Rajshri’s River of Hope

Most of us, when we read social media posts about a natural calamity like drought, we click angry-face LIKE and hit ‘Share NOW’, perhaps with a dark comment about government inefficiency. Some of us donate money. Very few volunteer time with an NGO. My friend Rajshri Deshpande went a step further: last month, she set out to single-handedly revive a river.

Rajshri Deshpande

An audible groan runs through the Jet Airways afternoon flight to Aurangabad as the captain announces temperature at destination: 45 degrees. It’s the kind of weather in which an actress-slash-model like Rajshri Deshpande should be safely within a cafe near her beachside home in Mumbai, sipping iced latte and discussing the European tour for her debut film ‘Angry Indian Goddesses’. Instead, she is in a village some 350 kms away, mediating a quarrel between two villagers.

As she uses her tough charm to calm down both heated parties, you realize she faces a challenge even more ancient than drought – the human ego. A barter deal she had struck with the village dhaba for free diesel to run the hydraulic earthmover has hit rough weather. We are in Pandhri Pimpalgaon village 30 kms away from Aurangabad, standing on the banks of the river Bembla, or at least what used to be the 160-foot-wide river Bembla until 2002. It is now an arid dustbowl overrun with thorny scrub, so scorched even the dusk breeze stings our eyes. And here is Rajshri Deshpande, using her education as a lawyer, her talent as an actor and some milky sweet chai to resolve the problem so the stalled work for resuscitating the dead river can begin again.

An old villager remembers the beginning of the end came when the trees on its banks were chopped for wood. Every year after that, the riverbed retained less water. The perennial river soon had dry months in which spiny shrubs and cacti began weeding its riverbed. When the rains came, thorns clutched plastic trash and choked the flow. The loosed sediment slid down its banks and morphed the riverbed into the almost-indistinguishable rolling scrubland where we stand right now.

Rajshri Deshpande has taken it upon herself to reverse the process for this little river Bembla. The immediate plan is to clean out three large pits within the riverbed which can become ponds after the monsoon. While raising funds in the city, she has also asked villagers to pitch not only in their spare time but also a small part of the cost. The larger reason, she explains, is not so much to save costs as to have them feel invested and empowered. The biggest problem here, Rajshri says, is lack of motivation.

Drought Farmer

Farmers and their fields await the monsoon in Pandhri

When it comes to drought, most city-folk are like Jon Snow: we know nothing. Reading media reports we picture emaciated farmers’ bodies scattered across deeply fractured lands. As journalist P Sainath points out in his darkly humorous classic ‘Everybody Loves A Good Drought’ the truth is drought comes in many forms, not all of which look like the clichéd ‘endless parched lands’, not all of them caused by the clichéd ‘cruel monsoons’ and not all of them causing deaths of clichéd ‘starving farmers’.

The truth is different. In Maharashtra, as in many parts of India, drought is man-made, so an above-average monsoon is no guarantee drought will not recur. We may point fingers at the government’s indiscriminate digging of water-sucking bore wells, poisonous urea-farming, destruction of ancient ponds, diversion of rivers for city-dwellers’ electricity and water-guzzling sugarcane factories. But other fingers should point at the farmers themselves – at their focus on instant solutions for immediate profits. The cliché of cruel nature causing drought, I learn, is only partly true.

Secondly, thanks to heavy subsidies on dal, rice and wheat, most farmers do not actually die of starvation. This year, the government is providing free tankers of water twice a week to fill the ubiquitous 200-litre blue plastic barrels clustered like oversized garden gnomes outside every hut. With a little stretch, this is enough for the farmer family’s essentials but not enough to support their extended family: the animals who starve with little fodder and lesser water every year. And for centuries-old farming communities, it is not enough to sustain their withering farms. Year after year, men and boys flee farms to work as construction laborers or, as Nana Patekar cinematically put it, to knock on the windows of your car to ask for loose change. This is the broader problem caused by drought. More often out of loss of will than lack of a meal, 6000 Indian farmers have committed suicide in the last four years.

