The gambler

Berjis Desai

Every Thursday, around 8.30 p.m. the devotional fervor in the Saibaba temple at Shirdi reaches its peak. A palanquin decorated with marigold flowers carrying a large portrait of the Sufi saint is ready for its weekly procession — a tradition since 1909, and continued after the saint’s transition in 1918. Groups sing bhajans (devotional songs). Several pray that they somehow manage to dart under the lifted palanquin, considered a sign of great blessing. The atmosphere, pregnant with sacredness, is accentuated by the burning of perfumed frankincense.
Suddenly, there is a hushed silence. A tall and robust figure, dressed in the Sufi tradition of a white head band, cotton kurta (long shirt) and lengha (pyjamas), barefooted of course, marches in. His red face glows radiantly. His eyes, sparklingly impressive, are focussed only on the palanquin ahead. Devotees shuffle on either side, to reverentially make way for this personage. Many try to touch his feet. He stands transfixed before the palanquin, as if he is communicating with his Master sitting in the palanquin, visible only to his clairvoyant sight. He bows for a minute. Chaos has subsided into total silence. Then he raises his right hand — a cue for the four temple guards to lift the palanquin on their shoulders to start the procession, amidst shouts of "Shree Satchitananda Sadguru Sainath Maharaj Ki Jai! (Hail Satchitananda Sadguru Sainath Maharaj!)”  As soon as the procession winds its way out of the main temple, he quietly walks out, with a satiated look.

 Illustration by Farzana Cooper


 "Homibaba!” some shout after him. But he is in a different world, until he reaches his little hut-like cottage, a couple of kilometers away from the town center, when his dogs happily break his reverie. Underneath his kurta is the sudreh and kusti, the uniform of the faith he was born into. In a corner of the hut, a diva flickers before a picture of Saibaba, Zarathushtra and Shah-e Faridoon, the great divine healer King of Persia, a country, from where his grandfather migrated to Poona, around 1870.
None of his friends, relatives and neighbors could believe that Homi, the headstrong lad with a short fuse, would be transformed thus. Of course, many thought that there was something different and reclusive in his personality. He barely passed his SSC (Secondary School Certificate) exams, only to do odd jobs for his father and uncles. While wine and women had no attraction for him, he loved to gamble. More out of habit and boredom than a desire to make money. Some said that he had lost in love.
Those days in Bombay, a minor don called Ratan Khatri ran a gambling operation called "Matka” (literally, an earthen pot). Every night Khatri randomly picked a digit from zero to nine, which went viral within minutes by word of mouth and telephone, to every Matka operator in every by-lane of Bombay. Payout was instantly made to those who had correctly guessed the digit of the day. Homi became obsessed with Matka, but seldom got it right.
One afternoon, Homi spotted a small photo of Saibaba lying on the road, very near the Grant Road railway station. Upon an impulse, and not even knowing much about the Shirdi saint, he placed it in his shirt pocket. That night, Homi dreamt that Saibaba smiled at him and said "eight.” It was an early morning dream which Homi vividly recalled. He had no doubt that it was the same old man in the photo who had appeared in his dream.
In the afternoon. Homi gave a fiver to his Matka operator and said, "eight.” The operator was fond of the Parsi youth and told him not to play eight as the digit had appeared two days in a row. Homi hesitated momentarily, and then proceeded to play eight. Next day, he collected the winnings, and told the perplexed operator to again play eight. "Don’t stretch your luck, bhai (brother),” the fellow advised. Homi, relying upon the old man in his dream, confidently played eight. That night, eight was again announced by Khatri, for the fourth day running, something which had never happened before. Having won twice, Homi placed Saibaba’s photo below his pillow. The saint duly appeared in his dream again and said "nine.” Homi wagered all his winnings on nine; and won again. Even the operator quietly started following Homi’s bets. This dream business went on for a week, with 100% success. On the ninth day, the saint asked Homi, "Do you want money or do you want me?” Homi woke up with a dry throat and a pounding heart. His entire consciousness instantly realized the purpose of this incarnation. That evening, the operator anxiously waited for his prized client who never came. Homi was on the train to Manmad, from where he would board a State Transport bus to Shirdi.
Homi knew and recited basic Zoroastrian prayers. However, he did not understand issues of extra religious worship. He knew nothing about Saibaba. However, his parents were disciples of a spiritual master called Meher Baba (formerly, Merwan Sheriar Irani, of Poona), who was known for his extraordinary vow of silence for more than four decades. Homi had learnt from his mother that Meher Baba’s spiritual gurus included the Shirdi Sai and a woman saint of Afghan origin in Poona, called Hazrat Babajaan. When Homi arrived in Shirdi, Meher Baba had already attained transition.
Till his death in 1995, Homi never stepped out of Shirdi. Little is known about his spiritual journey as he kept an extremely low profile. He stayed in this little hut like structure, with many dogs, and cooked his own spartan vegetarian food. No miracles are attributed to him nor did he write books or deliver lectures. If someone came to his hut, he met them for a while. However, at times, if he was not happy reading the aura of the visitor, the door was slammed shut.
Many Parsi visitors were advised by him to recite daily the potent Kem na Mazda prayer. There is so much to gain from agiaries and atash behrams, he would say, that there is no need to seek elsewhere. Gradually, almost like a divine command, Shirdi acknowledged him as an advanced soul, the principal living disciple of Saibaba. Thus began the weekly practice of Homibaba signalling the exact moment when the palanquin should be lifted. Many swore that at that moment they could feel the electrifying divine presence of the Master. Homi was one of those rare cases where spiritual guidance is imparted to a disciple on the path by a Master who is currently not in a physical body.
The hut, now converted into "Homibaba’s ashram” radiates peace from an atmosphere sanctified by decades of penance by a shrewd gambler who had instinctively placed his bet, so correctly, on his Master.

Berjis M. Desai is a lawyer in private practice and a part-time writer. He considers himself an unsuccessful community activist.