Padmanabhan had always been, as his mother proudly told her large circle of family, friends and acquaintances, a good boy. A perfect child. Obedient, studious, polite and a great help around the house. And a big bore, muttered the jealous and fed-up relatives and friends. Visiting Padmanabhan’s parents’ home was always a mixed bag. On the one hand, Rajammal, his mother, was a superb cook, and visitors were assured of at least one new piece of gossip. On the other hand, there was Padmanabhan, fondly referred to as Paddu.
Poor Paddu. It was not his fault, really. He would be reading quietly in his corner, or working on his sums, or pacing up and down the garden, reciting entire chapters of history which he had committed to memory. Minding his own business. But as soon as the meal was finished, and the visitors started preparing for a quick getaway, Rajammal would strike. “Paddu,” she would screech, “Paddu, my golden child, God’s favorite, come here for a minute and say hello to Maama and Maami!” The visiting Maama and Maami would groan silently and steel themselves for a long drawn-out extension to their stay.
Paddu would come in, his eyes downcast, stuttering an inaudible greeting to the visitors. He was small for his age, and skinny. Big, thick glasses gave him a scared, owlish look. There was no smile, no sparkle, no childish charm. Rajammal beamed proudly at him, and got the show rolling. First, an entire chapter of whatever history lesson he had been learning would be recited. The recitation would be performed in a monotonous drone, with large gulps of air taken whenever Paddu ran out of breath. Most times, the visitors would remain unenlightened as to whether the recitation covered the Gupta period or the Maurya period, or indeed, whether it was in the realm of history at all. It could just as well been English, or Geography, for what they could make out of his mumbling. After the recitation had gone on for what Rajammal considered a suitable length of time (by this time the visitors had become glassy-eyed from struggling to stay awake), Paddu would be sent to bring his school books. The visitors would be shown page after excruciating page of Paddu’s perfect handwriting, Paddu’s perfect scores, Paddu’s teachers’ glowing comments. If the visitors were lucky, that was it. If they were not, the show continued on, with Paddu being made to recite English poetry or Hindi poetry (Tamil poetry was not considered exotic enough), maybe even sing a song, to show that he was not merely a studious child, but also a well-rounded one.
When Paddu was born, it was after many years of trying. In despair, his mother had approached astrologer after astrologer, priest after priest, and even a medical expert. Various remedies were prescribed, which Rajammal followed scrupulously. She shaved off her hair, she rolled around temples, she ate papayas, she swore off rice. She spent an entire month chanting the Vishnu Sahasranamam and a year chewing on raw garlic cloves. Her husband submitted meekly to whatever was prescribed for him – ice-water baths, followed by scalding-hot water, head-stands and the infernal raw garlic cloves.
It all proved worthwhile. Four years and hundreds of garlic cloves later, Paddu was born on a stormy monsoon morning. What joy there was, what celebration! The vegetable vendor was rewarded handsomely for supplying the lucky garlic. The priests and astrologers were treated to one of Rajammal’s fabulous meals. On the way out, her husband gratefully pressed crisp hundred rupee notes into their hands. Only the medical expert remained uncompensated. His dry and clinical advice (what on earth did body temperature have to do with anything?) was dismissed as the babbling of a clueless quack.
The years sped by. Rajammal poured her heart and soul into bringing up Paddu. The poor child was micro-managed from morning till night. Most of his time was spent studying, with half an hour allowed every day for him to listen to the radio. Only classical Carnatic music was allowed. Three times a week he was taken to the neighborhood temple where he prayed under the watchful eye of Rajammal (she told him what to pray for) and where he learned what happened to Bad People. And every Saturday a Hindi poet arrived at Rajammal’s house to teach Hindi poetry and elocution to Paddu.
In this little town, at the very core of the Tamil heartland, the Hindi poet was the only Hindi-speaking person. He had spent the last couple of decades of his life wandering around the country, trying (unsuccessfully) to get his poetry published. Rajammal had met him outside the temple one day, where he was reciting some of his poems. A large and curious audience, none of whom understood, spoke or wrote any Hindi, was gathered around him. He stood atop a low stool, and delivered his poems at the top of his voice. Nobody knew when one poem ended and the next one started, as it was all done in one pauseless sequence. Actually, nobody knew that they were supposed to be poems. And, it could be safely wagered that nobody knew that the man was speaking Hindi.
