They look like any other ordinary elderly couple. But what these sexagenarians have done in their lives is truly extraordinary. Recipient of many coveted national and international awards, Prakash and Mandakini Amte are medical doctors by degree. But the honours that have come their way have only a little to do with their medical expertise. They have been awarded in recognition of their pioneering social service in a long-forsaken forest area in Maharashtra, where they have tirelessly worked for more than four decades to uplift an impoverished, undernourished and uneducated tribal community.
On December 16, 2010, when they were in Dubai to receive the prestigious Shaikh Hamdan Award, I had the good fortune of interviewing them. The two hours that I spent with them was an enlightening experience, showing how passion and dedication about a cause can lead to something so special and amazing.
Both, Prakash-dada and Manda-tai (as they are popularly known) are wonderful talkers. Totally down to earth, without any airs and delightfully funny, they shared so many interesting stories and insights about their inspiring journey, which has touched and transformed so many lives. It was Prakash-dada who was the main narrator and Manda-tai participated mainly to fill in the small details.
Here are the excerpts of that interview.
Prakash-dada, please share some memories of your father, the great Baba Amte.
“My father Murlidhar aka Baba Amte came from a wealthy feudal family in Nagpur. When he was young, he had a government job and even practiced as a lawyer. But he soon realized that the law only works in favour of the rich and the famous; there is no justice for the poor. It was the pre-independence freedom struggle era and he dabbled in politics for a while, participating in Gandhiji’s Quit India movement in 1942. Later he also fought for equality of the so-called lower caste untouchables.
Once while walking on the street, Baba for the first time in his life saw a poor, terminal leprosy patient. Looking at the leper’s deep, dirty wounds and disfigured face and limbs, he got scared and turned away. Later he was ashamed and questioned his own feelings of fear and disgust towards the sufferer. He brought that patient home and took his care till the end.
Later Baba went to Calcutta’s School of Tropical Medicine and took special training in leprosy management. In 1949, in a forest area near Varoda he established an institute for treatment and rehabilitation of leprosy patients. Maharashtra state government granted the land for this project, which became famous by the name Anand Van (Forest of happiness), a name which Baba gave it in 1951.
Baba took all of us (my mother, my elder brother Vikas and I) there. At that time, Vikas was 2 and ½ years old and I was a year younger. Baba worked day in and day out for the cause. Anand Van began with just six leprosy patients and over the years, it went on expanding and earning accolades from all quarters.
He never believed in just providing help to the sufferers. He would always say- ‘Mere help makes the man helpless.’(daan maaNasaalaa nadaan banavate). He gave them compassion as well as confidence to work and earn their living.”
How was your school and college life? Didn’t you feel like missing out on some things in life?
“In those days, there were lots of prejudices and misconceptions against leprosy patients. So Baba’s work drew ire and isolation from the world, including our close relatives. So besides my brother Vikas and (in the latter years) the children of the leprosy patients, I had no friends or playmates. Later we brought home a nearby villager’s son named Narayan and treated him like our elder brother. Our childhood was spent playing in the jungle, catching snakes and scorpions with gay abandon. We went to a small school in a nearby village, which was about 3-4 km away. We used to go there in a bullock cart. Even though I was younger, Baba somehow managed to get me admitted in the same class as my brother. We never really had any great ambition or competition in the school years and our parents were naturally worried about our future.
Later Baba started a college in the leprosy colony premises and we walked into First Year B.Sc. The college was started for two purposes. One was to provide the residents of Varoda a college in their proximity and secondly, to acclimatize them to the leprosy colony inmates. By that time, we brothers had somewhat realized the value of Baba’s social work and wanted to do something to help his project. Doctors of those days were not keen to participate in leprosy care. So we decided become doctors. After Inter Science, we joined Nagpur Medical College. In those days, getting admission to medical college was not as difficult as it is today. Till that moment, so far removed were we from the ways of the city life that we went to complete our admission formalities wearing pajamas and shorts! Our outfits proved to be a boon in disguise since the seniors did not even think that we were new medical entrants and we escaped ragging on that day!
Later on, the seniors would make fun of our khaadi clothes and make adverse comments about our so-called Gandhian values. This made sure that we never really became part of the urban culture. We would literally run home once the college was over.
