Review: Godman to Tycoon by Priyanka Pathak-Narain
Priyanka Pathak-Narain’s book about one of India’s most successful gurus is a quick and interesting read
There he was on television, sometime in the first decade of the century when spiritual channels were just beginning to be popular. He smiled widely as his stomach rapidly heaved in and out to wild cheers from the crowd. The sight was comic and also slightly revolting. What was the man doing and why was he so cheerful about it, you wondered as you switched to another channel featuring a godman with hazel eyes, much abstract makeup on his brow, zodiac signs swirling in the background. He wasn’t as compelling and after flipping through an assortment of Christian pastors yelling about fire and brimstone, Islamic preachers holding forth sonorously in Arabic, scheming daily soap mothers-in-law, and madly twerking dancers on music channels, you were back to the cheerful baba, who was now standing on his head, exposing his hairy armpits to the world. There was something about his unassuming manner, his earthy humour, and his instant connect with the crowd that yelled ‘star’. Soon you hear of venerable older relatives starting their day with Ramdev’s televised asanas, even as their conversations begin to be peppered with affectionate references to the baba. As Priyanka Pathak-Narain’s Godman to Tycoon; The Untold Story of Baba Ramdev points out, this scenario was being played out in households across the country.
A quick read, this newest book on Ramdev – journalist Kaushik Deka’s The Ramdev Phenomenon from Moksha to Market appeared earlier this year – has so enraged the yoga guru that he has got a Delhi court to issue an injunction restraining its sale.Unsurprisingly, champions of free speech have uploaded the book online, where it can be read for free. For the average reader, all this has only made the book more attractive. Unsurprisingly, champions of free speech have uploaded the book online, where it can be read for free. What could the baba be so eager to hide? Plenty, if journalist Priyanka Pathak-Narain’s sources – all of whom are listed at the back of the book - are to be believed. Everyone from early comrades like Karamveer, who later drifted away because of ideological reasons, to local residents of Kankhal, home of Patanjali Yogpeeth in Haridwar, who witnessed the baba’s rise to national prominence, to the former owners of Aastha Television that propelled Ramdev into celebrity gurudom, and SK Patra, who brought some semblance of professionalism to the 10,000 crore Patanjali group, have all spoken on the record.
While the author’s focus on the gossip about the unfortunate disappearance and/or grisly deaths of Ramdev’s former close associates is what has probably enraged her subject, readers might actually be more appalled by Patanjali and Ramdev’s handling of workers. Those labouring to make ‘pristine’ nationalist products like toothpaste, ghee, worm-infested noodles and pooja items for the MNC-hating swadesi customer are being underpaid, apparently. They are also encouraged to view their work as ‘seva’ to the guru and by extension to the nation. Naturally, this also means they aren’t unionised. And then there’s the bit about the baba’s devotion to his natal family, which includes a thuggish brother who keeps getting into scrapes. Pathak-Narain also points out that though Ramdev now seems like the quintessential BJP-loving saffron guru, he owes his success to the relationships he formed early on with powerful Congress politicians.
This is an interesting read in the manner of a long form journalistic piece. It is not the definitive Ramdev biography that lays bare his motivations, and the workings of his sharp mind. But it does give us a clearer view of one of India’s most successful yoga gurus. As the injunction shows, the baba is unhappy about that.