The Older They Get, the Bolder They Get

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logo_172x100Every month, a fresh bunch of civil servants retires.

With the security and comfort of a respectable house bought or built over the years, reasonable pension and fairly good health cover, the majority of us ( and I include myself ) pursue a life of semi-leisure, reading, occasional writing, some exercise. Travelling and of course re-living life through one’s grandchildren often go hand-in-hand while discovery travel is increasingly on the cards. Pleasurable as this leisurely lifestyle is, it is, quite simply, “typical”.

I have sometimes wondered what spurred some of us to pursue something unusual. And with such passion. I wanted to write about such retired civil servants imbued with the zeal to do something different and who then did it exceedingly well. Sometimes there may be no great achievement to show, but even the willingness to share one’s cloudy spells shows a degree of candour not normally seen in our clan.

Older they get

My template for inclusion in the repertoire was, first, the account had to be compelling. I needed to convince myself that, indeed, there was a story to tell. My second benchmark was to find people whose achievements were triggered by interesting factors or a turn of unforeseen events. I needed to focus on understanding the feelings and sensitivities of my subjects and, most important, to identify the triggers that drew them to a different kind of journey.

Every individual that I have selected to write about is interesting in his own way. But there the similarity ends. One of my subjects was a celebrated civil servant who started a world renowned NGO while still young, in service, and continues to manage it for nearly 40 years. What spurred him then and what spurs him even now? He will soon be 76.

Another person, after remaining a die-hard atheist, resolutely turned to the power of prayer but only after chilling circumstances opened his eyes to what he believes to be miracles.

A third story is about an officer who renounced many years of active service ahead of him to espouse the spiritual path, to join a religious order and become a monk. The story is a first-hand account as told to me directly. It has a message for all civil servants.

The fourth is about a man who took on the striking Bombay Municipal Corporation employees and their profligate benefactors, single-handedly and without despairing in the face of collective odds that the political system presents. At first he failed in his battle. One day he won.

The fifth subject is an IPS officer, now 77, who has been silently working for the tribals of Amravati since his retirement some 26 years ago. He is heroworshipped by police officers who worked under him even today.

The sixth story is about an association of All-India Services retirees who work for the legitimate interests of over 600 retired cadre-mates while quietly contributing personal resources to educate underprivileged children, on the side. Many individuals do good work but it is indeed a rarity to see a large group of retirees getting together and making a positive go of social service.

The seventh story describes an officer who overcame the early loss of his spouse, picked up the pieces and went on to achieve significant success as a prolific writer, artist and a singer too. I also have hopes of adding a person who took early retirement to become a full-time astrologer and another who broke the stranglehold of public sector-dominated TV to throw open the doors to private TV channels.

Here, friends, is my first story.

‘Share what you have, give what you can’

WHEN I decided to write about unusual pursuits of retired civil servants, three officers were insistent that I write on Mr DR Mehta (IAS, Rajasthan, 1961) He is known for two achievements:As the Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank and Chairman of SEBI for six years until 2002, he is credited with introducing game-changing financial reforms. But much more than these achievements, Mehta remains the face of the world-famous Jaipur foot and his brainchild, the Bhagwan Mahavira Viklang Sahayata Society (BMVSS), in Jaipur. This organisation has fitted artificial limbs on tens of thousands of patients over the last 38 years.

Precisely because all this is well-documented and generally known, I was not very enthusiastic about writing Mehta’s story. After all, he had received the Padma Bhushan besides an array of international and national awards and huge media coverage. The BBC has filmed videos on his work and MIT, Stanford, CSIR and several IITs had been collaborating to improve the quality of the artificial limb. Forbes magazine has written a highly congratulatory article on Mehta’s project. Why then should I repeat what is so well-known?

Only for one reason: No one seems to have asked Mehta what triggered him to follow this unusual path with such steadfastness. What were the factors that motivated him? How has he sustained this passion? Face it, the entire venture has been growing from 1975 and Mehta himself is now 75 years old. What could I tell civil servants which Wikipedia, Google and so many citations could not?

