Friday, February 21, 2014

One Last Lesson in Faith from Raghubhai

It's just been a couple of hours since I heard the news. One of my dearest friends, and inspirations, whom some people called a 'Love Warrior' passed away last night in a road accident on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. Raghu Makwana, or Raghu Bhai (bhai meaning brother) as he was fondly known in his communities was riding his three-wheeled motorcycle to a relatives home before he came to his untimely death at the age of 29. 

When Raghu was only a year old, he developed polio in both his legs and was limited to a life of walking with the help of both his hands along the ground. It didn't help that he belong to a family of landless labourers in a village.

It's hard to imagine one's mental state in such a situation. You'd expect resentment, negativity and a state of resignation. Or perhaps that's what we are conditioned to expect. Most courses in social behaviour I had come across in my prestigious business school education taught me about Maslow's theory of heirarchy - where an individual didn't have the 'luxury' of seeking self-actualization and contribution to society unless his basic needs were taken care of.

Not Raghu. Raghu was an anomaly. A flag that stood in the harsh winds of Maslows theories and conversations that said you need 'atleast this much' to be in a 'giving' frame of mind. Raghu was an anomaly was because he ran on something that none of these theories seemed to factor in - an un-extinguishable, un-definable and at times irrational value called Faith.

Tired of being a burden on his parents who were struggling for daily sustenance, Raghu left his home in the village at the age of 20. Armed with merely 300 rupees and several pocketfuls of faith, he hopped onto a bus that took him to the city of Ahmedabad, without knowing a soul there. After a few nights of befriending local tea-stall vendors, he found himself at the gates of a large temple on the outskirts of the city. At the gates, he came across similarly disabled people. 'The food is good, and the money we receive through alms is more than enough' they said. But it wasn't the reason why Raghu left home. He went on to take on responsibilities on the temple premises. For several months, he arranged devotees footwear outside the altar, before a volunteer from the Gandhi Ashram was deeply moved by Raghu's smile in a short encounter. Through various serendipitous events, Raghu found himself serving the slum community just across the Gandhi Ashram eco-system.

As he did the rounds of the slums with various development workers, he came across several homes that were weighed down by their lack of material resources. Often, he would enter their homes with a Tulsi plant as a gift for their home. In an Indian context, the Tulsi plant is considered sacred by most communities, and it often inspired the homes to honour it's presence by maintaining sanitation in their surroundings. Stepping into someone's home in this way was something only Raghu could pull off with his unassuming presence and radiant smile. Through the years, he ended up gifting close to a thousand such plants to homes. As for the money? 'It just came', he would say. As he passed by homes, he would come across aged women that were fending for themselves in the harsh environment of the slums. With no family or support to speak of, Raghu adopted them as his mothers, and soon began the Tyaag Nu Tiffin project (Food of Sacrifice) serving them food day and night, each day for four years. Across the world, people were so moved by stories from his work, that they would skip a meal every week and contribute the money saved, just so that they could stay connected to his spirit.

Stories of his journey and acts of generosity are endless. But some of my most transformational moments with him came through the smallest conversations.

Three and a half years ago, I had taken a giant leap of faith myself, to let go of what I had thought of as success - the glamour as the head of a trading floor in Indian capital markets, complete with TV appearances and a sense of power. In this journey to align myself with values I honoured, I would often go through times when I'd be feeling scarce.  After conversations with friends and family I'd wonder how I'll look after myself. Inevitably I would come across Raghu bhai and sit down with him for a conversation. It's hard to explain what transpires in such interactions. Here I am with my bank balance, intellectual capital, skills, a family structure that supports me, and right next to me was a man with limited physical capability, a bank balance that would last me a few days and almost no family support to speak of. Yet, his radiant eyes and shining teeth would send forth the most beautiful intentions you could imagine - 'Siddharth bhai, how can we serve our friends more?'

Through the last three years that I've known him, we've had several adventures in faith together. Some of my closest friends have spent hours driving through the slums to get a glimpse of the fuel that moves him. Leaders of organizations, academics, injured dogs lying in the gutters of a slum, or kids that would be bubbling with enthusiasm on his backseat - everyone has been on one of his incredible rides. He would embrace it all as he zipped through the narrow mud roads of the 'Tekra' or the slum. Smiles and waves would cheer him on as his motorbike clattered with the food for the elderly women he served. 

Sometimes, we would head out for what I called Mini-pilgrimages - walks with no money or telephones. Raghu would be on his tricycle with a musical instrument in hand, and me on my feet. Through walks like those you could see his secret sauce to life. Squatting on the floor he was always at a vantage point. It was almost as if he was forced to approach each situation and person with humility, and that allowed him to see the divinity in everyone. From those who offered financial support to his projects. to kids that he served on Sundays, everyone was a manifestation of the Divinity, or 'One above', or 'Upar Wala' as he called it.

Once, while returning from one of our numerous talks - we were both hungry. It was past lunchtime, and we hadn't figured out where we would be eating that day. I found the car parked outside the McDonalds on Ashram Road. Immediately, I cringed - this Golden Arch represented every value I did not approve of. But not with Raghu, he looks at it and says innocently - 'I've heard about this Mc Donalds place a lot - lets just eat here'. I walk in, with Raghu behind me walking on his two hands. Clearly, this was not what the McDonalds staff and guests are used to - we were a unique combination, Raghu and I. It was a weekday afternoon, and we go through the queue and get our food really quick. As we sat on our table, my eyes were darting around the room to see everyone's attention come our way. Raghu, was used to it though - glances from people, often with pity, wondering how he lived his life. But he held them with grace, almost to say 'I can see why you're suffering when you look at me, but honestly, I'm pretty happy :)'

Gradually, one of the guests mustered the courage to come over. As I saw him walk over, I tried to make it a bit more comfortable for him. Immediately, I introduced him to Raghu and told him a bit about his work. As people saw us talking, more guests joined in. Slowly, even the janitor, and attendants at McDonalds came into our circle. Stories were shared about Raghu in the slums, the women he served and the homes he offered Tulsi plants to. How he lived in the spirit of Service, and how his 'upar wala' always took care of him. 

I took a step back and was amazed - here we were, in a McDonalds! Raghu's presence had transformed it into a temple of sorts. All around, you could see people inspired by the way he lived his life. That was the true work of Raghubhai. It wasn't limited to the meals he offered to the aged women in the community, or the hundreds of Tulsi plants he offered to homes in the slum - it extended out to the thousands of people who had been touched by his spirit. As the emails and Facebook posts pour in form across the world, you start to get a glimpse of what his true impact really was. 

As I write this, I'm still struggling to come to terms with his passing. I notice my mind can't help but drift to the most obvious question - 'Why do Bad things happen to Good people?' or 'Why would a soul that dedicated so much of his life to alleviate the suffering of others go like this?' or 'Why did he have to ride his bike on the highway on that particular day?'

I see myself taken over by a whirlwind of confusion as I start to imagine a hostile world that's out to get us. Immediately, I hear Raghu's voice from within - his eyes shining bright as he says with a smile. 'You can't have all the answers Siddharth bhai. We just have to have faith that the 'Upar Wala' has something beautiful in store for us. We just have to keep playing our part on this beautiful stage called Life'

~ May All Beings Be Happy ~

1 comment:

  1. Truly Inspiring. Its so noble and good for you to have shared this story.