Arriving to Mumbai’s airport at four am, our bleary-eyed troupe shuffled through ebbs of organized chaos. Here the air never has a neutral moment, a perfume of flowers, sweat and burning tires. Every step had another customs checkpoint, another entry stamp, yet another security line, all accented by uncertain waiting and pervasive stares. The shuttle bus ricketed alongside fences porous with slum life from the airplane to the terminal. Security guards outside the windows draped themselves over any horizontal surface to catch a glimpse of sleep, and we too flopped down onto the floor as soon as we reached our gate.
Upon landing Nagpur we were greeted by members of the Bajaj Foundation and Greg, our partner from the NGO Visions. After lunch we visited a Buddhist temple and the site where B.R. Ambedkar, the famous social activist, converted to Buddhism along with thousands of fellow Dalits (members of the Untouchable caste). Young couples asked us about our travels and we tried our best to converse with them through the fog of jetlag.
We then drove to Sevagram, a village outside the small city of Wardha. Our beautiful residence is across the street from Gandhi’s last ashram, founded in 1936, which functions as a monastary for social and religious refuge. Many famous activists have ashrams throughout India, such as Vinoba Bhave, but there is something particularly exciting about staying at the last home of such an iconic figure like Gandhi.
The ashram is a place of industrious solace. Each day at 4:00 am and 6:00 pm prayers from Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and Christian texts mark the cycle of daily routines, which include spinning and weaving the famous khadi cloth that is so emblematic of Gandhi. A living museum, the buildings have not changed since their construction and are accented with small plaques describing their historical significance. The many rules of ashram life include but are not limited to: fearlessness, non-posession, chastity, law of neighborhood, and taming of palate.
Our group was fortunate to spend an afternoon at the ashram learning how to spin kadhi thread from cotton. The teacher, 82 years young, has been living at the ashram since she was 14. She usually does not speak while spinning because the act is considered to be a meditative prayer. Her nimble fingers effortlessly twisted the tufts of fiber into strands, but it takes great skill to keep the thread at a consistent thickness.
Spinning is also a subversive act. During the colonial era, Britain placed stiff taxes and import fees on basic necessities, such as salt. Gandhi urged Indians to become self-reliant, and making their own cloth allowed them to boycott foreign goods. Establishing economic autonomy through collective action, even simply spinning, was a direct path towards political independence.
Our own day focuses on working with KJBF, and I will specifically be helping to document their rural water projects. We have done several trips of site visits to learn about the many kinds of intitatives that the organization implements. KJBF has a longstanding relationship to Gandhi’s legacy: Jamnalal Bajaj and his son Kamalnayan were his disciples, and Jamnalal was even adopted as his fifth son. This partnership has since defined KJBF’s mission and methods to alleviate poverty in the Wardha district.
So far, I have been very impressed with the work of KJBF. Kushagra Nayan Bajaj has been leading many of our site visits, and he constantly encourages us to communicate with KJBF staff and community partners. Each project has a strong emphasis on teaching beneficiaries the maintenance and best practices needed to maximize the impact of energy conservation projects. Because beneficiaries are resonsible for their projects, they have a sense of pride that is conveyed in many of our site visits. As I continue my work with KJBF, I will be posting short summaries of the many projects that we learn about.