Delhi's do-gooder

Delhi's do-gooder
PHOTO: The Earth Saviours Foundation

Our introduction to Mr Ravi Kalra was via an advertisement in a magazine about the Earth Saviours Foundation (ESF).

Founded in 2008, the registered non-profit NGO (non-governmental organisation) is supported by a dedicated group of 35 social workers. Among them is Rakhi Thakur, who has been with ESF since its inception eight years ago.

Mr Kalra also has a wide, ever-increasing network of volunteers - including some foreigners from Russia, Korea, Brazil and Kenya - and well-wishers across India and from around the world. ESF's membership runs into the thousands - and is still growing.

My husband, Ashi, a friend and I visited ESF's gurukul in Bandhwari village off the Gurgaon-Faridabad Road during Delhi's mid-summer scorching heat. A gurukul is a residential school in India where pupils live in proximity to their guru while studying.

ESF's gurukul is so named as in 2008 it started as a school for street children who were subsequently sent to government organisations while the increasing number of adult residents stayed on.

It must have been more unbearable for the almost 300 men and women living in the open camp-like area, tin-walled and polymer sheet-roofed sheds forming a square around a large open courtyard.

The 3.5 acre plot was bought some years ago with Mr Kalra's personal savings.

Among the foreign volunteers I got to know is Ms Elizaveta Skorokhodova (Eliza), 31, a Russian HR manager who says she found information about ESF on an AIESEC (a global platform for young people to explore and develop their leadership potential) partner's list. Eliza started by distributing water during the hot summer, especially to those unable to fend for themselves.

She accompanied patients to hospital for surgery, ordered artificial limbs, checked medicine stocks and gave recommendations for over-the-counter medicines.

"There is a special kind of people in the gurukul. They are disabled either physically or mentally. They need help constantly. Some of them would scream and fight when we try to give them a bath, which seemed traumatic for them. But there are those who are always smiling and very friendly," she says.

"I know only a few basic Hindi phrases. The staff would help with translation. But it was mainly pantomime in half of the cases. My main duty was asking everyone 'aap kaise ho?' (how are you?) frequently.

Because some of them look ugly and people do not want to even touch them. I imagine maybe nobody ever asked them, 'how are you?' I always look into their eyes with a smile. They need love and kindness."

Meeting Mr Kalra, the 65-year-old gentleman responsible for the well-being of all his residents, was like a whiff of cool, soothing air. He was dressed in white, as I learnt he always does. His smiling face, calm countenance, soft gentle voice belied what must be a great inner strength, tenacity, grit and determination to devotedly look after those he is giving shelter to.

Basic kitchen

He walks us through the gurukul's premises. We are welcomed by some smiling, some curious and some blank faces. All neatly dressed, their hair tidily combed and the wounds of many cleanly dressed. There are rows of beds in the four dormitories. Pictures of gods and goddesses hang on the walls.

A very basic kitchen which needs to be remodelled is where three or four women and residential helpers come to chop the vegetables, wash the rice and dal, and cook the daily meals in large industrial utensils for all the residents. In addition, 900 chappatis come in every day from an outside caterer.

By the end of the visit I felt committed to being a part of the gurukul. So have many of my friends, and even strangers, after their first encounter. We have bonded to form an active "Friends of the ESF Gurukul" group. This is an online WhatsApp group where we exchange messages, updates and ideas about the gurukul. Some of us from this group met to start the knitting project among the women at the gurukul (resident Neelam (left), 55, is in the project).

As we left, each of us was given a tulsi (basil) plant as a gesture of sharing and bonding. Mine stands tall in our balcony today, its purple and green leaves multiplying.

Speaking at length to Mr Kalra recently, he reaffirms: "By and large they seem content in their present surroundings, living like one large family, accepting of their fate. We have lawyers, engineers and retired government officers. Counselling sessions are held for them. They are asked if they want to press legal charges against their children for abandonment and ill-treatment or usurping their property.

But in my eight years not one has wanted to press charges. Instead, they wish well for, and bless their children and grandchildren.

"We also tattoo tag the mentally-challenged people on their arms (with their names and ESF's phone number) in case they go astray or get lost. The able-bodied men and women are assigned duties according to their capabilities. We need to involve them in more activities. I am glad your women's group has started the knitting programme. We have started yoga classes too."

The turning point in this "Karma Yogi"'s life, as he is respectfully called, came in 2007 when he saw a small boy and a dog hungrily scavenging for food in a garbage heap. Since then, he has dedicated his life to those who need succour.

"Due to human negligence and selfishness, humanity is at stake. Our Mother Earth is wounded from every corner by global warming, deforestation, natural disasters, pollution, drinking water crisis, illiteracy, poverty, hunger, crime, noise pollution mainly from honking cars, traffic hazards, cruelty towards animals, wars and cross-country terrorism," lists this environmentalist.

Black belt in taekwon-do

Delving into his past reveals that Mr Kalra, the son of a policeman, was a combat and martial arts instructor training officials from the Indian army and Delhi police.

