After our first extended trip to India, during which we traveled the country for five months in search of service adventures, we were often asked, What was your favorite place? I always replied: Ahmedabad.
My Indian friends would invariably wrinkle their noses and stare in disbelief. My friends who had never visited India would simply inquire innocently, What’s in Ahmedabad? Amazing people, I’d say.
India may be too sprawlingly huge to have just two armpits; but whatever the number, A’bad is certainly one of them. Though the air has improved in the three years I’ve been away – thanks in large part to the conversion of the auto-rickshaws from petrol to CNG – the dust and fumes can still torture the eyes and lungs. The trash still flows through the streets, as if waiting to be carried away on the breeze that never comes. The scorching heat dances on the afternoon streets like an ungracious victor. And, as much as anywhere in this hot, dry land, Ahmdabadis play the role of Indian Sisyphus, ceaselessly sweeping dust from of place to another.
But Ahmedabad is also the home of Gandhiji’s Sabarmati Ashram, Manav Sadhna, Indicorps, and dozens of the most amazingly service-minded people I know. It is a place chock-full of what we in CharityFocus like to call “everyday heroes,” ordinary people who act with extraordinary compassion.
We have been staying in the home of our friends Jayesh and Anar Patel. They are not everyday heroes. There is nothing ordinary about them. Their heroism is utterly exemplary. Husband and wife, partners in service, Jayesh-bhai and Anar-ben possess the most unfailingly compassionate instincts you will ever witness. Only in sleep are they not busy acting in the service of others.
Between running her impressive NGO, Gramshree, and directing the operations of the spectacular new Seva Café, Anar-ben feeds the constant stream of visitors to her home, cares for sick volunteers, raises her natural and adopted daughters, and acts as surrogate mother for hundreds of young girls from the untouchable and slum communities at Manav Sadhna’s Ashram Shala boarding school and Girl’s Hostel.
Jayesh-bhai, whose smile never leaves his lips (probably not even in sleep), insists on having meaningful human contact with everyone who crosses his path. Everyone. Can you even imagine what it would be like to take this approach to life?
For one thing, it is extraordinarily time consuming. Yesterday afternoon for example, we went to visit a community of rag-pickers in the heart of the vast Tekro slum. Rather than parking at the edge of the slum and walking the kilometer or two to our destination, Jayesh-bhai drives the one narrow lane wide enough to accommodate his tiny car. Why don’t we just walk? I ask. Because it would take us four or five hours to get to where we are going. Jayesh-bhai cannot walk by the homes and shops of these people without stopping to speak with them, sharing a kind word, and finding out how they are doing.
How they are doing is miserably. The slum is home to the poorest of the poor, and life here entails all the hardship and deprivation you would expect – and then some. Still, people are people; and there is joy in the faces of children and hope in the eyes of their parents, just as in any community of people anywhere in the world. In good measure, that hopefulness is being bolstered by Manav Sadhna. Jayesh-bhai walks us past project-after-project undertaken by his volunteers: schools (formal and non-formal), healthcare facilities, public toilets, housing, collection facilities for the rag-pickers, and a brand new community center, presently under construction. We spend 20 minutes unloading a truckload of new bricks (made from recycled ash from a nearby powerplant) for the community center construction, along with six volunteers from the neighborhood, men and women, old and young alike. These people are only too eager to lend a hand to Jayesh-bhai’s latest project because they have complete and unerring trust in his devotion to their welfare.
Everywhere we walk in the Tekro, children rush to greet Jayesh-bhai; and he caresses the faces of each ragamuffin with the tenderness displayed by a parent for their own child. The adults address him with reverence, often stooping to touch his feet – the supreme sign of respect. Their hands never make the mark; Jayesh-bhai will not allow it. Instead, he touches their feet – the feet of untouchables in a society where untouchability remains a social scourge. As he slowly sweeps his hands before his face and over his head in a gesture of deepest humility and reverence, he says to them, It is I who must honor you who have taught me so much.
We meet an old woman whose crippled legs will no longer carry her to the open fields behind the slums to defecate. As she slowly approaches Jayesh-bhai, her eyes begin to well-up. The toilet Manav Sadhna has built near her home has restored both dignity and hygiene to her life, and she is barely able to express her gratitude in words for the flow of tears. Jayesh-bhai explains that his work is all about trying to put himself into the skin of others, to understand their needs in the most direct, practical way possible, not simply as a set of abstract problems, and then address them from the heart.
We come to a bed on the side of a lane, on which sits an old woman whose face is tortured with unhappiness. Jayesh-bhai explains that she lives alone, on this bed-frame, still putting her thin, aged body through the filthy rigor of rag-picking each morning. She often does not make enough money to feed herself even once in a day. As I sit on the bed-frame and hold one of her trembling, boney hands, she raises the other the heavens and cries to me in Gujarati, as Jayesh-bhai translates: I no longer want to live here, I want to go. Please tell her to wait, I say to Jayesh-bhai.
Later we come across a pushcart of fresh vegetables. Jayesh-bhai buys a selection of produce. He calls to a young boy he knows (he seems to know each of the 155,000 people who live in the Tekro, each by name) and hands him the bag. He will deliver it to the old woman’s neighbor, who will prepare a hot, nutritious meal. Tonight, at least, the old woman will eat.