Anil Bhai

A hospital for skin diseases

17th January 1981



New Lives - Malcolm Tillis

I spend the night in a central but not very comfortable hotel; at least it is near the bus station where I am leaving for Sarnath which is only about an hour’s bus ride away. This is the quiet, sleepy place forever associated with Lord Buddha. I am hoping to meet some Western Buddhists here. But first I go to the Government Tourist Bungalow which is breathtakingly devoid of any sign of life. Eventually a clerk with an arm in a plaster-cast shows me to an empty dormitory and explains the whole place can me mine for rupees six per night. The deal is struck.

I then go to the Tibetan Institute of Buddhist Studies across the way — the whole of Sarnath is a one-street village. But that too is breathtakingly devoid of life. I go up to the library: it’s open, but no readers, no librarian — oh, one boy is reading a Tibetan newspaper!

Where’s everyone? — I ask.

Sir…he says, standing up…it’s the Dalai Lama…he is this moment arrived at Bodhgaya(1), and for it all have gone.

Well — yes — all Buddhists I am thinking, but surely not everyone? The place is so devoid of human potential, but in this holy of holies, there must be someone I can Interview?

A research scholar (did he miss the train out to Bodhgaya?) is telling me of a young dedicated Englishman living in a nearby village working in the local leper hospital…Ah, surely he has something to say? Maybe I HAVE come here for some purpose!

But he is incommunicado down a huge well hammering at an obstinate pump.
He yells: Half a mo… I’ll be up soon!

The wretched patients are sitting warming themselves in the winter sun; it’s more like a home for the forsaken than a hospital. I see leprosy isn’t anything from which anyone can recover.

From the depths of the well come reassuring signs of life; a little more clanking, a yell of triumph, then a smiling face appears.

Yes, yes —a quick wash then you may question me at your own peril!

He is now ready to start, but only to find that the electricity supply has been cut. Have the power-house people and their entire staff also gone to see the Dalai Lama? No matter, I remember the tape recorder has batteries, but — unlike the obstinate pump – are THEY going to work?



Interview 17

I hope I’m not interfering with your routine.
I don’t spend my life down there, if that’s what you mean. Anyway, I never get any visitors here, so that will make a change.

What brought you here — can you tell me?
I have been living in the village — Chiraigaon, the village of the birds — for two and a half years. Before that I was in Andhra Pradesh; before that I lived in Europe. You see, I was born in England of Catholic parents — let me see, yes, about thirty years ago — but there I was plain John Davis. Here they call me Anil Bhai — Brother Anil. I spent six years in a seminary in Birmingham, but in the end, the Bishop was not keen to ordain me…he thought I should do more social work.

So social work I did with some Sisters until I went to Rome and met the Brothers of Charles de Foucauld. I left England with the intention of visiting the Brothers in the desert, but somehow I ended up in Sicily. Life there with the Brothers and their principles attracted me very much. I was finally sent to the south of Spain for a year as a formal novitiate.

During that time I did in fact go to the Sahara Desert where Charles de Foucauld had set up what you would call an Ashram. I stayed six weeks. During my novitiate I was asked by the prior where I would like to go. I replied: Anywhere outside Europe. I was offered India, so I accepted.

Can you describe what Charles de Foucauld stood for, what he created?
He was born in 1856 of a French aristocratic family. He was thrown out of the army, he left his religion, he explored Morocco which was then closed — he went disguised as a Jew, and his survey of Morocco is still a standard work even though his work was hidden. What impressed him was the faith of the Muslims: the adoration of prayer. This brought him back to his own religion. He then joined a silent order, and lived in solitude and recollection. He spent three years in Nazareth, very much the servant — he became the door-keeper to the Sisters.
He was later ordained a priest in France, but decided to return to the Sahara where there were no priests. He built a hermitage in Beniabbes. Here he stayed many years living a life of silence, although on some days he had perhaps a hundred visitors. His idea was to proclaim the truth not by what we say but what we do. He had a big thing about being a brother to all men, and so all the Brothers who follow him carry this on irrespective of religious differences.

Was he involved in doing good work, social work?
Not really. People came to see him as a brother for advice, for money. He never left his compound — people came to see him. In the Sahara there are only five towns, and there was always trouble with terrorists. In 1916 he was killed in his hermitage; he was alone without any Brothers. Not until 1932 did six Brothers go to his hermitage to live the life he had lived. Now there are fourteen different Charles de Foucauld families of Brothers and Sisters scattered all over the world. His basic principle was to live amongst the poor — the poorest of the poor. Here in this village we don’t find the poorest of the poor, but they’re pretty poor.

