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BABA AMTE'S VANAPRASTHA
The Agony and Ecstasy of Late Youth


PART 2

Marriage and a shram ashram

Having successfully made himself seem ineligible, Baba now had to work hard to persuade Indu's parents that he was indeed a suitable groom. Eventually, Baba and Indu were married in December 1946, and together they launched on an arduous joint adventure. On their wedding day Baba renounced his property and gave up his legal practice. In doing this he left behind his family, virtually forfeiting all claims on their support.

The couple began by setting up a shram ashram near Warora. About the same time, Sane Guruji was leading a campaign for Harijans to gain entry into the temple of Vithobha at Pandharpur. Though the temple is the chief pilgrim centre of the Varkari sect which has challenged caste rules in many ways, only the higher castes could actually enter the temple. A few months after Murlidhar and Indu's wedding, in 1947, Sane Guruji began a fast-unto-death at Pandharpur and succeeded in gaining temple entry for the Harijans.

Sane Guruji's example gave a deeper meaning to compassion in Baba's life. It helped him to nurture the growing conviction that 'What is weak defeats what is strong, what is soft defeats things that are stiff.' For the rest of his life, Baba carried in his heart this verse of Sane Guruji:

Through my tears I shall reach my ideal;
In my tears rests the power to crush steel and stone.
My tears are my God.
Never deprive me of my tears
Let my eyelids never get dry.

It was with these sentiments that Baba and Indu set up the shram ashram as an open house which anyone was welcome to join. Soon there was a poor Brahmin family that knew something about agriculture, one shoemaker, one umbrella repairer and some Harijan families. Together this unusual community cultivated a small patch of land and shared a common kitchen.

Indu, now known as Sadhna, had been brought up on strict rules of caste-segregation. She now worked hard to struggle against her conditioning. It was as if she had jumped straight into the ocean without first learning to swim. A tough price had to be paid for taking this road in life. Since she lived with 'low-castes', Indu was no longer welcome in her parents' home. Baba and his wife were now considered outcastes themselves. So Indu could not count on her mother's help, when she was due to deliver her first child. Nor could she expect her mother to come and share a house with 'low-castes'.

Meanwhile Baba's involvement in various organizations deepened. Now, he was vice-chairman of the Warora municipality and chairman of the scavengers union. For nine months he worked as a scavenger, carrying baskets filled with night soil on his head.

Turning point

The turning point in his life came one rainy evening, as Baba headed home. A huddled figure lay on the roadside. At first it seemed like a bundle of rags. But then he noticed some movement. Baba looked closer and recoiled instantly. Lying before him was a man in the last stages of leprosy. The dying man had no fingers. Maggots crawled over his naked body. Horrified by this sight, terrified of infection, Baba ran home.

But he could not run away from the self-loathing which began to hound him. How could he have left a lonely forsaken man to lie there in the rain ? So he forced himself to return and feed the man. He also put up a bamboo shed to protect him against the rain. That man, Tulshiram, died in Baba's care and irrevocably changed young Amte's life.

Baba had always thought of himself as being fearless and daring. The encounter with TuIshirarn shattered this self-image. The very sight of Tulshiram filled him with an irrepressible dread. Even as he cared for the dying man this fear would not leave him:

I have never been frightened of anything. Because I fought British tommies to save the honour of an Indian lady, Gandhiji called me 'abhay sadhak', a fearless seeker of truth. When the sweepers of Warora challenged me to clean gutters, I did so. But that same person who fought goondas and British bandits quivered in fright when he saw the living corpse of TuIshiram, no fingers, no clothes, with maggots all over.

And Baba was absolutely certain that:
'Where there is fear, there is no love. Where there is no love there is no God.'
So what should he do? For the next six months Baba lived with the unrelenting agony of this crisis. There seemed to be only one answer, one lone way of overcoming this problem. He must live and work with leprosy patients: That is why I took up leprosy work. Not to help anyone, but to overcome that fear in my life. That it worked out good for others was a by-product. But the fact is I did it to overcome fear.

And what of 'Sadhna'? They had discussed the possibility many times. But eventually it was Baba's decision. Indu said to him: 'You must follow the dictate of your heart. I shall find my happiness in following you.' Decades later she would tell a large public gathering, called to felicitate her, that had there been a women's liberation movement in her time Anandwan might never have happened!

Thus Baba, and Sadhna, set out on the path that is now history. He began by reading intensively about leprosy and offering his services at the Warora leprosy clinic. Soon, he was running his own clinic. In 1949, he went to the Calcutta School of Tropical Medicine to learn more about leprosy. By the time Baba returned home the discovery of diamino-diphenyl-sulphone had made leprosy curable.

