Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 33, Dated Aug 23, 2008
The Quiet Soldiers
In 1971, Baba
Amte took his young son Prakash Amte to a fierce, isolated jungle to work
with the Madia Gonds: 37 years later, as the Magsaysay honours the family
a second time, SHOMA CHAUDHURY unlocks their
concert: Dr Prakash and Mandakini Amte step out into the
rain for dinner Photos:Shailendra Pandey
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
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
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
workers : Miracle workers Prakash and Manda Amte tend to
a skeletal frame in their open air OPD
at Hemalkasa; their grandchild Arunav plays
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 camp Nagepelli
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
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.
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.
and splint Prakash Amte and his son Dighant reduce a fracture
in an old woman’s
wrist without any painkiller. The Madias’ tolerance for pain
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
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,
things wise and wonderful
Prakash Amte on a habitual round of the animal orphans in his backyard
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
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. “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.”
conscription Prakash Amte’s nucleus (from left to right).
Manda, Prakash, Arunav, Aniket, Aarti and Anika in the clinic in Hemalkasa
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. •