The Journey of the Silent Warrior

Sudha Menon, bestselling author of Leading ladies: Women who inspire India, Legacy: Letters to their daughters from eminent Indian parents, and Gifted: Inspirational stories of people with disabilities.(See interview:A journey to Gifted ) is a former journalist who has worked with publications such as The Independent, The Hindu Business Line and Mint for over 20 years before she followed her dream of writing a book.

Sudha Menon, columnist and bestselling authorMenon   She wrote her first book Leading ladies in 2010 followed by Legacy in 2012, and Gifted in 2014.  Her books have been translated into Marathi and Hindi.

Menon is also a founder of 'Get Writing'; a writing workshop that helps people kick-start their writing journey, and 'Writing In the Park', an initiative that she started to get people to spend time in the outdoors, writing in public parks and gardens. She also started 'Telling our stories', a voluntary initiative where she works with senior citizens to help them write their stories and thus capture the legacy that they will leave for posterity.

She is a motivational speaker who has conducted numerous inspirational workshops and women's leadership sessions for various corporates, educational institutions and NGOs across the country. In this interview with Swetha Amit, she talks about the idea behind penning down a book on Shantilal Muttha, his journey as a philanthropist, the several lives that he has impacted in the society.

Your book Blessed to serve, which talks about Shantilal Muttha, is an inspiring read. What triggered the idea for it?
As a young and enthusiastic journalism student in Pune in 1987-88, I would scout the local newspapers eagerly for interesting people and possible story ideas and one name would keep popping up in the media -Shantilal Muttha. I was intrigued by his frequent appearance in the newspapers despite the fact that he was neither a film star nor a politician or a celebrity of any sorts.

When the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited Pune to inaugurate the Indian Science Congress, the media went crazy with coverage of the dashing new PM but even in those couple of days Muttha still found his place in the newspaper because he was organising the mass marriage of an unprecedented 625 couples in Pune at the same time!

I went away to Mumbai in the years in between and returned a few years ago after establishing myself as a journalist. Over the last few years I keenly followed his work, increasingly admiring his tremendous commitment to the cause of alleviating the suffering of fellow human beings. When I first met him, I considered my work with him as simply another project, but over the next few months, as I worked closely with him, I developed a sneaking admiration for the man, his selflessness, his attention to every detail, his refusal to let circumstances pull him down, and his overriding positivity.

The simple story of an impoverished village boy who makes it big in the city and walks away from that charmed world to bring about social change inspired me. I wanted to share his story with the world because it is stuff like this that makes us all believe that we can all do something for the world in which we live.

Individuals like Shantilal Muttha perform selfless service to the community, yet they do not get highlighted much in the metros or in the media. What do you think propels him to keep doing his duty despite not getting the recognition he deserves?
My guess is that when you have seen life up close the way he has seen, including tragedy, poverty and hardship from the very beginning, it gives you a different perspective of life.

You realise what the really important things are in life and what are the things you should not sweat over. Mr. Muttha has been there and experienced that life and so, he is the complete backstage worker who wants no part of the limelight. In a world where many of us are driven by publicity and the media wants to chase only celebrities, scandal or tragedy, he is the outlier who gets his oxygen from every little progress that he achieves in his work. His only goal is social change.

At the age of 31, Shantilal Muttha had it all  - wealth, success and a family. What propelled him to take this risk and still resort to philanthropy when others in his place would have been in the fierce pursuit of accumulating more wealth?
Muttha started out in business for the sole purpose of generating enough wealth to be able to take up social work without having to ask anybody for funds. His early experiences taught him that taking up social causes of the kind he wanted would be difficult if he had to beg people for funds.

At 31, he had already created the wealth he would require and he was impatient to take up the causes close to his heart. He was disturbed by certain prevailing practices in his community such as lavish weddings that put huge financial and emotional pressure on families and he wanted to change that.

Shantilal Muttha's goal was to promote the concept of mass weddings as he was against lavish and unreasonable spending on weddings. How far was he successful in promoting this concept today, considering how Indians have a fondness for elaborate celebrations?
When he finally walked away from his business to take up the larger cause of social change, he started by promoting the concept of mass marriages in his community.  It was a huge risk and he incurred both the wrath and ridicule of the community but he braved all of that and set an example by marrying off his niece and his own two children in mass marriage ceremonies. That silenced a whole lot of critics.

That he has been successful in his efforts can be clearly seen from the fact that across many parts of the country mass marriages are held very successfully with even certain governments providing financial aid for these events. In Maharashtra, especially in Junnar, Ambegaon and Narayangaon some 70-80 per cent of the weddings are solemnised in mass functions where villagers happily pool their resources and marry off their children in such ceremonies. Even in urban centres, this is a concept that is practised in pockets. Like As they say, change comes one small step at a time.

