Society

Valiant Knights Of Lone Battles

They are ordinary people who walk extraordinary paths. Shunning the spotlight, these anonymous philanthropists work behind the scenes to make the world a better place to live in.

Valiant Knights Of Lone Battles
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A pair of chappals in his jhola, retired schoolteacher Desraj Chhabra scours the streets of Delhi to find someone with slipper-less feet he can help. Navin Rai, bank manager at Katihar in Bihar, makes an unaccounted contribution to the literacy mission by insisting that loan applicants learn to sign their names first. Bakhtyar Irani, owner of a run-down Irani restaurant in the Bombay suburb of Thane, religiously feeds all stray dogs in the area even though it dents his meagre profit margin. "I don't count costs. When it comes to animals, I can't bear to see them in distress," the restaurateur says.

Cranks? Social misfits? Small-time philanthropists? Categories don't seem to bother them. They do their bit to bring a little cheer to the world. And probably themselves. Unlike those who fly around half the globe to participate in high-profile seminars, ostensibly on ozone. It's difficult tracking down these samaritans as they thrive on anonymity.

A champion of this brigade, Malkhan Singh, principal of a government senior secondary school in Delhi firmly believes in the Constitution's pledge that all children have a right to education. The past 27 years have seen the 49-year-old teacher dole out 10 per cent of his modest salary each month to his less-privileged students. These children would otherwise have been pulled out of school for want of money. Singh, however, shies away from taking any credit. But urge him enough and he narrates how it all began. As a young recruit who was fired by dreams of educating the next generation for building a better tomorrow, Singh's enthusiasm received a depressing blow as the size of his class kept diminishing every other week. "My students simply couldn't afford to learn what I was so eager to teach. I realised that one has to give from oneself to make dreams a reality," he observes.

Teenager Amrik Singh, a Class XI student at Singh's school, is overwhelmed by his principal's benevolence. "Masterji has paid my fees, bought me books and uniforms for the last three years," says the eldest child of a fatherless family of five whose monthly income hovers around Rs 400. Singh's commitment has become infectious, at least among a section of teachers associated with the school who assist him by delivering lectures at the free coaching camp for poor students he organises every December. Last year alone, there were 360 persons who attended this camp, many of them from villages like Narela and Buradi on Delhi's outskirts. These students learnt about the classes from newspaper advertisements inserted by Singh with his own money. But, says Singh with characteristic humility: "What is a little money if I can get others to give a cause their time?"

Unknown to the principal, an illiterate 32-year-old in Bangalore exhibits similar disdain for money. Instead of using his horse-cart for a more lucrative business, M. Mahadeva ferries unclaimed corpses to burial grounds. "The police pays a small amount, although I could earn four times as much transporting goods in my cart. But someone has to care. I've vowed to give the unwanted dead whatever little dignity I can," says the unsung charioteer of corpses, recalling that his mother was buried by the police as an unclaimed corpse when he was a child of eight.

While Mahadeva takes care of the unwanted dead, in the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu, young Vandana Gopikumar and Vaishnavi Jaikumar have pledged to look after the unwanted living. Twenty five-year-old Vandana and her friend, who's a year younger, opted out of promising conventional careers to set up a home for mentally disabled, abandoned women in Madras.

Their mission began almost accidentally in 1993 when Vandana came upon a schizophrenic woman cavorting nude down a busy road in the city. Recalls the sensitive youngster: "Some 60 people watched, but none came forward to help her. Vaishnavi and I took her to an asylum. But she was back on the streets soon." And that's when they decided to set up Banyan, a home for mentally handicapped, destitute women.

With the number of inmates mounting, the cash-strapped youngsters soon realised that without community support, their efforts would come to naught. They began knocking on corporate doors and the results were remarkable. Four Madras-based industrial houses contribute funds on an on-going basis to Banyan, making it possible for the girls to care a little better for the 50-odd inmates. "Our success is not in numbers. But we are happy that many Banyan inmates have returned to their family environment," says Vandana modestly.

Like the Madras duo, 43-year-old housewife Aruna Bhowmick realised how crucial mobilisation could be when she took on the "encroachment mafia" around her home in Delhi's Green Park Extension. Enraged by the steady erosion in the colony's quality of life, what with parked trucks spewing fumes, landgrabbers nibbling away at garbage dumps and residential buildings being increasingly turned into commercial establishments, Bhowmick commenced on a solitary campaign three years ago. A sustained barrage of missives to the civic authorities yielded nothing. In desperation, she even went about deflating tyres of errant trucks.

