The Amtes: Quiet Soldiers of Compassion

In 1971, Baba Amte took his young son Prakash Amte to a fierce, isolated jungle to work with the Madia Gonds. Four decades on, this story captures an inspirational journey

August 23, 2008 in People
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EVEN IF you saturate yourself in the Amtes, day and night, you cannot entirely look their work in the eye: you turn away from the full experience of it because if you didn’t, you would be forced to confront and change your deepest self. You would need to re-examine your entire life.

But let us start at the beginning. If you drive deep into the forested heart of India, 360 kilometres away from Nagpur, you will find nothing but giant mosquitoes and thoughts for company, and occasional clusters of huts — mere lashings of damp leaf and grass. It is a beautiful country, an emerald world cut by streams and rivers, but it is so lonely, so isolated, you can almost touch its forgottenness. Six hours into this silent receding world and suddenly you come to a white arch: Lok Biradari Prakalp, Hemalkasa. Turn in and the first thing you feel is disappointment. There seems nothing here but the standard issue buildings of middle India — grey cement, green mould. It is dusk and raining hard. A wiry man in white vest and white shorts steps up.

We didn’t expect it all to be so large, we say

We didn’t either, he says and bursts into a hearty laugh. And the miracle of it all starts to reveal itself.

Media and television crews are thronging the red-verandah house of Dr Prakash and Manda Amte, both now 60. They have just been declared recipients of the prestigious Magsaysay award — an award that Prakash’s revolutionary father, the “scientific humanist” Baba Amte was himself honoured with over 20 years ago. It is an invitation for the world to come looking for the Amte family legend. Sitting in the gathering darkness, thick moths swirling around unreliable lights, the doctors are trying hard to comply, but the legend runs deeper than anecdotes about snake bites and bear attacks, deeper than grainy black and white pictures can tell. The spirit of it is caught for a moment as husband and wife step into the rain under a common umbrella for a community dinner in a common dining hall. The morning brings fresh revelations.

Life at Hemalkasa always begins at dawn with a walk to the Indravati river, two kilometres away — an unfailing ritual, a slice of

pleasure, before the urgencies of the day take control. In a sense, it is also a daily return to roots. Thirty-seven years earlier, Baba Amte had brought his wife and sons, Vikas and Prakash, for a rare outing here to Bhamragad, a confluence of three rivers where Baba had roamed as a young boy hunting with the Madia Gonds, the tribe indigenous to the region. The picnic would become a crucial turning point. Decades after independence, the Madias were still living in a pitiable condition. As huntergatherers, they had little access to regular food, and almost no healthcare — barring the whimsy of witchdoctors. Malaria, tuberculosis, diarroehea, whooping cough, gangrene, ulcers and malnutrition raged among them. The sight of strangers sent them scuttling like startled deer. Baba made an impulsive decision to start work among them.

It took three years for the government to give him 50 acres of land in the heart of the jungle. Baba moved in with a handful of workers and his elder son Vikas in 1973, clearing bits of the hostile land, cutting through stone. About a year later, Prakash cut short his degree in general surgery and joined the project in Hemalkasa. He came with his adopted sister Renuka and his new bride, Mandakini, an anaesthetist and the daughter of RSS pracharaks from Nagpur — not exactly conventional material for the unorthodox life. They had nothing but two thatched huts to live in, and the fierce jungle around. Baba and the others moved back to other urgent projects scattered across the country. Prakash and Manda and Renuka stayed with a small band of volunteers.

For six months, not a single Madia Gond would come near them.

Today Hemalkasa runs a 50-bed hospital and an OPD that treats over 40,000 Madia tribals a year. It has a residential school up to Class XII for 650 Madia boys and girls and a training programme for barefoot doctors. All of this free of charge. It also has an animal orphanage — affectionately christened Amte’s Ark by a visitor — that houses an astonishing range of wild animals from leopards, lions and bears to crocodiles, wolves, hyenas, snakes, porcupines, badgers, deer and owls: all of them in lustrous health, all of them personally looked after by Prakash and some helpers.

