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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Are you listening to YOU?

InspirationHeaderPier

Last week, someone asked my mentor GD: “If there was just one thing you could teach me in this session, what would it be?”
“I would connect you to your inner navigation system… your in-built GPS,” GD replied.
The person was perplexed: “Does it even exist?
“Yes. And once you are connected, you never have to struggle with where to go or what to do with your life.”
“Wow! Sounds cool. So do you always know the next step… the larger plan?
“No, I don’t,” GD replied.But I have learned to ‘listen’… to be open and available. At the perfect moment, the next step is effortlessly revealed.

I was intrigued by this conversation.

So often in life we are busy stuffing our minds with information, facts and figures and pre-judgments that we don’t leave any space for something new to land. Especially in my job as a movie studio creative executive, there is a tendency to compulsively fill hours with books, movies and meetings – with the hope that, after all the friction, the spark of knowing will come. What GD was talking about was the opposite: emptying yourself – and allowing the film that wants to be made to reveal itself. He was talking about ‘listening to the person’ before you listen to the words coming out of his mouth. And about being ‘tuned into Life’ to receive the highest possible option in each moment.

“True Listening,” GD explained, “is a simple state of openness and transparency. It creates a space in which you receive constant guidance and insight from the totality of YOU. LISTENING is not to a person– it is tuning in to this alive-emptiness all around us… to this awake -presence that we are. It is being tuned to the Source, to Existence itself. Just like ‘Google’ needs to be connected to the internet to search, you need to be ‘connected’ to Source to receive your answers.”

When I look back at my life, most of the work done in that speedy space of non-listening and desperate panic has proved later to have been useless. The most successful work I have worked done has happened effortlessly in a flow – moving with an energy far more graceful than my efforts at controlling and manipulating outcomes. And yet the old habit recurs. This conversation could not have come at a better time for me, after a self-imposed 28-hour workday.

“When you are ‘connected’, life is an effortless flow,” GD continued. “There is no sense of doership or struggle… or even of choice for that matter. Everything just happens. So our primary task is to be connected… to be one with this amazing Oneness. Once this faculty is tuned, it automatically resolves all the other issues one is struggling with.”

A few days after we spoke, I came across this anecdote from Mother Teresa’s life. Dan Rather, the CBS anchor, asked Mother Theresa: “When you pray, what do you say to God?”
Mother Teresa replied, “I don’t talk, I simply listen.”
“Ah,” Dan Rather countered, “then what is it that God says to you when you pray?”
Mother Teresa replied, “He doesn’t. He also simply listens.”

When GD heard this, he added:
This is such a beautiful way to describe meditation…
You simply listen to God…
God simply listens to you…
then you and God both disappear…
and only pure listening remains.
That is the perfect meditation…
being the alive-awake-listening in which everything happens
.”

When Life Falls Apart

When Your Life Crashes Down

“Those powerful moments of true knowledge that we paper over with daily life… But every so often something shatters like ice and we are in the river of our own existence. We are Aware.” – Louise Erdrich

Have you ever had that experience in a movie theatre, when you are watching a good movie – flowing with the emotions, leaning forward to know what happens next – and the reel snaps. The screen goes blank. Maybe a collective groan rises. The lights come on and you blink and look around with an awareness of yourself sitting in a row of seats in a movie hall.

Sometimes, my brother and mentor GD reminded everyone in a recent Sunday session talk, Consciousness appears to pulls the plug on our life-movie too. It feels painful and heart-breaking. But is it really so?

When Consciousness wants to awaken to itself, GD said, it often starts dismantling your life. When Consciousness wants to be fully present, fully embodied in your system, it will not let anything work. Work starts failing, relationships start failing, health starts failing. The mind panics and starts putting all kinds of band-aids to fix the cracks. But if you’re lucky, nothing will work…

I remembered the time in GD’s own life when, despite his undeniable creative talent, nothing seemed to work out. Everything he tried ended in failure, and he was literally forced to explore meditation and the deepest aspects of his psyche. Most friends told him he was wasting his youth in spiritual pursuits. And it was truly a difficult period, complete with a sense of depression and lost-ness.

It took many years for the ‘dismantling’ and ‘reassembling’ to settle down completely. But today, as a result of that, he has that quiet glow which attracts people to him for healing and clarity. Had he continued down the career path he so much wanted, he would probably have been a successful advertising executive today. But something even more precious than that would never have emerged.

“This is important to know,” GD says in hindsight, “because we all resist the dismantling of our life. We keep asking and praying for something new – but when the old is being taken away, we fight, scream, therapeutize, we hate ourselves and God, and we judge our spiritual path also. But what if this dismantling is the exact answer to your prayers?”

Disappointments and failures, in these days of DIY abundance & affirmations, are seen as signs of inadequate spiritual practice or faulty manifestation. But I remember that three years ago, it was a slip disc that finally pushed me to make the painful decision to quit the only life I knew, that of a highly paid full-time corporate executive.

When I told GD I was writing a blog on this subject, he showed it to me through a different lens: “Consciousness – your true nature – is inherently Freedom. So when the time comes, it will start breaking down all the situations, relationships and beliefs that limit Itself. It will make the job dissatisfying… it will make the marriage dissatisfying. That is Consciousness wanting to break out, wanting to be fully Itself, completely unfettered by the mind.

