Harbingers of Hope

“Think And Thank” – Part III

Continued from “Living for Others”

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never is, but always to be blessed:
The soul, uneasy and confined from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.

– Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man

There isn’t on good earth a human being who hasn’t been afflicted by one or the other – and more often than not by many at a time – of the pestilences that emerged from Pandora’s box. (Or was it just a jar?) However, one thing made mankind forbear these over the ages. And that’s hope: hope that we’ll overcome them or they will just go away or things will take a better turn. Hope thus has been the sustainer of life. As the Greek legend tells “ Hope, which lay at the bottom of the box, remained.”

American psychologist, Barbara Fredrickson tells us in her broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions how positive emotions (like hope) lead to novel, expansive, or exploratory behavior, and that, over time, these actions lead to meaningful, long-term resources such as knowledge and social relationships. In one of her books, Love 2.0, she discusses the supreme emotion of love and how love can affect your biological and cellular make-up over time. And hopeful people keep telling themselves “I think I can, I think I can”.

" Triumph of Hope: From Theresienstadt and Auschwitz to Israel by Ruth Elias in one such monumental work that brings out how hope helps us tap our hidden reservoirs of the potential to stand up for another round in the ring of life. All said, Hope is such a “thing with feathers” that Emily Dickinson celebrated in her immortal lines:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all.

Children of Lesser God

But have you ever thought over the fate of those who are condemned to live their lives without hope – an abysmally barren existence of hopelessness. In “Idylls of the King”, Tennyson coined the phrase

“For why is all around us here
As if some lesser god had made the world,
But had not force to shape it as he would?

Yes, I’m referring to those most unfortunate children of the least of the lesser gods. And each society has its quota of such beings – the left overs of any given society, the helpless victims of what Lord Beveridge famously identified fifty years ago, as the Five Giants of Want, Disease, Squalor, Ignorance and Idleness. They indeed persist in stalking everywhere claiming the marginalized in any given society as their helpless victims.

The truly great are only those who bring the flickering torch of Hope to those whom fate has pushed in the quagmire of seemingly irredeemable combination of poverty, incurable disease and social boycott.

Baba Amte

One such great was Murlidhar “Baba” Amte. He was born in a fairly prosperous family. His father was a British government official with responsibilities for district administration and revenue collection. He came to be known as Baba not because “he was a saint or any such thing, but because his parents addressed him by that name”. As the eldest son of a wealthy landowner, Murlidhar had, as they say, an idyllic childhood. Of all the things around he developed a special interest in cinema, wrote reviews for the film magazine called Picturegoer. He even corresponded with Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer. (Norma Shearer, incidentally, became one of his first foreign donors when he began working with the social discards of our society).

Trained in law, Amte developed a successful legal practice at Wardha. He soon got involved in the common pursuit of those days, namely, Indian struggle for freedom from the British Raj. He started acting as a defense lawyer for leaders of the Indian freedom movement whom the British authorities had imprisoned in the 1942 Quit India movement. A spell in the Sevagram ashram of Mahatma Gandhi tuned Amte into a dyed-in-in-the-wool Gandhian for the rest of his life. It was Gandhi who conferred on him the name - Abhay Sadhak (Fearless Follower).

It was his encounter with the dying leper that shaped Mr Amte’s life. He was outraged at the fear he felt: fear of touching, as if he shared the common belief that lepers were paying for their past sins and would infect anybody who came close. Where there was fear, he told himself, there was no love; and when an action was not done in love, it had no value. Deliberately, he went back to the gutter to feed the leper and to learn his name. His name was Tulshiram. He then carried him home to care for him until he died, and began – once he had had training in Calcutta’s School of Tropical Medicine – to work in leper clinics all around the town.

His own ashram, founded in 1951 on barren, rocky land full of snakes, was specifically for the handicapped and for lepers, the left-overs of our society. It was called Anandvan, “grove of joy”; its philosophy was that lepers could be rehabilitated not by charity, nor by the begging life at railway stations and on streets, but by hard, creative work, which would bring self-respect. Not by tears, but by sweat, Mr Amte wrote once.

By the time Amte passed away in February 2008, around 3,000 people lived at Anandvan. The farm grew millet, grains and fruit; in the schools, lepers taught the blind, deaf and dumb; there were colleges, two hospitals, workshops and an orchestra, where popular songs were conducted by a polio victim. Warora townsfolk, who had shunned the ashram in its early years, had learnt to buy its vegetables and drink its milk without fear of contagion.

From his 50s’ Amte suffered from by degeneration of the spine. Yet he was always around lying on his cot in his white home-woven vest and shorts, smilingly encouraging human beings to see the divine spark in each other.

Those were the days when leprosy was associated with social stigma and the society disowned people suffering from leprosy. There was also a widespread misbelief that leprosy was contagious. Amte strove to dispel the misbelief and once allowed bacilli from a leprosy patient to be injected into him while participating in an experimental test aimed at proving conclusively that leprosy was not contagious.

