BOOK EXCERPT

Bhaiyyuji Maharaj was an influential political figure, with a large following in Bollywood too

An excerpt from a profile, published in 2016, of the religious leader who committed suicide on June 12 at the age of 50.

Buffed, polished, tinted to pink and white sleekness, absurdly young and matinee-idolish, Bhaiyyuji Maharaj appears more top-grade Tollywood fodder than spiritual preceptor to the rich and powerful of western and central India. His conspicuous presence in May 2014 at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in came as no surprise. He had already gained entry to the exclusive club of invitees who had witnessed Modi take oath as chief minister of Gujarat for a historic fourth term in December 2012.

How does a relatively unknown godman, from a tier two city called Indore in Madhya Pradesh, rate a place among the movers and shakers of government? The who’s who of contemporary politics stuck on the walls of his ashram, look like the standard collection of promotional photo-ops. But by all accounts, he is the real thing, an intimate of many of the mechanically- smiling big leaguers on display. He may not rule over a global empire in patented spiritual products, peddle Ayurvedic concoctions or maintain a prominent media profile, but he wields an influence all out of proportion with the size of his following.

As ashrams go, his is postage-stamp sized, set in the middle of a busy locality in Indore. It is a rabbit warren of haphazardly put-together rooms leading into each other, with walls festooned in religious and patriotic iconography. Bhaiyyuji has little use for real estate. “Every home is an ashram,” he philosophises.

His disdain for architectural opulence may lead one to presume a commitment to asceticism. No such thing.

His everyday turnout may comprise a simple kurta-pyjama of a whiteness matching his perfect teeth, free of the embellishment de rigueur in these Bollywood-inspired times, but the material is hand-spun khadi with a thread count to die for. For transport, he prefers high-end SUVs, often self-driven. While holding court at home, he is perfectly at ease on a Bal Thackeray-inspired throne-and-footstool, with devotees clustering around him adoringly.

He balks at the idea of anyone diving for his feet. “If you wish to honour me, plant a tree and worship it,” he tells his devotees, who satisfy their need to display love and humility by prostrating themselves instead, at a discreet distance from his buttery-soft leather sandals. You meet him on a first-come-first-served basis; there are no VIP lines. He explains why.

“As a kid, I used to go to temples and notice two separate lines there. One for people like us (the well off) and one for the poor. This distinction between the so-called VIPs and the general public made me uncomfortable. I used to wonder why, in the house of god, people weren’t equal, that there was this kind of discrimination. Just as all children are equal in the eyes of their parents, so should they be in the eyes of god.”

A noble sentiment, but one which sits a shade awkwardly on a guru who gives darshan on an opulent chair reminiscent of a prop from the Mahabharata set.

The annoyance with VIP culture at god’s doorstep segued into a concern for social justice. “From childhood up, I have had a problem with social inequity. I’ve been against an exploitative caste and class-based society. Those who have not benefitted from Independence, those who have not come into the mainstream or gotten justice, should. Freedom means the right of equality and when faith too talks of equality, why should I not use faith or dhamma as an instrument to achieve it?”

Bhaiyyuji doesn’t care to visit temples.

Religion, in his book, is for making society better and not for deriving individual satisfaction through rituals. The ground floor of his ashram, however, houses his favourite deities: Kalka Mata, Surya Bhagwan and Dattatreya, worshipped by members of the Nath community, to which he belongs.


Every night, after 10 pm, he adjourns to his unpretentious home, where he lives with his ailing mother (his father died in April 2014). His wife, Madhavi Nimbalkar and daughter, Kuhoo, lived in Pune until the former passed away in 2015. Through most of his adult life, he has been simultaneously a grihastha (householder) and a sanyasi. A peculiar circumstance, owing perhaps to the fact that Bhaiyyuji was married off at a very early age, a seer having told his mother that if he did not tie the knot as soon as he came of age, he would remain single all his life. Besides, the constant influx of visitors and his own erratic schedule made it hard to run a normal household.

But was it a normal marriage? “Initially, she (Bhaiyyuji’s wife) did not like all this santgiri (preoccupation with sainthood),” confided one of the guru’s associates. And is he a good father or indifferent considering he has a large brood to care for? Bhaiyyuji is like any other father, and proud of his little girl. “She works at orphanages and old age homes, attends community marriages.”

Cluttered with the usual middle-class kitsch, his home is generic marble and distemper, unremarkable but for the throne and footstool in the living room.

The usual gaggle of businessmen, journalists and hangers-on occupy every available seating space. Among them is a tall, hefty, dark, bearded man with smouldering good looks and a curiously gentle aspect. He introduces himself as Milind Gunaji, actor. Not quite an A-lister in Bollywood, Gunaji made news when he was paired with Playboy girl Sherlyn Chopra in the film Kamasutra 3D.

Gunaji is a die-hard devotee and doesn’t care who knows it. “I met him (Bhaiyyuji) through Uddhav Thackeray and he made an immediate impression. Shortly after that, I saw him again at the wedding of Ravi Pawar (nephew of Sharad Pawar, former chief minister of Maharashtra and now chief of Nationalist Congress Party or NCP). I looked at him and all at once, I knew that my search for a guru had ended. He called me to Indore. It was as if he had read my mind. He was aware that I had hungered for a guru and very matter-of-factly told me, ‘I am he!’”

