This is a memory from 4 years ago which I have attempted to faithfully reproduce (pun unintended, this is a serious matter).
During this intense period of tribulation in my life, I received precious support and love from several of you – for which I will be eternally grateful.
I am not a religious person and do not believe that there is a God. Yet, I have met Him. Actually, it will be wrong for me to make both assertions.
It’s probably best I start my story at the very beginning.
My father was a devout worshiper of Hanuman and visited our small neighbourhood temple every week. I therefore have an association of Tuesdays with temples, but that was virtually the only ritual I remember being followed in our home. An extra sweet from the temple was the reason for me to join him, which I seldom did since he would in any case bring the temple laddoos home.
The other religious childhood memory that is imprinted in my mind is of the one occasion when I, at age 10, had a high fever. We were on a car trip on vacation, and my father took a route diversion for me to take a dip in the Ganga, the Holy river. Normally, this was a treat for me as a young boy, but feeling feverishly cold that afternoon, I reluctantly approached the water. Miraculously, the immersion made my fever disappear and my father’s faith was vindicated. It is a story he narrated often.
I went on to study Engineering and developed pride in being of a strong scientific bent. When we studied the Big Bang creation of the Universe, I found it rather convenient that Cosmologists introduced the concept of Dark Energy in order to explain anomalies in observable phenomena. To justify mysterious occurrences, my own belief has been in the existence of some superior force. I have stated this emphatically on several occasions through life. So I simply do not know if there is a God. Essentially, I am an agnostic, not so much a non-believer.
My divine encounter took place nearly four years ago. Even though I have hazy memories of the adjacent time period, I remember that night vividly since I spent many hours with not one, but several Gods.
It was at the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur at Montmartre in Paris. A light rain pitter-pattered outside the church. Sporadically, I could see a flash of lightning reflect against the high stained-glass windows illuminating alluring Biblical characters. Each time this happened, I found myself counting down from eight to anticipate the rumble of thunder. While the building was beautiful, the stone walls and floors made it cold and damp.
In the church, I was acting as a chaperone to a group of people huddled in a corner. I recognised them and maintained a reverential distance. The congregation was small and consisted of a woman in white along with three men. The lady was Mother Mary. One of the men was Jesus Christ and the other the prophet Mohammed. There shone a bright light behind the fourth person so I could not see his face. But to me, it was clear that it was Lord Ganesh, the Hindu elephant God. I bowed towards him with folded hands and under my breath whispered “Namaste”. I was in the midst of a Trinity from across religions, who seemed to be in a conference.
I could not hear their complete conversation, but heard Mary proclaim, softly but firmly, “I am the one who is really in charge”. There was a quiet nod of acceptance from Jesus, who was standing beside her. I realised she was addressing him and seemed oblivious to my presence. Meanwhile, Mohammed was bending over a bench and purposefully arranging some things inside his cloth bundle, and tying it together. Lord Ganesh seemed to be playfully engaged in some task with what looked to be clay, almost like playdough. All of them seemed harmonious and comfortable in a group, while doing their own thing. I was quiet, submissive and very observant, fully alert.
The building had giant wooden doors, which swung open noiselessly and with ease. The floor at the entrance was wet. I was worried that the large marble slabs could be perilously slippery. From time to time, I would rush to mop the floor and squeeze the water into a metallic bucket, that made a clanging noise which would echo and disturb the peace of the Romano-Byzantine structure.
At the doorway, a small crowd of eager gazers and onlookers was slowly but surely building up. The first few people were probably those seeking refuge from the inclement weather and others religiously followed them to the shelter. I felt responsible that I had to manage the situation in case it got out of hand. While the spectators were curious, they did not have the concrete knowledge that I did – that there were divine entities present that evening and I was the chosen one to look after them.
I took the initiative to go to the entrance and address the congregating observers to inform them that the church was closed at night-time. I politely asked them to depart since the storm had abated and they needed to venture back out.
I decided to be prudent and urged the divinities to move a bit inside the building. This somewhat shielded them from the front door by a big marble staircase, a double helical structure in the centre of the large hall. They gathered their meagre belongings as I guided them in a procession to the rear. Through the night, I remained active scurrying around the church, ready to serve and please as asked. I was brimming with a sense of excitement and importance.
The ambience remained serene and peaceful so, after a few hours, I settled myself over some gunny sacks on the floor in a corner. The hard floor strangely felt cozy and comfortable. I guess I was exhausted and overwhelmed by all the activity. I closed my eyes.
A few hours later, light on my face woke me, in a strange place that felt, instantly, nothing like the church. I seemed to be reclining at an angle and as I opened my eyes, I saw my wife Gauri bending over me with a rather anxious look on her face. She put her hand gingerly on my face. She had tears streaming down her face, but she was also beaming.
“What was going on?” I thought, very confused.
I noticed a huge bandage on my head. I was in a hospital bed with lots of tubes and wires protruding from my body. There was a nurse by my side, checking my blood pressure. Another was adjusting a drip by my bedside, which suddenly made me feel very thirsty. To my shock, I realised that I could not sit up or even move. People in the room seemed to look at me strangely.
I heard Gauri say to me “Thank God you’re back!” and thought I detected a tinge of anger in her tone.
