Popat Savla: A Humble Love Affair With Life

Posted by Nipun Mehta on Oct 5, 2020
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Both of us drove up together to a holy site, somewhere on the hills of Los Angeles. Except it was Sunday. And this shrine of the revered India mystic, Yogananda, is closed on Sundays.

“If it’s closed, why are we going there?” I asked my friend. “Who knows, maybe it’ll open. Not all gates open by man-made rules.” Okay, I can dig that. We arrived, and sure enough, the giant gate was closed and there was absolutely no human in sight. “Well, we tried,” I stated. With his usual jokster smile, my friend replied with a Zen koan: “Surrender works only after full effort.” He got out of the car. I stayed back, since I wasn’t quite sure how the 50 feet walk between the car and the front gate would change anything.

Lo and behold, right as he beelines for the shuttered gate, a nun comes out of nowhere, appearing to walk in at the same time. I couldn’t believe my eyes! Still, this is a public place (where George Harrison’s funeral was held), and no one is just going to open it up for two random visitors. Yet, much to my jaw-dropping amazement, she opened the place for just the two of us. It defied all logic. The entire 10-acre Lake Shrine, just the two of us. Amidst the sacred ambiance of Yogananda and lush natural beauty, we walked in silence and sat in meditation. It all felt pre-ordained somehow, as if my friend was one divine hoodwink ahead of the rest of us.

That friend was Popat Savla. He just passed away.

If this were just one episode, I might’ve chalked it off to happenstance. With Popat Uncle, though, it was a regular affair. Always a lover of pithy lines, I can hear him saying: “I don’t believe in miracles. I rely on them.”

Anyone who actually walked in his shoes might’ve felt the same way. He grew up sleeping on the streets of India, studying at night under street lights, becoming the exemplary public school kid who always got scholarships. “Then I married my good luck charm,” he would share with a sheepish smile, about his life-long marriage with Kalpana Aunty. You could tell how much they cared for each other, because right after his sweet comment, he felt very comfortable throwing in a joke: “But, you know about the three rings of marriage? Engagement ring, wedding ring, and suffering.” Not to be outdone, Kalpana Aunty would retort with her crackled laugh, “I agree.”

Life was generous to Popat Uncle, and he was generous back to life. He immigrated to the US as an engineer, dabbled in real estate, and at a specific turning point in his life, in the 90s, he consciously dedicated his life to service. Our paths intersected soon after that.

We met in a rather peculiar way. ServiceSpace had just started, and we were interviewing nonprofits who wanted us to build them a website. Popat Uncle was a volunteer with one of those nonprofits. As volunteers accepted and completed the project, Popat Uncle intuitively felt that something was different here. At that time, we hardly had any history, and yet, he felt an inexplicable affinity with our radical guiding principles -- particularly of operating without any fundraising. Then, in 2001, a major earthquake hit India, epicentered in Kutch, where he was from. We ended up speaking at 1AM, before his 4AM flight to ground zero, to brainstorm ideas for earthquake relief. The website we created ended up going quite viral, attracting millions of visitors.

Yet, the projects seemed to be a side-show in the face of our deepening friendship. As a twenty-something at the time, I spoke to him about my ambivalence of quitting my job and jumping head-first into service. To all my insecurities, he would be an unflinching votary of unconditional trust in life. “Don’t listen to the elders. You can see where we have ended up,” he would say. “Go on and chart a new path. Listen to your heart.”

An invisible halo of fearlessness always swirled around Popat Uncle. Just like opening that gate at Lake Shrine, he had an inexplicable audacity in knowing that nature will adjust its sails to the winds of a selfless intent.

Everyone wanted him on his team. Because of his fearlessness, nonprofits would often ask him to approach big-name funders and celebrities. It’s not that he had the aura of a slick salesman. Hardly so. His shtick was far, far simpler: he would just walk to the front door, even if it was the country’s prime minister or the richest man in India, and trust that the gate would open. For him, it somehow did open. Yet, the flavor of his courage wasn’t of the “I have nothing to lose” variety, but rather “I have nothing to gain.” That alchemically elevated others into their higher instinct.

His front-line efforts, deep love of the common man, and utter trust in life, allowed many contagions of compassion to form around him. Many dozens of grassroot nonprofits would cite him as their favorite ambassador. Post 2001 earthquake, a US senator gave $20M to a coalition that Popat Uncle had pioneered. Yet for him, it was a daily affair to serve the sacred in the mundane. He rarely recounted his indirect impact on countless lives. Instead, he told stories like this:



Together with Kalpana Aunty, they have supported thousands of people in small ways and big. When you get Popat Uncle in his engineering mindset, he would even be prone to precise algorithms: “We have always tried to serve those reaching for the divine: monastics, artists, and nonprofits.” For instance, legends of Indian classical music -- Ravi Shankar, Hari Prasad Chaurasia, Zakir Hussain -- have played (and stayed!) in their house. Such performers don’t normally do house concerts, but they would often deliver their most inspired performances in that home. “Something about the ambiance,” each of them would say. Their home was host to so many events that almost every group coined their own nickname. Ironically, it is on Lotus Avenue.

