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The Young Muralidhar:


Muralidhar Devdas Amte[ Muralidhar: ]

Muralidhar Devdas Amte was born on December 26, 1914 in Hinganghat, Wardha district in Maharashtra state of India. As the eldest son of a wealthy Brahmin landowner, Murlidhar had an idyllic childhood. By the time he was fourteen, Baba owned his own gun and hunted boar and deer. He developed a special interest in cinema, wrote reviews for the film magazine The Picture Goer and even corresponded with Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer. (Norma Shearer would become one of his first foreign donors when he began working with leprosy patients.) When he was old enough to drive, Baba was given a Singer sportscar with cushions covered with panther skin! But even then, Amte did not appreciate the restrictions that prevented him from playing with the 'low-caste' servants' children.

"There is a certain callousness in families like mine." Baba says. "They put up strong barriers so as not to see the misery in the world outside and I rebelled against it."

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[ Baba's Influences: ]

During the college holidays, Baba traveled all over India. He visited Shantiniketan, initially attracted by Rabindranath Tagore's music and poetry. Shantiniketan, located amid lush natural beauty, was a microcosm of Tagore's ideal world - here was a community united in joy, work and love. Baba came away deeply touched and somehow altered for life. Closer to home, at Sewagram (Gandhiji's ashram) near Wardha, Baba was equally fascinated with Gandhi's relationship with God. Through Gandhi, Baba saw that:

God is that indefinable something, which we all feel but which, we do not know. To me, God is truth and love, God is ethics and morality, and God is fearlessness. God is the source of light and life, and yet He is above and beyond all these. God is conscience.

Simultaneously, he was deeply impressed by what he saw as Gandhi's scientific attitude to life. For Bapu's ideals were never some personal fetish but the rational basis for finding solutions to the problems of life. The result was modes of life, which were both verifiable and replicable. Baba realized that it was no small privilege to be living in the 'company of two universal souls that inhabited Shantiniketan and Sewagram'. Even more he felt honored to be able to quarrel with both of them, yet to love them immensely and also earn their love.

While the ideas of Marx and Mao inspired him, the Marxist revolutions in Russia and China did not. He felt closer to the worldview of John Ruskin and Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin, which emphasized the empowerment of the community with greater freedom from the state. Thus the poetic simplicity of Maharashtra's fiery social reformer, Sane Guruji, drew him like a magnet.

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[ Amte's Angst: ]

Amte built up a lucrative practice as an advocate in Warora. On weekends, he looked into affairs at the family's farm of 450 acres, at Goraja near Warora. Soon he was organizing farmers' cooperatives and was eventually elected vice-president of the Warora municipality. And he still had time for hunting and games of bridge or tennis at the local club. But the money, prestige and comfort were not making Baba happy. Instead, he became restless. This surely could not be the purpose of life, he thought. Besides now he was even more appalled by the callousness he saw within his own family. He rebelled against the 'strong barriers' families like his own used to block out the misery in the world outside:

I, who never had planted a single seed in the estate, was expected to enjoy the comfort of a beautiful farm house, while those who had toiled there all their lives had only the meanest hovels ... I was charging fifty rupees for arguing for fifteen minutes while a laborer was getting only three-quarters of a rupee for twelve hours of toil. That was what was eating into me.

At times, his legal practice forced him even to be dishonest. This bothered him still more. He discovered that many clients expected him to lie for them:

A client would admit that he had committed rape and I was expected to obtain an acquittal. Worse still, when I succeeded, I was expected to attend the celebration party.

So Baba set about changing what he could. Harijans (also known as untouchables) on his family's lands had always walked a long distance to collect water because the village well was forbidden to them. Baba defied the bitter opposition of the upper-caste villagers and opened up the well to all people. During the Quit India movement, in 1942, he organized lawyers to take up the defense of the jailed leaders and was himself thrown into prison.

Soon Baba lost all interest in the law practice. More and more he admired the 'richness of heart of the poor people' and despised 'the poverty of heart of the rich'. It was the 'common man', he decided, who was really uncommon. Perhaps, one way of ensuring a full life was to become one with the poor and oppressed.

From his earliest days, Amte was attracted by the Gonds and other primitive people whom he met on his hunting expeditions deep in the primeval forests. "That microscopic look at village life taught me to hear the heart-beat of reality. To me, the common man's society is a maskless society. He does not carry that thick mask which the professional people, the upper classes, whereas they might look nice and beautiful. Very often they do not dare to say what they really think and feel."

Baba let his hair and fingernails grow and spread the word that he had taken a vow of celibacy. To complete the effect he even feigned sitting in meditation. One day whilst pretending to be lost in meditation, a crab began pinching his thigh. "It was very painful, but I had to pretend not to notice it. What a bluff!" All this changed when he spotted Indu Ghuleshastri at a wedding. Baba noticed that amid the wedding festivities of her elder sister, Indu had quietly slipped away to help an old servant woman who was washing clothes.

Biography Contents | Next Chapter: Baba Meets Indu


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