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Saraswati Jain: Charity Begins at Home


She is 77 years old, a heart patient with severe arthritis, but Saraswati Jain has single handedly changed the lives of several afflicted with leprosy.


It is the biggest one in Jaipur, yet the Sawai Mansingh public Hospital is creaking at the seams, flooded by an overflow of injured and ailing humanity, lack of finance and government apathy. On the outskirts of Jaipur, it began as a refuge for lepers deserted by their own families as leprosy gnawed in to their bones, but today the Mahatama Gandhi Kusht (Leprosy) Ashram is now a sanctuary.

She is 77 years old, a heart patient with severe arthritis that would render a lesser spirit immobile, but Saraswati Jain has single handedly changed the lives of the lepers and four wards that she has adopted in 
the hospital.

Her son Lucky, a physician says his earliest memories of his mother are of raising four children, three boys and a girl with grace and finesse on their father’s meager salary as a government servant. “ Money was 
limited but she never let us feel the dearth. Of course she didn’t have the means to do charitable work then, but she taught us a lot about spirituality and religion without imposing her own beliefs. Perhaps that gentle reinforcement has made all of us more spiritually inclined as we have gotten older.” Lucky says his parents’ home would always be an open house for countless spiritual gurus who would be fed and revered. Lucky is the only physician in the family, and says he left home at a time when he could have perhaps tried helping out and felt a lot of guilt. He decided that he would ensure that his parents would live comfortably after their retirement and also that they would have enough to do charitable deeds.

It was almost twenty five years ago, says Lucky that his mother was asked to help some lepers living in shanty homes. She was able to get land on the outskirts of the city from the government, with help from her 
husband, who probably had to pull a lot of strings to get things done. The land was converted in to a sanctuary for lepers, and named Mahatama Gandhi Kusht Ashram. The Jain community in Jaipur is pretty affluent and Saraswati Jain asked members of the community to work at the ashram for a day, see the plight of the lepers and then decide themselves if they would like to continue to help. For Mrs. Jain herself dealing with leprosy was a learning experience. “I don’t think in the early years even mom knew that casual contact with the lepers wasn’t going to transmit the disease to her. Initially she too would keep her physical contact to the minimum and come home and bathe, but today it is a different story.”

Saraswati Jain’s foray in to Sawai Mansingh Hospital happened as a result of her daughter in law being admitted there due to a head injury. While spending time there at the hospital she saw the terrible conditions and made a vow to God that if her daughter in law recovered she would do whatever she could to help change the conditions.

Lucky for his part has helped raise funds from his friends in the USA apart from the help his mother receives in India, mostly from private individuals. Anil Khatod and his wife Shubhra, are good friends of Lucky, and his wife Shabnam. Anil says he had met Saraswati Jain in Atlanta on one of her visits to her son’s home and was deeply moved by her dedication to her cause and her wisdom. “ She is a living saint,” says Anil and adds that while he and his wife would chip in with donations along with other friends and family, it was only four years ago that the Khatods went to visit both the ashram and the hospital along with their two sons Sumit and Sahil.

Sumit, 19, who is currently at MIT, went to the ashram and the hospital at 17. “ When I was told we were going to a leprosy sanctuary and a hospital ward, not knowing better, I had my American vision of a sprawling estate, clean and sparkling as far as the ashram was concerned and the sterilized interiors of an American hospital. Nor did I know what a leprosy patient looked like. I hadn’t ever met one.” What confronted his eyes at the Sawai Mansingh Hospital was heartbreaking. “There were patients sprawled on both sides of a four feet wide hallway on the floor. People were unconscious, some lying on towel, grievously injured due to an industrial or vehicular accident. If this had happened to me in America, I would have received aid within minutes. Here people lay for hours waiting for help to come and many died waiting.”

Four major wards that include the trauma center, the cardiac, neuro surgery and the burn unit have been adopted by Mrs. Jain.

“There were so many painful stories that unfolded before our eyes,” said Anil. “We saw a young woman whose husband was dying of cancer and his disease had resulted in the selling of their meager belongings and accumulating a lot of debt. I just emptied my pockets and gave her whatever cash I had at that moment on me. The man was not going to make it. Another heart breaking sight was to see this young woman in her twenties dying and the legal battle in the offing between her sisters who were taking care of her and her husband who had deserted her, but wanted custody of their two daughters. The temperature at the hospital soars to 110 degrees in the summer, and drinking water comes to a boil. There are no fans, even in the blood 
banks, and people who come to give blood pass out because of the heat.”

Lucky says his mother started by bringing milk and bread in the morning for a few families in the wards she adopted. Other chipped in and soon she could provide breakfast for every one. She also raised money with the help of her well wishers like Anil and others who admire her and managed to have air conditioning installed in the blood banks, have water coolers in the wards along with fans not just for the patients but also for the physicians. A medical supplies shop outside the hospital became authorized to give free medicine and that was used to help patients in the wards.

The ashram for the lepers also has evolved over the years in to a clean and well maintained facility, according to Lucky and the Khatods. Shubhra Khatod says two of the most heart rending cases she saw were of a little 9 year old child who was deserted by his family and left in the ashram. “That poor child must be wondering where his family was, why he had been left there. The family had two other children and were afraid of the stigma and the spread of infection to their other kids. He has no one to play with as there is no one his age.” 
Her son Sahil went there at 13, and recalls that the child had lost all the toes of his feet and that the disease was already beyond the early stages. Shubhra also recalls seeing this beautiful young able bodied woman who had been married off to a leper because her parents were very poor. “ She has two young children and lives with the lepers because she feels she has to be with her husband.. Our hearts went out to her but she seemed reconciled to the fact that this was her home,” Says Shubhra.

