Nanavalli was a unique and intriguing Sai Baba devotee, who called himself the "General
of Sai Baba's army". His background and history are shrouded in as much mystery
as Sai Baba's, and he was notorious for his erratic and eccentric behaviour. Some
people were afraid of this man - not only would he carry snakes in his pockets and
scorpions in his mouth, but he would violently abuse and attack certain people for
no apparent reason. Others felt him to be a mahatma, with an outstanding love for
Sai Baba. His appearance was wild and dishevelled - sometimes he went naked and
sometimes he dressed in old sacking. If we investigate the life of Nanavalli, we
uncover a tale of touching and inspiring devotion, and a model of vairagya (dispassion).
Accounts of Nanavalli's background vary. One says that he was a Brahmin by birth
and another that he was born into a Muslim family. Some-times he wore the clothes
of a Muslim fakir, and at others those of a Hindu sadhu. Thus again like Baba, his
religious roots were ambiguous. However, both versions agree that as a small boy
Nanavalli served in a Muslim dargah and came to attend Baba upon divine inspiration.
Nobody knows when he came to Shirdi, but some say he was already there when Baba
arrived with the wedding party. Upon seeing Baba, Nanavalli greeted him affectionately,
"Oh, Uncle, you have come!" Thereafter, he always addressed Baba as "Mama" or Uncle.
Nanavalli was content to see Baba only occasionally and from a distance, but his
emotion for Baba was such that he felt all glory and greatness should be Baba's
and that none should accrue to himself. He used to say, "My duty is only to protect
Nanavalli could not bear immorality or hypocrisy. He seemed to know devotees' inner
thoughts and target them accordingly. He would sometimes wait outside Baba's mosque
and beat up certain individuals. Though people would rush to Baba and complain,
Baba would never reprimand Nanavalli, but simply warn them to be careful of him.
H. V. Sathe was a prominent devotee with a prestigious job in the colonial government.
For some reason, he was particularly harassed by Nanavalli. During the Chavadi processions,
Sathe had the privilege of carrying a sort of regal sceptre and walking in front
of Baba. On one such occasion Nanavalli attacked Sathe on the back of the neck with
a piece of broken glass. Another time, when Sathe was about to go to the mosque
to worship Baba, his father-in-law rushed in and begged him not to, as Nanavalli
was waiting there with an axe threatening to kill him. Sathe was so afraid that
he fled Shirdi without seeing Baba or getting his permission to leave. That was
in 1916 and he never came back to Shirdi again while Baba was alive.
As Sai Baba's fame grew, he was worshipped with increasing pomp and splendour. One
day Nanavalli strolled into the mosque, which was crowded with visitors, and to
the horror and mortification of those present, demanded of Baba, "Please get up.
I want to sit there!" Baba immediately rose from his seat, saying, "Please sit."
Nanavalli took his place. The devotees were appalled at his audacity and wanted
to drag him away, but when they saw Baba's expression - calm and happy - they desisted.
After a few moments Nanavalli exclaimed, "Shabash!" ("Good, well done!"), prostrated
before Baba and danced ecstatically before leaving. Some say that Nanavalli wished
to test the object of his adoration to see if any egoism had crept in, but others
believe that he harboured no such doubts and simply wanted to demonstrate Baba's
purity and detachment. Baba did not comment on the incident and none dared to ask
him about it.
Nanavalli's attachment to Baba was so great that he used to say, "If Baba goes,
I'll not be around for long." Sure enough, when Baba passed away Nanavalli rushed
to Dwarkamai crying, "Uncle, without you how can I live? I am coming with you!"
With that, he went to the Hanuman Mandir. There he wept grievously and took no food.
Thirteen days later Nanavalli too passed away.