Tuesday, September 20, 2011

R & R & R & ‘R

I just finished a 10 day retreat at Mahatma Gandhi’s Sevagram Ashram, near Wardha in Maharashtra State. I was there for Rest & Reflection & Reading & ‘Riting. It was a much needed respite in what is proving to be an intense Fulbright fellowship.

Sevagram means “Village of Service” and this is where Gandhi spent much of the last 12 years of his life, which was the height of the Freedom Struggle. It was chosen because it was in a remote village and Gandhi wanted to live like a villager; it is situated near the geographic center of India so people from all over could reach him for consultation; and, it was a gift to Gandhi from his disciple, the industrialist and philanthropist, Jamnalal Bajaj.

Unlike the more popular and much more visited Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, Gujarat State, which is more a museum to and research center on the Mahatma, Sevagram is still a working Ashram. Followers come and go for various stays, meetings or conferences. About 15 hardcore Gandhi followers live there regularly and run the Ashram operations. Many villagers work there in related industries.

One of the core concepts of Gandhian philosophy is swadeshi. This means local self-sufficiency and indicates an economy that does not need outside support. I saw this in action. The vegetarian meals we ate were prepared in a common kitchen from plants and grains all grown on the Ashram’s organic farm. We took meals in silence, seated cross-legged on the floor just outside the kitchen. After we washed our own dishes, we all sorted wheat or rice harvested on the farm, separating the grains from other particles that got in the bags. I sometimes helped make chapatti, the Indian flatbread made of wheat and water, which was served with every meal.

Swedeshi also includes a number of local Gandhian industries: composting and organic farming; beekeeping and honey; papermaking; building materials made of local clay; sandal making; and, most famous of all, spinning locally grown cotton and making khadi, the clothing all true Gandhians wear which is made from this simple handspun thread. The original idea was that India would not have to be dependent on any foreign products, especially not clothes made in England, but Gandhi honed his concept of swedeshi into a more and more robust local economy.

Touring these various Gandhian industries made me appreciate the vision of living totally self-sufficiently. However, I came away thinking that if these businesses would ever realize the dream of Gandhi for employing the rural masses in living wage and non-exploitative jobs, they would need to scale up the production and open up distribution channels in order to take products to larger markets. This is, no doubt, antithetical to a “real” Gandhian to whom “small is beautiful,” but I was left feeling that this experiment with off-the-grid enterprises would remain just that, a small-scale experiment, unless the Ashramites and others would allowed for a bit of entrepreneurism and marketing (or maybe more palatably put “sharing of Gandhi”).

I met some fascinating characters while staying at the Ashram:
  • ·         Shailender – The 36 year old architect who gave up his practice two years ago “to go on a search” for living more harmoniously with nature. After the interfaith evening prayer service each night, we would take long walks on village roads discussing Gandhi philosophy and life.  
  • ·         Pramkrishna – The 96 year old Freedom Fighter who was at Gandhi’s side during the famous Salt March which was the formal beginning of the Independence Struggle. I asked what was his sweetest memory of Gandhi? He answer, “When Gandhiji ordered me to go to Andhra Pradesh to work with the tribals. I have spent the rest of my life doing that.”
  • ·         Hannah – The 19 year old German who is doing a gap-year between high school and college interning at Sevagram and helping to develop a website.
  • ·         Steffan – The 23 year old German who is studying organic farming at university and is doing a summer in India.
  • ·         Sureshbhai – The murderer and rapist who “found Gandhi” during his 11 years in solitary confinement in prison and now dedicates his time to teaching young people the philosophy that turned his life around.
  • ·         Chouby – The resident artist who plays music, paints and sculpts all in order to glorify the message of Gandhi.

While I had a wonderful time at Sevagram Ashram, the rustic charm of my Guest House bungalow began to (literally) wear thin when a third night of a leaking roof dripped rain on my floor. The morning of the ninth day at 8:30 a.m., I was sitting on the small porch of the bungalow watching monsoon rains pour, when a deafening clap of thunder and simultaneous lightening shook the ground. That afternoon, I learned my friend Sachin, the computer and logistics guy at the Sarva Seva Sangh office which administers the various Gandhian organizations, stood only feet away from a friend who was hit by that very bolt of lightening, suffering burns over his upper body and presently in the local hospital’s intensive care unit, at his home 500 meters from the Ashram.

After that remote village experience – which was either sweaty hot or pouring monsoon rains – I needed a change of pace. So, I am briefly stopping on the island of Diu for some sun and sand on my way to study water conflicts in Gujarat. This is a welcome stop before immersing myself in a case study of conflict that pits farmers against industrialists over the priority use of scarce water. Should be an interesting next stage of the journey. 

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