"Inspirations? The sky because it's infinite. My mom. The sea because it flows effortlessly despite taking on all burdens."
"What are the inspirations in your life?" I ask him. "The sky because it is so infinite." After a pause, he smiles big with half a tear in his eye: "My mom. She gave me all my values." Then he concludes, "And the sea. It can take the burdens of everyone and still flow effortlessly."
You might not expect those spontaneous answers from a 36-year-old farmer in a very small village of Bharuch. But Kanti Kalola's entire life is something of the unexpected.
"So do you have a spiritual teacher?" "Everything is my teacher, even an ant," he says. I test his answer, "Really. How is an ant your teacher?" Without hesitation, he says, "An ant carries more than twice its weight and yet it works collectively with its community."
Fifteen years ago, a twenty-something quit his city job and moved into a small village, in a hut without any electricity. He had no money, no agenda, and no idea of what to do. His plan was rather simple -- live a natural life amidst the poor. Today, if you go to that same hut, you will still find that same Kanti, unencumbered by the mundane baggage of life and steeped in the natural exuberance for life.
Kanti grew up in dire circumstances. "My family wasn't very well to do, materially," he recalls. His college tuition was on a loan; he wouldn't come back during vacations to save on bus fare; he wouldn't live in hostels because it was expensive. Yet Kanti somehow managed to attract kindness. Someone gave him a small place to live in, others gave him some vessels, a stove and miscellaneous items for a barebones, college student room. Every Sunday, he would work odd jobs to pay off his food expenses for the week. "I was second in class, because the guy who was first could study on Sundays," he says while cracking up into a hearty laughter.
Despite having many opportunities to strike it rich, Kanti decided early on that pursuit of money wasn't for him. He wanted a good life, where he operated with a natural sense of ease. No narrow-minded manipulations when interacting with people, no future plans coming from insecurity, no tensions of unending goals. "Most of all, I wanted to be natural," he says.
One day, an unknown saint came to their doorstep and dropped off a copy of the Bhagvad Geeta, a Hindu scripture. He didn't say anything, do anything or expect anything in return. As he walks off, Kanti ran after him to offer him tea but he was nowhere to be seen. Considering it nature's guidance, Kanti and his mom have prayed the Geeta regularly since then.
His mom, through the Geeta and her personal life stories, taught Kanti about the values of truth, kindness and fearlessness. Once when he was a kid, ghost sightings were a talk of town. "On the way to school, I had determined to confront the ghost once and for all," Kanti says. In the dark dawn hour, he saw something ghost-like. With all the hair on his body standing up in fear, he moves forward chanting every paragraph of the Geeta that he had memorized and aims to hug the ghost. Inching forward, he does the boldest thing he could dream up -- extend his arms to hug the ghost!
The ghost turned out to a scarecrow but Kanti says, "Since that day, I have never been scared of anything in my life."
After graduation, he worked at a nonprofit organization for a year and a half, but then decided that he neither wants to report to someone, nor does he want to have someone report to him. On Sundays, when he didn't have to work, he would chat it up with like-minded friend, Anand Mazgaonkar. Anand himself is a very bright intellectual, who sees major contradictions in the industries polluting the environment, government controlling natural resources, and people working like automatons. Both Kanti and Anand would encourage each other to take the plunge to "do something."
"Those who were educated would leave the village for more money, and those in the villages would quit school to work on the farms. So villages always lose out," Kanti remembers.
So, one fine day, Kanti and Anand took the plunge. Both of them quit their jobs and moved out to a neighboring village. Eventually, they moved to an even smaller village, Kantidara, with two other friends.
"Progress has to be natural. The hand-me-down service model just doesn't work. You can't go to a community with pre-meditated ideas of helping. Once you become part of their community, you become them, you can be part of the process that brings forth some solutions and some problems," Anand lays out a revolutionary concept in a very non-chalant way.
And they did just that. For the first seven years, there was no electricity or running water in the house. They sustained themselves by doing hard labor on the fields, and getting paid in-kind with grains. "In between, we would naturally end up talking to other laborers about things like cigarettes, alochol, and tobacco," Kanti says.
Many villagers were suspicious of them, initially. "Some people thought we were from CID, that they will go to jail if they were caught smoking cigarettes with them. Some people thought we were with some organization trying to promote their message. Some were even apprehensive at first. They would tell us that we can afford to drink milk, to which we had to say -- 'Yes, you spend 10 rupees a day on cigarettes, we spend on milk.' It was a fun time," Kanti recalls with a smile.
They would also interact with the kids, help the villagers resolve their problems without going to courts, and fight with the government to get clean water in the villages. Bit by bit, they assimilated into the village scene. Everyone learned from their example. Kanti says, "We were all guys, and we would do everything around the farm from washing clothes to getting water, which were typically female roles; at first, they were shocked but then they started adopting our habits too."
Perhaps the biggest example of their selfless spirit is that they organized without an organization. As a result, they would let go of mini, measurable victories in favor of the process. For instance, when they won some hard-fought legal battles, part of their condition for the victory was that the villagers accept responsibility for the proposed solution. When the villagers didn't cooperate, they dropped their case and accepted the legal defeat. Even when it was easy to implement the solution themselves, they stood by their principle of villagers taking ownership of their local issues.
