Symbols of the world's religions



William Donkin

This delightful fifth plane mast is interesting, not only because of his many contacts with Baba, but also because he is a perfect example of the jamali type of mast. Despite his passion for cigarettes, his blandness, his docility, and his superficially doll-like appearance, he possesses an utterly disarming and childlike quality of simplicity. This simplicity is no factitious pose, but is an intrinsic quality in him to which Baba has so often drawn our attention, that it is, perhaps, an outer measure of the stature of his inner grace.

Ali Shah came to Ahmadnagar about 25 years ago [1923], in the company of another mast, each carrying a small pitcher in their hands. On the day of their arrival they settled in the Sarjepura Dharmashala, and after a few days the other mast departed, and has never been seen since in Ahmadnagar.

Ali Shah, who during these first few days had sat in a corner, now came and occupied a space in the centre of the dharmashala. After some months people began to respect him, and those who felt inclined would sing before him, while others of a more homely nature would see to his material needs.

In later years, Ali Shah became the especial pet of motor-bus drivers, since, when the running of public buses began to be a profitable line of business in Ahmadnagar, the terminus of many of the various services was a dusty, open space near the dharmashala where Ali Shah lived.

The bus drivers and conductors in India are generally a rough crowd, for the exigencies of their service are such that they must sleep one night in one village, and the next night in another. Their conventions are not often those of a respectable householder, and their metier is, therefore, held in disrepute.

But, if their morals are doubtful, their hearts are good, and many of the most boorish ruffians have a tender streak for saintly personalities. It was by such men that Ali Shah was particularly held in reverence, and in this context one recalls how the publicans and sinners consorted with Christ, but the priests plotted to have Him crucified.

I find myself at a loss to do full justice to Ali Shah, because, like the stories of all placid people, there is so little to tell. He loves, best of all, to be in a room, to sit on a chair if he can, and to smoke, smoke, and smoke, all day long.

His gestures are perfectly those of a jamali mast; he makes odd signs in the air, on the ground, or on his thigh, as if he were writing something in imaginary letters, but in an indistinct and abbreviated way.

He mumbles a little to himself, and if asked a question he first pauses for a few seconds, as if considering his reply, and then, to your chagrin, he repeats your question word for word, as if it were merely rhetorical, not needing an answer.

His voice is gentle, soft, and kind, and he breaks into a quiet smile as he speaks, though the purport of his words is lost to ordinary mortals. His favourite phrase is to repeat mutations of the moods and tenses of the verb bolna (to speak), and runs something like this:

"Bolta tha, bolneko laga, bola wuh ke...."

This might mean anything, but its approximate translation is, "He was speaking, he began to speak, he actually spoke...."

I remember him once standing in front of Baba in Mahabaleshwar, and saying, "Bolenge, bolenge, lekin kab bolenge malum nahin (He will speak, he will speak, but when he will speak I don't know).

Perhaps these words referred to the breaking of Baba's silence, but like other obiter dicta of most masts, they might be interpreted in almost any way....

November-December 1992
Excerpted from THE WAYFARERS


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