Welcome to the Wisdom Song: the Life of Baba Amte!
Baba Amte... left a legacy of wisdom and compassion, truly Gandhian values which are now elusive even in the land of his birth. This book... proves that truth can not only be stranger than fiction -- but as gripping."
Who was Baba Amte?
Baba Amte (1914-2008) was a legendary social entrepreneur, humanitarian and peacemaker from India who transformed the way people with leprosy were treated in the 1950s.
He also advocated for the rights of aborigine tribes fighting the World Bank and the Indian Government's plan to build a huge dam. He was never too busy to stand in solidarity with India's poorest and forgotten people, "the lost, the last, and the least."
Though Baba won many accolades for his work, including the UN Human Rights Prize and the Templeton Prize, he was not widely known in the West. We jokingly called him 'India's best kept secret.'
Unlike Mahatma Gandhi or Mother Teresa, Baba was very relatable, and within minutes, he would make a person feel significant and loved.
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Why Did You Write Wisdom Song?
Wisdom Song was inspired by a visit to Anandwan by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. As I saw the two kindred spirits deep in conversation, I wondered what we could do to share Baba with the rest of the world.
What started out as a simple wish, became a collective tapestry of over 100 diverse voices - from the first few leprosy patients who moved with Baba into the Forest of Joy to the activists who worked side-by-side with him to protest unjust laws.
The whole project came full circle when I got this in the mail!
When was the book released?
The book was first released on April 24, 2006 by an Indian publisher.
One of the most respected actors of Indian cinema, Ms. Shabana Azmi and Editor of the Times of India and respected journalist, Mr. Darryl D'Monte released Wisdom Song at Oxford Bookstore in South Mumbai (previously Bombay).
When Shabana Azmi read from the book, it was a surreal experience. Chip and Dan Heath have a new book about how life is about moments that matter, and this is one of those moments for me.
Don't let anyone tell you that a celebrity won't launch your book. They are human just like you, and they care about social and environmental issues too. She and I brainstormed in the car to the event, she helped me pick which shirt I should wear, and when she read from Wisdom Song: it was magical. The audience felt it. Together, we honored Baba Amte's immense legacy that we had so much admiration and respect for.
If you've ever doubted your own ability to write a book or do anything ambitious, know this:
I was not a professional writer. Wisdom Song has 76,000 words. If you are passionate about your writing endeavor, you can figure it out. In hindsight, I wish I'd hired someone to coach me through the process. It could have been so much less stressful. Now I know some fabulous author coaches, but back then, I had to figure it out the hard way.
Some projects call you, ready or not. They demand you to step outside your comfort zone. At times, it felt like the book wrote itself. All I had to do is to get out of the way. Don't be your own resistance.
The Wisdom Song launch was covered by television stations, radio stations, and major newspapers. I was warned by my editor that "books about social workers don't get media attention..." I guess it must have been a slow news day 😉 Or maybe people DO care about mavericks like Baba Amte?
Book critics wrote their reviews - I was bracing for brutal.... but they were pretty kind for the most part.
How I Met Baba: When the Student is Ready, the Teacher Appears.
In 2000, I was 27 years old and I was Vice President, Business Development for a global advertising and marketing agency. Even though I had a fancy title and I had achieved so-called 'success' in Corporate America at a fairly young age, I was frustrated and bored.
Working on Madison Avenue in New York City was what we fantasized about in grad school. I had worked so hard to get here... then why did it feel so empty? I was confused.
Walking from my 6th Avenue Wunderman office to our 285 Madison Avenue headquarters building for a Phillip Morris planning meeting, I suddenly realized, "If I die crossing this road, my legacy will have been developing strategy for a cigarette company."
It hit me like a ton of bricks: My work was not in alignment with my values.
Enter Baba Amte.
A random article I read on the Internet (actually a tiny paragraph) made me impulsively plan a trip to visit Baba. He was in his late-eighties when I first met him. He had just returned to Anandwan, the community for cured leprosy patients after spending a decade on the banks of the river Narmada in silent vigil. I was going to India to visit family so I thought, why not meet this legendary social worker?
Meeting Baba helped me realize that at my core, I have always been interested in making the world a better place. "Leave the world better than you found it" is the organizing principle that had always felt right to me.
Baba Amte was a career renegade. He trained as a lawyer, but ended up working with people who suffered from leprosy. He followed his heart, not the career path prescribed by society. I loved that he chose the road less travelled -- against all odds. His rebellion gave me the courage to seed my own.
He flipped charitable work on its head. Where others would burn leprosy patients alive (this is back in the 1950s) or put them to bed like invalids, Baba would do everything in his power to restore them to a life of meaning and contribution. "Work builds, charity destroys," became the central thesis of his social change experiment. I found his dignity-first model for social change so exciting in a world where 'charity' was the status-quo. My social enterprise #hotskillspaybills uses the exact same organizing principle... but we apply it to kids in need.
He persisted despite his own imperfections. Baba lost his temper and was known to be very stubborn. He admitted he was flawed. That inspired me because I'm very far from perfect. He showed me how we can leave the earth better than we found it, even if we're not Gandhi or Mother Teresa. Baba gave me hope that even regular human beings can make an impact.
Baba believed that each of us has the potential to change the world. He was spiritual but did not believe in any particular religion, dogma or ritual. Hindus thought of him as Hindu, Christians loved his eloquent prose on Jesus, and Muslims saw him as one of their own.
In this inspiring and extensively researched biography, Neesha Mirchandani brings to life again the extraordinary Baba Amte -- political activist and founder of the community of leprosy patients, Anandwan. She writes with curiosity, excitement, insight, and most of all with love.
Staff Writer for The New Yorker
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