The annual Southwest Monsoon is India’s most important meteorological feature. The national economy and well being of the country depends upon the arrival of the annual rains delivered by the monsoon blowing up from the southern Indian Ocean. When for two consecutive years the rains failed in the 1870’s, millions perished in the resulting famine. All the farmers in our area rely upon the rains for their annual rice crop and Pune City would be completely without water should the rains not replenish its storage lakes in the Ghats. Because the monsoon arrived late this year, we had a taste of what this means when the city began to ration water, drill emergency wells and delivering water to sections of town by tanker truck when the reservoirs went dry in June.
Typically, the monsoon is said to arrive in Pune on June 10th but of course it can actually arrive anytime between the end of May and early July. This year, it was particularly late. Thunderstorms and clouds rolled into Pune in early June but little rain fell on our side of the Ghats. In Watunde, June brought a steady drizzle but the dry earth soaked up whatever came down. Villagers grumbled because many had sowed their rice crop early, hoping to get a jump on the growing season, but without adequate rain in early June, they were forced to replant. Daily articles appeared in the newspapers about the lack of rain and its consequences until finally, early last week and a month late, heavy rain came for three consecutive days, flooding the paddy fields and turning them into small ponds.
What a difference the rain makes to the landscape! From a dusty, parched brown, the hillsides were magically transformed to a lush garden green. Waterfalls cascaded down hillsides and you can almost hear the trees growing. Villagers happily flocked to their fields to transplant their starter crop of rice into the wet paddy mud. Only when the fields are flooded can this be done, so everyone has been anxiously awaiting the rain’s arrival. Villagers who had before been working on our building project now no longer show up in the morning as they have more important business to attend to in their fields.
For those of us from the Pune ashram who attend to projects and oversee construction on our land, the rain is welcome compared to the intense heat of April and May, but it also presents its own challenges. Once solid roads have become impassable mud tracks; supply trucks no longer reach our construction site; water tankers upon which we once depended now refuse to come; everyone and everything is wet and muddy; and our building project sometimes slows to a crawl. It’s just about impossible to work when the heavy rain comes, although we try.
I think it was in March, after the Bhoomi Pujan, when I last wrote about our progress in Watunde. I had thought then that we would have a breather after the intense push to host the puja but it was only days later that we began planning for two houses and a handful of small “kutirs” (cabins) for Swami and his immediate staff. Our hope was to begin construction in May and complete all foundation work before the onset of the wet weather. Should the rains catch us before we were “out of the ground” we could be in serious trouble. To realize our goal, we had to determine the location of the buildings, have them architecturally designed, hire a contractor, provide serviceable all-weather access, electricity, water and other infrastructure, and stockpile enough material on site to avoid the inevitable access problems that the monsoon would bring. Oh, and one more thing, we needed to actually buy the property where we had chosen to site the buildings.
Our intent has been to complete a home for Swami for when he returns to India later this year. When we’ll finish the houses remains unanswered but so far we are on track to have a house ready for him and another for Nirmala and Dharmadas by the end of the year. If all goes well, we could finish sooner. Our contractor’s intention is to finish his part of the job by October but once he leaves, we will still be faced with all the finishing details, landscaping and the provision of utilities.
On the afternoon of the Bhoomi Pujan in March, before Swamiji departed, we showed him an area where we thought we could build a home for him and received his approval. It is uphill from our intended retreat/temple area in a grove of trees with a beautiful view. A large mango shades the site. This spot was chosen not only for its beautiful setting but also because it is close to the area where we have already developed a few simple facilities, making possible a quick start. These services could be extended to serve Swami’s site as well.
Dharmadas and Nirmala took on the task of coordinating the architectural design of the buildings and working with our architect, Amardeep Singh, in Delhi. He designed two beautiful one-storied homes with four or five nearby staff cabins. Biraj concentrated his efforts toward buying the land under and adjacent to the buildings, making sure everything conformed with our on-going legal process, organizing contractors and developing a bidding process through which we found someone to do the actual construction. He then drew up a contract and got the work started. I was tasked with getting everything ready on site in preparation for construction, supplying all the services that would eventually be needed and supervising our contractor, Bhalchandra Deo. In this effort, I have had the help of Avinash Dias, Hari Sharma and Tim Clark (before he left for the USA for the summer). Together, we have made sure that Deo has had everything he needs to keep the job moving forward.
Along the way, we’ve learned a few lessons. Don’t start building until you OWN THE PROPERTY! If you know my history of past mistakes at Ananda, you’d think I’d have learned this by now, but because we were in such a hurry (again!) to beat the monsoon, we jumped the gun on the property issue. I’m happy to say that we actually own the property under Swami’s house but all around we were in the midst of negotiations that began to go south once construction began. The neighbors aren’t dumb and they can see an opportunity when it stares them in the face, so prices started to go up. Small parcels we thought to be locked up began to be withheld. This happened again and again. The footings of Swami’s foundation actually crossed over the property line onto one lady’s land who we thought had agreed to sell to us. She changed her mind and forced us to halt construction until we met her daily escalating demands. Another fellow, Prakash, who owns land further below Swami’s site, half jokingly told us, “I’m not selling. Instead, I’m thinking of setting up a hotel and teashop to serve all the workers that will be coming to your place.” Not a bad idea, actually, from his point of view.
