[Ishwar Patel, and his wife Vasuda Patel]
When Ishwar Patel, a long-time inspiration of our service family, passed away on Dec 26, 2010, Guri and I sat for meditation. Right after, I told Guri, "I think I should head to India." Getting online to get my tickets, I received an unexpected email from a friend who tagged me with a round-trip ticket. The timing was so uncanny, that I accepted it and soon left for India.
is the father of my dear friend, Jayesh Patel. He started volunteering with Gandhi's Sewadal at the age of 12. When he encountered a painful experience around the taboos of scavengers who gathered human waste, Ishwar-kaka consciously dedicated his life to the work of sanitation and raising consciousness around related issues of "untouchability". He was 16 years old. To this day, more than 2.6 billion people in the world don't have toilets; the Ganges river has 1.1 million liters of raw sewage dumped into it every minute. And that number would've been a whole lot higher if it weren't for a lifetime of Ishwar-kaka's service. He built more than 200,000 toilets through 'Safai Vidyalaya
' at the Gandhi Ashram and helped launch 118 organizations that would elevate the work of sanitation around the country.
Being scientifically oriented, Ishwar-kaka surveyed habits of rural Indians and subsequently created unique toilet designs that served their needs. For instance, he noticed that village women didn't use four-walled toilets because they could no longer walk together to the farms and have private, women-only community time; so he introduced small windows across the toilets and an "oatlo" (a community space) outside the toilets. In the front yard of his office headquarters, he put up a "Toilet Park" that showcased many of these designs. "People have rose gardens, but we have a toilet garden," he would proudly announce to his many visitors. Commercial entrepreneurs made millions from his designs, but he refused to patent it because he always wanted it accessible for India's poorest. From the Padma Shri to Mahatma Gandhi Award, Ishwar-kaka has received practically every major award in India. After his passing, TV stations replayed many of his old interviews; I caught one statement that summed up his philosophy: "To build toilets is easy, but to shift people's mind and hearts is the real work. Software is more important than hardware."
Well over ten thousand people attended Ishwar-kaka's funeral at the Gandhi Ashram. Government officials had to shut down the street to manage the flow of traffic. As everyone silently stood in line to pay the final respects, the magic of Ishwar-kaka was evident -- the richest men in the country stood next to human-waste scavengers next to powerful politicians next to reknowned Gandhians next to vegetable sellers next to his next-door neighbors next to kids who had merely read about him. For a vast cross section of society, Ishwar Patel was a hero.
Also to be found in the funeral procession -- the *entire* hospital staff, with whom Ishwar-kaka spent his final 12 days. Although they encounter patient deaths everyday, something about this man propelled them to pay their respects.
When Ishwar-kaka was submitted to the hospital, on the morning of Dec 14th, doctors knew it was the beginning of the end. His body had four kinds of stage-4 cancer. He couldn't lie down at all. "Imagine climbing up a steep mountain, and being out of breath. That was his state 24-hours-a-day for the last 12 days," the doctor said. And yet, no negativity. At all. Instead he was smiling, cracking jokes, and meeting hundreds of people who streamed through his room for one final interaction. Instead of losing his clarity, he became more and more lucid towards the end. When people asked him for his blessings, he frequently said a sentence or two that went straight to the heart of their spiritual journey. Outside his hospital room, as many as twenty people would hold vigil throughout the nights. Well wishers would come in and repeatedly do acts of kindness. One person gave out flowers to every patient in the hospital. Another swept the floors as a tribute. A group of youngsters, painted the walls and decorated the terrace as a thank-you to the hospital. Some sang songs. One person gave away 1500 apples, because Ishwar-kaka loved apples. "Create heaven wherever you are," Ishwar-kaka said once. And that was exactly what was happening.