I got hold of Mehta’s telephone number and gave him a call. I thought he would suggest a time some days later. Instead, there and then, he launched into a story which lasted two sessions of over 3 ½ hours, where he did all the talking.

Mehta accelerates his words like a mixer-blender at top speed; there is no punctuation leave alone consideration for the listener-writer unaccustomed to taking long-hand dictation over a cell phone. Three times I requested him to continue the session the next day. Six times he retorted, “Just another two minutes please, only two minutes,” and added yet another dimension to his story. But the simplicity of the man and his child-like excitement sounded refreshingly different.

Suffice it to say that the contribution of DR Mehta had nothing to do with either the invention or the expertise needed to fit the limb. The credit for developing a successful and user friendly artificial limb goes to three orthopaedic surgeons at the SMS Medical College Hospital, Jaipur, and a highly innovative craftsman. The story of how this four-man team observed, conceived, moulded and started fitting the Jaipur foot on legless patients as far back as 1968 makes compelling reading. But this story is not about them – it is about Mehta.

DR Mehta walks beside a child fitted with a Jaipur Foot, the most widely used prosthetic device in the world today
DR Mehta walks beside a child fitted with a Jaipur Foot, the most widely used prosthetic device in the world today

Mehta is a simple man who travels in a hatchback and, apparently, for all his connections, manages his venture parsimoniously. His message for civil servants is: “Understand that there is no greater happiness than giving to those in need.”

It was Mehta who brought to the table what perhaps only a civil servant could have – the brain, the conviction and managerial brilliance. It was Mehta who was ultimately responsible for converting an admirable but insignificant initiative into a world-famous model. In the first seven years, despite its extraordinary qualities, only 50 patients could be benefitted by the Jaipur foot. It was Mehta’s BMVSS which scaled it up to 10,000 limbs a year, a figure which has now doubled itself. The Jaipur foot is today the most widely used prosthetic device in the world.

I asked Mehta about the influences and events which made him pursue this venture which he steers even today as though there is no tomorrow. Mehta told his story thus:

My father died when I was five years old. My brother’s influence was enormous but we were both brought up by our uncle in a joint family. Not only did he educate us and fulfil the responsibility of marrying our sister, but in the process had to sell the ancestral property to clear the loans. Why did he help us? Because in a joint family you have to be concerned about every member of the family. The first value we learnt as children was that of sharing. My mother had hardly anything to give but even she would put by small offerings and ask me to carry a bundle to the nearby orphanage every day. We learnt to share because that’s what we saw.

I joined the IAS in 1961. In 1967 a famine of horrific proportions devastated parts of Bihar. The photograph of an old woman with sunken cheeks, looking more like a skeleton than a human being, appeared on the front page of the Statesman. So shocked was I by that picture that I sought an appointment with the Chief Secretary and volunteered to ihar. My proposal was refused for obvious reasons – no state accepts officers from another state as it is taken as a sign of incompetence of one’s own officers. But my offer was not forgotten.

When a terrible drought scorched Jaisalmer some years later, my offer was recalled. I was Collector of Sikar district adjacent to Jaipur when I got a call from the Chief Secretary. There were reports that the drought had resulted in the deaths of scores of children. Indira Gandhi was said to be extremely upset and was likely to visit the district. There was a fear that the Government would be sacked. As the new Collector I was tasked with organising the relief operations.

Acute scarcity of drinking water, near absence of medical care and unrelenting misery were evident everywhere. Most unbearable for me was the sight of people dying before my eyes and my being unable to help. One day, a little interlude brought some cheer. A social worker from nearby Pokhran, also in Jaisalmer, came and told me that
labourers in his village had decided to donate one rupee a day to build two rooms for a local school. He added that a blind man also wanted to contribute by offering stones which his daughter would deliver on their donkey’s back. I was struck by the sacrifice of these people who owned nothing and yet were prepared to share what they could. I decided to visit his village to see how I could help.

