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The Agony and Ecstasy of Late Youth


Murlidhar Devidas Amte was busy cutting a leafy vegetable in kitchen at Sewagram Ashram. The athletic young man accustomed to and enjoyed doing many different kinds of physical work. But there was a special delight in even this mundane chore at Bapu's ashram.

Gandhi arrived in the kitchen just as Murlidhar complete the task and handed over the vessel of cut vegetables to the cook. His glance fell on a few stray leaves of the vegetable left lying on the stonefloor. Picking up each leaf Gandhiji washed them in a pot of potassium permanganate lying close by, and then tossed them into the cooking pot. To Murlidhar the morsels had not seemed important. Then Gandhiji turned to him and explained. We are living on public funds, he told the young volunteer, we cannot afford to waste even a single tiny fragment. Murlidhar never forgot that moment. Years later it helped him to manage vast amounts of donated funds when he became famous as Baba Amte of Anandwan.

At that time M.K. Gandhi was already known as 'Mahatma' and Murlidhar was a fresh law graduate. Bapu Kuti was then a live home - a place of work, struggle and worship. It was not only the heart of Sewagram Ashram but the veritable headquarters of the movement for Swaraj through Satyagraha.

Gandhi replied to thousands of letters, wrote editorials for Harijan and young India, met with other history makers like Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and still made time for the daily sacrificial spinning, a good massage, playing with children and talking with an eager young man like Murlidhar Amte.

Gandhi usually had a mission for most people in his orbit. He urged the energetic and extrovert Murlidhar to make palm jaggery his life's mission. At that time, this idea held little or no appeal for the restless young man. Eventually he would come to agree with Bapu. But, by then, Baba Amte was in the twilight of his life.

Sunrise over the Narmada

Even with the heavy doze of medicines Baba Amte has just a few hours of sleep. Halfway through the night he gets up, puts on the brace which supports his damaged spine, and heads for the river flowing a few yards away from his home.

At that hour even the tiny creatures of the soil are hardly stirring. There is just the soft murmur of the river flowing by and sometimes a shooting star zooming silently down to earth. Leaning lightly on a thick bamboo staff Baba stands alone, framed by the timeless grandeur of the river. The gentle fragrance of carefully-nurtured flowers follows him back into the house.

Later, lying in his bed, Baba can see the early morning colours skimming over the waters. Baba's vanprastha ashram is located on a high cliff on the south bank of the river that the world knows as the 'Narmada'. For people who live along the banks, she, the river, has always been Rewa Maiya-mother, virgin-goddess, friend, and provider. Her journey begins hundreds of miles to the east, in a pond on the Chota Nagpur plateau.

Flowing gently towards its union with the Arabian Sea, the Narmada accepts homage at innumerable ghats and temples. A little before she turns that luxurious bend at Kasravad, Rewa Maiya caresses the magnificently crafted ghats of Maheshwar, built by Ahilyabai Holkar. Perhaps the same craftsmen built the tiny Shiva temple that has stood near the village of Kasravad for a couple of hundred years before Baba came to live there.

Long before recorded time, pilgrims have walked the full course of the river in a reverential parikrama. On the threshold of the twenty-first century too there are countless such pilgrims. Many of these parikrama yatris are naturally drawn to this unusual ashram at Kasravad where an aging couple lives with a small team of workers who help to care for the steady stream of visitors. The yatris stop by for rest, a meal and satsang with Baba and Tai. Baba enjoys observing these guests and quietly sifting the genuine pilgrims from the less earnest ones. But, even in Tai's absence, he never falters from the rule that all such visitors must be welcomed and fed-no questions asked.

But most visitors are yatris of a different kind. They are fellow travelers who come to share notes or seek advice. Many of these are young friends who gleefully rush down to bathe in the river. Though he cannot join in their frolic, Baba ruefully watches from the high perch, enjoying the distant sounds of laughter and splashing water. Baba had been at Kasravad for seven years when I wrote a profile about him, which appeared in the Times of India under the heading: 'The Old Man and the River'. The next time I went to Kasravad, Baba had not forgotten about this- 'What do you mean the old man and the river', he roared at me in mock anger, 'I am in my late youth!'