Baba’s selfless attitude and his strict yet loving parenting style made sure that we always appreciated what we had and that we never felt jealous or deprived for missing out on things like hotels and cinemas.
Baba, who drew a monthly honorarium of 200 rupees, could afford to send us to study medicine because in those days, the medical college fee was hardly 175 rupees per term. Plus being in the same class, I and my brother would use just a single set of books.
We were not brilliant by any stretch of imagination but kept passing the medical exams in first attempts without much difficulty. In 1970 we finished final MBBS.”
How did you decide to work for the Madia-Gond tribals?
“In December 1970, Baba took all of us to the jungles of Bhamragadh for a trip. We went there in a jeep traversing a tedious road, crossing a few rivers. The area was full of natural beauty but we were shocked to see the local Madia tribals. They looked severely undernourished with pot bellies and muscle wasting. They did not communicate with us. Whenever they spotted a clothed man, they would simply run away.
Looking at their sorry plight, we all were saddened. One night, we had lit up a bon-fire where Baba said that he would like to do something improve their condition. That time, I told him that I would like to be a part of the project. He didn’t say much but it was clear that he was happy. He was already past sixty then.
We sent official requests to government authorities for starting this project but as usual, the papers kept moving in circles and nothing happened for a long time.”
How did you two get married?
“I was late to apply for post-graduation and took up a houseman’s post in Sevagram (Vardha) medical college. There I joined Surgery and my brother took up Medicine house job. My second house-post there was in Anaesthesia, where I first met Manda. She was actually my senior in Nagpur medical college but there we had never met. While working together, we fell in love. My brother (who must have been upset that his younger sibling was running ahead of him in the matrimony race!) then intimated Baba about our romance. Baba summoned both of us and asked her if she was aware of my future plans. She told him that she knew that I planned to work in Bhamragadh jungles and that she was ready for that life!”
“He accepted our decision and told us to get married immediately. Vidarbha was a conservative place and he did not want people’s tongues to wag over our affair. My mother was also pretty traditional by nature. She did not like that I, the younger brother, was getting married ahead of Vikas. But Baba was not to be swayed.”
“We got married in Anand Van in presence of more than 1000 leprosy patients, few relatives and friends. It was a simple ceremony in front of a photograph of Babasaheb Ambedkar. There was no priest (Bhatji), no Sanskrit Mantras and no sweets. The sweets were not distributed since the state was in the grip of a major famine then. Even the tradition of muhurat (the auspicious day and time) was not followed. We just chose the day- Sunday because people could attend on their weekly off day. Coincidentally the date was December 24th, which happened to be the birth anniversary of Sane Guruji, whom my Baba idolized. The year was 1972.”
“I came from a middle-class family with no real connection to social service. My father did some volunteer work for RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh). My mother was very intelligent but could not pursue education beyond matriculation as her father married her off. He was dying of pleurisy and wanted to see his children settle down in life. It was my mother who motivated me and my sister to go for higher studies. We both sisters became doctors. When I chose to marry him, I had no real idea what was in store for me. I was always a city-bred girl, who had not even experienced village life properly- forget life in a jungle! But there was no question of complaining since it was my own decision to marry him.”
How did Hemalkasa’s Lok Biradari project begin? How was your life there?
“In 1973, the government finally granted us land in Hemalkasa, a place near Bhamragadh for our tribal rehabilitation project. I had just joined MS (General Surgery) then. Manda was doing her Diploma in Anaesthesia. When Baba started work in Hemalkasa, I decided to leave surgical residency and join him there. I did not consult either him or Manda about that decision. Both of them were shocked and a little unhappy that I was leaving my post-graduation. Soon afterwards, Manda too decided to join me.”
“We started living in a hut. There were around 10-12 more volunteers with us. Hemalkasa was cut off from the world. There were no infrastructural facilities; no roads, no water, no electricity. Even the nearest town of Bhamragadh was separated by a river, which in those days, needed to be traversed through a dingy boat. We would get our supplies from there. We couldn’t store anything perishable since there was no refrigerator facility. So we would store rice, lentils, potatoes, onions, garlic---things that would last long naturally.”