Rajammal listened, fascinated. Immediately, she had a vision of her Paddu, standing on a stage in front of a vast and adoring audience who hung on to his every word and urged him to keep going. Her Paddu, blessing and inspiring thousands. She pushed her way to the front of the crowd. She waited till the man paused for the briefest of seconds to take a breath, then stepped right up to him and pulled at his kurta. The man stopped, looking annoyed at being disturbed mid-poem. This had been the most gratifying audience so far, although these people did have a disconcerting habit of applauding at all the wrong places. He looked down with a heavy frown to see who had pulled at his kurta, and saw a short, stout middle-aged lady in a bright pink Kanjivaram silk sari - Rajammal.
Rajammal, not one to be intimidated by a mere frown, signaled to him to step down. What the heck, the man thought, he had been shouting for at least one hour now, he might as well take a break. He stepped down from his stool, while around him the crowd pressed closer. Rajammal, unsure of the man’s status (was he a politician? A mere salesman? A holy man, even?) decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. She smiled fawningly at him and started telling him about her super-child, Paddu. She told him that she wanted him to teach her son to recite like him, with confidence and fearlessness. She spoke in chaste Tamil, the Tamil she reserved for the temple priests and astrologers. Not the Tamil she used for the medical expert when she told him what she thought about his body temperature charts. It made no difference to the poet. He did not understand a word of what Rajammal had said. He said so, in Hindi. This went on for a couple of minutes. The crowd listened, hugely entertained. Finally, the two realized that they would have to resort to another language. Tentatively, Rajammal repeated her words in heavily Tamil-accented English. Tentatively, the man replied, in heavily Hindi-accented English. A line of communication was established.
The man said his name was Premchand Devlal. He was a famous poet, he said, published in all the famous newspapers and magazines in North India. He was also a Communications and Public-Speaking Expert, and had personally coached people close to the Prime Minister himself. Premchand Devlal started getting carried away, quite believing this fairy-tale version of his life. Why, it would all be true, were it not for those illiterate editors and publishers who did not know good poetry even when it stared at them in the face. Here was someone, obviously from a good family, who had a genius for a son, and she wanted him to coach the genius. Him, when she could have chosen anybody else! Premchand Devlal told Rajammal that since she had personally approached him, he would somehow find time in his busy schedule to accommodate her son. And thus it was that he became Paddu’s Hindi Poetry teacher and Recitation and Elocution coach.
Premchand Devlal was a conscientious coach. He diligently passed along his style of the Nonstop Monotone, the See How Much You Can Say without Pausing to Take a Breath approach. The only part he did not succeed in was the Imagine you are Speaking in a Big Room Filled with a Thousand People and Throw Your Voice to the Farthest Corners of the Big Room method. Paddu, undersized and not blessed with strong lungs (he took after his father in this), could only manage a shrill squeak if he really tried his hardest; a steady mumble was what he usually produced.
This was Paddu’s childhood. A few more years went by, and he entered adolescence. He continued to be a good son. He continued to be a good student. He continued his weekly “lessons” with Premchand Devlal, and he continued to recite lessons and poems to the visitors to his home. He had been a quiet, meek child, and he became a quiet, meek teenager. Rajammal would wait for him right outside his school everyday, and he would go home with her, his head hanging low, staring at the road in front of him. While his classmates leafed breathlessly through “dirty” magazines and stole cigarettes from the corner store, Paddu was safely at home, studying. While they wrote love notes to imaginary and real girlfriends, Paddu was right in the front row, earnestly writing down everything the teacher said. He never uttered a bad word, he never touched a cigarette, his always-downcast eyes never cast lascivious glances at any girl. Rajammal gloated triumphantly to the other mothers who complained ceaselessly about how their children did not take their studies seriously, how they had started talking back, how they came home reeking of cigarette smoke. Her Paddu would never dream of doing anything like that. Her child-rearing methods ensured that. She had given him proper religious training, and he knew what God expected of him. He would never do anything to upset God.
How deceptive appearances can be! Beneath that tame and compliant exterior there churned an active teenage mind. Turbulent, seething, agitated and roiling. Anguished and angry. At night, when he lay in bed, alone at last, free of Rajammal’s ceaseless involvement, the demons entered. They were not polite demons. They did not knock and ask permission to enter. They kept Paddu awake for long hours with their malicious and evil notions. He writhed and tossed around, his head pounding, bathed in sweat. Unable to bear the torment any longer, he started writing. He had to write by the light of a streetlamp that cast a ray of light into his room. Switching his room light on would bring Rajammal hurrying in, clucking with worry.