On the walls of the porch is ample evidence of this extended late youth. There is the photo of a handsome young man sitting affectionately with two baby tigers and a fully grown lion. This is Dr Prakash Amte, Baba and Tai's second son. The older son, Vikas, who is also a doctor, is in his late forties and manages a vast enterprise called Anandwan, or forest of bliss.

The passage of time is more evident in the memories which crowd Tai's conversations. Perhaps she has travelled a longer distance. Half a century earlier, long before she came to be known as 'Tai' to the world at large, Indu Ghuleshastri was the quiet dutiful daughter of an orthodox Brahmin family. When she married the somewhat eccentric young lawyer from a wealthy Brahmin family, she expected her life to change. And change it did indeed. The vanprastha ashram on that grand bend of the Narmada is a long, long way from small-town life of Warora where her journey with Murlidhar Devidas Amte began in the late-40s.

A childhood encounter

The streets of Nagpur were aglow with the excitement of Diwali. An eight-year-old boy ran towards the market clutching a handful of coins his mother had given him. Stuffed full with sweets, feeling that life was just grand, he rushed along all set to buy whatever he pleased. But suddenly he came to a dead halt. Before him on the roadside was a blind beggar. The man sat crouched on the edge of the unpaved road as gusts of wind raised clouds of dust and rubbish over him. He was holding up a rusty cigarette tin as a begging bowl and waiting for someone to drop him a few coins. The little boy's excitement evaporated at this sight. How could such misery and pain exist in his bright, happy world? Removing that handful of coins from his pocket he dropped them into the tin. With the sudden, unexpected weight of coins, the tin almost fell Out of the man's hand. Sensing childish mischief, the man appealed: 'I am only, a beggar, Young Sir, don't put stones into my bowl'.
'These are not stones but coins. Count them if you wish,' the little boy urged. Putting the tin down on the tattered rag before him the man began counting and recounting the coins-over and over again. He could not seem to believe that any one person could drop so many coins for him. As the man went on feeling the coins and counting them, the little boy was struck dumb by a sadness which he never otherwise felt. He ran back home in tears.

That boy, Murlidhar Devidas Amte was born the day after Christmas in 1914, the very year that the First World War began in Europe. Life at Hinganghat, a little town in Maharashtra's Wardha district, went on undisturbed, as though in another time dimension. In any case, as the eldest son of a wealthy Brahmin landowner, Murlidhar was protected from any material deprivation. His enormous energy was happily absorbed in an idyllic childhood with long hours of play, pranks and wrestling with other boys.
Murlidhar's father disapproved of his over-boisterous, uninhibited son's 'unbecoming behaviour'. Till the twilight of his life Baba would fondly recall how his mother had always shielded him from his father's wrath. It was his mother who affectionately called him 'Baba' and the name stuck for life.

But there was more to Baba than pure boyish mischief. He rebelled against restrictions that prevented him from playing with the 'low-caste' servants' children. Even when he was too young to question whether the were indeed 'lesser' people, he protested against how they were treated. Baba would defiantly go off to eat with them and later willingly take the punishment.

At the same time, Baba enjoyed the privileges and carefree life of a wealthy young man. Since his father was an officer in the government's finance department, the family lived in Nagpur for many years before shifting to the nearby town of Warora. By the time he was fourteen, Baba owned his own gun and hunted boar and deer. He developed a special interest in cinema and could see several films in a day. When he was old enough to drive, Baba was given a Singer sportscar which had cushions covered with panther skin.

In the year that Murlidhar turned sixteen, Mahatma Gandhi was attracting world attention by walking to Dandi and challenging the British empire with a pinch of salt. While Gandhi went to jail for this defiance, Baba completed his school education and entered college. By the time the Sewagram Ashram took shape, in 1936, Baba had become a lawyer.