NONE OF this reveals itself as immediately extraordinary unless one explores the tenacious will and dedication it took to accomplish it. To live in Hemalkasa in the 1970s meant poverty and utter isolation. There was no electricity for 17 years, no supplies, no school, no community. Food meant a simple, unchanging menu of rice and moong dal, darkness meant the hiss of the hurricane lamp. For six months in the year, Hemalkasa was completely cut off when the river Bandia flooded in July. News of the world only came in sporadic gusts when Jagan Mechakale, a Herculean volunteer, cycled or walked the 60 kilometres from base campNagepelli to deliver messages. Once a year, Sadhnatai — Baba’s warrior wife — walked the distance herself to see if her youngest and his family were still alive. In 1975, it took several months for Prakash to know his second son Aniket had been born — and had been sick. When he was barely 18 months old, they almost lost their elder son Diganth to cerebral malaria; he suffered from epileptic fits for years afterwards. Manda, a deceptively strong woman, short on words, high on action, wept then and again years later when all three of her children — Diganth, Aniket and adopted daughter Aarti — consecutively failed their board examinations. Had they done right in choosing this life for their children? “There was an atmosphere of death in the house when this happened,” says Prakash, “but we absorbed these shocks and kept moving on.”

Ask him what kept him in Hemalkasa through all this, though, and his response is instinctive and quick. “Manda’s companionship — and the people’s faith. That is what keeps us here. I have never seen such tolerance for pain. They come to us from a radius of 200 kilometres, we try to help them. Sometimes when I cut their wounds, the pus sprays onto my face and body. We never had gloves but it never mattered. When I watch their wounds — black, poisonous, foul-smelling — slowly turning red and healthy, that is my reward.”

This unassuming compassion — this life-affirming gratification in serving others — is the foundational chromosome of the Amte legend. Every family member — and the vast armies of volunteers and journeymen who have walked the path with them — seems to

have it in differing measure. It has been, or is being, played out across a hundred projects in places like Anandwan, Somnath, Yavatmal and the banks of the Narmada. It has sprung hospitals and schools and universities and communes and self-generated employment out of unrelenting jungle and hard stone. More, it has sprung dignity and self-reliance for thousands of the most outcast and destitute. This simple, unassuming compassion — this way of life — presents itself as an unspoken challenge to the most fleeting of visitors.

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The walk to the river is done, a light drizzle has set in. As the Amtes turn into their compound, a Madia family is leaving the hospital with a newborn baby, barely a few hours old. The mother, a frail slip of a girl, steps into the drizzle with her baby and climbs into a makeshift cart — a charpoy balanced between two bicycles. Simple, stoic, they walk into the rain. The OPD has begun. Lines of ailing tribal men and women walk to a counter and give their name and village; assistants either pull out old case histories meticulously filed, or make fresh ones. Diganth, now a qualified surgeon, and his wife Anika Sadhale, a gynecologist from Goa who laughingly says she did not just “reply” to the matrimonial, she “applied” for it, are at their stations: the third generation of Amtes to subsume their lives to the service of others. A severely wheezing barebreasted woman is slowly stopping to gasp. She had just raced past us at the river, perched on a motorcycle between two men. Now the generator has been put on, a nebuliser is breathing gentle breath into her. In the open air shed a short distance away, Prakash and Manda dress an amputated foot. The patient — an old man — lies stoically on the hard floor; he does not want a hospital bed. A wood-fire smoulders near him. A few feet away, a ragged skeleton is recovering from tuberculosis next to a toddler with kidney failure.

All of this would make an urban doctor faint, but in truth, it speaks of daily miracles over three decades. It speaks of lives saved without elaborate investigations or prophylactics. It speaks of urgent operations under torchlight, of emergency deliveries and complicated cataracts executed on the run with a textbook on the side. (Dr Prakash’s first delivery was an emergency caesarean: a tranverse baby dead in the womb, a mother in shock. He had to literally cut the baby limb by limb out of the mother’s body one night without anaesthesia in candlelight. She walked away the next day. A couple of years later, she returned to deliver a healthy child, alleviating some of the tortured dilemmas of that night.)

AS THE day progresses at Hemalkasa, 17 teachers in starched white and rows of boys and girls freshly fed in batches line up under some trees. A melodious song rises in the air to the resounding beat of a drum. School has begun. When you remember that this project began with one teacher and 25 children of all ages, 15 of whom ran away in the first month, the standard issue buildings lose all of their disappointment. Hemalkasa is nothing short of a miracle wrought by human will.