The biggest problem, Rajshri keeps repeating, is lack of motivation. There are farmers here who are dirt-poor, she says, but there are farmers who have money also. Our donations for water-tankers can help them temporarily, but next summer the farmers will be in the same place… and the water-tanker contractors will be much richer. To make a long-term change, the farmers need to revive their land and rivers. They need some motivation to do things beyond immediate gain. For that they need a little push from outside, just like we all do at times.

In fact, motivating herself to take on this project without money, resources or a team was the first challenge for Rajshri. This is what I found most fascinating about Rajshri’s story: while many NGOs, non-profit organizations and volunteer teams are doing praiseworthy projects for drought-relief, hers is the story of how far an individual can walk with a little bit of faith and a little bit of insanity. But that was not how it began.

Initially, she contacted Nana Patekar & Makarand Anaspure’s ‘Naam Foundation’ to take on the Bembla river project. They were stretched thin, they said, but offered her a Pokland earth-mover for free. Another NGO she approached quoted a heavily padded estimate to take it on as a turnkey project. Yet another asked for a 10% profit share from all funds she raised. The monsoon was approaching in less than two months so she finally took a deep breath and braced herself for whatever lay ahead.

Convincing the villagers of Pandhri and Pimpalgaon was her next challenge. It helped that Rajshri’s mother had worked with the Zilla Parishad in nearby Aurangabad so she grew up in these parts; in the parochial village mentality, this Marathi-speaking and Marathi-swearing girl is ‘aamchi mulgi’… our girl. But she still had to work against deeply embedded wrinkles of distrust. Broken promises by successive elected leaders – whose tenure was a snatch & grab race to collect as much money as they could before their five-year term ran out – had made the farmers cynical. On her first visit, an old woman hoarsely predicted to everyone in the village square that like others who had promised to help, Rajshri too would never return.

Dr Ajit Gokhale

Dr Ajit Gokhale’s workshop for the villagers in progress

But she did return, along with an environmentalist and natural solutions expert with two decades of experience, Dr Ajit S Gokhale. He set up a bench in the village field and demonstrated to the farmers using their own soil how urea-farming and tractor-tilling was killing their land.

But information, Dr Gokhale knew from his experience of helping 170 villages, is never enough to motivate. So he asked them his favorite trick question: Has the government done anything for you? In unison, the villagers chorused an angry NO! This was perhaps the only subject upon which they agreed across all caste, class and religion lines. Dr Gokhale smiled and asked: So who made the roads? Did you make them? The villagers were nonplussed by this new line of questioning: roads came from the government, of course. And do you create your own electricity? That too was from the government, they had to agree. The school your children go to? What about ration shops? And fertilizer subsidy? Slowly, the point of the questions began to dawn on them: Dr Gokhale was offering them the option to stop sitting on their haunches and blaming the government for everything wrong with their lives.

When he saw his point had hit home, Dr Gokhale changed tack. He asked: Are any amongst you helping anyone other than your own family? Something altruistic in which there is no thought for your own gain? The villagers squirmed. That, Dr Gokhale concluded, is the real reason for the drought – you don’t think about your neighbor, your village land or even your grandchildren.

He reminded them of the dust-covered ‘Yogeshwar Krushi’ board he had seen while walking through Pandhri village; Pandurang Shastri Athavale’s beautiful concept where the entire village also tills one patch of common land, the produce from which is used to help whoever has unexpected need that year. He advised them to revive that half-forgotten practice. Dr Gokhale’s conversation worked like magic. In less than an hour, they went from helpless victims waiting for relief to citizens ready to take responsibility for their situation.

Next Rajshri picked her two local champions for the project. Dattabhau, at 55, is the senior, experienced and respected one. Having bought his first plot of land by pawning his wife’s mangalsutra, he worked to educate his sons through engineering college and his daughter to an MA in English – so he’s hardworking and future-oriented. Twenty-something Yogesh, on the other hand, is affable and talks with a smile. When most of the farmers were still skeptical, Yogesh was the one who spoke individually to at least listen to her.