Tagore, Gandhi and other influences

By now the playful energy of young Baba had transformed into a burning curiosity. During the college holidays he travelled all over India to fulfil his craving to see beautiful places and soak up the company of fascinating people. This naturally took him to Shantiniketan and the orbit of Rabindranath Tagore. He had been drawn initially by Tagore's music but once at Shantiniketan, young Baba imbibed the poetic faith of the Brahmo Samaj. He never forgot these words of Devendranath Tagore:

The Divine Spirit permeates every pore of matter and humanity, and yet is absolutely different from both. There is no flight of fowls to their evening home that is not directed by the unerring hand of Divine Love. There is no lily in the field nor rose in the valley whose blossom and fragrance do not come from the breath of infinite beauty. There is no beauty, no wisdom, no faithfulness, no purity, no piety and self-sacrifice that is not inspired by Him. The goodness of all the good is a ray of reflection from Him, the greatness of all the great points to His throne on high.

Rabindranath Tagore's poems were an exquisite expression of this love. Shantiniketan, located amid lush natural beauty, was a microcosm of Tagore's ideal world-here was a community united in joy, work and love. Baba came away deeply touched and somehow altered for life.

Closer to home, at Sewagram near Wardha town, Baba was equally fascinated with Gandhi's relationship with God. Through Gandhi Baba saw that:

God is that indefinable something which we all feel but which we do not know. To me, God is truth and love, God is ethics and morality, God is fearlessness. God is the source of light and life, and yet He is above and beyond all these. God is conscience.

Simultaneously, he was deeply impressed by what he saw as Gandhi's scientific attitude to life. For Bapu's ideals were never some personal fetish but the rational basis for finding solutions to the problems of life. The result was modes of life which were both verifiable and replicable. Baba realized that it was no small privilege to be living in the 'company of two universal souls that inhabited Shantiniketan and Sewagram'. Even more he felt honoured to be able to quarrel with both of them, yet to love them immensely and also earn their love.

While the ideas of Marx and Mao inspired him, the Marxist revolutions in Russia and China did not. He felt closer to the worldview of John Ruskin and Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin which emphasized the empowerment of the community with greater freedom from the state. Thus the poetic simplicity of Maharashtra's fiery social reformer, Sane Guruji, drew him like a magnet.

Yet, for a while still, his life proceeded along the conventional track. He built up a lucrative practice as an advocate in Warora. On weekends he looked into affairs at the family's farm of 450 acres, at Goraja near Warora. Soon he was organizing farmers' cooperatives and was eventually elected vice-president of the Warora municipality. And he still had time for hunting and games of bridge or tennis at the local club. But the money, prestige and comfort were not making Baba happy. Instead, he became restless. This surely could not be the purpose of life, he thought. Besides now he was even more appalled by the callousness he saw within his own family. He rebelled against the 'strong barriers' families like his own used to block out the misery in the world outside:

I, who never had planted a single seed in the estate, was expected to enjoy the comfort of a beautiful farm house, while those who had toiled there all their lives had only the meanest hovels ... I was charging fifty rupees for arguing for fifteen minutes while a labourer was getting only three-quarters of a rupee for twelve hours of toil. That was what was eating into me.

So Baba set about changing what he could. Harijans on his family's lands had always walked a long distance to collect water because the village well was forbidden to them. Baba defied the bitter opposition of the upper-caste villagers and opened up the well to all people. During the Quit India movement, in 1942, he organized lawyers to take up the defence of the jailed leaders and was himself thrown into prison. It was at work that Baba faced the toughest challenges. He discovered that many clients expected him to lie for them:

A client would admit that he had committed rape and I was expected to obtain an acquittal. Worse still, when I succeeded, I was expected to attend the celebration party.

Soon Baba lost all interest in the law practice. More and more he admired the 'richness of heart of the poor people' and despised 'the poverty of heart of the rich'. It was the 'common man', he decided, who was really uncommon. Perhaps one way of ensuring a full life was to become one with the poor and oppressed. But how to go about this ? Even while the answer eluded him, he was sure of one thing. This quest for a richer life would be aborted if he married any one of the girls whose hopeful mothers were ever in pursuit of the most eligible young Amte.

So Baba let his hair and fingernails grow and spread the word that he had taken a vow of celibacy. To complete the effect he even feigned sitting in meditation. All this changed when he spotted Indu Ghuleshastri at a wedding. Baba noticed that amid the wedding festivities of her elder sister, Indu had quietly slipped away to help an old servant woman who was washing clothes.

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