I Meet “Mountain of Wisdom”
AT ONE OF THE LEPROSY COLONIES, while the medical team worked with patients, I met Vedadhri. He’d stepped out into the courtyard at the center of the colony looking part benevolent mayor and part Socrates entering the agora–it may have been the crown of white
hair or the broad paunch; it might have been the way he leaned on his cane and surveyed our work. I introduced myself and discovered his strong command of English, a hearty laugh, and an inexhaustible store of wisdom. We were soon engrossed in a conversation that meandered from geo-politics and classical languages to religious pluralism, philosophy, and economics. I came to understand how well-suited he was to his name, which means Mountain of Vedas. The Vedas are the repository of spiritual insights revered by Hindus, so named after the Sanskrit term for knowledge. He laughs when he explains this to me, tapping his cane under his palms.
“Mother and father surely disappointed. Short as a stump and no wisdom!”
I steer him into talking about his own history a little. He bears none of the markers of leprosy, so I wonder how he came to live in this colony, among the leprosy-affected.
What I learn: Vedadhri had been an eager and ambitious young man in 1956. Despite the widespread fear surrounding leprosy, Vedadhri was convinced that that the disease could be understood. And if it could be understood, it could be cured. He was just one of many researches working on the problem, but instead of experimenting in the safety of he lab, he went out to the field, conducting research and trying to understand the problem first hand. I ask how he overcame the deeply entrenched stigma. Back then, didn’t he feel some aversion? He dismisses the idea.
“God in me, God in them. No difference,” he says.
I’ve read similar sentiments from Mother Theresa, but Vedadhri says it as if asserting water is wet. This wasn’t some theological article of faith, but a basic fact of the universe. I think how the same religious world view that justifies the stigmatization of leprosy as cosmic payback for some karmic misdeed in a previous life could also provide the insights motivating compassion and charity. Hinduism is no different than Christianity and Islam in this, it seems, with some of us beating swords into ploughshares and some sharpening those ploughshares back into swords, depending on how our heart is swayed by our scriptures.
After a long career with only incremental successes, Vedadhri retired. But instead of leaving the field and moving into a nice house in a respectable village, he accepted a position as the manager over this little colony we were visiting.
“These are my people,” he explains, swinging the foot of his cane out in a wide arc. “I feel great affection.”
That was about 30 years ago. When he first arrived here, he found that the previous manager had erected a security fence around his house, protecting his family from contact with the colony and their disease. There was still a lot of fear back then. Vedadhri’s first act as the colony manager was to take down that fence. He invited them into his home, without distinction between who was family and who wasn’t. He told them they were all family, and they were welcome day or night in his home. His own children eventually married and left the colony. If his wife was still alive, he doesn’t say and I don’t ask. As colony members passed by, they exchanged smiles and head wobbles with Vedadhri. He stepped down a while ago as the manager of the colony, at least officially, but it’s clear he holds a
place of honor here. He calls a young man from the colony over to him and speaks some instructions to him in Tamil.
The medical team is loading the van. Some students are here, too, from the US, finishing their degrees in nursing. It’s been a long day for them and they’re starting to gather near the busses. Vedadhri turns to me and says he wants to thank our group with some coconuts. “For refreshing, please. Coconuts.”
I see the student nurses are climbing into the medical bus. I thank Vedadhri and then trot out to catch the group. There’s some mumbling and eye-rolling. They don’t want to stay. No one knows when the young man will be back with the coconut. They’re tired. I catch up with their nursing professor, who’s accompanied them to India. She’s standing not far from Vedadhri with another group of student nurses. I explain that our host has kindly sent for coconuts and isn’t that thoughtful and wouldn’t we want to express our gratitude. They’ll be here soon, I say.
Perhaps she’s exhausted, or skeptical about how long this might delay their departure. She says, “Let’s just go. No one even likes coconut milk, or water, or whatever.” She turns to her group. “Does anyone even want a coconut? she asks. She turns back. “See. Let’s
Vedadhri’s hearing this. She might not know he can understand her. She looks like she might not care, at this point. I’ll learn later that she’s been frustrated at the impositions on their very tight schedule. But at this moment, I’m wincing at what I see as a breach of etiquette, rudeness in response to Vedadhri’s generosity. Of course, we can’t stay indefinitely. I walk back to Vedadhri and thank him again for the offer. How much longer does he think the man will take? He tells me maybe 15 minutes.
Someone else from Rising Star announces that’s too long, hooks his thumb out and jabs it towards the road. “We’ve got to go,” he says to both of us, really. As we pile into the medical van, the young man pedals into the colony on a bicycle, balancing two bulging burlap
sacks full of coconuts.
In the end, no one seemed to agree that we should take a few minutes to enjoy–or pretend to enjoy–the coconuts, so Vedadhri, smiling and seemingly unruffled, tells the young man to load them into the back of the van.
I spend the ride home wondering what it cost the colony to treat 30 Americans to coconuts that we’ll never eat and what it would have cost us to suck some coconut water through a straw for a few minutes. It’s hard to be upset with a van full of people that have
spent the day dressing wounds in unbearable heat, so I let it go, or try to.
I think of a story Vedadhri told me that afternoon. The colony had kicked out a woman who’d broken a major rule. It was her third infraction and had been seen as an egregious offense. Banished, she languished a few weeks outside the colony, trying to survive on her own. When she came crawling back to the colony, it was to Vedadhri she appealed. I think back to how his eyes brimmed with tears as he told me this. “What were we to do?” he asked me.
“She broke our rules. Very bad for our community. Third time.”
He says he called the colony out of their huts and buildings. He gestured to the woman and then asked the community, You may ask, how many times can we forgive her? Do you remember that Jesus was asked the same question? Vedadhri looks at me with a twinkle in his eye when he says this now. “You see? Now I had them,” he tells me.
While not Christians in any formal way, I’m learning that, at least here in Southern India, Jesus holds a place of devotion in the heart of many Hindus. God is one, I hear often, and figure that if the Ultimate Reality can appear in any of 3000 avatars, there’s no theological objections raised by one more incarnation. Vedadhri’s family worships Shiva, he’d already told me, so I find his appeal to New Testament forgiveness all the more interesting.
He finished his story of the woman by pointing her out for me, there on the cool slab of broken concrete outside a proudly painted home.
“She is here, until this day. And we always are forgiving her.”