But finally, it was the day Rajshri directly dialled veteran Marathi actor Makarand Anaspure to give the villagers a speaker-phone pep talk that they began listening to her with newfound adoration. (An unanticipated side-effect: Makarand mentioned that she was an actress, not realizing she had hidden this from the villagers until then.)

Rajshri Deshpande Drought

The Hydraulic Excavator provided by Naam Foundation. Tractors provided by the villagers.

Since then Dattabhau and Yogesh, along with a handful of village volunteers, supervise the clearing of the riverbed in night and day shifts. It’s been two weeks, and straw-haired Dattabhau who walked with a limp when work began, now sprints with youthful excitement.

He has reason to be: in ten days, they have completed one pit and soon, when the work is done, it will support two villages: Pandhri and Pimpalgaon, with a combined population of 2500. By official statistics, around 80% of them are small farmers with less than five acres for their cotton, soybean, millet, jowar, bajra and pomegranate fields. But for Dattabhau, all of them are faces he has known his entire life. If they manage to complete all three pits before the rains, the water will also benefit a zopadpatti (slum) nearby. And just maybe, if the rain gods are benevolent, then the five toilets in the village can be reopened so they don’t have to go every day for a long ‘morning walk’.

As Dattabhau lithely climbs a concrete backwall across the dry riverbed, he points me its cement slab: This wall is government work… means total duplicate work. Where they need ten bags of cement, they use two bags. That’s why this happens… He shows me gaping holes with exposed twists of metal rods, and then adds with pride: By government rate, our river project would cost Rs 30 lac, with our work it will be not more than Rs 3 lac. Ten times difference…

Later, I discovered this little Bembla river shares its name with another larger, more infamous Bembla river in nearby Yavatmal, which became an icon of corruption for its massive, misguided dam project which remains incomplete even after 25 years. The biggest irony: after spending Rs 1857 crores, the Economic Times reported that the project is providing water to a mere 1,200 hectares – which is the exact size of Pandhri and Pimpalgaon villages put together! When Dattabhau estimated a ten-time difference between his costs and government costs, he was way, way off.

Rajshri Deshpande's Team

Rajshri with her champions. Dattabhau stands second from left. Yogesh second from right.

At dusk, we sit on a charpoy overlooking Yogesh’s field, and a small crowd gathers around. Rajshri tells them she is arranging for a medical camp with the help of a hospital in Aurangabad whom she contacted through her older sister, a doctor. She needs them to let her know through Yogesh which kind of doctor they need to visit them. The conversation flows into dinner at Yogesh’s two-room corrugated-roofed house. Like most village homes, it has porous walls: neighbors and children wander through and join conversations and meals without questions asked. Rajshri discusses the next steps over dinner: once the digging work is done, they should plant trees on the banks, to complete the reversal of the original degradation process.

One of the guests’ cellphone bursts into devotional song. Light-eyed pomegranate farmer Thombre picks up and speaks rapidly in Marathi. He shyly offers his ancient Nokia phone to Rajshri tai. The call is from a woman who heard about the Bembla river work, asking if Rajshri can come to help their village next.

‘If you motivate one village,’ Rajshri says to me as we leave, ‘it becomes an example for others. And in future, villagers like Yogesh and Dattabhau can manage it themselves. I will help from outside. It may not be easy, but it can be done.’ When you consider that a river which ran dry for fifteen years is being revived in a little more than a month, you realize this is not ‘Savior Barbie’ optimism, nor is it too faraway a dream.

At night, after the village babies have rocked off to sleep on their swinging cotton hammocks, after the nightly hari-katha song of the village women in the Vitthal temple porch has fallen silent, Rajshri checks one last time with Yogesh and Dattabhau to see which villagers are going to monitor the work for tonight.

