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A Pilgrimage with a Difference

Great men undertake works of gigantic proportions, accomplished by the call of their inner voice.  Their pure consciousness makes them do deeds beyond the capacity of ordinary mortals.  Baba Amte is one such extraordinary man, whose life and work is summed up in these lines:

I sought my soul, my soul I could not see
I sought my God, my God eluded me
I sought my brethren, I found all three.

I had a long standing desire to meet Baba.  It finally fructified in August 2004, when my mother and I made a trip to Anandwan—106 kms from Nagpur.

Though born in a rich family, Baba was inclined from a very young age towards serving the underprivileged, and fighting injustice and untouchability.  A lawyer by profession and a poet at heart, Baba gave up a lucrative legal practice to work among the most neglected and shunned members of society.  His work with leprosy started on a rainy day in 1950.  As Baba was driving down in his car, he saw something wrapped in a rag moving beside the road.  It was a man in an advanced stage of leprosy.  Baba covered him with a blanket and nursed him till the end.

Throughout, he was assisted at every step by his beautiful wife Sadhnabai, popularly known as Tai.  Baba fittingly calls her the “Soul of all my projects.”  During the early years, when they started living in the jungles and in barren and inhospitable areas while venturing to start new projects, Tai would fetch buckets of water from the nearest stream several kilometers away, cook food singlehandedly for a large number of inmates, often spending up to 14 hours in the kitchen, and also nursed their wounds.  Their two sons also lived with them through all the hardships.  Instead of sending them to residential school to live in comfort, Tai chose to educate them along with the lepers’ children.  When questioned about the inherent dangers, the courageous lady replied that just as they had cured other leprosy patients, they would cure their own sons too.

Anandwan is a small township spread over 108 hectares.  It is home to lepers, blind, deaf, orphaned, handicapped, old and sick people.  Yet it is a place which is truly an “Ananda-Van” and a “Sanctuary of Love”.  “From cradle to coffin”, nobody is turned away, and every person lives a life of dignity, is cheerful, hardworking and confident.  It is an oasis of orderliness, contentment and peace in the midst of the chaos, frustration and corruption of the world outside.  Anandwan is the headquarters of Baba’s 27 major projects serving the cause of 6,500 underprivileged inmates.  Each individual is lovingly cared for throughout his life.  Inter-disability marriages are encouraged so that they and their children can lead a normal life.  The flagship project is self-sufficient in all respects, with its own schools, colleges, hospitals, manufacturing units, gardens and even a cremation ground.  Most inmates are buried, instead of being cremated, and saplings are planted over their graves.  Today the burial ground is a lush green forest.  There are various departments for making handicraft articles, clothes, shoes, tricycles, bags, etc.  Then there are fisheries, dairy farming, bio-gas plants, agriculture and horticulture.  Every inch of space has been developed by the inmates themselves without any external help.

From early morning till almost midnight, people are busy doing their duty, silently and efficiently.  Through sheer hard work and determination, they have developed acres of barren, rocky and inhospitable land into a prosperous township.  They have dug huge lakes, planted hundreds of trees and constructed buildings.  Nothing is wasted here, be it an inch of land or an insignificant item.  For example, old tyres are either made into shoes or used for growing flowers.  The lepers who are thrown out of their houses as soon as the first symptoms of the deadly disease are detected, ostracized by civilised society, and not allowed to travel by public transport, have built institutions which also provide services to ‘normal’ people!  In fact, after the earthquake hit Latur a few years back, the lepers of Anandwan had offered to build quake-proof houses.  The latest addition to their activities is an orchestra which is growing enormously popular all over Maharashtra.  Music and dance have given a new meaning to the lives of these handicapped persons.

We visited two of Baba’s projects—Somnath and Hemalkasa.

Somnath comprising of 1,200 acres of agricultural land growing rice and vegetables, supplies food to other projects.  Each bit of land has been scientifically developed by the lepers themselves, without any help from technical experts.  There is a small dam which prevents flooding and also ensures sufficient supply of water not only to themselves, but in times of need to neighbouring farmers as well.  There are several lakes for storing rain water, rat-proof go-downs to prevent wastage of grain, and modern irrigation facilities.  It is said that even if the rains fail for two seasons, their meticulous planning, water management and implementation of time-tested irrigation methods will help them tide over the crises.  Besides agriculture, there is a school and a clinic too.