"We are deeply committed to the process, an ongoing evolution, and so we organize without an organization. I think we have seven different names for our network by now," Anand laughs. Whenever under-dog groups are in trouble, all locals know which number to call. Almost immediately, Anand and Kanti can activate like-hearted individuals to rally behind the cause.
One day, while watching how villagers make jaggery (brown sugar), Kanti and his friends ask the laborers if they can make it without chemicals. They said they could, if they had a 80-90 kilogram order. So Kanti and his other friends decided to go for it, and try to sell it at an organic fair. It sold like hot-cakes. So they ordered more and sold that too. The first year, they sold 12,000 kilograms; the next year 47,000, and then 75,000 kilo in the third year.
They could've made a serious profit from it, but they decided that they will take a profit of no more than 1 rupee per kilogram. "If the farmers and the laborers, who work day and night to make the jaggery, make only a rupee a kilogram, why should we take more?" Kanti says. It was chemical-free, organic jaggery, and by far, the cheapest price in town. Although Kanti or Anand are not directly involved the jaggery project, it still continues as a successful project.
When it was time to marry, Kanti was ambivalent about the decision. He made a list of five of his friends who were married and five who weren't; then, his plan was to ask each one for recommendations and decide at the end. He asked the five unmarried friends first, and all of them unanimously recommended marriage. Kanti laughs, "My decision was simple. I never had to ask the other five!"
In the early 90s, Kanti married Yatra, whose name appropriately means pilgrimage. Yatra's father had traveled 33 countries without any money in his pocket; he would simply do odd jobs and survive one way or another. Yatra and Kanti, today, also have a 4 year old daughter named Maitri. Maitri, incidentally, means friendship.
A couple of years back, when Kanti was swimming in the Narmada river, he almost encountered death. "I thought it was a short distance to the other shore, but I underestimated it. Half way through, I yelled for help, but my friends on the other shore thought I was asking them to join me. At one point, I knew that these were last couple of breaths. I conceded that it was my time to die." But then, something happened. Kanti doesn't know what or how, but his body managed to effortlessly swim to the other shore in an almost unconscious state. Outside of shedding his fear of death, Kanti light-heartedly jokes about a practical lesson learned: "I am not as strong a swimmer as I used to be."
Kanti continues to learn from every experience. "Whatever I need to learn, nature provides the lessons for me. It's part of my evolution."
Today, Kanti and his family of three live on the farm. The entire 4 acre farm is tilled and managed entirely by him, and yet he almost never seems to run out energy. Even if you wake him at 5AM, he is abruptly seated on his bed, ready to move into action. "He works harder than four people put together," his friend Giren Shah says. "I don't know if it's possible to work harder than him."
Yet it's not just the hard work and enthusiasm that symbolizes Kanti. It's his caring spirit, underneath all this work.
As I am on a bench facing Kanti's organic farm, an older gentleman and his son come in. "We have heard that you have a cow to sell?" they ask. "No. I do have a baby calf but I'm not planning on selling it." They exchange some thoughts. At one point, Kanti blurts, "Plus, I don't just sell my cows. They are like my children. I go and visit the house where they are going to be kept, I make sure they have enough to feed them, and I make sure they are caring people. Plus, this calf won't give milk for another 8 months, so it won't be useful for you anyhow."
Kanti's compassion for all things is obvious. When he is washing dishes, he carefully spills out the water if it has ants int it. It just comes as second nature to him. "The first year, when we came to his barren farm land, there were fifty scorpions that we took out, one at a time. There's no point in killing them. One of them even bit me," he shares as if it was nature's joke on him. Actually, Kanti doesn't even use pesticides on his farm, and neither does he protect his farm crop from the birds and other animals. "Out of every crop, I account for a certain amount that the birds will eat. It's ok. This is their farm too. God has given me so much, why can I not share a little with plants and animals?"
On his farm, you can find everything from fennel to bananas. If you stay with him for a day, you might even get to pluck your own papayas, make salad from fresh onions and unripe mangoes, or eat curd made from fresh cow milk. And at night, you can sleep outside under the stars and wake up to the rising sun. "Of course, I can make more money if I go to the city. But nature is my teacher. I belong in nature. I wouldn't trade this life for anything," Kanti says.
No matter who it is, no matter what time of the day, Kanti is ever ready to serve up his enthusiasm for life. It's something he's learned from nature. As we are sitting with him, a visitor came to say hello; it turns out that even he has a story about Kanti. "Do you know what all the kids, even my kids, call him? Gauva-uncle," he says. Gauva-uncle is what the city kids call him because every monsoon, he invites neighborhood kids to come in and pick their own gauvas. "I want them to experience the joy of nature," he says.
Kanti sows the seeds and invites others to pluck the fruits. He wouldn't have it any other way.
About the author, Nipun Mehta:
"Convinced that good is everywhere, we are walking in India, headed 'South' to find that good. At one level, we're profiling ordinary and extra-ordinary heroes so others know about them. At another level, we have left our homes and comforts in America to cultivate our own hearts, to develop our vision to see the good in all life. It's a journey, without a destination."
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