I don’t mean to trivialize our daily lives, but in comparison to the problems people face at Anandwan, many of our issues seem minute and whiny. While we fret over whether we will get an A or a B in a class or whether our favorite contestant will be voted off of American Idol, people on the opposite side of the world worry about whether or not they will be alive the next day. With tragedies such as leprosy, hunger, disability, sex trafficking and even slavery still occurring in our world, we can’t even begin to grasp the struggles of people in less developed countries. But let’s not make ourselves out to be the villains. It isn’t our fault that we were born lucky. It’s not our fault that we live lives in which the daily necessities, food, clothing and shelter are a given. However, it is our fault that we know so little about the suffering of others around the globe. If poverty, disease and hunger don’t affect us, we tend not to worry about them. That’s where the flaw lies. Since we are not affected by these things, we are in the best position to try to fix them. We have the resources and the power to spread awareness and correct injustices. That’s one of the core beliefs of Baba Amte, and the reason that I started Project RISHI at UCSD.
When I think about this power that we have, to mold and change the world, I think about the purpose of my life, and I am reminded of this Jim Henson quote:
”When I was young, my ambition was to be one of the people who made a difference in this world. My hope is to leave the world a little better for having been there.”
Leaving the world a little better than it was when we came into it. If everyone was to live their life with that principle in mind, perhaps the problems of the world could slowly begin to erode away with time. I’m not saying that one person, or even a generation of people has the power to conquer poverty and hunger, but if we chip away at these problems bit by bit, we can make the world a better place. Perhaps my youth and lack of experience is causing me to be idealistic and naïve about the world’s problems. Perhaps our human nature dooms us to always have problems and inequities. Perhaps the world will never be a peaceful utopia like Anandwan. But how will we know unless we try?
Tu kay kartiyes? After your name, this is usually the first question people ask you here. The literal translation is ‘what are you doing?’ but it’s meant to ask what you’re planning to do in life. Seems like a pretty pressured question to ask someone you’ve just met, right? ‘What are you doing (have you done) with your life as of now?’ Here, though, many people decided their potential future career somewhere around tenth grade. Like, when the rest of us are busy worrying about who’s asking whom to school dances. I always respond with a sort of stilted, ‘Oh, I’m doing a B.S. in Biology, and am pre-medical.’ This, I think, is getting me into trouble, because then I end up having to give every person I talk to here the five-minute-version of how the collegiate/medical school system works in the U.S. This question, though it seems tough, is usually not meant to judge and here more than other places, I’ve found people asking me out of a genuine interest in my future.
Independence Day Ceremony
In Anadwan, more so than in other places in India, I’ve noticed a distinct abundance of genuinely nice people. I’m not sure if this is something that comes from having faced many hardships, but I’m not used to the amount of friendliness toward complete strangers that I’ve seen in Anandwan. In many of the cities in India, you don’t get many people who’ll nod to you on the street and ask how your day is going, but here, almost every person whom I’ve seen before will at the very least say hello.
Tuhina and I have been teaching several girls in the performing arts program Bharatnatyam because they’ve never had anyone with much classical Bharatnatyam training able to teach here. Many of the girls who come to our dance class are partially blind or cured leprosy patients. The circumstances in which we were introduced to some of these girls were…a little embarrassing and involved impromptu dancing on stage and then being shown up pretty badly, so I won’t go into it. However, this meant that the first day we went to teach these girls, I was expecting some of them to have a little bit of an attitude of superiority toward us. After meeting them all, I was surprised to find absolutely none of that. I think us being willing to make fools of ourselves contributed to their comfort-level with us later, but joking and some cheeky banter aside, they treated us with the same respect they would show to any guru. This was a gesture by which I was genuinely impressed.
This wasn’t the only gesture by which I’ve been impressed. Every single day, the people here continue to inspire awe in me on a regular basis. Many of them seem to really be the ideal of exemplary citizens. They work hard, have a lot of fun, are immersed in culture, are eager to learn and progress, and look out for their friends and community. Honestly, if every community around the world could be like that at Anadwan, I think we’d be significantly happier people.
Lotiraman Guest House
Oh, and on a completely unrelated note, I think we have discovered the new poster child for 7-Up.
