Chapter 7: The Singing Janitor

The Singing Janitor

February 21, 2016


Whenever I come to Mumbai I stay at the home of my disciple Narottam Dasa Thakur Das and his wife Manjari Devi Dasi. Today, Narottam had come with me to the hospital for my PET scan, a checkup for any recurrence of the cancerous skin cells I had had surgically removed last year.

“I’m doubly nervous,” I said to Narottam as we sat in the waiting room. “What if the cancer comes back? I’ll have to go through another operation and all the rest.”

“We’re all praying for you,” said Narottam.

“And I’m nervous about the scan,” I said.

“Why?” asked Narottam. “Scans don’t hurt.”

“I know,” I said. “But it gives me the creeps when they lay me out on the table and roll me into that machine. It’s as if they were feeding me into the mouth of some big monster.”

I looked across the room and saw a janitor pushing a broom across the floor. “And just look at that guy over there,” I said. “He’s talking loudly to himself and laughing at his own jokes. It’s annoying, and it makes everything worse.”

“Maybe he’s a little crazy,” said Narottam.

“He’s not crazy,” said the man next to us. “I come here often and always see him. He’s just eccentric.”

The janitor strode past us, his thinnish frame dressed in a khaki-colored uniform, his brown eyes darting here and there. He was pushing his broom in wild motions, seemingly unaware of the patients in the room. I could see that others were disturbed by him too.

“Now he’s singing to himself,” I said to Narottam. “And off key at that.”

The man next to us laughed. “He keeps the place pretty clean, though,” he said. “And he means well.”

The receptionist behind the desk called out to the sweeper. “Mahesh! Deliver this package to Doctor Agarwal. He’s in room sixteen on the fourth floor.”

Mahesh’s broom made a loud clattering sound as he dropped it on the floor and hurried over to the desk. “Yes, Ma’am,” he said. “Right away, Ma’am.” His voice was high-pitched and reedy. As he walked toward the elevator he read out the address on the parcel in a loud voice. “Doctor Agarwal, room sixteen, fourth floor. Wow! A big package of stuff for the doctor!”

As the elevator doors closed, obscuring his grinning face, I breathed a sigh of relief. “Eccentric is an understatement,” I said to Narottam. “Anyway, it’s quiet at last.”

But just ten minutes later the elevator door opened and he was back. “Done!” he shouted. He hurried to pick up his broom and began sweeping again in the same big strokes, all the while singing in his shrill voice. The noise was oppressive, but I managed to doze off for a few minutes till I heard my name being called over the loudspeaker. I walked into the examination room, where I saw several nurses and, to my surprise, Mahesh busily organizing items in a medical cabinet. “Oh no,” I thought. “What’s he doing here?”

“Mahesh,” said one of the nurses over her shoulder, “could you kindly take this bag to Doctor Reynolds in room 404.” Mahesh didn’t say a word as he danced across the room to collect the bag. He opened the door with a theatrical flourish and disappeared down the hallway.

“While we are preparing the solution for your scan,” the nurse said to me, “please put on this hospital gown and then come and sit in this chair.” I went into another room to put on the gown, then came back.

“Ouch!” The nurse was sticking a needle into a vein on my wrist. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that Mahesh had come back into the room. Suddenly, my chair began to slip under the pressure of my weight and knocked against the table where the nurse had all her equipment. A glass bottle teetered on the edge, and as she reached out to grab it, she accidentally yanked the needle out of my wrist.

“Mahesh!” she called, “Quick! Help!”

Mahesh dashed across the room, caught the bottle and put it back on the table. The nurse picked up the syringe, which was now in my lap. “Mahesh,” she said, “could you please hold this gentleman’s chair while I inject him.”

“Yes,” he said. He gripped the chair with both hands, a serious look on his face.

“Ouch!” The nurse found another vein. Mahesh leaned over and, to my surprise, began to speak in fluent English. “Sir,” he said, “this is a most auspicious day for me. Somehow by dint of my past pious activities, I have the good fortune to serve a sadhu. Such opportunities are rare.”

Then he quoted a verse from the Padma Purana:

aradhananam sarvesam
visnor aradhanam param
tasmat parataram devi
tadiyanam samarcanam

“My dear goddess, of all types of worship, the worship of Lord Vishnu is the best, and even better than the worship of Lord Vishnu is the worship of His devotee, the Vaisnava.”