But what do you actually do here?
We are at the moment three Brothers. The other two are from Goa. Within our fraternity there’s no difference between ordained and non-ordained Brothers. One of the Brothers here works in the village as a carpenter; the other is learning to be a tailor. I am in this leper hospital, sometimes in charge — which I’m not happy about, nor the fact that I have this big room and drive the van. But no one is keen to work in a leper hospital…the patients are maltreated by the doctors as well as society. I am on the medical staff but as you saw, I also have to fix things like broken pumps. But doing mechanical work keeps me sane. My main work is going to villages trying to detect early leprosy symptoms, then going regularly to give treatment, doing a little education, and on every second Saturday I go to the main ghat in Benaras giving medicines and dressings to the leprosy patients there.

How many patients do you attend to in Benaras?
80 to 100 regulars, mostly beggars. It was hard — I can tell you — at first.

Are you given a wage by the hospital?
300 rupees monthly — about 35 dollars, I guess. Somehow I manage.

Does your work involve teaching the Gospel?
No, not at all. Charles de Foucauld’s basic thing was: no teaching, no preaching — we go out of our way to avoid this. We never even accept money from the missions…we want to avoid identification with the Church business. In the village they all know we are Christians; on Christmas Day lots of people come to see us for prasad, and if anyone asks questions, we just answer them. Our aim is to be amongst simple, ordinary, poor people, to treat them as Jesus treated the people of Nazareth.

Have you been influenced by Hindu forms of meditation and prayer?
In a sense, yes; we are affected by the way they pray, by the arati which is unknown in the West but which we do here. We do not copy but use the form we are more at home with. We celebrate the Hindu feasts. All the three of us are conscious we are young beginners; so where we are going to be in five years from now is to be seen.

You have chosen a hard way not only living with the poor but being poor yourself. Was it difficult to adapt to these conditions?
There are millions living in conditions much worse than these. In the eyes of a Westerner — yes — it’s hard, and some people will never adapt. Some Brothers have tried it, and it doesn’t work — they can’t take it. I have had no problems, partly because I don’t worry about what I eat, and if there’s nothing to eat, there’s nothing to eat. The heat gets bad in summer, well…

Does the electricity ever work?
You can see there’s an electric wire that reaches us, and — yes — sometimes it actually works. Last night it came on at 10 and went off at 5 a.m. which isn’t much good to anyone. You can’t rely on it.

Can you describe a typical day in your village?
I never have a typical day — all are different. When I come to the hospital in the morning I never know what is going to happen. We tend to get up at 5.30, wash, go to chapel till 6.30 for silent adoration, then have Mass, read the psalms and Bible. 7.30 we cook tea and roti; I then shoot off to hospital. Yesterday I was in the city all day long. The day before I cycled 10 kilometres to another village for a clinic; this means I sit by the side of the temple from 8 till 10, and all sorts of people come. What is important for leprosy patients is regular dressings.

All your work is done in the open?
Oh, yes. Usually with an audience. When the school opens at 10 I get all the kids — the foreigner, you know.

How do you sterilize your instruments?
There’s none whatsoever. I have to use spirit. I have to work amongst the flies and the muck, and the other day I had a dead body facing me all the time. I usually get brought lots of cups of tea. When I leave I have lunch with a neighbour, spend some time on my Hindi studies, return to the hospital where there’s always something to repair, or I might have to take a patient into the city — I’m the only driver. If there are surgery cases, I either bring the doctor here or take the patient to him. In the evening back in our house, we do the cooking, eat, talk a little, then hit the bed any time between 8 and 11 — it all depends. There are no rules. Once a month we have one complete day off for recollection; I do this away from the house and hospital — just to be alone. The house is usually full of people… mostly village children.

Can you explain the purpose of the two Brothers working here as a carpenter and tailor?
In India you have the sadhu, a man consecrated to God, and usually he is supported by the community. We are also consecrated to God, but we follow St. Paul’s advice: Let him who does not work, let him not eat! Charles de Foucauld was very strong on this because he saw the missionaries sitting about being fed. For us the key phrase is the hidden life of Jesus of Nazareth. We are living with the poor but not supported by them.

It’s not very obvious being a carpenter or a tailor leading a consecrated life. The clergy in Benaras cannot understand what a priest is doing here living as a carpenter or tailor. But this is a calling; it’s nothing we’ve chosen.



© Malcolm Tillis 2006