24 Hours in Gotri

Apr 20, 2005

Maybe it's because their name starts with a "V". But Viral, Vivekananda, and Vinoba influence me heavily. One is my brother, another has inspired all corners of the world, but third is a little mysterious.

Today, as I lay on the floor staring the ceiling fan rotating in full force, I am thinking about the third V: Vinoba. We are at the end of the road, in every aspect. It's 2PM, we are leaving this place at 5:30AM tomorrow, and we have absolutely no idea where we will be going, or anything else. You know, the usual gut-wrenching unknown.

Just then, a surreal feeling takes a hold of me. I feel at home. This is, after all, the Vinoba Ashram in Gotri.

On the previous day, Guri and I showed up at this ashram, without knowing anyone or anything. The board outside read "Nature Cure Center" but the mailing address at the bottom read "Vinoba Ashram", so it seemed like our destination. We walk into the small reception room, that feels like a hospital lobby, and ask for the only name we had heard of -- Jagdish Shah.

Sizing us up as two vagabonds, the receptionist asked us to wait in the lobby. Tick tock, tick tock. Just as we guzzled down some tap water, a man whizzes past us. The receptionist asks us to follow him. It's the doctor of this 'Nature Cure' center, Bharat Shah.

"Given that Vinoba walked across the country for decades, you gotta figure these guys will be sympathetic to walking pilgrims," I think out loud to Guri. Bharatbhai turns out to be a very compassionate guy, and after hearing about what we are doing, he invites us for some accommodations and food.

This whole introduction process is humiliating, at least for me. I mean, let's face it: I could easily bust out money from my own labor to stay wherever I want, however I want. But no, instead I have voluntarily left myself at the mercy of the universe, to realize our interdependence, and to put the "I" in check. It's the thing to do, but man, it's painful especially when you have to do it again and again, every single day. You feel so small.

"Jadgishbhai is on a pilgrimage himself. He just came couple hours ago and is leaving again tomorrow. It'll be very tough to see him," Bharat says, after telling us that is his Dad. Despite his seeming unavailability, we were taken by the coincidence of him being there.

After settling in, we learned more about the activities of the Vinoba Ashram: Nature Cure center and organic farming. About 15 families lived on the clean, serene campus and it was the center of much Gandhian activity in the country through "Bhoomi Patra" newsletter.

Sure enough, we ran into Jagdishbhai. Although he only had five minutes to spend with us, he acted like we had eternity. Immediately, he's comfortable with us and tells us to join him in his pilgrimage. By now, we knew that this man had dropped out of college at 19, and walked thousands and thousands of miles, without any money in his pocket, to support Vinoba Bhave's "bhoodan" movement. So we countered, "Unfortunately, we are walking. We haven't paid our dues like you, that we can ride in cars." He smiled but still tried to convince us.

Next day, there was a meeting of Sarvodaya Trust. A 96 year old man, Siddharaj Dadda, was little antsy that the country he had fought so hard is struggling with some basic values; so he had called everyone together. Fortunately, we happened to be right there as we heard stories from some of the most incredible leaders in social development work.

Getting Jagdishbhai's time was still an impossibility, although he was really taken by our spirit and wanted to help us.

So it's 2PM, I'm looking at the ceiling wondering what will happen next. While Guri takes a short nap, I decide to randomly walk out of our room. I know that Jagdishbhai leaves in an hour, so if there's any hopes of getting his advice on where to go, what to do, it's gotta be now.

I go down and he's coming out of his room at the same time. We chat it up, as he is adamant on us joining him. I ask him some questions, and he gets into helping us. We walk into his living room and sit down. Pretty soon, Guri comes down and Jagdishbhai's whole family is with us as well. We share some of our experiences, they learn a little bit about our past and get a sense of our sacrifices that brought us to their door.

"From the moment I met you, you felt like my own son and daughter," Jagdishbhai says as he gives us his own map and gives us a few suggestions on what routes to take. "I'm really worried about you. In this day and age, you can't do something like this. Why don't you just come with me in the car? I will introduce you to some of the most amazing people you will ever meet." Once again, we politely refuse with the help of his wife. :) And he actually appears to be slightly impressed with our conviction.

Over the next hour, everyone comes together to share stories and brainstorm ideas about where and how we should proceed. At one point, Jagdishbhai confidently says, "You go ahead and use my name wherever you want. It's a license to get in anywhere." And although we don't know of his whole life story, just from the hearing tidbits from other inspiring people, like Hamidaben, it is obvious that we are in front of a living legend.

Jagdishbhai leaves, with about a dozen others on the campus. But the conversation continues in full swing, with others in the room. Then, at one point, Bharatbhai says: "Would you mind giving a talk tonight? I think our staff and patients would be very inspired." We agree.

Within the hour, we give an impromptu talk to about 70 folks. Everyone is pumped, partially in awe. By the end of the talk, couple of youngsters in the room are ready to join right then -- we told we're not ready yet; couple of older folks ask about how we are able to walk so much, about marriage, about what our parents think about this; two folks, one from the UK and US, come up afterwards just to shake our hands and say, "All our blessings are with you." Another youngster finds us afterwards and asks us all kinds of questions about life. Many conversations are buzzing around.

Next morning, Baa (Jagdishbhai's wife and also the cutest grandmother-like personality) wakes up just to say goodbye; Kapilbhai's wife makes us tea and a special treat from their cow's first milk after birth (Guri saw a calf that was an hour old, the previous day); Bharatbhai writes us brief directions to get to our next location, 40 kilometers away. As we say goodbye, Baa sweetly remind us, "Beta, if you don't make it before lunch, don't worry. Just take a break in between."

Everyone is with us in spirit.

Of course, this ends up being the toughest walk Guri and I have taken. It's hot, the walk is slow, we get caught in between destinations, it's hard to find shade, we have unusual -- and identical -- pains that came out of nowhere. But we manage. We rest at an old, rundown train station and start walking again at 4PM.

At about kilometer 33, we see an ambulance pull up on the other side of the road. We keep walking. The ambulance honks its horn, and out comes Jagdishbhai from the back! Incidentally, his "yatra" was on the same route and he had been keeping an eye out for us, on the road. He races out from the back door, to first grab Guri's face in his palms and kisses her on the forehead. "Beta, I was so worried about you guys. I have searching for you all day." Like a true grand-parent, he asks us if we have had any problems. We actually did, but after this dose of love, it all seemed trivial.

"Ok, ok, do one thing," Jagdishbhai says. "Please just accept this rule in your pilgrimage. If someone offers you a ride, without you asking and without you paying a single dime, you should accept it." Basically, he wants to give us a ride. :)

We smile. He doesn't even expect a response; he knows we are gonna keep walking. We bow down to touch his feet, and request his blessings.

Twenty four hours after my 2PM-what-will-happen-tomorrow, I am alive like there is no tomorrow. Just keep walking, just keep walking.

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