In the Bollywood world of make-believe and extreme insecurities, Bhaiyyuji keeps him stable and grounded. “He is nurturing, like a mother. When I am with him, I feel a surge of inner peace. He reads me like a book and knows all the stuff I thought only I knew. He has a knack for knowing what’s going on with you,” says Gunaji. “Surrender to the guru means always being on call,” – regardless of his busy schedule, the actor invariably responds to summons.

Bhaiyyuji has hosted many other members of the film industry, according to his crew: Madhur Bhandarkar, Sameera Reddy, Hrishita Bhatt, Vivek Oberoi, Anuradha Paudwal, Anil Kapoor, Ashutosh Rana and Sunil Shetty.

Lata Mangeshkar is a regular visitor to his ashram and supports many of his social initiatives. And there are politicians, sportsmen and others who need advise and comforting from time to time, age notwithstanding: Anna Hazare; the late Vilasrao Deshmukh who is said to have stayed over for a couple of days and helped set up a memorial for Kargil martyrs; Irfan Pathan and Sushil Kumar Shinde.

At one time, it was acknowledged that Bhaiyyuji was extremely close to leaders of the Congress party like former President Pratibha Patil, RR Patil and former Maharashtra PCC chief Ranjit Deshmukh. Senior leader of the Congress party and the scion of the erstwhile principality of Gwalior, Madhav Rao Scindia was believed to have visited Bhaiyyuji Maharaj six months before he passed away in a plane crash.

Bhaiyyuji’s followers have it that he had predicted the elevation of Pratibha Patil as President of India and that of Nitin Gadkari as president of the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP, at which point it became evident that the godman had moved closer to the party, which was then in the opposition. In 2012, with Narendra Modi’s prime ministerial bid still a good two years away, a standoff between him and the then BJP president Nitin Gadkari was reportedly resolved after the former visited Bhaiyyuji’s ashram in Indore. Gadkari then reached out to Modi, acquiesced and the rest, as they say, is history.

Behind Bhaiyyuji’s spiritual persona, it would appear, lay a master negotiator very much at home in the world of politics.

He is said to have used his influence with Uddhav Thackeray to sort out Shiv Sena’s differences with the BJP and advised Narendra Modi during a protracted meeting in Ahmedabad in 2011, to initiate a dialogue with leaders of other parties in the National Democratic Alliance or NDA. When Narendra Modi sat on his three-day “Sadbhavna” fast that year, it was Bhaiyyuji who offered him the traditional nimbu paani (lemon juice) to end the hunger strike. The godman’s proximity to Modi was further established when the former received a condolence letter after the passing of his father in April 2014.

Like most godmen of stature, Bhaiyyuji doesn’t lean overtly towards a particular political party, which doubtless makes him an able negotiator. Despite his proximity to Uddhav, he is in touch with his cousin and bête noire, Raj Thackeray and once even suggested that he could play mediator between the two. Likewise, his closeness to Nitin Gadkari did not prevent him from cultivating a relationship with his arch-rival, the late Gopinath Munde. He also has a line to the NCP leadership, namely Sharad Pawar and Praful Patel. Rumour has it that he tried to persuade Gadkari to stop hammering away at NCP’s Sunil Tatkare, who was then under fire for allegedly siphoning off funds meant for irrigation (a subsequent probe into the scam indicted officials of the irrigation department, but let politicians off the hook).

Bhaiyyuji Maharaj first emerged on the national political stage in 2010, during Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement in Delhi. The primary bone of contention between Anna and the Central government at the time was the drafting of the Jan Lokpal Bill; the social activist from Ralegaon Siddhi had rejected the government’s version and his protest at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan had garnered unprecedented support leaving the government nervous and desirous of a quick resolution to the deadlock.

Meanwhile, some reports in the media said Bhaiyyuji Maharaj had been approached by a senior Cabinet minister to mediate between the two warring factions. The godman’s tactical skills came into play as Union Ministers Salman Khurshid and Kapil Sibal worked on a draft resolution for the government to adopt in Parliament. In Anna Hazare’s camp, there were murmurs of a sellout even as Bhaiyyuji kept the moderate elements in good humour, while keeping BJP president Nitin Gadkari and veteran leader L K Advani from “politicising” the issue. In an interview to Tehelka magazine, Bhaiyyuji said that he had not only studied both the drafts but also secured a rapprochement between the two groups in a meeting between Kapil Sibal and Maharashtra additional chief secretary, Umesh Chandra Sarangi.

Given his pathological disdain for VIP culture, isn’t schmoozing with politicos a touch dissonant, I asked Bhaiyyuji.

He promptly dismissed his role in the negotiations, saying he merely acted as a responsible citizen. Anyhow, Indian mythology is replete with examples of gurus acting as mediators between kings and political factions and on occasion, kings and gods.

Excerpted with permission from Gurus: Stories of India’s Leading Babas, Bhavdeep Kang, Westland.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.