“Yogesh, next year I want to see a bumper crop in your field,” she says, as she sits in her car. Thombre asks shyly if they can talk to Makarand Anaspure once again from her phone. She laughs. But tai… only to thank him… for his support… We should thank him, no? Thombre stammers. Everyone laughs as the car starts.

The battered car is throbbing warm even though the air-conditioning is a full noisy blast. Rajshri Deshpande adjusts the steering wheel and braces for the eight-hour drive to Mumbai, as she has done seven times in the past month. But she knows the more difficult challenges await her back home. So far, through family, friends and a personal contribution by Masaan writer Varun Grover and director Neeraj Ghaywan from their National Award money, she has raised Rs. 1,25,000; somehow she will have to get the remaining money. There are other problems too, some undreamed-of: like the one where a stranger came to surreptitiously take pictures of their worksite to con people online for donations: what can one do in such cases? She takes a deep breath and straightens her rearview mirror. In the distance, Dattabhau watches as the car turns past their tree-canopied Hanuman temple onto the highway: the highway from where the fast-moving world will soon slow down to marvel at the miracle of an ancient river come back to life.

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ReAwakening the Heart: a free healing meditation

heart field

Every Sunday, around 25 of us participate in a weekly conference call with our mentor GD. Every week ends up being different. The calls spontaneously move from deep spiritual discussions to psychological processes to energy healing. Nothing is fixed except that it mostly ends with a space of deep fulfillment and no-mind.

Last week on the call, GD spontaneously led us through a powerful 35-minute meditation to dissolve subconscious blockages surrounding the heart. It was so unexpectedly potent that some reported crying, others said they slept for hours after the call and many others felt a solid peace throughout the day. I felt this meditation/clearing was worth sharing so that more could benefit.

This 35 minute energy process facilitates releasing trapped emotions, past life trauma, old conclusions, energetic heart walls, and areas of un-forgiveness in our lives. The clearing also helps release the frozen tears that are locked up in the throat chakra. Finally the meditation brings us to rest in the quiet space of oceanic peace – our true Being.

Please drink lots of water after hearing the audio as there may be some detox.
I do hope you enjoy it as much as we did! Feel free to pass it on…

PS: Each person’s experience with this audio will be unique. Feel free to share your experiences, insights and any further questions in the comments section below.

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to download ‘ReAwakening The Heart’ Meditation click here

THE STORY OF ‘ME’

whatswrongwithme

During the weekly group call last Sunday, my mentor GD spoke with incredible clarity for an hour about the inner monologue that makes us zombies to the present moment. That constant thrum that never allows us to be quiet even during our attempts at peace. That inner screen we are glued to even more than our iPhone screen. I thought it was so powerful and potentially transformative that I decided to share some excerpts. If you would like to listen to the full talk, it is available as an audio download from The Core Healing Archives under the title ‘The Story of Me’.

EXCERPTS:

Pause. See if you can notice the stream of thoughts moving in your head in this moment. That is what we call ‘the story of me’: it’s ‘my story’, ‘my life’. It’s like a non-stop movie inside our head. And it’s always in movement – and this movement is based on all the stories of the past and all the stories of the future. It’s a non-stop river, and it’s always about me, me, me. It’s a kind of dreaming we do even when we seem to be awake.

For most of us, the story of me is so unconscious, we don’t even know it is going on throughout the day. And the story of me can remain active only when there is unawareness. When there is pure awareness, even for a few moments, the story of me disappears. And what remains is just an openness, a stillness, a sense of being.

This story of me is always plotting, planning and scheming. It’s very clever. How can I get all the things I want and need? How can I avoid all the things that I fear? The ‘me story’ is always about avoiding all forms of pain, sickness and disease. And about acquiring all forms of happiness and pleasure. If you notice, this ‘me’ in your head is always going towards something or going away from something. It is never still… ever.

Imagine you are sitting in a movie theatre watching the movie ‘Titanic’ fully engrossed… feeling the emotions, enjoying the drama. And something goes wrong with the projection. Suddenly the movie stops. And we realize there is just a blank screen! We kind of wake up and realize the boat was not real, the characters were not real: there was nothing actually happening there. It was just a kind of hypnosis.

