"We did not want to exploit -- or be exploited. So we just moved out of the city."
"I don't need designer glasses," Dhirendra smiles, his sharp bright eyes shining through the wide-rimmed black glasses. It seems like he bought the glasses twenty years ago before moving into this village. His long pause following the casual statement makes one think about the superfluous nature of our world compared to his exceptionally simple life. Dressed in a long home-spun cotton shirt and shorts, he comfortably sits on the freshly resurfaced cow-dung floor chopping vegetables, as his wife Smita comes in and out of the kitchen to respond to our questions as she prepares lunch. Just looking at her glowing skin you can tell that the village life has been good for her. The cool breeze easily flows in and out of the many open windows in this simple, two-room house.
"Why are the onions hanging on the ceiling?" I ask. Fifty three year old Dhirendra explains, "Oh, they're from the farm. If you arrange them like that, they can last for a year. Of course, only if they're organic"
Their home looks almost like any other house in a 400-person village in rural India, except for a few specialized tools: like a hand-made oil press and the silver and yellow windmill on the roof which the villagers tell us to look for while giving us directions to their house.
Looking at both them, it's hard to believe that they were both professors at an Engineering College in Ahmedabad. Or that he has a degree in Engineering and she studied Physics and Space Science in college. The story of why two PhD's dumped a city life for tribal one, traded in their teaching careers for a shovel and a hoe, and opted to live on 12,000 rupees ($300) a year is an inspiring tale that almost leaves you with a "Duh!" feeling.
"In the cities, you have no choice in your lifestyle. Your water is chlorinated, the chemicals you use pollute the environment, and there is rampant greed," Dhirendra warmly explains their motivation to search for a simpler, more natural lifestyle. Both Dhirendra and Smita wanted to live a natural life that was deliberately based on their value system.
With another couple, they started brainstorming. They didn't know anyone who had attempted bold experiments to address these concerns, at the time in 1983. Four pressing issues, they realized, were of great importance to them: 1) Can we live a sustainable and conscious life? 2) Can knowledge, work and devotion to life be combined together as a lifestyle? 3) Can humans coexist peacefully with animals? 4) Can we be the change with our own lives?
After a lot of discussion, they felt that the city life was very artificial. "We did not want to exploit -- or be exploited. In the city you inadvertently take advantage of the environment and end up exploiting one section of the society or another. We wanted to get away from it all," Smita says. They wanted a way out of the cramped flats, polluted air, impure water, stale produce. And most importantly, they wanted a way out of the "more" mindset that creates so much mental instability. "If we want to have a stable mind, we have to be with nature. For example, if we use a fan or an air conditioner, our bodies don't self-correct," Dhirendra says.
One year into their marriage, Sonejis arrived at a simple conclusion: the best lifestyle is one which is in tune with nature.
Instead of just talking about their values, the Sonejis decided to make the boldest move of their lives. In 1986, a year into their marriage, they bought two and a half acres of land and moved into a small tribal village named Sakwa. Most family and friends thought they were crazy, but for Dhirendra and Smita it was a no-brainer.
From scratch, they built their own house (including a bathroom) and embarked on an entirely different lifestyle. No electricity, no vehicles, no running water. Instead they would work on farms, eat fresh, pesticide-free produce and their own cow's milk, and live with the rhythms of nature. "It's just natural to wake up at 4AM," Dhirendra says in a matter-of-fact way that makes you wonder about late-night TV programming.
For the tribal life, their PhD's weren't all that useful. They struggled initially. For three years, Dhirendra got tutorials from local farmers about managing his crop. Because they didn't have running water, they could only farm in the monsoons and they were only able to fulfill sixty percent of their needs; Dhirendra had to earn some supplemental income by doing several small projects, like installing bio-gas plants in villages and training locals to work in oil mills.
After five years, though, it was a different story altogether. Dhirendra and Smita started thinking up creative, organic solutions for common tribal problems, they dug up a well, they installed a bio-gas plant to utilize cow-dung for basic electricity that would use power tools like a flour mill for the entire village, they experimented with a wind mill and solar cooking. And they came up with tons of farming innovations, from water development to land management to crop rotation, which increased their efficiency with locally available resources.
Today, they produce over 200 kilograms of crop annually: oilseeds, pulses, spice and over 50 varieties of fruits and vegetables, all grown with organic manure. "Each month we have different fruits and vegetables," Dhirendra proudly smiles, as he gives us a tour of their farm. Walking through the two and a half acres, you can spot everything from mangoes, papayas, lemongrass, cucumbers, potatoes, sweet tamarind, eggplant, to vanilla right here in their own backyard.
What about money and other expenses? "Our yearly budget averages to about 12,000 rupees (less than $300)," says Smita, "that comes from selling a sweet-sour cold drink powder made from a plant in our farm, some Ayurvedic medicine, and hand-made organic soap from a Neem plant." That budget is not just for the two of them; it also includes their 19 and 17 year old sons! More than half of their expenses go toward travel and books and the rest are used for clothes, shoes, some food items that they don't grow, like salt or jaggery. To keep all the wheels moving, everyone averages about 4 hours of work daily.
