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Building homes the Sathya Sai way: An unbelievable service of love in Trinidad & Tobago
Mrs.Sheila* (*all names mentioned in this article have been changed on request to protect privacy) is a single mother with four daughters - two of them teenagers and the other two in their early twenties - residing all her life on the tiny island country of Trinidad & Tobago. Life has been hard for her ever since her husband left her for another woman after gifting her with four children. But she has not flinched in her duty as a mother because of that. She has fostered her daughters well, educating them and teaching them to always stick to virtues. She has done everything in her capacity to provide as much support for them as possible.
Their house is nothing more than a tin roof over rotting wood planks. Inside, there are flimsy wooden partitions to mark out a bedroom and a kitchen. The bedroom is cramped and crowded with two beds on which the four daughters adjust and sleep. The kitchen has an old washing machine - something that Sheila has managed to purchase to ease her tough life. There are a few dim lights by which the children study and a cat at home which they have adopted from the streets. The entrance door is another wooden plank beyond which is a tiny shrine in which are an array of Hindu gods and goddesses - Vishnu, Lakshmi and the Shiva Linga.
For twenty years Sheila has worked very hard to turn this ramshackle house into a home filled with love and goodness. And now, with age catching up on her, she often gets tired and desperate. All her years of goodness and hard work has only maintained status quo ensuring that the family situation does not get any worse. There has been no improvement in their living conditions or financial situation. But Sheila is positive - she hopes that things will change, now that her daughters are attaining complete adulthood.
The universe always has its ways of rewarding goodness. And it seems to do it with a timing that couldn't have been more perfect! One morning, there is knock on Sheila’s door. That was the knock that changed her life forever because that was Sri Sathya Sai Baba deciding to enter her home and life in reward for her goodness and virtues!
A unique home-building service
It was a fine Thursday morning on the 18th of April, 2013. I woke up at 5 am from a comfortable bed at my host’s home in Tunapuna, Trinidad. I was excited within for I had been invited to a special kind of service activity - home building. I had been told that a team of volunteers headed by the ever-energetic brothers, Mr.Dahal and Mr.Seth (again, names have been changed at the request of the noble volunteers who wish to be anonymous) from the Sri Sathya Sai Seva Organization would be building a home that morning and I was very keen to see how they would build it.
The family that was to receive the home had been carefully chosen by the ‘scout’ team. It was a progressive family which was eager to do well in the journey of life - a family that had been struck by financial woes and yet had not succumbed to the easy alternatives of prostitution, drugs and crime. (By the way, Trinidad has a lot of crime-related incidents and problems). The ‘scout’ team had determined that this was a family, if given a kick-start, would go on to become an ideal family worthy of emulation in all sense of the term. After completing its investigations and preparing an elaborate report, the team had approached the family. In fact, the knock on the door of Sheila’s house was that of this team!
The sorry state of the house...Click thumbnail to view full-size
Sheila and her daughters had been delighted when they were told that, if permitted, a few volunteers would build a home for them in their own backyard. (Land is easy to obtain in Trinidad and almost every family owns at least a small piece of it somewhere on the island.) This would be a strong and well-made home. Would the family be kind enough to gift these volunteers with an opportunity of service?
The answer had been an overwhelming yes and today was the D-Day for the activity to begin. Armed with my camera and excited heart, I set out to the building site.
The difference between a house and a home
As I arrived at the proposed site, the backyard of Sheila’s old house, I saw that there were more than 15 vehicles parked there already. Prominent among them was a supplies truck that had arrived there very early in the morning. With an enthusiastic prayer to Swami (as Sri Sathya Sai is lovingly called by His devotees) and the chanting of the Gayatri mantra the 40 odd volunteers began in right earnest. And at the head of affairs was the ever-effervescent Dahal and silently-working Seth who seemed to be huge reservoirs of positivity and energy. In fact, more than a dozen of these volunteers were employees of a cosmetics chain that Mr.Dahal and Mr.Seth own.
“They (the employees) don’t know no Swami directly”, as a Trinidadian puts it in the typical ‘Trini English’. “But they are fired up by the magical inspiration of their CEO, bosses and owners who dive into service activity with such gusto! While many come to know of service because of their devotion to Baba, these people have become devoted to Baba because of the impact of such home-building service in their lives.”
As I scan the area, I see volunteers from all classes and religions. There are Hindus, Christians and Muslims; Indians, Blacks and Whites; the rich, the middle-class and the poor. And all of them are working together in unloading the frames and structures from the supplies truck, taking them to the site for building. The energy is palpable and efficiency of working is impeccable. The efficiency is the result of experience that has been gathered while building more than 100 such homes till date and the energy is the cause for such a tremendous experience.
The pre-fabricated home or prefab as it is called has been constituted by light and strong materials. A marvel of modern technology, it is storm-proof, fire-proof, heat-resistant, termite-resistant and water-resistant, arriving with a guarantee of at least 25 years life - more if maintained properly. And it can be assembled on site if one has the proper expertise, tools, time and energy. It costs about US $12,500 and is by no means something which is cheap!
In two hours flat, I almost run out of camera battery trying to capture the whirlwind speed with which the prefab comes up! Though a picture is supposed to speak a thousand words, I see that I have taken more than 400 of them with each telling a different aspect of the construction story. It is impossible to present all the angles in a single article and I present a few pictures to give an idea of two magical hours that I witnessed.