He had his Tamil notebook from last year, which he had hardly used. It had about a hundred empty pages, and into these, Paddu poured out his anguish. He loathed his mother and her constant presence. Why could she not leave him alone for even five minutes? He detested having to perform for her friends and relatives. Couldn’t she see that they were bored out of their minds? He hated her plump, waddling figure and the appalling way she tied her hair. Her voice maddened him. He had scorn for his father, that spineless, cowering worm, all he did was work and hide behind the newspaper. Night after night, he wrote. As the weeks and months went by, his writings acquired a darker tone. He used the foulest language imaginable. Everything about his life angered him. He lashed out against his mother, his school teachers, his classmates, Premchand Devlal. Why was he not allowed to even go to a movie with someone from school? He hated all the girls in his class, who did not even notice his existence. Nobody understood him. They thought he was a goody-goody kid who did no wrong. What would they think if they saw his writings?
Paddu began to get frightened by the intensity of his emotions. He had been a meek and mild child, not given to strong feelings or emotions. He did not care one way or the other about his studies, or about being paraded in front of his mother’s friends and relatives. She wanted him to study, so he studied. She wanted him to recite, so he recited. When his mother took him on a trip to the zoo, he looked at all the animals with a flat expression, and dutifully copied down the facts about them into his notebook. Everything seemed to have changed overnight. How did this happen? Was he possessed by some devil, or monster? And why did he look so awful? Hair curling out of the oddest of places, pimples sprouting through all the time, his head too big, his legs too skinny.
Poor Paddu. He had no idea that what he was going through was perfectly normal. He had no inkling that all his classmates, who seemed so confident and sure of themselves, were trapped in their own personal infernos. The Adolescent Abyss. He had no one to talk to. In school, he was shunned as a weirdo by his classmates. At home, he had to preserve the image of the Perfect Son. The god-fearing, always-studying, ever-dutiful, no-trouble son. His writing was his only outlet. And yet, it terrified him. On nights when he did not have the energy to write, he would read over what he had written. It shocked and appalled him. With his mother’s lectures about God and what He did to Bad People pounding inside his head, he was sure that God had the most brutal fate in store for him. He was a Bad Person. He was vile, crude, depraved and a disgrace to humanity. He began having nightmares about God. He thought he was going mad.
Nobody observing Paddu would have
guessed at the turbulence raging in him. In school, he continued to occupy the
front desk and gravely write down every word that left the teacher’s lips. He
went docilely home after school with his mother. At home the studying, the
temple visits, the Saturday sessions with Premchand Devlal, the performances
for the guests, all went on exactly as before.
But now, Paddu began to get
obsessed with God. Even as his writing got coarser and more abusive, he worried
endlessly about how God would punish him for his sins. About what God would
think of his wickedness. These thoughts haunted and assaulted him, until he could
bear it no longer. Scribbling furiously into his notebook one night, the
solution came to him. It slid cleanly
into him like a hot knife into butter. He wanted to know what God thought, did he? He wanted to know what God would do, did he? There
was only one way to find out – he would become God himself.
Paddu sat up, his heart thudding. A little shiver went through him. His eyes shone and little beads of perspiration dotted his forehead. For the very first time in his life, he experienced excitement. He liked it. He began to plan. He remembered the stories his mother had told him about the ancient sages who spent years in Himalayan caves, praying and meditating in conditions of harsh and unrelenting austerity, hoping that this would lead them to a higher level of existence. Well, he would do whatever it took, and he would do one better than those ancient sages. One level up was not enough for him. He would go all the way up, and become God. And he would not take years over it, either – he needed to know quickly what God thought of him, and then forgive himself.
Two nights later, Paddu disappeared from his home. He decided that the path to God-hood did not necessarily require austerity and starving (he was a growing teenager, after all) and raided his mother’s kitchen for as much food as he could pack in a small suitcase he found under his parents’ bed. He took all the money from his father’s wallet (quelling his conscience by assuring himself that he could forgive all this once he became God). On the verge of stepping outside, he hesitated. The least he could do was to leave a brief note for his parents. He tore an empty page out of his notebook and scribbled,
Appa. Don’t worry. All will be fine when
I become God. Paddu.”
He left it on the kitchen counter, and walked out into the warm night.
