Guest post by SUMANTRA MAITRA
When you are in journalism, something that slowly builds up in you is your immunity to suprise. You can feel fear, sadness, hopelessness, impatience, and even joy, though the last emotion is increasingly becoming a rare thing in this field. But whatever you feel, one thing is for sure, that you generally don’t get surprised. So when I initially heard about a lone Canadian woman of advanced age and energetic spirits, who had come to India at the age of 19 in the 1960s, fighting the land mafia in Hardwar, without any help from anyone, I was intrigued, but NOT surprised.
I decided to chase the story.
Esther Friede left Toronto for the love of Yoga in October 1965. She became the disciple of a Hindu Guru and then went on to open and maintain an ashram, got involved in various social works which include, but are not limited to, care for elderly and disabled and combined her spirituality and social work with her IT job and counseling in University of Toronto.
Unlike many who left the West at that time in search of Hindu spiritualism, for whom it was ephemeral, like a seasonal disease, or a high school infatuation, Esther actually took this change seriously. She stayed back in India, to bring about change, and to get transformed herself in the process.
“We met Indira Gandhi, with our plans to open an ashram. A meeting was arranged, and the media took some interest in us, three Canadian girls, trying to make a change.” Was it all smooth and easy? “No. War broke out in 1971. The news of the war came when we were in mid-flight. The city of Bombay was in total darkness, as was our hotel on Marine Drive. Air raid sirens wailed throughout the night. Those were strange times…”
The ashram was established in 1972 and registered under Societies Registration Act in 1974. Literacy programs for girls and programmes to enhance skills for personal use, were started. A few more Canadian administrators of the society joined, and day to day Ashram life went on. Schools, art classes, small outings for children. But things changed for the worse from 2005.
Esther couldn’t stay constantly in India due to work pressure. She started to travel, dividing her time between Canada and India, working as a Multifaith Spiritual and Religious Coordinator for the Ontario Multifaith Council and the City of Toronto, and simultaneously being on the Advisory Board of the counseling program in the University of Toronto. And it was at that precise time, that the land mafia crept in with venomous precision. The local administrator of the Ashram, in cahoots with black marketers, sold the milk from the farm instead of giving it to the children, faked accounts, put price tags on free books and clothes for the underprivileged. All the while spreading rumours about funds drying up from Canada.
This day- to-day cheating and corruption is the reality of any North Indian small town. Only this was in the spiritual hometown of Hinduism.“I find the tourism slogan of Incredible India quite incredible these days!” Esther muses. And that was only the beginning. When confronted with these misdeeds the local administrator naturally denied everything, but went into covert war mode stealing papers, making fraudulent certificates which claimed all the original Canadian members have resigned relinquishing control of the Ashram, and starting a cult of intimidation with the help of local goons. “Everyone is involved and colluding, the politicians, bureaucrats, private landowners, as well as the police. It is ironic that when the whole country is seeing anti-corruption mass movement and hysteria, with soundbites from activists about making laws, we are fighting a lone, isolated battle. There is no NGO to hear our cause, no Anna Hazare or any media or activist to help…”
Which is very obvious and true. Far from the media glare, only 200 KM from the capital New Delhi, an Ashram which actually works for the poor and underprivileged, is slowly being eaten up by a political-land mafia nexus. Perhaps this doesn’t merit a media glare. After all providing for poor and underprivileged people, is actual groundwork. It is not superficial and shallow soundbytes and lots of paid photo-ops with celebrity endorsements. And there is no “high” of power, or “holding the Government to ransom” drama. In these days of careful marketing and media gimmicks, those are the qualities which are needed more for the attention of the masses.
Does she feel threatened? “Yes. Though there has been no physical violence thus far, it might happen anytime. I informed the police, without any help. I even informed the Canadian embassy in Chanakyapuri, Delhi, but guess what? Surprise! They said they can’t get involved in any local matter, even when there might be a life at risk of a Canadian citizen. Maybe they will react differently when it becomes more public!”
And that is what is giving her the determination to hold on, to see it through till the last. “I have been told by many people to let this go, that it is too dangerous. But here I am – this is a sacred site for me. Besides the land mafia is what in Hinduism is called Adharma – and the way Adharma flourishes is by letting people get away with their misdeeds without standing up to them. You cannot have a free and uncorrupted society if you are not prepared to stand up for your freedom and for what is right. I am saddened by the level of corruption in a “holy city”, but you can’t expect that good will prevail if you don’t take a stand for good.”
I got introduced to Esther Friede by a senior colleague of mine, Heidi Kingstone, and it was incidentally the day I was about to go for my medical checkup, which I need for my Visa to New Zealand. It can be a bit jarring to the sensitive soul when you find that you don’t even know a situation like this is happening in your own country, where someone from 20,000 km west is waging a lone battle against the most dreaded nexus in South Asia. But then I remind myself, I am no saint or superhuman. The least I can do is to let everyone know about this…
(Sumantra Maitra is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata.)