Baba the lion

Out of all the people I have met in my life so far, I was most impressed by the simple personality of just one person, Murlidhar Devidas Amte or Baba Amte, who expired on Feb 9, 2008. Baba had been champion of leprosy affected people. At one point whole world had noticed, recognized and applauded his compassionate and scientific efforts in this field…
But this time it was all together another issue. Baba Amte was leading a ‘Bharat Jodo’ or ‘Knit India’, cycle-march of young and motivated cyclists through the vertical (Kanya Kumari To Kashmir) length of the country. They had reached Pune around mid Jan 1986 where our documentary unit joined them. The Bharat Jodo cycle-march was to culminate on April 4 at Kashmir. Nearly 120 young boys and girls cycled a thoroughly planned distance every day, carrying a wave of ‘andolan’ for waking up divisive forces to the dangers and futility of their actions. I was going to be with them for a good three months from now on, since they were to cover only 50-60 km a day. To lead this march was physically very taxing for Baba and results of which were also going to be uncertain. But he was so completely motivated and wanted to make a difference.

Baba traveled in his specially modified bus that had a bed for him. He had to be lying down while the bus moved and only sit up only if he had to stand. During an interview he told us about the problems with his spine. He was a wrestler in his youth and one of those aggressive moments has left him with this lifelong disadvantage. So Baba could not ‘be’ in a sitting posture. He could either lie down or stand up. And before he stands up he had to put a wide belt across his waste to support his damaged spine.

Whether a short halt or a night’s stay, we were welcome warmly by already informed organizations. Some of them schools, NGOs, government bodies, industrialists or just rich people. They made arrangement for us to freshen up, gave us food or snacks. A group of participants would sing an especially composed song, titled, ‘Bharat Jodo’. Baba would give a short speech and after local leaders had their little share of lime light, the caravan would move on. Every night the group stayed at a new place.

A, 72 years old Baba would get down and go up in the bus at least 5 times a day. He was sure that he will be able to make a mark in the educated man’s psyche and make him realize that the breakaway forces had to be stopped. But in rural areas, he spoke about preservation of ecology by planting more trees and using water intelligently. He had some brilliant suggestions for the farmers to increase their yield. To lead a happier family life, he told men to stop spending their little money on alcohol and tobacco. He also hammered a point home that educating the girl child and respect for women was very important for the general well being of a family.

A cloud of cycles, traffic regulators on motor cycles, supply trucks, mini bus for shooting staff and Baba Amte’s bus winded through Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, parts of MP and UP… We entered Delhi to a tumultuous welcome by various agencies. It was also a landmark for the group that got 2 nights stay here. I came to know that we will be meeting Mr. Rajiv Gandhi, our Prime Minister then. I was very excited because the shoot was going to be in the residential part of the house and not in office. India was going through roughest phases in Sikh militancy that was demanding a separate state of Khalistan. Many had lost their lives to this violent demon, including Indira Gandhi, Rajiv’s mother.

Since PM was very busy to accommodate us, our appointment was quite late that evening. In the mean while we kept everything ready to roll. There was a huge security staff before the main entrance. There were even more people before the door to the house. But we were not frisked nor given a metal detector test. They had been instructed, not to. We entered the living room that had a large wooden table surrounded by many chairs. We all were standing and waiting. Someone brought us glasses of water and then tea with snacks. I asked him, ‘from which door with Mr. Gandhi emerged’, he pointed at a door. We pointed the camera there and were ready to roll. Almost immediately PM entered wearing his usual white Kurta-Pyjama. We all shook hands while Siddharth introduced us to him. Since Baba could not sit, so even the PM stood throughout the 20 min conversation.

We all came out like winners, very happy with ourselves of canning a hugely important chunk of the documentary. Baba remained in for some private talk.
In Delhi Baba visited Amar Jawan Jyoti memorial too, where chief of air force joined him to lay the wreath.

After a very comfortable stay at Delhi, we entered Punjab, then the land of uncertainties. Our group was raising slogans of ‘Bharat Jodo’ in the face of a very bloody Khalistan movement. Thousands of Hindus had been killed in that land. And I don’t think we had any Sikh in our group. Without any protection the group kept cycling into the interiors of land of five rivers. When we reached Batala there was huge posse of cops waiting for us. This town was most infected with militancy. Cops surrounded us and circled a strong metal chain around us. That was scary. But since the camera had been rolling continuously, there was no time think about the danger. Not a single bullet sound overlapped the speeches against the divisive forces.

