One among thousands or maybe even millions African sayings say that when a person invites you to their house, they consider you a friend but when they invite you to their ancestral home, then consider yourself part of the family.
I had the immense privilege of visiting Bihar State in India where the Founder of Sulabh International, Dr Bindeshwar Pathak was born.
He had also predicted that the wealth that his son, Dr Pathak’s father would be left with would one day all whether away and that too, happened. His father is an ayurvedic (a holistic healing science) doctor and so he came from a prosperous, respected family.
Dr Pathak was the proverbial child with a silver spoon. He grew up in a sprawling house with a large compound. There were nine rooms including a prayer room and another where only atta, a flour used to make most South Asian flat breads such as chapatti, roti, naan and puri was ground. Water too was drawn from this room.
This house still stands today and though it is in ruin, it all the same stands. I made a tour of the house and saw the unique well split into two by a wall. My host told me that it was built in such a way that one side was used by men while the other was used by women.
The reason for the split was that men should not catch a glimpse of women when the latter were drawing water to bathe. Bihar was and still is a very conservative state.
One very distinctive feature that I noticed was that there was no toilet in the compound.
Dr Pathak then told me every morning at 4.00 a.m, there was total chaos in the house as women had to get up early and complete their personal cleanliness before sunrise.
“Even though I would be in bed, I was aware of all the activity. Some woman picked up a bucket, another was drawing water, while some one would push another to hurry up. In case a woman in the house fell sick, she would have to relieve herself in a straw basket or a pot lined with ash,’ he told me.
During my trip to his home town, I visited the four schools that he attended. Back in his time as a student, there were two distinctive features, one was that there were no toilets and two, there were no female students.
As the tour progressed, I was fortunate enough to pump into one of his school mates who, when probed on whether he ever saw something special about Dr Pathak, said that his kindness was a rare trait, but like all other children at that age, he climbed trees and did other naughty things.
During the two weeks, I visited the capitals of the states of Madhya Pradesh, Bhopal, Rajasthan State in Jaipur, Tonk, Alwar and Delhi. However, the memories of Bihar, will linger on my mind for a long while, largely because of the countryside fresh air, the sights and sounds of the moving trains, the fresh vegetables I mercilessly devoured and the thrilling stories I was told about the history of this great man who also happened to be my host, Dr Pathak and the birth of the Sulabh Sanitation and Social Reform Movement.
I realise now narrating the whole story of how Dr Pathak became ‘successful’ may take probably forever and so I will give snapshots of it. By the way the ‘successful’ is in quotes because for two weeks I tried cajoling Dr Pathak to admit that his work and sacrifices have been a success and totally failed.
That’s just how modest he is but does say that, in reference to the technologies that he has developed over the years and that have made a difference to millions of people the world over, “You take a seed planted by someone else and water it. The fruits of the labour are just as sweet!”
Some key lessons I learnt from Dr Pathak, a person I am very proud to call a friend and a great host: Always keep your options open in life. Dr Pathak started out as a schoolteacher, joined the family of ayurvedic medicines, was supposed to major in Criminology but ended up being in the centenary celebrations committee for Mahatma Gandhi and got engrossed in sanitation.
“Our movement is to restore the human rights and dignity of untouchables (the lowest caste who manually clean toilets). And to bring them into the mainstream of society. The toilets, biogas plants, all these are means to achieve that dream,” he kept reminding me.
Messengers of God are everywhere. During Dr Pathak’s journey of establishing his now renowned NGO, he sought a grant from the Indian government of 70,000 Rupees and a 50,000 Rupee grant was sanctioned.
Unfortunately in 1971, the government fell and he was asked to meet one Rameshwar Nath. When Mr Nath saw Dr Pathak he laughed for he had expected a seventy year old man with a walking stick as the Secretary of the NGO.
He told him that he saw that his work would create a dramatic impact in India but worried that asking for grants won’t have the desired results. He gave him a life lesson,” Don’t ask for grants, charge money for doing your work.” This has been the model Sulabh has adopted ever since.
There will always be hard times in life, keep God closest. Running an NGO is no easy task when you are not getting any work. During his journey, Dr Pathak had to sell the little property he still owned in the village and also had to sell his wife’s jewelry.
“I remember how girls whose parents could not afford a good enough dowry cried in their in-laws houses. People would taunt them that their father has sent them without a fridge or a car – your family has no status. When I got married, I could not afford to buy my wife the kind of jewelry which is generally given to the bride and even that I had to sell,” he narrated to me.
It’s okay to act without thinking twice sometimes. Dr Pathak in the early days only specialised in transforming toilets connected to the sewage system into twin pit latrines.
In 1974 the Patna Municipal Corporation Administrator asked him to build a toilet block in a span of 24 hours. You see, there was a large piece of open space opposite the Reserve Bank of India where two to three thousand of men and women used to relieve themselves.
With 20,000 Rupees in his hand, he ordered his workmen to bring twenty truckloads of red sand. By the time it arrived, it was late evening. Then he told them to bring as many potted plants, brushes and trees as possible whatever the price.
Then a big pit was dug and filled with sweet smelling sandalwood. At 7am when the Administrator came, he was thrilled with the changes, you see his superior had wanted something to be done about the black spot and it was. That was another turning point of Sulabh International.
I am currently reading a book titled “I have a dream’ by Rashmi Bansal that partly features Dr Pathak. His advice to young entrepreneurs is, “create your own identity and leave your own stamp in whatever you choose to take up. I told my son to take up some work other than Sulabh and to be number one in a field of one is a great feeling.”