Photographs by Amruta Mehta
Just when Shantuben held her meditative poise at a Vipassana camp at Igatpuri on the morning of January 26, 2001, her dream turned to rubble back home in Bhuj. When she reached home, her labour of love of the last 5 years was gone, razed to the ground. It all had to start afresh.
Shantuben’s early life may sound like that of a character from a Naipaulian novel. Her formative years were spent in Nairobi and then she went to England to study medical sciences. She finally graduated as a pediatrician and began practicing in England. For her long-term career, Dr. Shantuben Patel preferred her native town Bhuj over Birmingham. She soon shifted base to Bhuj and began her practice.
Within days of her practice, Shantuben realized that those who need her services the most were the ones who couldn’t afford her. Her consultations became increasingly free. But it didn’t end here. A handful of children, most of them her clients’, due to inbreeding, malnutrition, lack of medical services, poverty, and other such factors were children with different abilities. Most of these children had hearing impairment, but some were autistic too, and some even cerebral palsy patients. These children needed special attention. And, their families required constant support, advice, and education in order to care for them.
Shantuben took it upon herself to fill in that gap. So, on 2nd September 1996 she started Dhanvantri school with 2 children, minimal support staff, and herself, in the front yard of her ancestral house in Bhuj. The school began to grow steadily and started attracting children from the regions around Bhuj. But the earthquake was waiting to happen.
After the earthquake, for almost 19 months, Dr. Shantuben Patel and her committed staff were without a roof at work, as well as at home. They were living out of tents pitched around the rubble of their love. There were moments of despair. There were moments of free fall in a bottomless pit. There were moments of doubt and loneliness. Moments when a stake runs straight through your heart and not a soul is present to balm your bleeding heart, to hold your hand, to believe in you, to repose your faith. But Shantuben is a woman of extraordinary resolve. She was running an ICU under an open sky with 15 incubators, all spick and span. She was holding hands with her staff members, counseling them, easing their pain through meditation and pep talks just to keep the faith running. It required immense compassion and love, a reservoir of unending energy, and Shantuben summoned all that from within, with almost no external help for a while. There were days where she was clueless about providing basic things as milk for the children, but she was on the job. She didn’t give up. She knew she had to hang in.
And surely, the wheel turned. Help started trickling in. Shantuben started picking up the shards of her life, started rebuilding brick by brick the dream she had lost to the earthquake. However, her current location was inadequate to house all the facilities she required for her school. No one was willing to give her land for her school. But soon she found a Samaritan collector in the town who granted her the land. She tapped in to her personal savings to pay for the land but it was barely adequate to pay for the first installment. Shantuben had no idea where the money would come from but she dashed headlong in to it. And providence was there to help her. A Gujarati NRI philanthropist visiting in the aftermath of the earthquake agreed to fund her school. Thus, Shantuben was on her way to rebuilding her students’ life, and that of her own.
My visit to Dhanvantri School happened serendipitously. I was casually talking to a dear friend, who mentioned Dr. Shantuben Patel off-hand, her attempt at serving the poor and differently-abled children of Bhuj and adjoining areas, and the lack of adequate support. As my friend continued, an indescribable feeling started taking over me – I wish I could explain it to you. After few minutes, a strong urge to go to her, to help her, to support her, to do anything that could be my tuppence to this great humanitarian effort, came over me. I didn’t want to waste even a minute. So, I immediately requested that my friend put in a word for me, which she did. And Dr. Shantuben Patel was gracious enough to immediately welcome me into her world.
My challenge began immediately after my visit’s confirmation. The art form that I practice deals heavily with text, literature, poetry, speech, voice intonations and modulations, and here I was, dealing with children who are hearing impaired, autistic, and some even cerebral palsy patients. I started thinking of alternative ways of reaching out to them. But my experience as a practicing storyteller in a form unknown to most, in a language archaic and understood by only a handful, and stories that almost no one knows about, had taught me a thing or two. Storytelling is not just about content and words, it’s also about ceremony, about the drama you hold with your body on the stage, about expressions, about silences and pauses, about anticipation and expectation, about familiarity and sense of adventure, and most of all, about an unconditional empathy, even love, for your audience. And most of the time, these elements let you transcend the barrier of language even with an audience that doesn’t understand a word of what you are saying. Performing to these children was almost like performing our Urdu stories to a Greek-speaking, or an English-speaking, or any non-Urdu speaking audience, albeit with a concession that they hear at least something, perhaps a drone when we speak, whereas these children do not hear even that much. But in either case, whether one hears a drone or hears nothing at all, the situation is disadvantageous. However, when we performed to the non-Urdu speaking audiences, their response was similar to that of an audience that comprehends the language. So I knew I wasn’t really on unfamiliar grounds.
