Posts Tagged ‘Anarben Patel’

Anjali and I decided on an early arrival in the tekra to spend the morning with twelve-year-old Jayshree and her ten-year-old sister Bharti. I walk from a dirt road to tar road, to catch a rickshaw to the ashram where Anarben drives us to the edge of the slum.


…the first meditative breath of the day; an ascension from dirt road beneath my feet to A/C in my face and Bollywood film-songs chiming sweetly in my ears.

They live on the far end of the slum near a mighty stream of greenish black sewage. The ‘river’ has carved its own mini canyon to serve as natural barrier that prevents the slum from expanding into the open areas beyond. If she were a goddess like the deified Yamuna or Ganga rivers (or any Indian river for that matter), her name would be Gandha, or ‘stink’.

We’re in a hurry so we hop into a rickshaw and let it take us as far as it can before the passageways narrow beyond where we may sensibly putter. We descend on foot over semi-paved paths of irregular broken tiles onto completely unpaved paths that grow increasingly muddy from the mystery liquid that tekrites cast out their front doors or let seep from cracks and holes in their dwellings. By the time we reach Bharti & Jayshree’s place, the ground is beyond soggy and the air dense with flies.

I’m unfazed… now more at home in slums than I am in shopping malls.


…descending from first class luxury into third world poverty.

Bharti & Jayshree’s father Chelabhai contracted a debilitating infection while ragpicking, no doubt from a bacterial infection of his blood. The deadly combination of inevitable persistent filth upon inevitable persistent wounds claim many lives, but ragpickers are nearly non-entities and few count the dead among those who never lived. Chelabhai escaped the infection alive, but is now a paralyzed mute, a ‘mouth with no hands’ as Larry Brilliant might paraphrase. Chelabhai’s wife Babi has destroyed the cartilage in her hips through the combination of a pregnancy injury, and jaundice medication consumed while fighting hepatitis. She too is almost completely disabled.

The family and the neighbors greet us warmly and offer us tea morning tea amidst the exchanged pleasantries. I ride completely on the coattails of the goodwill and rapport Anjali has built with this family but am mostly short on words as I soak in the realities of their life.

Bharti & Jayshree had dropped out of school and become ragpickers to support their family. Seva Café bought the family a one month supply of food to alleviate the extreme pressure of a hand-to-mouth existence and to allow the girls to go to school. An imperfect solution, it buys time and hope until the next miracle.

The sisters still ragpick for 2 hours each morning, earning Rs. 35 collectively for recyclables that get sold for nearly Rs. 400 at the plant. One of my projects in India has been to organize a ragpicker women’s society that increases income and provides needed services while reducing the rampant exploitation in their lives. Today is my hands-on day, where I learn exactly what it is like to ragpick.

After a couple of sips of their nearly milkless, probably sugar-free, weak, watery tea, Bharti & Jayshree sling their sacks over their shoulders as the four of us head out of the slum.


…a breath that seems fuller than it actually is as we retrace our steps from extreme slum poverty to ‘normal’ slum poverty and on to normal Indian streets.

I over-eagerly start gathering plastic and paper only to be chastised by Bharti. This isn’t their territory, and they risk getting beaten or worse for picking up anything around here. Instead, we catch a city bus to another part of town, paying a Rs. 4 fare that eats significantly into their take-home pay on days where the likes of Anjali or myself aren’t around to bear the cost.


… a short breath onto the streets of Ahmedabad. They’re cleaner than when I left them 7 months ago, the result of a horde of sweepers hired by the municipal corporation to descend upon the thoroughfares in the mornings. Still, there’s plenty of material for us to gather and we busily go at it as we walk the path that these girls travel daily.


… the fumes of the busy road through a filter of detachment. We have a job to do, and from where I’m standing, it feels like noble work. Cleaning The World. The cleaner streets mask the more subtle cleaning that’s happening inside (or perhaps it’s the dust and grime that is masking that). Picking up the little scraps of trouble that society forgot about and accepting the burden for those transgressions personally. Carrying them as far as we can, and trying to convert those mistakes into fresh opportunities for ‘getting it right’. Putting sweat and toil into work that all will share the benefits of equally, even at the risk of our own welfare.


… back to nuts-and-bolts. I suddenly think of myself. The frequency and method with which I’m picking up trash has a good chance of giving me sore back muscles over the next couple hours. I decide to switch pick method to be more squat intensive and bend-free. I imagine my thighs becoming significantly more toned over a couple days of doing this work, thanking the energy bar & almonds I had for breakfast. My eyes look up to see that Jayshree has gone ahead quite a distance. Things suddenly fall back into perspective. She doesn’t have high-energy food for breakfast when she knows she’s ragpicking, or any other day for that matter. Her muscles can only break themselves down to fuel their own work, leaving her sore, tired, and under-developed at best. People do this everyday. Every damn day. For years. Til their bodies break.


