My Friend Donald Groom
I first met Donald in 1949 at Kodaikanal in South India. Both of us were participants in a Quaker seminar, he as a senior resource person and I a young college junior. There were several other distinguished men and women attending the seminar; poet Gurdayal Malik, American clergyman turned Gandhian Ralph Keithan, Dr. Ada Scudder, poet P. Lal, a Chinese professor of Education and several others.
Having never been in such a distinguished gathering I was awe struck, but Donald became my hero. He was short, blond, pensive, but genuinely humble. He certainly did not fit my image of an Englishman. Khadi (hand spun cotton yarn woven on a handloom) Kurta Pajama was his normal daily dress and he spun cotton yarn in spare time on his small book sized Charkha (spinning wheel). His Hindi was fluent and he had no difficulty squatting on the floor and eating with his fingers. His tone was mild, his words convincing, and demeanor very friendly. He treated everyone as equal including us youngsters. I had heard of Europeans who understood and admired Gandhi, but never did I imagine meeting his British follower of such total convincement. As I discovered many years later, Donald too was drawn by my uncouth simplicity and imagined someday of attracting me to work with him. On returning to Batala I began to read Gandhi’s writings and buy Khadi clothes. My college Principal Ranjit Chetsingh, who knew Donald Groom well, noticed the change and one day remarked, “So, I can see. Donald did manage to make you a Gandhian!”
In 1952 I met Donald at his home base, Friends Rural Center, Rasulia in M.P., where I had gone to a reunion of Quaker seminar alumni. I was then working on cattle improvement and optimal composting of organic waste at a Gandhian institution in Wardha. He showed a lot of interest in my work and invited me to continue the same at the Friends Rural Center. I felt flattered when he made it a standing offer.
About three months later, carrying on my back a cloth bag with clothes and all my other worldly possessions, I arrived at Rasulia to a very warm welcome by Donald. He immediately found me an independent hut furnished with simple necessities and arranged for my meals at the schoolboys’ hostel. A couple of months later he invited me to start eating at his house with his family. We never talked of remuneration, for he automatically put me on the same stipend as the American and British volunteers.
Organizing compost making for the small Rasulia dairy did not take very long. I then moved to Palanpur, a small village about 10 miles from Rasulia, where a new center was being built. Donald himself spent lot of time there and participated in meetings with the villagers. I noticed that his command of Hindi was as good as mine. Soon after, AFSC became actively involved at Rasulia and our money and volunteer power increased. In a very short time we added two more extension centers within a 10-mile radius. As workload increased Donald slowly made me his assistant and involved me in all new projects. His confidence and trust pushed me to the limits of my ability and strength.
One very significant development took place within me at this time. My antagonism for the British began quickly to become watered down. Having grown up in a family of ardent freedom fighters I learned to believe that all Englishmen were conceited, haughty, and rude especially with us Indians. Donald’s decent behavior shattered my prejudice. I learned the simple truth that not all Englishmen were alike.
Independence and After
When India attained Independence Donald was as happy as the Indians and felt a new burst of energy to work for Free India. He had been deeply involved in India’s struggle for independence. He went to the extent of arranging underground for Indian leaders. Freedom fighters had free access to the Friends Rural Center day or night. Many took night shelter at Rasulia. Dr. Rajendra Prasad, who later became India’s first President, once quietly spent a night on Donald’s veranda. Numerous freedom fighters at times received much needed financial assistance at Rasulia. Many of them later became ministers in the new government in the states or at the center. Donald thus had many friends at the highest level in Nagpur as well as New Delhi. I learned this first hand when in l954 Donald sent me to Delhi as his emissary.
He had heard that a mill to make high fiber currency-note paper was being planned by the Delhi government. A huge area of land was being acquired outside of Hoshangabad. There were rumors that FRC land was also on their map. Donald thought that it was time to seek intervention from the highest level. He sent me to Delhi and told me to meet and talk with Professor Mohammad Mujib. He was a prominent nationalist Muslim leader, a learned scholar, writer, and an educationist of considerable renown. On enquiring in Delhi I learned that he lived in East Delhi where he had founded a new university named Jamia Milia Islamia. He was a close associate of Education Minister Zakir Husain. Both Mujib and Zakir Husain had worked together on Gandhi’s Nai Talim, or basic education for all. They knew the Quakers and Donald and had close link with Prime Minister Nehru.
Professor Mujib was sitting in his simple office in a modest new building. He was a thin, small, fair, and very gentle man. On seeing me he smiled and said, “Welcome, so you have found me even in this wilderness. You had said you will come in the morning, but I knew you would not arrive before noon. Now tell me what brings you here.” I introduced myself, and said that Donald Groom had sent me to see if you can help prevent takeover of our very old Quaker institution. He answered, “I know about the Quakers and have heard of Rasulia’s bold cooperation during the pre Independence years. I will talk with Zakir Saheb and we will see what we can do. Tell Donald that in all probability your land will not be acquired. We will do the best we can.” I am not sure but I vaguely remember that he took me to his house and we had lunch together. I was much impressed with his sweetness and his gracious generosity. Wonder of all wonders, however, many years later my son married Prof. Mujib’s granddaughter. This lovely daughter-in-law of mine calls me ‘mian jaan’ for she wants to emulate the example of her own mother and the practice in her father’s family.