But when I reached the school I entered an unknown zone. There were children around with soulful eyes staring back at me, measuring me up, wondering what I was doing intruding in their lives, and silently asking me what I had in store for them. I was unsettled. I didn’t have any ready answer for them. I felt my experience, my worldly accumulated wisdom stretching thin. I was out of my wits. I couldn’t stop thinking about my agenda for the day. But Shantuben came to my rescue; she gave me a foothold. She said that before we begin my session with the students, we would meditate for 10 minutes, and she asked me to attend the session. I walked in to the meditation hall, sat down quietly, a little nervous, but sat down nevertheless. I began by following the breathing instructions and soon felt my nerves soothed. I then started observing the children. Some had already taken a liking to me. They were smiling at me, eager to catch my eye, and the moment I would look at them, they would greet me, hands folded in the most welcoming, loving manner. It was pure, unadulterated affection – a joy of seeing another human being and welcoming their soul unconditionally, with warmth and love. I had never seen such purity. And I knew, I needn’t feel burdened at all. I just need to open up to these kids, be myself with them, and they would lead me to their world. I was prepared for this journey now.
The truth is, whether able or differently-abled, children are children anyway. Open, honest, willing to experience, welcoming, trusting, and most of all, unconditionally loving. One just needs to reciprocate. So, I made them form a circle, stepped in to it, and began the activity, and then there was no looking back. The next three hours we were laughing, clapping, dancing, having fun exercises, and enjoying it to the hilt. My experience with children has been that one doesn’t need to explain a lot to them. They intuitively get the logic or the rationale of what they’re doing, and sometimes this getting is even better than putting it in to words. And when the experience is over, it unfurls sub-consciously, unconsciously, and fosters that intuitive logic in its own way. If we, as facilitators, are clear about the connection between the outcomes of an experience and its intuitive logic, then all we need to do is to lay out that experience honestly and sincerely in front of the children, and the result will be as desired. The ability of a child has very little to do with all of this. So, by afternoon the children and I were on the same page. We were hugging each other, smiling at each other, and expressing our wish to be with each other. This paved the way to my afternoon session, which was storytelling.
One of the essential elements of successful storytelling is for the storyteller to have earned his or her credibility with the audience. I’d already earned it during the morning session. Now, I simply had to display my wares and I knew I had an audience that would buy every word from me. I’m not sure about the parents, as I was narrating the story slowly and pausing for one of the teachers, Dimpleben, to translate it into sign language for the students, but the children were enjoying it immensely. The session ended with our relationship strengthened even further. I felt that I had accomplished what I set out to do.
Perhaps, I have answered those soulful eyes, if not with a comparable spirit, then surely with a sincere spirit and they have accepted my effort with grace, love, and reciprocation that was thousand times greater than my own effort. I felt humbled, and I secretly pledged to come back with more stories, more love, and greater resources.
My greatest reward was when some of the children came to my room before leaving for their homes. Giggling, they hugged me, and cheerfully bid goodbye. I felt redeemed and inwardly smiled at being a storyteller.
I am honored that Dr. Shantuben Patel gave me this chance. I am thankful to my friend, Amruta, for introducing me to her. And I am grateful to you, the reader, for having taken the time to read this account and I hope that you will embrace these children as they do everyone who comes their way. They don’t give you a choice, they just conquer you with their love. Fait accompli.
Shantuben as of today needs INR 25 lakhs or USD 60,000 annually to maintain her school. She has been phenomenal till date. Let’s become part of her spirit and soar along with those hearts that are so worthy to live for.
If you wish to make donations then please write out a cheque in favour of THE CHILD WELFARE TRUST and post it to:
Dr. Shantuben Patel
Near Pramukh Swami Char Rasta
Mundhra Relocation Site, Mirzapar Road
Bhuj, Kutch, Gujarat 370 001, India.
Shantuben can also be contacted at thechildwelfaretrust at gmail dot com or shantubenpatel at gmail dot com.