Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Building Community in Pune - Dec. 2008

I’ve always loved the story Swamiji tells of the time when Paramhansa Yogananda happily showed Rajarsi Janakananda his newly painted quarters at Mt. Washington. Praising the painter’s handiwork, Master marveled, “And to think it only took him a day.” Rajarsi was at a loss for words as his gaze fell upon an unpainted room, still awaiting the painter’s brush. Master’s consciousness was in another dimension entirely. To his eye, the room appeared as it would be and not as it still was.

I’ve thought of this story often since Wayne and Elizabeth Palmer and I arrived in Pune two months ago to begin creation of the Ananda Pune community. Sadhana Devi and others from Gurgaon have since joined us to expand our team and next week Swami Kriyananda shifts to the apartment reserved for him here. Just as we did at the Ananda Meditation Retreat many years ago, we are starting from scratch in a remote area, but with the hope that it won’t take us quite so long this time to develop an Ananda Village. With added energy, I expect we’ll now begin making faster progress.

Actually, I’ve been using those early days at the Meditation Retreat as a model for our Pune project. I remember Ananda starting with provision for only a few basic necessities and I have been patterning our development here along the same lines. On 1 March we have scheduled a “Bhoomi Pujan” which is the dedication ceremony for our community project. I expect we’ll have a few hundred people come for a morning program, fire ceremony, dedication and meal and we need to provide whatever is needed for that occasion. What will be needed to make such a thing possible? Water, sanitation, electricity, access, and shelter come immediately to mind. We can rent large tents for the program and cater the meals, but the other needs must be met by us. If we can provide these, we will have the basics for a “base camp” where a few hardy souls (our young monks?) can take up full-time residence.

We have yet to provide any of these services but we are working on all. Each has a story to tell. As I write, we have a crew of local villagers building a “bath house” with four toilets and two showers that should be ready by the end of January. It will be ½ brick and ½ salvaged wood, a combination of Eastern and Western building technology. This will be simple and “temporary” (3-5 years) until the retreat complex designed for this site comes into being.

Of course, for a bath house/latrine to function, we’ll need water, something that’s becoming a major obstacle. Temporarily, we’ve installed pipes to a 5000 litre hillside tank to which we can temporarily haul water by tanker truck (road needed), but that’s not a good long-term solution. Until the tank comes on line, I’ve hired a local villager to use his bullock cart to haul water to the masons for mixing mortar. There is an old bore well on the property, dug by a previous owner, but it’s caved in and useless. Water diviners came and picked two additional sites where we drilled to 300 feet but found both dry. One diviner pronounced the land to be dry and advised us to not waste more money on bore wells and to instead buy land by the local creek and drill there, piping what water we find to our land. I found that a bit discouraging. Earlier this week I had a professional hydrologist visit the property to elicit his opinion but have yet to receive his report. If he says to drill, I’ll try again. All have advised an aggressive program of rainwater harvesting (annual precipitation is said to be 100 inches) with which I agree, but I feel we need something more to secure the project.

Fortunately, we do have a final option should we need to exercise it. We have the right to draw water directly from the Mutha River, 1.2 kilometers away, and pump it to our land in pipes buried in hand-dug trenches four feet under our neighbors’ paddy fields. This would answer for all our needs but its a huge project and will probably cost in excess of twenty lakh ($50,000) without storage or filtration. I have been hoping to find something simpler to tide us over for the next few years while our demand is low.

When I first arrived, I was introduced to Rajendra Pawar, our agent for purchasing property. He and Wayne have the job of buying our land. I bow down to them both. Wayne could probably write a book of stories on this topic alone. Little did I know then the herculean task they face trying to secure title to all the tiny pieces of property that comprise the 30 acres identified as land needed for our project. Land is measured in “guntas,” one-fortieth of an acre, and some of our parcels are only five or six guntas. On top of that, often the parcels will have a dozen or more owners, each of whom must be contacted and brought to the government offices to sign off on the sale. Sometimes, these folks don’t even realize they own the property, live far away, dispute its location, don’t want to sell, or demand to compensated with land bought by us in another location. All of this takes infinite patience and time.

