Monday, August 05, 2013
Reflecting on My Life in Rural India
Eighteen years have now passed since I returned to India to work on my lifelong ambition of serving the poor. These years have not been easy for me, though rewarding and challenging. Six to eight months a year away from my family and the comforts of America, and having to live within the confines of a remote rural village, have taken a toll both physically and emotionally. But lately I have been asking myself what has inspired me to seek out this mission from my early adulthood.
Visitors to Shanti Bhavan often ask what motivated me to make the choices I have made. They want to know what persuaded me to start the school and the other projects I had initiated in those years, and why I have continued so long. They probably think it is unusual for a man who has had other options, including a life of leisure and luxury. Not many people know my convictions or the nature of the work I do.
My usual and somewhat casual answers to the curious enquiries of friends and strangers might not have satisfied anyone. I have all along explained that it was simply a thought I had from childhood, and certainly nothing as profound as “God’s calling.” Moreover, I may not fit well with the often expected image of an all-understanding and benevolent leader of a charitable organization. Being too old-fashioned for that, I am probably considered an enigma.
At an early age, even before leaving home to study at a military college, I was affected by the poor living conditions in villages and slums. I had witnessed how difficult and sad life was for a great number of people; after all India was among the poorest nations in the world during the 1950s and 60s, with frequent droughts and famines.
I recall my days in the Himalayas along Sela Pass, sitting on mountain top well above the clouds, bracing the chilly breeze and gazing at the majestic beauty around me, when I would contemplate the purpose of living. But these were not yet enough to trigger a lasting desire to act, though they continued to play in my mind.
Fortunately, during one of my long train journeys, I stumbled onto a book on Albert Schweitzer, one of the greatest humanists I know of, who served the natives in the primitive jungles of Gabon. His novel idea in Reverence for Life – that it is each one’s duty to protect and enhance life, one’s own and that of every living being – inspired me to consider it as my mission in life. As I dwelled over his powerful words, I concluded that it was my duty to come to the help of the poor, the deprived and the disadvantaged.
In the midst of a successful business career in America, I broke off to embark on developmental work. India was a natural choice for obvious reasons, most of all due to my familiarity with its culture, but I could have gone elsewhere with equal zeal. It was my friend Angeline who persuaded me to come to a place in South India where I couldn’t even speak any of the native languages. But that was not a handicap, I soon learned, as what I wanted to do was very visible to all those I served. Their simplicity and humility taught me many lessons, and in no time I was at ease with those around me.
The tasks that are my burden are also my fulfillment. The pain of separation from family for long periods and the loneliness I feel at times are part of what I must endure to realize my childhood vision. I am in the comforts of love and caring for each other, a prize I couldn’t win in anything else I could have done. I have crossed the river and burned the bridges behind me, and there is no turning back.
Today, I consider myself fortunate to be able to spend my days with so many affectionate children I call my own. Shanti Bhavan is a paradise because of its spirit of love, joy and hope among all those who are here. We are 3,000 feet above sea level and that much closer to heaven!
Abraham M. George