Gandhi lived simply like ordinary Indian villagers and spoke plain words but his true message was grasped by few even of his closest followers. It was clear to all that he wanted the British to quit India for moral reasons. Also everyone knows that Gandhi thought that India must revive the traditional Indian society of self-reliant village communities that was fast eroding under foreign rule. But what escaped the grasp of most people was his caution against the Industrial Culture per se. Gandhi’s reasoning was clear as full moon in cloudless sky. Even that far back it was clear to him that Industrial culture was destructive of the natural order and such a way of life cannot be viable. In his bold little book Hind Swaraj (1905), he pointed to the hidden evil side of Industrial society’s most cherished institution, parliamentary democracy. He also severely criticized the railways and mass production with machines. When he saw that India’s new government under Nehru was tilting toward industrialization, he very bluntly warned us ‘You will perish if you industrialize.’
Donald understood Gandhi’s view of industrial society very well. Therefore he had set up simple projects aimed clearly at revival of the old traditional villages. Some of them were: a boarding school to prepare boys
to reconstruct their own villages, industries such as a bullock driven oil press, spinning and weaving, organic farming, local health care practices, simple living, sharing, caring of animals and so forth. Most visitors privately scoffed at Donald’s projects. His overall support, however, was never in jeopardy because Quakers are known for patience with mavericks.
Winds of Change
By 1953 strong winds of change had begun to blow. Their impact, however, was felt very slowly at Rasulia. The central government initiated a nationwide program for rural development soon after independence. Its model was America’s extension service for farmers. It was called Community Development Program and Hoshangabad district was chosen in its very first phase. Unsuspecting of its implications Donald welcomed it and cooperated with the administrative machinery set up at the district level. Consequently, Friends Rural Center was recognized as a sister organization and was given a lot of freedom to function in its own Gandhian style.
Just about this time American Quaker body AFSC became Rasulia’s second supporter. British FSC continued its support as before but it paled in comparison. Motor vehicles came to facilitate our movement to various village centers. A tractor came to cultivate the land. Young American volunteers started coming on two-year stints. A British volunteer with work experience at Rolls Royce came to help maintain the machinery. All this worked like a shot of adrenaline and the pace of work increased. New staff was hired. I was one of them.
Meetings and workshops of various kinds began to be organized, a small weekly farm journal was started at Nitaya, bullock cart races were arranged, a supervised credit scheme was initiated, and seed banks were organized. Many other activities that are common these days were begun. In those days America shone and smelled like a rose. Having ‘liberated’ the world from Hitler and, with skills and money, it rose as the world leader to show the way to the future.
To the young, foolish and impressionable like me, America’s attraction was irresistible. Donald was older and mature and was less affected initially. But he was puzzled and felt very uneasy. Perhaps as a result he began slowly to withdraw from Rasulia and take active interest in imbibing wisdom of the ancient Hindu culture. He began visiting temples at the Narmada riverfront more than before. In one temple he became a committee member and helped as much as he could. His interest in the study of the Upanishads deepened. He studied Ishavasya-upanishad intensively and subsequently translated it into English. Few years later it was published commercially and sold widely. All this influenced Donald so deeply that he began to call himself a Hindu Quaker. He also bought a small house site across the road from the FRC and contemplated building a small house for his old age.
In early 1955 a providential disaster occurred at Rasulia with devastating effect on Donald. He took a bunch of kids for a bath in the Narmada River. A small boy of about 6 got drowned. His mother Madhuri, was a widow. She had come five years ago to live at Rasulia with her husband who was employed at Rasulia. After a couple of years he died of tuberculosis. They had two sons. Donald sent Madhuri to Kasturbagram for training in midwifery and employed her at Rasulia. Now her older son had died causing deep anguish.
Donald took the entire blame for the tragedy on himself and increased his agony. To comfort grieving Madhuri and to come to terms with his own emotional upheavals Donald camped in her house for
several days. This did not go well with his family, nor was it taken kindly by the rest of the community. But Donald was in agony till time did its work and he began to heal. I too was badly affected by this turmoil. Luckily there was an invitation from the AFSC for finding two suitable young Indians in a 6-week seminar and work camp program in Japan. Donald recommended my name, probably to get me out of the Rasulia muddle. My stay in Japan was extended to six months perhaps by Donald’s intervention.
On my return I found life in Rasulia outwardly tranquil. Donald received me back warmly. But he was far from healed. Finally, the decision was made to get Donald and his family out of Rasulia. The family returned to England, and Donald joined Vinoba’s bhoomidaan (land gift) movement. He walked with the saint for two years, got healed and finally reunited with his family. I visited the family in l960 in London on my way to join Cornell University in upstate New York.
The Groom family moved to Australia in the early sixties and Donald got involved in Quaker peace work. But his heart was in India and he kept returning to visit the village centers he had established. Every time he came he brought money to support the workers at these centers. On one of these stops while traveling from Bhopal to Delhi Donald died in a plane crash. His body was cremated on the bank of his beloved Narmada River and his ashes and few remaining bones scattered over sacred water. He couldn’t have asked for better after-death rites.
I count Donald among my closest friends to this day and feel thankful for his enlightening companionship.
June 30, 2007