We all knew going in that this trip was going to be intense, but the intensity of the trip didn’t even begin in India. The demanding part of the trip started right at our leaving destinations. Travelling to India requires a visa, which takes a minimum of two weeks to acquire, but, of course, ends up taking a month because of the unavoidable incompetence of the visa office. Then, with visa and passport in hand, and luggage forced into bags barely under 50 pounds (yes, this is a problem), you’re just starting to feel like ‘thank god that bureaucratic b.s. is over, I’m getting on my way!’ when you hit the second obstacle: flight time from the US to Nagpur. 22 hours. And that doesn’t even include layover times. I always bring books to read (or this time, MCAT prep), telling myself that I’ll get bored of watching the tiny screen in front of me at some point, and then I’ll study. Yeah…never happens. But, Oceans and How to Train Your Dragon were surprisingly good movies. The best part of the actual travel, I think, is the excitement that flows through you as you get closer and closer to your destination.
The group was somewhat divided in flight scheduling, but everyone met up in Nagpur safely (though exhausted and weary of the humidity) and we started the last leg of our journey to Anandwan. The bus ride takes about 2 hours, during which we mainly got to know each other a little better by playing various icebreakers and by placing bets on when we would hit another vehicle because the driving here is seriously nuts. Like Crazy Taxi status, no joke.
Upon arrival, I think many of us were surprised by how clean Anandwan actually is. Unlike many big cities in the rest of India, there is very little garbage on the streets and less pollution, though unfortunately, not fewer bugs. Anandwan has a rural, tropical climate, so the hardest things to adjust to here have been the numbers of mutantly large bugs, the mosquitoes, the flies, and the unbearable humidity after it rains. The facts that the toilets don’t flush well and that the bathroom is roughly the size of my linen closet at home don’t help that much either. That being said, the living conditions here are better than what I think many of us were expecting and the compound is absolutely gorgeous. Then, we took a stroll around the place; walking around the lakes, admiring the greenery, seeing the menagerie, taunting the emus, you know, the normal stuff one does after a long journey to a new place. That first walk around officially completed our journey to Anadwan, all travel intensity included. Jetlag though, was a whole other story.
After hours and hours of travel, we arrived in Anandwan a few days ago. I’ve visited the village my father grew up in, so I was already a bit used to the lack of proper bathrooms, the plethora of insects, and the uncomfortable humidity. However, it was not until I went hiking and on tours that I began to realize the uniqueness of this place. Anandwan has come a long way since it started over 50 years ago. This whole area is a prime example of what Project RISHI hopes to accomplish with our target villages. There are still many areas which we can help improve, but it is still the ideal village model we will strive to attain. I was amazed to find out about how Baba Amte and his family managed to turn acres of swamp land into a self sufficient haven for the disabled with only sheer determination and incredible perserverance. Anandwan grew slowly: it initially started off as a leprosy village. Although it still is a refuge and treatment center for leprosy patients, there are facilities for the blind, deaf, and physically handicapped.
Initially, I feared that we would not volunteer or do many of the things we planned for. However, even though we are students with no special or professional training, I now find myself not sure what to help out with first. So far, I have wrapped leprosy wounds, interviewed villagers about their conditions, and started planning for future projects. Once India’s independence day is over, I will continue doing these things as well as shadowing doctors, working at the kindergarten, and helping with physical labor. In addition to all the volunteering, there are also a lot of recreational activities including taking singing and dancing lessons from Anandwan’s famous performing group composed of disabled villagers, learning how to make crafts, hiking, and just chatting with the locals.
As I mentioned above, Anandwan built itself up with minimal government aid to become self sufficient. Thousands of rural villagers come to Anandwan to get free treatment for whatever they might be afflicted with. In addition, they run a couple schools for disabled children. They also house, feed, and take care of all patients. As you can imagine, all these services bring up the bill! Hence, the village solved this issue by providing everything themselves. Baba Amte once said: “Give them a chance, not charity”, and that’s exactly what he did. He helped set up training for leprosy and disabled villagers to work in various fields such as agriculture, technology, transportation, art, and hospitality. With the help from the Swiss government, many donors, and other organizations, the residents did everything from building special hand-powered bicycles for the handicapped and making specialty crafts, to growing all their own food. Places like this are very difficult to find; I do not know of another refuge similar to Anandwan. I will not go into detail since other RISHI members will discuss these same aspects, but I just want to say that seeing all of this with my own eyes is truely amazing. If pictures are worth a thousand words, then videos write volumes, and experiences can fill libraries.