THE EARLY YEARS
He made new friends in a bustling place
who thought he was such fun.
But how could they’ve known
that when days melted into years,
he’d become the exalted one.
In 1955, Gurudev moved into his paternal uncle’s house at Shahdara in Delhi. Unwilling to burden his relatives, he did odd jobs like selling pens and toffees and working as a bus conductor. He would also volunteer for laborious household chores to repay the gratitude he owed his uncle’s family. He would frequently carry sacks of grains weighing 15-20 kgs to the grinding mill on his back. Even when the burden became too much for him to bear, he would keep chanting his mantras and soldier on.
Once while strolling in the neighbourhood, he saw an older woman trying unsuccessfully to milk her cow and offered to assist her. He gently tapped the cow, and it began to give milk. Gurudev then became the lady’s good luck charm, whose help she sought whenever the cow needed milking. During a casual conversation, the lady inquired about his studies. He explained that he was new to the city and didn’t know anyone to guide him academically. Therefore, he was biding his time doing little of consequence. When she heard this, she asked him to meet her husband for guidance. Her husband happened to be the principal of PUSA Institute. And at his suggestion, Gurudev enrolled in a two-year technical course at the Bharat Sevak Samaj (BSS), a development agency set up by the Government of India. On completing the course in 1958, he joined All India Soil and Land Use Survey department at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI). He was twenty years old when he received his first salary of 150 rupees.
One of the first people he befriended at work was a young man named Kishanlal Nagpal, whom he affectionately called Naaga. Destiny dealt Nagpal ji a favourable hand when an inadvertent error landed him a job in the same department as Gurudev. Nagpal ji had filed his application as KL Nagpal. Unbeknownst to him, the son of a powerful politician with the same initials and surname was competing for the same position! At the time of job allocation, the department officials mistakenly assumed that Nagpal ji was the politician’s son and hired him, setting the stage for his introduction to the man who was destined to change his life. These were just a few of the coincidences designed to fit in an intricate jigsaw puzzle of the graphic that was Gurudev!
When Gurudev needed a place to stay in Delhi, he asked Nagpal ji if he could stay in his apartment. Nagpal ji shared a 120-square-feet room in Paharganj with his friend and landlord, Dwarkanath ji, a Central Works Department (CWD) employee. Dwarkanath ji insisted on meeting Gurudev to gauge if he would make a suitable roommate. A few minutes into the eventful meeting, he instantly connected with the young man sitting in front of him. He recalled, “When I first started talking to Gurudev, I was very impressed. He was intelligent and understood everything. He was wonderful to talk to, and I felt our temperaments were in sync”. When the three began living together, they agreed to contribute thirty rupees each to a monthly mess fund.
They lived as frugally as their meagre incomes allowed. The three friends would eat plain parathas for breakfast and lunch. They occasionally treated themselves to pakoras from a dhaba near their apartment. However, most nights’ dinner was a simple mixture of dal, yoghurt, and rice mixed with leftovers from the night before.
Gurudev (R) and his friends Nagpal ji (L) and Dwarkanath ji (M) shown at the Qutab Minar in Delhi
Gurudev was a man who enjoyed simple pleasures. Every weekend, he and his roommates planned to visit places in and around Delhi. As a cinephile, he enjoyed seeing the latest films in theatres. While Nagpal ji was always up for a good celluloid adventure, Dwarkanath ji had to be persuaded to join his friends. Being an early riser, he would inevitably fall asleep during the late-night show. Gurudev found a novel solution to this conundrum. And Dwarkanath ji was forced to sit between Gurudev and Nagpal ji so that he could be pinched awake from both sides if sleep beckoned!
Aside from inventing novel ways to keep people awake, Gurudev’s sense of humour had everyone in stitches. He would amuse his friends with spot-on impressions of people they knew and amusing anecdotes about people they did not. People enjoyed his company so much that Dwarkanath ji’s elder brother would only visit his younger sibling when Gurudev was present. The easy camaraderie that Gurudev shared with his roommates was contagious. Soon, Jain Saheb, a colleague, and a neighbour, Kundanlal Sahani, joined the fun. Their evenings were spent at Dwarkanath ji’s tiny apartment, eating pakoras and partaking in the bonhomie. Gurudev’s magic touch would come to their aid whenever they were in the mood for soulful melodies. Dwarkanath ji had an old radio that wouldn’t turn on, but whenever Gurudev tapped the relic’s rusting body, it would begin to play, much to the amusement of his friends.
Gurudev exuded such warmth that Kundanlal ji and Dwarkanath ji would take time off from work to visit him at his camps in Himachal Pradesh. Gurudev went above and beyond to ensure his guests were well taken care of. The recreational activities at the camp included chess and card games, which Gurudev always won. Sensing that lady luck had taken a shine to him, his colleagues would ask him to play on their behalf. He willingly did so, tipping the scales in their favour. After becoming a mahaguru, however, he became anti-gambling and anti-betting.
Gurudev was extremely generous and did not think twice before extending a helping hand to people. However, people often took advantage of his kindness. When Dwarkanath ji pointed this out, Gurudev said, “I am aware of that, but when someone asks for help, I cannot refuse.”
Despite the exuberant exterior, Gurudev’s spiritual leanings were evident to his roommates, who would wake up to find him meditating under a blanket in the middle of the night. Dwarkanath ji recalls other incidents that indicated Gurudev was no ordinary man. Since he and Nagpal ji were Shiv devotees, they would force Gurudev to accompany them on visits to a Shiv temple near their apartment. He would insist on waiting outside while they went in to pay their respects. This perplexed his roommates because they knew that Gurudev chanted Shiv mantras.
Through personal experience, I discovered why Gurudev never entered temples. I was once overcome by a wave of spiritual over-enthusiasm and the buffoonery of dogmatism as he and I waited to board a train to Delhi at a station in Bina. Even though Gurudev was sitting beside me, I decided to light a diya in his honour at a small temple under a nearby tree. My body convulsed as I lit the flame because I had unintentionally magnetised the power of the little temple within me. I might have grown steeples on my head if it had been a more powerful temple! Gurudev most likely felt a sense of ownership over the Shiv temples and did not enter them because he did not want to disturb their energy balance.
Dwarkanath ji also observed that whatever Gurudev predicted came true. Since he and Nagpal ji hailed from Agra, they decided to make a day trip to the city. When they informed Gurudev of the plan a day before departure, he was irritated at being left out. He remarked that they wouldn’t be able to visit the land of the Taj Mahal without him. Dwarkanath ji dismissed Gurudev’s words as those of an irritated friend, confident that the trip would go ahead because they had confirmed berths. The following day, the pair left for the train station, only to discover that the train was delayed by five hours. They knew they couldn’t make it back in time for work the next day, so they returned home. Dwarkanath ji laughed as he remembered Gurudev greeting them with a knowing grin and a few of his favourite Punjabi words!
Despite these strange occurrences, Gurudev’s friends struggled to reconcile the image of their fun-loving, cigarette-smoking friend with that of a serious spiritualist. When Gurudev told Jain Saheb that he was destined to become a guru to many, the latter found the prospect so unfathomable that he doubled over with laughter. But fate progressed with its plans. Years later, after Gurudev became a mahaguru, Dwarkanath ji and Nagpal ji became devotees of their former friend, while Jain Saheb became one of his most powerful disciples.
Gurudev’s magic touch that made cows lactate and radios play would be put to great use in the future when he would pull our ears to make us sing to his tunes