Five years passed. What hell those five years had been for poor Rajammal! Once again, she consulted priests and astrologers, and subjected herself to the penances prescribed by them. All to no avail. Her Paddu had vanished without a trace. Time and time again she read his farewell note which was by now frayed and crumpled. It still made no sense to her. If it had not been for that note, Rajammal would have been convinced that her son had been kidnapped by a jealous ill-wisher. “Why”, she wailed inconsolably to the stunned visitors to her home, “why is this happening to my family? I did everything correctly, God himself will be my witness. Until the last day, he was studying so seriously, he came with me to the temple and we even broke a coconut for Lord Ganesha so that he would come first in his exams again. Oh…oh… this must be the Evil Eye that has looked at my child, just because he was so good…” Rajammal spent days weeping in front photographs of Paddu. Muttering incantations, she burnt rock salt and red chillies and threw them over his photographs, to destroy the Evil Eye. She locked away all her colorful Kanjivaram silk saris, and vowed that she would wear only white cotton saris till she saw Paddu again.
On a scorching August day five years after he left, Paddu returned to his home-town. Only, he was not Paddu any longer. He was Sri Sriman Padmanabha Parama Purusham Kalki Swamigal, the long-awaited tenth avataram (reincarnation) of Lord Vishnu. The Supreme One, the Divine Preserver of the Universe. He rode a white horse, and held a sword in his right hand. His hair and beard, grown wild and bushy, reached his waist. He wore a saffron-colored veshti and shirt. He was a majestic, awesome sight. Looking straight ahead, he calmly steered his horse to the park in front of the Sri Ganesha Temple, the one he had accompanied his mother to all those years.
Sri Sriman Padmanabha Parama Purusham Kalki Swamigal arrived at the park. He got off his horse, Devadatta. The journey on the horse had been exhausting, and every bone in his body ached. He longed for a nice hot meal, and a cool, soothing bath. Then he checked his thoughts. He was God, and God was not supposed to long for mortal pleasures like hot meals and cool baths. Actually, he was quite pleased with how well he had learned to control his runaway emotions. He was able to read his wild writings with calm detachment. Indeed, he was now able to view most things with calm detachment. Rajammal, his father, Premchand Devlal – none of them evoked the ire they had in those frenzied teenage years. He had succeeded in becoming God. Succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.
The word spread like wildfire through the town. A new Holy Man had arrived! What? Holy Man? He was no Holy Man, he was God, Himself! Lord Vishnu, as Kalki, as promised in all the holy scriptures! Didn’t you see, He called His horse Devadutta! And He came to town, our town, riding on that white horse! Did you see how peaceful and gentle He was? And He spoke so softly, so soothingly, it was like a lullaby! Within a short while of his arrival, the news reached Rajammal. Lord Vishnu, in his avataram as Kalki, had appeared! Rajammal, in the middle of burning rock salt and red chillies in another assault on the Evil Eye, abandoned her efforts and rushed to the scene.
The moment she saw him, she knew. Her mother’s instinct saw through the wild beard and hair, the man’s body that had replaced the gawky teenager’s, the new air of confidence and self-assurance that enveloped him. And for once in her life, she was struck speechless. She stood at the outer edge of the throng of onlookers and gaped silently. Then, emotion welled up in her like a giant ocean wave, and she began to sob. Once she started, she couldn’t stop. She sank to the ground and let five years of hideous grief drain out of her.
Paddu saw the small, white-clad figure in the edge of the crowd, and his heart lurched. And when he saw her collapse to the ground, sobbing, it took all of his newly-acquired Godly self-control to not rush to her. His mother. What must she have endured all these years! He would make sure that she would never, ever suffer again. He, as God, had the power to ensure that. With a calmness he did not feel at all, he made his way unhurriedly to Rajammal. He used the gliding walk he had practiced so hard. Overwhelmed by her emotions, she did not see him approach. The crowd fell silent, and watched with bated breath. When he reached Rajammal, Sri Sriman Padmanabha Parama Purusham Kalki Swamigal spoke his first words to her in five years. “Don’t cry, Amma. I am here now. I told you that all would be fine when I became God. I have fulfilled my promise.” He hoisted her up gently, and put his arms around her, inhaling the familiar smell of jasmine and hair-oil, of Cuticura talcum powder and potato curry. He felt perilously close to tears, and it took all of his self-control to curb himself.