A few pictures of the home-buildingClick thumbnail to view full-size
The fifteen minutes following the two hours of hectic activity brought tears to my eyes. These were the minutes that were spent in converting this house into a home. A few boxed were unloaded from the truck and out from them came beds, dressers, drawers, a dining-table set, chairs and cabinets. Then came out the bedspreads, sheets, mattresses, size-selected clothes, tablecloths, curtains, foot mats, groceries for three months and personal care items like combs, soaps, shampoos, deodorants, fabric softeners, make-up, powders, toothpastes, toothbrushes etc. The personal care items would easily suffice for a year and they included everything that one could dream of!
The volunteers went ahead converting the prefab into a living home and in just 15 minutes it was done. I swear that I would be thrilled to live in such a home! I found it hard to photograph this part for my tears made it difficult to see through the lens. It requires one to be so stoic and ‘feeling-less’ if one has to successfully document the magnificence of such an activity and I beg the forgiveness of the reader for having failed to do proper justice to it. But I definitely tried.
Here is how the volunteers changed the house into a home - with Love.Click thumbnail to view full-size
The grand welcome
All this while, Sheila and her daughters had been told to be in their old home and not take a peek. They had no idea of what had happened in their backyard. I entered into their home and could see that they were aware of something magical happening in their life. But they too were oblivious to the magnitude of that magic. I too would be. In fact, I would not have believed all that had happened had I not personally witnessed it (and photographed it too)!
Presently, Mr.Dahal inspected the newly built home and told one of the volunteers to invite the family over.
I rushed ahead of the rest because I was eager to see the reaction of Sheila and her daughters. As I expected, they were simply stunned into a grateful silence. First of all, they did not expect to see a new building ready in just under 3 hours. Even as they had barely recovered from that pleasant shock, they were presented the fully furnished home!
As they walked in Dahal walks up to them and says,
“On behalf of all the volunteers and the Sri Sathya Sai Baba Organization, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for giving us this opportunity to serve. You need not thank anybody but God for this. And we too thank the Lord in you. We do not serve to make God happy. God is happy with us and that is why He blessed us with this chance to serve.”
Seth now tells them,
“The word home has OM in it. OM is God. H stands for heaven and E for earth. HOME is a place where God comes to connect heaven with earth. This is your sanctuary of love now. Keep it free of drugs, alcohol, non-vegetarian food and bad habits. And you girls, do not allow the excitement of being a girlfriend to someone allow you to drift into the role of a wife before being one.”
I am just amazed at the wisdom and simplicity of their words. So are the family members.
“I just don’t know what to say”, the eldest sister speaks as she breaks down,”this blessing has materialized out of nowhere and it just shows that God is there and God knows.”
“For almost the past 10 years, the slightest noise at night has got me so scared as I studied. I would wonder which thief or drunkard or drug addict would be at our door. Now I feel safe and secure. Thank you... Thank you so much”, the youngest sister expresses.
All the while the mother is simply crying. She does not know what to say. But her expression says it all.
“That is all we wish to do”, Dahal tells me much later,"give them an experience of God’s energy and love by kindling the same that is in their hearts. From now on, that energy and their progressive attitude will take care of them. That is why when people come to us and offer money as donations, we do not accept it. We want them to plunge into the service with their hearts and hands. All that we need, Swami gives.”
In fact, that has been the experience. These brothers started selling cosmetics as walking salesmen on the roads about 30 years ago. Even then, inspired by their father and Swami, they started serving the needy. The more they served and gave society, the more society served and gave them. Today, the Sathya Sai Organization of Trinidad & Tobago builds almost 4 homes every month based on the contributions of these brothers and a few other like-minded individuals. They have just concentrated on the service and their business has simply grown to holding 90% market share in the cosmetics industry in the region!
It just stamped into me that if I take care of society, society automatically takes care of me in a much grander fashion!
The grateful family
A memorable session
Soon, everyone assembles and sits in the house. Only the mother is seated on the sofa. We all sing 4 bhajans - one on Ganesha, one on Allah, one on Jesus and one on the main deity at their home altar which is Shiva. The family is simply thrilled and intrigued about the ‘God’ who has uplifted them in a matter of hours. They are given a picture of Swami to satisfy their curiosity and intrigue. Nothing is spoken about Him though. The only true path to Swami is through Self-Enquiry and individual efforts. That part is left to happen between the individual and Swami because nobody can ‘introduce’ or ‘influence’ anyone into Swami.
That aspect also impressed me a lot. Swami says that if one lives His teachings it is sufficient. Nobody needs to do any propaganda on His behalf. And here were these noble people living by that ideal. The concluding part of the ‘handing-over ceremony’ consisted of two conditions:
1. The family will never make efforts to find out the identities of the volunteers for that was not important.
2. The family will live the love and spread it in their own ways to whomsoever they meet in life.
With that, everyone took leave - walked into their vehicles and drove away. That's all!
“We never make contact with that family again because that would mean that our ego is coming up. We leave it to Swami and look forward to the next chance He is going to bestow on us.”
The fitting finale
I could go on and on about several aspects of this service but as I said, one article is too little to cover them all. However, I must share one episode which happened. It seemed as if God had planned that little episode to make a final stamp in my heart that what goes around comes around.
It was the 19th of April, the next day when we were leaving back to India. The three of us were at the Port of Spain airport checking in our luggage. To our dismay, we found that we were about 8 kgs overweight. That would mean a lot of dollars to carry the excess weight to India. Even as we were debating on what to do, a sweet voice comes from behind the desk,
It is the eldest daughter of the family!! She had got this job at the airport just a few days back. And she had the power of jurisdiction to allow excess baggage based on certain quotas! She simply smiled at us, took in the baggage and asked,
We too had the smiles on our face.
“No! That is about it.”
“Here are your boarding passes. Please proceed to your aircraft sir and have a lovely journey.”
There were tears all around and I walked to the security check area, my heart full of His love.
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© 2013 Aravind Balasubramanya