At one point, the 12 punctures on his body weren't responding well to external fluids, so the doctor had to cut a slit through his neck. When asked for anesthesia, he simply said, "Oh, there's no need. Go right ahead." A rather surprised doctor did as instructed and noticed that Ishwarkaka didn't even blink an eye as he performed his operation. After repeated encounters of utter detachment from the body, one of his caretakers asked Ishwar-kaka: "Your body is in shambles. Don't you feel any pain?" He promptly responded: "In a young coconut, its shell and its inner substance are intertwined and can't be separated. In a ripe coconut, they can be easily separated. So I'm like a ripe coconut. My mind is separate from the body."
Wise men say that you die the way you have lived. Like a true Gandhian, Ishwar-kaka lived his whole life in service to others, and not in service to his senses. As a result, when it was time to depart from his senses, he had no fear. In fact, when Jayesh-bhai (his son) asked him, "Dad, are you afraid of death?", he said: "Not at all. If it has to come tomorrow, let it come today." He also didn't have much concern of his own legacy. When Jayesh-bhai reflected on his concern that he may not be able to match his father's spirit of service or the carry on the organization in the same way, Ishwar-kaka was similarly free: "Don't worry about what others say. Always do what your inner voice tells you to, even if it upends an entire tradition. You have to bloom wherever you are planted. Keep serving through small acts of love."
Ishwar-kaka carried himself with such boundless freedom precisely because his life was one giant practice in small-acts-of-love. On Dec 13th, at his living memorial, Anar-ben (his daughter-in-law) moved everyone to tears with her first-hand stories. In the early days of her marriage, Anar-ben recalled a time when she was doing the chores of her house despite having fever. While she was sweeping that day, she turned around at one point to see Ishwar-kaka silently mopping the floor behind her. Not only was it drastically counter-culture for a father-in-law to mop the floor in those days, but it was an act of subtle sensitivity. No words were exchanged, but Anar-ben silently wept that day many decades ago -- and on Dec 13th when she retold the story.
That's the kind of life Ishwar-kaka lived. Silent, effortless service. "If an act leaves residue, it is not an act of service," he told one of his hospital guests.
As a profoundly filial son, Jayesh-bhai spent practically all of the last three months in unconditional service to his Dad. He recalled: "Papa always thoughts of others first, his whole life. It was no surprise that he passed away after the kids celebrated Christmas with him on 25th. And he passed away on a Sunday, to make it most convenient for everyone to handle the final rites. Many of us sensed that he endured the last several days of extreme physical pain, just so everyone felt satisfied and full. His favorite phrase was "subbhecchha", meaning best-wishes. He would smilingly yell that phrase everytime he walked into the house. Constantly, he was giving his best wishes to everyone."
In early morning hours of Dec 26th, Ishwar-kaka's body gave in. All the machines in the hospital room showed a flat line. Immediately, Jayesh-bhai summoned close family members and friends. Perhaps about 20 folks were in the hospital room. Jayeshbhai painfully closed his father's eyes. Among those in the room, was Vasuda-kaki, the wife of Ishwar-kaka. Perhaps irrationaly, Vasuda-kaki speaks to her husband: "For the last 52 years, every time we have parted ways, we have said Jai-Jalaram (an ode to the divine). Please open your eyes to say Jai-Jalaram." His body had practically no strength, doctors had declared him dead, his eyes were closed. Yet, almost miraculously, Ishwar-kaka opened his eyes. He smiled. With deep compassion in his eyes, he looked at everyone. Then he looked at his wife, one final time, and uttered, "Jai-Jala" as he spoke his last words.
With the same gentle ease that he served, a 77 year old left his body on Dec 26th at 8:10AM.
Traditionally, the eldest son offers the cremation ashes to a holy river. “He is everyone’s Dad,” Sanjay-bhai (his eldest son) declared. Hence, in an absolutely unprecedented move of decentralization, a bus-load of 70 people carried his final rites to the Narmada river. Ishwar-kaka would sometimes say, “You clean the outside world as a way to clean your mind.” In place of rituals, all seventy of us took our brooms to clean up the filthy river banks.
As our minds purified, our hearts swelled in gratitude for having known a noble person like Ishwar Patel.