Touching the Untouchables

The Life of Baba Amte

When Baba Amte died here in India in February, at the age of ninety-three, he was remembered as the champion of people affected by leprosy. The morning of his funeral, my husband Ravi was on his way to Nagpur, an hour from Anandwan, the ashram Baba Amte established in 1951 in the central Indian state of Maharashtra. On the flight, Ravi met a friend who was attending the funeral, and Ravi decided to tag along.

Indian crowds are always large, but the one at Baba Amte’s funeral was staggering. People, most of them poor, came from every corner of the state, on foot and by cycle, to pay their respects to one who had devoted his life to inclusion, the environment, and the common good.

It began with leprosy. Baba was born into a wealthy Brahmin family and trained as a lawyer. Along with Sadhna, his wife, he abandoned a comfortable life in favor of serving the poor and marginalized. He worked to organize the untouchables, the lowest of the low, and for nine months worked as a scavenger carrying baskets of human excrement on his head, enduring the filth and the stench. He thought of himself as a man of the people, one who knew no fear. Then one evening, coming home in a downpour, he passed a leper lying in the road. To his shame, he was repelled by the sight of the half-naked man, whose hands had been eaten away by the disease and whose body was covered with maggots. He passed by quickly, but when he reached home, he found that he could not get the man out of his mind. So he forced himself to return with food and a bamboo shelter to protect him from the rain. Still, Baba couldn’t sleep that night. The fear that had overcome him when he saw the man’s wasted limbs haunted him.

I have never been frightened of anything. Because I fought British tommies to save the honor of an Indian lady, Gandhiji called me abhay sadhak, a fearless seeker of truth. When the sweepers of Warora challenged me to clean gutters, I did so. But that same person who fought thugs and British bandits quivered in fright when he saw the living corpse of Tulshiram, no fingers, no clothes, with maggots all over.

For six months, Baba lived in an agony of spiritual doubt. Finally, he decided to work with lepers, not, he said, because he wanted to do good but because he could not accept the idea of himself as a person who was afraid: “That is why I took up leprosy work. Not to help anyone, but to overcome that fear in my life. That it worked out to be good for others was a by-product. But the fact is I did it to overcome fear.”

He and Sadhna immersed themselves in the study of leprosy. He went to the Calcutta School of Tropical Medicine to learn more, and returned with the newly discovered wonder drug, diamino-diphenyl sulphone. It proved to be a cure for the disease. He and Sadhna then began opening clinics, eleven in all, that served four thousand patients. But the cure wasn’t sufficient. The stigma and the taboo refused to die.

Still, Baba Amte insisted, “Joy is more infectious than leprosy.” When the government gave him fifty acres of desolate scrubland, he, Sadhna, and a few patients set out to create a community called Anandwan, Forest of Joy. It took them two months to dig their first well. Food was difficult to grow, and what they managed to harvest they could not sell. People in the surrounding villages feared they might become infected. It took a contingent of volunteers from the Service Civil International to turn the tide. Fifty young workers from thirty-six countries spent several months at Anandwan, building a clinic and two hospital wards. Their presence broke the barrier between the ashram and the local people. Villagers began to offer help, bringing food and tools and sharing in the building projects.

That was the beginning. Under Baba Amte’s guidance, the ashram grew into a nearly self-reliant community. Only salt, sugar, and gasoline had to be purchased outside. Homes were constructed, schools established, and dozens of cottage industries flourished. Rainwater harvesting, tree plantations, dry toilets, and solar power were just some of the innovations he introduced.

Baba Amte’s generosity and kindness did not stop with lepers. He established orphanages, old people’s homes, and schools for blind and deaf children. No one was ever turned away. His institutions remain models of how such things should be done.

For the last twenty-three years of his life, Baba Amte was bedridden with a painful and crippling spinal injury. During those years, he turned his imagination to wider issues of peace and justice, and lent his influence and intelligence to movements as diverse as communal harmony and environmentally sound development. He had a deep and abiding respect for Christianity, and particularly for Jesus:

What is your plan of sacrifice today? You and I, petty souls, sacrifice for our children. Christ sacrificed for tomorrow’s whole world. Whenever I see slum dwellers, with their hunger and poverty, that obscene poverty, I feel he is crucified like that. When I come across a person suffering from leprosy, foul-smelling, ulcerous, I can see the imprint of his lips, his kiss. What did they not do to sufferers of leprosy in his time, yet the carpenter’s son cared for them and touched them. That hand is an emblem for me, that hand which cared for the loneliest and the lost.

Baba Amte was a legend in his time, a man of humor, integrity, and charm. Even at the end, the photographs capture a man with sparkle and energy. His smile is wide, the message is clear: “Joy is more infectious than leprosy.”

Published in the 2008-04-11 issue: 

Jo McGowan, a longtime contributor to Commonweal, writes from Dehradun, India.

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