Spaced-out Indian guru fails to return to life as promised: After 21 days on ice, the body of the 'Marxist godman' shows signs of being just another corpse

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DEVOTEES of an Indian swami, who died of heart failure last month, confidently believed he would return to life on 26 May. The guru, they said, had not died but was instead on an astral voyage. As one of his disciples explained: 'At the moment, he is visiting different planets.'

Now it is beginning to look as though the swami, in his astral travels, may have taken a wrong turn somewhere in the solar system and got lost.

The epic date came and went, without so much as a twitch from the corpse of the swami, Balak Brahmachari, who was known as 'the Marxist godman' because of his many believers among the Communist rulers of West Bengal state.

In the meantime, the 21-day-old corpse is showing signs that its resident has definitely checked out. Even though the swami's body sits chilled on ice slabs in a glass-room with air-conditioners blasting away inside his ashram on the Ganges river, it now looks, as one visitor said: 'like a fish in a deep freeze'. The corpse has blackened and the skin is beginning to flake.

His chief disciple, Chitta Sikdar, says he is willing to keep the body uncremated for as long as six months, so certain is he that his guru will return. Mr Sikdar claims that in 1960, the guru went into a similar deep, meditative trance for 20 days. 'A devotee dreamed that first the Baba's toe would begin to move and then one eyelid will open. That will be the sign that ordinary laws of science do not apply to Balak Brahmachari,' he said.

Ordinary Indian laws do not seem to apply, either. A corpse in India must be disposed of within 24 hours. But the Communist state government has refrained from storming the ashram with police and dragging out the dead swami. The reasons are not ideological but political. The guru has millions of followers in West Bengal. The state held local elections last Sunday, and the Communists feared that if they acted any earlier, the guru's enraged devotees might have turned against them. Now that the Communists have won, hygiene may perhaps prevail over politics.

Calcutta's combative press, never friendly to the 73-year-old Mr Brahmachari, claims disciples are carrying out a charade of resurrection because the guru willed his riches to his family instead of to the ashram. Members of the Indian Rationalists Association, a group of sceptics which has exposed over 60 fake gurus, have posted observers at the entrance of the ashram to spot any possible hoax. One Bengali newspaper, Ajkaal, had its offices ransacked by thugs several months before the guru's death or 'timeless meditation', as Mr Sikdar describes it, because it alleged sexual misconduct was rampant inside the ashram.

Thousands of pilgrims, haggard farmers, widows in white saris chanting mantras, and poor families have been keeping a vigil outside the swami's ashram, waiting for a miracle. And every day, at 1.30pm, Mr Sikdar together with a few acolytes bathe their master's body and lay out a clean set of clothes for when, or if, the swami snaps back to life.

'He was looking pinker today,' reported Mr Sikdar, a man of quiet desperation who seems to be somewhat entranced himself. 'I'm sure he'll wake up any minute now.'