There was a hit series a while ago called ‘24’ which captured 24 hours in the riveting life of some secret agent played by Kiefer Sutherland. Now in India for just over 24 hours, I feel like the last 24 hours in my life have been like watching something like a ‘service 24’ worthy of the small screen. I might be rambling on in this post, but every moment back has been simultaneously surreal, too-real, and thrilling… and so I’ve got to capture it before it dims into ‘normalcy’.
Not expecting anyone to meet me at the airport in Ahmedabad, the combination of my suitcases coming out late and a trip to the currency exchange counter makes me one of the last people out of the terminal. Unable to find a ‘prepaid taxi’ counter, I walk out of the airport door expecting to hire a cab or richshaw to take me to Virenbhai’s house. Instead, Sirishbhai and Bhikhu are standing there smiling, joking about how they were just about to give up on me and leave. It’s quite late, and I’m touched that they went through all the effort of bringing car to fetch me at this hour. Sirishbhai pretends like he stays up this late all the time, but I can tell he’s tired. Bhikhu says he would have come alone, but Sirishbhai didn’t think I’d remember who he was. Though we’ve seen each other from afar around the ashram, our one an only real conversation was almost a year ago when some friends set out an a walk for good. Sirishbhai certainly didn’t know that our one five-minute conversation emblazoned Bhikhu into my mind forever as he shared the tragic story of his sister’s life and untimely death, forging a bond where he allowed me to briefly share his pain and lighten his suffering while growing a tiny bit in compassion.
Over a cool glass of water at Virenbhai’s, he shares the story of one of Manav Sadhna’s latest programs. About two months ago, an old lady approached him in the slum. She hadn’t eaten for two and a half days. They immediately began shuffling to get her some food, but she said that she didn’t want any. She was worried about her son at home, who hadn’t eaten for a week. Her son is blind, and they soon learn that she too has become recently blind as her cataracts reached full maturity. Working as a ragpicker on perhaps 40 Rs. a day (~$1 US) [though even that would be an impressive for a nearly blind old woman], she finally became unable to continue with her only source of income. No income means no food, neither for herself nor her blind son. Virenbhai assures her that something will be done about her eyesight and her son’s, and manages to calm her enough to accept food. In the upcoming days, they arrange for her to be seen by an ophthalmologist who confirms her cataracts and quickly sets a date for surgery. As they were thinking about the logistics of taking her to the hospital, they realize that there are probably many others in the slums that could use the services of any eye doctor and who could fill up the other 9 seats in the Qualis when they take her for her surgery. They put out some feelers and are flooded by the response. Since then, they’ve been running weekly shuttles to the eye hospital. The mass response and the need to do some pre-sorting of patients gave rise to an eye camp. That’s where we’re headed in the morning, but that night I spent sending a few emails, gathering a few phone numbers, and meditating before a few hours sleep.
We’re out the door by 9 a.m. to catch a rickshaw to the slum. Though I know about the on-going construction of Manav Sadhna’s community center in the slum, I’m not expecting the space to be as drastically transformed as it is. Previously made entirely of a mud-cow dung mixture pasted over uncemented bricks, it’s now a much larger open space rapidly being enclosed by fly-ash bricks cemented around steel frames. The bricks represent one solution to the omni-present pollution problem in Ahmedabad. They’re composed primarily of fly-ash from the local power plant and designed to be an eco-friendly option to prior disposal techniques. As I take my small gasp of surprise at how quickly this space has been transformed, I’m glad to be touching the bricks and not breathing them.
Over the next few hours, I catch up on the last few months with Kamleshbhai, Jayeshbhai, Anarben, Sunil, Jagatbhai and some of the Manav Sadhna kids. I learn about yet another new experimental program having arisen from the compassionate spirit that informs and fine-tunes Manav Sadhna’s organic, dynamically optimized response to the problems of the slum. Alcoholism runs rampant amongst the men here. As the latest effort in a long string of interventions designed to reduce alcoholism here, Manav Sadhna set up a day to honor five men who were sober for coming on four years. Placing feelers out into the community, Manav Sadhna arranged for the chief guests at the celebration to be about fifty alcoholics from the slum who were interested in quitting. In parallel, Virenbhai had met with another NGO in Ahmedabad that works exclusively on the problem of addiction and, after reviewing their program and meeting their staff, made arrangements for admittance of five men into the 30-day sobriety program. From the celebration, five of the worst young drunks interested in quitting were chosen to be part of the program. Though they would be the most difficult to work with, they would also have the highest inspirational value for the slum community and the other alcoholics in the area, unleashing the collective imagination about the possibilities sobriety. These men are five days into their 30-day program, and we plan to visit them just before lunch.
Virenbhai and I also have longer conversation about an Indicorps fellowship I’ve been trying to get off the ground: GIS (graphical information systems) mapping of the slum using high-school aged slum children. Based on some very current contexts for Manav Sadhna, I’m finally able to convey more thoroughly how such a tool will enable a more effective deployment of the organization’s limited resources, facilitate the acquisition of more resources for targeted programs in the slum, make more effective use of the time and expertise of the large numbers of international volunteers, and most importantly, give a young platoon of kids the skills, experience, and motivation to emerge as life-long leaders within their own communities who are adept making change with minimal outside initiative. Virenbhai’s concern is that it may be a step away from the sort of organic responsiveness that makes Manav Sadhna what it is, but is also much closer to being convinced that it’s a very useful and potentially powerful project. It seems as though the final pieces of what’s needed to officially launch this as a 3-organization Indicorps fellowship are coming together.