Muttha's peace march in Malegaon after the Babri Masjid incident in 1992 created a lot of hype and a positive impact. While some would have appreciated this stance, there would have been those naysayers who would have labelled this as a publicity gimmick. How do you think he would have handled the latter without getting disheartened?
There were naysayers aplenty when he set off on the peace march. His own volunteers and friends cautioned him against setting off such a mission in a communally charged situation. He responded by telling that Jainism preached non-violence and it was his duty to promote that concept.

The then chief minister, Sudhakar Naik only gave permission to the peach march after Muttha requested defence minister Sharad Pawar to intervene. Such was the unifying effect of the march as it went through Maharashtra's towns that the government actually lifted the curfew when the peach march arrived there, so that people could go and listen to the messages of peace that Muttha and his team were spreading. Some 50,000 people attended the pace rally in communally charged Malegaon when he arrived there.

''With the right intent and attitude even the toughest task is possible,'' he told me about his experience with leading the peace march in 1992.

The Wagholi educational rehabilitation centre (WERC) was a noble initiative by Muttha, which was instrumental in changing and empowering the lives of several children. How many of these children stay in touch and come back to serve as volunteers?
Most of those children whose life he touched with his kindness are now his volunteers. Some of them are doctors, engineers, teachers, university lecturers and sarpanchs in their villages. They are now transforming life in their villages by bringing awareness about social ills such as alcoholism, superstition, the practice of child marriage and early child bearing amongst girls.

They also meet once every year and share their knowledge and resources to bring about positive change. Those of them who work with government agencies also make sure that the Aid and schemes meant for development projects reaches their villages unlike in the past when these were siphoned off by unscrupulous elements. The most inspiring part of the story is that many of them have also taken five - six village kids under their wings to mentor and educate them. Muttha knows that the ripple effect of this will eventually transform life in their villages.

Muttha and his volunteers from BJS (Bharatiya Jain Sanghatana) were present in many of the disaster hit areas and were successful in restoring things to normalcy. Yet, he termed his work at the Bihar Floods in 2008, his most challenging assignment. What was the reason for this?
The death, devastation and displacement caused by the Bihar floods was much larger in scale than that caused by the tsunami. Millions of people in the country's most populous state were left homeless and grieving for their loss. Bharatiya Jain Sanghatana's volunteers braved treacherous flooded rivers and incessant rain to provide food, clothes, medicines and a helping hand to move some 25,000 people stranded in 20 villages to safer places, away from the swirling menace of flood waters.

They set up a Help Centre along the Nepal border to distribute relief material and also set up kitchens to provide fresh food to the victims. They brought in nurses, doctors and medicines from Maharashtra and set up a mobile hospital that travelled across the affected areas to provide medical help. Set up in September 2008, the medical and help camps set up by BJS remained in the region till February 2009, serving some 1000 people every day. The sheer scale of the effort made it one of the most challenging initiatives ever.

Mutha, tried to bring about a transformation in the Indian education system by making it more student-centric and tried to break the traditional mould of the teaching system. How far has he been able to break through and does he see any improvement / change in our educational system today?
I personally experienced the power of the change that he is trying to effect in the education system. In tiny villages across Maharashtra, especially those near his own village in Beed district, Muttha's foundation is implementing an extraordinary experiment - Mulyavardhan or the nurturing of values.

By the end of 2010 some 35,000 students from class 1 to Class V in 500 schools have been imparted value education by some 200 teachers who have been trained by international experts in the field. When I visited some of the schools I saw the change.

Fresh from the lessons imparted in school, the kids talk to their parents about the ill-effects of consuming alcohol, smoking and chewing tobacco. They tell them about the virtue of hygiene in their homes and surroundings, talk to them about superstitions so that villagers no longer believe in sacrificing goats and animals to appease the village deity. There are fewer fights at home and in the villages and there are more community celebrations and greater attendance in schools.

The pilot project has gripped the imagination of many number of state governments who have now sought the BJS' help to replicate it in their schools.

Often reading about such noble souls doing noble deeds can be a life-altering experience. How would you describe your meeting with Shantillal Muttha and did it change you as a person?
My interaction with Mr. Muttha was transformative. I used to believe that it is impossible for ordinary folks to effect social change or have any significant impact. I know now that all you need is grit, determination and a commitment to a cause that is beyond everything else in our life. I know now that if we are authentic and sincere in our work it is possible to have people buy into the compelling idea and follow your path. It is not money but people and their goodwill that will make things happen. And I know that with a positive mind and will power, it is possible to move mountains.

What can we expect next from you, next?
I am putting the final touches on a new book that will present the real story behind career women and the stuff that happens behind the scenes as they struggle to balance their many roles. I have a great line-up of stories that have opened my eyes to the situation of career women across the world.

(See: Excerpt from Blessed to Serve)