Emaho speaks to this maverick medical cowboy who’s taken India to heart.
Tell us about college and Bard’s Rock…
My story regarding attending Simon’s Rock was inspired by the kind of education I got. My father was Indian and my mother French. Thus I always considered myself to belong to two very distinctly rich cultures and my education can be seen to reflect the same. I did my schooling from Sherwood College in Nainital, India after which I spent four years in France. Due to the difference in educational systems in both these places, I started attending college in the United States when I was only 16 and no, I wasn’t a very brilliant student. On the contrary, I was more of a day dreamer. Taking all other things under consideration, my educational background from these two places pushed me towards attending Bard College at Simon’s Rock. I actually wanted to study at University of California, Los Angeles but my mother was not too keen on it. In addition to my mother’s concern, I was going to college much earlier than most students and so I chose to go to Bard College which in known to be a so-called ‘early college’.
What has been your father’s influence on you?
My father instilled a sense of awareness in me regarding my cultural background and my roots. He was very keen on sending me to Sherwood College. He specifically wanted me to attend school in India and no other place. At least at that point of time, I wasn’t happy with his decision. Once I reached Nainital and started attending school, my resentment continued to grow. While my father was around, I had a strained relationship with him. I don’t mean to say that I didn’t love him, I loved him a lot and vice versa, but I found his decision unreasonable because at that time I was only a child and I decided to shut myself out based on a personal mental block. For a child who was brought up in the United States, a strict colonial environment with prefects and caning and a lot of rules was torturous.
It was only once my father passed away that I realised how much he cared and understood why he decided to send me to Sherwood and now when I look back, attending school in India was definitely one of the top three experiences in my life. I am grateful to him sending me here because in retrospect, it was an extremely enriching experience. Both my parents were culturally very rich and they wanted me to stay connected with my roots rather than spend my early years in New York. Schooling in India made me grow into a more spiritual and cultural individual.
What touched you the most about India?
I have been working in India for the past seven years. India itself has changed me a lot and has made me feel like I want to give something back to her. Initially there was a stigma attached to such a venture which only added to its impracticality. Corporations could not believe we were ready to give away our revenues just for the sake of it. The very fact that Relief Riders went from being just an idea, to the organisation that it is today, is testimony to how my life has changed.
There was a time when I was staying in Rajasthan and a woman came to me in tatters, holding a baby close to herself. She came to me and un-wrapped her child. The baby was dressed in rags that were dirtier than ones you would find in a mechanic’s garage. He had a wound that was at least 4cm deep and he was very weak. We took care of him and got him proper medical help. When I met the child for the first time, we were not even sure if he’d survive. But we still provided as much help as we could. Even today, it’s a fantastical indulgence for me to hope that someday I will be able to see that girl again when I am old.
What’s your motivation to do all this?
The first time we organised an eye-care camp in 2004-2005, we offered free eye surgery to 100 patients who couldn’t afford to pay for it. Most suffered from cataracts and were partially blind. Before we sent them in, we held our fingers up and asked how many they could see. There was a large majority of people who could barely even see the hand. Once the surgeries were done and they had recovered, those very people successfully managed to see the two fingers we held up, even from some distance away. It was an experience that made me feel like I could do something to make a difference. My idea has now become an act. When I finally moved out, I was deeply moved. I had new faith.
How did you get involved with UNICEF?
We never rode along UNICEF but we did run a program for them. There were 1,200 children who were made to sit down. After we introduced ourselves, we spoke to them about the merits of sanitation and hygiene. We gave them de-worming pills and taught them how to brush their teeth and wash their hands properly. In India, close to a 1,000 children die each day due to diarrhoea and other sanitation based diseases. We wanted to make them aware about their own health.
We also gave them study material for four-six months. We gave them cricket kits and sports equipments. We wanted them to develop holistically and we gave it our all. Even in programmes like these, we always learn something new. We went there with no expectations but the children put up a beautiful swagat (welcome) program for us with several dances and songs. It’s nice to be welcomed so happily.
Who is your main staff?
Dr. Arora (Exec. Medical Director) accompanies us on all our trips. Over and above that, we have three dentists, two technicians, one dispensary manager during hygiene trips and in medical camps we have six specialists in the fields of paediatric, gynaecology, ophthalmology, etc.
How do you release the stress from such a hectic job?
We travel on horseback as it’s a physical activity and keeps us attached to nature. The connection we share with nature rejuvenates us. We have yoga programs in the morning to keep us in semblance of our inner selves. Apart from that, we make it a point to have sessions where we share our experiences and talk so that we stay bonded to each other. It all helps.
What’s the story on the goats?
Once we went to a village and we gave the village-head a few goats for all the families that were living below the poverty line. When we came back to the same village after a while, we had two ladies come up to us crying. They had their BPL certificates in their hands and they had not got any goats. When asked why not, they told us about how the heads had belonged to a specific political party and handed out goats to families of their supporters only. It was then that we realised that corruption creeps into the smallest places. We established that there was a need for alternative information passages and started keeping records and getting registrations done. We brought our own checks and balances to the system. We also try to look out for widows since they need support and are branded as outcasts by village locals.
Ok, I have always loved horses. They are a symbol of will power and rising against odds. In a field like this where you are almost certain to fail, horses motivate me. The world has too much instability and pollution and malice. There is too much ill will, lack of humanity and mismanagement of resources. In times like these, horses are animals that portray success and loyalty and the motivation to move on.
Also, we wanted something eco-friendly. Rather than vehicles and machines that would just tire us out more and more, we wanted something that was sustainable. We barely leave a carbon footprint compared to most organisations. Plus, horses are loyal friends. In such an emotionally taxing field, we need to stay close to nature.
Any new ventures on the anvil?
Before entering a new line of work, we need to do a lot of research. We need to contact the ministry, learn about the region, the society and the terrain after which we prepare an itinerary. After seven years in India, we have gone out to Turkey as well and I am glad to say that we were successful there as well. We set up two dental camps and built two playgrounds. Next up are Botswana and Mozambique.
Interview by – Manik Katyal and Shachi Seth
Photographs by – Bhanu Pratap Singh