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Swami Bua
b. 1889
Pollachi, India

I was very skeptical of a supercentenarian living in New York City. It was even more improbable to find a supercentenarian Indian yogi. But I did find one on the West side of Manhattan in a small one-bedroom apartment. A woman in Miami who had studied under him for years had given his name to me, and she said that he was in residence at a temple in Hawaii during the year. With a little bit of sleuthing, I found him, not on the other side of the earth but in my own backyard.

I arrived at his door, rang the buzzer, and waited a few minutes while he slowly unlatched the various locks. Greeting me was a compact man in an orange toga. He was barefoot, and his bare shoulders, flowing white hair and beard gave him a divine-like aura. His eyes had a sparkle and in the middle of his forehead was a paint-mark that I guessed was a caste mark, or a holy dot. He asked me to take off my shoes then shuffled back to his discussion with a woman who sat cross-legged in the corner of the living room. The room was empty of furniture; along the walls were photographs of the Swami when he was younger, doing amazing feats of physical contortions and yoga positions that were hard to imagine a body being able to do. There was one image of him balanced prone on top of a wooden post, the fulcrum being his stomach.

I began to set up my equipment while the woman finished her hushed conversation with him. As she prepared to leave, she told me that she had flown in for the afternoon to speak with him. She was a student, a disciple of the Swami.

Swami Bua, the youngest of eighteen children, was born with severe physical disabilities. His legs and feet were crippled and contorted and he apparently went into some kind of coma at the age of two. Assuming that he was dead, his parents placed him on a funeral pyre to be cremated. The heat woke him up and the family, thinking he had risen from the dead, shunned him. The die was cast. He was sent away to lead a life as an outsider, wandering from village to village, seeking food and shelter from others. He spoke Tamil, his native tongue, as well as five or six other dialects. He learned to speak English under British rule. As a Brahmin, a member of the Hindu priestly sect, he lived as a vegetarian within a strict cast system to which he had to adhere. The people of India were colonial servants, producing goods and services for England. Swami settled in a village of three hundred, most of whom lived in thatched huts with just a few permanent roofs. He lived on fruit, vegetables, and a little rice. There was no such thing as extras or indulgences for the villagers. Families worked to feed themselves and keep thatch over their heads.

I asked the Swami why he thought he had reached the age of one hundred and ten. He replied, first, that in his culture one never spoke of one's age. "It is never uttered, it is bad taste." Secondly, "It is because of all God's grace, supplemented with good thoughts, good eating, pure vegetarianism, humility, no anger or jealousy, and loveableness." How could you not fall in love with a man who lived by these thoughts? I had this vision of Swami Bua, sitting cross-legged, surrounded by a circle of small children who would hang on to every word as he would tell a story; but it was only my idealized fantasy; Swami Bua was actually living life as an isolated old man behind a padlocked door. Yet he seemed genuinely at peace with his life.

As he sat cross-legged on a mat in front of me, he spoke of his life as his religion and his work of faith as his life. Then, in handwriting clear enough for me to read, he suddenly began to write a kind of benediction. "Blessed, blissful immortal Jerry, my sincere prayers for your divine grace, while appreciating your humanitarianism, more particularly to young children … God bless you Jerry, live long until the call comes."

He took out a large shell, almost like a conch, with a silver tip, that he held in both his hands. As I started to pack up my equipment, he began to blow a single note. Years of yogic practice had taught him to hold a note like Sinatra or Dizzy Gillespie, in part to relax himself and in part to exercise. As I left, he was still holding that note, his cheeks puffed out without a trace of audible breath to interrupt the powerful sound of the single tone of his shell. He lives in his world, in a sort of state of joy, while outside Manhattan honks, careens, and argues its way through the day. It such a shame that he's invisible to the city. Genetics aside, the swami has found many of the simple secrets of longevity in his everyday life and lives by them every moment that he breathes.

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