Prakash — on the surface a mild, likable man, gifted with sudden bouts of delightful, self-deprecatory humour — is now taking a round of his orphanage, a menagerie of rescued animals brought in from the forests by tribals. Jaspar the hyena frolics with him, George Bush the wolf pounces on a roti, Ranghu the leopard playfully nibbles at his arm. Sheer spectacle, yet Prakash seems disarmingly untouched by his accomplishments. There is nothing pious or self-righteous about either him or Manda — what you get instead is an infectious appetite for adventure, a rich story told more in its physical evidence than in words. As Prakash moves from animal cage to patient, dressed in his perennial white vest and white shorts, little Arunav, their three-year old grandson, trails barefoot behind him, feeding the deer and squirrels, unconsciously absorbing his grandfather’s fearlessness.

Life in Hemalkasa has always meant a continuous and present danger. A fraught tightrope between Naxal guns and state suspicion, nearfatal accidents and bouts of ill-health. Four years ago, while showing a poisonous Russel’s viper to a visitor, Prakash was momentarily distracted and it emptied its fangs into him. But nothing can perturb him, his children vouch: he always exudes a quiet, unflappable dignity in a crisis. He is the shade tree you take for granted, until it is cut down. Now, instead of flinging the snake from him, he gently extricated it and put it back in its cage before walking towards Manda in the clinic. She, always the fit partner, the shadow he leans on, did not panic either. On his way back to the house while she got the antidote ready, Prakash collapsed at the threshold and his blood pressure dropped to zero. A long hot drive took him to Nagpur; ten excruciating days followed. His body swelled like a balloon, blistering in a hundred places. Not once did he complain. Both husband and wife — still visibly and palpably in love — have this understated sturdiness about them. Not for them the glib sentence, the worldly pitch. Instead, you sense the close workings of Nature in them, a kind of wise acceptance born of daily grappling with life and death.

“One good thing came of the snake bite,” Gopal Phadnis, headmaster and co-traveller at Hemalkasa, laughs. “Prakash was never a talker, but he began to talk more after the bite.”

In faraway Anandwan, Prakash’s 82-yearold mother Sadhnatai says, “I have no words to describe what Prakash and Manda have done. I feel guilty to think that they relived everything we had already been through, but I don’t regret it once.” Tai’s remembrance bears within it a vast and complex history. A double helix of sacrifice, a double helix of achievement.

It was not easy to be Baba and Tai’s sons. Baba was a tall, tempestuous man, “a living storm”, as Tai puts it, that came to roost in her nest. In trying to tame it, she became a part of the storm herself, as did her sons. Stories of Baba’s youth abound. His family had ancestral homes and 450 acres of land, he wore pinstriped suits, hunted, played bridge and jazzed about in a Singer sports car nicknamed Green Lady with leopard skin covers on its seats. But very quickly things began to wreak transformations within him: there was Gandhi, Tagore, visits to Shantiniketan, Vinoba Bhave, and the revolutionary poetry of Sane Guruji. There was also his growing sense of a wilful callousness in families like his, an engineered blindness to those less fortunate. But in a curious way, his mentally ill mother Laxmibai wrought the most powerful transformations. Her illness set her free from convention and, in turn, liberated her intensely loved son. “I am basically the mad son of a mad mother,” he once told a biographer.

That madness — creative, white hot — sent him on a frenzied journey that would last more than 70 years and draw thousands into its magnetic field. At first it led him through a series of purificatory experiments: he declared sanyas, grew his beard and nails and restricted his diet. But an accidental encounter with Sadhanatai, the shy daughter of a Brahmin family, put a quick end to that. An electric love blossomed. Tougher experiments followed. After their marriage, for instance, Baba took Tai, who had never crossed the boundaries of religion, community and caste, to live in Shram Ashram, a low-caste workers’ commune in Warora. He followed this with stints as the president of the Sweepers’ Union, and then as a night soil worker, cleaning dry latrines.

But all of this paled before Baba’s chance meeting with a dying leper one dark, rainy night. If compassion is the X chromosome of the Amte legend, the Y chromosome is the confrontation of fear. Here was a man liquefying in maggots. Terrified, Baba — who prided himself on an absence of fear — recoiled physically. That image and his own fear plagued him so intensely, he forced himself to go back and tend to the man: Tulshiram. It became the pivotal experience of his life.

