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Chapter 20
He was a Sufi, a Muslim mystic. He sought fana, union withGod, and his relationship with God was personal and loving. "Ifyou take two steps towards God," he used to tell me, "Godruns to you!"He was a very plain-featured man, with nothing in his looksor in his dress that made memory cry hark. I'm not surprisedI didn't see him the first time we met. Even when I knew himvery well, encounter after encounter, I had difficulty recognizinghim. His name was Satish Kumar. These are common namesin Tamil Nadu, so the coincidence is not so remarkable. Still, itpleased me that this pious baker, as plain as a shadow and ofsolid health, and the Communist biology teacher and sciencedevotee, the walking mountain on stilts, sadly afflicted with polioin his childhood, carried the same name. Mr. and Mr. Kumartaught me biology and Islam. Mr. and Mr. Kumar led me tostudy zoology and religious studies at the University of Toronto.
Mr. and Mr. Kumar were the prophets of my Indian youth.
We prayed together and we practised dhikr, the recitation ofthe ninety-nine revealed names of God. He was a hafiz, onewho knows the Qur'an by heart, and he sang it in a slow,simple chant. My Arabic was never very good, but I loved itssound. The guttural eruptions and long flowing vowels rolledjust beneath my comprehension like a beautiful brook. I gazedinto this brook for long spells of time. It was not wide, justone man's voice, but it was as deep as the universe.
I described Mr. Kumar's place as a hovel. Yet no mosque,church or temple ever felt so sacred to me. I sometimes cameout of that bakery feeling heavy with glory. I would climb ontomy bicycle and pedal that glory through the air.
One such time I left town and on my way back, at a pointwhere the land was high and I could see the sea to my leftand down the road a long ways, I suddenly felt I was inheaven. The spot was in fact no different from when I hadpassed it not long before, but my way of seeing it hadchanged. The feeling, a paradoxical mix of pulsing energy andprofound peace, was intense and blissful. Whereas before theroad, the sea, the trees, the air, the sun all spoke differently tome, now they spoke one language of unity. Tree took accountof road, which was aware of air, which was mindful of sea,which shared things with sun. Every element lived inharmonious relation with its neighbour, and all was kith andkin. I knelt a mortal; I rose an immortal. I felt like the centreof a small circle coinciding with the centre of a much largerone. Atman met Allah.
One other time I felt God come so close to me. It was inCanada, much later. I was visiting friends in the country. Itwas winter. I was out alone on a walk on their large propertyand returning to the house. It was a clear, sunny day after anight of snowfall. All nature was blanketed in white. As I wascoming up to the house, I turned my head. There was a woodand in that wood, a small clearing. A breeze, or perhaps it wasan animal, had shaken a branch. Fine snow was falling throughthe air, glittering in the sunlight. In that falling golden dust inthat sun-splashed clearing, I saw the Virgin Mary. Why her, Idon't know. My devotion to Mary was secondary. But it washer. Her skin was pale. She was wearing a white dress and ablue cloak; I remember being struck by their pleats and folds.
When I say I saw her, I don't quite mean it literally, thoughshe did have body and colour. I felt I saw her, a visionbeyond vision. I stopped and squinted. She looked beautiful andsupremely regal. She was smiling at me with loving kindness.
After some seconds she left me. My heart beat with fear andjoy.
The presence of God is the finest of rewards.


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