For ServiceSpace, especially, that home was always open. Several times over the years, maybe 10-15 of us would head over and put out sleeping bags all over their living room, organize bathroom schedules, and happily turn their weekend plans into cooking frenzies. Practically every time I would be in the area, we would host a spontaneous Awakin Circle with 30-50 local friends. Last time I was there, in 2019, it just so happened to be Kalpana Aunty’s birthday. On some trips when that wasn’t feasible, I would still show up at 11PM at night, and depart at 7AM -- because we all felt like family. Our midnight conversations would typically end with Popat Uncle eventually retiring with some quip like, “You know that sleeping on the floor is the best way to connect with Mother Earth.” (Indeed, he would often sleep on the floor, even in the later parts of his life.)

Apart from those visits, we didn’t talk often. Yet, he frequently reiterated that our connection was cosmic. Perhaps it was, because whether it was my wedding or the turning points in his spiritual journey, our lives invariably ended up intersecting at the most opportune moments.

I most admired Popat Uncle’s capacity to be a kingly giver. Although he was so deeply attuned to the plight of the world, he didn’t give out of sympathy. Like a king, he gave because it was in his nature to give. Once, I got an unexpected call from him: “I was at this event, and at the end, they were raising some money around a 30-year vision they had. I was just silently sitting, when I saw a banner with today’s date. I realized it was my mother’s birthday. I remembered how she had sold her only piece of jewelry so I could pay the application fee for a college scholarship. Everything I am today is because of her.” In her honor, he quietly went up, wrote the biggest donation check of his life, and walked out.

It wasn’t calculated, nor was it for creating external impact. An overflow of gratitude, where the branch tips paid homage to its roots and the river started blending into the sea. “My mother taught me that what you can’t give away was never yours to begin with,” he told me that day. Only a couple people ever knew about his anonymous act.

When Popat Uncle came to one of our retreats in 2018, he ended up on a small cot in a dorm. Unfortunately, so did many mosquitoes. In the morning, I saw his face full of mosquito bites. To my petrified look, particularly as a host, he laughed and simply said, “I was practicing generosity last night. I offered my blood to the mosquitoes.” That was the last he ever said anything of it.

That was Popat Uncle. A kingly giver who lived fearlessly in the womb of nature’s love.

Before we met, Popat Uncle and Kalpana Aunty got into a disastrous car accident when a drunk driver hit them. They had to be flown into a hospital, and it was unclear if they would even survive. It was in that helicopter that he promised himself, “If I live, I’ll spend my remaining days in service.” Rather miraculously, they both got away with just a small surgery. And he stuck to his word. When they returned home from the hospital and checked their mail, they saw an inconspicuous postcard from a hermit they had hosted many moons ago. It mysteriously read: “God has given you a second chance.”

God gave all of us a second chance too.

Popat Uncle, thank you. You have blessed so many of us, since our very first encounter. I’ll miss our above-speed-limit car rides, shuttling from one event to another listening to Osho lectures. I’ll remember your Mulla Nussrudin stories. Your deadpan jokes. How you still referred to ServiceSpace as “CharityFocus”. Your loving presence at Jaina events, when you’d be sitting right in the front row unconditionally cheering me on. The sparkle in your eyes, when you spoke of the generosity of those who have the least. Classical music that would spontaneously turn on. How you’d always stuff some random offering in my pocket, like my grandmother, every time we parted ways -- including the last time we met. Your indefatigable conviction in the good. Your humble love affair with life.

May your incredible virtues find a stronger home in my heart, and may I keep nurturing the symphony of vibrations that you have revealed.

Even in your passing, you gifted us a reminder of this parable: a Salt Doll gingerly steps to the shore, inquiring about the nature of the sea. The sea invites her to touch it. As she gingerly takes a step forward, she repeats: "But who are you?" Now, losing parts of herself, she continues forwards, and in the end, exclaims: “It is I!”

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Comments (30)

  • Mia Tagano wrote ...

    Oh wow. What a gift this sharing and tribute is dear Nipun. I am very sorry for your loss but happy for your gain; Sad to have never met this beautiful human, Popat Uncle but so very grateful such a man existed and continues to live on in you and so many others.

  • Janessa Wilder wrote ...

    What a moving tribute. Thank you so much for sharing his story in beautiful ripples of his blessings.

  • Andy Smallman wrote ...

    Repeating this to replace the absent highlighter pen - “My mother taught me that what you can’t give away was never yours to begin with."

