Saturday, August 16, 2008

'My father was opposed to our marriage'

It's not easy to forgo the comforts of a cushy urban life to shift to a jungle to serve the tribals – that too when you are a doctor, with a promising career ahead. But 35 years ago she chose to tread a road less traveled and go with her heart. Giving up a comfortable Nagpur life, she chose to join her fiancé on a mission. At 62, Dr Mandakini Amte nee Deshpande has come a long way as a completely transformed person. As she puts it: "I would have been a lecturer in college or private doctor, but my marriage with Prakash completely changed my life for the better."
The couple's three decades of tireless and selfless service for the betterment of Madia-Gond community in the remote and disconnected areas of Gadchiroli has won them this year's Ramon Magsaysay award. DNA caught up Dr Mandakini in their Lok Biradari Prakalp (LBP) at Hemalkasa, Gadchiroli, 325 km from Nagpur. A peep into her astonishing journey:
Q: How does it feel to win the Magsaysay Award?
A: It's a big award, and I am very happy; it is sort of an acknowledgement of our work. But we never expected it.
Q: Does it change your life or work in any way?
A: Yes, it does. Our work will reach more people outside our own world. And it will eventually help us to serve the community here in a better way.
Q: You came from an urban family. And you had to leave that life immediately after you finished your medical education, so how did it all begin?
A: After my MBBS, since I had no interest in gynecology, I had decided to do my post-graduation in anesthesia while Prakash was on his job in surgery after his MBBS. That's when we met. We worked together in the same operation theatre. That's when we found our values matched and we gelled well, which finally led us to a decision of marriage. Prakash had informed me that he would be working in some forest area. That was when I had no idea about forests or the work of his father (Baba Amte). I had heard of Anandvan and Baba, but had never visited Warora. My ideas about forests were lofty and rosy. I thought it would be a place like Chikhaldara (a hill station in Amravati), and I came from a staunch RSS and VHP background; my father was a hard-cord RSS man. When we decided to marry, Baba (Amte) called me over in Anandvan and asked if I was ready to live with Prakash in a jungle for the rest of my life. I said yes, I am. He stamped it.
Q: Did your parents agree to your marriage? Particularly your father…
A: (Smiles) No, they were dead opposed. My father feared that I would have to live among the lepers and in those days, there was great taboo around leprosy. It still remains very much a taboo. He was very opposed to our marriage initially, but when he saw I was firm, he gave his consent, and we finally got married.
Q: When did you come to this place, Hemalkasa?
A: We were yet to get this place at that time. But we came for our honeymoon here to see the area (smiles); we had stayed in the house of a forester, which was very comfortable. I had completed my post-graduate diploma in anesthesia but Prakash was yet to finish his post-graduation, so we went back to Nagpur where I took up a job of lecturer in the medical college, while Prakash went back to his studies. In the meantime, Baba came to Hemalkasa after the government gave him land and began a small centre with the help of volunteers from Anandvan. Prakash did not complete his post-graduation since he was not interested in the general medicine, and decided to shift here. I was angry with his decision not to complete the course. But he was not convinced. So I gave up my job and we came to Hemalkasa. That was in early 1974. There was a small shade and a hut, where we lived. It had one small room and a store, where we would stack foodgrain.
Q: Social work is not everyone's cup of tea. And with your background, how did you take it? Was the decision to come here difficult?
A: No. Once I had decided and made my commitment, there was no hesitation or resentment at any point of time. My marriage with Prakash changed my life, and for the good. I am very happy about it. The journey has been tough but of thrill. We have learnt lots of things together on the way. And I am happy my children – Dr Digant and Aniket – too have joined us in this journey. India still lacks in the passion for social work. But there are young people who want to serve people.
Q: It must have been a very difficult phase for you both. What were the initial challenges that you had to face in such a remote area? How did you cope?
A: It was difficult and challenging, but we faced it together slowly. There were no roads, no electricity and no water. We would fetch water from a nullah, boil it and keep it for a day before it could be potable. Snakes and reptiles would be all over our living space. The Madia-Gonds would fear the civilized people, so we had difficulties in connecting with them. They would run away from us. This phase of great difficulty remained for about two-and-a-half years. In monsoons, the area would be cut off from the rest of the world for four five months. But we had been joined by volunteers, who came from Anandvan, to work with us. First we tried to learn the language of the tribal community here; we took the help of local foresters and built our workable dictionary. Then, we went to the villages walking to try and establish some connection, offering them medical help. We had to farm to grow vegetables and paddy for ourselves; for me it was totally new. We'd work in the clinic to treat patients and in farms to grow vegetables.