Training himself in the treatment of leprosy in the School of Tropical Medicine in Calcutta, in 1951, Baba moved with Tai and his toddler sons, Vikas and Prakash, to a grant land of 50 acres near Warora. Rocky, overrun by snakes and scorpions, it was, in his words, “outcast land for outcast people”. Accompanied by six leprosy patients, one lame cow, one dog, Rs 14, and a comet’s tail of stigma, they set up home under a bargat tree. Their horrified families did not visit them for over 10 years. Early life in Anandwan was a “daily fight with death” as Sadhnatai puts it. There was heat, hard labour, leopards, scorpions, snakes, wild boar — and a wild dream. The toddlers scratched about in the sand and played with the lepers’ kids, while their parents worked. “I could not even buy them a packet of biscuits for 50 annas,” Tai remembers. “I was so overworked, I used to get annoyed sometimes if they finished the dry rotis I packed for them in the morning. When Vikas was about five, he once came and asked me for some money. ‘What do you want it for,’ I asked him. He told me he wanted to go to the market and buy some friends.”

HISTORY IS strewn with the tragic tailends of visionary men: resentful children who grow up hostile to their parents’ legacy, sometimes rebellious, sometimes wasted, sometimes ordinary, inevitably nagged by a poor sense of self-worth. The Amte boys could easily have gone that route. By all accounts, Baba was not the most simple of men — as father, husband or leader. A poet. A dreamer. A magnet. A soldier. Hypnotic. Heroic. Eloquent. Inspirational. Quick-tempered. Brus que. Impatient. Attributes flow around him in kaleidoscopic waves. “It is difficult to understand Baba unless you met him. To talk of him now is like the story of the six blind men describing an elephant,” chuckles Vilas Manohar, Prakash’s brotherin- law and one of his staunchest allies in Hemalkasa. Vilas used to run a successful aircoolers business and was a glider pilot and national rifle champion when he strayed into Baba’s energy field during one of his famed youth camps at Somnath. “I went to Anandwan and offered Baba some money. ‘More than money we need people,’ Baba said to me.” Moved, like scores of others, Vilas gave up everything. “One way of understanding Baba,” he says, “is to trace the stories and observe the people who were drawn to him.”

But as with every Amte undertaking — beyond the words, beyond even the people, the work stands awesome testimony. Today, gone is every trace of that outcast land for outcast people. Anandwan is a humming, thriving community of almost 5,000 people. It has a leprosy hospital for more than 2,000 patients and another one for general category patients; it has a home for senior citizens; a vocational training centre for the physically disabled; it has colleges of art, science, commerce and agriculture with a student strength of 2,500 and a school for the blind and deaf-mute; it has workshops, manufacturing units and power looms run by the disabled and the cured; it has numerous agro-industries and 1,200 acres of land being used for modern farming. It also has a unique orchestra — Swaranandwan — peopled by the deaf, dumb and leprosy-afflicted. All this has been the focus of global applause, and much of this astonishing growth in Anandwan has been driven over the last two decades by Vikas Amte, the elder of Baba’s two sons, and chairman of the parent organisation — Maharogi Sewa Samiti.

Yet, the Amte children could easily have gone another route. “Isolation, extreme isolation,” is how Prakash Amte remembers his early childhood with brother Vikas in Anandwan. The double helix his mother refers to is his choosing to go to remote Hemalkasa as an adult, daring to retrace an arc the family had already lived through. “In a sense, we were afraid of Baba, and when we were in school and college we were always under such public scrutiny as Baba’s sons, we could not even go to see a film. I felt that as a torture in my life,” Prakash says quietly.

There are reasons why neither he nor his brother rebelled though, reasons why neither sought another life.

In concert: Dr Prakash and Mandakini Amte step out into the rain for dinner Photos:Shailendra Pandey

In concert: Dr Prakash and Mandakini Amte step out into the rain for dinner Photos:Shailendra Pandey

“For years, people thought we were the useless sons of a big man,” Prakash smiles, “and you could say we had a tacit sibling rivalry with hundreds of people when we were growing up. But none of that really mattered. What I admired most about Baba was his compassion. My earliest memories are of watching him tend personally to the sores of the leprosy patients in Anandwan, and I think that karuna seeped into me.”