  • Giang H Wells-Dang wrote ...

    Thank you for sharing his story. I am so moved reading the tribute. It was a blessing to meet Popat Uncle in India . Yes, I remember him as a kingly giver.

  • Coleman Fung wrote ...

    Thanks for this moving tribute... I LOVE Popat Uncle's sense of humor:-)

  • Helen Kimura wrote ...

    Beautiful tribute! And what a beautiful soul!!

  • Preeta Bansal wrote ...

    Thank you so much for these beautiful reflections. I remember Popat Uncle well from our time in India at G3 in 2016 or so (maybe 2017?). We had some beautiful conversations. One I'll never forget -- he urged me to never stop walking the path with SSp. When I assured him that I would walk that path as long as I was allowed to do so, he then said, "ok, then please do one thing -- try to get Nipun and SSp to accept money/fundraising." And to that I said "That I probably never can do." And then he just said, "ok, then promise me you'll keep helping them with all you have." And I said, "yes, of course. As long as I can be of service." It was clear to me his deep affinity and love for Nipun and ServiceSpace, and I felt an amazing sweetness and unconditional heart of service in him. He was watching over both like a concerned father. And i LOVE this: “Surrender works only after full effort.” 

  • Ragunath Padmanabhan wrote ...

    I have a big smile on my face just because I now think about him. And a certain sweet ache at his passing like I felt in my childhood when a couple of parrots that adopted our home, gave us so much joy and one day flew away unannounced. He was indeed a wild, cheerful and loving parrot, true to his name. Once he along with a relative stayed at my apartment in Santa Clara. When I prepared my bedroom and asked them to sleep there, he asked me to give them sleeping bags instead. He said he always prefers to sleep on the floor. The next morning, I saw his younger relative struggling to stuff the sleeping bag into its cover. Popat uncle was quietly watching. I took uncle's bag and softly told him that the way to quickly put a sleeping bag into its cover is to not fold it before stuffing it but [...] See full comment.
    I have a big smile on my face just because I now think about him. And a certain sweet ache at his passing like I felt in my childhood when a couple of parrots that adopted our home, gave us so much joy and one day flew away unannounced. He was indeed a wild, cheerful and loving parrot, true to his name.

    Once he along with a relative stayed at my apartment in Santa Clara. When I prepared my bedroom and asked them to sleep there, he asked me to give them sleeping bags instead. He said he always prefers to sleep on the floor. The next morning, I saw his younger relative struggling to stuff the sleeping bag into its cover. Popat uncle was quietly watching. I took uncle's bag and softly told him that the way to quickly put a sleeping bag into its cover is to not fold it before stuffing it but to start from an end and just keep stuffing. Pre-folding increases the air pockets and makes it more difficult to stuff than direct stuffing though the latter method looks clumsy. I showed him how and he completed stuffing his bag and then repeated my instruction to his relative. I was under 30 then and I had never had an experience of an older person willing to be humble and take instructions from someone much younger until then. I remember him shaking his head and saying, "I have used so many sleeping bags but I did not know this. There is never and end to learning something new even about things you think you know."

    I shared the dorm with him during the first G3 at ESI and remember so many wonderful interactions with him. Bows to the direction he flew away. Hide full comment.

  • Swara Pandya wrote ...

    Nipunbhai you write with such beauty and integrity. Give words to deep subtle feelings. Popat uncle and a whole community comes alive. Sending love and goodwill. 

  • Meghna Banker wrote ...

    Thank you, for sharing this humble tribute and for a tiny peak into the power of an affinity that will continue to live on and inspire forever :)

  • Trishna Shah wrote ...

    So sad to hear of Popat Uncle’s passing, what a beautiful life he lived ❤️🙏🏽❤️

  • Hermann Gams wrote ...

    Just grateful for having had enriching conversations with this wonderful human being at Gandhi 3.0, thank you so much Nipun for sharing Popat Uncle´s stories in such an appreciating way...this will stay forever !

  • Vasantha wrote ...

    So touching and inspiring to read about Popat Uncle! May his soul rest in peace _/\_. Thanks Nipun for sharing your wonderful memories!

  • Kerri Lake wrote ...

    Your tribute to Popat Uncle is stunning, Nipun. The love shines in every direction. Thank you for sharing the richness of this special connection. Endless love to Popat Uncle and Kalpana Aunty. <3

  • Shyam Gupta wrote ...

    A very inspiring read and the loving homage you have paid to him . Would have loved to meet him.
    I remember you announcing about his passing away during one of the calls and i could see some moistness in your eyes.
    A truly wonderful soul.

  • Richard Whittaker wrote ...

    Wow. What a beautiful reflection. I'll never forget being part of a visit and circle at Popat Uncle's and Kalpana Aunty's home. Thank you for sharing.

  • Stephanie Nash wrote ...

