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The Swamiji of Bangalore's "Silicon Plateau"
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Date: Mon Dec 23, 2002 8:13 pm
Subject: top UN official Shashi Tharoor on Sai Baba,
International Herald Tribune, Old mantras and new software
side by side, December 3, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The International Herald Tribunehttp://www.iht.com
Information on Shashi Tharoor http://www.shashitharoor.com
Old mantras and new software side by side
By Shashi Tharoor - Tuesday, December 3, 2002
BANGALORE, India: I made separate trips from Bangalore recently that
revealed, within a span of 48 hours, two different but related facets of
India. Late one night I set out on a four-hour drive with my mother to the
well-lit and orderly town of Puttaparthi in Andhra Pradesh.
Buildings gleamed white against the streetlights; the sidewalks, patrolled
by volunteers even at that hour, seemed freshly scrubbed. Puttaparthi, once
a humble village like so many others, had become a boomtown as the
birthplace and headquarters of the spiritual leader Sathya Sai Baba.
A private audience with the ocher-robed guru was astonishing at several
levels. Sai Baba uttered insights about my family and myself that he could
not possibly have known.
He has a habit, disconcerting at first, of turning his palm quizzically
outward and staring off into the distance, as if silently interrogating an
unseen, all-knowing source.
Sometimes he scribbles in the air with a finger as if dashing off a note to
a celestial messenger.
Then he says things which are by turns banal or profound, and sometimes both
(if only because so much of what he says has become worn out by repetition
and frequent quotation, including in signs on the streets outside). Most
startling, he materializes gifts from thin air - in my case a gold ring with
nine embedded stones. He slipped it on my finger, remarking, "See how well
it fits. Even a goldsmith would have needed to measure your finger."
My mother, a longtime devotee, received a little silver urn overflowing with
vibhuti, or sacred ash.
"It was as if he had heard what I wanted," she said. But a skilled magician
can do that, and it would be wrong to see Sai Baba as a conjurer. He has
channeled the hopes and energies of his followers into constructive
directions, both spiritual and philanthropic.
Everything at his complex is staffed by volunteers who rotate through
Puttaparthi at well-organized two-week intervals. Many left distinguished
positions behind. The free hospital in Puttaparthi is one of the best in
India; many leading doctors volunteer their services. Sai Baba has built
schools and colleges, and is now involved in a project to bring irrigation
to a number of parched southern districts.
The next day I drove from Bangalore in a different direction, to the campus
of Infosys, India's leading computer technology company. It, too, wore the
clean and scrubbed look I had seen at Puttaparthi. But there were no temples
here, no pavilions thronged with devotees.
Instead, escorted by the affable chief executive, Nandan Nilekani, I saw the
world's leading software museum, a state-of-the-art teleconference center,
classrooms with sophisticated video equipment and a work environment that
could not be bettered in any developed country. Infosys is a world leader in
information technology. It provides services in consulting, systems
integration and applications to some of the biggest companies in the world.
Its 13,000 staff members, known in the company's argot as "Infoscions," work
in more than 30 offices around the world. In Bangalore, they sit amidst
lush, landscaped greenery dotted with pools, recharge themselves at an
ultramodern gym, display their creativity at a company art gallery and enjoy
a choice of nine food courts for their lunchtime snacks.
I marveled at the sophistication and affluence visible in every square inch
of the campus.
"We wanted to prove," Nandan explained, "that this could be done in
Sai Baba and Infosys are both facets of 21st century India. One produces
rings out of the ether and urges people to be better human beings; the other
deals in a different form of virtual reality and helps human beings to
better themselves. One runs free hospitals and schools; the other seeks to
bring the benefits of technology to a country still mired in millennial
In the 1950s, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru declared dams and factories to
be "the new temples of modern India." What he failed to recognize was that
the old temples continued to maintain their hold on the Indian
The software programs of the information technology companies dotting
Bangalore's "Silicon Plateau" may be the new mantras of India, but they
supplement, rather than supplant, the old mantras. Sai Baba and Infosys are
emblematic of an India that somehow manages to live in several centuries at
On our way out of Puttaparthi my mother and I talked to a devotee who was
lining up to buy a packet of vibhuti to take home with him.
"What do you do?" I asked.
"I am," he replied proudly, a cell phone glinting in his shirt pocket, "a
project manager at Infosys."
Shashi Tharoor's most recent novel is "Riot." He contributed this comment to
the International Herald Tribune.
Copyright © 2002 The International Herald Tribune http://www.iht.com
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