The miracle is it seems to have also seeped into three generations of Amtes — across branches of the family tree. In Hemalkasa, while Prakash’s elder son Diganth and his wife Anika dispense medicine, the younger Aniket, who graduated in civil engineering, has taken on the project’s administration; and daughter Aarti is enlisted as a nurse. In Anandwan, while Vikas himself has moved on to a new project in Yavatmal in the besieged Vidharbha district of Maharashtra, his son Kaustubh, a cost accountant, now manages the complex finances and running of the township, and daughter Sheetal has begun to consolidate and organise its vast and chaotic archive. Each generation has mutated the legacy in its own unique way. An extension of Prakash and Manda’s temperament perhaps, Hemalkasa feels small and intimate: the headlong rush of Baba transmuted into a gentler brook. “Baba had large visions — Bharat Jodo,” says Prakash. “Our vision is more local.” It is also more mindful of small, human emotions. “Baba once told me he wished he had been my son rather than my father,” laughs Prakash, with a quiet sense of what he himself has sculpted.

Anandwan, fuelled by Vikas, on the other hand, has modernised and grown. “Baba passed away on February 9 this year, but we didn’t declare it a holiday in Anandwan,” says Kaustubh, sitting in a large black leather chair, at first glance disconcertingly trendy and seemingly removed from his family’s inspiring story. As the younger generations have joined, there have inevitably been small skirmishes of vision and style, as computers and cellphones have replaced Jagan’s marathon telegraphic cycle rides, and Tata Safaris have come to be parked in the compound. But Baba’s philosophies run more than surface deep. Kaustubh could have chosen a career that brought him money and ease, but like his cousins, he volunteered to return. “Baba never wanted to be deified. His death should mean nothing to us because he was not an era, he was a thought process and we have to live out that thought and make it grow,” he says. “My father always says this was not meant to be Baba Amte and Sons Pvt Ltd, and it is true, we need new blood, new young people to join the work.”

download (3)CHARITY DESTROYS, work builds. That is the rock on which Baba stood his vision of an equal, integrated world. It is the credo Vikas has taken with him to Yavatmal, to help the farmers of Vidharbha learn to stand on their feet. “The real measure of Baba’s work is that those who were in distress can now help others,” says Vikas. Indeed, almost everything in Hemalkasa and Anandwan has been cleared and built by a workforce from Anandwan itself. It is perhaps this insistence on self-reliance that gives the township its peculiar sense of serenity and dignity and joy. Everything there is relentlessly clean and industrious.

In Sandhi Niketan, Anandwan’s vocational centre for the disabled, the centre’s director, Sadashiv Tajane — a large, hearty, energetic man on a wheelchair — encapsulates the legacy of the Amtes in a way nothing else can. Tajane was three years old when he lost both his legs to polio. Son of a poor labourer, and one of eight siblings — “I think my parents wanted a cricket team!” he booms — he used to walk to his school on his hands, determined to get himself an education. After Class X, there was no further he could go. That is when he braved his way into Anandwan — still a terrifying, forbidden place in people’s imagination. He asked Baba if he could enroll in his college for lepers. Baba conceded but insisted Tajane learn some vocation as well. Where will your education get you, Baba used to say, who will give you a job? Driven by Baba, Tajane learnt weaving, carpentry and electricals. When he finished college, Baba urged him to start a vocational centre for the disabled. Tajane began to strafe the surrounding villages urging the handicapped to join them: a crippled surveyor in a bullock cart driven by a leper. It took a lot of persuasion, but slowly, seduced by his boundless enthusiasm, men and women began to trickle in. Today Sandhi Niketan has 103 full-time students, with others knocking the doors down.

There is a curious air of celebration in the building: a blind boy whistles down a corridor, another with a kind face — more torso than boy really, and confined to a wheelchair — mimicks Nana Patekar to peals of laughter and claps. Outside, 50 couples – the result of interdisability marriages that Sadhnatai lobbied hard with Baba for — light their evening fires.

Tajane himself wheels briskly through the corridors, flailing his hands about in excitement. He is steered by his younger son, Yogesh — perfectly healthy and strong, born of Tajane’s marriage to Asha, a deaf and mute woman. His elder son Rajesh is a sales manager with Reliance, earning Rs 20,000 a month. Tajane’s life, once a closed book, now teems with boundless possibility. “Anandwan gave me a second life,” says he. “If I am born again, and I am born a cripple, I will have no regrets.”

As long as there are people like the Amtes in the world, he needs to add.

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