Similarly, there is a movie going in our mind on all the time – stories about my future, my past, my spirituality. They are all imaginary and they are all painful. Why are they painful? Because they are constantly running into the future. They are stories of unfulfillment, they are stories of neediness, they are stories of desperation. In a cinema hall, this drama happens for two hours, but for us it continues for sixty-seventy years. Morning to night, this imaginary story of me goes on and on and on.

All our conflicts with others also arise from this story of me – based on what I believe, what I think should happen, what I think is ‘right’. So the imaginary story of me is not just hell for me, it creates hell for others also. The ‘me’ tries to impose itself on everybody else. If others don’t agree with us, there is violence. The violence can be very subtle, like we may sulk and go into the other room, or it can be very loud and we directly attack the other person.

A time comes in our life when the story of me becomes spiritual – then the story of me becomes preoccupied with getting enlightenment and having the perfect state. The joke is that the story of me can never get enlightened! Because it’s this very story, this dreaming that is the obstruction to what is already always present!

Allow yourself to notice this story of me… again and again. Throughout the day, use this question: What unconscious dreaming is going on in this moment? The moment you pop this question, something will change, something will shift, and the story of me will snap. And what will be revealed is pure awareness – that which has no past, no future, and no story.

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To download the entire 60 minute talk which includes further insights and a deeply meditative space – as well as other Q&A and clearings from GD’s group telephonic sessions – go to the Core Healing India Archives.

 

A Prayer To Restore Faith

Serene Reflection

light and dark trees

I channeled this for someone very dear to me some days back. I shared it on FB earlier and the response there prompted me to record it here for easy and frequent retrieval.

For all the times I pretended to trust god, but I didn’t,
For all the ways in which I kidded myself
For all the ways in which I secretly tried to control
Everyone and everything
Never believing there was divinity at play
All the reassurance that I gave myself to trust and believe
While never feeling the truth of it in any way
For all the events and circumstances that habituated me
To feel let down
To expect to be abandoned, betrayed
To never have anyone to count on other than myself
To never find support, guidance, help or solace,

I pray.

I pray for forgiveness, my own;
From the universal Source,
And anyone else I may…

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Is Your Job Destroying Your Spirituality?

Work vs Spirituality

Last week, I found myself with a group of film producers who were gloating over the genius of a corrupt politician who had inveigled a real-estate project that could earn him Rs.7000 crores. They envied how he threw money at women and secretly had his ‘fun’ too. Even beyond the morality of the politician’s actions – which they didn’t seem to have a problem with – what was disturbing was their naïve obliviousness of the psychological and emotional consequences of such a life. As the conversation veered to other ways to make big money, pretended I had an urgent phone call to make.

That evening, I shared this conversation with my wife, an alternative therapist and healer. Considering the option of moving back into a full-time job in films after three years as consultant, I lamented that the film business was fundamentally ‘unspiritual’. She reminded me that it wasn’t about the film industry, the potential for greed and fear existed in all professions – weren’t there healers and therapists who were obsessed with money and success too? She asked: “What if it’s not a profession which is spiritual or non spiritual? What if being cut off from consciousness is the real issue…? Maybe it’s not really about what job you do, what matters is how conscious you are while doing it…”

Rajnikanth with friendsAs if to provide me with that contrast, over the weekend, I chanced upon a biography of superstar Rajnikanth, who considers Mahavatar Babaji and Ramana Maharshi among his gurus and finds joy in meditation and kirtan. Rising from bus conductor to superstar to living God, he still wears his trademark simple white kurta pyjama and no make-up in public. Besides his own generous charity work, he has used the adulation to create a network of 63,000 registered fan clubs to do charity work at local levels. In 2004, he refused a cola endorsement because he felt his face on the bottle would mislead fans into ‘spoiling their health by drinking a good-for-nothing, no-nutrition drink’. And as contrasted with the producers who were obsessed with cheating others to making a quick buck, Rajnikanth actually returned money to distributors when his film flopped.

