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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Prakash and Mandakini Amte: The most inspirational story I have read in years

An e-mail I had sent out to my students, friends, and relatives in September 2009 (I did not have my own blog at the time):

Prakash and Mandakini Amte tend to a skeletal inmate at Hemalkasa.

In 2008, Prakash Amte and his wife, Mandakini, were given the Magsaysay award for service to humanity. (Twenty-three years previously, Prakash's father, the legendary Baba Amte, had received the same award.)

Our newspapers (mostly) carried the announcement prominently and the weekly magazines published some positive features. But it's Tehelka that put Prakash Amte and his achievement on the cover (August 23, 2009) and it's Tehelka that has devoted the most space to the Amtes and their super-human efforts to help some of the most under-privileged of India's under-privileged people.

The magazine also has some splendid photographs (the online edition has very few): pictures showing the work done for the Madia Gond tribals of Maharashtra; pictures that speak of the sacrifices that have been made willingly, of the tough lives that have been led, again willingly.

Prakash Amte with an orphaned leopard in his backyard.

In the magazine, there are also photographs of Prakash Amte with his menagerie of orphaned animals, one showing him frolicking with a hyena with his grandson by his side, another showing him holding a baby monkey.

Here is a telling extract:

Ask him [Prakash Amte] what kept him in Hemalkasa through all this, though, and his response is instinctive and quick. "Manda's companionship — and the people's faith. That is what keeps us here. I have never seen such tolerance for pain. They come to us from a radius of 200 kilometres, we try to help them. Sometimes when I cut their wounds, the pus sprays onto my face and body. We never had gloves but it never mattered. When I watch their wounds — black, poisonous, foul-smelling — slowly turning red and healthy, that is my reward."

And here is another:

A severely wheezing bare-breasted woman is slowly stopping to gasp. She had just raced past us at the river, perched on a motorcycle between two men. Now the generator has been put on, a nebuliser is breathing gentle breath into her.

In the open air shed a short distance away, Prakash and Manda dress an amputated foot. The patient — an old man — lies stoically on the hard floor; he does not want a hospital bed. A wood-fire smoulders near him. A few feet away, a ragged skeleton is recovering from tuberculosis next to a toddler with kidney failure. 

All of this would make an urban doctor faint, but in truth, it speaks of daily miracles over three decades. It speaks of lives saved without elaborate investigations or prophylactics. It speaks of urgent operations under torchlight, of emergency deliveries and complicated cataracts executed on the run with a textbook on the side.

And an excerpt that speaks of Prakash Amte's strength of character:

Four years ago, while showing a poisonous Russel's viper to a visitor, Prakash was momentarily distracted and it emptied its fangs into him. But nothing can perturb him, his children vouch: he always exudes a quiet, unflappable dignity in a crisis. He is the shade tree you take for granted, until it is cut down.

Now, instead of flinging the snake from him, he gently extricated it and put it back in its cage before walking towards Manda in the clinic. She, always the fit partner, the shadow he leans on, did not panic either.

On his way back to the house while she got the antidote ready, Prakash collapsed at the threshold and his blood pressure dropped to zero. A long hot drive took him to Nagpur; ten excruciating days followed. His body swelled like a balloon, blistering in a hundred places. Not once did he complain.

Both husband and wife — still visibly and palpably in love — have this understated sturdiness about them. Not for them the glib sentence, the worldly pitch. Instead, you sense the close workings of Nature in them, a kind of wise acceptance born of daily grappling with life and death.

"One good thing came of the snake bite," Gopal Phadnis, headmaster and co-traveller at Hemalkasa, laughs. "Prakash was never a talker, but he began to talk more after the bite."

To read the full story go to "The Quiet Soldiers of Compassion".

Better still, try to get hold of a copy of the magazine so that you can experience what I experienced when I read this awe-inspiring story: My head began spinning, I felt the hairs on my arms rising, and I kept asking myself: Are the Amtes flesh-and-blood like the rest of us?

CHARITY BEGINS AT HOME: Prakash Amte and his family in Hemalkasa.

After reading this article again today, March 21, 2012, I must reiterate that this heartwarming feature by Shoma Chaudhury remains the most inspirational story I have read in years.
  • Photos courtesy: Tehelka
  • Also read: "Fresh ideas, fresh writing" (on the vibrant quality of writing in the incomparable Tehelka. And also in the newish Open and in the relaunched Caravan).


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