By Palanisamy Vijayanand
‘While traveling, there are worse things to be accused of than ambition: aim high enough and—who knows? — you may actually arrive.’ - Improbable Journeys, Robin Magowan
Maharashtra, as the name suggests, is vast. When you enter the state from Andhra Pradesh, especially if you are a bunch of dreamers or drifters like us, a strong, invisible cross-wind blows you westward to Mumbai like tumbleweed; where you become a movie star, a musician, or at worst a game-show contestant. If all else fails, you become a gangster. If you decide to resist the wind and stay put, you are at Tadoba – tiger country – literally and metaphorically. Good though, if you belong to ‘Save the Tiger’ society. It takes an awful lot of resilience to cut across the wind and move northward. Wherever we had journeyed, there were clues at every turn which kept directing us toward the chosen destination. This time, we had stumbled upon something which inspired us to change course altogether, delivering us at a destination we never could have imagined. If we were a bit too excited about it all, it was the simple feeling of rightness in responding to a call. Not the kind of call involving Tannoy announcements from heaven. They don’t do that when they invite you to Sevagram.
Getting down the train at Sevagram gave us the kind of Kierkegaardian ‘when feeling becomes fantastic, the self is simply volatilized more and more,’ exuberance. It was not so much the ambience as it was the history which made us feel that way. For, the sleepy little train station, at any other place, would have generally evoked memories of Bollywood. The kind where the hero prostrates before his Ma, bidding a tearful farewell for one last time – before returning back in the same train with a girl in hand and a few million in the bank, two hours later. The young doctors who had come to receive us were in crisp khadi and carried umbrellas. Incessant rains have been pounding Central India for a few days now, with the newspapers carrying reports about ‘this reservoir being full, and that river might break its banks,’ with their customary glee. The short drive to the Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences guest house was picturesque. We squinted through the rain drops to look at the distance, and found greenery everywhere. Like a baby just out of bath, it all smelt and felt refreshing. After sorting ourselves out with a simple breakfast, we headed off to the ashram.
Sevagram does not wear its history lightly. From the moment you arrive at the ashram village, you are constantly being congratulated for your general awesomeness for having been invited, and Bapu’s name is invoked so often, you half-expect the great man to come, stick in hand, into your dining room for his morning Poha and toast. As we wandered around the ashram, our minds stopped harassing itself and peacefulness came again—a peacefulness born of the sweet absence of harsh thoughts and the perfect presence of everything around us just being. Our curiosity piqued and compassion stimulated, we poked our noses into ‘Bapu kuti,’ ‘Ba Kuti,’ and a whole lot of other ‘Kutis’ to get a gist of what went on there a few decades ago. Political philosophy, religious tolerance, social reform, social experiments, environment conservation, physical rehabilitation, Swadeshi, Independence movement, and a whole lot of wisdom – a lot went on there, and it was all presented to us with a measure of simplicity and delight. The roselle flower infused drink they served at the ashram visitor centre was bursting with flavours. We were all thirsty for it. They call roselle Ambadi in Marathi; in Telugu we know it as Gongura.
The Indian Society for Study of Pain – Nagpur branch, had invited us, kindly, to deliver a couple of talks that evening. The occasion was that its new office bearers were being inducted. It was 50 miles from Sevagram, and the road trip was not exactly gruelling. There were a couple of rooms booked for us at Nagpur – to freshen up and to recollect our thoughts – before we were in front of the audience. Only that, after a protracted discussion with the hotel reception we were given the executive suite, which when we got in, was surprisingly decorated for what we thought was a honeymoon. Well, that’s what one would think if there was a romantic ‘Welcome’ decorated with red rose petals on the floor anyway. We got in a bit bemused, and found heart-shaped balloons in the bed & bath, and a whole lot of other goodies. We marvelled at our ridiculously good fortune. It was, however, short lived as we were swiftly moved to another room. Nonetheless, we still had a good time catching up with old friends and the press. They have covered it all here, thanks to the wonderful hosts. We got back to Sevagram after a very pleasant evening.
The solemn inaugural ceremony at Sevagram, the next morning, started with Vaishnava Jana to – Bapu’s favourite hymn. It was breathlessly exquisite. The first verse, ‘one who is a Vaishnav, knows the pain of others,’ set the tone for the rest of the day. As a team, we’ve had help all along, and as the path widened or narrowed, new and powerful influences had entered our lives and aided our progress. The dignitaries – President and Secretary of Kasturba Health Society, President of Maharashtra Medical Council, Dean, Superintendent and Professor of Anaesthesiology of Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences, Treasurer of Indian Society of Anaesthesiologists, and Vice-President of Indian Society for Study of Pain – all had the extraordinary capacity to crystallize one’s thinking in productive ways. That science was a collaborative effort and not a linear transfer of knowledge was emphasized.
That the facts of science should be used to construct answers for the suffering with our own wisdom and ethical sense was asserted. That deciphering the many manifestations of pain is a multidisciplinary task which needs a framework for unifying our morsels of understanding into a single perspective was underscored. That when one arrives at the end of his journey he would want a dignified and painless exit was stressed. It was a refreshing celebration of science and humanities with the quiet humility which comes to characterise Sevagram.
The doyens of rural health care at Sevagram had requested us to present fresh ideas to take pain medicine to resource poor settings. As urban dwellers, with inchoate knowledge about the topic, we resembled the protagonist of Kafka’s works, in that we felt we were at the mercy of some arbitrary terror that wreaks subtle havoc. The talk had to be done by someone with integrity, experience and nuance. We turned to our senior colleague. The well researched and beautifully delivered talk had the experts in raptures. We felt confident that the grand scheme which was outlined (actually a very simple solution), would be converted to meaningful service. That evening, when the faintest huff of thunder faded into a brief silence, we settled down to take stock. The younger members of our team have been hard at work putting together this project. We had let their imagination flourish. We could’ve hidden away their colourful crayons. Instead, we let them colour outside the lines. The only grievance we had were the relentless phone calls, the previous night, from the hotel reception at Nagpur. Apparently, there were some heart-shaped balloons missing from the bath, and they wondered if we had anything to do with it. Ah, well. As Magowan writes in his Improbable Journeys, ‘Travel becomes a way of amplifying and even reinventing the self from one encounter, one journey, to the next.’