Great heroes of history are nothing to me. The uncommon determination in the common ‘man’ is my ideal. I do not want to be a great leader. I want to be a man who goes around with an oil-can, offering help wherever needed. To me, the man who does this is greater than any holy man in a saffron robe. The mechanic with the oil-can is my ideal in life…
Listening to your guiding whispers can lead ordinary men do extraordinary deeds. It just takes a mere understanding of your inner soul that helps you recognize the hidden treasure in you. Extraordinary men are thus born! MurlidharDevidas Amte, widely known as ‘Baba Amte’, born on 26th of December 1914, was an architect of his own destiny. Belonging to an early 20th Century era, where such pursuits in a man were considered courageous, Baba set out to living a full life, in search of being fully human and fully alive. Having known his vocation, Baba realized that his happiness lies in living with and for the poor and oppressed and directing them for a better and dignified life. Baba not only made his life worth living, but also gave meaning to not just one or hundred but to millions of disadvantaged souls.
From early childhood, Baba had been a puzzle to his father, an orthodox, stern and distant man. The little Amte was over-boisterous, adventurous, non-conformist, social and compassionate. He rebelled against restrictions that prevented him from mingling with lower-caste servants’ children. He would rebelliously sit and eat with them and latter willingly take punishment from his stern and orthodox father.
As a youth, Baba was given to hunting, wrestling, cinema, fancy suits and fast cars. But behind this adventurous and flamboyant lifestyle, he had also nurtured within him a highly social and moral conscience. So much as he enjoyed watching Movies, writing Film Reviews and maintaining correspondence with Hollywood icons such as Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo, so much did he love to wander into the deep of nearby jungles and interact with its poor and unsophisticated tribal inhabitants. He had nurtured his own sense of justice which embraced equality and brotherhood among fellowmen, and was ever guided by it. Affluence was something he was born in; but poverty was something that always haunted his thoughts. If he made an 800-kilometre trip to Calcutta just to attend a concert by the then popular pop singer ‘Mumtaz’, he also impulsively rushed to the aid of the victims of the Quetta quake and the Bengal famine.
Meanwhile, the thoughts and ideas of Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore had already created deep impressions in the highly sensitive and passionate mind of Baba. Though initially he was drawn to the revolutionary path, he gradually settled for Gandhi’s vision of non-violence, fight for justice and service of the underprivileged.
The young Amte wanted to become a doctor. But he lost a major battle with his father and had to take a degree in law to look after the large family estate near Warora town (then situated in Central Provinces of British Ruled India; now a Tehsil place in Chandrapur district of Maharashtra State).Baba says, “As a lawyer, I was charging 50 rupees for arguing for 15 minutes, while a labourer was getting only 3 quarters of a rupee for 12 hours of toil. That was what was eating into me.” This sharpened social conscience led him to throw away his lucrative practice as a lawyer and take up the cause of the poor and the downtrodden.
In late 1940’s, while serving as the vice-president of the Warora Municipality, when the night-soil carriers went on strike, Baba, being the chairman of the scavengers’ union decided that he would have to experience their hardships in order to understand their grievances. So he took up the task of cleaning the latrines of the town and carried night-soil on his head for as long as over nine months. One rainy day, as he returned home after a hard day’s labour, he came across a figure lying on the roadside, which at first seemed like a bundle of rags. Shockingly, he realised that it was a human being, still alive. As he recounted: “A man in the ultimate stages of leprosy. A rotting mass of human flesh with two holes in place of a nose, without a trace of fingers or toes, with worms and sores where there should have been eyes.”Horrified at the sight, terrified of infection, he ran from the place. But he could not run away from the self-loathing that followed. How could he have left a lonely, forsaken man to lie alone in the rain? He forced himself to return, put up a bamboo awning to shield the man from the rain, gave him food and looked after him. The man died in his arms. That man, ‘Tulshiram’, irrevocably changed Baba’s life. The encounter with Tulshiram shattered his self-image as fearless and daring.
For the next six months, he lived with the unrelenting agony of this crisis. He was certain “where there is fear, there is no love; where there is no love, there is no God.”A quotation from English Philosopher, G.K. Chesterton kept turning over in his mind: “It is strange that man seeks sublime inspiration in the ruins of old temples and churches but sees none in the ruins of man.” He realised that he must face up to and overcome the fear that leprosy aroused in himself and others.“That is why I took up leprosy work”, Baba says,“not to help anyone but to overcome that fear in my life. That it worked out good for others is a by-product. But the fact is that I did it to overcome fear.”
Thus was born ‘MaharogiSewaSamiti, Warora’ (Society for relief to the Leprosy afflicted) in 1949, a non-profit organisation, with an aim to provide psycho-socio-economic rehabilitation to socially outcast leprosy patients. Baba believed that these weaker hands instilled in themselves and alike, a strong sense of self-respect, pride and love for humanity, in which he so believed in. He envisaged the ‘Journey from Sympathy to Empathy’ and hence, aimed to wash away the taboo prevalent in the society towards the leprosy-afflicted and thus, end the age-old long, bitter relationship between leprosy and humans. His determination took shape in the form of a new sculpture – a sculpture of conviction, a carving out of love for humanity, a carving for the wounded souls, and above all a carving of responsibility, a purpose, a beautiful rural setting called ‘Anandwan’ (Forest of Bliss), MaharogiSewaSamiti’s first project location, came into being.
On the 9thof February 2008, at 4:15 am, Baba breathed his last leaving behind a legacy of unparalleled humanitarian work and thousands of inspired workers. A man who gave every bit of his life for the service of others – in death too, he remained the same. Baba’s body was buried and not consigned to flames. Because he believed: “Every bit of my body should be of some use. Burial makes the body useful for the micro-organisms in the soil as against ash immersion in rivers which pollutes the water. Moreover, the wood used to burn a body can be used to cook food for 1,000 people!” Today he is one with the soil of Anandwan, the soil to which he gave six decades of his sweat and blood, a life- time of creativity and compassion.