Amte founded in his life three ashrams for treatment and rehabilitation of leprosy patients, disabled people, and people from marginalized sections of the society in Maharashtra, India. On 15 August 1949, he started a hospital in Anandvan under a tree.

Amte also devoted his life to many other social causes, the most notable among which were generating public awareness towards importance of ecological balance, wildlife preservation, and the Narmada Bachao Andolan. The last brought him in conflict with the official policy of the Government which had earlier honored him by conferring prestigious State awards.

Dedicated Family

Amte married Indu Ghule (Sadhana Amte). She actively participated in her husband’s social work with equal dedication. Their two sons, Dr. Vikas Amte and Dr. Prakash Amte, and two daughters-in-law, Dr. Mandakini and Dr. Bharati, are all doctors. All four have dedicated their lives to social work and causes similar to those of the senior Amte.

Baba Amte’s elder son Vikas Amte and his wife Bharati Amte run the hospital at Anandvan and coordinate operations between Anandvan and satellite projects. Today, Anandwan and Hemalkasa village have one hospital, each. Anandwan has a university, an orphanage, and schools for the blind and the deaf. Anandvan in Maharashtra is recognized around the world. Besides Anandvan, Amte later founded a few more ashrams for treating leprosy patients.

Gandhian with a Difference

Amte was a true Gandhian and led a spartan life. He wore khadi clothes made from the looms at Anandvan. He believed in Gandhi's concept of a self-sufficient village industry that empowers seemingly helpless people, and successfully brought his ideas into practice at Anandvan. In spite of his emulation of social and political work, unlike Gandhi, Amte was an atheist.

In a complicated operation at Wimbledon in 1971 two of his vertebrae were replaced by that of an anonymous animal, the scar of which could scarcely be concealed by his wrinkled neck.

“I was tempted by Shankar Bhagwan. He too has spondylitis but uses a cobra as a brace.” He took his grave physical inhibitions in his stride and used to regret his inability to do as much as he would like to because of poor health. “I have to be cautious, but caution also has its own adventure.” And it is this caution that compelled him to swallow 19 tablets a day, used eye drops in his cataract-inflicted eyes and unfailingly had a concoction of turmeric and herbs each day.

His day began at 4:30 am with a walk to the temple with Sadhanatai, his wife of 51 years. “It is for the first time after so many years that Baba comes to the temple and rings the bell for me,” said Sadhanatai. A non-believer in idol worship, Baba Amte’s logic was that “it makes her happy.” He rarely missed an opportunity to acknowledging her contribution to his work. “My work is my life, my life is my work, but Sadhana is a part of both,” he once said.

In his long journey Baba Amte never knew fear. In his fight for the ignored and the marginalized, his was truly a heroic and legendary endeavor. And to thousands of tribals, in his white khadi vest, shorts and a walking stick – he remained the solitary symbol of hope beside a quietly murmuring Narmada.

‘Charity Destroys, Work Builds’ was the mantra of the last of India’s great social activists, Baba Amte, revered as a saint in his lifetime and as a god by the thousands of lepers he cared for.

Innumerable awards, including Padma Vibhushan and the Magsaysay Award came his way which didn’t mean anything for Gandhi’s ‘abhaysadhak’ the title given to him by Mahatma Gandhi. Amte’s life was a story of one man’s colorful odyssey to conquer his own fears and expand the notion of justice and peace through innovative experiments.

Anandvan will live as the nerve centre of Amte’s relentless crusade, helping leprosy patients become self-confident persons capable of cooperative and creative leadership. He had willed that when he died he should be buried – becoming what he had once been most disgusted and afraid of.

Saints and Sinners

Each society has its quota of saints and sinners. Of course, the latter far outnumber the former. Our political system has a prolific capacity to throw up and sustain wrong-doers. And aplenty. Also, our media – both print and electronic – bend over backwards to titillate their clientele’s voyeuristic impulses with reports of rape and arson, but not a man coming to the rescue of someone in distress. The first is news and the second isn’t worth wasting newsprint and precious seconds between hip-swinging, breast-baring TV commercials.

Recently, Charles Handy, one of the reputed management “gurus” of our time wrote The New Alchemists describing the work of twenty-nine “original people” who made something out of nothing – an alchemy of sorts to enrich the society in which they live. Reported or unreported – invariably latter - such alchemists are at work in every society, whose efforts mostly unrecognized, especially in our society. It was, therefore, a very bold decision of the Kochi-based journal, The Week to select at the year-end a genuine social worker who, in an obscure corner of the land, was doing whatever he could to make life livable for some less fortunate beings. And he was doing this not to earn a Padam Vibhushan but because it needs to be done. All credit for this goes to TVR Shenoy, the distinguished founder-editor of the Week who initiated this unique feature that has done Indian journalism proud.

