By Steve Klein
Bal Natu never considered himself one of the mandali. In the 1940s Baba wrote him that, like Eruch, he could come to see Him any time he was free and did not need to come as part of a group. At the time, Bal didn’t even know who Eruch was or understand that this comparison signified great intimacy and acceptance on Baba’s part.
In the late 1950s and 60s, Bal, who was a school teacher, would spend his summer vacation in Guru Prasad staying with Baba and the very small handful of men mandali who were there (Eruch, Pendu, Bhau, Aloba, Francis and often Nana Kher). After retiring from his teaching post, Bal came to live permanently at Meherazad.
Even so, he would talk about the “mandali” with tremendous respect and made it clear that he did not put himself in that category. In later years, when Bal reflected on his life, and went through some of his earlier correspondence, he saw how, in so many ways, Baba had continually reached out to make him feel more at ease in His presence, and less self conscious about belonging there. This made Bal even more appreciative of Baba’s compassionate love but, if possible, even more reticent about his own worth. Often, when I would be typing something for Bal in the “record room,” he might encourage me to go into the hall to listen to Eruch because he felt that was much more important than doing something for him.
Bal’s manner was almost always rather diffident. When accepting offers of help, he would be sure to tell them they should do something only if they had the time, and if they didn’t have anything else to do, and if they really wanted to help, and if there was nothing that any of the mandali wanted them to do, and if it wasn’t a bother, and so on. And Bal was always incredibly appreciative of any work done for him, and wouldn’t hesitate to express this–telling anyone who would listen about what a hard worker you were because you had typed a letter for him, or managed to put three pieces of paper together with a paper clip.
But this did not mean that it was always easy to work with Bal. In his own self-deprecating way, Bal had very definite ideas about how things should be done. And he was always most meticulous about any work he undertook. One time as the Amartithi circulars were being readied for mailing, Bal showed my wife Daphne how to put a stamp on a circular. Daphne was bemused by this, thinking that she did, after all, know how to stamp an envelope, and with thousands of circulars to do, it seemed important to do it quickly. But she was chastened when Bal continued, “Baba showed Eruch how to do this, and Eruch showed me and now I’m showing you.” Because the circulars were coming from Baba’s place, it mattered that each stamp should be put on with care and perfectly aligned.
This attitude carried over into everything Bal did for Baba which sounds like a wonderful thing, but meticulous can sometimes be a subjective judgment, which made helping him something of an ordeal at times. Most famously, with the Meherazad bookcases.
Each year, Bal would decide to take all the books out of the display cases in Mandali Hall, dust everything thoroughly and then arrange the books in a more pleasing manner. Each year, Bal would have to find someone new to help him because who ever had done it the year before would tend to turn white and stammer when it was even suggested that they might want to do it again. Strong pilgrims would confidently accept the challenge and then, a few days later, you would see them, sitting by themselves on the veranda with a haunted look about their eyes, clutching their tea cups in both hands, muttering to themselves and starting at the slightest noise.
The first day of the work invariably went well. You took out all the books, dusted them, and then carefully put them back just as they had been. Bal would come in, look at the cabinet and beam with pleasure and compliment you on what a good job you had done. But then, after some period of time, Bal would approach, hesitantly and say, ”I’ve been thinking about it, and I wonder if it wouldn’t look better, if the books were arranged in order of their height.”
So you would take everything out and rearrange the titles by height. Again Bal would be effusive in his praise and gratitude but, this time, it didn’t take as long before Bal decided that that didn’t quite work, and that maybe you needed to separate the books by color as well. And of course, after that, it suddenly made sense to keep the books by Baba on a different shelf from the books about Baba, and then there were the books by Baba people but not necessarily about Baba, and poetry was always tricky and . . . This would go on for several days. Each time you thought you were done, you would inevitably find that Bal had a new idea, “Only if you have the time and wouldn’t mind. If you can’t do it, I’ll get someone else.” And so you would plunge back into the fray. Most people eventually gave up, making some excuse to get out of the job. I have to admit, that I too pleaded some other pressing work and left the cabinets before they achieved perfection in Bal’s eyes.
But, in so doing, I made the classic mistake a lot of Westerners made when working with the mandali. We tended to think that ”good enough” was good enough whereas for them, only pleasing Baba was good enough. We sometimes thought efficiency was important but they were only concerned about doing it well. And when we concentrated on doing something well, we mistakenly focused on the end result whereas they cared as much about how the work was done, as the final achievement. Or as Mani explained once, Baba work is the work Baba does on you when you think you’re doing Baba work. I think Baba did a lot of work using Bal and the Meherazad book cases; I wish, though, that I had been able to appreciate that more at the time.