with history and culture, that parade their deities and saints. I love it that on fine Panguni nights in March, the Kabali temple’s saints go around the temple tanks. But most of these processions happen on market streets that have long been emptied of residents. Processions that venture into the side streets are small and largely quiet. There is no marching band or fireworks.
Mylapore’s streets empty by 9 pm. By 10, most folks have hit their beds so they can begin their days early and finish their most important tasks before the afternoon sultriness sets in.
On September 30th, the Sai Baba temple celebrated the final night of Navratri with a poorly attended procession and a marching band at about 9 pm. At 10:45 pm, loud blasts startled me out of sleep and flashes lit the night. Firecrackers! It was at least a 10,000-wala, a 50-feet-long garland of high-decibel firecrackers that burst for about seven minutes. For the first minute, the noise was bearable, but by the fifth, it became annoying. There were a handful of mostly temple workers on the street.
I called the police. After all, we have a Supreme Court ruling dating back to 2005 that says no one should burst firecrackers between 10 pm and 6 am. This, therefore, was against the law. The policeman on duty promised a patrol car, which never arrived.
At 11:45 pm, the temple set off another round of firecrackers. I complained again to the police, with no response.
On November 9th, Aditi returned home feeling worried that the overhead cables had been snipped.
Two days later, another Mylapore resident filed a complaint with the police about the cables. The inspector on duty questioned the resident in an intimidating manner, “Who are you? Where are you from? Who is your father? Are you married? How long?”
“You seem like a very excitable person,” the inspector told him.
He issued the resident a CSR (community service register) notice, suggesting this was a non-cognizable offence and that the police would not investigate without a court order.
It has been weeks since, and the snipped cables are still on the street.