In America, most homes are built of wood. In India, almost everything is composed of concrete, brick and mortar, all of which requires an abundant supply of water. Additionally, construction in India is highly labor intensive, so we’ve established a temporary labor camp for the workers. Providing a daily supply of clean water for them and for construction has been one of our primary occupations. We began by having tanker trucks deliver 10,000 liters every other day. This necessitated the provision of an all-weather road for the tankers and the many supply trucks that came daily with cement, steel, bricks and sand. That wasn’t too hard when the land was dry but as soon as the rains came, things quickly began to fall apart.
In the USA, making a country road isn’t such a difficult job. I’ve done it many times. You hire the proper machinery and call in the gravel trucks. In India, it’s different. Here, backhoes (called JCB’s in India) are the only excavation machinery easily available and I used these to make the roadbed. Typically, once a roadbed is ready, Indians will bring in quarried stone and have a crew of gents and ladies break the big rocks into smaller rocks with hammers and then neatly place the rocks, by hand, in a tight 6” layer. A binding material (muram) of clay and decomposed rock is carried by the ladies, using a pan (gamela) on their heads and then spread evenly over the rock. The muram works itself into the spaces and then another layer of smaller rock is spread by hand on top. Another layer of muram is put down if needed. If you want to go even further, you can get barrels of tar, heat them over a fire and pour the liquid on top, but I skipped this step. When cooled, this really makes a tight road.
Because our road location may change in a year or two, and because I really didn’t want to hire a crew of ladies to break rocks, I decided to skip some steps and do something simpler and cheaper. I bought broken gravel from a crushing plant not too far away and had the backhoe spread this, along with muram I found on our own land. I then had my crew of ladies dress the road by hand, filling and spreading as needed. The result looked pretty good in May and June but turned into a mess in July as the rain and heavy trucks took their toll. Avinash, Hari, and I, along with our crew of ladies, have ended up doing daily repairs to keep it serviceable. Two weeks ago, the water trucks refused to come until the monsoon is over and the road is dry. Now what?
If too much water was the problem, maybe it could be the solution too. On our property was a small dam that had been breached in a previous monsoon and we figured we could fix it and collect water good enough for mixing concrete. Thinking this, we repaired the dam and hand dug a well in one corner of it into which we put a submersible pump. From there we ran a pipe up to a tank to supply the concrete mixer. All we needed now was enough rain to fill the pond but as I said earlier, the monsoon arrived late this year and all we got was day after day of drizzle, just enough to soften the roads into muck but not enough to cause runoff. We spent days hauling water in the back of our pickup truck from a neighboring village and eventually hired a farm tractor with a small tanker/trolley to bring us water.
Finally last week, the heavy rains came and filled our pond within two days. So much water came down that the land couldn’t hold it and waterfalls appeared everywhere. After three days of deluge, to our pleasant surprise, we discovered an added bonus. Abundant springs had surfaced directly above the 12 ft. deep pit we had excavated to extract muram for the road. It soon filled to provide us with an abundant supply of clean, clear drinking water for all our needs until the end of the monsoon season. We quickly moved our submersible pump to this new location and think we now have the water problem solved for a few months.
The two homes have now reached “plinth level”, meaning that we have finished the foundations and are pouring the concrete floors. Pillars are in place to support the future roofs. Unfortunately, because one of our neighbors decided not to sell his parcel as agreed, we have had to relocate the location of our planned kutirs and construction of these won’t begin until August. Maybe Lakshman will end up in a tent? By September the two houses should have roofs and be enclosed and we’ll then be in the home stretch.
Typically, the monsoon season ends in September, followed by two of the loveliest months of the year in India. To take advantage of the good weather we are planning to host volunteers from India, America and Europe who would like to come help us finish Swami’s and the other houses. I will be going to America for much of August and when I return, I’ll be organizing projects for the volunteers. Biraj and the monks will be concentrating their energy on building temporary housing for those who will want to move permanently onto our land once Swami occupies his house. Already the monks have built a temple and bunkhouse for their own use in the area set aside for their monastery. (See photo of their temple.) They have also been busy planting fruit and shade trees.
Our plan for the fall season is to use our one pre-existing building as a “community center” around which we will set up camp for our volunteers. We’ll create a kitchen and dining area, build a meditation pavilion where our future temple will be located, set up tent/camping sites and do what we can to make our land habitable. For those of you old enough to have experienced Ananda in the early years, this will be like the Meditation Retreat in 1971. Basic. If this interests you, let me know and/or write to Nirmala for details.
I can’t begin to tell all that has happened here in a few short months. It’s been so busy, I’ve had little time to write. In addition to the land projects, we have also continued to build our congregation in Pune. Although the numbers are not large, I’ve been very pleased to see a regular turnout at our weekly, Sunday satsangs in Pune, at our 3 hour, Sunday morning meditations at our apartment complex, and at Saturday satsangs hosted by Sadhana Devi in Koregaon Park on the other side of Pune. Sadhana Devi also travels one weekend each month to Bangalore to help the group there with their new center and I take the bus from time to time to Mumbai to teach.
Sadhana Devi and I hope to see many of you in August. Our plan is to be in America for one month while visiting Portland, Ananda Village, Maine and Rhode Island before returning to India.
Much joy to everyone.Jaya