“So this simple process of Consciousness coming into its own feels like a breakdown of your life. But actually it’s an expansion of you, it’s the process of becoming more fully You. A time comes when Consciousness wants to break out of every box created by the mind. It will break every self-definition and limitation you have created – so you can be something much bigger and vaster.”

I wanted to put this out for all those who may be going through this phase or feel the pain of a loved one going through it. As a reminder that when the movie-reel stops, heart-wrenching as it feels, it is also the wake-up call you had set for yourself: to remember that you were never the movie.

Image used under creative commons via fiddle oak

Wanted: A Life Purpose (*conditions apply)

Waiting for A DirectionSince I let go of my full-time corporate job, every few months, I used to feel dejected that life/god/existence was not showing me my calling, the grand and glorious purpose in life that I had heard and read so much about.

On one such gloomy, rainy day, my mentor GD sat me down and asked me: “What will it look like when you find your calling?” Despite my past experience with his seemingly innocent-sounding questions, I answered that one.

I replied it should be something worthy, inspiring and larger-than-life. “What you are seeking is not your calling,” GD pointed out, “but a new path of ego-gratification.”

Wow. I hadn’t seen that coming.

With just one sentence, my new age/light-worker/eco-warrior ego was crushed like a recycled coca-cola can. So my oh-so-righteous rants to God were just an employee haranguing his boss for a promotion? As I recovered my composure, I asked GD if there was such a thing as a calling or life purpose then?

The way I see it, he said, one’s calling is something that feels simple, natural and spontaneous in this moment. It is not that Existence doesn’t show you your calling, but the mind rejects it insisting that it should look a certain way — that it should be spectacular right from the start. So you are asking God to show you your purpose, but you have a huge asterisk with “CONDITIONS APPLY” below it. And even if tomorrow morning it happened in the spectacular, sudden way you imagine it, it would only create stress and pressure, because it is not a natural flowering.

In every moment, I realized, our calling comes to us like a gentle birdcall, while we wait for the fanfare of a Republic Day Parade.

“We dismiss that little voice because we don’t know where it is leading,” GD added. “Otherwise, this process is already silently in motion. All we need to do is to trust the Universal Flow. Our calling is simply to honor the impulse that is ‘calling’ in this moment.”

*

The Best Spiritual Advice You Got In Kindergarten

rowboatYesterday, as I was listening to my mentor GD share his increasingly clear experience of the entire field of consciousness as a dream, I remembered an old nursery rhyme. Repeating the lines one by one, I was stunned that there was such precise spiritual guidance encoded in four lines:

Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream

We are conditioned to believe in hard work, control and struggle as the way to go up (stream) in life. The first two sentences offer a kinder suggestion of gently guiding your boat downstream to the goodness and perfection that Life already has in store for you. In two simple lines, the verse captures the essence of what we now know as ‘the law of attraction’.

As long as one believes one is the ‘doer’ of life, the best advice is to row gently and go down the stream. The harder you push, the more reality you give to the false ‘doer’. So take it easy: for life is not a static lake but a stream that has its own natural, divine flow.

In the third line, there is a child-like joy of repetition, which gives the feeling-sense of how life may be lived: merrily. And in case you didn’t get it the first time, we’ll say it four times for you! That’s how much fun this thing called Life is!!!

The most beautiful part of the rhyme for me is the last line. The subtle connection that merriment in life arises not from where your boat takes you, but from the final understanding: ‘life is but a dream’. Go merrily, it advises, for life is but a dream. Again, notice that it doesn’t say that life is like a dream – it says life is a dream.

Reading it again, I noticed how the verse progressively moves from personal to impersonal. The first line has a sense of a ‘you’ rowing a boat. The second describes a scenario of a boat going gently down the stream. The third does not say: ‘you should be merry’. It is simply expressing the pure joy of it – merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily. And the fourth, with one joyous lift-off, transcends the whole of life. In four little lines, the song traverses the whole journey from apparent duality to non-duality, between where we (think we) are and the final understanding.

Now that I am a father (in the dream!) teaching nursery rhymes to my little son, this is the one I would encourage him to hold on to for the rest of his life. Maybe someday, on a demanding day at work, he will hum it by chance and rediscover the same spiritual advice encoded in these four simple lines:

Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream…

A Timeless Little Reminder

Heart

For all those out there who may be feeling temporarily
lost and uncertain about their direction in life…

*

Just Right

God's Light

For many years, my mentor GD had written on the wall near his bed, the line: “There Is No Such Thing As A Mistake In Existence, Only Limited Vision.” And on some dark days, this is about all the spiritual teaching one needs to hear. Here is a fragment of a Shin Buddhist Poem from Taitetsu Unno’s book ‘River of Fire, River of Water’ which reflects that same truth beautifully…

You, as you are, you’re just right.

Your parents, your children, your daughter-in-law, your grandchildren,
they are, all for you, just right.

Happiness, unhappiness, joy and even sorrow,
for you, they are just right.

The life that you tread is neither good nor bad.
For you, it is just right.
Whether you go to hell or to the Pure Land,
wherever you go is just right.

Nothing to boast about, nothing to feel bad about,
nothing above, nothing below.

Even the day and month that you die,
even they are just right.
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