He doesn't talk much about his personal triumphs but his accomplishments include producing 200 lethal black belts for India. Additionally, he has achieved the prestigious 4th level dan black belt in taekwon-do martial arts. He is an international master instructor - in 1968 he was the founder-president of the Indian Amateur Taekwon-do Federation - and he still conducts training courses for black belt holders. He has also trained soldiers and students. His various business and social work activities have taken him to 47 different nations. As a Rotarian, he also served as the president of Rotary Club of Delhi Ridge for the year 2013-14.

His personal life included a wife, son and daughter, who have since left him to lead their own lives as their interests differed vastly from his. But his mother is duly proud of him and his work, telling all that her son has created a "unique temple of humanity".

Mr Kalra's life has seemingly come full circle after finding his calling. Growing up in a family with modest means, the self-made man remembers wearing torn trousers and walking barefoot on railway tracks, to becoming a successful businessman.

An average day in this gentleman's life includes awareness talks at schools, colleges, service organisations and corporate houses. He is frequently invited to foreign countries to spread his message of "seva" (service).

"We need to motivate mankind, starting with the youths and awaken a sense of compassion, of service above self in them," he says about a maxim he abides by.

Mr Kalra is often called upon to intervene and help families in cases of abuse and violence, sometimes even leading to the arrest of the offender.

A dignified farewell for the dead

He is also the only non-priest Indian who performs the last rites and gives a dignified cremation for the unclaimed and unidentified dead so that their souls may rest in peace. He has attended three Kumbh Melas, performed Aarti Visarjans (immersion of ashes and bones after cremation in holy rivers) and electrically cremated more than 5,000 people. Recognising his mission, the Delhi Police, the Social Welfare Department, the courts and government hospitals inform him accordingly.

Promoting the use of electric crematoriums, Mr Kalra says: "Please do not kill trees to burn your dead.

Each traditional wood cremation requires 300kg of wood. This depletes our forests and releases poisonous fumes further polluting our atmosphere."

And when much of Delhi sleeps, or is out socialising and partying, this "do-gooder" can be seen walking through the streets in search of pavement dwellers, many of whom he brings to his gurukul, where he then spends time negating their sorrows and giving them a reason to continue living.

A royal visit

On Aug 27, the gurukul was privileged to receive a visit by the Princess of Bhutan Ashi Kesang Wangmo Wangchuck. Mr Kalra, who had been invited to the 4th International Festival of Buddhist Heritage of Ladakh, had been introduced to her. She decided to visit the gurukul, and went to New Delhi from Leh.

"We were told she would stay for half an hour, but she spent 21/2 hours visiting and talking to almost every resident in a truly gracious manner. We were truly humbled by her genteel, modest, demeanour," said Mr Kalra.

Traumatised, abandoned residents

Among the residents at the gurukul are Sangita, 19, who greets you when spoken to but doesn't smile too willingly. She perhaps is still traumatised and haunted by memories of the horrific violence and constant fighting between her parents that she and her younger brother Jaiprakash, who is 17, were constantly subjected to. Both were in school till Class 9 and 7 respectively. Today they have nowhere to go as no relatives have claimed them, so they live at the gurukul.

Ms Kamlesh (right centre), 67, came to the gurukul in June 2014. The widowed mother of three grown-up daughters one day found that she literally had nowhere to stay. Each child's in-laws felt she was a burden on them and asked her to leave.

"Let them be happy with their children. The youngest one phones once a week for a very brief 'hello, how are you' conversation. I tell her I am well, very happy here so not to waste her time calling me," she says, wiping away tears. On my subsequent visits she becomes a friend, and her only request is for a copy of the Bhagavad Gita.

Mr Ajay "Jolly" Kapoor was very happy to see the novels and magazines I gave him. At the suggestion of starting a library at the gurukul, the 50-year-old replies in fluent English: "Fantastic idea. If you promise to get more books, I will share these with my friends here."

Having worked as a technician with Air India for many years, he had a paralytic stroke, which left him jobless. When asked if he is married, he smiled and said: "I was.

My wife left me when I got sick and as I had no one to look after me, I came here in Janurary 2014. My 21-year-old son, a student, lives with my sister. But I am 'Jolly'," he laughs, as he moves around with his walker, and confesses Jolly was a name his mother gave him in his childhood.

Mr Ajay Aggarwal (far left), 78, who speaks impeccable English having studied in the best educational institutions, was abandoned by his family after he was incapacitated in an accident in Solan, near Shimla, and was sent to the gurukul in 2012. His claim that his cousin is Lord Swraj Paul, the Indian-born, British-based business magnate and philanthropist, caught the Indian media's interest and received great publicity.

Lord Paul accepted the relationship, saying he had not met or been in touch with Ajay for over 50 years and did not even know he was married and had children.

When Lord Paul visited India two years ago, Mr Kalra took Mr Aggarwal to his hotel and the cousins met a couple of times. "But nothing happened beyond those meetings. I was disappointed," remembers Mr Kalra.

Meanwhile, Mr Aggarwal, who is currently being treated for a back ailment, continues reminiscing over childhood holidays spent together with his cousin Swraj - swimming - and celebrating Holi together in the family mansion in Jalandhar, Punjab.

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