With this wonder drug in hand, Baba began treating leprosy patients in sixty villages around Warora. Soon there were eleven weekly clinics within a radius of about fifty kilometres from Warora, with a total of about 4,000 patients. But stemming the disease did not make the afflicted whole again. For, 'a man can live without fingers, but he cannot live without self-respect.' And receiving charity is not particularly conducive to enhancing self-respect.

The forest of bliss

So the Warora Maharogi Seva Samiti was founded in 1951, to help the leprosy patients to help themselves. The government leased fifty acres of scrub land to the Samiti, where it set up a farm cum 'leprosarium'. The land was rocky, covered with scrubs and infested with scorpions and snakes. The nearest well was two kilometres away. As Baba gazed at his new home it was like: ... looking at a new volume of my life. Perhaps it was symptomatic that there was nothing but a tangle of boulders, roots and creepers. Outcast land or outcast men. This was our lot from now on, I thought.

Baba turned to his patients and asked if they were willing to turn this wasteland into green fields. But would willingness be enough? Here was a hard physical task that would have daunted perfectly able-bodied men. How were men and women with deformed limbs going to achieve the impossible? Yet not one of them could say no to Baba. And so they set about clearing the land and building 'Anandwan'-the forest of bliss.

At first they made two small shelters with thatched roofs on bamboo poles. The digging of a well took almost two months. Food was scarce and funds perpetually seemed to be at rock-bottom. Within three years, the Amte family and a community of sixty patients had dug six wells and cleared enough land to have a substantial harvest of grains and vegetables. But this produce could not find a market in Warora. People feared contamination from food grown by 'lepers'.

It took a contingent of fifty young volunteers of the Service Civil International to solve this problem. These young people, from thirty-six different countries, spent three months at Anandwan building a clinic and two spacious hospital wards. Their action broke the barriers with the Warora community. Seeing the foreigners toiling away among the leprosy patients even local people felt moved to make some contribution and many provided food for the volunteers. Once residents of Warora began to come inside Anandwan, and see the sparklingly clean environs, the fear of contamination also receded. Eventually, Anandwan became a busy place attracting hoards of visitors from near, and far.

Gradually, the scale and facilities of Anandwan grew. Once the leprosy-affected persons were fit enough to leave the hospital they ceased to be 'patients'. They became working members of the community, busy in the fields or workshops where a variety of products were being manufactured. This made Anandwan a virtually self-sufficient 'village'. Eventually, it needed to buy only salt, sugar and petrol from the outside. Everything else was locally produced at Anandwan. Most of the erstwhile patients, having learnt a skill, returned to the world outside, self-reliant and capable of earning their own livmg.

In 1962, when China invaded India, the Anandwan community did a fund-raising stage show and contributed Rs 2,000 for the National Defence Fund. Some years later, they used the surplus generated by their agricultural production, to set up a college in Warora. Eventually they added at Anandwan a College of Agriculture, a primary school for blind children, a school for deaf and dumb children and an orphanage. These multi-dimensional efforts won Anandwan a string of national and international awards which brought it both fame and funds.

The 'coffin' becomes a womb

Baba lay motionless on the cot staring hard at the ceiling, his jaw tightly clenched. He felt as though he were lying in a coffin, awaiting burial. On one end of the bed was a contraption that kept his spine in traction for twelve hours every day. The vigorously physical man, whose energies seemed to recognize few limits, was now told that he may have to spend most of his life lying in bed. Murlidhar Devidas 'Baba' Amte was only fifty. The doctors diagnosed the agonizing pain in his back as a case of severe cervical spondylosis which was causing a progressive degeneration of the spine.

But the man who had turned around and attacked his own fears was not going to be so easily done in. When his body was confined in a prison of inactivity, his mind went flying in search of new possibilities. In any case, his work had reached a plateau. His sons were on their way to becoming doctors. Anandwan was running well on its own and could no longer absorb all of Baba's energies. Soon the 'coffin' began to seem like a womb in which the rest of Baba Amte's life took shape. He now became preoccupied with building the vision for a New India based on his experiences at Anandwan. By the late-60s it was evident that the government's development programmes were never likely to reach the last man. The answer, Baba felt, lay in transforming a society based on subsistence farming into a highly productive agro-industrial system.