Q: When did the breakthrough with tribal villagers come?
A: A Madia boy, who was suffering from epilepsy, was burnt 40 per cent when he fell in fire in an attack of fits in Hemalkasa village. The parents had tried with village remedy, but when his condition worsened they gave up hope. We asked them if we could take him to our clinic for treatment, they allowed, and we treated him with modern medicine. In five months, he got cured. We also began treating him for epilepsy and he showed drastic improvements. When the village saw our medicine worked, the first impact had been done. Others started coming to us thereafter. There were also times when we could not cure serious cases like cancer patients, patients with snake bites in last stage… they'd stop coming then. But as we kept treating patients, villagers found our medicines worked; their trust in us grew with time. People come from far flung and remote areas now.
Q: Did you not face limitations? You got all sorts of patients – from fractures to deliveries to snake bites…
A: We did have limitations, in terms of instruments, infrastructure and medicines and we had to gauge what are the things that we could do with our knowledge. But this was a very, very remote and backward area, with no facility of any kind. When patients came, they came with full faith in us and felt we could treat every disease – from an infection in the eye to cancer. We had no choice – either we treated them or they died. We could not consult other doctors, because there was no facility, or refer the patients to city hospitals, because they had no money or means to go to a city. So we studied and read from medical books, learnt things, and charted out our ways through the challenging problems to cure patients.
Q: Did your work and service change your parents' perception?
A: Yes, they were very proud of what we were doing, though many of my close and distant relatives did not come here for the first ten years.
Q: Science believes in logical explanation. But as a doctor did you every feel compelled to believe in miracles?
A: No. I never felt there's anything called miracles. It is science, and one has to apply his or her knowledge with full dedication, and you get the results.
Q: The name 'Amte' has a larger-than-life image. Is it difficult to live up to the family name?
A: No, it's never been the case. Baba (Amte) was very motivating.
Q: How do you think you have influenced the people you work with?
A: I think there's a sea change in their awareness levels today than what it was when we came to work here. There's more awareness about education now. But I have learnt more from them – about life, about nature, about living.
Q: What, in your view, should be done to improve public health system?
A: The doctors and staff must work sincerely, it will bring a change. Also, there has to be some rethinking on the way we run our medical education. If only the affluent families send their children to the medical colleges, no one would come to the villages and remote areas to work, because it's now become money game.
Q: Your daughter-in-law, Anagha, a doctor by profession, joined you in the Lok Biradari Prakalp, following on your footsteps. How does it feel?
A: I am very proud of her. She responded to the matrimonial advertisement that we had placed in a newspaper for our elder son, Dr Digant. The only condition was that the girl should be willing to live in Hemalkasa; she approached. Now she's handling the cases as we did in our initial days; both of them, in fact.
Q: Does Magsaysay change your life or your work in any way?
A: It'd be with renewed vigor that we'll work. There's still a long way to go…


Saraswathi said...

Such an inspiring person and interview. Hats off to Dr.Mandakini and her husband for their dedicated service and commitment.

Thanks for sharing the interview!!

हारिस शेख, मुंबई said...

खूप छान मुलाखत. स्वार्थी माणसांनी भरलेल्या या समाजात मंदा आणि प्रकाश आमटे हे खरोखरच दीपस्तंभ आहेत. आदिवासींच्या सेवेत समर्पित या अनोख्या जोडप्याची रॅमन मॅगसेसे फौंडेशनने दखल घेतली ही आनंदाची गोष्ट आहे. या मुलाखतीतून त्यांच्या खडतर आयुष्याची झलक पाहायला मिळाली आणि अंगावर काटा आला. इतका निस्वार्थ सध्या तरी दुर्मिळच आहे.


The Lone Wanderer said...

Mr Jaideeep ..thank you for sharing such an inspiring interview with us.

i would like to commend your work in vidharbha.
i have encountered your blog today only and i am glad that i did.
managed to read most of the blogs. they are eye-openers. Dont know how much they will change me as a person but definitely they have and will make me think. i sincerely wish that there were more journalists like u in the TV medium. As Mr P. Sainath aptly calls it "Journalism for ShareHolders"