“We consciously decided to cut down our daily needs. Everyone would eat the same food together, which would be cooked in the common kitchen, a custom that is followed till today. Wearing footwear made of discarded tyre’s rubber, cutting own hair and repairing own watches, it was a totally different life.”
What was the response of the tribals to your initiative?
“Learning to communicate with tribals was the first challenge. While asking them history of their medical problems, we would note down commonly used words from their conversation. Slowly we learnt enough to converse with them comfortably.”
“We opened a small clinic in one of the huts. For months, we just kept waiting for patients to come. We would also go from village to village. But those Madia tribals had little confidence in us. They believed in witch doctors and traditional medicine.”
“Slowly the situation took turn for the better. There were a few difficult cases which turned the things around. The first such case was a 40% burnt boy, who was dying of sepsis and having convulsions. We treated him with modern medicines like penicillin and gardenal and he fully recovered. The other ‘miracle’ case was when we clinically diagnosed cerebral malaria and treated it successfully. Then we performed an emergency decapitation surgery on the fetus to save the life of the mother in a difficult delivery process. The successes in these complicated cases helped us through word of mouth publicity. More and more tribals started coming to us for their problems.”
“We were the only doctors there for many years and we had to treat practically every case ourselves. Treating fractures; removing foreign bodies from nose, ears and eyes; treating animal and snake-bites…there were so many things beyond our areas of medical expertise, which we had to learn on the job.
The tribals have a great pain tolerance and a matter-of-fact approach towards life and death. These attributes helped us a lot in treating them.”
“Over the years, we went on improving and modernizing the medical facilities. Now we have a much improved set-up with a better infrastructure, full-fledged lab, diagnostic equipment and intensive care unit. Many doctors now come there to offer their services on a visiting basis.”
Besides medical care, you also started to educate the tribals. Why?
“Since both of us were trained doctors, we had started off with medical care. But then we realized the also need to educate the tribals. They didn’t know farming. Eating naturally grown fruits and tubers and using meat of hunted animals, these were the only sources of food for them and obviously they never had enough to eat. That was the main reason for their malnutrition. So we started giving them vocational training to farm crops and vegetables scientifically.
We also started a small school in our premises for formally educating their children. For first two years, we saw many children drop out but gradually they started accepting it wholeheartedly. The fact that we were providing those kids free meals also helped. Today we have approximately 650 students and more than a third of them are girls. We also have hostel facilities. Many of our students have now become successful professionals, including doctors and some of them have started working with us.”
Your love for animals is legendary. Tell us something about your famous animal shelter- Amte’s Ark.
“For Madia tribals every animal was to be hunted for food. Forget the known games like pigs, rabbits, deer or birds; they even eat ants, rats and monkeys. They eat them whole, not even removing their skin or fur. I could not ask them to stop hunting, so I just requested them to spare the young baby animals. I told them that I would give them food-grains and clothes if they hand over the baby animals. I started a shelter for those young orphaned animals and nursed and fed them. It started with a monkey, then a dog, then a deer and slowly it expanded to include various animal species including lions, bears, hyenas, snakes and crocodiles. Now we have more than 70 animals living with us and I look after them as if they are my own children! It has become a major attraction for visitors.”
When did the world start to recognize your work?
“We never really cared for recognition by the outside world. We were working in a far off, isolated place and the area was also unsafe because of Naxalites. So the politicians, government authorities and corporates hardly showed any interest in our work. Thanks to the efforts of an appreciative French man, Mr. Bartholomew, we were featured on a postal stamp of Monaco in 1995. That generated some scattered news coverage. The media really got interested in our work when we were awarded Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2008. Earlier Baba had got that award for his work in Anand Van and to get that award for our work was a great honour as well as a complete surprise. Marathi books like Negal (about our animal shelter) and PrakashvaaTaa (featuring our life-story) have highlighted our journey and they have been widely appreciated by the readers.”
“But still not many people recognize us. When we were coming to Dubai to receive the Sheikh Hamdan Award (2010), the officer checking our passports at Mumbai airport asked me my profession. I replied, ‘Social service.’ He arrogantly asked, “What is social service?” Luckily another person there told him who I was and then he said, “Oh, so you are that Prakash Amte. I have read your book!”