Hemalkasa is part of the Dandakaranya forest, on the banks of the river Indravati.  This project is exclusively for the uplift of the Madia Gond tribes.  This remote place saw electricity only a decade ago, and telephones only two years ago.  Even today the place gets totally cut off when the river is in flood.  When Baba first started work in these jungles in 1973, one had to walk for over 6 hours from the nearest project, Naggepalli.  In the beginning, there was only a tiny clinic to look after the medical needs of the tribals, who lived deep in the jungles, did not wear clothes, and were steeped in ignorance.  They had been exploited by officials of the forest department and the police over decades and, naturally, were suspicious of ‘civilised’ people.  But through selfless hard work over the years, Baba and his team of dedicated workers have earned their love and trust.  The clinic has blossomed into a full-fledged hospital which caters to the medical needs of nearly 40,000 persons from 1,000 villages.  There is also an animal orphanage to look after the sick and injured animals, who are brought in from the jungles by the tribals.  Similarly, when a school was started, the tribals were at first apprehensive and reluctant to send their children to the school.  Today the residential school has 500 students, and admissions close on the very first day.  The tribals have progressed tremendously, three of them having become doctors.  They are now serving their community deep in the jungles.  Others have specialized in different fields and scores of teachers are spreading education in their villages.

There is always a danger of an institution losing its sense of direction when its leader is no longer physically present as his family and followers do not normally have the same level of commitment.  This is where the amazing story of Baba’s family begins.  Not only have Baba and Tai lived a life of total self-denial and sacrifice but their simplicity and high ideals have motivated their family to follow in their footsteps.  Baba’s two sons, Vikas and Prakash, and his daughters-in-law, Bharati and Mandakini, are all doctors, who have dedicated their lives to carry on Baba’s work.  While Dr. Vikas and his family live in Anandwan, Dr. Prakash and his family live in Hemalkasa.  Baba’s four grandchildren and their spouses are also continuing the family tradition of serving the distressed.  At an age, when most people prefer to either go abroad or draw fat salaries, it is heartening to know that there are youngsters with missionary zeal, who have given up everything for a noble cause.

Besides work among the lepers, Baba has been involved in many activities.  He joined Medha Patkar in the Narmada Bachao Andolan, and lived for over 10 years on the banks of the Narmada along with the villagers in their fight for justice.  He undertook Bharat Jodo Abhiyan, travelling across the length and breadth of the country.  During the days of terrorism in Punjab, he travelled extensively in the state to spread the message of peace.

Baba has won several national and international awards.  But they mean little to him.  He prefers to see the beauty of God’s colours in the “ruins of man”—the stubbed hands and feet of the lepers!  He often says, “Thank the Lord for what you have, rather than curse Him for what is lost.”  Baba is 90 years old.  Ever since a major spinal surgery over 30 years ago, he cannot sit.  He has to either lie down or stand.  One day he jokingly remarked to me that the enormous work I saw around me, had been done by a “spineless” man!  He has a pacemaker installed too.  Yet, he walks for 5 kilometres twice every day.  His joy and exuberance are infectious.  Joining him on his walks was an enriching experience.  He would enlighten us with his words of wisdom, and sense of humour.  One evening, we were taking a walk with Baba, when Tai who also happened to be taking her walk, overtook him and went further ahead.  Baba promptly teased her: “Even at the age of 90, I am still chasing you”.

It is difficult to write about Baba in a short piece.  He is one of our greatest Karma Yogis. The various institutions that he has established, require all the help which each one of us can render, be it physical or financial or simply by spreading Baba’s message of SEVA throughout the country, to inspire the youth to serve those not as fortunate as themselves.

Though my mother and I have travelled extensively across the country, this was our biggest pilgrimage, and our walks around the complex with Baba, our greatest Parikrama.  If there is anybody who really deserves the Bharat Ratna, it is Baba Amte.

Indu Puri

(Editor’s note: Baba Amte passed away in 2008)