Rajammal stood up, tears pouring down her cheeks. She clutched her son’s hand tightly, as if she would never let go. “You have to come home,” she gulped, with trembling lips. “You have to eat what I have cooked before you can do anything else.” She was still too much in a state of shock to say much more. Holding his hand, she led him home, while the gaping crowd watched in silent astonishment.
Sri Sriman Padmanabha Parama Purusham Kalki Swamigal became an immense success as God. His fame spread far and wide and people thronged to his little park from across the town, then the state, and then from all over India. They poured their problems out to him. He listened carefully, and gave thoughtful words of advice. Those who could not make the trip to see him in person wrote letters to him. The post office was besieged with hundreds, then thousands, of letters. Many were simply addressed to: Lord Vishnu. Or, even more simply, God. Every single letter reached him, and he answered each one personally. He began holding seminars where he spoke about ideas like What is Love, Obedience to Parents, The True Meaning of Success, Ensuring Emotional Well-Being and Conquering Jealousy. Thousands of people crowded into the little park, and a stage and megaphones had to be set up for everyone to be able to hear the holy words. People brought him gifts of food, clothes and money. Soon, it became obvious that the little park would no longer suffice. Also, God was finding it increasingly difficult to manage his affairs single-handedly. He needed help.
And so, the business of God, Inc. was set up. Sri Sriman Padmanabha Parama Purusham Kalki Swamigal’s right-hand man was none other than his old Hindi poetry and Elocution coach, Premchand Devlal. To him fell the task of answering all the letters from the Hindi-speaking parts of the country. Joyfully, he replied to each and every letter. In poetry. Florid, long-winded, passionate poetry, perfect for communicating the message of God. His letters were cherished by all who received them. Often, they were framed and hung in prayer-rooms and temples. After so many fruitless decades, here was the reward he had fantasized so much about - his poetry, reaching the far corners of the country, to a wider audience than he had ever hoped for in his wildest dreams.
Paddu’s father was yanked out of retirement and put to work managing the accounts. For the first time in his life he was doing something he felt was useful and he had never been happier. Rajammal was kept busy from morning till night, organizing meals for the vast hordes that descended to be blessed by Sri SPPPKS. She had her own supervisor and accountant for the meals business. Aunts and uncles, who had suffered silently through years of Paddu’s performances, humbly offered their help. They asked for a mere pittance as monetary compensation, as long as they were acknowledged as God’s relatives, and had their meals taken care of.
Money and gifts rained in from all over. A wealthy follower decided that the horse, Devadutta, was not a suitable means of transportation for the Lord. Yes, he had arrived on Earth on it, as he was supposed to, but nowhere was it mentioned that He had to continue traveling on it. Devadutta was quietly sold off, and Sri SPPPKS was provided with a brand new, leather-upholstered, top-of-the-line music system-fitted Mercedes Benz SL500. The blessings the follower got for this far outweighed the cost. Not to be outdone, another wealthy follower bought the Lord a beautiful, fully-furnished house near the beach. An enormous 5,000-seat auditorium was built next to the house, where a variety of seminars and retreats were held. These were booked weeks, then months in advance.
Additional personnel were hired to deal with the deluge. Premchand Devlal now directed a large staff of formerly jobless poets. Rajammal, her husband, and the aunts and uncles now each had their own managers and staff, and promoted themselves to Directors and Presidents of the enterprise. Sri SPPPKS was left untroubled by the mundane workings of his empire, and concentrated all his energies on being the best God he could be.
It was another typically busy evening. In his packed-to-overflowing air-conditioned auditorium, Sri SPPPKS was holding forth on How to Improve your Inner Being to an adoring audience which hung on to every word. When he finished, they urged him to continue speaking, so blessed and inspired were they by hearing his words. So Sri SPPPKS launched on a discourse about Energizing Human Emotions. While he spoke, Rajammal slipped into the auditorium accompanied by Premchand Devlal. She sank heavily into a soft seat reserved for the top management. It had been an exhausting day. Listening to her son, she began to relax. She turned and smiled at Premchand Devlal. A memory came to her, of a day many years ago, the day she first met Premchand Devlal. And she remembered the vision she had had then: her Paddu, standing on a stage in front of a vast and adoring audience who hung on to his every word and urged him to keep going. Her Paddu, blessing and inspiring thousands.
Life, as the Mother of God, was good.
(C) Kamini Dandapani