Lucky recalls the case of a leper who had no hands or feet and had to lap up his food like a dog. A volunteer had employed another leper to take care of that man and was giving him a monthly salary just to do that till the day the older leper passed away according to Lucky. Sumit and his father Anil recall the story of a well educated man, who was married with children when he found out he had leprosy. “ He told me, he knew his family would be discriminated against and no one would do business with them. His sister was to get married into a prominent family of that area and the man said he was sure the marriage would be called off if news got around,” says Sumit. “ One night without telling any one that man ran away form home. Mrs. Jain found him begging on the road and took him in.” The man cooks for the lepers now according to Anil. Another one, who belongs to a well educated family from the South, does the accounting for the ashram.

A college mate of Lucky comes twice a week to treat the lepers for various health problems. Several additions have happened at the ashram from in-house toilets being built when 2-3 patients died crossing the highway to go across and relieve themselves, to small concrete rooms to house the lepers, a well that was dug to make the lepers self sufficient in water, and a medical pharmacy to take care of the lepers’ needs, according to Lucky.

“Another thing that happened was that other lepers started coming to the ashram to get treated as they were discriminated against in other medicinal facilities. They would stay in the ashram as long as they were 
being treated and then return once they were well,” says Lucky.

Perhaps the biggest milestone in the ashram was the construction of a Radha Krishna Temple. “It has changed the entire atmosphere inside the ashram,” according to Lucky. “These lepers had to always sit outside at any temple whenever they tried to pray and now the evening kirtans have become so popular that even healthy, normal people show up to participate. The kirtans are performed by a priest, the lepers themselves and often by learned saints who are passing by. It has given the lepers something to look forward to every evening. My mother had tried to get them to learn some vocation but they come here when they are in fairly advanced stages of the disease. As a result while some of them tried to make candles or learn weaving their hands 
start bleeding or there are only finger stumps which can’t hold anything. Praying at the temple has given these isolated people positive energy.”

Anil and Shubhra say they were impressed to see how disciplined and content the lepers are. “Whenever we went there with sweets and other goodies for them and aunty brings something or the other for them every day, they would stand in line and take the stuff without any jostling or greed,” says Anil.

Shubhra adds that the generosity of the private individuals is inspired in great measure by Saraswati Jain’s selfless work.” She can walk into a cloth shop and demand 50 saris or cloth pieces for the patients at Sawai Mansingh hospital, or go to a mithai shop ask for 50 puris and people just pack and give her, no questions asked,” adds Shubhra. Her driver takes her every where distributing the things she gets. He, according to Shubhra was found begging on the railway platform as a young boy by Saraswati Jain and she took him in and had him trained as a driver. Today he is self sufficient and totally devoted to her. It’s the same thing in the hospital too. Anil remembers an elderly man in a bad state lying in the hospital needing an MRI that would have cost 2000 rupees. Mrs. Jain walked into the hospital administrator’s office. Within a few minutes the man was checked and a free MRI approved for him.

Anil says the biggest issue still remains of money and volunteer help which is lagging. Mrs. Jain has received little help from the government or NGOS. “ The chief Minister of Rajasthan met with Mrs. Jain but nothing came out of it,’ says Anil, and adds that many NGOs have their own agendas and ego problems come in the way of selfless help. Anil and Shubhra say at 77, a heart patient and stricken with severe arthritis that would render someone else helpless, Mrs. Jain has a mind boggling routine. She leaves home at 9 a.m. only to return around 4 p.m. to have lunch and then rest a little bit. Around 6 p.m. she goes to a near by park and holds a satsang where she shares her wisdom and thoughts with many women and then returns home around 7 or 8 p.m. She then has her dinner and calls it a day only to start her routine all over again the next morning.

For Sumit and Sahil, it has been a life altering experience. “ You cannot just see what you see and walk away from it,” says Sumit who not only helped with volunteer work and bonded with the leper who had run away 
from home, but came back and helped raised thousands of dollars for the ashram and the hospital.

Sahil adds,” It makes you realize how privileged we are and how so many underprivileged countries have people living in abject poverty and stigma that comes from ignorance.” Both boys say that it has put a lot of 
things in perspective for them. Sumit says it comes down to even small thing like buying clothes, or spending money over things that begin to seem immaterial. “You almost feel like creating a change, because of the close connection and empathy you feel instantly, with the people you meet and with their suffering,”

For Saraswati Jain herself life has taken on a new meaning. “I now wake up every morning with a real purpose in life. The blessings of the poor provide me with the fuel.... I have more energy now than I used to when I was 50 years younger! If there is one message I can give to the readers, it is that we should put away some time for "shram daan" for those who are less fortunate. Charitable contributions are important, but merely giving money will not give you the true joys of serving.”

Anil and Shubhra say Mrs. Jain rarely asks them for help. The money that goes to the Saraswati Jain Foundation is used for her charitable work to the last penny as there are no overheads. “ Whatever we give 
her on our own and through the collective efforts of our friends is only a drop in the ocean,” says Anil, “There is so much more to be done.”

For sending contributions if you wish to donate, please make the check to IDRF and mail your tax deductible donation to:

Shubhra Khatod
8560 St Marlowe Fairway Drive
Duluth, Georgia-30097 









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