Sunday, June 22, 2008

Adventures in India: The Silent Victim

I'd like to tell you about how I got drafted into doing some impromptu volunteer work here in Dharamsala.

A couple days ago, I was walking around town in the afternoon trying to find some information on taking yoga classes in the mornings. I was heading to a large institute that has advertisements around town. I passed a sign on a hotel wall that offered classes for four days, five hours each day. That sounded pretty good to me, as most classes were for two weeks or so, for two to three hours a day. The sign said to go to the Shangri-la hotel near the temple and ask for Saswot Sourav in room #7 from 3:00 to 4:00 for more information. It was 4:15, so I decided to look him up right away. On the way to his hotel, I also saw a notice that said that help was needed with typing and computer work for an organization called "Universal Family Peace Initiative". At first I thought "maybe I should offer my help," but I quickly changed to "why get involved. I'm here to enjoy myself." The address for contact was the same hotel room. I figured I'd just get the class info and leave.

I managed to find him, and he had quite a story to tell (told to me over the next few days). He had been studying yoga from advanced teachers since he was 14 (he is 35 now). He is very intelligent and pursued his studies with great passion. He began teaching in his 20s. Nine years ago, when he was 26, he had an accident and was blinded. To put it mildly, this was disastrous to his way of life. There is no social security, welfare, disability, or even much compassion for the disabled here in India. Nearly all disabled and elderly who have no one else to support them become beggars.

However, the Dalai Lama befriended him and had his personal doctors treat him with Tibetan folk medicine. He met the Dalai Lama each day and was his honored guest. In addition to being blind, his eyes hurt him constantly. At first the treatments seemed to be helping, but then suddenly he lost all energy and couldn't even walk or eat. He managed to get to a modern hospital in Delhi where they analyzed the medicine and found that it contained mercury and would kill anyone who took it long enough. He eventually got over that, but now had no one to support him, and was forced to beg in the streets.

He was quite different from the usual street beggar; he was intelligent, driven, talented and wanted more than anything to get off the street and teach yoga again. Through the help of generous western tourists, he managed to get a place to teach, put up some posters, get a place to stay, and begin teaching. Eventually he managed to get into computers and now uses the Internet and e-mail to expand his business. All of this has been accomplished by approaching people in the street and asking for their help. They guy who setup his web site spent 50 hours of his own time on it. Just to read and send e-mail he must find a volunteer to help him. Unfortunately, even if he finds helpful people, they eventually leave and he must start over with new people. I really can't imagine having to rely on strangers like this on a regular basis. He cannot even go to a store or walk down the street without a guide.

Back to my meeting with him: We talked about his classes for a while. It actually wasn't exactly what I was looking for; although I liked him right away, I thought of looking around some more. He asked what I do back home, and when I said I work with computers, he smiled and of course asked if I could help him with various things. I said yes, I would do what I could while I was in town. Actually, unless you get involved with classes or some activity, there isn't that much to do here. I really don't mind donating a few hours a day to helping him.

I'm glad I did. He really is a regular guy and seems just like any other friend I would meet. A great person to hang out with and talk to, who is full of information on many topics. I have been reading and typing e-mail messages for him, organizing his database of students and contacts, helping him write some newsletters, and putting together and printing some new notices to put up around town. I really hope he makes it, but he is fighting a losing battle; in order to market his classes, he must go further into debt.

He frequently writes to his international friends to help him get medicines and to spread the word about his classes. He even asked if I could contact organizations back home that give away computers and seeing-eye dogs.

I may take a couple days of classes from him. He is supposed to be quite a good teacher, although I have already learned a lot in payment for my time. He says he will write his autobiography some day and call it "The Silent Victim". It would certainly be one hell of a story.

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