Maharogi Sewa Samiti

We (mom and I) made a three day trip to Maharogi Sewa Samiti in October 2016. Six months later, it is still difficult to articulate my observations; but I’m going to try, because I want you to feel the magic too.

  • Maharogi Sewa Samiti was started by a man called Baba Amte for the service of people afflicted with leprosy. In leprosy, you become disfigured because the disease eats away at your skin. You can’t undo the damage, but you can treat the disease to arrest it in its tracks. Amongst thick forest lands, Baba Amte, with support from his wife and some friends, set up a facility with bare necessities to treat the local tribal population for this disease.
  • The givers and receivers did not speak the same language. They learnt to understand and trust each other with time. Today, if you are driving towards any of the three places that collectively form Maharogi Sewa Samiti, and you are stopped en route by so called ‘naxals’ or ‘tribals’, they will do nothing to you. You are their friend.
  • Maharogi Sewa Samiti is constituted of Anandwan, Hemalkasa and Somnath. Anandwan is three hours by road from Nagpur and Hemalkasa, six hours further. Somnath lies in-between. The further we drove from Nagpur, the thicker the forests became. For kilometers on, it was quiet and dense. We came upon small villages at regular intervals; ponds with lotuses in full bloom dotted the dark greens with whites and pinks. Most of the people were chewing neem twigs.
  • Anandwan is run by Dr. Vikas Amte, Baba Amte’s older son. His home is situated there too, and every evening visitors can go and have a chat with him. He will give you books written by him on Anandwan. His children with their families live there too, and work for the people. They are encouraging their father to travel abroad and spread the word.
  • Anandwan has a hospital for lepers, it has a hostel for deaf and mute girls, it has a vocational centre where all inhabitants can learn a skill and produce objects – cards, linens, carpets, musical instruments, wood work, large cupboards, wheelchairs and some others. The workers chisel away with amputated fingers, feet, some blind, some with other handicaps. Young, middle-aged and old. They’ve formed an orchestra. Every evening they sing, and travel to perform in new places.
  • Everyone ate lunch in the common mess. This practice was followed in all three places we visited. Baba’s families ate the same food. Everyone contributed in the work needed to run Anandwan, Hemalkasa and Somnath – a practice known as shramdaan, even if you are at a physical disadvantage. The lepers built their own homes, brick by brick. Baba believed that the pain would only reduce or go-away if you did not indulge it further.
  • We received mixed information on the journey to Hemalkasa during dinner. The roads were meant to be bad or perhaps unsafe, we couldn’t tell. We were too intrigued, my mom nervous, but something felt okay. Our driver removed the Indian flag represented by a small metallic structure fixed on the car’s headboard. And we drove. As I close my eyes, I see the jungles, wide and deep in their expanse on both sides, far removed from the civilisation I know. Beautiful. Full of character.
  • Hemalkasa has a hospital for not just lepers but for those suffering with multiple ailments. Tribal looking men, women and children dotted the entrance and exit of the hospital. A modern and well equipped hospital. There is a large school, for girls and boys with residential facilities. Looking out of order is not acceptable. Well groomed, hair well kept, uniform clean and ironed, discipline in every hour. The future of India, there were so many of them. Connected to the world through a large computer lab as well, attempting to write their own blog too. Hemalkasa is run by Baba’s younger son, Dr. Prakash Amte. His wife, children and grand-children live there too, in the heart of it. A simple house with simple toys. All children go to the same school.
  • In the evening, we went to meet Dr. Prakash Amte. He was wearing a white banyaan with simple white shorts. This you are not going to believe. We turned the corner from his house and there they were. In their splendid beauty. The leopards, snakes, owls, deer, porcupines, bears…animals and birds of all shapes and sizes, from wild to wilder, all of them his friends and family. He kissed the owl on its mouth and played catch with the leopard in its cage. I feel the deep awe sinking in just about now. His grandson, the same age as my oldest nephew had water snakes for pets and he allowed me to hold them too. What is this life? We took photos, so many of them, but have been unable to share them perhaps for the fear of not being able to convey the magic they hold.
  • We spoke in the evening about a school they want to build, a few kilometers away from Hemalkasa because the people have come asking for it. The area is difficult to access and needs teachers and faculty to live there for longer stretches of time. The children are small and as eager to come to school as anywhere else. Uniforms will remain as important here they said.
  • In the evening, we drove to the nearby market. A once a week affair. On our way back, we saw Dr. Prakash and his wife on their evening walk, and their son with his family cycling close behind. The narrow road running through the forests was the same, the forests had however given way to a wider and more flat expanse on either side.
  • Our last stop was Somnath. The fields were sown with agricultural produce, the food that fed all those at Anandwan and Hemalkasa, surplus of which was sold in the markets. The toiling of the land was done by its inhabitants too, no matter how few limbs or faculties. The community was designed for individuals and families. Baba encouraged the people to marry, a chance to build their families because they had been shunned by their own, and their children, now out of these three circles of Maharogi Sewa Samiti had reached the worlds beyond. Our lunch here was most delicious. Fresh produce, flavour in the simplicity and love in the fingers all around, of those who cooked, those who served and those who ate with us.
  • When I sum up this time in my mind, it feels like a world which was different, unique and whole. It makes me happy because it din’t feel sad. It makes me sad because there is a road ahead as yet, and it is far from where I tread. It makes me angry because they built this road far away from me, I made them. The supporters are there, but few and far between, many of them from lands beyond India. I’m in awe because disease and disparity did not feel isolated here. I realise that often, I must be living in a silo, in my mind, because reaching this place was not as complicated as I had thought.

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