While his mind got busy with this new dimension of his mission, the spondylosis continued to relentlessly batter his body. In 1971, friends collected money and sent Baba to London for a major operation on his spine. This kept him in bed for much of 1971 and 1972. His agony was compounded by the need for another operation, performed in Mumbai some years later. These operations allowed Baba to live but left him with a permanent handicap. He would never be able to sit again. He could either lie down or stand, but only for limited periods.

Despite this physical degeneration, Baba's spirit fought back with renewed vigour. There were dark days and perhaps he lost a few battles. But eventually 'my pain and sorrows became the witness to my happiness ... I asked only to be used till I lie down in the company of mother earth.' Thus the 'war' of will turned decisively in favour of victory for Baba's enormous creative energy.

The reflections in that enforced 'womb' made him long for the actual realization of purna swaraj - 'a resurgence in free India of a defiant and aggressive effort at self-development by the silenced majority.' As one of his biographers, Hans Staffner, later wrote in Baba Amte's Vision of A New India:

Baba Amte's success in building Anandwan had a two-fold impact on his mind. It increased his desire to lead India's suffering millions to a resolute effort at self-development and it strengthened his conviction that this could be done by rousing the impoverished masses to a creative awareness.

Baba now asked himself: 'If we could build up a happy community under the most difficult circumstances, why cannot healthy people do the same under much more favourable circumstances? Why can the youth of India not do the same?'

Vision of a new India

For all the vehemence with which he posed this question, Baba somehow remained free of bitterness. He never seemed to doubt that it could be done. For, 'there is a divine spark in the heart of the common people, a spark that can be kindled into a mighty flame'. But how?
Closely observing developments in Russia and China, Baba concluded that a true revolution would make people aware of their own capabilities. It would propel them to practical action:

I believe that political awareness without constructive work is impotent, and that constructive work without political awareness is equally sterile. If you must put a label to what guides my action, it would be 'creative humanism'.

Thus, Baba nurtured Anandwan as a model of the India of his dreams. This ideal society rests on two pillars, mutual recognition of rights and mutual cooperation for the common good. This meant that the dignity of every living being must be respected. In order to do this every person would have to be self-supporting:

I believe as a society we have to evolve, through experimentation, a system which combines the principles of individual freedom and common ownership. And this is what we have tried, basically with success, in all our projects, involving leprosy patients, tribal people and the so-called 'disabled' persons. Consider the honey-bee. Its treasure is nectar, obtained even from the chilly plant. It is not at the cost of the flower. In fact, its act of extracting honey contributes to the progress of the flowers. You need not learn from Kahlil Gibran, Marx or Gorbachev, not even from Gandhiji. Choose instead to learn your lesson from the honey bees as your silent partners: they will show you how to develop without destroying.

Translating these lofty ideals into practice never seemed difficult to Baba. He began by focusing his attention on a plan for a Workers' University. He envisioned students studying for a degree and simultaneously undergoing training for learning some practical skill. Each student would be given two acres of land to cultivate and experiment with and would be entitled to the yield of this land after paying for his board. This productive work of the students would make the university self-supporting.

This plan gained support from the Planning Commission and thus 2,000 acres of barren land at Somnath, about a hundred kilometers south of Anandwan, was given to Baba for starting this work. In this case, however, there was vigorous opposition by the local people. Eventually, much of the land had to be relinquished and the plan for a Workers' University was abandoned. The remaining land at Somnath was developed as a centre for annual youth camps. The first of these camps was held in 1967, with about 1400 boys and girls from different parts of India. Since there were no buildings there at that time the participants slept out in the open. Barrels of drinking water were brought over a distance of about two kilometers on a bullock-cart.

These young people were required to spend much of the day in manual labour-working in the fields, digging percolation dams, making bunds, clearing wasteland for cultivation and so on. The evenings were devoted to group discussions which were led by well-known personalities. Secularism, national integration, socialism, democracy and students' problems were some of the issues taken up. And there was time for songs/ dances, plays, poems and games over the years, the Somnath camps became a major social institution of Maharashtra, inspiring thousands of young people and imbuing them with a creative restlessness. It became the starting point for a wide range of social and political activists who went on to identify with different political activists ideological streams from the Gandhian to the Marxist-Leninist. When Baba reached his 'late youth', many of these activists, then middle-aged themselves, would enliven his world by their endeavours in different fields.

The work at Somnath also led, in the mid-80s, to the Bharat Jodo Abhiyan. This campaign took Baba and teams of young people on a cross-country journey to appeal for communal harmony and peaceful solutions to regional disputes.

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