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 in Shahdara, Old 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 labourious 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, Gurudev saw an older woman trying unsuccessfully to milk her cow. He offered to assist her. He gently tapped the cow a few times, and it began to give milk. Gurudev then became the lady’s good luck charm, whose help she sought every time the cow needed to be milked. During a casual conversation, the lady asked where he was studying. He told her 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 turned out 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 the department of All India Soil and Land Use Survey in the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) at PUSA. 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 referred to as 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 many 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 the latter’s apartment in the bustling enclave of Paharganj. Nagpal ji shared a 120-square-feet room with his friend and landlord, Dwarkanath ji, an employee of the Central Works Department (CWD). Dwarkanath ji insisted on meeting Gurudev to gauge if he would make a suitable roommate. A few minutes into the eventful meeting, he felt an instant connection to 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 of them began living together, they agreed to contribute thirty rupees each to a monthly mess fund.
Gurudev lived as frugally as his meagre income permitted. The three friends would eat plain parathas for breakfast and lunch. They occasionally treated themselves to pakoras from a dhaba near their apartment. On most nights, however, dinner was a simple mixture of dal, yoghurt, and rice mixed with leftovers from the night before.
Gurudev was a man who enjoyed simple pleasures. Every weekend, he and his roommates would make plans 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. He would always fall asleep during the late night show because he was an early riser. Gurudev found a novel solution to this conundrum. And so, Dwarkanath ji was forced to sit between Gurudev and Nagpal ji so that he could be pinched awake from both sides if sleep beckoned!
Gurudev (R) and his friends Nagpal ji (L) and Dwarkanath ji (M) shown at the Qutab Minar in Delhi
Aside from inventing novel ways to keep people awake, Gurudev’s sense of humour would have everyone in stitches. He’d amuse his friends with spot-on impressions of people they knew and amusing anecdotes about people they didn’t. 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, Dwarkanath ji and Nagpal ji shared was contagious. Soon after, Jain Saheb, a colleague, and a neighbour named Kundanlal Sahani joined in the fun. The quintet spent their evenings at Dwarkanath ji’s tiny apartment eating pakoras and partaking in the bonhomie. Whenever they wanted to hear Lata, Mukesh, or Rafi’s soulful voices, Gurudev’s magic touch would come to their aid. Dwarkanath ji had an old radio that wouldn’t turn on. However, 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 as a host 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 Gurudev, 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 an extremely generous man who didn’t 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 me for help, I cannot refuse them no matter what their intention maybe.”
Despite the exuberant exterior, Gurudev’s spiritual leanings were evident to his roommates, who would wake up in the middle of the night to find him meditating under a blanket. Dwarkanath ji recalls other incidents that indicated Gurudev was no ordinary man. Since Dwarkanath ji 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 the temple while they went in to pay their respects. His roommates were perplexed because they knew the mantras he chanted were 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. Despite the fact that Gurudev was sitting right next to 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 magnetise their energy and disturb their energy balance.
Dwarkanath ji also observed that whatever Gurudev predicted came true. Because he and Nagpal ji were both from Agra, they decided to visit the city for the day. When they informed Gurudev of the plan a day before departure, he was irritated because he was left out. He remarked casually that they wouldn’t be able to visit 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 had been delayed by five hours. Dwarkanath ji and Nagpal ji knew they wouldn’t be able to 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 their fun-loving, cigarette-smoking friend with the image 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, 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!