Memories of warmth
34, Irving Street. My temporary home for a year in Cambridge, Boston. I was lying on the mattress in the living room, staring at the plain white wall in front of me. It must have been -8°C or -9°C outside in the afternoon of January 24, 2019. I was missing home. In my head, projected on a white wall, were images of people, places, smells and experiences I had left behind in Maharashtra’s Chandrapur district, home to coalmines, cement factories, small industries and a paper factory. Around 40 per cent of its land is under forest cover that turns lush green during the monsoons. I landed there in August 2012 for my first posting as an assistant collector. During field trips, I’d see vast stretches of forests dotted by villages in between. In 2018-19, Chandrapur was home to 175 of Maharashtra’s 312 tigers. With a large number of wild animals, no other district faces as many man-animal conflicts.
In my five years there, I got to know several people from many walks of life. Bandu Dhotre was one of them. He is the honorary wildlife warden for Chandrapur, who cares deeply about forests and wildlife. Much of the work he and his NGO Eco-Pro do revolves around mitigating man-animal conflicts that threaten centuries of coexistence between the locals and the wildlife.
Every human killed by a tiger turns the local community against the species. In such a charged environment, Dhotre still makes the case for animals. Even when villagers turn against him, he abandons neither animals nor the cause of conservation. This does not make him very popular. He is usually the first responder along with forest officials to reach for the rescue of animals in conflict, and then to release them in forests. Every rescue is fraught with risks and can be life-threatening. The image of a leopard breaking through the roof of a house in Ballarpur and attacking Dhotre on his waist had gone viral in 2014. He suffered injuries but stayed put to oversee the rescue, surrounded by thousands of onlookers.
Although well-known in Chandrapur, Dhotre came into prominence when PM Narendra Modi mentioned Eco-Pro’s efforts in cleaning and reclaiming the 500-year-old walls of Chandrapur fort, in his monthly radio address Mann ki Baat.
That afternoon, staring at the plain white wall, I was reminded of Dhotre. He was the trigger for the book Being the Change that I would go on to write with Barkha Mathur, profiling stories of the likes of Dhotre. People whose life trajectories have been unlike mine have always fascinated me, largely because of the selfless work they do, but also because of the self-awareness that I may never have the commitment or ability to make the sacrifices people like Dhotre make every day.
A Gandhian afterglow
The list of people to write about in the book was long. There were large numbers of people I had met, known or read about during my stints in Vidarbha, who had committed themselves to a life in the service of others. I started looking for reasons for such spirited volunteerism in this pocket of Maharashtra. My author-scholar-friend Vinay Sitapati attributed it to the influence of Mahatma Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave. Gandhi had set up his ashram at Sevagram in Wardha and lived here from 1936 until his death in 1948. Bhave set up his Pavnar ashram in 1938, 6 km away from Sevagram. Gandhi’s presence loomed large over the region, and led to many people getting associated with the ashram and influenced by his philosophy. Dr Satish Gogulwar, who is profiled in our book along with his wife Shubhada, says they were inspired by Gandhi’s vision for villages. By empowering the local community to claim their rights, they have been able to move towards Gandhi’s goals. Dr Ashish, who have featured along with his wife Dr Kavita, was deeply impacted when he read My Experiments with Truth at the age of 13. When, after his medical education, he had to choose his karma bhoomi, he settled for the tribal block of Dharni in Amravati.
I had served as the district collector for a year in Wardha. Every morning, my friend Ankit Goyal—the Wardha superintendent of police—and I would cycle 8 km to Sevagram, sit under a tree and cycle back after 15-20 minutes of solitude. There was a vibe about the place that pulled us there every day, which can only be experienced and not explained. After we finalised the list and started talking to the individuals for the book, we realised that Bapu kept returning to us through their stories.
It has been over seven decades since Gandhi died. The flame of his faith burns brightly in this remote corner of India. As he had himself said, “If my faith burns bright, as I hope it will even if I stand alone, I shall be alive in the grave and what is more, speaking from it.”
(This appeared in the print edition as "Writer's Diary")