Fathoming the futility of going it alone, she began mobilising fellow residents. The ebullient Bhowmick's lead was finally taken up by other harassed residents. Today, the encroachers, property developers and other law-breakers are on the defensive, having been taken to court by. "It hasn't been easy running around for all those hearings. But I feel I'd have done something worthwhile if at least one more person is motivated by our efforts to take up such issues even in just one more locality," Bhowmick says.

Seventy six-year-old S.S. Kanan in Bangalore dismisses queries about his faceless contribution to the cause of educating visually disabled students. "Don't photograph me. Just leave me alone to do my work," says the otherwise mild-mannered man curtly.

And photographs are indeed unnecessary. For, no picture can capture the respect and the gratitude that Kanan's students feel for their "mama" as he reads out to them over the cups of hot coffee he provides. In fact, he spends most of his pension buying books for them. Step into Kanan's humble abode at any time and you are bound to find him in conversation with at least 20 blind students. The last 30 years have seen him helping over a thousand students obtain degrees. "I have done nothing. It's just a labour of love," the grey-haired man shrugs.

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Thousands of miles away, acclaimed Manipuri dancer Devjani Chaliha harbours similar thoughts as she teaches slum children dancing at her home on Golf Club Road in Calcutta. "Why should our heritage remain a property of the affluent? Why should literacy for the poor stop at the written word? Why should eyebrows be raised if the child of a domestic help is taught to dance and play?" asks an angry Devjani.

This annoyance with the inherent inequality in the world has Devjani tutoring over 40 children from neighbouring bastis in her school Meitei Jagoi every weekend. Often unruly and indifferent to their teacher's approval, these children, Devjani confesses, give her a tough time initially. "But I keep at it. Discipline them. Teach them. Their personalities flower," she says proudly. So, for the past 16 years Devjani has pursued her mission single-mindedly. Currently, two of her students, Mamata Ghoroi and Raju Choudhury who participated in an all-India dance competition, are receiving a monthly stipend awarded by the Centre for Cultural Resources and Training. "Now they study because they can dance," observes the satisfied teacher, adding, "I could, perhaps, have done something else for these children but I chose to give them what I am best at."

 As he trudges across villages like Fakalwara, Kengeri and Anekal on the outskirts of Bangalore, 45-year-old psychiatrist Dr Mohan K. Isaac is working out Devjani's sentiments. The additional professor in Psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences, Bangalore, believes it is a doctor's duty to reach out to those who find it difficult to access medical care.
Soon after he joined the profession, Isaac realised that mentally handicapped people, particularly in rural areas, are ignored and ill-treated by their relatives. A regular visitor to these villages for 20 years, Isaac helps identify and treat common disorders like schizophrenia and epilepsy. This, besides the time he devotes to his official responsiblities. "This is not a nine-to-five job and there is no money," says the doctor. "There is so much more to do. I am seriously considering premature retirement so that I can work for hapless patients full-time."

No acquaintance of Isaac, M.L. Dewan actually opted for early retirement from a UN job in 1982 to mobilise locals and conserve the Himalayan ecology in Ranichauri village of Uttar Pradesh's Tehri Garhwal district. "Lecturing impoverished villagers on the environment gets no results. You have to make it economically attractive to them," explains 75-year-old Dewan. So, he invests the bulk of his pension in importing seeds of commercially productive plants and distributes them through mahila mandals and schoolchildren, supervising their cultivation himself. His involvement in Garhwal's self-rejuvenation doesn't stop here. Every year, Dewan sponsors one local woman to study nursing, with the proviso that she return to serve her village for at least a year.

Even as he animatedly discusses his dreams, Dewan's voice mellows, recalling the accidental birth of his mission. While serving at the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome, he had visited the Garhwal hills. "As I gazed at the majestic mountains getting denuded by man's greed, I suddenly felt that the hills were weeping. And so, here I am."

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IT wasn't anguish but anger which drove housewife Kusum Jain to challenge the country's flawed education system. She has been battling the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) in the Delhi High Court since 1993, having set up the Parents' Forum for Meaningful Education (PFME) a year earlier.

Jain's odyssey had a mundane beginning. When her son who had unfailingly performed well in class got unexpectedly low marks in the CBSE Class X examination, she approached the authorities. Cursorily dismissing her complaint, a senior official told her that children had the habit of misleading parents about their actual performance in exams. "I was livid. He was telling me that I should believe him and not my own child," she recalls. Jain concluded that the multiple-set questions introduced by the CBSE "to minimise cheating", was a further expression of the examination system's rude distrust of students.