… to step it up. If these girls aren’t better off for having me around for the morning, I’m just a tourist. I notice the girls skipping things that are onesies and twosies—single or double pieces of trash that aren’t worth the bend. I resolve that the path I walk should be left as pristine as possible as a result of my presence, almost immediately noticing how much of an egotistical sentiment that is (as if my very presence should cleanse and sanctify) but rationalize that its still a useful reality to try and create. I step up the pace, pulling ahead of Bharti on a parallel path and clearing it while also capturing what she leaves behind on her path. The simple redundancy of the work allows my mind to settle into a serene stillness. I didn’t arrive with any mental resistance to overcome for this work, so it never seemed distasteful or bad to me, but as the peace descended it became a joy and a privilege to do.


… bubbles of joy into the world to be carried on the winds of grace to an anonymous recipient, under whose nose they burst at the opportune moment. Indeed, under the influence of effervescent joy, it’s easy to powerfully feel that the spectrum of realities experienced by humanity have no objective or intrinsic character beyond the ethereal and distorted reflections in the ruffled waters of their unstill minds. Still, its dangerous to trivialize the tumult, pain, and suffering that the world swims in. Especially when one’s own deepest stillness remains a rare treat that’s savored in the way a blind pig does when it chances upon a truffle.


… with deeper awareness to try to peer beyond and beneath the peace. I recognize that I am clinging to my joy, wanting to explore what’s deeper without letting go of what’s in my hand. Trying to have my cake and eat it too. The grip tightens reflexively, choking the peaceful flow. How sad and paradoxical it is that as I cling to comfort, certainty, and security, they slowly slip between my fingers and leave me empty-handed. How much have I not done for want of comfort, certainty, and security?


… a silent prayer through my lips… that I may not forsake good deeds for chasing things that can’t be caught. That I have the wisdom to see the Highest Good and the energy to align myself with It. Easier prayed than done.

We’re crossing from the main road to enter into a building society. Not previously aware of attracting any undue attention, I now notice several small groups of people clearly staring at Anjali and myself as we scour for trash with two ragged slum girls. One man is along the path we must cross, looking straight at me and showing no signs of budging.


… a deep breath to be ready for the conversation about to happen.

“What are you doing?”

“Collecting trash,” I say with a smile.

“Yes, but you?”

“Yes, me.”


“The road is dirty,” I say, as if he’s a silly man for overlooking that obvious fact.

He stares blankly and blinks in disbelief. Twice.

“We’ve thrown so much trash everywhere,” I continue.

“That’s true…” he concedes with a hint of shame.

“And so many children like these small girls spend their whole lives picking up our trash.”

“That’s also true…” he says with a glimmer of recognition in his eyes.

“They can’t go to school, they get sick, they get hurt. Their lives are so difficult. I thought I would make their lives a little easier today,” I say as I spot a plastic water pouch near his feet and grab for it. From even a short distance, it would have looked like I was bending to touch his feet. As I straighten up, I catch a shocked look on his face which makes it seem that he too thinks I bent to touch his feet. I decide that that might be the best way to end it, so I start walking away, stopping to pick up some more water pouches not ten feet from him.

“But are you with some organization?”
“No, just with my friend. And those two girls,” waving in the general direction of Jayshree and Bharti who are out of sight around the corner.

“I want to do something to improve these people’s situation. So I came today to work and understand. Then when I figure out how to move forward, there will be power behind my action and weight behind my words,” I continue. This answer seems more complete, and registers a smile on his face. The look in his eyes tells me that he’s understood. Action before words. Experience before knowledge.


… a small sigh of relief. One person understood. Maybe he won’t throw trash on the street today. Ok, at least not for the next hour or two.

I enter the concrete courtyard of what looks like an abandoned building society. The pavement has severe cracks in it and the walls are loaded with trash. Anjali, Bharti, and Jayshree are already busy sorting through what looks like a major score to me. As I come close, I see how there have been many fires lit here to reduce the amount of trash to a manageable amount. Its clearly failed. And made the task of finding recyclable items more difficult.

Squatting next to Bharti, I start sifting through the charred scraps. Bharti’s fingers outpace mine 10 to 1 despite my best effort to accelerate. She also tries to take the sack from me, which now weighs about 15 pounds. She probably weighs like 60 so I tell her that if she carries the sack, then I’ll have to carry her or else Anjali will think I’m a wimp. Bharti doesn’t find that nearly as funny as I had hoped, letting a sheepish smile that seems to say, “Yeah, you are a wimp.” She bounds off to the next heap of charred waste and I squat back down digesting the humble pie served by a 10 year old girl.

Minutes later, they all are nearing a spot where they’ll exit the courtyard. I move into the opposite corner, eyeing what looks like tons of unburned paper for the taking.

“Hey, there’s lots of stuff over here. Come back,” I yell.

