One does not need glorious words to portray the work of Baba Amte. Be it enabling victims of leprosy to live a life of dignity, or buttressing the movement of people being displaced by the Sardar Sarovar dam, his actions have always spoken eloquently for themselves. However, despite his remarkable life of courage, conviction and endurance, there isn't a good biography of this tireless crusader. Neesha Mirchandani's book, Wisdom Song: The Life of Baba Amte attempts to fill this void, narrating the story of his life in simple prose.
Peppered with quotes and remembrances from Amte and the many committed men and women he inspired, Mirchandani recounts the extraordinary stories of his lifelong endeavours. The narrative encompasses the celebrated Anandwan - a sprawling rehabilitation centre for the leprosy-affected and physically challenged - in Maharashtra (1951 onwards), Amte's advocacy on behalf of the tribals affected by the Bhopalpatnam and Icchampalli dams (1984), the Bharat Jodo yatras (1985-86 and 1987-88), and finally, the decade he spent on the banks of the Narmada, putting his moral weight behind the Narmada Bachao Andolan (1990-2000).
Amte's defining moment came one rainy night, when he encountered a man dying of leprosy. "It was like being sucked into the eye of a hurricane. Everything went blank and in that moment, the social justice work, the evening prayers, my wife, children ... everything lost perspective and meaning," he reminisces vividly. Thus, in 1951, began the unbelievable story of Anandwan, painstakingly hewn out of barren, rock-strewn land infested by wild animals, by Amte, his wife Sadhana and their fellow workers afflicted by leprosy. It took six weeks of severe toil to cut through the rock while digging the first well, a task accomplished by a few crippled persons along with Amte. With poverty and extreme hardship as constant companions, the group transformed their harsh surroundings into verdant fields. Since then, Amte has never looked back. Dedicating his entire life to the downtrodden, despite suffering an excruciatingly painful degeneration of the spine, this cheerful nonagenarian defiantly marches on.
Amte has often said that one can live without fingers, but not without self-respect. True to this maxim, beyond healing people's wounds, he restored their dignity by providing them with work. Thus, those shunned by society and condemned to a life of begging were enabled to work in the fields and vocational training centres of Anandwan. A veteran resident recalls that when he visited Warora - a nearby town - during the early days of Anandwan, no one would give him water to drink. Now, as Amte proudly reiterates in an interview, people call Anandwan residents to help install water pumps and other devices. Over the years, his dream has evolved into a town with hospitals, schools, homes, agricultural land and occupational training centres, built and run by the leprosy-affected and physically challenged themselves.
In the process of reconstructing Amte's life, Mirchandani's narrative is enlivened by the reminiscences of his family and co-workers, who carry his work forward. One such recollection is that of Bharati Amte, his daughter-in-law who runs a hospital at Anandwan. "He taught me that the first thing I should ask a patient is, 'Have you eaten?' Many people who came to Anandwan have to walk for miles - they are tired, hungry and poor. They don't teach this humanity at medical school." The book also provides perspectives of people who have benefited from his work. Devram Kanera, from a village to be submerged in the Narmada Valley, elaborates that only when Amte came to the region did people begin to understand the broader canvas of their struggle and its motives.
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Although it serves a felt need, Mirchandani's book has its limitations. While her broad sympathy to Amte's cause is well-placed, the author fails to maintain a critical distance, which would have made the biography more well-rounded. Given that rehabilitating the leprosy-affected was Amte's calling, a chapter providing the medical, historical and social background of the disease would have helped. At times, the biography comes across as casual; the author includes her scribbled notes of conversations with Amte before elaborating on these notes. At others, it is sentimental. The first chapter could have done without a romanticized juxtaposition of Amte's birth in 1914 with a 'Christmas truce' between German and British soldiers during the First World War. Crucially, the book does not go beyond the story of Amte's life, to tease out historical and sociological connections, and ask questions of broader relevance. For instance, it would have been useful to understand how Amte's efforts have influenced social perception of leprosy at a wider level.
As the Marathi litterateur P.L. Deshpande cautions us, "... once Baba Amte gets under your skin, you will never be the same again." The book serves the purpose of getting Baba Amte under the reader's skin. But the definitive interpretation of his life and its significance is still awaited.