The Week deserves all the credit for bringing to public notice the great work of Baba Amte. Since then year after year many an Alasinga Perumal of our time – those men and women who have dedicated their lives to the selfless service of the community in which they live – have been selected as the Man of the Year. (It was Alasinga Perumal, the young Tamil school teacher who was, you may recall, largely responsible for sending Vivekananda to the Chicago Congress.) It is such selfless souls who symbolize what Vivekananda had said in a letter to the Maharaja of Mysore: “They alone live who live for others. The rest are worse than dead”.

The list includes besides Baba Amte names like Rukmabai Tullur, PKS Madhavan, Dr Parameswara Rao, and many others. Most of these names (except Baba Amte’s) are unfamiliar to readers of daily newspapers. They are not seen on TV screens. Away from the limelight of publicity, they are quietly engaged in selfless work to enable the helpless around them to gain some control over their lives. Take, for instance, Rukmabai Tullur. She was widowed at 17. However, instead of reconciling to the abjectly degrading existence of a young Indian widow, she decided through sheer determination, to teach herself to survive and also to pass that life-giving mantra of learning to destitute Adivasi women that she worked with. Dr. Parameswara Rao is an atomic scientist who could pick a lucrative job of his choice anywhere in India or abroad. He was troubled (while working in America) by his childhood memories of illiterates from his village who could recite the Gita and the Bhagavata Puran – a proof of their untapped infinite genius. This brought him back to his native village. He never went back to Pennsylvania State University where for years a Professorship was kept reserved for him. He has no regrets. Because of his selfless dedication, the lives of those living in fifty odd villages in the Yellamanchili block of Vishakhapatnam district of Andhra Pradesh have changed forever. The primitiveness of the environment has given place to a new order, a new hope, a new culture. Other-dependence has been replaced by self-reliance. And all this because of one man’s infinite capacity to use his patient reasoning to break the centuries-old barriers to adopt new technology. Life has vastly changed for the better for thousands because of one man’s dedication – utterly sincere and selfless.

The then President of the World Bank, Robert McNamara knew about Dr Rao’s pioneering method of village development, namely, creating bounty from waste. On a visit to India, McNamara mentioned about him to Indira Gandhi who had Dr. Rao searched for (through PV Narasimha Rao) and brought to Delhi to join her at lunch. He was offered a job which he politely turned down to stay back with his village community to whom he owed a debt – a social debt (How many of us will die with burden on our conscience of our un-discharged social debts)?

The Alasingas of this society will have a permanent place in the hearts and minds of those whose lives they influence so deeply and pervasively. When they pass away, there are no obituary notices for them in the national dailies. But they are supremely unconcerned about recognition, engaged as they are in doing what they deem worthy of being done. These are the living examples of what Lord Krishna expounded as nishkam karma in the Gita.


More by :  H.N. Bali

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Comment A Word of Explanation

A close friend of mine who doesn’t want to post a critical comment on the above essay rang me up to ask why as a Kolkatan, I had left out Mother Teresa and also pointed out that that my selection of persons and organization engaged in humanitarian activities is rather selective.

First, the latter. Indeed, my selection is selective. It is based on the series of Man of Year selected by the Week year after year in the last few decades. It does not mean there aren’t other organizations besides these. I know of several who in their quiet way are doing something meaningful to enable the disadvantaged in society to lead better lives. There is, for instance, in the backwaters of eastern UP the not too widely known Singh foundation that I know is rendering in the Jaunpur belt great service to the left-overs. It runs educational institutions for poor girls and among several other activities, an institution to spread knowledge of computer applications. I know several such organizations that are contributing their mite in genuine social work. You can compile your own list.

A special word of explanation for leaving out the once much-acclaimed Calcutta-based Missionaries of Charity founded by Mother Teresa. The publication of Mother Teresa's letters, concerning her personal crisis of faith, as Christopher Hitchens, her foremost critic, put it, “can be seen either as an act of considerable honesty or of extraordinary cynicism (or perhaps both of the above). These scrawled, desperate documents came to light as part of the investigation into her suitability for sainthood.” This investigation, you may recall, was conducted by, the Canadian priest, Father Brian Kolodiejchuk.
Till the controversy surfaced, she was indeed a world-class celebrity with the film (and book) about her: "Something Beautiful for God," authored by the British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge. Mother Teresa was the recipient of numerous honours including the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize. In 2003, she was beatified as "Blessed Teresa of Calcutta". After that, her star power was so intense that the Church forgot to discipline her apparently over-enthusiastic fundamentalism. If Santayana was right to define fanaticism as "redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim," then Mother Teresa's international crusade against divorce, abortion and contraception was the tribute that doubt paid to certainty.

No wonder, a bitter controversy followed.I chose therefore to leave the Work of the Missionaries of Charity which many thought was more a drive to convert the destitutes of Kolkata than a undiluted humanitarian mission.

H N Bali

H N Bali
16-Aug-2014 17:46 PM

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