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She approached other like-minded parents and was overwhelmed by the response. PFME filed a writ petition two years ago and Jain is taking CBSE to the Supreme Court later this year, having already got the board to seriously re-examine the multiple-set method. "Harassed parents from all over India have joined the movement. We are now going to take up the cause of government school students," says Jain. She shows no signs of abandoning her mission. "It's not about me. It's about the utter callousness of the system towards the individual," says the combative parent.

This dogged refusal to accept things as they are and the courage to fight back inspires most lone crusaders. And 35-year-old George Gopali is no different from Jain in this. Like most Bombayites, he is disgusted by the filthy state of Juhu beach.

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Three years ago, he approached hoteliers in the area who would benefit from a better-looking beach to fund his proposed cleaning-up project, promising them results within three months. Gopali then handpicked 25 boys who were rehabilitated alcoholics or drug addicts from nearby slums, and together worked frenetically to meet the deadline. They did. For a time the beach wore a clean look. But soon funds ran out. Undaunted, Gopali determinedly pursued the Bombay Municipal Corporation to part with the revenues collected from certain advertising hoardings to revive the project. "The advertising agencies give us a fixed Rs 70,000 every month, enough to pay the boys and keep the work going," says the spirited samaritan. Each day, Gopali and his boys comb the entire length of the beach removing all the debris and flotsam that's washed ashore. "Lots of hands, a few brooms and a mission in mind are enough to keep us going," he observes.

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A conviction that unites Gopali with 51-year-old B.J. Krishnan who fought single-handed to stop the proposed 6 MW hydro electric project at Kallarpallam in the Nilgiris. Alarmed at the environmental havoc the project could wreak, the Ooty-based advocate galvanised the local populace into action. Krishnan worked out an alternate cost-benefit analysis of the entire project which proved that uprooting tea gardens and virgin forests to make way for the hydel project would not even make commercial sense. His persistence won the day. Convinced by his reasoning, the Tamil Nadu government abandoned the project. "It was a success, not victory," says Krishnan matter-of-factly, even as he outlines the growing scope of his concern to save the Nilgiris' ecology. "Each of us has to scream 'save'," he asserts.

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Keen to do his bit, Shantu Shenai, a 36-year-old microprocessor specialist, has chosen to popularise vermiculture. Describing himself as an "earthworker", Shenai, with Uday Bhawalkar of Pune, has 35 vermiculture projects going in Bombay. He has a simple formula for doing away with harmful chemical fertilisers. Instead of mixing up man-made and natural waste, Shenai implores people to separate them. While man-made garbage is recycled, he gets earthworms to work on natural waste to create organic fer-tiliser. The civic crusader, who could easily have opted to mint millions in greenbacks as an environmental consultant in the US, spends Rs 20,000 promoting his scheme which employs eight persons.

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And as these samaritans keep striving to make a difference, however small, some life somewhere is enriched—the injured birds that Inspector V.S. D'Souza of Bangalore nurses back to health would certainly agree. The 38-year-old supercop who busted the 'kidney theft' scandal, has been playing doctor to the city's injured birds for years. His home has been the sanitarium for hundreds of injured pigeons, doves, parrots, bulbuls and wild fowl which would otherwise have died untended. Injured birds are referred to the inspector by friends and colleagues who know of the bird lover's dedication and expertise. "It's nothing special, I help birds just as others help people," he offers.

 Contrarily, Dr Usha Banerjee says: "While it is good to want to help others, it should be done systematically so that it doesn't become counter-productive." Banerjee, who taught at the Delhi School of Social Work for 15 years, feels that the dedication and commitment of the individual do-gooder would benefit society more if it were channelised properly. "Social work is a science. In untrained hands, the chemistry could just go wrong," she adds.

But the urge to do good follows no science. "It's a latent desire among all of us. It's about self-appraisal and self-esteem. Actually, this is a selfish streak in us," contends Dr Aushim Gupta, a psychologist. "All of us want to better ourselves and also better the world," she explains.

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Meanwhile, regardless of the muted scepticism of experts and rational explanations of their unworldly actions, the tribe of good samaritans is burgeoning. In their own small ways, they strive to make society more humane, without wanting to be lionised. Maybe, some day, they shall overcome.

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