After screening 80 people in the eye camp, we pick up family members of the admittees and head to the addiction program’s facility. We learn that four out of five of our admittees seem dramatically improved after 4 days, but one, Raju, has been acting up and disturbing other residents. We spend about 40 minutes talking to him and others. One guy drives a pedal rickshaw for a living and pulls in about 80 Rs a day, 25 to 50 of which would go into alcohol. Of all five there, he seems to be the most clear-eyed and visibly transformed in such a short span. Raju, on the other hand, is mildly sedated after having kept everyone up all night. Apparently, his withdrawal was causing hallucinations that lead to disruptive and semi-violent behavior in the night. The staff had to strap him down and inject a sedative, bruising his ego and adding greater fuel to his desire to leave and get drunk. Virenbhai gives him a motivational talk, but I can tell he wants a hug and a compassionate shoulder to cry on. A we leave, I give him a couple pats on the chest and hug his head as I too give him my words of encouragement. Its clear he needs more though, and so we call Jayeshbhai as we’re leaving to see if he can make it by for a visit as well.
Over lunch, Virenbhai and I have more discussions about my machinations and micro-developments to find a way to do what he’s done: spend half his time in the States and half his time in India. We also strategize around ways to include more people into something like this. Two good friends call from the States, and I find myself no longer surprised by how the exact people I’m thinking of seem to connect at a seemingly coincidental moment. I got to briefly chat with Rish, who inspired me years ago by his own leap into service in India and his consistent involvement since, and Gaurav, who constantly surprises me with the leaps he makes everyday. I can’t even count my blessings, and know enough to not event try.
Mid-afternoon, Bhikhu swings by with the car to pick me up. We pick up Jayeshbhai and head over to the addiction facility. Watching Jayeshbhai with those men was pure magic. I have so much to learn from that man. As I listen in on the small circle he’s formed with them on the floor, it seems that as much as he’s talking to them and talking about himself, he’s also talking to me about me. It seemed that they were all feeling this exact same way. As I’m marveling at what’s unfolding before me, I think of the beauty of the breadth of Jayeshbhai’s connectivity, equally inclusive of endless lists of who’s who in service, business, and politics while no less inclusive and powerfully present in a circle of drunks from the slum. Just as I catch myself thinking he’s connected at the ‘top’, as in heavy-hitters from many arenas, and the ‘bottom’ in the form of the outcasts and pariahs of the slums, it occurs to me that the ‘top’ is really a connection to Source, and that informs and empowers all other connectivity. Coincidentally (or not), Jayeshbhai blurts out just then:
“Do you believe in God?”
“We can’t see or know God, but we see you. I take you to be my God.”
“Yes. So much help. Such sweet sweet words like flowers come from your mouth and lift my spirit. I believe in you,” adds another as he reaches to touch Jayeshbhai’s feet.
“Its not right to touch my feet,” says Jayeshbhai as he catches the man’s hands.
“What happens when you put a bit of yogurt in milk? In time it all turns to yogurt, doesn’t it? Just like that we’re all like milk, the same milk, and we need that small bit of goodness in the yogurt to begin changing for the better,” continues Jayeshbhai. He goes on talk about how in doing a little bit of goodness for each other we’re all putting a bit of yogurt into the milk bowl of the world and slowly creating more yogurt in all our lives. How the connectivity and continuity of small things he’s done for them are the result of small things others have done for him, and how the time will soon come for them to pay forward goodness in the spirit of uplifting all. Unscripted, unplanned, spontaneous and from the heart, they’re all touched and invigorated with a great sense of being part of something large and wondrous in the task of ridding themselves of alcoholism. We spent five minutes in silent prayer that God gives them the strength to change themselves so that others might be changed. Anarben calls as we’re leaving, speaks to Raju, and immediately sits to add her own prayer to ours as she gets off the phone. As we depart, they’re all markedly affected by the 15 minutes Jayeshbhai spent with them, and Raju steels his resolve to fight through this transition.
We were then off to Baroda. Nipun’s cousin Jayal just got married and was having a wedding reception that evening. My attendance was a surprise as I had made no plans to meet up or be present at any event, despite hearing a little bit about the newlyweds. Approaching slowly in the elaborately prepared garden in which the reception was being held, Jayeshbhai, Bhikhu, and I were observing Nipun from afar. Even from a distance, it was clear how much he was giving to the people he was talking to, in of course a lively, pumped-up way. He was surprised as he caught sight of us and I could immediately tell that despite the high level of energy he was putting out, his body was tired. His voice was hoarse, his eyes red and droopy, but his enthusiasm undiminished. I immediately forgot my own jet-lag. Later, beginning over dinner and continuing on the ride back to Baroda, I shared the story of how Nipun has consistently inspired me from afar prior to me even meeting him and continuing well beyond that. True to form, Nipun had found time to come over and spend some time with us during a dinner presentation, and even then given me a great deal to think about over a short conversation.
Jayeshbhai and I spoke about the source of sustainability on the ride back to Ahmedabad as my consciousness was collapsing under jet-lag-induced exhaustion. I fell asleep somewhere early on, but had to share the story of my first 24 hours in India after watching Virenbhai, Jayeshbhai, and Nipun put out such tireless energy in a day that’s not so unusual for them. Besides, I reasoned, its only 2:30pm PST!