One might expect a lot of excitement around the Soneji's natural, four-hour-a-day work, seven-bucks-a-month lifestyle with fresh food, clean well water, organic shelter, hand-spun clothes and some entertainment like books and travel. But unfortunately, there has been little response from the community. Sonejis do what they can to share the good word -- they issue a regular newsletter with best practices and new lessons learned, they constantly innovate useful solutions like a hand-powered oil press and share it with the villagers, and they speak about their experiences at various conferences in big cities.
At present, though, it seems that the world will take some time to believe that this really is possible. Dhirendra says, "Demographically speaking, one acre of land is every Indian's due. And that's really all that one person needs to survive."
The two Soneji sons were both born after they moved to Sakwa. Vishwain is 17 and Bhargav is 14 today. Arguably, the biggest challenge for the Sonejis came when Vishwain became of elementary school age: do we home school or send him to an institutionalized school?
For six months, they deliberated back and forth. Dhirendra wasn't too keen, "There is a huge difference between information and knowledge. The current school system fills people with information but doesn't necessarily give them knowledge. And they provide no values." Although they didn't want to send their kids to school just for a diploma, they also didn't want to jeopardize the future of their children. Their discussion probed into many other deeper questions like: what exactly is knowledge? What is science? Sonejis do believe in science but in the natural kind, not the technological kind; instead of spending time learning computers, they would rather spend time learning about wind motion and earthquakes. But they acknowledge that everything is a double-edged sword.
In the end, they concluded that knowledge is that which is useful to society and you don't need government's stamp of approval for that knowledge. Vishwain and Bhargav would be home schooled.
On top of home schooling in the basic subjects, they focused the education on practical matters. "Wouldn't you have been able to write an essay without taking your board exams? Couldn't your friend learn to take good pictures without passing high school?" Dhirendra asks rather seriously. School teaches you how to learn, but because of the overly institutionalized approach much of what you learn in school is never applied anywhere in life. For the Soneji sons, their upbringing would include repairing a clock, riding a bicycle, painting the sunrise they wake up to, discussing solar energy, and playing Chess in the afternoon shade. There is no such thing as vacation and everyday is an ongoing education in life's school.
Despite not having a formal education, both of their sons seem to function at a much higher level than their counterparts in the city. Vishwain speaks four languages, can help build a house, and tell you the physics of how a fan works. His parents let him decide what he's interested in learning and then encourage him in that direction. Bhargav, the younger son, gets regular lessons using books and real-life tests from both of his parents. Recently, he took apart a broken bicycle to see how it works and then, of course, fixed the problem.
What about college? "No one asks Birla (a millionaire) for his college degree," Dhirendra laughs, "but we're open to it, if the boys decide to go." It seems like they'll probably end up being entrepreneurs while living on the farm. "It's really their decision," he adds. The kids are free to decide to if they want to go to the neighbors to watch TV, if they want to start using a scooter, if they want to have food products that their parents might not eat, or if they want to enroll in a college. The four of them have a very close relationship and everything is talked about openly on a regular basis.
Interestingly enough, the Sonejis don't believe in doing service. "We help the villagers as much as we can. But we are not into social service. We believe that our own life is of importance and has to be lived without causing harm to anyone else's. If, while living our life, we end up helping others, that's fine. But that's not the main purpose," Smita says.
In fact, they strongly argue that these religious and development organizations who "help" actually create more problems than they solve. By giving hand-outs, they encourage a sort of sedate laziness that hinders any promotion of actual grassroot solutions. Furthermore, they super-impose their "solutions" and their ideas of progress that not only don't jive with the tribals but don't even work in the cities!
Sonejis believe in natural action. No service. No big buildings. Just help those you can touch. From all the leftover bamboos, they created a guesthouse - "Aum Kutir" for the many guests they host routinely. Instead of using pesticides to kill unnecessary bugs, they copied nature and dug up an aqua-pond; every monsoon when the big bugs come out, the frogs also come out and everything self-corrects itself. Their farm doesn't have any scarecrows either. "There's enough for us and the birds to eat." For many, such decisions are a result of their spirituality, but Dhirendra says that it is a natural progression of their lifestyle: "We want to develop truth, non-violence and love within ourselves and stop the violence, anger, and greed. That's our spirituality. That's it."
Last year, when they were out-of-town visiting relatives, heavy rains hit their neighborhood. In the process of getting out of harms way, one of their cows slipped and died from the strain of the rope around her neck. When Dhirendra and Smita saw the horrific site, they wondered about tying up animals. They asked, "Why do we tie up animals? It's not natural." A few months later, when milking another cow, Smita noticed a curious habit she hadn't been conscious of - putting the mother's calf in front of her so she gives milk. Again they asked, "To use up a mother's milk for our benefit is almost like theft. Man is the only animal that does that. Is that really natural?" For them, it wasn't and since that day, more than a year ago, both Dhirendra and Smita have turned vegan.
Henry David Thoreau once said, "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, to discover that I had not lived."
If there is ever a doubt if Thoreaus exist in this day and age, if there is ever a doubt if it is practical to lead a life in alignment with ideals of simplicity, if there is ever a doubt that two PhD's live a natural life on seven dollars a month, go visit the Sonejis in the village of Sakwa. You will believe.
About the author, Guri 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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