Padmashree Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy, founder of Aravind Eye Hospital, Madurai and Aravind Eye Care Systems was a giant of a man who had gone from starting a 11 bedded hospital at home after the mandatory retirement age of 58, to being the world's largest and most productive eye care system in the world in a span of less than 2 decades. In 2004, I had the privilege of meeting Dr.V (as he was fondly called) through his sister Dr. Natchiar at their Aravind Eye Hospital headquarters in Madurai. Serene, unassuming, genuinely modest, despite his larger than life work, he had a grandfather-like warmth and affection. He was keen on knowing my dreams and how I planned to achieve them. He asked some thought-provoking questions and gave some incisive pointers. That evening, as I was returning to Pondicherry, I felt honored at having been able to meet this living legend and hoped that the inspiration he gave me would enable me to carve out my own journey.
As chance would have it, a year later, I had met him again at his residence in Aravind Eye Hospital, Pondicherry, with a clearer vision and action plan to make my dream a reality - Building a Centre for Rural Development. Dr. Natchiar had already informed him of my impending visit the day before. I entered his room. He was sitting on his bed with his feet stretched out in a temporary plaster cast. He greeted me with a big smile, no pleasantries, and straightaway handed me a thick heap of more than a hundred photocopied papers. He had researched all possible rural development initiatives in the country and kept case studies ready for me. I came out of his room, sat on the outdoor verandah and started talking to Dr. Natchiar. I was completely engrossed in her inspirational stories about her journey with Aravind. After about half an hour, Dr. V slowly walked out of his room, came and stood next to me and spoke gently.
- "Have you finished reading ?"
I looked up at him, speechless. I had not even started.
- He continued : "Then we can start discussing."
The evening flowed into one of the most memorable conversations I have ever had. He shared his research and wanted to know my response on the case studies, how they could be better, in idea and execution. During the course of the discussion, I told him about my plan of creating a Rural Development Institute near Pondicherry. The architecture, design and construction had to be an example for ecological practices that could be replicated and scaled around the country. In the process, I had decided to train local unskilled villagers and build a crew of workers in various building skills who could work to international standards.
- "How many villagers are you planning to train ?"
- "I would do well with a crew of 40."
- "Can you train 400 ?"
Without blinking an eye, I replied : "Yes !"
I don't know whether it was my naivety or confidence which gave that instant answer but just sitting with him, nothing seemed impossible and I felt unstoppable.
Over the course of the next 7 years, along with support from my colleagues in the NGO - Sri Aurobindo Society, we went on to train 450 local villagers in 20 different building skills to build Sharanam Rural Training Institute. Built to international standards, the institute went on to being chosen by the United Nations Environment Programme as a model for Sustainable Development in India.
Through his august presence and inspirational work, Dr. V taught me “Intelligence and capability are not enough. There has to be the joy of doing something beautiful.”
With Dr.V's sister, Dr. Natchiar