But it was an ill-fated trip. On the way, a truck hit my station wagon. It was a major accident. I suffered multiple fractures and, after an interminable wait for three hours when I writhed in agony, I was moved to a hospital in Jodhpur. My companions thought I would die. I lived, but only to confront the imminent possibility of having one leg amputated. It was God’s grace that that did not happen but I remained inert for more than five months. In my motionless state I read whatever I could lay my hands on. All the while I was tortured by the thought of what happens to those less fortunate than us.

Apart from the teachings of Bhagwan Mahavir and the example of my own mother, it was reading about the life of Nobel Prize winner Albert Schweitzer that had a profound influence on me. As a young doctor, Schweitzer had sacrificed all by taking his wife and young son to the disease-infested Congo (now known as Gabon), to set up a hospital to treat hundreds of patients suffering from fatal tropical maladies. I felt I had to do something which would exemplify his words, “Let us join the fraternity of those who bear the mark of pain,” words which resonate in my ears even today. Another life-story which mpacted me deeply was that of Sir Douglas Bader, an RAF pilot who lost both his legs in an air crash. This legless pilot recovered as best possible, actually retook flight training and got reactivated as a pilot when the Second World War started.

The inspiration was aflame inside me but it needed an outlet. In 1975 an extraordinary opportunity arose which I used to advantage. As Secretary to the Chief Minister of Rajasthan, I was appointed the member-secretary of the committee in charge of the 2500th anniversary of Bhagwan Mahavir’s Nirvan celebrations. I suggested that we should set up a society to give free limbs to poor people. The CM agreed and contributed Rs 2 lakh but asked me to raise the remaining money from the public. With that the BMVSS was formed and I became its Founder and continue as its Chief Patron.

People are getting anxious about BMVSS’ future. For ensuring its sustainability, user charges and a business model have been suggested to me by many. But, as long as I live, the free model will stay. We continue to live on the interest from our corpus, on our donations and on growing goodwill. I ask them, has a single business model survived for 38 years in the rehabilitation sector?

Mehta is a simple man who travels in a hatchback and, apparently, for all his connections, manages his venture parsimoniously. His message for civil servants is: “Understand that there is no greater happiness than giving to those in need. But only true compassion and a respect for the dignity of the poor will work. Start as soon as you can by using your free time to advantage. No Government or boss can stop you if you decide to show sensitivity and compassion. And that is all you need. The rest will come the day you learn to care and to give.”

This article  by Shailaja Chandra is based on what Mr DR Mehta told her during an  an interview with the author.

4 thoughts on “The Older They Get, the Bolder They Get

    Suman Swarup said:
    August 14, 2013 at 10:52 AM

    Fine article. I had the good fortune to meet Shri Mehta personally recently while working as a member of a Committee set up by the min. of Social Justice for review of the seven National institutes for the handicapped. His contribution is indeed remarkable.

    afreen said:
    August 15, 2013 at 8:44 PM

    inspirational source for me as persons like Dr Mehta drive me

    Kelsey said:
    October 3, 2014 at 2:52 PM

    Greetings from Colorado! I’m bored to tears at work so I decided
    to browse your blog on my iphone during lunch break.
    I love the knowledge you provide here and can’t wait to
    take a look when I get home. I’m amazed at how fast your blog loaded on my phone
    .. I’m not even using WIFI, just 3G .. Anyways, very good site!

      Shailaja Chandra responded:
      October 3, 2014 at 2:59 PM

      Truly flattered to get your comment.I am such a mixed up personality – I have a very serious side and then one which revels in human interest stories and the things that add up to daily life anywhere.Twitter and FB require a person who is slotted by sector or by hobbies/ passions.A blog is one place where you are talking to people who don’t know you so they have no expectations.Once in a while if they like what is written one feels so elated as they are not obliged to say supportive things.Anyway tell me what you think…

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