Narayan Desai – A Tribute

March 15, 2015

Narayan Desai has passed away – he was a truly noble Gandhian. It is not easy to explain the impact he has made on our lives. Forever, I will cherish the day I interviewed him, the day when we received him at the Egmore railway station to drive him down to Thakkar Baba Vidhyalaya, and later, the days when we stayed with him at Vedchhi. As someone who had made a handsome living out of analyzing data, I felt a deep mark left on me, by what he told me about poverty line and GDP: ‘They don’t see. That is why, they measure.’

Narayan Desai (Photo by Nedya, 2012)

Narayan Desai (Photo by Nedya, 2012)

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His lovely, loving smile, his clear and measured words, his fond childhood memories of Gandhi, his persistence in continuing to spin at his age, his total belief in non-violent resistance and constructive work, the energy with which he spoke during Gandhi Katha and his prayer meetings, the personal affection that he showered on the three of us, his exclusive live translation for me of an article on Thiruvalluvar in a Gujarati magazine – there is much to remember and recollect about him. 

But this day, the memories that bubble up to the top are of two incidents during our stay with him at Vedchchi.

When we were talking about his biography on Gandhi, Narayanbhai observed with his typical smile – I can’t say if there was a tinge of regret – “It has been a few years since the English translation has been published. I haven’t seen a single review yet.” Apart from an article by his translator, the only one I had found on the internet was a small note. I was also guilty of not having read the 4-volume biography then (‘My Life is my message’, published by Orient Blackswan). Last month, I bought the full set, with a strong intent to read and write about the book, while he was alive.


The only time when I saw him mildly annoyed was when one of the foreign students, who had been staying with him to do a course on Gandhian thoughts, wanted to take a photo with him on the last day of their stay. I was, initially, a bit surprised, since he had willingly obliged all requests for photos till then. He told the lady, “For 2 weeks, you never asked me any questions. Now you want this photo just as a token memento. What purpose will it serve?”

I saw him as a bridge to the Gandhian times. He carried the message of Gandhi, Vinoba and JP to our generation. His own life was a powerful message as well. I wish to hold on to his message as much as, if not more strongly than, the personal memories of the few days with him.

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A red-hot activist and his green Coop Forest

March 1, 2015

In the last couple of months, I’ve had a welcome overdose of meetings with some of the most remarkable people amongst us now. So much so that I run the risk of not recording all my wonderful experiences.

Some of them are fairly well known names – Krishnammal Jagannathan, KM Natarajan, PV Rajagopal, Markandan, Padamuthu, Lavanam (son of Gora), SP Udayakumar, SN Nagarajan, Kuthambakkam Elango, Vellore Srinivasan and many more.

Some of them are not so well known but deserve to be known better – Sankar (Aakam) from Madurai has shunned his research career to work with village kids (or sometimes teachers) who drop out of schools, somehow cajoling them to come back; Ilayapari extends a helping hand to anybody needing medical assistance. Nanda is a journeying volunteer who has worked with the likes MS Udayamurthy, Elango and Nammalvar. Inamul Hasan has been quietly drumming up support for the prohibition movement. Rajiv challenges all our preconceived notions about disability.

One of the most unforgettable sights was to see the 88-year old [she claimed to be 88, 2 years ago too :-)] Krishnammal Jagannathan getting ready to spearhead another battle – this time against the TASMAC shops. We are likely to hear more about her in the next couple of months. Equally fascinating was to hear PV Rajagopal calmly talk about mobilising over 10 lakh farmers to march for land rights. Or to see the uncompromising idealist, Ranganathan (who runs an orphanage, Gandhi Ashram, at Anamalai), refusing to be served on a dining table, where paper sheets were spread out and paper glasses were used to pour water.

I should write in detail about all of them later but let me start with, probably, the youngest of them, and one of the grittiest fighters around : Piyush Manush.

While returning from the Vikalp Sangam conference at CESCI, Madurai, Piyush had offered to drop us at the Dindigal bus stand, from where we could take a bus to Coimbatore. Our conversation got interesting, and so we decided to travel another 80 kms till Karur. Then, he asked, why don’t you come over to Salem and stay for a couple of days. I am glad we obliged.

Piyush has helped form the Salem Citizen’s Forum, which has been at the forefront of trying to transform Salem. They have been desilting and reclaiming lost lakes – almost entirely with support from local volunteers, many of them school children. We visited a couple of lakes – they looked fascinating with the novel idea of creating tree-islands in the middle of the lakes. One of those lakes, which was still receiving the drainage water from the nearby region, wasn’t stinking at all, and Piyush attributed that to those tree-islands.

Sanitation is key to keeping the lakes and the city clean. And sanitation is not just about taking a broom and wishing a Swachch Salem. Piyush was working actively with the grassroots workers who were engaged in sanitary work. He had created an activity centre in their colony and was trying to set up a library, conduct music classes and such. He even mediates caste wars. He has been challenging the government machinery on the inefficient practices around sanitation and the mindless privatization.

Piyush had a visitor from UK also staying along with us (Naresh, named so by Osho, was an expert on creating transition towns, and was there to learn and offer his advice). No 5-star treatment, corporate style, for the gentleman. He also had to happily share the food at the roadside eateries, along with us.

The next day, we headed out to Coop forest, a cooperative initiative that Piyush had been spearheading with support from his friends. They had acquired a large tract of land in one of the driest areas, near Dharmapuri. On the way to the farm, we could hardly see any greenery. But inside the farm, fittingly called a forest, the landscape changes dramatically with trees abound. Started 5 years ago, Coop forest has been developed despite a severe drought for the most part of its existence. With excellent rainwater harvesting techniques, they have managed to coerce Nature to give birth to a stream on the forest.

Also on Piyush’s agenda, is to revive Nature worship. The lakes are already called as Mari Sthalam. Mari is the deity for rain. By getting people to pay respects to Mari, Ayyappan (deity for forests) and Murugan (deity for mountains), Piyush believes that they can be weaned away from destructive ritualistic religions towards a constructive spiritual experience that will make them one with Nature – thereby, protecting both the Nature and the people. Thanks to the rationalist in me, I had my healthy disagreements on the process but respect his intent and beliefs.

The big success for Piyush seems to be his ability to get ordinary people, especially school children, to rally around common causes. He has managed to take on the government and private giants like Vedanta, and successfully enforce environmental friendly measures and pack them up altogether. Despite a flurry of constructive work that he has managed to accomplish, Piyush defines himself as an activist first. I challenged him on that, and asked why not view himself as a constructive worker who will take up activism when he encounters injustice in his constructive work. But it was clear that Piyush is of a different mould. Not for him, a passive wait to encounter injustice and defend. Injustice is an predator that has to be sought out actively, fought and subdued.

Not to be missed amongst his many hats, is his entrepreneurial spirit (with a strong social tinge and responsibility, of course). He is a pioneer in making arecanut plates, and designing and selling machinery to manufacture those plates. He now makes bamboo furniture. He is planning to setup a bamboo based ecosystem which will create and nurture entrepreneurs in that space. His idea of spiritual tourism to protect nature, apart from its inherent spirituality and environmentalism, has the potential to appeal to the masses. I would gladly encourage friends, keen to invest in social entrepreneurial ventures, to have a look at what Piyush is doing.

As a friend, it was tempting to advise the fiery, feisty Piyush to slow down and calm down. But then, he may not be the same Piyush anymore. Our situation demands more of him, and more like him.

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