Just as I’m moving through waste nearly six inches deep, I think of what might happen if there is broken glass in this pile. Just then, I feel glass break under my sandals.

“Hey, be careful if you come here. There’s glass,” I yell out again.

I take another step and crush a tube light under my foot.

“Don’t come here. There’s too much glass,” I yell out again. Their flimsy rubber flip-flops would have been easily pierced by the step I just made. The dangerous reality of this work hits home once again. Such a flip-flop-piercing cut would render them unable to earn, and thus eat for probably more than a week. That’s if an infection occurring in parallel didn’t do something worse.

“That’s why we didn’t take any of that stuff,” yells Jayshree.

I take another step, this time crushing massive numbers of tube lights, almost driving a shard of glass into the side of my foot.


… except in a sudden gasp.

Millimeters from a horrible, bloody situation, I gingerly crunch my way out of the minefield, thankful to have earned no scars with which to remember this experience.


… in relief.

I think of the other possible experiences I’ve been spared so far and probe my fears. As yet, the waste has been totally dry. I recognize that I would be significantly more disturbed to have to sort for recyclables through wet-waste. Yuck!! It certainly smells more than anything else and feels like it dirties you more thoroughly and seriously than dry stuff. My mind seizes on that prospect and it keeps repeating in my head, no less disgusting with each iteration. The girls have found a spot where they play house, and though I’m outwardly observing and marginally participating, I’m inwardly resisting the images of pure fetid muck now flashing through my mind.


… to be prepared for what the universe might just deliver.

We continue along our path, coming to a spot where the brick fence dead ends. We have to climb around a t-junction that sits some 25 feet above a road underpass in order to get two the next spot where we need to go. Jayshree and Bharti are over and across like pros. Anjali goes next, carefully climbing across and making it look pretty easy. Now it’s wimpy Rahul’s turn.


…and then


…for good measure. Savor this breath like it’s your last. It just might be.

For someone my size, lankiness, and clumsiness, crossing this small, awkward space is a much more difficult task. My sandals don’t help. I think of how this is yet another major hazard of their work, and wonder if anyone has ever fallen off this spot, deciding to look down before I can catch myself. Bad move… Vertigo. I thrust forward and stumble over the edge, landing in two feet of garbage.

This space is clearly used as a universal dumping ground. The girls don’t do much sifting here, telling us that we won’t find so much here. We go a few paces forward and then stop. The girls wait by the railroad tracks, telling us that they can’t cross until 9am. We wait for a train to go by roughly 5 minutes before 9, and then cross the tracks onto a small residential lane.

Jayshree starts claiming that her and Bharti need to carry the bags now, because if their ‘dada’ sees them without the bags, they’ll get in trouble. Apparently he lives around here. Just as Bharti is adding her own protest to Jayshree’s, she lets out a mirthful little outburst upon spotting a municipal trash cart. The two of them run forward and start rummaging through the waste. It mixed—wet and dry.

The universe manifested that disturbing thought that was reverberating in my mind. Dis-gus-ting. I try putting my hand in to grab something, but cringe the moment my hand feels moistures. I’m too revolted to do it myself, and hold the bag open while the girls dig and sift with remarkable efficiency. Adding significantly to the weight of the sack after a few minutes, we move on.

Along the path, we come across several men loitering around a public water receptacle. Bharti rinses the stainless steel cup bolted to the receptacle and drink some water. I suppose if you drink slum water, you can drink anything. Anjali and I use it to wash our now blackened hands, and continue along to our destination.

We end up at a corner where we empty our sacks into a much larger sack that was half full and waiting there for us. Our sacks weigh about 25 – 30 pounds each at this point, perhaps half of Bharti’s body weight. Since it would be nearly impossible for them to transport these sacks back to the slum, they load a much larger sack here, for which they pay a cycle rickshaw driver 10 Rs to transport back to their home. That’s a significant portion of their daily take, and I wonder whether there is additional loss due to the pedal rickshaw driver selling off some of the recyclables himself. Wouldn’t surprise me, as exploitation seems to rule most aspects of their lives.

Relieving ourselves of our burdens, Anjali decides to take the girls out to breakfast. I have an 11 o’clock meeting to attend, so I zip back home for a quick shower.


…and scrub the dirt off my body. The girls don’t get that chance so often. Somehow, cleaning myself feels a little more selfish than cleaning the streets and I think of how there seems to be something saintly about the unappreciated, silent service they provide to society. Sitting there on my plastic stool, I recognize how much gratitude I owe the countless ragpickers across the city for doing a necessary but unpleasant task, and feel as though I spent the morning with semi-saints in who taught me a new form of meditation.

(migrated from my original Livejournal post.)


Read Full Post »

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 Bhikha 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.  Bhikha 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 Bhikha 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, Bhikha 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, Bhikha, 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 seemed nominally 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!

(migrated from my original Livejournal post).

Read Full Post »