I had been told I will meet a lot of interesting people at Seva Mandir…he was definitely one of them.
I saw him standing and reading a new poster in Seva Mandir Campus. The poster was about the Rafe Bullick Memorial Foundation towards safe two wheeler driving. This initiative had been recently launched at Seva Mandir and I had been present at its inauguration. But what had caught my attention on that very day was the man reading it. I found him interesting because his overall demeanor reminded me of mad-eye-moody (a Harry Potter character). He was tall, well built, fair, had shoulder length blonde hair; Wearing cargo pants, a green T-shirt and a yellow dupatta around his neck. He had a stick in one hand and a backpack. There was something about him that gave me an intuition that he had a story to tell. As I was contemplating about approaching him, I was interrupted.
A colleague! Grrr. I hate small talk – especially when I have something else on my mind. As my colleague and I exchanged pleasantries, I was silently praying in my mind, “Let this man with the yellow dupatta not leave.” I always curse myself about wasting a lot of time; stuck in dilemmas of whether to start a conversation. If only I had made up my mind earlier I wouldn’t be wasting time on irrelevant small talk. I saw him walk towards the guard and ask for the car towards Kojawara and sat in. I had been waiting for the same car. Phew! Relief! The ride to Kojawara is approximately 2 hours from Udaipur. That meant – more time for interaction. Soon Laxmiji, a senior at Seva Mandir came and all 3 of us got into the car. Laxmiji introduced me to Bruce. She told me how he had fixed hand pumps in the village of Sagawada. All by himself! A series of questions from me and Laxmiji led to Bruce describing his journey.
He is a Canadian who volunteers at Seva Mandir since the year 2000. He comes to India for periods of 2-3 years goes back to Canada and returns for another long period. His studies had been in Electrical Engineering but knew a lot about hand-pump repair. He described that when he had first come to Seva Mandir, he worked on a different project that he didn’t find as interesting. But when Rajasthan was struck with severe draught he got involved. He still fixes hand-pumps and trains young men in the village to fix them.
Whenever he is in India, he prefers to live in the village that he describes as his home. He stays with a family in the village. He described how he had cried when a girl from his village got married into another. He then mentioned about his rakhi sister and was really excited now that Raksha Bandhan was around the corner. His organization is fondly named Rakhi Seva, inspired by this brother-sister bond. When asked how people in the village addressed him. He proudly replied, “They call me Bruce Mama!” and gave us a broad smile. They had accepted him. He was one amongst them.
Laxmiji then asked him how long he would be here. He said he would be around for a year. She was then curious to know about his plans for this year. He then narrated an incident regarding a meeting he had organized with the men of the village where he had asked how many men of the community beat their wives. All of them raised their hands. While he was narrating his story, my insides boiled with anger. How could they be proud their violent behavior? Not ashamed but proud. He also described instances where he had intervened against such violence. He then said, he wished to work on sensitive topics like these in the coming year.
Our conversation then drifted to his stay arrangements when he was in Udaipur? He nonchalantly replied that he sleeps on the floor at the Badgaon office. I was amazed. It has been a month since I joined Seva Mandir. I was moving from place to place in search of comfort. I didn’t wish to stay in Kojawara because the facilities there didn’t suit my needs (didn’t have easy access to food!). So I decided to rent a place with a friend in Kherwara. Just because Kherwara was a small town with better facilities. My argument was unless I am comfortable (and ate well!) I would not be able to work. But getting that comfort meant an hour of travel every day. The travel however involved a lot of adjustments which included tripling on two wheelers. Worst still traveling in a jeep with 28-30 people (ideally only 8 people can fit in). People generally hang from all sides, sit on its roof. From inside the jeep, I almost always see 2 pairs of legs in front of the windshield!
But these adjustments seemed so tiny after my encounter with Bruce. He fixed hand pumps, set-up solar panels all by himself. He ate meals with the villagers and managed cook meals for himself in an office while in Udaipur. He had conquered the language as well as cultural barrier. He had Indianised himself to the point where he had made the village his home. It was inspiring.
For me, this fellowship journey meant coming out of my comfort zone. My conversations with Bruce made me realize I still had a long way to get there…