When asked about his attitude to money, Rajnikanth replied, “Why do we work? We work for three things: food, shelter and clothing. Any job, if you are successful, can provide you with these basic requirements. Acting is my job. Earlier I went in search of work by seeking four people, today forty people seek me – nothing much has changed.”

It struck me that stripped of our fear-fuelled imaginations and desire-fuelled fantasies, every job was a simple barter of time and effort for money. As long as the product or service your work creates helps others — or at least doesn’t harm others — and it doesn’t suck every waking hour of your life, every job can support spirituality. We can view our work as a means to gain wealth, prestige and power, but we can also see it as a powerful environment for spiritual development and contribution. Every workplace deeply stirs up our ego’s needs for security, control, money and respect. But therefore, it also presents the greatest opportunity for transformation. Can we work from a space of contribution, clarity and kindness? Can we work without narrowing our focus into that bubble of urgent, primal self-concern? When we get overwhelmed, can we remember, as Byron Katie says, that stress is a compassionate alarm clock that tells us we are caught in a dream?

Rather than resisting or avoiding work, perhaps what we need is a zero-tolerance policy for our unconsciousness within it. Rather than focusing on ‘doing’, maybe we need to pay attention to our ‘being’. As my mentor GD puts it in his unforgettable mantra for work and life: “Who you are being in any situation is always, always more important than what you are doing.” And the good news is while what we do at work is not always in our hands, who we are being always is…

Image used under creative commons via katiew

An imaginary person, an imaginary journey & an imaginary destination

Imaginary Self

A few months ago, my brother and mentor GD shared a radical perspective on life that put everything in question, even spiritual seeking. Here, in condensed form, is the essence of what he said:

“You are an imaginary person
walking on an imaginary path
trying to reach an imaginary goal.

Whatever we think we are, is simply our imagination.
Whatever we think we are becoming is also part of imagination.

And our so-called spirituality is mostly about
fixing or freeing an imaginary entity in our heads.

Our entire ‘life’ is lived in imagination.

We are dreaming throughout the day, thinking we are awake.”

His words rocked a core structure. If the ‘me’ is a fiction created out of words and beliefs, then ‘who’ needs to be enhanced or liberated? Moreover, did this mean that working on transcending ‘me’ was coming from the false perspective that there is a ‘me’ present at all? Was spirituality not about progressively losing concepts and clearing beliefs? After all, even enlightenment is a carrot promised in the future to a person who is taken to be real. A ringing silence inside told me GD’s words were true. An unmistakable clarity and lightness settled in the space where the noisy ‘me’ had been.

Soon after, I got to see the down-to-earth value of this, when the conversation shifted gears into a prickly situation concerning my mother. As my wife, my mother and I expressed our strong points of view, GD asked us to notice how quickly the imaginary ‘Sense-of-I’ appears real and solid again. Sure enough, righteous thoughts had begun sparking. I noticed the loudest thought: “WHY AM I BEING UNFAIRLY BURDENED!?

As I replayed the thought again consciously, it became obvious that this ‘I’ was just a word, a sound, an empty container! The picture of a sad ‘me’ being burdened was no more real than a cartoon illustration. Suddenly, the booming voice within sounded tinny, fake and meaningless.

Laughter erupted. Not as a result of a gradual healing system, a clearing process or guided meditation. Just the ‘I’ – that false wooden peg-leg upon which the whole problem stood – had been momentarily knocked off. In an instant, there was open space, irrepressible laughter and love.

Gyandev GDAt 14, he had an experience of oneness and clarity that haunted him and eventually changed the course of his life. At 28, he quit his career as an advertising executive to live with his spiritual teacher. Today, he is a pyschic empath and intuitive healer living in Pune, India, with a happy backyard menagerie of squirrels, coucals, pigeons, mongooses and a cat-without-a-name. Read his story on my updated ‘About GD‘ page with a gorgeous new digital painting and details on how to contact him… 🙂