“What?” I said. “How do you know that verse?”

“I study sastra,” he replied softly, still gripping the chair.

“You’re a devotee of Krsna?” I asked.

“One day,” he said. “One day I hope to become a devotee of the Lord.”

“Are you from a family of Vaisnavas?”

“No,” he said. “I am an orphan. The devotees of the Lord are my family.”

Then he quoted a verse from the Bhagavad Gita:

mac-citta mad-gata-prana
bodhayantah parasparam
kathayantas ca mam nityam
tusyanti ca ramanti ca

“The thoughts of My pure devotees dwell in Me, their lives are surrendered to Me, and they derive great satisfaction and bliss enlightening one another and conversing about Me.”

I suddenly realized that I had been so busy criticizing him that I hadn’t noticed his peaceful face and his moist, sparkling eyes.

“Sir,” Mahesh said, smiling slightly, “when I saw you in the reception room earlier, I knew in my heart that the Lord had sent you to give hope to all the unlucky people suffering in this place. Your presence alone brings joy.”

The nurse’s voice brought me back to the present. “The injection is done,” she said. “Please go to the next room to wait for your scan.”

“Sure,” I said. “But first let me ask Mahesh if –––” I turned back to him, but he had gone.

“Where did he go?” I asked the nurse.

“To sweep, probably,” she replied without looking up.

As I waited in the adjoining room, I felt a wave of guilt wash over me. “I misjudged that man,” I thought. “I was ridiculing him in my mind, but he is more of a devotee than I am. I’ve committed a serious offense. I’ll have to beg him to forgive me.”

Suddenly a sign flashed my name. It was my turn for the PET scan. A nurse welcomed me and helped me lie down on the scanning machine. “Stretch your arms over your head,” she said. “You need to lie completely still for a full ten minutes.” Although I had been nervous about the monster, I relaxed and slowly drifted off to sleep. I woke up when I felt someone touch my feet. I heard a voice singing softly: “Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.”

I opened my eyes. It was Mahesh. “Mahesh,” I whispered, “I need to talk to you.”

But again he vanished as quickly as he had appeared. The scan ended and the sense of shame came over me again. “I’m just an offender,” I thought as I changed into my clothes. I followed the exit signs until I came to the reception room, now twice as crowded as before. I was signing some papers at the reception desk when I heard the high-pitched voice of Mahesh singing. I looked up and saw him dancing across the back of the room pushing his broom.

I rushed across the room. “Mahesh! Mahesh!” I called out. “I need to speak to you!” But before I could reach him, he had disappeared through a glass door. As he danced down the hallway to another part of the hospital, I fell on my knees and prayed for forgiveness:

vancha-kalpa-tarubhyas ca krpa-sindhubhya eva ca
patitanam pavanebhyo vaisnavebhyo namo namah

“I offer my respectful obeisances unto all the Vaisnava devotees of the Lord. They are just like desire trees who can fulfill the desires of everyone, and they are full of compassion for the fallen conditioned souls” [Sri Vaisnava-pranati].

As I stood up, I suddenly remembered that I was in a crowded waiting room. Everyone was staring at me.

“Let them stare,” I thought. “At the worst they’ll think I’m crazy; at the least they’ll think I’m eccentric. But I’ll know I am paying my respects to the wonderful Vaisnava I unexpectedly met today.”

Srila Prabhupada has written:

“Your complaint is that you have met two of my young disciples in California and they appeared to you as having ‘a very negative outlook towards the people they meet.’ Of course, I do not know the case, what are the circumstances, but kindly forgive my beloved disciples for any un-kindness or indiscretions on their part. After all, to give up one’s life completely for serving the Lord is not so easy thing. And maya, or the illusory material energy, she tries especially hard to try to get back and entrap those who have left her service to become devotees. So sometimes in the neophyte stage of devotional service, in order to withstand the attack of maya and remain strong under all conditions of temptation, young or inexperienced devotees will adopt an attitude against those things or persons possibly harmful, threatening to their tender devotional creeper. To come to that platform of understanding things as they are, that is not a very common thing, and therefore such persons who attain to it, they are described as ‘great souls.’”

[Srila Prabhupada letter to Lynne Ludwig, April 30, 1973]