“Why was she scolding me? Back from where?” As a maelstrom of thoughts swirled through my head, I heard her continue, this time in a more gentle voice. “You had a stroke and have been in a coma for a week… thank God you are back.”
Stunned and in a very weak voice, I attempted to whisper “Yes, I met God”.
As I tried to continue to speak, I realised that I was not coherent. I could not feel anything on the right side of my face and my speech was slurred. But I wanted to tell her everything about my encounter. Gauri knew that I never had any innate desire to meet God. She would help me understand why they came to me.
For the next half hour, with a combination of charades and staccato speech, I endeavored to narrate the events of the previous night, but without much success. I was frustrated by my inability to be expressive and articulate.
I could recall the migraine on that fateful Sunday afternoon a week ago, when I had my stroke. We had attributed the nausea to an unusually early and heavy dinner of mutton curry. By 8 pm, I had begun to vomit and thought I had ejected the problem from the system, so it would be fine. But the headache had got worse. My last memory was of me lying down in my bed at home, sweating and writhing in discomfort.
My monthly chemotherapy cycles, as part of my treatment for Lymphoma, had been ongoing for 5 months. That Sunday, I had been preparing for my penultimate cycle to begin the next morning. Mutton was an essential part of my protein-rich diet in the week before each cycle. After all, I needed to build reserves of strength before another onslaught of the drugs infusion battered my body. I liked to call it ‘fattening the lamb before the slaughter’. Given how sick I frequently had felt since chemotherapy started, we didn’t think the headache was unusual. But this time was different.
Gauri narrated her dreadful memory on how the worsening headache had led me to black-out and collapse on our bedroom floor at around 10 pm. She happened to have been on the telephone with the oncologist at that moment to update him, and immediately dialed for an ambulance. I can only wonder how they carried me two floors down our bungalow staircase, to rush me to the National University Hospital (NUH), nearest to our residence, as per protocol. A 6 hour long brain surgery followed, which saved my life. It was a week later when I uttered my first words, about meeting God.
For the next three weeks, I remained in ICU. I was very weak, with low blood counts, since the stroke had virtually destroyed my immunity and body functions, already enfeebled by chemotherapy. In these weeks, hospital nurses were so much a part of my life, and their white uniform gave me flashbacks of my meeting with Mother Mary.
I underwent daily physiotherapy, speech therapy, visits from neurosurgeons, my oncologist and a host of other medical professionals, who were all very caring, concerned and professional. Gradually, my ingestion improved from liquid to semi-solid food, I gained some strength and was moved out of ICU into a regular hospital room.
Gauri knew I was eager to communicate and share my divine encounter with her in detail. I had made several unsuccessful attempts, but it was only when I got out of ICU that I was coherent enough to tell her my story of the night in Montmartre. While I was muddled, I estimated that my rendezvous had most likely happened on the night of my brain surgery.
As we talked, Gauri helped with several insightful observations. The first time I had tried to narrate the story, I had been incoherent but repeatedly named Ganpathy for Lord Ganesh and also ‘Rasool’ to refer to Prophet Mohammed. She insisted then, as she does today, that I was unaware that ‘Rasool’ was the Prophet’s name. It is a rarely used reference for Him, though it may be common knowledge to practicing devout Muslims and Islamic scholars.
She also noted that the one time I had been at Montmartre was in 2010, on a family vacation during Easter school holidays. The weather then had indeed been cold and rainy. She recalled that we had spent several hours that Easter Sunday morning touring the Basilica, that I had been insistent we return to the site after sunset, so we had our dinner in the neighbourhood. My detailed description of the church was faithfully reproduced from that memory.
The several weeks spent in hospital remains a blur. Several close friends and family visited me. While I did have long, animated and hearty conversations, they later observed that I would quickly forget these interactions and greet returning visitors afresh to repeat earlier conversations. They were patient with me but I must have been a real bore.
The vision of that fateful night remains crystal clear in my mind even today, four years later. It’s not that I have repeated the story several times. Besides telling Gauri in great detail, I have narrated this momentous episode briefly to my mother and to one of our three daughters. This has not been a deliberate act, but I have, for some reason, refrained from talking about it. In the past, I was aware of people sharing their out-of-body experiences and used to be quite disbelieving, almost dismissive of these stories. But now that I have myself been ‘to the other side’, I am rather bemused and often mull over my experience. I did not ever think that such a divine encounter would happen to me. But neither did I ever believe that I would be diagnosed with cancer, to be followed shortly by an aneurysm induced paralytic stroke.
With these recent experiences, it is easy to reflect on the vicissitudes of life. Dark energy may indeed be playing a powerful mysterious role to control observable events , and we do encounter the Superior Force in the shape and form of familiar persona. The question comes back to haunt me periodically: “Did I have a meeting with the Creator or had my addled brain created the meeting?!” I guess I will never know the answer for sure, but I don’t really care. I feel blessed just to be around.
In a month, I was allowed to leave the hospital for home in a wheelchair. As I slid into our car seat, my eyes went to the dashboard where Lord Ganpathy sat cross-legged, as protector of our family. The Elephant God, Ganpathy, can be found in several Hindu homes and symbolises safeguarding us from life’s obstacles. My wife has always kept a large collection of small statues of Ganesh, as he is fondly called, at home. Every car we have owned over thirty years has had Ganesh majestically adorning its dashboard.