We climbed into the bus and soon we were in rich rural ambience of Punjab. Siddharth Kak wanted to capture the beauty of huge sheet of yellow mustard flower beds from top of the bus. Three of us climbed up. Our bus displaying ‘Knit India’ banners started. We exchanged looks. Those 20 minutes might have been moments most filled with self doubt and inhibitions. Many thoughts crossed my mind, ‘if anything happened to any of us (obviously me first), actually it would not be too bad’. ‘We were after all on a very positive mission.’ ‘So if any one of us got hurt, he would get famous.’

We were in Anandpur Sahib on March 23, the day when Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were hanged. Baba sprinkled flowers on the memorial of Bhagat Singh. In the main Gurudwara, they showed us a trail of dried blood of a Sikh who was hit by police bullet. Our camera followed the trail.

In Amritsar we stayed one night at Dharamshala of Durgiana temple and another night at the Ramdas Sarai of Golden temple. Baba wanted to make it clear that he treated everyone with the same Indian yard stick. But the religious Sikh community inside most Gurudwars displayed an aggressive body language towards us.

The shooting was so full of interesting adventures; we did not realize we were suddenly gaping at the mouth of another landmark- ‘Jawahar Tunnel’. Other end of which opens in the state of J&K, last state on the itinerary of the cyclists. There was a clear hint of excitement of a huge achievement, in sight. At the same time many were getting depressed with the thought a most amazing chapter of their life ending soon. Many had developed deep attachments with their colleagues and they would not be able to bear a separation from them. For many others it would be going back to their drab offices, colleges or fields.

Past four months had been filled with a positive group activity that was also the need of the hour. It had brought them close to each other; perhaps more than their own families…
Stadium at Jammu. Culmination of Knit India/Bharat Jodo march. Everyone was overcome with multi-layered emotions; end of many regular activities; end of a long journey, new found attachments, exhaustion, success in a positive endeavor and most importantly… a blankness. It was written on their faces. everyone was crying openly, easily and without inhibitions. In a moment I decided that these momentous moments must be captured. I called the cameraman and immediately started shooting wet faces of the cyclists, cooks, drivers, mechanics, everyone. So far we had captured only their smiles and sweaty faces.
Baba was on a bed a little higher up on steps. I went to him. He hugged me and thanked me for being with him during a rather difficult and different kind of professional work. I was overcome with his gesture.

We met J&K CM, Farukh Abdullah; he was very articulate in his Hindi interview with us, also praising Baba’s initiative on such an arduous task at his age. State government took everyone to Srinagar by buses at its own expense. We were also shown source of Jhelum- Verinag and Pahalgam… with this an elaborate chapter got over and all the cycling participants were sent to their homes by trains…

Now our shooting unit had to proceed to Baba Amte’s Karmabhoomi, Anandvan in Nagpur. We had to shoot Anandvan and more of his interviews in Anandvan ambience.
Anandvan is heavenly home to destitute, widows, leprosy affected, blinds and orphans. Baba, his wife and son are like friendly gods for all these people. Women and children come from far to learn arts and handicraft to augment their family income. Farmers come to learn modern agricultural methods and imbibe new ideas. He won accolades by helping and treating lepers scientifically and then embracing them. He proved that Leprosy is not an infectious disease and is curable. Baba’s driver who drove his bus had only half his fingers and toes and his face was flat and stretched. I had happy chats with him often. But this little part will describe the spirit of Anandvan in a nut shell and what real Baba Amte is all about…

Among the blind there are many children too. They are just normal kids, running around squealing through the winding pathways having flower beds on both sides. They obviously do know their way around every bend. But the agriculture experts here have developed a special variety of rose that has ‘no thorns’. Why? So that no blind person gets scratched, while walking. This agricultural feat was achieved specially to avoid a blind getting hurt! Can any other place on earth have compassion of this degree?

We stayed in the Ashram for a few days. It was our good luck to see Baba receiving a parcel from central government that contained his Padma Vibhushan award…
The documentary was titled, ‘Manav Yatra’. It got telecast on the national carrier. But somehow it did not create expected ripples in media. The effect of the huge Tsunami that we rode for months died almost unnoticed…

Many years later I and my family visited my cousin Dr. Anil Kumar in Indore. Those days Baba had embraced the struggle for Narmada and was living in the area of agitation, not far from there. I asked one of Anil’s friends, how far it would be where Baba Amte was putting up? I would like to go and visit him. He told me it was about 300 km from there but the roads are not good. Since you are here with your family, you don’t have that kind of time. But… since you thought of visiting him, you must be having heart of a lion! I swallowed doctor’s compliment with a little wonder, hesitation and no smile. But it dawned on me now that if I was called lion hearted, only because I wished to meet Baba, what kind of lion he must have been?