    Your tribute draws us in to hear and appreciate and be inspired by Popat Uncle. Thank you so much for your brilliant-yet-effortless way of sharing such an inner journey with a truly special soul. .....I loved: “Yet, the flavor of his courage wasn’t of the ‘I have nothing to lose’ variety, but rather ‘I have nothing to gain.’” .... And this is poetry: “May your incredible virtues find a stronger home in my heart, and may I keep nurturing the symphony of vibrations that you have revealed.” No better tribute. Thank you.

  • Leah Pearlman wrote ...

    nipun. wow. tears. pure gorgeous. thank you for sharing popat uncle with us all he stands for. truly inspired.

  • Mahesh Wadher wrote ...

    Very touching story! Thanks for sharing this story with beautiful words.🙏🙏🙏

  • Kalpana kapadia wrote ...

    He is Allways remembered By all Very Divine and lovable , kind and very helpful to all

  • Ashish Mehta wrote ...

    Thanks for the beautiful tribute to Popat uncle, Nipun. As I finished reading this, I found my hand on my heart-- perhaps because so much of this rings true.

    I recall the time he came over our place in Fremont when Anha was born and a few months later how he opened up his home when we were in LA for 'Walk for Hope in 2004'.

    Not only did he open up his home but also his heart. As Joanna Macy says: "The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe" and I am sure, now, the Universe holds his spirit in a special place. 

  • Amita Padhiar wrote ...

    Great journey of a great soul . Well said by someone that volunteers don’t necessarily have time but they have heart for their passion . They make their living by what they get but they make their life by what they give . Great tribute to a wonderful person.

  • Atul & Charu parikh wrote ...

    We came late in the contact with him but when ever we meet it gives a peace in our mind. His smile was so wonderful.He was extremely polite & down to earth person. Lots of things to be learn from his life.He was a wonderful soul.

  • Rahul wrote ...

    Popat uncle had many super powers, but the one that was perhaps foundational by the time I met him in 2003 was his capacity to keep the awareness of his own mortality in mind. That's what let him live to the fullest. To be simultaneously present in the small moments, and also soaring with an eagle eye's view of a bigger vision he invited you into. He not only gave like a king, but was a king maker in that he encouraged others to rise to their inner nobility and place their life's energy in the direction of their heart. One occasion about a decade ago, we were having brunch at a friends place and Popat uncle invited 2 other friends because he wanted me to tell them about Charityfocus and the work I was connected with in India. Afterwards, he told me he'd never seen these guys sit and st [...] See full comment.
    Popat uncle had many super powers, but the one that was perhaps foundational by the time I met him in 2003 was his capacity to keep the awareness of his own mortality in mind. That's what let him live to the fullest. To be simultaneously present in the small moments, and also soaring with an eagle eye's view of a bigger vision he invited you into. He not only gave like a king, but was a king maker in that he encouraged others to rise to their inner nobility and place their life's energy in the direction of their heart. One occasion about a decade ago, we were having brunch at a friends place and Popat uncle invited 2 other friends because he wanted me to tell them about Charityfocus and the work I was connected with in India. Afterwards, he told me he'd never seen these guys sit and stay through a meeting this long. I asked why, and learned that the friends he brought were among the wealthiest Indian uncles in LA. He told me that he keeps telling them all that they'll be dead in 15 - 20 years max, to not spoil their children and grandchildren with passing on wealth in that way, and instead to serve now with all they have. Sure enough, through his encouragement and example, those uncles steadily rose to also become the most generous Indian philanthropists in the LA area. If you knew him, you couldn't help but feel like he was yours. Even without the prayers in our hearts for his onward journey, his own lightness has undoubtedly propelled him towards even greater light in the midst of this transition. I feel grateful to have known him. Hide full comment.

  • Subhash Garg wrote ...

    Dear Nipun,
    Greetings.
    Very touching account of your emotions for Popat Uncle.
    ! Om Shanti !

  • Christa wrote ...

    Reading this tribute to such a good man makes me feel privileged to have the gift of my own life. Om shanti! 🙏

  • Marie wrote ...

    I’m so inspired by this beautiful tribute to a beautiful soul. Thank you for sharing Popat Uncle with us, too. He lives on.

  • Fabiana wrote ...

    Such a heartfelt tribute! Thank you, Nipun, for letting us meet this beautiful soul, and be transformed!

  • Sonia wrote ...

    The generosity of Uncle's spirit is so contagious. And his belief about miracles.... is what I needed to hear today. THANK YOU SO MUCH.

  • Anand Damani wrote ...

    Nipun,
    I join a lot of people in comforting you and by being there when you need us to handle such a great loss.
    The way you describe it is an irreparable loss which will take a long time to fill.
    I was not lucky to have known him but am humbled by a enlightened soul like ot him to have walked on this planet.
    Anand.