My mother is a major follower of the Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi. So, at times, when she gets an opportunity (my absence is a necessary condition for this), she tunes in to the Sai Global Harmony channel on Worldspace, where among other things, they broadcast speeches of the Sai Baba.
Recently I happened to “intrude” when she was listening to one such piece, and I found it extremely interesting. The Sai Baba hasn’t had much formal education (dropped out of school I think), and hence isn’t too fluent with English. However, he is an extremely powerful communicator in his native Gult language, and speaks eloquently – which is quite expected as being a good communicator is a necessary condition to be a spiritual guru, rather to just be a guru.
Now, a large proportion of the Baba’s following are non-Gult, and most can’t even understand Gult, so the only way they can be reached out to is by means of an interpreter. So, the Baba employs an interpreter, who stands next to him while delivering the speech, and translates. It is this feature that makes the whole thing quite interesting.
When I first listened to the interpreter, I was reminded of Miss Lingo Leela (of radio city fame). In terms of the accent I mean. Just like Lingo Leela, he uses long and complicated Raj-hangover English words, and from his accent it seems as if he’s trying to spoof someone else’s accent. The second interesting thing about the whole process is that translation is done line by line.
The Baba speaks a sentence, and then pauses, and waits for his interpreter to interpret it. And then he speaks the next sentence, and so forth. I’m amazed that the Baba manages to deliver such good and coherent speeches (i haven’t listened to any of them in full, but he wouldn’t have had this following if they weren’t good) in spite of the constant, and forced interruptions. Of course, I’m assuming here that he speaks extempore.
What’s even better is that the interpreter tries to match the Baba even in terms of tone. If the Baba raises his voice, so does the interpretor. If the Baba talks in a high pitch, the interpreter follows the same. A good way of looking at it is like the “tani avartanam” played at the end of carnatic concerts where two percussionists jam, each trying to match up to the other. However, if you don’t have context, and are hearing it for the first time, it does sound like two guys fighting – the interpretations I mean. And given that the interpreter uses such complicated English, I don’t expect you to understand the thing immediately, and I’ll forgive you if you do think they are fighting!
Coming to other things, I’m amazed that the Baba has such a widespread following. His ashram in Puttaparthi is supposed to be the second richest religious institution in India, after the temple at Tirupati. He has a huge following especially in Europe, even though I’m not sure if he has really traveled there. Given that a large number of followers don’t speak his language, and he doesn’t speak theirs, and that he has a comical interpreter, it is indeed extremely intriguing!