When I first met Rajendra, I asked, “Where are our borders?” He waved generally, saying, “It is there only, sir.” “But, where exactly?” “It is over there, sir. It is that way, sir. Over in that direction.” Try as I might, I couldn’t pin him down, and for good reason. No one seemed to know “exactly” where the borders were. It’s a shifting concept. Are the borders what is written in the government records or are they what has been recognized for generations by the local village--this tree, that rock or a local landmark? To get a handle on the situation, we hired a surveyor to locate the corners of all the parcels we had bought and then we drove stakes into the ground as markers. Sure enough, our survey boundary and the boundary recognized by the villagers don’t agree, sometimes to our favor and sometimes not. Now what do we do? Instead of throwing the village into a tizzy, we’ve decided temporarily to recognize the village lines and simply not build on disputed land to avoid future problems of ownership. Someday the government may need to come in and officially sort it out.

Once I started walking the land, I recognized an immediate need to better see what we have. Much of the land is covered by thick, prickly brush. I hired the local headman of Watunde to muster a crew of villagers to chop down and burn the brush in those areas where we intend significant construction. Opening up the landscape has made a big difference and already I can see that we’ll have to adjust our initial design slightly to conform to the reality on the ground. The town planner has told us that construction is allowed only on slopes less than 20%, so unless we do major earth moving, we’ll need to modify. Finding buildable land, along with water, is becoming another constraint and I believe we’ll have to acquire adjacent land in addition to what we have already if we are to build all that we would like to see sited here.

Still to be solved is the question of temporary shelter to allow some of us to actually live on the property full time. Solving this hasn’t been my focus because until the monsoon comes, camping is an option, but ultimately, something more is needed. We have considered various pre-fabricated options and simple site-built “kutirs” but nothing has been yet decided. I think an answer will probably emerge once our “base camp” is occupied with tents and the monsoon looms more closely.

A couple of other things to mention are Ananda Solar’s installation of a solar/wind power system to serve us until regular utility power comes on line, and plans for future agricultural projects. Both of these are in their beginning stages. Tim Clark and Jemal are working on the solar project now and should erect the wind turbine sometime in January. As for agriculture, the limitation is water. There is none. However, in the meantime, Ramani and Steve are doing research on plants and trees. Everyone in the area says our property is prime land for mango and jackfruit trees and that many other useful and commercial crops can be grown there.

In accompaniment with all the above is the importance of harmonious integration of what we doing with the local village community. This can be tricky. A large project like ours can distort the local social/economic situation and we have to be sensitive to the impacts we are having. We’ve already begun to hire local labor and I hope that is seen as beneficial but as a Westerner, I’m in a terrible position to drive a hard bargain and it’s not my nature to do that in any case. Consequently, I’m undoubtedly paying too much for anyone I hire and for anything I buy. I’m a walking cash register. I can only hope this doesn’t come back to haunt us. We really need local devotees to take this roll, but we don’t have this option yet, so Wayne and I fill in for now. Soon, I hope, we’ll be relieved of this. In the meantime, we’ve tried to make friends, be seen in the village, shop at the local store and to be as friendly as possible, but these small efforts are but a drop in the bucket of what is ultimately needed. The area could use a clinic, economic opportunities, especially for the local women, and practical services, but it will take time to tackle these.

Some of those who have shared this adventure have suggested I write some of the funny stories of the East meets West variety that have arisen daily, but I’ll save those for another time. I’ll also tell more later of our Sangha work in Pune. In the background too is all the legal maneuvering that takes place to move a project forward through the Indian bureaucracy. Tales of that will have to wait. For now, I would like to simply give the basic facts of what is being accomplished, but the best way to really understand is to come visit and see for yourself. Our international retreat in late February will be a great time to share and I hope some of you can come. With Swami moving here next week, many more will now begin to pitch in and I expect things to speed up significantly. So, if interested, this could be a fun time to visit.

All in all, our work progresses slowly and it can be really frustrating at times, but when it gets like that, I remember the story of Master and the paint job. In my mind’s eye, I too can see it as all done, but for me, the fun lies in the painting, not so much the result, however long it takes. I just have to remind myself from time to time. On one level, what we are doing is but a small project that directly impacts only a few people, but on a deeper level, projects like this are something that can have a tremendous impact if they inspire others. In that spirit, I hope you feel yourself as part of what we are doing here.

In this Christmas season, Sadhana Devi and I send you all our best wishes and pray that you have a prosperous and happy year ahead. Please keep us in your prayers as we hold you in ours.

Joy and peace,

Jaya and Sadhana Devi